The Dubbing Competition and Just Rolling with It

language, Peace Corps, story

So sometimes life in China as a university English teacher is a bit odd. We have to navigate a different culture, a different university system, and the sometimes awkward use of our own native language. My students seem well aware that spoken English in this country is often not correct, as they make jokes about Chinglish.

As Peace Corps Volunteers we’re prepped in our training about how things go here, culturally. Accept invitations, we’re told; first impressions are important, so make yourself known; and just “go with it.” Thursday evening was one of those time when all three applied.

A few weeks ago students excitedly invited me to a “Dubbing Competition.” Even after asking for clarification, I still didn’t know what that meant other than it had something to do with movies…and dubbing?. But one thing was certain: Myself, my Peace Corps sitemate, and another new foreign teacher were expected to attend and be judges in the competition.

Although I was told in advance, on Wednesday I received a decorated hand-made card–probably made by students on behalf of the Foreign Languages Department–inviting me to a “Dudding Competition.” Just roll with it.

On Thursday afternoon, 6 students were absent from my class, excused because they were preparing for the event. Just roll with it.

On Thursday evening, finally the event. There were about 10 other judges, and we gave scores on each performance. It was only living through the event that I realized they really meant “lip syncing” instead of dubbing. After the group gave a short intro-performance, they lip synced to a short movie clip. The clip was projected onto screens and both the language they were speaking and a Chinese translation was given.

Since this is the Foreign Languages Department, there were performances in English, German, Japanese, and French. Since I can speak German, I was fine with that, but even though I don’t know the others, I was nevertheless judging their pronunciation and performance. Yeah, just roll with it…

The best part of the night was seeing a group of my students perform the scene with the sloths in the DMV from Zootopia. That scene is something we all relate to and find funny. The whole room was laughing. And in that moment, it made all the oddity and dealing with the unexpected worth it.

On the Batak Alphabet and Maps that Make Sense of the World

Batak culture, culture, Indonesia, language

Recently, blog posts about “maps that will help you make sense of the world” (one example) circulated the internets and facebook. My current location in Indonesia, gives me a different perspective when viewing these maps than my friends from North America and Europe.

One of the maps explains population. Indonesia’s population is more than 245 million people, making it the 4th most populous nation in the world. An archipelago of 17,000+ islands, makes it also spread out and incredibly dense in population, part of the circle that contains most of the people on the planet (from reddit user valeriepieris):
valeriepieris' population map

When I saw that map, it didn’t change my world. I’ve lived in Indonesia a year and a half and during that time, haven’t been outside of that circle once, so, yeah, I know. But, Sumatra is less dense than Java, and I live in a rural area. This doesn’t mean the same as it does in North America, however. Even though Balige is a small town, on a day like today (which is traditional market day), the city is bustling. Actually, every day is bustling with people by American standards; life here is is more public. Nevertheless, it’s easy for me to walk about an hour to a village that is difficult to access by car.

Here’s one that made me smile. This map (source), shows writing systems of the world. To my surprise, I see the Batak script listed there in Indonesia. I wasn’t surprised that there is a Batak script, rather that it was noticed at all.

The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as "Surat Batak".

The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as “Surat Batak”.

Although the old alphabet is not all that functional anymore in the lives of the Batak people, it does appear on some signs in the region around Lake Toba in North Sumatra (including the hospital across the street from me now).

To match its high population density, there are a dense amount of languages spoken in Indonesia (more than 700). So I’d add to the maps that will help you make sense of the world, a map that gives the Ethnic groups of Indonesia:

I am living in the heart of Batakland, so I regularly encounter the language Batak Toba–at the market, at my school (although all instruction other than my English class is done in Bahasa Indonesia), and in the church. Strong in their culture, it may seem living among the Bataks, that the language and the lake nearby is the center of the world. I love living here and am happy to see mention of the place where I live. These days Batak writing uses the latin script, but below are two photos of the Batak alphabet in use.


A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.

A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.

More of the Unexpected

faith, language, mission

…I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:36

Quite unexpectedly one Sunday morning, I found myself walking through the streets of Balige toward the local prison. I was accompanying the 3rd year class of students at the deaconess school, who go into the community every Sunday and attend various churches, often singing a choir piece. I don’t always know where they go or have the opportunity to join with them, so this was a special opportunity.

Although I have not done prison ministry in the US, the differences, I think, are striking. Since we had come for ministry, the door was opened to us, and we walked in, unchecked. No one stopped to ask our names or look in our bags. The men, dressed in normal street clothes, were already sitting, some in chairs outside the church in the center of the prison. Without much time to look around before we sat down in the chapel in the middle of the courtyard, I couldn’t discern the guards from prisoners on the inside. But I was not afraid at all.

The liturgy and hymns were in the Batak language. I have the hymnal in Batak, but not the Bible in Batak, so I had brought with me the Bible in Indonesian. Suddenly came more unexpected. After reading in Batak, the worship leader asked if anyone had the Alkitab (“Bible” in Indonesian). The student sitting beside me nudged me and said yes, we do. The worship leader asked, “Dari mana?” (Where are you from?). “Amerika” I answered. He encouraged me to read. “uhmmm….saya mencoba, ya?” I stammered. (“uhhhmmm…ok, I’ll try.”)

So I tried. In front of my students and the prisoners, I read the Scripture (Genesis 15:1-6) in a language I’m still learning, and at a pace that others might understand although too fast to comprehend some words myself. The student next to me whispered pronunciation help when I stumbled. The preacher didn’t miss a beat as he began his sermon right after I finished. He spoke mostly in Batak, so I received translation from my student, but I had to take a moment to reflect on what just happened.

Abram looked at the stars and God told him that his descendants would be as many as the stars above. I am a Child of God. And so are the men whom I didn’t know that surrounded me, all convicted of one crime or another.

After worship we shook hands with each other, saying “Selamat Hari Minggu.” (Happy Sunday) It is customary and culturally important here to shake hands, and there was no exception in this prison.

I was in prison and you visited me.” I don’t know what their crimes were or what daily life is like for them in the prison or how long their sentences are, but I was moved by the experience grace in another unexpected place worshipping with them.

And I pray for them.

The students singing in the courtyard after worship.

The students singing in the courtyard after worship.

Posing for a group photo after worship.

The 3rd year students posing for a group photo after worship.

Yes We Can (a discussion on modal verbs)

language, teaching

The image is well familiar to the American audience. The idea to share this image with one of my classes came as I was thinking about what activities to use when teaching modal verbs (can, could, must, should, would, will …). I showed the picture and asked them to comment. Among the things said by the students, was the similar phrase used by President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign, “Yes we can.”

Obama is popular here in Indonesia. That he once lived in Jakarta and is a black man leading a superpower nation are a source of inspiration for many I’ve encountered. “He gives hope to people with dark skin” a student from the university once told me. So then, it is no surprise to me that they know his old campaign slogan.

Our class discussion led me to say in Spanish, “Si se puede!” This phrase also has some deeper cultural meaning in the US, which is too complicated to explain to my class right now, but is relevant to talk about what we can do. Ever eager to translate, the students told me the meaning in Bahasa Indonesia: Kita bisa. Then, as they are Batak people, it was also offered in Batak: hita boi. Sometimes too much translation gets in the way, but this is helpful—hopeful even—to them, and also to me, as I learn their languages.

We can do it. Yes we can, messages of encouragement and hope. Like the current pop-culture use of this poster from the WW II-era, the phrase “yes we can” is meant to empower. This is my hope for my students, that they feel empowered and able to speak English—that they can speak English.

Along the way, much encouragement is needed, for I often hear them tell me (in English), “Sister, I don’t speak English.”

My response now: Yes you can. Ya, kamu bisa bahasa Inggris, adik! But maybe better if we do it together: Hita boi.

I’m a Radio Star


Well, video hasn’t quite killed this radio star. During my time teaching at the HKBP Nommensen University last week, I made an appearance on a local radio station. The English program runs every afternoon for one hour. When they have special guests, such as myself, a visiting teacher and native English speaker, it is a big deal. So, I graciously accepted the invitation.

It was a fun experience and I really felt relaxed speaking and answering questions (about myself, American culture, teaching…and I even sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace”). Below is a video of me answering a question from a listener, who happened to be a university student whom I met earlier that morning. )Sorry, no video of me singing)

Preparing a Lesson

culture, language

I am currently in a seminar about teaching English to speakers of other languages. The third and final intense weekend is fast approaching, and tomorrow I, along with the 17 others in the course, will teach a 20 minute lesson of our choosing.

My lesson is “going to the market”, teaching about quantifiers and count/noncount nouns. Blessed to be in Seattle with a wonderful market such as Pike Place, I took a walk with my camera, as I like to do from time to time. Below is a photos of some vegetables. Notice shallots, potatoes, peppers; but it’s garlic and ginger. We don’t say two garlics, rather two cloves of garlic or, for an insanely garlic recipe, two cups of garlic. Garlic is a noncount noun.

I love Pike Place…Fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, flowers; always multiple languages being spoken; sometimes a clear view of the Olympic mountains across the Puget Sound. I will definitely miss this market and all of Seattle’s farmers’ markets. And what a great bonus that they also provide some educational opportunities.

And one more (one fish, two fish…):

The Adventure of Learning Languages

culture, language

Halo! Apa kabar?

I have a confession to make.

No, I haven’t committed a major sin or anything like that. This is actually the good sort of confession. In preparation for living in Indonesia, I am currently teaching myself Bahasa Indonesia. There are over 300 distinct languages spoken across the country, an archipelago of more than 17,500 islands. Bahasa Indonesia is the lingua franca and official language.

Here’s the confession: Only days after I heard of the possibility of global mission in Indonesia, before I was even sure that I would get an interview, I discovered that the Seattle Public Library had an audio language instruction for Indonesian. I promptly checked it out and began the lessons (Free language lessons? Yes, please!).

I decided after the 3rd half-hour lesson that at the very least, I could learn a few words from another language. This is most certainly a good thing. So I resolved to continue learning, and if nothing else could say to confused friends: “Saya mengerti Bahasa Indonesia sedikit. Tapi sedikit sedikit saja.” The emphasis landing greatly upon sedikit sedikit saja and repeated several times. (Meaning, “I understand Indonesian a little. But just a little.”)

Things are going well it seems, however my resources are limited and I have no one to converse with, save the faceless voices on the CD—after he says, “Tell her you don’t understand,” I dutifully respond, “Saya tidak mengerti!”

For all my efforts, I will most likely be staring blankly at people when I hear the Bahasa in the country (Saya tidak mengerti!), at least for a few months. There will indeed be misunderstandings and misadventures. It happened to me when I arrived in Germany 10 years ago. With 3 previous years of German language under my belt, it was still not quite enough to prepare me for the rapid accented everyday speech.

I just hope my first experience with Bahasa is nothing like trying Spanish in Central America. Most of the Spanish I had tried to teach myself went out the window once I arrived. Nevertheless, having a host family that spoke no English meant we had to find some way to communicate with each other. More than once the part of my brain that deals with language got confused, and spat out phrases peppered with German and Spanish.


(and maybe this is the real confession) Have a good laugh: “Ja, aber muy consado,” and “Una hora ist genug” were phrases I really said. Out loud. I also tried to count and it ended up like this: “uno, dos, tres, cuatro…fünf.” When asked in Spanish how long I’d been there (30 days), I promptly answered, “Treinta Tages.” Which left me wondering, ¿Which language hablo ich, eigentlich?

So it seemed my understanding of spoken Spanish made leaps and bounds in a month of immersion, but not my ability to speak the language (next time I’ll take a course taught by someone other than myself). Perhaps Bahasa Indonesia is different enough that the wires won’t cross so easily.

In this process of preparing for and imagining my life in Indonesia, the best I can do is whole-heartedly learn and absorb. I need not worry about being fully prepared, because that is not possible from my current location in the world, nor is it advisable; I can’t know everything. But I can come with some knowledge and most of all, a wide open mind and heart.
(And a sense of humor)

Tschüss, Selamat tinggal, adiós!