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Found in translation

8 Feb

Since moving to Jakarta, I’ve been trying to learn Bahasa Indonesia, the most spoken, but certainly not the only language in Indonesia. In fact, one of the first things I learned is that there was actually “Jakarta Bahasa”, a city-specific slang. Sure, that’s not going to be complicated at all.

Although my Bahasa has improved a decent bit since I arrived – I can now reliably order 1 more water in a restaurant, and prevent taxi drivers from getting lost on the way to my house, I am still taken by surprise by the language all the time. So now, at just about the 6-month mark, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite Bahasa words.

Belum. Google Translate will tell you this means “not yet”. But it’s so much more than that. It’s what someone will tell you when they really have no idea when something is going to happen. It’s what someone will say to be polite, when what they’d probably tell you if they were a native English speaker would be “no”. I think it expresses what I’ve observed of Indonesians so far: ever-hopeful, ever-future looking, and always happy. Belum is all about possibility.

Besok. This word is first cousin to belum. The textbook translation is “tomorrow” but much like the Spanish version of the word, is probably better interpreted as “sometime in the future”. A friend’s internet was out for more than a week, and each day the answer in response to her “when will it be back on” was “belum, besok”. Hmm. When, exactly?

Sudah. This is definitely my favourite word in Bahasa. It means somewhere between “done”,”already” and “finished”. It’s what a waiter will ask you before clearing your plate, and it’s also the response to the question. It’s a word defined as much by punctuation and context as anything. “Sudah makan?” could mean “Have you already eaten?” or “Are you ready to eat?”. And at the end of the day, when you are ready to go home, you are definitely “sudah”.

Kemarin. The first time I read this word and looked it up, the translation was “yesterday”. And it mostly is. But it could also mean last week, or last month. If you mean really in the past, you can say it twice. I guess “previously” would probably be the best way to think about it. It’s kind of like how besok could mean tomorrow, or not.

Sampai. This one really confused me. It loosely translates as “until” but (you knew there was a but, right?) unlike English, this “until” doesn’t imply the change of condition has already happened. It’s more like when we use the English word “to” in order to describe a range, as in “4 to 6” or a period as in “up to” . Indonesians speaking in English would say “4 until 6”. Not wrong, exactly, but not always clear. Witness a conversation I had before moving here, regarding the status of my work permit.

Office person: I haven’t received any information until now. Me (optimistic that new information has arrived): OK so what are the next steps? Office: Well maybe I will be able tell you tomorrow. Me (looking at phone with puzzlement): OK?

You may notice that all these words are somehow connected to time. An Indonesian colleague’s theory is that since there is no tense in Bahasa, time doesn’t matter as much as it does in the West. (He said this to me after I complained that meetings never started on time, even though people were fixated about having meetings in their schedules). He’s probably right. I suppose these words exist to provide context and meaning, albeit somewhat vaguely. On the other hand, I like to think of them as more expressive of a different attitude to time, a way of being more “present” or more “now”. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s like the ever-hopefulness of “belum” – it hasn’t happened yet, but stay alert to what’s going on, because it just might.


My mind on my money

14 Jan

Banking is tough in Indonesia, if you’re a foreigner. Or an ATM. Witness this recent news item, courtesy of the IPJ Daily News service:

ATM Explodes in Malang, East Java
On Thursday (January 9) at around 0230hrs an ATM belonging to Mandiri Bank exploded on Jalan Kartanegara, Karangploso, Malang, East Java. The explosion caused the machine flew for 20 meters, yet the machine was still in one piece. Suspects failed to recover money from the machine. The police Gegana Team (bomb squad) deployed to the site to secure the area and a forensic team from Surabaya, Indonesia responded to investigate. Four witnesses are under interrogation.

Doesn’t sound like I’d want to be one of those witnesses. That said, trying to get normal banking done is about as pleasant as police interrogation!

1. First of all, getting a bank account is hard. It took me over 3 months. You need a residency permit, a work permit, a letter from your employer confirming your address, and then the ever-illusive tax ID number. And that’s just to fill the forms out. Someone then has to call you and confirm all the information you just provided, and eventually you get a bank account.

2. Having a bank account opened isn’t the same thing as getting a bank card. Nope, really. I found out I had accounts successfully opened because I got a text message from the customer service agent, asking me to deposit money into the account to meet a minimum balance. No correspondence, no bank card, just a text. Sure (I texted) but I don’t know the account numbers. OK, I can text them to you. But how can I deposit money without a bank card? Oh, just log in online. OK, but don’t I need a bank card? No, you can just transfer the funds in. OK, but how will the website know I’m me and connect to my accounts? Just create a user ID. This of course I tried and failed to do because … step 1 of creating a user ID is entering your bank card number. Sigh.

3. Effortless online banking is a fiction made up by marketing types.¬†They probably keep their own money in a sack under the bed. Having eventually obtained a bank card by going in person to the headquarters branch, I now (foolishly) attempted to set up online bill payments. Setting up a payee requires a bank routing code, which makes sense so your bank knows where to send the money. So innocently, I call customer service to ask how I find said code. The response – we don’t keep codes for other banks, just for us. You need to call the other bank where the account is. Other bank – we don’t keep records for bank codes. OK, but this is a (trademarked) “virtual account” – doesn’t that mean I can pay online? Oh no, only in a branch miss. Have a nice day. Sigh again.

What’s most interesting is that everyone else seems to have figured this out. People routinely send you their account details to transfer money. My utility company has set up a virtual account just for me, so I can easily pay my bills. My landlady also sent me her account details, and so did my housekeeper. It’s clearly just me.

Maybe I need to go shopping for a sack. At least this I can do with cash.

The things on the inside

15 Dec

It’s hard to call it secret – there are flags attached to lamp posts announcing its arrival. Everyone knows where it is – I even overheard two people talking about it in a store – and they were speaking Indonesian. That said, it did take me a while to locate the self-styled “Shanghai bistro and bubble tea bar” tucked into a corner of the entertainment level of the mall.


The real ‘secret’ is the food. More specifically the “sheng jian bao” or soup dumpling. And it’s all about the things inside. My server insisted I try the house special dumpling – something for which I deeply, deeply thank him wherever he is. Imagine a pristine white dumpling, with a delicate twist at the top and a crispy pan-fried base. And then he handed me the spoon … “for soup” he said. The first bite made it clear. Delicate morsels of chicken and prawn, lightly seasoned, and surrounded by amazing soup. Yes, liquid soup. Inside the dumpling. Piping hot and delicious.

I have no idea how they do it. How they get solid chicken and prawns, and liquid soup inside a dumpling. There’s probably a video on YouTube, but frankly, I don’t care. As long as they keep making them, it really doesn’t matter.

It also made me think about how sometimes it’s the things on the inside that you really enjoy. Once you peel back the layers (or take a bite) it’s possible to find secret, amazing, inspiring things. Sometimes in other people, sometimes in circumstances, sometimes in places. It’s a bit like how I feel about Jakarta. I’m peeling back the layers slowly, learning more words, going to new places, understanding the “why” that sits inside what’s observable. And the things inside are sometimes amazing.

When culture meets design

12 Nov

One of the most fascinating things about moving to a new country are all the little every-day things you notice, both what is similar and what is different to wherever you’ve come from. Since moving to Jakarta it’s been really cool to notice how culture and society influence form and function.

Take bathrooms. Specifically toilets. Yes, I know, not something you want to read about on the internet. But, if you think about it, clearly something that is intimately reflective of how we … well you know. It’s personal. What I’ve also learned is, it’s different. Here’s how:

  • The universal bidet – every bathroom (at least all the women’s toilets) have some kind of hose attachment that converts a toilet into a bidet. Imagine a small hand-held shower head and you have the idea. The really fancy ones have more than just a hose, they have electronic controls that let you manipulate water pressure, direction and temperature to your heart’s … or other body part’s … desire. Don’t believe me – check out the picture!

    Oh, the choices!

    Oh, the choices!

  • Foot washers – this was only slightly startling, but makes perfect sense. People wash their feet before praying, so bathrooms in work places have provisions for this. As I say, logical when you think about it, but somewhat puzzling to look at. Imagine a small shower stall, but with a tap at waist height rather than above one’s head. Foot washer, not leprechaun shower. (As an aside, having to wash one’s feet several times a day also results in communal shoe racks for rubber slippers, which people wear back and forth from the bathroom to prayer room, and an abundance of well dressed men and women periodically holding up their pants legs and flip-flop clopping down the hallway.)

    Don't do this!

    Don’t do this!

  • The signage! Apparently, not all people think about bathroom stalls the same way. Here’s the sign that the Kuala Lumpur airport displays, just in case you are tempted to misbehave … by standing on the seat for example!

OK, enough about toilets, let’s talk about elevators. This one really puzzled me when I first moved into my apartment. The elevator buttons for the floors weren’t consecutive. And I’m not just talking about skipping out the 13th floor, I mean, seriously non-consecutive. Like floor 50 comes after floor 39, floors 12 – 14 are missing. My realtor finally explained – the number 4 is considered very unlucky in some countries, and target tenants for the building were apparently in this group. Therefore, all the floors with the number 4, as well as lucky #13 were skipped in the floor naming. Incidentally, the #12 is also missing – maybe just for symmetry? This is what the panel looks like. By the way, notice the total number of floors? I don’t think anyone checked ūüôā

Going up!

Going up!

A lesson in polite chaos

21 Sep

Jakarta city view

Jakarta traffic is insane. I’d been warned before I got here about the traffic, but it’s something else to see it up close.¬†Everyone is always trying to get somewhere. In a hurry. In a city of more than 12 million, and in one of the most densely populated parts of the city, that’s a lot of people in a relatively small space. Thankfully, there are rules … kind of.

Rule #1 – Every space is a usable space. It’s common to see a swarm of scooters, sometimes with 2 or 3 passengers, crowded at the front of a line of traffic, waiting on the light to change so they can squeeze ahead of cars. And when traffic is moving, they are everywhere, inching between cars, snaking around buses, all the while blowing their horns just in case.

Rule #2 – Lane markings count, except when they don’t. Try to drive in a straight line and you will find most people are in their lanes (well except scooters, see rule #1). But try going around a corner, merging on or off a main road, or my personal favourite – going around a roundabout – and¬†all bets are off. It’s more of a case of who goes first wins. It’s the strangest thing because as soon as you are back on a straight road, the order returns.

bus lane

Bus lane

¬†Rule #3 – Bus lanes are for buses. So far this is the one I’ve seen respected without fail. Not sure¬†if this is because there are major fines for violating this rule, or because of the big curb that divides regular traffic lanes from the bus lanes. ¬†I’m sure that the fact that TransJakarta bus drivers swing the buses around like they are training for F1 competition has nothing to do with it.

Rule #4 – HOV lanes are serious business. Certain streets are designated “3 in 1” especially during rush hour, which means that there must be a minimum of 3 people in any 1 vehicle to travel in these areas. Here’s how I discovered how this played out. One evening leaving the office, the car I was in was stopped by police. The office driver hadn’t done anything wrong that I could see, but 2 other cars were also pulled over so I assumed a routine traffic check. After a brief conversation where the office driver seemed to be trying to persuade the policeman of something and what looked like a “financial exchange”, we were allowed to pass. The next night, I noticed a number of young men standing along the driveway exit, all holding up 1 finger like they were asking for a ride, or counting to 1. Soon after we pulled out of the gate, the driver stopped and picked up one of these men, seemingly at random. He turned to me apologetically and explained this was the “jockey for 3-in-1”. Then it hit me. The rules are so strict that drivers will pay to have a 3rd passenger or “jockey” in the car in order to access the restricted areas! After a few blocks when we had cleared the 3-in-1 zone, our “jockey” hopped out and went his way, presumably to rescue another driver. Serious business indeed.

policeIncredibly, I’m yet to see so much as a fender-bender, although sometimes I’m pretty sure scooters are routinely touching cars or each other in the crush. As I said, it’s chaos, but polite chaos. Don’t forget to look both ways.