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Jam in a Botol

One of the most confusing, frustrating and bewitching things about Indonesian life, at least to Westerners, is the measurement and concepts of time here. It requires a nearly complete reframing of your assumptions. Additionally, if you are a Type A personality, you will be apoplectic in short order. Coming from the US or Europe requires you to stomp on the brakes and start selling a lot of flowers while you wait.

The first concept you will run into right away is that of 'jam karet,' or flexible time. I have seen Westerners almost have heart attacks over this. Basically, if an Indonesian makes an appointment at 9 a.m., he will show up somewhere between 9:15 and 10:00. I know one person who is particularly self-important, who routinely is 2 to 3 hours late, just to demonstrate their social rank.

It helps to think of every meeting as a doctor appointment, where you are required to show up at the appointed hour, even though you know the doctor won't get around to seeing you for another 45 minutes.

Appointments are just the surface. If someone says they will call you tomorrow, do not hold your breath. The call could come anytime in the next week. The same goes for just about everything. Most Westerners find this insulting, frustrating and/or rude. However, there is an underlying cultural reason that allows for this kind of thinking.

As always, I turn to language to show the root of the problem. In Indonesian, 'kemarin' means yesterday, and 'besok' means tomorrow. But, here's the trick: both words do not strictly refer to the preceding or next days. They can refer to anytime in the recent past or near future. There are subtle linguistic clues that tell you how far yesterday or tomorrow is meant. However, like all people using a second language, they will often use the direct English translation and forget to 'flavor' the word with other descriptors that you would get from context in Indonesian.

Thus, when making appointments or discussing past or future events, it is best to clarify your meaning. If you want someone to meet you at precisely 9 a.m., then say so. If you are refering to yesterday or tomorrow, be sure that you are clear that it is the previous or next day.

The next problem is easily remedied, but require some practice. Indonesians express the half hour as before the next hour, rather than after the last hour. In other words, 4:30 is half to 5. This primarily affect Americans who have a psychosis about time that forces them to tell time by the precise numbers (e.g.- 4:41 instead of quarter to 5). With a little patience, you get the hang of it.

The one that I find most confusing, and leads to many missed meetings or dates for a lot of people, is the idea that the day begins the previous night. For example, our Tuesday night is an Indonesian's Wednesday night, and when they refer to 'tonight,' they are talking about the previous one, not the forthcoming one. So if someone wants to meet you on Saturday night, they are talking about Friday. Now the tricky part is some English speakers make the adjustment, while others do not. Be sure to ask. If you are speaking Indonesian, then the rule always applies.

Once you begin learning the Indonesian language, it gets worse quickly. Indonesian does not have verb tenses like most Western languages, therefore the verb is modified with a dizzying array of time stamps in order to show past, present and future. The most difficult concept is 'before,' which in Engish is used for both past and future and is modified by other words. In Indonesian, there are at least five different ways to say before, and they each have a different 'flavor' that expresses past time or future time.

Even if you are a tourist and have no desire to learn the language, you will be affected because, like all foreign speakers of a language, they will tend think in their native tongue and transliterate, rather than translate; they will tend to use their native 'framing' and choose words that have the same dictionary meaning, but vastly different connotations and subtext. This includes the use of idioms that make little or no sense in English. Think of the English idiom 'take a shower,' and you will see the point. If I transliterate that to Indonesian, it would imply that I am dismantling and removing the act of bathing. Yeah, makes no sense.

Whether you are a tourist, or coming to stay for a while, you will want to be aware of these things. It will save you a lot of headache and aggravation. Since I am hardwired for punctuality, I cannot make myself late, no matter what I do. So, I try to set appointments at coffee shops or cafes where I can relax and enjoy my wait. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If you can't join 'em, find a way to enjoy it anyway.

So, until tomorrow (next week), relax and enjoy the ride!

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