You Don’t Have to Know Everything

Regardless of which country you find yourself in, you only need to know a few things to get by. Here’s how I managed my first week in Indonesia.

Albert Einstein once said that if you can look something up, you don’t really need to know it by heart. That’s why I believe that being an expert does not mean understanding every minuscule detail or being the best at what you do. It’s about knowing what you need to know, and then just a snippet more.

This was my first breakfast in Indonesia. Enak sekali, ya?

I’ve lived in Indonesia about a week now and I’m far from an expert on the cultural norms of my host city, Malang. But you know what? I’ve gotten pretty darn good at getting by with limited language skills and common sense. Before arriving in Malang last week, I’d already taken one year of college-level Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language courses), but since I’m still a slow speaker, I’ve got my go-to phrases:

  1. “Saya kenyang” (“I’m full”)- Used when my host family eyes my plate, shortly after picking up a spoon to dish out my second helping
  2. “Baiklah” (“Okay” or “cool”)- When I’m not sure what was just said but want to keep the conversation rolling
  3. “Di mana kamar kecil?” (“Where’s the bathroom?”)- Perhaps the most useful phrase in my arsenal

I also have become accustomed to calling everyone by special names. I’m Mbak Francine, with Mbak being a term preceding young females’ names. My male peers are called Mas, middle-aged and older women are Ibu (mother), and middle-aged or older men are Bapak (father). It’s a blast referring to my American pals with these terms!

Every Sunday morning on one of Malang’s main roads is Car Free Day when many vendors, markets, and activities are open. For my first Care Free Day, I took a traditional wagon ride.

Besides becoming a semi-expert on Indonesian language survival, I’m also living on a new time schedule. Indonesians are extreme morning people, but I’ve always preferred sleeping til 8 or 9! That can never happen anymore because come 5 every morning the neighboring mosque’s call to prayer becomes my 10-minute “unsnoozeable” alarm. That, plus my host family is out and about by 4!

Throughout my brief time in Malang, understanding my host family has become a necessary ingredient of my immersion. My family includes Ibu Katarina, a young-looking, boisterous 78 year-old, and her daughter Ibu Rina. They’re kind-hearted individuals, exceptional cooks, and fervent Catholics. In fact, they’ve taken me to church and—to my shock—had me join the church choir. Life is overflowing with surprises!

Other than learning a lot about language, family vibes, and Indonesia’s religious diversity, what capped off my Indonesian learning this week is sanitation basics. Apparently, the trash can next to the toilet is not simply for aesthetic purposes. It’s for used toilet paper! Glad someone had the humility to explain.

I’ve talked about how I could get by in Indonesia, but to be considered an expert (even though I’m not), I need some local knowledge. That requires experiences, which this week have been numerous. At Kampung Warna-Warni, I admired a wide array of colors painted on village buildings. I could hardly believe I was in Indonesia because the colors and landscape seemed reminiscent of National Geographic’s Rio or Morocco snapshots. Then there was Car Free Day, when I joined friends to ride a horse-drawn wagon, shop at a local market, and meet a rabbit breeder. My childhood consisted of rabbits, so he and I became quick friends!

Here I am with my 3 spectacular new friends at Kampung Warna-Warni. From the left is myself, Mbak Vita, Mbak Qiqi, and Mbak Mei.
Kampung Warna-Warni is so scenic, I could sit there for hours just gazing at the view!
At Kampung Warna-Warni.

Of course, I also had to test local cuisine, which included not only hanging out at a warung (local stall selling cheap food and beverages) but also comparing American fast food places like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut with Indonesian versions. At McDonald’s, affectionately called “McDee’s” here, I sampled banana apple pie, white rice bound in a wrapper as if it were a burger, and spicy chicken, while at Pizza Hut I was most amused by its beef fettuccine (isn’t chicken for fettuccine?).

My McDonald’s dinner: plain white rice (in wrapper), fried spicy chicken, and scrambled eggs

I also cannot forget my wonderful friends who have already helped define my Indonesian experience. They include my language tutors, Mbak Vita and Mbak Mei, who are serving as my personal language assistants this summer. I also have Mbak Qiqi, who I befriended at a Taiwan food conference last September. Since she lives in Malang, we have been able to meet up several times. The four of us have been inseparable this last week, and even conjectured up a reality TV show called “Husbandable” to find the man of my wildest dreams. When we discussed our show, one idea led to another and we laughed so hard that we shed tears!

I have continued my tradition of watching a foreign film in every host country I live in. This time it was an Indonesian comedy, and thankfully it had subtitles!

Am I an expert in Indonesian language or culture yet? Absolutely not! But after 20 hours of language classes and many more of cultural immersion, I’m on my way. While you may be wondering what my academics and no-English policy is like or what it means to represent the US government internationally, I’ve got more posts to go! Next week I’m also starting yoga, dangdut (Indonesian pop music), and gamelan (Indonesian drum) classes, not to mention having a field trip. But remember: you don’t have to know everything!

…Extra photos (and captions!) are below:

Mbak Qiqi and I reuniting in Malang after having met in Taiwan last year. We did it through the best way possible: ice cream! In Indonesia, McDonald’s has special shops that just sell ice cream!
I tried my first durian this week! While the smell is not pleasant, it’s quite tasty. The fruit’s texture is somewhat like banana, but the flavor differs.
Mei Setan is a restaurant in Malang famous for devilishly spicy noodles. While I haven’t tried those yet, I got the full dim sum experience there.
Since one of my homework assignments involved bargaining, I went to a flower market to buy a cactus. Here I am standing my ground (my tutor Mbak Mei is dressed in red to the right). I succeeded!


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