Jam Karet: Being On Time in Indonesia

– By Elena Dietz, ETA in Malang, East Java –

I looked down at my watch. It was 9:15 am. “We were supposed to leave over an hour ago…” I thought to myself. It was a Friday morning, and I had left one of my classes early to go to the immigration office with one of my co-teachers so we could continue the long and stressful process of gaining a long-term visa in Indonesia. I had met her at 8:00 am near the front doors of the school, and she was punctual, which I appreciated. Then, we went outside to find the school driver, who was supposed to take us to the immigration office, but on the way, another teacher from the school spotted us. He asked me if I had breakfast yet, to which I responded, belum, (not yet) so we went across the street for my first bowl of rawon (black soup with beef). The soup was delicious, but I was beginning to get anxious about making it to the office and back in time for my next class. We finished our meal and headed back to the school. But the driver wasn’t there. We asked around and found out he had been asked to drive somewhere else while we were at breakfast, so the only thing we could do was wait. My co-teacher and I sat down outside under the rooster statues that decorate the front of my school, and she apologized for the hold-up, perhaps because she saw me check my watch. We talked in the shadow of the giant, green fowl about our lives and our fears (a conversation that stemmed from the caterpillar I found on the step, which she couldn’t even bear to look at), and it was wonderful. Eventually, the driver came back and I found myself wishing that I could keep sitting and having this conversation; the stress of acquiring a visa had completely slipped my mind. Time that seemed to be wasted turned out to be treasured, as soon as I had let go of the pressure I had put on myself.

The giant green roosters at SMKN 4 Malang.

When moving to a new country, even if only for ten months, there is always something new to learn, and every experience becomes an interesting story. Stories about tripping over the new language, tasting some new food and finding out later what it really was, taking new modes of transportation and getting completely lost, navigating a new job and celebrating the little wins, and the most interesting of all- stories about a new culture and the ways it differs from one’s own. While learning some parts of Indonesian culture, for me specifically East Javanese culture, was pretty intuitive, like how to dress and what to eat, other parts have taken a bit more adjustment. Learning all this has been incredibly fun, and everything I have learned has been a small window into the minds of my closest friends, co-workers, and students.

An aspect of Indonesian culture that I have found incredibly interesting is the cultural concept of time. Yes, there are still 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week, but time moves at a different pace here and understanding that allows me to appreciate how laid-back Indonesians are. When I was in college, a professor told me, “If you’re on time then you’re late!” We were told to be at least five minutes early to business appointments because it shows your interest and eagerness. I’ve considered telling this to some of my Indonesian friends, just so I can watch them smile or laugh at the ridiculousness of Americans.

In contrast, Robert Levine wrote in A Geography of Time that Indonesia has one of the slowest paces of life in the world, ranking only below Mexico, which holds the top spot. The explanation for this relaxed pace is jam karet, literally translated to “rubber time.” To Americans, where “time is money” is basically holy text, rubber time sounds extremely unpleasant. At first look, jam karet seems to be just an excuse for people to be extremely late to appointments or meetings and, if an American doesn’t take care to have a deeper understanding of this cultural phenomenon,  “rubber time” might become their worst nightmare in Indonesia.

The teachers room at SMKN 4 Malang and the tiny clock that symbolizes the unimportant nature of time.

Upon closer examination, though, jam karet is not an excuse but a way of viewing the world. It doesn’t just mean time wasted while waiting for someone who is late for an appointment or meeting; jam karet means taking time to wait as expected and to wait patiently. Time is not “wasted” in Indonesia; it is spent doing something important while waiting for someone who also needed to take time to do something important. To push others to conform to your schedule might be considered rude and understandably so. In a collectivist culture like Indonesia, that kind of pressure seems rather selfish.

Another example of the way language is shaped by culture in Indonesia, is the concept of ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday,’ which took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. For weeks, people would ask me questions like, “how was the soccer game yesterday?” when I had gone to the soccer game three days ago. I thought perhaps some words were getting lost in translation, and I figured it didn’t really matter anyway because I understood their point. But actually, I was the one getting lost in translation. In Indonesia, tomorrow, or besok, means anytime in the near future; it could mean tomorrow, it could mean this weekend, or it could even mean in a few weeks. For example, when a co-teacher would suggest, “we should go to the beach tomorrow,” and I would respond with, “I can’t tomorrow. We have to teach. It’s Tuesday,” they would look at me funny (and for good reason) because the correct response should be, “Yes! That sounds wonderful. We should organize a trip.” Yesterday, or kemarin, means anytime in the near past, like yesterday, last week, or a few weeks ago. This fluidity of time demonstrates the relaxed nature of Indonesian people; the time doesn’t have to be exact because it doesn’t matter when, but rather what and who.

While some foreigners in Indonesia may find the concept of time here to be frustrating, learning about culture through language has been a rewarding part of my time here thus far. Yesterday I even showed up to an appointment much later than planned, relaxed and unapologetic. I’ve never been more proud of myself.

2 thoughts on “Jam Karet: Being On Time in Indonesia

  1. Elena! This is a beautifully written and lovely insight into this concept. I am enchanted by this idea. I’m so glad you are experiencing this.

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