Immersion

By DREW CALVERT

The summer after her senior year, Naomi flew to Indonesia with nineteen other Americans and signed a pledge to immerse herself in Bahasa for three months. She stayed in Malang, a city known for its temperate climate and waterfalls, and spent each day at the local college, learning to speak and read and write, piecing together the world again molecule by molecule. It felt like a second childhood, or like being reincarnated. Mountain was gunung. Friend was teman.

Jangan malu, her tutor would say, when Naomi hesitated. Jangan malu. Don’t be shy. In the evenings, she sent emails to her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, who was doing a summer internship at a law firm in Houston. He seemed to require a full legal brief explaining his wrongness for her. Apart from that, she was immersed.

Her tutor, Mbak Wendi, wore lime, pink, and sky-blue headscarves over T-shirts, jeans, and scuffed Adidas. She smiled and laughed easily. Mau ikut? Wendi would ask, then rise and begin strutting away, and Naomi would stand there frowning like a dunce until her mind gonged: Want to come with? Of course she did. She followed Wendi everywhere—to the park, to the mall, to the produce market. Pisang, Wendi said, smiling, handing her a banana.

“I feel like a child,” Naomi said, once she’d learned the phrase.

“You’re my child,” Wendi replied. “You’re my little baby.”

Naomi woke at five a.m. to study the Jawa Pos before the morning session began. She read the English papers first, to get a sense of the headlines and quotes, then waded through the Indonesian articles at a glacial pace, circling words, noticing patterns, accumulating vocabulary, discovering idioms, jokes, and phrases, mulling over the Sanskrit, Dutch, and Arabic etymologies. She repeated the words aloud to herself, as if in meditation or prayer. Sungai, for river, was one of her favorite words, really of all time—it was earthy yet celestial, reminding her of a moment in her high school English class when she read the word pinewiney in Faulkner’s Light in August. She eavesdropped on the clientele at the popular student coffee shop, with its sepia photos of dead birds and menacing volcanoes, with its ancient menus, the corners drooping, the laminate thin as a puppy’s ear, with its strong coffee that made her feel invincibly intelligent, with its explanations of beans and plants and coffee-producing regencies. Wendi would often join her there. They’d sit and chat for hours. Their limited range of expression was, at least for Naomi, part of the fun.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Wendi asked.

“Not anymore,” Naomi said. “My lover was a boredom.”

“Shame.”

“And you?”

Wendi blushed. “I am in love with German.”

“A German man?”

“The German language.”

“It’s hard, right?”

“It’s interesting. The words are as long as rivers.”

Naomi loved these conversations with Wendi. She looked forward to them. In the mornings, she would scavenge for words and idioms like they were daisies and present these wilting, blighted bouquets of syntax to her tutor during the afternoon session, where a smiling Wendi would praise her with exaggerated, ironic glee. They both enjoyed the role-playing required of them by the textbooks’ corny novice-level dialogues. Sometimes they were sisters. Sometimes they were husband and wife. They performed each script like a one-act play, committing to their minor roles like overbearing thespians.

“I love you,” said Naomi, as the middle-aged husband.

“I love you, too,” said Wendi, as the reciprocating wife.

“How many apples did you buy?”

“Two.”

“Oh, it’s not enough.”

 

Some nights, they would study in a private nook at the back of the student coffee shop until it closed. They’d order food and study that, too. Soto ayam. Bakso. Kropok. “This is sambal,” Wendi explained, pointing to the chili sauce and miming an overreaction to spice. “Ini pedas.”

Pedas?”

Pedas.”

“And what’s the flavor of sugar?” Naomi asked.

Manis,” Wendi said.

That night, she learned “sour” and “salty” and “bitter” and other taste-themed words, but manis, for sweet, became the word she would use most frequently. “Kurang manis,” she said next time she ordered coffee. “Less sweet.” Soon it became her nickname. “Look everyone, it’s Less Sweet!” the baristas would say, teasing her. “What can we get for you, Less Sweet?”

Wendi was just the opposite. “I’m a sweet tooth,” she said one night, after they’d ordered their coffees again. “But why is it not sweet tongue? The tongue is the tasting organ, right?”

“English is strange,” Naomi said.

“You’re on the bus, you’re in the car,” Wendi said. “Ridiculous.”

“It’s a nightmare,” Naomi said. “It’s bad.”

They spent as long as an hour parsing a single word, merasakan. It meant “to taste,” but it also meant to feel, to sense, to experience. There were English corollaries, but it wasn’t a perfect one to one. To “have a taste” was different than to “have taste,” they established, as in clothes or books or lovers. Tanpa rasa was flavorless. What was the English opposite? Was it “flavorful” or “flavorsome”? Naomi, immersed, was briefly unsure, but the word “flavorsome” made her laugh for reasons she could not explain, and soon it became a kind of joke. “Is it flavorsome?” they would ask each other in English, conspiratorially, referring to almost anything: a movie, a song, an experience. “It could have been more flavorsome,” Wendi said about The Hunger Games, which they watched together late one night on Naomi’s tiny laptop. When it came to actual flavors, they would often argue affectionately, for their palates were unaligned. They had different interpretations of “sweet,” for one, but that was only the start. Even the realm of “savory” was contested. Even “hearty.” It was a philosophical problem, they decided, whenever they called a truce. Naomi had learned to refer to this as “the problem of other minds.” It was basic epistemology. Did they see the same shade of red? Were their taste buds even comparable? These were the kinds of questions you could spend an hour discussing when discussion itself was your only task.

 

On one of these nights, after their meal, Wendi ventured off-script. She asked Naomi if she believed in the Christian God or the Jewish one.

“I don’t believe,” Naomi said, after some thought. “I don’t pray.” She had grown up in Victoria, Texas. Both her parents were Baptists.

“But don’t you feel—oh, I don’t know.” Wendi was trying to paint a watercolor using a five-dollar mop.

“Say it in English,” Naomi suggested. Most of the tutors were fluent.

Dilarang,” Wendi said, shaking a finger. It’s not allowed. She brought the finger up to her chin and held it where a dimple would be, to signal contemplation. “I believe in God,” she said. “Of course. But I wonder if God believes in me.” Her expression was so earnest that Naomi felt a strong urge to kiss her tutor’s forehead. If God didn’t know about Wendi, well, he was missing out.

“I think I know what you mean,” Naomi said. “It’s a confusion.”

A waiter came by to collect their cups. He was wearing a green T-shirt that said, DON’T ENGLISH ME, I’M PANIC.

“Next year I will study in Hamburg,” Wendi said. “In Germany!”

“Don’t be shy,” Naomi said.

“I know that God is in my heart, like what, like milk in coffee. But some nights I feel all alone.” She paused. “Here,” she said finally, jotting down a word on a fresh page of Naomi’s notebook. The word was “consequentialism.” Naomi opened her dented Mac and Googled the term, which brought her to a site on Islamic theology. As it turned out, before Descartes’s mind-body problem, there’d been Islamic scholars pondering whether God was “hands-on,” so to speak, signing off on every cause and effect across the universe. Did God produce our thoughts? When a piece of cotton seethed into flames, was it God who did the burning? Did he underwrite every molecular movement, every divided cell? Naomi was reminded of the arguments for Deism she’d learned about in high school, that God was a kind of watchmaker.

“I learned that God is a clock,” she said.

Wendi laughed, then borrowed her laptop to reading more about Deism.

“Interesting,” she said. “Thomas Jefferson had a huge nose.”

Wendi skipped her prayer that night. Instead, they walked on the track, under the stadium lights of the soccer field, while a team in red played a team in white.

“Which one’s your lover?” Naomi asked.

Wendi sighed. “I don’t have one yet.”

Naomi made her voice comically deep, playing the role of God, and said, “I believe in you.”

Wendi smiled. “Jayus,” she said.

Jayus?”

It was hard to explain. Corny? Inappropriate? A “dad” joke? It was something like that. The word itself was inspired by a celebrity, Jayusman Yunus, a member of a dance troupe from the seventies who was known for telling awkward, lousy jokes. Or maybe “lame” was the best word. Naomi wasn’t entirely sure, and these were the moments that bothered her most, when she felt a partition of mental glass emerge between their languages, or perhaps between their cultures. It reminded her of the greater partitions dividing every nation, culture, ethnic group, religion, and tribe. She liked to believe that basically the world’s problems were largely due to a series of mistranslations of our common human experience, “common human experience” being a necessary cliché. Because there was common experience, right? It was right there in the idioms, in their delightful similarity. In Indonesia, you didn’t eat your words; instead, you swallowed your spit. Someone who had the fidgets was “an overheated worm.” Puppy love was “monkey love.” The phrase “coconut fudge” captured being slow on the uptake. (“You fudge-brain, you,” Wendi would say, when Naomi failed to understand). The other tutors referred to them as Bagai inai dengan kuku.

“Like henna with nails,” Wendi explained.

“Like lips and teeth,” Naomi said.

But then a word like jayus came along and made her wonder.

“Forget it,” Naomi said, as they walked together along the track. They gave up trying to capture the meaning of jayus and they left God to the poets and theologians. Instead, Wendi taught Naomi a song about a crocodile, a song her mother had sung to her when she was a little girl. Naomi was glad the stadium lights were too dim to reveal the fact that her eyes were indisputably damp. She was thinking about her own mother, who’d become a fiercely anti-Obama Republican through her church group. Naomi loved her mother, but they hadn’t spoken in six months.

When the song was over, they linked arms and walked a few more laps, holding a contemplative silence. Naomi felt a nameless pang. It seemed absurd that she had been born in Texas instead of Indonesia or Mozambique or Panama, and it seemed to her that acknowledging this absurdity was the tingling seed of universal love. But of course she knew how futile it was to name nameless pangs, so she kept quiet. They walked until the whistle blew and the lights went out.

 

Naomi’s final week in the city overlapped with Ramadan, so she fasted in solidarity. Wendi gave her a vocab list of relevant terms and phrases. One of the terms, ngabuburit, was allegedly untranslatable. Though its origin was Sundanese, it was now used across the Indonesian archipelago to describe evening activities—games, amusements, diversions, “kicks”—meant to distract the faithful from the hunger of the day’s fast. “Killing time,” was usually the way the tutors chose to explain it, but Naomi got the sense that this translation obscured the word’s full plumage. Wendi broke it down for her. In Sundanese, burit meant “dusk,” and the prefix nga referred to action. All of which was fair enough. But Naomi simply couldn’t abide that pesky middle syllable. It had something to do with the difference between the Sundanese and Javanese approach to signaling emphasis, plurals, diminutives, or repetition. Eventually, she gave up, but she was visibly flustered. Part of her was upset because she knew that when she returned home, she wouldn’t be able to capture all the depth of her experience, and part of her was upset because she would miss her wonderful tutor.

Wendi laughed. “Relax. I don’t know what dialectic means. I think I’ll die before I know.”

They were sitting in their private nook in the corner of the dim café. Naomi had ordered a special meal—a towering plate of yellow rice—to thank Wendi for all her help. She’d also bought some expensive dates from the market on her way there and was proud of herself for completing the errand without a local chaperone. Wendi was touched by the gesture, she said, holding her palm over her heart. When the sun went down, they opened the dates and ate them at the same time, smiling, laughing, moaning with pleasure, the juice dribbling down their chins.

Wendi wiped her face and said, “Maybe that’s where God is hiding. God is the light inside the date.”

Naomi nodded. “Maybe he’s shy.”

 

After the program, Naomi traveled to Yogyakarta and Borobudur and Makassar and Lombok. She traveled the whole country, in fact, from Papua in the far east to Aceh in the far west. Then she went to graduate school in Sydney, earning a PhD in Austronesian languages. As a young professor, she often used examples from her time in Indonesia to explain certain concepts to her students, including “the problem of other minds.” She would mention her old tutor, who by then was living in Germany, married to a Turkish man. They never saw each other again, but Naomi continued invoking her in the lecture hall and the seminar room, and every time she did so, she felt that old giddiness. There was no way to know if they had understood each other as completely as she’d hoped, but that was the lesson her students needed. Their senses of “God” or “love” or even humor were too stubbornly enmeshed in a web of associations determined by their cultures. When her mother died, Naomi received a postcard from Germany with a handwritten joke on the back. The joke was about two muffins baking in an oven. One of the muffins turns and says, “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?” To which the other replies: “Oh my God—a talking muffin!” This is jayus, Wendi had written below the joke, with a smiley attached. Was it? Naomi couldn’t say. Language, as with feeling, was always approximation. You were always smelling the roses through a blanket, so to speak, and you never knew precisely what the other person’s intentions were, or what they were truly thinking in a given moment of language exchange. Even with colors, even with taste, there was never total certainty. You could eat the same dates, as they had that final evening at the student café in Malang, both of them chewing the date’s flesh with the motion of a slow kiss, but you’d never know whether you had tasted the same sweetness.

 

Drew Calvert’s stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Threepenny Review, Gulf Coast, the Missouri Review, and other publications. His awards include an Arts Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Fulbright grant for creative writing. He lives in California.

Immersion

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