Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Bits & Pieces

Following are some observations that haven't really taken form for an entire posting, but are worth mentioning.

Indonesians have no sense of humor. They are very literal people and take everything at face value. Therefore, irony, juxtaposition and sarcasm are completely lost on them. A question like, "Why does an elephant paint its toenails red?" simply makes no sense. It is difficult, if not impossible to formulate double-ententre in Indonesian. Being a fan of the late Douglas Adams, I commonly reply to questions like 'what are you thinking,' with 'life, the Universe and everything.' I translated it into Indonesian (hidupan, Alam Semesta dan semuanya) and continue to use the phrase, but to a local, that statement is all but meaningless because they cannot humor of reductio ad absurdum. Indonesian comedy is purely slap-stick, prat falls and goofy double-takes. Their jokes are primarily simple substitution word-play. The one successful Indonesian joke I have created is a word-play on a malady called 'masuk angin,' or entering wind. I change 'angin' to 'anjing,' so that it becomes 'entering dog.' Trust me, it's funny in Indonesian.

Indonesians have got to be the worst drivers on the planet. For the most part, they completely ignore laws, conventions, markings, and signs. I have literally seen 2-lane roads with 5 lanes of traffic, with a counter-flow of motorcycles on the outside. The goal of drivers here is to never come to a complete stop. Amazingly, it all seems to work, but until you get used to it, it is a hair-raising, white-knuckle experience. The motorcycle taxis, called ojek, are an even more terrifying experience.

Indonesians literally cannot go without at least one good serving of rice each day. They simply do not feel satisfied if they do not eat rice. It they go more than a couple of day without rice, they actually develop digestive problems. Everything here is either composed with rice, or served with rice. Even McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, BurgerKing, and Wendy's all serve rice. In fact, most Indonesians subsist solely on rice with various sauces and flavorings. The only alternative is mie, or noodles, which are used for variety or when rice is not available.

The Chinese are highly superstitious. Worse than the Irish, I think. One that is very common is the number 4. Many buildings do not have floors with the number 4, nor do they have floors with numbers that add up to 4, such as 13, 22, etc. The reason for this is that the Mandarin word for 4 sounds very close to the word for death. There is a huge markets for cell phone numbers that have a lot of 6s and 8s. Some sell for as much as $100. Many people will not buy a car or motorcycle with license plates that have a number 4.

Indonesians are among the biggest penny-pinchers I have ever seen. The could make a Scotsman blush. I have seen people in the market haggle over 10 cents for half and hour. They love bule (foreigners) because they never haggle, just pay whatever price is asked. For this reason, the bule price for everything is about 200% to 300% higher than for locals. Tourists pay it because even inflated it is still ridiculously low by western standards. An Indonesian considers it a major victory if they are able to save even a nickle. There is almost no such thing as fixed price here.

Indonesians are big on recycling, but not out of some altruistic reasoning, but because they can make money or save money. I often see one fellow who collects plastic cups from the trash, takes them behind a building, trims the plastic covers off, rinses them, and then sells coffee in them from his push cart. And no, he is certainly not the only one.

A very popular kind of food here is padang. Padang is a region in west central Sumatra, which you may recall from the news late last year, where they had a severe earthquake. The food is very spicy and quite delicious. Most people go to the steam table and order a la carte, however if you sit down without ordering, they will begin piling dishes and bowls with two servings of every item they have. You eat what you want and the rest is dumped back in the pot. A padang restaurant is usually signified by a peaked roof motif emulating the traditional Sumatran houses, and has a stack of plates displaying their offerings in the window.

Indonesians are very sensitive to 'face.' Everyone is concerned not with who you really are, but what image you present in public. Javanese are especially adept at this, and their traditional clothing symbolizes it. A typical outfit for a male is a long silk tunic with loose silk pants. A sash is tied around the waste with the knot in the back. A kind of daggar is worn in the knot in the back. A small brimless hat is worn that is almost featureless, except for a small curled tail in the back. In this way, the front appears to be smooth while the rear contains the business end of things. Many middle-class men will have one or two wives and at least one istress, yet they condemn westerners for their free sex. What they are really condemning is the openness with which it is displayed. It's not what you do, but what you show.

In Indonesian, the word 'malu' means both shy and embarrassed. When you are malu, you cover your face with the palm of your right hand. In western culture, we say that someone talks behind you when they gossip, as if hiding the fact. In Indonesian, that person is said to talk in front of you, as if going through a crowd telling everyone about you before you get there.

When offering something to someone, you always use the right hand and place the figertips of your left hand under the right forearm. If it is unavoidable (your hands are full) and you must use your left, you say, "Maaf kiri," or pardon the left.

In Indonesian, one almost never uses the word 'please.' In stead, there are polite and course ways to request things.

An Indonesian may not be seen dating many people. If a man asks a woman out and she says yes, then barring unforeseen circumstances, it is expected that they will marry. This is slowly changing, but the public shame on someone who goes out with many different people is very strong. A woman who is seen with many men is called a 'jablay,' which is a contraction of jarang dibelai, or seldom caressed. The term began as a way of identifying divorced women and was a warning to keep your husband away from her. It now more or less means prostitute, which would seem to be the polar opposite of seldom caressed.

Something I was initially very uncomfortable with is 'salim.' Children and teens are expected to take the right hand of a respected adult and touch it to their forehead or cheek. It is similar to kissing the bishop's ring. When I first experienced it, I nearly recoiled in horror. It is one of the things that was most foreign to me.

I've gotten used to it, though.

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