I’ve lived in Jakarta for three and a half years. It was a personal decision to move to the metropolis of 10 million people, where there do live a lot of foreigners. None of this changes the fact that I am an alien in Indonesia. In this massive Southern Asian country, almost everything is different from what I am accustomed to in my home, Hungary: the language, the religion, the culture, the night’s sky – so I’ll only mention a few fundamental differences. Had I sought refuge in Jakarta from a war or some kind of conflict, my situation would be complicated, perhaps hopeless, even. But there isn’t currently any war in Hungary. And there’s no notable conflict either over which I might have left my country. I can go home at any time. If there was a war in my homeland, or if I was persecuted, then it wouldn’t be certain I could go back to where I was born, where I grew up, where my family live, where I started thinking about myself and the world, where I wrote part of my novels.
Regardless, I’m still an alien in my new, chosen country. Despite the fact that Indonesians almost never draw attention to my not being Indonesian, to my being foreign, alien. There are of course borderline cases, but I won’t bring those up now. Besides, it’s likely that these borderline cases arose from misunderstandings. When you live in a foreign country, it’s easy to be the victim of a misunderstanding. But I never need to be reminded of the facts so directly. I know I’m not Indonesian… I’m Hungarian. A Central European.
As an alien, you are always more vulnerable than in your own home. And to an even greater extent, I believe, in a country that has lived under foreign oppression for more than three hundred years. I’m Hungarian, not Dutch, and yet on the streets of Jakarta, or when travelling around the archipelago I sometimes consider the possibility that one or two Indonesians think I’m Dutch. They even ask: “Mister! Dari mana? Belanda?” (“Sir, where are you from? The Netherlands?”) “Dari Hongaria”, “I’m from Hungary”, I answer). After three years of residence in Jakarta it’s only right to answer these questions. I understand a lot of Indonesian, but I must admit I can’t speak the language which is something I’m ashamed of. If I haven’t learned to speak the language fluently after this amount of time, then why am I surprised to feel like an alien in this country? The reason I haven’t learned Bahasa Indonesia is because while I was writing my latest novel I didn’t want to grapple with a new language, as it would entail mastering a new culture, and a new way of thinking. Certain writers have strange habits and fixed ideas. For the last three and a half years, for example, I’ve been convinced I’m not allowed to learn Indonesian. I am afraid the effect might overwrite the conceptions in my writer’s mind.
I am definitely more vulnerable, not being able to speak Indonesian, than if I could speak the language of this country which has welcomed me. I’m forced to be mute. And this muteness leads to misunderstandings.
Being mute does have its advantages. For example, you’re forced to pay more attention to non-verbal registers of communication: body language, facial expression, layers of meaning, hand gestures. Aristotle said many years ago that man is a speaking animal. Nevertheless (man) isn’t merely a talking, rational animal, but a being embodying various desires, who can express and convey these desires through means other than words. Including non-verbal means.
I can say that in this incredible archipelago in the last years I’ve generally got a warm reception from those I’ve come into contact with. The Indonesians aren’t just hospitable, they’re incredibly kind, too.
At the same time, I am completely aware of my homelessness. A part of my being, a part of my character has been cut off from its own roots. I chose this path. I’ve always found it interesting and inspiring when I’m forced to relearn the very basics. Having no language is a challenge. Of course, there’s no such as thing as having no language whatsoever. When we don’t have words, we have to find some other means to convey our message to another.
In Jakarta I regularly meet people who don’t speak English. The street food sellers don’t really speak English. I live with my Hungarian wife in Jakarta, and the two of us have an agreement that I take care of dinner in the evening. We don’t have time to go out to a restaurant, or we do, but only on weekends. Since the street sellers have the best and tastiest food in Indonesia, I always go to them. With the help of some frantic gesturing, I can just about explain what sort of food I’d like to buy, or rather what I’d like them to make for me to take away. After we’ve clarified what the menu is going to be, and also established the things they should not put into the dinner (absolutely not ajinomoto, for example, because supposedly it’s a carcinogenic), the sellers usually offer me a seat. The seat might be a stool, a bench or just a cardboard box. While I wait all sorts of people talk to me. In Indonesia people love to talk. Some who prefer their mother-tongue talk to me in Javanese. They don’t care in the slightest that I don’t understand what they’re saying. They smile as they speak, they slap my arm and pat my back. From time to time they pause, but soon they carry on their speech. During these half hours it has never crossed my mind that these conversation-attempts are failed attempts at communication. On the contrary, I thought I’d never spoken to someone quite so directly, or if I had, certainly not so well-tempered. These occasions were expressions of friendliness, kindness and hospitality. This was clear in the bodies, in the faces, in the smiles, in the hand on the shoulder. Is there any more basic form of communication?
If I get into a Jakarta taxi, something similar nearly always happens. After I’ve said hello, and told the driver where I’d like to go, the driver starts talking to me. He doesn’t care in the slightest, whether I understand him or not. The point is that he send joy, or “good energies” in my direction. I’ve noticed that on the little fingers of central Javanese, Jogjakartans the nail is usually 10-15cm long, though, there are longer, too. The men hold the steering wheel and change gear with suitable caution. The nail gives them magical strength. The Javanese taxi drivers frequently give me some of this strength – not in the hope for a tip, but because they’d met an alien.
In Europe I rarely come across such basic kindness, the kind of which I see in Indonesia day in day out. For someone separated from their cultural and linguistic community, these moments are particularly important. At such times we forget, we’re aliens in an alien country. Throughout my life I travelled a lot around Europe and North America. During my travels I was always considered an alien. I was even an alien, when I felt at home in Paris, in Geneva, in New York, in Munich or in London. That’s why I was always particularly interested in the alien, and alien people. As an alien, I always felt a sort of camaraderie towards other aliens. At the end of the day, we’re all aliens on Earth. During the last three and a half years, I met plenty of Indonesians who seemed like they came from another planet. This must be the reason why people approached me, the alien, with such affability. But let’s not mysticize the Indonesians. My suspicion is there’s a much more convenient explanation for this behaviour. It may seem rather rose-tinted and far-fetched, what I’m about to say, but what I’m putting forward is purely based on reality: Indonesian society is built on the principle of solidarity. I’ve seen a lot of evidence of this in the last three and a half years. There’s no end to what you can learn from an Indonesian! Especially now, when due to various wars and conflicts, millions upon millions are forced to leave their homes around the world.
Translated from the Hungarian by Owen Good