08 July 2010

Already, Not Yet

When learning a new language, most people begin with the obvious most important words and phrases: "Hello," "Goodbye," "Please," "Thank you," and "Where is the toilet?" being the top five, in general opinion.  In Indonesian, however, the list of Most Important Words To Know is only two deep, and neither of them have to do with being polite or going to the bathroom.  

Most Important Words to Know in Indonesian (in My Opinion)

1. sudah -- already

2. belum -- not yet

To the layperson, these two words might not seem very important -- but little would that layperson know that sudah and belum are actually rich, nuanced units of language, possessing a depth of meaning far beyond their literal English translations.  Most significantly, the concepts of "yes" and "no" don't really exist in Indonesian in the same way they do in English, such that if someone asks you if you're married or if you've ever been to Bali, you would answer sudah instead of "yes," or belum instead of "no."  Not "I'm not married," but "I am not yet married" -- because as everyone in Indonesia believes, you're going to be married sooner or later.  Just like you're probably going to go to Bali sooner or later too.

Sometimes, sudah and belum are even used in the same sentence -- for example, "Sudah mandi belum?" which translates literally as, "Have you already showered or not yet?"  There are only two correct answers to this question, obviously: already, or not yet.  Since if you haven't already done something as important as shower (in a culture where people shower two to three times a day), that activity should definitely be in your immediate future.

Ever since I first learned the concepts of sudah and belum I've been sort of obsessed with them, in a way that couples fascination with deep affection -- and as I prepare to leave this country where I've made my home for the past year, that deep affection has only deepened.  It's nice to think about the things I've done, seen, tasted and accomplished while I've been here in Indonesian terms: sudah pernah ke Sulawesi, sudah pernah coba pisang goreng, sudah pernah mengajar Bahasa Inggris -- or, in English terms, I have already ever been to Sulawesi, I have already ever tried fried banana, I have already ever taught an English class.  In my opinion, the idea of "already ever" doing something (which exists in Indonesian but not in English) makes the experience more specific, somehow -- better situated within the context of your lived life.  It's not just something you did once, a random event floating in your past, but rather something you have, to this date, already done at least once, and might do again in the future.

Which brings me to what is my favorite Indonesian concept these days: the idea of belum.  It's hard to think about what leaving Indonesia means -- leaving behind my friends, my favorite grilled tempe stalls, and all the things I didn't have the time, money, courage or circumstance to do while I was here: visit Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) or any of the islands of eastern Indonesia, go scuba diving among some of the best reefs in the world, see a Komodo dragon, travel in a longboat, eat chicken feet, or teach a course I designed from scratch myself.  But not having the opportunity to do those things, and countless others, this past year doesn't mean I won't ever be able to do them -- it just means I haven't done them yet.  There's a lot of things I haven't done yet, but that's okay because there's also a lot of time left in my life to do them.  Belum is wonderful because it opens up to us our entire futures; reminds us that spectacular things still await.  Belum is to "No," I think, as See you later is to "Goodbye" -- it doesn't cut you off.  It gives you back all the time that is still ahead.  I am reminded of a line from a poem called "A Color of the Sky" by one of my favorite poets, Tony Hoagland:

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.

I like that idea -- of ends turning out, in fact, to be middles -- especially now.  Even though this is probably the last entry I'll write for "Indo the Wild," you can rest assured that it won't be the last time I'll be writing about my adventures in this wild wild world, and it definitely won't be the last time I'll be trying to get you all to read about them.  (Cue your deep sigh of relief here.)  So as I gather my things and say my see you laters, I also want to say: here's to the middle.  Here's to being in the thick of it, to the now, and to everything that comes next.

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