Here Thar Be Monsters!

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How Not To Treat The Natives

Recent events in Asia have gotten me to pondering expat living and the use of language/linguistics. A few weeks ago, an Indian supervisor at a shipyard in Batam called all Indonesians "idiots" while dressing down a subordinate. Reportedly, this was not the first time he insulted the locals publically, but this time they had enough and rioted for several days, setting fires and destroying property. At least report from a witness, the Indians at that yard would most likely be sent home.

Invariably, I see expats (especially Westerners) isolate themselves in their adopted countries. They tend to live together in isolated compounds, eat their own foods and fail to associate with the local folk. Mostly it is motivated by fear, but there is usually an element of superiority.

In all languages, there is an upper class usage and lower class usage. In Indonesia, they have what is called bahasa kampung, or ghetto talk. Now, kampung is strictly translated as village, but in common usage, it encompasses all the connotations of the English words, neighborhood and ghetto. Javanese is the ghetto language and very few expats are aware of it or ever learn it. In fact, very few of the expats here even learn Indonesian, which is the common tongue throughout the country. Consequently, this leads to an "us versus them" mentality on both sides. The foreigners appear to be isolationist and haughty, and perceive the locals with suspicion and apprehension. Since language carries culture, one can easily make severe mistakes, if not simple faux pas, when one doesn't understand the language (e.g.-the riots in Batam).

So, what's my point? Tomorrow is international Labor Day (May 1), and folks are anticipating demonstrations and possibly riots here in Jakarta. I have received numerous warnings to stay home, which I cannot do because of work demands. I remind these folks that I use public transportation, along with all the local working stiffs, I speak both Indonesian and Javanese, and I have taken painstaking efforts to learn customs and manners here. The reasoning is this: public transportation is unlikely to be attacked, because they are full of the regular folks, not the evil foreigners; I need only speak a couple of phrases in Javanese (ghetto talk) and they know I have friends in the lower classes and that I am not an isolationist; and by knowing the customs and manners, I am unlikely to antagonize someone unnecessarily.

The Indian in Batam used the word, "goblok," which translates as idiot, but which has flavors that run along the lines of fuckwad, dipshit, and similar terms in English. In other words, it was a highly insulting and insensitive term to use. He could have said, "dodol." (like dunce and usually has flavors of humor), and avoided a lot of problems. The Indian should also have known that Indonesian culture is all about appearances and "face." Had he dressed the man down in private rather than in front of his peers, many passions would have been un-flared.

My point is this: with so many Westerners bailing out and moving East, it behooves them to learn the lingo as fast as they can, and what's more, to learn both the upper and lower class slang. Also, do not be seen to be isolationist. Visit the local store and hang out regularly, learn the most polite manners and use them with everyone all the time, and stroll the neighborhood in the evenings stopping to talk with anyone who seems friendly. It doesn't hurt to avoid ostentatious life-styles.

In frontier Texas, families who were friendly to the indians received the crossed arrows, which was a sign to others that you were not to be harmed. What I have suggested is the expat's equivalent. Linguistics are a survival mechanism for those in self-imposed exile. Knowing the local language and culture not only protects you in the event of unrest, but also can reduce your costs (to local prices instead of tourist prices) and foster goodwill with your neighbors.

Whoever said, "Talk is cheap," never ventured outside their compound (which, by the way, is an English word that is derived from the Indonesian word "kampung").


  1. Saya dan semua orang Indonesia merasa sangat tersanjung dan dihargai ketika mendengar orang asing berbicara dalam bahasa Indonesia.

    Terima kasih sudah memberikan penjelasan tentang bagaimana orang asing harus beradaptasi dengan budaya lokal terutama budaya timur dan saya rasa apa yang anda tulis di atas juga berlaku secara universal kepada siapa saja yang berstatus sebagai warga negara asing di mana pun dia berada.

  2. Terima kasih untuk komentar anda di atas dan karena membaca artikel saya. Saya mencoba sudah lama mendidik orang di bagaimana caranya untuk bepergian dan tinggal di negara lain. Saya selalu mau berhubungan dengan orang lokal dan khususnya mempelajari kebudayaan karena itu adalah cara terbaik untuk menghormati tuan rumah. Saya girang bahwa anda setuju dengan tulisan saya. Penting bagi orang lain untuk berusaha berhubungan dengan orang tuan rumah kalau mereka bepergian.


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