Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Understanding a Hamburger

You know, I never really realized how many of the things we say commonly in English don’t actually make that much sense when you’re trying to explain it to a group learning English.

For example, I’m supposed to correct the teachers when they say something that just isn’t correct. Like the time a teacher said you could express your opinion by saying “In my mind, you are wrong.” So in a lesson on cooking:

Teacher: In America, they eat many types of meats, right?
Me: Not rabbit, but yes.
Teacher: They eat steak, which is cow. They eat breasts and legs, which are from a chicken. They eat hamburgers, which are from a *pig.
Me: We do eat pig, but actually hamburgers are beef.
Teacher: Oh, so ham is not from a pig?
Me: Ham is pig, yes, but hamburger is from a cow.
Teacher: Oh. So what do you call it if it’s from a pig?
Me: A ham sandwich.
Teacher: So ham is from a pig, ham sandwich is from a pig, but hamburger is from a cow.
Me: Yes, that’s right.

(*Muslims, by the way, don’t eat pork at all, because they consider pigs to be unclean animals.)

They mix up words like people and pupil. It never realized that would be an issue, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? I was trying to explain the difference to a teacher. “So my students… are they pupils or people?” I tried to explain that they’re both, but pupil is just another word for student. I’m awfully glad I’m not trying to learn English.

Trash can is confusing, too. I asked where the trash can was, and they looked confused. “A can is something made of metal, yes, Miss Katie?” Well, yes, I explained. They said they put their trash into plastic containers. Yes, I said, but that (I pointed to it) is still a trash can. Even though it’s plastic and not a can at all? Well, yes.

Or a “dead” phone. This one sparked quite a debate among Yana’s friends. One of her friends’ phones ran out of battery. She said, “My phone is dead.” Someone corrected her and said that it’s not dead if it can come back to life. Dead is only when it’s ruined forever. They looked at me. No, I explained, a phone is dead or batteries are dead even when you can charge them and they work again. “So if something is dead, it can still work again?” Usually, yes. “Why do you not say that it is asleep?” Umm, I don’t know.

Every male in this country thinks it’s just hilarrrrrious to tell me he’s related to Barack Obama. “You know Barack Obama?” one will ask. I explain that I do not know Barack Obama, but I know of Barack Obama. Then he will inevitably say, “Barack Obama is my uncle!” Substitute father/son/cousin/grandpa depending on age. Then the whole class just laughs and laughs.

Another interesting thing—a lot of my students think Barack Obama is Indonesian. I guess you have to pick your battles, and this is one I don’t usually choose to fight. Barack Obama went to elementary school in Jakarta when he was young. I’ve only corrected them a few times, when they say things like, “Americans voted for an Indonesian man to be President of the USA!” And I say, “Barack Obama lived in Indonesia for a few years, but he IS an American.” It’s odd how defensive I feel. Having said that, I think it’s important to add how much better the environment is for Americans in Indonesia now that Obama is president.

We had a crazy day in school last week—the power went out, so the school was completely dark, the air conditioners stopped working, and we couldn’t connect to the internet. Air conditioning sounds like a luxury, but it’s really not one, here. We might be able to survive, except for the fact that the school was built to have AC, so nothing is open to the outside. Without air moving through, it felt like 115 degrees. All of the students were just laying their heads down on their desks sweating.

After lunch, about twenty students boycotted. I was actually kind of proud of them! They said that their parents spend so much money sending them to the school (what would be about $10,000 a month in America), and they shouldn’t have to suffer through having no lights, no internet, and unbelievable heat. I’m not exactly sure whether they were staging a political movement so much as they just didn’t want to go to school the rest of the day, but they walked out. The teachers were shouting at them from the third floor windows.

And then they just cancelled the rest of the day! It was unbelievable to me. The school is over 500 students; 20 left, and they sent everyone else home, including the teachers!

There’s a teacher here who requires that students bring an English/Indonesian dictionary to her class every day. On the whole, I’d say that discipline is reallyyyy lax here, but this teacher literally draws on students’ foreheads with a permanent marker if they forget their dictionary. None of the students or the other teachers has any problem with this.

A note on family life—children here live with their parents until they get married. Some of them, usually only men, can move out if they get jobs, but women stay in their home no matter how old they get. Another teacher at IGM was telling me how she got in trouble last week because she stayed out with her friends until 11pm. She doesn’t drink at all, and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. She is 31 years old. And now, she has to be home at 7pm and had her cell phone taken away until further notice.

It’s just so hard to imagine it… One Muslim woman, who is strict in her Muslim beliefs but resents some of the rules a little, told me that sometimes she dreams about marrying someone—anyone—just so she can finally have a tiny bit of freedom. Of course, for most women, once they’re released from their parents’ control, their husbands take over.

More thoughts on women’s issues coming soon.

In the meantime, though, guess what Saturday is?

I’m going to Bali! Beaches and sand and pork—happy birthday to me!

(And I hearrrr, thanks to Mom, that Julia Roberts is in Bali right now shooting Eat Pray Love. Rest assured, I will find her on this great archipelago.)


  1. I can just imagine Jared out there in GoogleLand somewhere saying, "Way to go, Momma B!"

  2. Try "bin" or "rubbish bin"—they'll get that. Julia Roberts is either in or around Ubud, so good luck locating her! Ah, the "Obama fantasy"—as I refer to it—is just astounding, isn't it? I didn't even vote for him, but everyone thinks we are best buddies just because I'm from the states…haha! I can't tell you how many times people have asked me if I've visted his school in Jakarta. My response: "who cares?". Enjoy Bali!

  3. You are sooooo right!!! Way to go momma B!!! LOL... You search high and low for Julia - she'll be waiting for you. I'll make a call to her agent to send for you so you can have more English time.

    I want you todraw on a student's forehead! That's is ridiculous... ridiculously funny!!!

    English is a terrible language to teach - it doesn't make sense like you said (and last year Jingweh and FeiFei called all meat sandwiches "burgers") and it's hard to teach to NATIVE speakers too.

    I love you!!!