Kok Jawa Banget – Wow, So Javanese!

Gah! I don’t even know where to start, really! Let’s just do it and see what happens.

Caitlin and I were talking this week, and she asked me whether people still commented on my language skills. It was amazing to her how almost every new person we met when we were travelling here together would comment on my Indonesian: how good it is, how well I’ve got the Javanese accent down, how surprised they are. These comments are always followed by a slew of predictable questions: How long have you been here? What do you do? Where are you from? What’s the best part about Indonesia? What’s your favorite Indonesian food? Is it better here or in America?

I thought for sure that when I came to Jakarta, my decent language capabilities might be a little bit less of a conversation starter than in East Java, which is true to some extent, but absolutely not always the case. Here, there have definitely been several people who haven’t even blinked at my Indonesian, which is sort of what I expected; there are so many more foreigners here, and many of them are involved in diplomacy and business, both of which require or necessitate or just plain benefit from people having basic Indonesian skills, if not advanced. However, what’s been striking me is that many people– especially drivers and food vendors– seem just as shocked as anyone I’ve ever met to realize I speak Indonesian. Of course, this had me thinking; perhaps there aren’t as many fluent foreigners as I’d imagined there would be, and this must certainly be the case (although on Monday, I did hear an American senior Fulbright lecturer give a lecture partially in Indonesian, and his fluency and speed were the most impressive I’ve ever heard from an American– which was so inspiring to me!!). The paucity of fluent foreigners means that it may come as even more of a surprise to the folks who are used to foreigners not knowing a lick of Indonesian. That, in turn, makes me even more glad that I have a decent grasp of the language!! I gotta represent and show people that some foreigners are invested in life here… not that those not learning Indonesian necessarily aren’t, but you see the point. Nobody will argue that living and travelling abroad are different beasts.

Side note: for some reason, my brain just jumped to those “You’re in America, learn English!”-type hard-liners we hear all too frequently in the States… it’s so sad to think of the privileges English speakers have abroad and to reflect on the fact that here, and I’m sure many other places, there is absolutely no such rhetoric about foreigners needing to learn the national language, let alone any local languages. Can you imagine one of these hard-liners moving to Jakarta or Mexico City or Beijing? I bet they’d still yell at people to learn English. Anyway.

I’m off on a tangent (which is fine, since I’m just writing this free-flow style). I also wanted to mention the several instances where my language skills have caused happy confusion. Here in Jakarta, we’ve got access to apps that allow us to order motorcycle rides wherever we want. I’m sure there’s a similar system in the States– well, actually, it’s Uber for motorcycles, and though there is an Uber system here including Uber Motor(cycle), apps like GoJek (a play on the word “ojek,” a traditional motorcycle-and-driver for hire) and Grab also provide similar services– but to me, it’s all a novelty. I learned how to use Uber a couple of weeks ago and have been learning GoJek and Grab, too. Usually, the drivers call to confirm the pickup location. I’ve mentioned to a couple that I’m easy to spot because I’m a foreigner, but sometimes it doesn’t come up. At least three times this week, the driver has expressed surprised upon picking me up because they thought I was Javanese, based on the way I speak on the phone. This is a compliment, of course, and they’re being genuine about their surprise, but I also find it to be problematic, since I get the feeling I’m irritating them a bit because I can’t for the life of me describe where I am sometimes (I just know I need to be picked up!!! And that they have my GPS location). One of my drivers slipped into Javanese during the initial phone conversation, which was fine but a bit challenging for me (if you speak a second or third language, you know that doing so on the phone is a bit more challenging than when you can read lips and see a person’s face). Eventually, of course, he found me, although I definitely wasted three minutes of his time by incorrectly describing where I was… due to sheer lack of knowledge about my position rather than language shortcomings. Oops. This was an easy fix, though: I asked a nearby parking attendant how to describe where we were and then texted my driver. The driver was, in true Jakarta spirit (I guess?), more cheesed than I expected him to be. People here aren’t so santai (relaxed) as they are “in the provinces”. But again, I digress.

In general, what I get compliments on here, too, is my Javanese accent. This has happened before when travelling outside of Java, but I must say, it’s quite affirming and also funny when I hear this comment. I’m proud to bring all of my love for East Java and all that it’s taught me everywhere I go and pleased that saying a few words can now spark a conversation not so much about myself but about East Java and my experiences there, about which I’m always eager to share. If one can be patriotic for a province, that’s me to a T. But it’s funny since I never learned Indonesian anywhere else but in East Java, and it’s easy to think that that’s the standard form of the language. I’m excited to see what new turns of phrase, terminology, and accents I pick up here in Jakarta; I’ve already learned a couple of new slang terms thanks to the AMINEF staff, but I’m already prejudiced against “bahasa Jakarta” as any true non-Jakartan would be. The guttural “Lo” and “Gue”, the Jakarta forms of “You” and “Me” (as opposed to “kamu”/”aku” / “anda”/”saya” / “awakmu”/”awakku”), are not pleasing to my ears, and whenever I hear them used seriously in conversation, I just think of Indonesian daytime soap operas.

Okay, I think this is all for tonight. I’ve been walking and walking for days, it seems, since I’m trying to learn the places I can go quickly and easily and independently without using an app or paying a bit of money to get there, and this has required a lot of walking. I’ve also been doing some sight-seeing, which has been fantastic; oddly, I haven’t spent much time at the museums and other interesting sights here, even though I’ve lived in Java so long. This is, as of two nights ago, the longest period of time I’ve ever stayed in Jakarta, and it’s certainly the most free time I’ve ever had here. So, the sightseeing stuff is long coming, I guess I could say… kind of how I didn’t see the ocean and Washington DC until my mid-twenties. What can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

Also, I’m 30 years old now!!!!

More tomorrow: people, living situation, fulfilling basic needs, etc. Potentially boring updates from a very small town girl in an enormous city. I’ll post some pics, too, and try to wrangle some more Jakarta fun facts for you. Plus, this super-amazing Batawi puppet artistry, in this pic being used to get people to follow traffic rules and regulations:


…and additional cool stuff about the ethnic groups to be found in West Java / the Jakarta area.




2 thoughts on “Kok Jawa Banget – Wow, So Javanese!”

  1. You’re amazing, Sam!! Thriving in a different culture, check. Learning a couple more languages, check. Being Indonesian in all but appearance, check. I’m yet again filled with awe as you step out of your comfort zone again, and adapt to a new (big city) culture, again. Can’t wait to hear more!!! Those puppets are the most amazing form of traffic control I’ve ever seen!!!!!


    1. Thanks, SK!!! It’s all a fun challenge to process!! This switch to a big city is very new for me, as you know. I thought it’d be terrible and nerve-wracking, but I think it’s just SO BIG that it’s just mostly fun– again, low expectations, big surprises! 🙂 I’m easily pleased. 😉


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