Saturday, March 7, 2015

Village People

It’s been a while since I posted here, so I thought I’d re-start with a very intellectually stimulating story. A number of years ago, I participated in a humanitarian trip to a small village in eastern Indonesia. Our group of about twenty included retirees, teens, and many in between. We busied ourselves during the day helping install a clean water system for the villagers. In the evenings, we relaxed, spent time with the locals, and shared in each others cultures. Looking back at this experience, it was really a highlight in my adult life, especially the story I’m about to relate.

With no electricity in the village except for a small generator, the community center had the only lights, so we’d often gather there after dinner. One evening, I joined a couple high school kids from our group and we sat on a fence near the community center with several twenty-something men from the village. The villagers didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Indonesian, but we had fun trying to hit things with rocks, attempting to stand on the fence posts with one leg, and other guy things.

Meanwhile, two high school girls from our group, who happened to be sisters, stood on the outside steps of the community center trying to teach a group of villagers an English song. They’d chosen the classic If You’re Happy and You Know It. I’m sure you’ve heard this one: If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands (everyone claps), etc. They struggled getting the point of the song across, since nobody spoke English, but the villagers all readily joined in clapping their hands, stomping their feet, flapping their arms, and other entertaining actions.

Those of us on the fence watched this after having eaten a large dinner that included some spicy beans. At one point, one of the kids with us accidentally made a rather embarrassing bean-related sound.

We all looked at him and his response was something like, “Was that out loud?”

One of the villagers who knew a couple English words, laughed and said, “Katoot. That’s katoot.”

We suddenly realized we had inadvertently learned a very useful Indonesian word. And it was way better than the English word for the same thing.

While this was going on, the sisters on the steps arrived at the verse, “If you’re happy and you know it, show a smile.” But the villagers couldn’t quite get the smile concept, despite the girls pushing the sides of their mouths up until they looked like The Joker.

One of the girls finally turned to us and asked, “Does anyone know the Indonesian word for smile?”

My buddy, who’d just produced the sound that helped us learn the new word, happily obliged. “It’s katoot.”

She thanked him and continued with the song. “If you’re happy and you know it, katoot!”

Of course everyone instantly smiled, so she and her sister assumed it was correct and started dancing while proudly telling everyone to katoot. Soon the whole village was laughing and the girl finally realized something was wrong.

She turned back to us. “Hey, what does that really mean?”

By that point, we’d fallen off the fence, unable to respond.

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