Category Archives: Rough Seas

The Butterfly District


Another cardinal rule of learning to speak a foreign language is to keep a chuckle handy.  Let’s face it: unless you’re a linguistic genius who ingests language like a Labrador gnawing on the corners of a coffee table, you’re going to make some language blunders.  And if you don’t, I’m done talking with you anyway.  But let’s assume that you’re a loveable human who needs practice and slips up on occasion.  When you do, people will be present; and these spectators will be vastly amused, because, after all, you’re the one who looks like a buffoon.  In these cases, it’s best to belly laugh along with them.  And if you need an example of how to do that in a truly embarrassing, absolutely mortifying scenario, read on.

My Indonesian language teachers did their best to keep my sessions lively.  They took me on field trips, fed me food, and once I graduated from toddler status and could actually hold a conversation of more than two sentences that didn’t request directions to the bathroom, they began throwing in tidbits that related to new vocabulary.  The day I acquired the word for butterfly (kupu kupu), my teacher lowered her voice and told me that if I added a word (kupu kupu malam), then the meaning morphed into slang for prostitute.  I nodded and made a note of this, but as I was assimilating this newly acquired info into my brain, I dropped the mental file folders and accidentally stuck the wrong term in the Safe for Public Pronunciation folder.  This grave error went unnoticed into the recesses of my brain until one fateful day.

I stood at the jewelry counter, tapping a fingernail against the glass display case, trying to figure out what was wrong with this man.  Clearly, he was hiding something.  I had entered the silver filigree store with one goal in mind, to purchase two butterfly brooches for my mom and sister, and this guy was giving me attitude.  Of course, what I was trying to communicate and what he was actually hearing made all the difference.

“So what you’re telling me is that you don’t actually have any prostitutes today.”

He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot and refused to meet my eyes.  “Of course not!  We never have those in my establishment!”

“But I was in here just last week, and I saw several of them in here.  What happened to those?  Did you sell them all?”

He mopped his forehead with a rag and stuttered over his words.  “No!  I would never sell those!  We don’t sell those here!”

Ok, now he was just lying.  “Look, I remember seeing them spread out on a velvet backdrop with their wings open.  Perhaps you moved them?”

The man raised his hands to his head and clutched two fistfuls of hair.  “No! I didn’t move them because they were never here!  Who told you this rumor?”

“I saw them with my own eyes!”

Here's one of the cheeky creatures now on velvet

Here’s one of the cheeky creatures now on velvet

At this point he broke off muttering something about the devil and disappeared behind a curtain.  A woman emerged with a confused expression and inquired as to how she could help me.  Finally.  Maybe now I could make some progress.

“I’m looking for some prostitutes.”

Her face looked like an Etch-o-Sketch that has recently been shaken.  “Prostitutes.”

“Yes.  I saw them in here last week.”

She pulled a piece of paper from beneath a nearby desk.  “You can draw for me?”

I shrugged.  Whatever gets the job done.  Besides, I was a prodigy at drawing these in elementary school.  I did one of my best outlines, complete with antennae, and as I slid the paper her way, a smile turned the corners of her eyes into crinkles.

“Oh . . . you want butterfly pins.”

Wasn’t that what I’d been saying for the past ten minutes?  “Yes, prostitutes.”

She shook her head and repeated for me, “Butterflies,” and I caught on to the difference.  And then wished I could drop straight through the floor.

But as she pulled a small tray of a lovely selection of winged brooches from beneath the counter, the hilarity of the situation struck me like a sugar-crazed kid on a piñata, and mirth spilled out.  I laughed as I chose the pins, laughed as I paid for them, and laughed as I bid the lady farewell and exited the store.  All I could think of was a modified Mohammad Ali phrase: Search for the butterfly but avoid the police sting.

A sighting of one in the red light district

A sighting of one in the red light district

© 2013 – Traci Carver

Overcoming the Blah-Blah’s

KFT - There's something new on the menu . . .

KFT – There’s something new on the menu . . .

I’ve developed a few cardinal rules for living overseas. First, having blonde hair and blue eyes can work against you in rural village settings. Once I almost sent an entire gaggle of children into a collective seizure because they thought I was the flesh and blood incarnation of a pale-eyed ghost reputed to punish disobedient offspring. Second, never learn language from an older person with no teeth unless you just enjoy sounding like an octogenarian in need of dentures. Third, never, ever ask your host what you’re about to eat at a mealtime. It’s much better to remain in the culinary dark until the digestive process is well under way. How did I form this last rule? I’m glad you asked.

When I lived in Indonesia, I attended language school. Every morning I would peddle a bicycle several miles through harrowing traffic that resulted in no less than three near-death experiences on a weekly basis, and then I would study Indonesian with enough diligence and fortitude to turn my brain into the consistency of peanut butter. Chunky, not smooth. Once I had been reduced to the status of a half-wit, I would climb back on that bicycle and challenge every law Murphy ever created and peddle back to my abode. There I would find a meal on the table, prepared by the hands of a wonderful local woman who had experience dealing with both foreigners and semi-automatic washing machines. Under her watch, I learned the wisdom in forming Rule 3.

As I sat in my dining room chair after a hard morning of prefixes, I had only enough mental acuity left to keep from drooling on myself. Ibu Tini set my plate in front of me, a brand new concoction teeming with noodles, carrots, tofu, and circular mystery items. I used my fork to harness the ingredients that my three remaining unscorched brain cells recognized, while I pondered the little grey spheres. As the noodles thinned beneath the onslaught of hunger, the objects began to form clubs and gatherings on my plate. Not willing to let these factions get out of hand, I went after one with a fork. As it turned out, these enigmas were capable of repelling a tine and used the force of the fork to ricochet around the plate like a pinball. I tried hemming these items against carrots, but they were cagey enough to avoid my wrestling pins as they ducked and jumped over vegetables and soy products alike. Hmm. Now the question changed from “Should I eat these out of politeness?” to “Do I really want to eat a food item adroit enough to pull such evasive maneuvers?” I sighed and Ibu Tini heard me.

She walked out of the kitchen, dish towel in hand and took inventory of my plate. “Ibu Traci tidak suka makan siang hari ini?” And this, in a nutshell, was the main problem with Ibu Tini. She insisted on speaking to me in Indonesian, no matter that my current vocabulary was only about 200 words strong. If those words had been shoes, I would have considered it a life fulfilled, but in their current form, they were simply inadequate for a food critique. I tried not to hold this stubborn streak against her; after all, it was the only language she knew other than Javanese, and considering I had less than a fistful of words in that language, we were doing the best we could. So I used what I knew and peppered the verbal with hand motions.

“Ibu Tini, what this?” I scooped up a gray ball on a spoon since spearing it was a futile endeavor.

“Ibu Traci no like?” I shrugged and she began to giggle. “This is chicken.”

Ok. Either she was lying or I had the wrong word for chicken. I’m from the South, and the only parts I know better than chicken are pork. These items under analysis weren’t hearts, gizzards or livers, so what kind of game was she playing?

“Ibu Traci know blah-blah?” Obviously Ibu Traci didn’t know squat, so she tried different words that are normally only applied to humans. “This is part of chicken. Boy chicken. You know?” And here she held up her fingers as imaginary scissors and made a snipping motion.

We have a winner. I gazed down at my plate, disgusted and humbled. Disgusted because there was no way a dozen of those were going down my gullet and humbled because of the sacrifice so many roosters had made to provide sustenance for my table. Any creature who achieves the caste of eunuch is worthy of a great deal of respect, but I just didn’t have it in me to honor them as they deserved.

Ibu Tini reached down and took my plate. “I bring you more noodles, no more blah-blah.”

I nodded as the plate disappeared and reached down to pull my notebook from my backpack. I added blah-blah to my vocabulary list.

© 2013 – Traci Carver