I will wrap up my Thailand stories and photos in future posts, but I had to get this one down while it was fresh.
I am a big fan of flash cards for language learning They served me well for Chinese, and I’ve already got a stack documenting my small but growing vocabulary of bahasa Indonesia. However, I’m almost through the supplies I brought from the U.S. so today I went out in search of replacements.
My old flash cards are nothing fancy. I used regular index cards and cut them into thirds to get more flashes per card. I’m not picky about flash cards but I do prefer to use card stock rather than flimsy paper. Hacked up index cards are perfect. Naturally, Indonesian bookstores do not sell index cards – that would be too simple.
I set out for the mall in a hurry. I wanted to find flash cards, go grocery shopping and get a cab home all within two hours so I would be on time for dinner. I was cutting it close. I scoured the shelved of Gramedia (an Indonesian bookstore) to confirm they in fact do not carry index cards, then grew increasingly frustrated trying to find reasonable substitutes. At last, I located 8×10 card stock sold from the business/printing counter.
I heaved a sigh of relief. My search was successful after all! I thought, “This 8×10 card stock would be very difficult and time consuming to cut up into nice, uniform flash cards with scissors on my own. How lucky that it is sold from this this business center where they can chop it up for me!” I’ve been in Indonesia long enough now that I should have known better.
The employee I spoke with happily agreed to cut up the paper for me. I purchased 20 sheets of card stock. I saw the industrial paper cutter equipped with a long blade and sturdy table engraved with helpful grid lines to measure the cuts and naively thought “The perfect tool for this job. I’ll be out of here with flash cards in no time.” I first told my helper to cut the blank paper up up like business cards. He looked a bit confused, but seemed to understand. I grew concerned as he took the paper to the printer. He called another bookstore employee over, to help with the computer. They opened up what looked like an Adobe design program and my confusion grew. Ten minutes later, I understood when two of my sheets were decorated with small “+” signs, presumably to guide their cuts, courtesy of a printer working at the speed of snail. This was a problem for two reasons. First, the printing was taking forever. Second, I could see that they would waste at least 10% of my paper on the border, since business card size is inefficient for 8×10 sheets.
I decided to intervene. “It’s ok,” I said. “I will cut it myself.” My bahasa Indonesia is still very rough (hence the flash cards) and of course they did not understand my English. I mimed the cutting motion and made a move to grab the paper and go to the cutter. My helpers grew agitated and called another friend over, perhaps their manager. Together, the three of them convinced me through pantomime that I should sit down and let them do the work. “Ok,” I said, “But just cut it like this instead.” I pulled out a flash card from my pocket, one of my old ones made from an index card. I’d brought some along to study in the taxi. My three helpers nodded vigorously. I handed the card over, then watched in frustration as one of them whipped out a ruler and started taking detailed measurements of my hacked up flash card, which was barely rectancular. They were clearly missing the point. Two more employees wandered over from another section of the bookstore, curious about the commotion.
I reflected on whether it would be more painful to attempt to communicate again or just let them muddle through twenty sheets of precise measurements. From what I could see through the huddled crowd of employees, the one actually doing the work seemed to be taking several measurements of each side. I reasoned he was either attempting to reproduce the slightly off-kilter rectangle of my example flash card, or, more likely, he just wasn’t sure how to use a ruler.
I sighed and struggled to gain the attention of one of my five helpers, all of whom had their backs to me intently watching the inept measurer. “Bapak,” I said. The crowd parted and I caught the attention of the guy with the ruler. I waved my hands, indicating that he should stop measuring. “It’s ok,” I said, “No problem.” I mimed fast chopping motions, like vegetables, and tried to make my face convey that I was unconcerned about the outcome of my chopping. He looked dubious but nodded. My chopping caught the attention of a sixth employee, who joined the party.
In the end, I did get my flash cards and make it to dinner on time. I’m not sure how my helper managed to cut every one a different size; I had wrongly assumed that the paper cutter’s guide lines and the ability to practice over and over would be enough to yield at least reasonable uniformity. I suppose having five of his colleagues (bosses?) looking on gave him unsteady hands. Oh, well. My new supply of flash cards will remind me that despite my incredibly comfortable first world housing, I am in fact in Jakarta. But when this supply of cards runs out in a few weeks, I think I’ll insist that I be the one to operate the cutter for the next batch.