We expatriates must admire the Indonesian ability to put things in perspective and to talk things down because it could have been so much worse. Just recently a friend told me about a worker in his garden who was building this brick wall. Suddenly a brick came smashing through the window, missing his 18-month-old sons’ head by a few centimetres. The worker’s immediate reaction: “Maaf mister, batunya jatuh, karna licin…. Enggak apa-apa…” (Sorry mister, the rock is slippery…it’s okay), and continued working.
When I told this to an expat contractor here in Jakarta, he summed up a few of his experiences: A barefoot welder with no eye protection (quite often they do wear sunglasses) standing in a puddle of water with the power cable connected to another cable inside that same puddle, joined with a small strip of tape. Or the barefoot workers with sledgehammers demolishing a brick wall. His list went on and on.
Solving matters with simplicity does not always work. One of the best stories I ever heard, was from a Dutch expat family in Jakarta, many years ago. They felt sorry for the servant, who had to walk the distance between the kitchen and the dinner table, around a wall, through a hallway, etc., so they came up with a solution to make a hole in the wall, between the kitchen and the dining room. They explained to the cook and the servant that this was a ‘pass through’ window. When one day this expat family had visitors and were enjoying a glass of wine near the pool, they suddenly heard this enormous noise of falling glasses and plates. It was immediately clear something had gone terribly wrong in the kitchen. But, as they didn’t want to embarrass the poor staff, they did not immediately check what had happened. But after a while, when there was still no sign for ‘food ready’, they went to check things out. What they found was indescribable. The servant had tried to climb through the ‘pass through’ window, and got stuck! I guess it is our own ‘expat’ mistake, to sometimes not explain things better.
Not always do we see the need to explain things, because they are logical to us. Like our servant, who stared dumbfounded for nearly an hour at the Christmas lights that we had just put up. I thought he was admiring it, so I left him to it. An hour later I found him still standing there gaping, so I asked what was wrong. “These lights, Pak…. These lights are flickering. You should change them…”
To our Indonesian readers I say: do not get me wrong. Back home in ‘bule country’, a lot of things go wrong or are misunderstood as well. It is just the way that people react is different. And personally, I like the reaction in Asia better. When a westerner plays golf and he hits a bad ball, he often will shout and swear and hit his club on the ground out of frustration. But when an Asian misses a ball, he and his friends alike, will all be laughing and they just have a good time about it! The proof that expats get frustrated easily came from Marnie, who used to be a caddy at a golf course near the airport. I interviewed her for a job in one of the bars. “Do you speak, English?” I asked her. “Oh yes!” she said, full of confidence. And then she started: “Goddamn bunker! Shit course! F…ing greens! Stupid caddy!”, I hired her on the spot.
In other cases, when something seriously goes wrong in Indonesia, they may not always be laughing, but rationalize the situation very quickly and just go with it. The most classic example I can recall was this one:
Not so long ago, while I was watching the progress of another bar being built, I saw our electrician balancing on a chair while trying to cut a cable that was hanging from the ceiling. I asked his supervisor, Pak Samudi if he was sure the electricity was off, because I still saw other lamps burning. “Ya, pak….Udah di cek koh…” (Yes mister, I’ve checked it already), Pak Samudi said slowly with an almost cynical grin on his face. Normally this scene would not have been so unusual if it wasn’t that the chair was on top of an upside-down table, which itself was on top of another table. The reason I asked him to check the cables was that one lamp always blew up after a few days and the other didn’t. Although, Pak Samudi suggested it could be because the lamp he had bought was from Pasar Kenari and the one I had bought came from Ace Hardware. “Ass Hardware tidak bagus, pak!” (Ace Hardware is no good mister!), was his conclusion.
The guy high up in the chair greeted me with a “Hi mister”, and those were his final words before he got electrocuted. The cables sparked fire and wires were swaying wildly, while the poor guy – who worked at PLN before us – fell down from his tower grabbing his burning hair. Except for the cables sparking above his head, there was complete silence as we watched the guy lying on the floor. Slowly, he raised his head and looked up at us: “Kainya, listrik masih hidup…” (I think the electricity is still on), he mumbled. We all breathed a sigh of relief and I wondered how he ever survived 12 years working for PLN.
I want to end the story with one short note that (when adjusted a little bit, for obvious reasons) could be such a good campaign slogan for any future president. It comes from the name card of a British expat, doing handy-man services. He implemented the combination of humour and disaster in one excellent sentence. It just showed his name and number, and on top of it read: “You F**k It, We Fix It”.
PS. If you are worried that PLN might run out of workers anytime soon because of the number of accidents, don’t worry. Our contractor Pak Samudi cleared it up when I warned him that his workers could die of cancer because they were not wearing any protection when they tore down the asbestos roof. While laughing, he said “Enggak apa-apa, Pak. Kalau ada yang sakit, di kampung masih banyak lagi yang mau kerja!” (It’s okay mister, if anyone gets sick there are more people in the village who want to work!).