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Why using English doesn't make me any less Indonesian

Marcella Purnama
Marcella Purnama

Blogger, author of What I Wish I Had Known: And Other Lessons You Learned in Your Twenties

Melbourne | Tue, August 29, 2017 | 05:21 pm
Why using English doesn't make me any less Indonesian

Five years of tertiary education later, I find myself favoring English to communicate my stories to others. (Shutterstock/File)

I was 12 when I read my first Harry Potter book. I had just finished watching the Prisoner of Azkaban and I couldn’t wait to know what would happen next. So I bought the Indonesian translation of the Goblet of Fire.

I still remember reading it at midnight in bed, under my blanket with a flashlight because my parents didn’t approve of Harry Potter. I still remember my heartache when Ron just didn't get all the signals that Hermione gave, and crying heartily when Cedric died. I remember not going down to eat dinner because I was reading the graveyard scene. Then I got caught by my mother.

She scolded me at first, but eventually relented and allowed me to read the book in peace. Thus my love for reading started.

After that first Harry Potter book, I began to read the entire series, then moved on to the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. During my teenage years, I began to read Melina Marchetta’s books—from Looking for Alibrandi to the Lumatere Chronicles, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite fantasy series. Then I read various other books, before realizing the genres I love: nonfiction, fantasy and young adult.

There’s a catch, though. Almost all the books I read after the Goblet of Fire were in English.

Read also: All the things we've lost in translation

When my editor first emailed me in 2015 about writing a book on university life and beyond, I felt really honored, but the question remained: In what language would the book be written? I replied to the email eagerly, feeling ecstatic that they wanted to publish my book when I hadn’t even written the manuscript. At the same time, I kept my hopes in check, for fear that they would retract their offer since the book was not going to be in Indonesian.

My editor had some doubts, but eventually decided to take me on board. The book was published in July this year, and for some reason, almost everyone asks me the question: Why in English?

“The target market is Indonesians, so why English?” a web-based magazine asked.

“You’re publishing the book in Indonesia, why not do it in Indonesian?” a radio talkshow host asked.

“I couldn’t read it because it’s in English! Can’t it be written in Indonesian?” a friend of my mother asked.

Well, the reason is simple. It's because I can no longer express myself well in written Indonesian.

All throughout primary and high school, I was one of the top students in Indonesian language. I still remember getting an award in the subject back in sixth grade. I took my High School Certificate (HSC—the Australian version of the Indonesian national exam) and was ranked eighth globally in the Indonesian Background Speakers subject. In sum, I was skilled enough to actually write in Indonesian back then.

But skills die when you don't foster them. After high school, I went to Melbourne to pursue further education, and everything was done in English. I learned to write essays, to read research papers, and to speak in English. I was determined to not be another international student who only talked in her native tongue and never getting out of her bubble, so I forced myself to improve my English.

Read also: Great Indonesian literature: Tales of Panji

I befriended other international students, read even more books to widen my vocabulary, and wrote a blog to practice my poor grammar.

Five years of tertiary education later, I find myself favoring English to communicate my stories to others.

Does that mean I’ve lost a part of my identity? Does that mean I'm betraying my own native language?

Some may say yes; it's such a shame that as a writer, I couldn't even write in my own mother tongue. Some would argue that it's a bad thing.

I wonder why it's a bad thing, though.

Language is a tool for me to express myself. And choosing English doesn't mean I stop being an Indonesian. It simply means I am better in communicating my stories and thoughts in one language over the other.

It’s like a musician opting to write a song for guitar instead of piano even though he is able to play both. It’s like a painter wanting to use crayons over watercolors. It's like a video editor preferring Adobe Premiere instead of iMovie; a programmer using Python instead of Java; a singer specializing in country instead of rock and roll songs.

Living in Melbourne, I still go to the Indonesian film festivals. I went to see Nicholas Saputra during the Australian tour of Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 last year. I still eat iga bakar (grilled beef rib) and ayam penyet (fried chicken with spicy chili) here regularly, and converse with my family and friends in Indonesian.

I am proud to be bilingual. Living in another country has made me realize that we are different, yet similar. It teaches me empathy, and enables me to connect with even more people instead of limiting myself to communicate only with those who speak my native tongue.

And it doesn't mean that I choose one over the other—it means that I get to embrace both languages and use them in different aspects of my life.

Perhaps there will be a day when I can express myself well in written Indonesian. Perhaps there will be a day when I can so eloquently pour my heart into words like Aan Mansyur in his poem “Batas”. But until that day comes, I will continue to share my stories in English, while eating chocolate-cheese martabak (fried pancake) and drinking a teh kotak (carton of tea). (kes)

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Marcella Purnama is a blogger who splits home between Jakarta and Melbourne. Despite excelling in all things scientific, she went to study arts and stumbled into writing. After graduating from her bachelor’s program, Marcella worked as a content writer in both nonprofit and corporate settings before throwing in the towel to get a Master’s in Publishing and Communications. Read her words at marcellapurnama.com.

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