I never gave it much thought until he accosted me.
“Hi,” he said unsteadily although he was smiling. “Do you remember me? You asked me about the machine two weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you were Indonesian and which was I was wondering why you were speaking to me in English,” he explained with a lopsided grin.
“I get that a lot,” I replied laconically.
And then he was gone to another part of the gym to work on presumably his pectorals. Now that would explain the scowl he flashed me when I asked him about the machine and the subsequent furrowing of his eyebrows whenever his gaze fell on me. The gym manager probably told him that I wasn’t Indonesian but a Filipino. People say we look alike.
He wasn’t the only one who was far from welcoming. There was another – a woman in her 50s – who’d glare at me whenever she’d hear me order in English at the juice bar. When she eventually cottoned on to the fact that I was not some rude Indonesian refusing to speak in the national language, she smiled my way and even cracked a joke.
“The cost will be Rp1, 000 less without ice,” she said. “It’ll be another less Rp1, 000 each without milk and sugar, and it’ll be half the price with no cup.” Then she burst out laughing. My friend Alvin laughed. I merely smiled as I don’t forget easily – it’s a Scorpio thing.
It wasn’t until Kriesky, a new Indonesian friend who speaks with an American twang, enlightened me on the English language and Indonesians. I had explained to him the predicament I always faced wherever I went around Indonesia.
“This is the thing,” he began, in between bites of tofu one Saturday afternoon. “It’s an unwritten rule. It’s rude to speak English to an Indonesian even though both of you can converse in English.”
His explanation had me thinking about the situation in the Philippines, which is more than a case of impoliteness. Speaking in English becomes an engagement in war – class or otherwise – in the archipelago. Within the context of social classes, English is the language that separates the probinsyano (person who lives in the province or rural area in one context and country bumpkin in another), heightening the classic conflict of barrio (village) versus ciudad (city), and probinsyano versus taga-ciudad (from the city). This conflict extends to the war of the mahirap (poor) and the mayaman (rich), of which Philippine history is fraught with. The probinsyano is stereotypically viewed as poor and uneducated, which is a prejudice that has never waned resulting in most probinsyano undergoing a complete make-over to cover, hide or elide – pick the verb – their origins that do not begin in the city. Filipino movies have never failed to highlight these social class tensions and, in fact, romanticize the binary opposites, which only strengthen the stereotypes of the probinsyano, taga-ciudad, mahirap and mayaman. The endings are predictable fairy-tale-ending of love overcoming social class differences and living happily ever after.
But reality bites. English is generally spoken among friends, colleagues and business associates and the vernacular is used to address helpers, vendors at the wet market, jeepney, taxi and bus drivers, gasoline boys and security guards. English is the lingo in uppity places in Manila – think five-star hotels, Coffee Bean & Tealeaf, Starbucks etc.
In Singapore, speaking in English is not a case of impoliteness or a class war. It’s all about sounding like a reporter for BBC. The Singaporeans I’ve met have no qualms of lecturing you on the “correct way of speaking English” even though, most of the time, their own tongues get all twisted in a bunch. A former pedantic colleague tried putting me down by saying that I couldn’t pronounce the words correctly, and by correctly she meant sounding British, which she tried to sound like but ended up sounding like Ross. Remember that episode of Friends where Ross tried speaking with a horrible British accent in his class? That was her. I just asked her if her wedgie was cutting off the oxygen supply to her brain. A friend of friend encountered a similar situation. A student who thought he grew up in England gave her impromptu pronunciation lessons in Math class. He hadn’t noticed that he fell back quickly into his colloquial accent after reciting several words in his false British accent.
English is the language that my sister and I grew up much like the languages that other people grow up with whatever they are. My speaking in English was brought about by training. I attended schools that used English as medium of instruction and was – it still is – the language spoken at home alongside Filipino. Admittedly, there have been instances when I’d been forced to wield it like a light saber to put people in their places. I’ve registered protests in English with service staff – it was the language that could get them to act more hospitable rather than condescending. And I’ve locked horns with people in and out of work whose remarks had gone beyond the line of polite conversations.
English is my language of communication and ammunition when required. Spanish is another but I haven’t been able to utilize that fully. I’m working my way through Bahasa Indonesia; I’m grappling right now with the greetings in the afternoon – I need to distinguish between Selamat siang and Selamat sore. But I do know when to call out goblok every now and then. In the meantime, bearing in mind what Kriesky said, my conversations in Indonesia are a colorful mix of pantomime, tourist Bahasa Indonesia and, naturally, English.