Rubber Time

Notice my use of the ever-stylish watch. But just because I KNOW the time doesn't mean I will be ON time. The struggle for some semblence of punctuality -- both here and back in America -- is a constant work-in-progress.
Notice my use of the ever-stylish watch. But just because I KNOW the time doesn’t mean I will be ON time. The struggle for some semblence of punctuality — both here and back in America — is a constant work-in-progress.

For a country where watches are must-have accessories, Indonesians generally run on jam karet, or rubber time. Despite the fact that the actual time is only a quick glance at your wrist (or at one of the several phones that are always in reach) away, the “real” time just… well, punctuality is not exactly one of the praises I will sing for my Indonesian friends and family here. On the other hand, I will freely admit that I am almost always that friend who tells you I will be somewhere at x o’clock, but you just have to know that you should expect me 15 or 20 minutes after whatever time I tell you. Rubber time is a lifestyle that I have been living (to a smaller degree) in the States for some time now.

That said, not all Indonesians have such a laissez-faire attitude toward time. Over the last few months I have slowly discovered who runs on rubber time (i.e. I expect them to show up an hour or so after whatever time we agreed to meet) and who actually looks at their watch. I have admittedly been surprised at the frequency with which people have kept to their promises and against all odds showed up on time. Sometimes people surprise me further not only by showing up on time but by arriving EARLY, usually 30 minutes or more before the time we agreed upon.

Tonight, however, is not one such time. I’m currently waiting for teachers from my school who may or may not be picking me up to go watch the closing ceremony of Porwil. Porwil is the regional Olympics for Sumatra and Babel (Bangka-Belitung, my province), where several hundred of my students will be dancing traditional dances from around this region. The opening ceremony a few weeks ago was epic — pictures coming soon!

This evening my pick-up time was 7 p.m., which was….. an hour and a half over two hours ago. Perhaps this was a miscommunication or a misunderstanding on my part. Either way, rubber time has given me a chance to write this post and ponder ways that language might play a part in punctuality, or lack thereof.  Reflections on a few Indonesian phrases related to time:

Nanti: literally means future, but nanti is a delightfully ambiguous word that can be used to talk about soon as well as later. Nanti can be used to talk about later today, next week, next month, or any other vague unspecified time in the future. Mungkin nanti [maybe later] can also be used to politely refuse doing something that you never intend to do in the future.

Sebentar lagi: One moment please! Literally means one moment more. Usually this really does mean just a moment, though that moment can last anywhere from 10 seconds to 20 minutes… or more.

Hurry up, wouldja?!
Hurry up, wouldja?!

— otw: One of the most ubiquitous, confounding, and occasionally convenient expressions in Indonesian is definitely otw, pronounced “on the way.” Contrary to its explicit meaning, otw in Indonesia almost always means that whoever is otw is probably still at home, about to hop in the shower, and they still plan on taking their sweet time to get ready. My favorite Indonesian YouTuber has a video that explains this phenomenon of otw, which I watched before I arrived in Indonesia but didn’t believe until I got here.

Tunggu: Tunggu literally means wait. It is a request from whoever is otw to whoever is already waiting…. as if Friend B has any choice other than continuing to wait.

Sabar: Means patience. I usually hear this when I have been tunggu-ing for a while and make an observational comment about how much time has passed. Sometimes it almost feels like a reprimand for expecting things to run on time, other times it said with a smile and a noncommittal shrug. Sabar, ya? Tunggu dulu. Be patient, okay? Wait a moment. That’s just how it is here.

I too, have been perfecting my noncommittal shrug and accompanying “Okay! Tidak apa-apa.” No problem. Whatever. That’s fine. Patience and flexibility (and the ability to surf the internet on my cell phone) are virtues in a place where rubber time stretches on and on.

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