America has been called ‘the melting pot of the world,’ at least in olden time, for its invitation to people all over the globe to immigrate to its happy shores, but for me it can never hold a candle to the variety and variance of cultures and tongues one finds in the sunny environs of Bali. The trouble with America is that people soon become Americans, shedding the uniqueness of their heritage for a new skin, a gray flannel suit of conformity, such that the quirks and traits that made them foreign people soon no longer attain. I knew, for instance, many Indonesians in America, and yet knew not a single one until I came to Bali -- for they had all become Americans, you see? And no one loves America so well as expatriated Indonesians -- its anaemic culture, its disposition toward greed, its worship of money, its love of ‘things’ -- shoes, clothing, jewellery, cars. Charity, community, character -- all suffer under the stress of a rich yet reductive national ethos.
But enough of America bashing for the moment. What I want to say is that here in Bali the Brit stays British, the Aussie Australian, the Frenchman French and so on the wide world of immigrants over -- for in this far flung archipelago a nonnegotiable divide is encountered. The bule can hardly become an Indonesian, and so he must stay as he is, dragging along his cultural and linguistic peculiarities just as surely as his own skin. We don‘t put on airs, or join the PTA, or sit in the seats of government, or reside over Hindu processions. No, we remain perfectly foreign. We are neither consumed nor altered nor absorbed. Our essential frame of reference remains with the culture and character of our countries of origin, and we continue for the most part to speak in our native tongues and to employ our native idioms of language.
Which brings me to this concept of “ish” as employed by the peoples of some western countries to denote some peculiarly uncertain increment of time. It is a strange notion to the American, for we are precise sorts of people. For the American, eleven o’clock means 11 o’clock. Noon means noon. There is no “ish” about it. And yet for the Australian, for instance, and the Englishman and the Frenchman and the Italian, time is not so easily pinned down. It’s fluid, somewhat questionable, somewhat if-ish.
“Coffee at 9-ish,” my English friend says. What does this mean? Something like 9? Two or three minutes before or past nine? At some point during which the general atmosphere of the day seems to resemble 9?
I certainly don’t know, and so I arrive for coffee at 9. And of course my friend is not there. Nor is he there at 2 minutes after 9, or 5, or 10, or 20. I conclude therefore that the term 9-ish has nothing in essential to do with the actual fact of 9 o’clock. I note also that by 20 minutes past the hour I have already finished my cappuccino. Why were we meeting? For coffee, right?
It may or may not be marginally interesting at this point to note that the word “Ish” was one of the first words used to denote a member of the human race, and can be found, curiously enough, in various widely separated parts of the world -- from the Middle East to South America. Adam, in the Hebrew, was called Ish, and in his first words in the Torah he calls the newly created woman Isha. Clearly then, the term has been a longstanding one, and why it never caught on in America, I cannot say. Other well known ishes would include Ishrael, Ishlam, Chrishtianity, Ishmail, Ishstanbul, and Ish-Kabibble. As well as fishes, of course.
Shall we conclude therefore, given the modern use of the term “ish,” that there was something inexact, unreliable, unpredictable about man and the world and the cosmos from the outset? Or is it just the American expectation of precision that is fishy?
In any case, my friend shows up at 9:30 -- ish having meant, in this case, for this day, 30 minutes past the hour. Why did he not say 9:30 to begin with? Why say 9 if you mean 9:30? Ah, but there is that all important, intangible “ish” attached.
“Well hey, Mike-ish. Run into some trouble along the way?“
“No trouble. Why?“
“You’re a bit tardy-ish, that’s all.“
“Not at all. I said 9-ish, did I not?”
“But as you can see, my cappuccino is rather gone-ish.”
“Ah well, have another. It’s still early-ish, ish-n’t it?”
It is agreed then. Next time around I will plan to arrive for coffee late-ish.