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Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Zoo Story

the pic was taken from here

Several weeks ago I assigned my class to read THE ZOO STORY, one-act play written by Edward Albee. This was written in 1958 in New York but its premiere performance was occurred at the Theater Werkstatt in Berlin on September28, 1959. It was performed on Broadway on January 14, 1960. The story is about two characters, Peter and Jerry, who meet accidentally in one bench in The Central Park. The main conflict is built while the two are talking to each other. What happens at the end of the play oftentimes startles the audience.

To dissect the play together in my class, I gave four questions to lead the discussion.

  1. What is the main conflict of the story?
  2. What kind of personality traits do the two characters have?
  3. How do their family backgrounds differ from each other?
  4. What is your reaction when coming to the end of the play?

At first one student complained to me, “If you categorize this play into comedy, I don’t think I find funny aspects in it. Or is it due to my low capability in English?”

When I asked her how she perceived the story of the play, she simply said, “The story is very weird.”
The play is indeed weird; that’s why literary critics categorized it into ‘absurd play’. The word ‘absurd’ itself means “plainly not true, logical, or sensible; so contrary to reason that it is laughable; foolish; ridiculous.” The story to some extent is also pathetic.

Another student then said that probably this kind of story was very much impossible to happen in Indonesia but it was absolutely possible to happen in America.

“Why is that? Which part of the story do you think is impossible to happen here?” I asked her.
I suspected that she didn’t finish reading the whole story so that she answered my question just by mentioning the fact that Peter’s family had two cats and two parakeets. “It is indeed a common thing for Indonesian people to have pets. But you know, pets in Indonesia are just pets. Animals. They don’t really mean a lot. In America, as far as I know there is always a very strong emotional relationship between people and their pets.” Meanwhile I expected that she would answer my question by appointing the weird conversation between Jerry and Peter.

Let’s take one example. After a little bit ‘small talk’ about going north, Jerry asked Peter, “Do you mind if we talk?”

In Indonesia, especially in small towns, when two people meet accidentally in a park, or anywhere else, they will just talk, without asking, “Do you mind if we talk?” They will just talk casual things though, to show hospitality. However, as some critics have said, at the very beginning of the time when Albee had this play published, they did not understand what Albee actually wanted to convey to public.

pic was taken from here
In the following discussion, we talked about different family backgrounds Peter and Jerry had. Peter was married, had two daughters, and had an established job in a publishing company. On the contrary, Jerry was single, no steady job, living in an indecent tenement with an abusive landlady who had a crazy dog that liked attacking Jerry playfully. Jerry also came from a broken unhappy family.

This contradictory family background absolutely made them have different personality traits. Peter was an established man, educated, able to control his emotion quite well. Jerry seemed somewhat insane with his almost unbelievable story about his landlady and the crazy dog. Therefore I understood when my students said that Jerry seemed to envy Peter’s seemingly happy life.

No one expected to find someone dying at the end of the story because from the very beginning, the play just showed two men talking about unimportant things in their life. My students said that Jerry was too much to provoke Peter so that Peter lost his common sense in facing him although he seemed careful.

The first question—about the main conflict of the story—was not answered in the discussion. I opined that in fact Jerry was already desperate about his unhappy life. He needed someone to “help” him commit suicide. Peter was just the right person on the wrong place. Jerry succeeded in provoking Peter so that he did what Jerry ‘planned’: to hold the knife on his hand, enabling Jerry to impale on it.
Why did Jerry need someone else’s help to commit suicide? He wanted to share his unhappiness to someone else he assumed to have a happy life—in that decade, to be married, have kids and a good job were ‘requirements’ to be lead a happy life.

Peter’s life would never be the same again as before he encountered a crazy, desperate man who involved him in his death.

What did Albee want to convey to the audience? I assume that he wanted to criticize American values that started to worship wealth and did not care of the neighborhood.

PT56 13.33 190608

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nationalism and Religiosity

the pic was taken from here

Last Sunday, June 8, 2008, after interviewing some participants of students exchange (AFS program), I was involved in a chit-chat with some other volunteers. One of them, a middle-aged woman, wearing jilbab, has a Japanese course at her dwelling place. Another one, a man at his mid-thirties, just opened an English course in Semarang some time ago, after he lived in Jakarta for around fifteen years.

There are two main interesting topics we talked.

1. Nationalism
The woman I mentioned above said about the young generations in Indonesia who did not have enough nationalism. One guest teacher she got from Japan encouraged her to evoke nationalism in her students before they go to Japan. (Note: her institution often gives Japanese training for those who will go to Japan to work.) The guest teacher said that the young generations did not have enough nationalism. It was proven from what they said about their own country when they were in Japan.
As a comparison, Japanese young generations, as well as Korean who work in Japan, have high nationalism so that they do not want to talk bad things about their country.

From the way the woman talked about that, and her concern with the low nationalism among the young generations, I concluded that she tended to scold them, without trying to dig out more deeply what caused it. Therefore, sadly I said, “Well, I don’t really blame them. Let’s take a corruption case as an example. What happened if one government official—let’s say a minister—in Japan was found out that he allegedly was involved in a corruption case? He perhaps would resign from his position, or even would do ‘harakiri’. What happened if that happened in Indonesia? Even in Semarang, there is one government official who has been suspected to get involved in a corruption case, he, without shame, still moves on to join the gubernatorial election.”

Feeling concerned about this matter, on Tuesday June 10, I asked one class of mine—there were twelve students present, varying from the second until sixth semester at college—to discuss the cause why nationalism decreased among the young generations. I divided them into three groups. I didn’t tell them what I said in the chit-chat two days before in order that I didn’t ‘interfere’ their way of thinking. Nevertheless, the three groups agreed that one main reason was the leadership crisis among the government officials, it resulted in the young generations’ disappointment toward the government. They felt embarrassed toward Indonesian ‘reputation’ as the most corrupted country.
Some other reasons mentioned were:

Impacts of globalization where the information was not filtered. One example mentioned was when the young generations see a prosperous life in another country, one thing they hardly find in Indonesia nowadays, it will make them dream to live abroad.
Impact of being colonized for some centuries so that we felt inferior toward the colonial country.
Not good educational system, proven by the continuous changing in the curricula every time a new minister of education is elected
Protection from the government toward the citizens is bad.
Disbelieve in our own products
Not preserving our original cultures

Unfortunately, since we didn’t have enough time to discuss, I could not explore more of their answers. I assume, however, it was enough to know the voice of the young generations why they would choose to live abroad, even probably to change their nationality in case they get a good job, good salary and enough facility in another country.

the pic taken from here

2. Religion

The guy living in Jakarta for more than a decade complained about the impolite behavior among children and teenagers in Jakarta. He mentioned the non-religiosity as one main cause of the bad behavior. One example: during Ramadhan month (the holy fasting month for Muslim), people no longer showed empathy toward other people who perhaps were fasting. Without feeling shy—moreover sinful—people enjoyed having meals in public places. Another example was the bigger tendency for people to have free sex recently without feeling ashamed.

On the contrary, he said, living in Semarang—one much smaller city than the metropolis Jakarta—was much more peaceful. Children and teenagers in Semarang behaved much better than their counterparts in the capital of Indonesia.

“The key, in fact, lies in religious teachings.” He said.

I kept quiet.

Then the woman told us a story one time she got an exchange student from Japan staying at her house. A little chat on religion happened between her and the student in the beginning of their encounter.

She asked: “What is your religion”
The student answered, “I don’t have religion. Should I adhere one religion if I live in Indonesia?”

The woman responded, “Oh, you don’t need to. That’s fine. Forgive my nosy question, please.” (Nana’s note: it seems to me that “what is your religion” has become one very common question asked in the first meeting with someone.)

The student said, “My parents never teach me about religion. They strongly teach me not to harm other people, though.”

The woman commented, (to us, to sum up her chat with the student) “See? In fact it is as simple as that the way Japanese raise their children. Don’t harm other people. And I assume that is the key of all religions.”

Then I simply said, “You know what? In Indonesia, adhering religion is very important, even it is a must, I guess, because we are taught that religious people are better than the non-believers. And many cases happen where religious people think that they even can make use of their religions to do violence to others and they don’t feel ashamed or sinful because they believe they harm other people in the name of God.”

Hearing my saying, the woman nodded solemnly, while the guy smiled, a bit embarrassed. :)

PT56 13.23 110608

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Localized English

When reading “We have the right to change English” in The Jakarta Post (you can also check it in Right to Change English I remembered what Jack C. Richards said in the TEFLIN Conference held in Surabaya in 2002. He said that as one consequence to label English as a universal language, people in Britain, Australia, and America no longer can exclusively possess it. This is the high time to accept the emergence of localized English; for example Singlish (Singaporean English) (one most common example for this ‘Singlish’ is when a Singaporean says, “No way lah”. Therefore, one can conclude that Richards also encouraged Indonesian English to emerge.

this pic was taken from here

In 2003, in my workplace there was a native speaker coming as one guest teacher. She is from one area in Britain and she had a very different accent when speaking English. The way she pronounced many words also did not follow the phonetic symbols usually found in many dictionaries (such as OXFORD, LONGMAN, HORNBY). She said that in Britain different areas had different accent as well as pronunciation. Because she learned her mother language since she was born, when she went to school and learned the ‘correct’ way to pronounce according to the dictionaries, she (as well as her fellow citizens I suppose) did not give it a damn. She said as long as they understood each other, that was enough. They did not need to bother themselves with the correct pronunciation. (This talk reminded me of one short article I read in one ELT book, I forgot the title of the book, either “Practice and Progress” or “Question & Answer”, the title of article was “Do the English speak English?” referring to the different ways of British people to pronounce English words.) She also said that even the English teachers in Indonesia pronounce English words ‘correctly’ because they always referred to the phonetic symbols in many dictionaries. They also tried to always follow the correct grammar rules.

To combine what was said by Jack Richards and the guest teacher in my workplace, I felt more at ease when teaching my students, no longer burden them to speak as closely as native speakers’ accent and pronunciation, for example, or to carefully choose the best dictions (that was worldwide accepted) to express something, as long as their interlocutors understand the message conveyed.

How about to ‘create’ Indonesian English, such as saying, “What’s wrong sih with you?” or “So what is it dong?” When Singaporeans can say, “No way lah,” of course Indonesian people can say similar things, such as by adding ‘sih’ and ‘dong’. However, I still insist that it be important to teach students to follow strict grammar rules. In Bahasa Indonesia, one can say, “Saya sudah makan” or “Sudah makan saya” or “Makan? Saya sudah” is very well accepted here. But then to ‘adopt’ this ‘chaotic’ grammar rules when speaking English, I am of opinion that it is not supposed to be done. Moreover, the use of active and passive voice in Bahasa Indonesia sometimes is interchangeable. Pay attention to the previous example I wrote, “Saya sudah makan” and “Sudah makan saya” are meant to be active sentence, “I have eaten”. When the first sentence is clearly active sentence, the word order of the second sentence can be classified into passive sentence although the speaker means active one, only he/she wants to emphasize the word “sudah”.

Therefore, in order to ‘create’ Indonesian English, then Indonesian people mix it with the way they speak Bahasa Indonesia—especially the grammar rules--, I don’t think it acceptable because it can result in wrong understanding.

Some workmates of mine sometimes joke, “My body is not really delicious today” to say “Aku sedang kurang enak badan hari ini (I don’t really feel well today)” is absolutely only for joke. Because if we then ‘label’ this kind of joke as accepted Indonesian English, I am afraid we will even more arbitrarily ‘ruin’ this universal language only because we are convinced that we have right to change English.

PT56 23.02 080608

Monday, June 02, 2008

Stairway to Heaven

Several days ago, a workmate of mine told me about her friend. This friend of hers is married, and having one toddler. She works as an English teacher in one private college in my hometown while she also has some private students. In short we can say that she is busy to earn money. Besides, she also believes in ‘double roles’ of women proposed strongly in the New Order era.
Women are believed to be born as domestic creatures. In this so-called ‘modern’ era, however, many women demand that they also have rights to work outside the home. The New Order regime accommodated this idea. The then government supported the emancipation ‘discourse’ by campaigning, “women are no longer men’s companion to stand behind.” Nevertheless, the New Order regime still did oppression to women, by conveying ‘double roles’ for women: when a woman wants to work outside the home, she is still obliged to do domestic chores. A woman must be a superwoman to do the two things at the same time. In the meantime, men were still public creatures. They were not obliged to do domestic chores although they had spare time at home. Religion teachings were also ‘abused’ here. A woman would get ticket to enter heaven easily if she were willing to do these double roles. If she minded, she would rather be a full domestic creature instead. On the contrary, a man did not necessarily help his wife do household chores because he was created not to do those ‘trivial’ things. Men had bigger and nobler responsibility: to earn money. It was enough for men to get ticket to enter heaven.
Going back to my workmate’s friend. Let us give her an initial: X. X really believes in the double-role idea. (Un)luckily, her husband apparently also believes in it. Seeing his wife busily doing household chores after working outside does not move his heart to help. He even does not care to take care of their toddler because he also considers it ‘a woman’s job’. This situation has happened for several years.
One day X confided in my workmate about how exhausted she was to do the double roles. However, if she stops working, her husband’s income is not enough to make ends meet. My workmate then suggested that X ask her husband to help her do household chores. However, X did not agree with it.
“Why didn’t she agree with your idea?” I asked her.
“She strongly believes by doing the double roles, she will get a ticket heaven easily as the compensation from God.
“Tell her that to enter heaven, there are many other ways. She doesn’t need to put herself in such a harmful situation now that she is so vulnerable to diseases because she doesn’t have enough time to do exercise, moreover to rest at home.” (FYI, X is in her mid thirties, and she is suffering from rheumatism, and some other diseases.)
Furthermore, I cited what Meutia Hatta said several years ago on polygamy case. “Don’t trouble yourself to get involved in polygamous marriage only because you believe that by letting your husband marry another woman again; or by being the nth wife of a man. There are many other ways to get God’s blessings to enter heaven. Don’t hurt other women’s feelings, or your children’s.”
“The problem is,” my workmate said to me, “this friend of mine believes it so much that by dedicating her life to her husband and marriage, she will easily enter heaven.”
“So, she is very lucky then to have already found the best and nearest way to heaven: dedicating her life to her heartless husband. Tell her that she is not supposed to complain if she believes that is her stairway to heaven. She must be happy with that.”
I sounded cynical? Yes. I was also very unhappy to say that. But what else was I supposed to say if X already closed her mind on this case?
PT56 07.55 010608