Last week I learned the Indonesian word for a whistle – peluit. I learned it because I needed one. I needed one because I’m coaching Zoe’s basketball team, which is another story entirely. You can’t be a coach without a whistle.
So I set out for a store that I thought might have one, but I didn’t think to look up the word beforehand, and, having Luddite tendencies, I did not go ‘to the cloud’ and thought I would just wing it at the store. I knew the verb for ‘to whistle’ and I figured I would start there.
I walked around the store, scanning the shelves for a whistle but I couldn’t find one. So I faced the three employees who’d been watching me do circuits around the store and started the I-Don’t-Know-The-Word game of charades that I often get to play here.
“Hi, I’m looking for a thing, and it’s small and you use it to make a whistle sound,” I said as I pantomimed the act of using a whistle, which must have looked like I was sucking a lemon or possibly kissing a toad.
They openly laughed at me, then one of them got all bright-eyed and said, “Oh! I know what you mean. But we don’t have any.”
And she told me the word for it, which I promptly forgot and had to look up again at home. So the next day I headed out to another store, one that I was told would have my whistle. I approached one of the store workers, who looked bored out of her mind, and considered briefly if I should repeat my pantomime of the day before, if for nothing else for the entertainment factor. She could tell her friends later about the crazy white lady who was so stupid she didn’t know the word for ‘whistle.’ But I played it cool and asked if they had a peluit and they did. Two minutes and 70 cents later I was a legit coach with a whistle.
I can’t even tell you how many times I repeat this little exercise, and every time I do I am amazed (and more than a little embarrassed) that I went so long without knowing certain words. In over sixteen years of living in Indonesia and attempting to speak this language, have I really managed never to need the noun ‘whistle’?
It happened to us again just last night, when we were outside marveling at the super blue blood moon eclipse (side note on the eclipse: with all those adjectives, I was expecting a bit more than a hazy-looking moon). David took our binoculars over to our night guard so he, too, could view this wonder. When David walked back to where the kids and I stood, he said he explained to our guard how the eclipse happens.
“So what’s the word for ‘shadow’?” I asked him.
“Bayangan,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, impressed that David knew that.
“Yeah, I had to look it up on my phone.”
So, there’s another word I’ve managed not to know all these years.
Language learning can be an arduous, at times humiliating process, and, as clearly demonstrated by my anecdote above, it may take a lifetime. I may never be fluent – I know that now – but I try to maju terus – keep moving forward, one word at a time.
And now, I can easily tell someone, “When I saw the shadow on the moon, I blew my whistle!”