Monday, May 4, 2009

Bisa Makan Nasi? (Can you eat rice?) and other cultural misconceptions

I was at the mini market the other day grabbing some garlic peanuts, soda water and some crackers. I'm used to being stared at by children and sometimes their parents. I remember the first time I saw someone of color as a child and I was so curious. I was told not to stare and given a sense of shame. But here, that approach isn't the norm. I actually don't mind the children staring and then hiding with shyness behind the legs of their mother or father. It's charming. Equally I don't mind that parents don't try to 'correct' their child's natural curiosity. I think I would feel isolated if they did; like I'm something to be ashamed of so I smile and wave, engaging in a brief impromptu game of peek-a-boo while waiting in line at the market. But what did feel odd this week was a question from this one child's parent: "Bisa makan nasi?" Can I eat rice? I really think they mean "do" instead of "can" in this question that I've heard so many times, but it never fails to make me laugh while I try to understand why this particular question. I suppose since I'm a westerner, I'm a bread eater in their eyes. Westerners just don't eat that rice stuff in the world of Indonesia/westerner assumptions.

But probably the funniest interaction I had this week was my solo journey to Duta Mall in the taksi kuning also known as an ankot (a colt vehicle that packs in as many riders as possible). I told the guy I wanted to go to Duta Mall in Indonesian, he said.. oh passar (market, usually means traditional market). I said, "um Duta Mall???" And then he was typical Indonesian taxi driver "ya, ya, ya…" Which usually means feigning understanding.

Some of the taxis do a loop through the market before coming back by Duta Mall so that is usually no problem, just an extra 10 minutes but the fare is still 3000 rp (30 cents). Two men climbed in on the way and the driver approached the turn to the market. The gist of the conversation I got at this point was the men said they wanted to go to Duta Mall, he said he was taking me to the market first, I then repeated I wanted to go to Duta Mall (in Indonesian), the driver said "hunh?" I tried to ask, if he was going to Duta Mall, because now I questioned if the other men were going there. The men sharing my Ankot told him that we were all going to Duta Mall. I understood the driver's response clearly: "Oh…. Okey, saya tidak bicara Bahasa Ingris." I laughed… he'd said "I don't speak English." Oh! He thought I was speaking to him in English the whole time!

This is not the first time I've encountered this sort of bizarre misunderstanding. In placing an order for food once with Puji, the waiter looked at me quizzically and asked her to translate what I'd already said in Bahasa Indonesia. It must be some expectation and panic they have when they see a westerner; an assumption that we all speak English and a fear that they won't understand. My Bahasa Indonesia is far from perfect and I'm far from fluent but I can get by with the few phrases I do know and have had many successful situations, like buying plane tickets by myself: I've always gotten to my desired destination on the day I've wanted to go. I think at times my attempt at good pronunciation has gotten me into trouble as it seemed to indicate that I spoke more and understood more than I do. I've found myself a few times nodding with a strained smile on my face while my conversation partner continues to rattle off a stream of speech I can't understand.