Turning Javanese

by Tabitha Kidwell

This recent article about how Barack Obama’s time on Java as a child influences him today got me thinking: how have I changed after my 18 months here?

Yesterday and tomorrow are no longer limited to one day

The tendancy of Indoneisan people to use kemarin to refer to any time in the past, and besok for any time in the near future, is a little infuriating sometimes. For example:

Tabitha: My water is broken. When will it be fixed?
Landlord: Oh, yes, tomorrow.
…(tomorrow)…
Tabitha: My water is still broken. When will it be fixed?
Landlord: Oh, yes, tomorrow.

Or:

Secretary in my office, on a Wednesday: So, you were in Jakarta yesterday?
Tabitha: No, I was in the office yesterday. You saw me.
Secretary: Yes, but yesterday, you were in Jakarta?
Tabitha: Well, I got back Sunday… but, yeah, okay, yesterday.

But now it’s useful to not really have to worry about if something was precisely one day, two, or a week ago, as long as it is still present in my short-term memory, and to think of what I will do in the somewhat near future as plans for tomorrow. Why waste the mental energy splitting hairs?

I often take on this posture:

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This is Srikandi, one of the most powerful female warriors in the traditional Wayang Kulit puppet shows. She is looking at the ground as a sign of her humility and strength. She doesn’t look around haughtily, and she doesn’t even need to acknowledge her far inferior adversaries. I find myself often looking at the ground and adopting an unassuming smile when I walk or run around town here. I find it’s the best way to avoid unwanted attention, which could come from tiny grandmothers giving me dirty looks for parading about in so little clothing (is that an ankle I see?), lascivious youths declaring their passion, (you are beautiful! I love you!) or motorcycle taxis offering their services (where you going? I drive you faster!). It’s no fun engaging with someone who won’t respond, so not making eye contact avoids a world of trouble. When I first realized how often I did this, I regretted how passive and weak I was acting, but then I learned that this is the way that the heros of Wayang Kulit stand. I prefer to think of it as standing like a hero.

Yes/No answers have a third option: Yes/No/Not yet

Indonesian speakers are very careful not to negate a future possibility. If there is a remote possibility that something will happen in the future, it would be inappropriate to close the door on that possibility with a unilateral tidak. Far better to give a non-committal belum. For example:

Are you married?
Not yet.
Do you have children?
Not yet.
Have you made your fortune selling fabric gift wrap under the catchy name “fab wrap?”
Not yet.

Everyone is Miss/Mrs./Mister to me

It’s a little bit rude to refer to Indonesian people by their names only – you should use Bapak, Ibu, Mas, or Mbak, respectively, before the names of old men and women and young men and women. This had led me to think of even my close friends as “Miss Jackie” and “Mister Jon.” To complicate things more, these four titles are only the main ones – there are also many different titles that are used for very old people, foreign people, highly respected people. Oh, and they change regionally. Just throw something in front of someone’s name and you’ll be better off. I now feel like something is missing if I just say someone’s name.


Of course, I have changed in many ways that will only become apparent when I go home and realize what is different and what is out of place in America. Hopefully I’ll lose the verbal oddities but retain the open-mindedness and the heroic posture. Just like my friend Barack Obama.

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2 Comments to “Turning Javanese”

  1. Great post!! Love you! I’m working on a package with gu s for u!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Love this post. Well done, Srikandi.

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