Pardon My French: Faux Pas, Gaffes, and other Awkward Acts

As our 10-month experience in Indonesia draws to a close, we have asked ETAs to reflect back on funny cultural anecdotes from their time in the archipelago. American and Indonesian cultures are quite different, and of course, it is inevitable that ETAs living in a cultural context starkly different from their own will occasionally commit an act considered gauche or maladroit. This exposé is brought to you by a collection of ETAs who have survived their respective experiences and lived to tell the tale.


I recently asked one of my co-teachers what kind of cultural mistakes I have made during the past 9 months I’ve been in Malang. At first, she said “Nothing El! You are perfect!” While I was pleased, I knew that could not possibly be true, so I told her to just think about it and let me know later if she thinks of anything. Five minutes later, she exclaimed that she had thought of one: She had popped into my after-school club, Girls Gang, one day and saw me sitting “like a man.” I was on the floor and my knees were hugged up to my chest. She didn’t say anything at the time because she assumed it was a normal way for an American woman to sit and Girls Gang was a casual group anyways. I thanked her for her honesty and we continued eating lunch at my favorite cafe. A few minutes later, she said she had thought of another thing. I have a habit of twirling my hair and I do it in front of the students while teaching, which is considered unprofessional. I made a mental note and again, thanked her for telling me. Before we left the cafe, she had thought of a third. The security guards always offer to help me carry my water gallon and I always politely refuse their help. This is apparently a very unusual thing for a woman to do, not only to carry her own gallon but to refuse the help of a man. She drove me home and when she was dropping me off, exclaimed, “I can not believe I called you perfect, El! You are not perfect. But you are still a considerate person and you try very hard to be appropriate.” I could only smile and shake my head.

– Elena Dietz, ETA in Malang


Early in my grant, I stumbled upon a trick to make at least three people in the room scream from shock. Toward the end of a stretch of sickness, I developed a particularly hefty cough that usually came like Kraft cheese, in singles. They were difficult to predict, and they started to show up in class. COUGH. The reaction usually stopped class. Heh! In my experience, it’s not a big deal to let out a cough, but it diverted students’ attention just as it disrupted conversation in the teacher’s room. I thought it was funny. It wasn’t until later that my co-teacher said it was rude and I should leave the room to cough. How was I to predict it though? In a place where a loud burp during conversation or screeching sneeze in silence goes unaddressed, a cough is the thing to get to people. I told my English club students of the difference from places I’ve been and now they all deliberately say “Shhh!” when I cough.

– Ian Morse, ETA in Gorontalo 


I have always been slightly ungraceful on my feet. Two years ago, I broke my foot because I stood up while my foot was asleep and tripped. Not a good way to break your foot, I know. I have found that Indonesia is full of obstacles just waiting for people like me: unpaved roads, holes on the side of the road, slippery surfaces after rainstorm, and treacherous hiking trails. Lo and behold, I have remained ungraceful and have had my fair share of near wipeouts. On one Sunday, I was enjoying some rest and relaxation by shopping at the mall. I was feeling on top of the world walking out of the mall with my purchases and a Frappuccino in hand! It had rained while I was in the mall, so I took note and tried to take caution of any slippery surfaces waiting for an ungraceful person like me. I began walking down the glistening steps in front of the mall to the bottom of the street to get the angkot home. I had almost safely reached the bottom when the next thing I knew, my feet slipped from underneath me and my tailbone slammed right into the lip of the stair above me. It was a scene! Angkot drivers and ojek drivers were yelling “Bule jatuh! Bule jatuh!” A few Ibus ran over to help me up and rubbed my tailbone saying “Okay, okay, okay,” as I was in the midst of experiencing shock from hitting my tailbone so hard. After practically crawling home from the mall and slightly recovering from the shock of my wipe out, I couldn’t help but laugh thinking about how something as simple as me falling was viewed as completely absurd and attracted the attention of so many people in Kendari. I didn’t even feel embarrassed I just felt completely ridiculous and laughed as I shared the story for the rest of the week with my friends and students.

– Meghan Cullinan, ETA in Kendari


I’m a big believer in the idea that using self-deprecating humor makes it easier to make new friends. If you have the ability to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously, people will feel comfortable doing the same, and it creates a sense of instant camaraderie. In my first few weeks of getting to know the new cohort of ETAs, I became affectionately known as the “bunga desa,” or “prettiest girl in the village.” I would laugh along, as I knew it was all in good fun and I knew how to dish it back.

Similarly, I used self-deprecating humor during my first few weeks at site, while navigating a language, culture, and community I was just getting to know. I thought that laughing at myself would help me get a head start in bonding with people. I would relate to my co-teachers and other friends around town that other ETAs refer to me as “the bunga desa.” However, their reaction was not one of laughter, but rather one of shock. It took me a couple weeks to find out that bunga desa has a second meaning: lady of the night. Appalled at my own short-sightedness, I decided not to bring up my nickname again, and can only hope that my friends don’t secretly refer to me as a prostitute.

– Greg Sutton, ETA in Gondanglegi


In the second half of my grant, my host family and I started eating dinner together every night. I was – and still am – learning Indonesian, so when my host mom talked, I understood the general gist of what was being said, but could not always understand every single word. This led to an embarrassing moment: before I left for a weekend trip, I asked what was happening around the house that weekend. One thing that was mentioned was that a neighbor was interested in getting Alaskan Malamout (the type of dog that my host family has), and she was going to come over to see the dog at our house.

After I returned, I asked about how the meeting went with my host family’s dog. Everyone looked confused and my host sister started to giggle. I thought I was using the wrong words in Indonesian, so I tried again, to my host mom’s horror and embarrassment. Finally, after a few more tries, my host sister explained to me in English, “Our dog…married…the neighbor’s dog. That’s what was happening this weekend.” I was mortified because I had thought that the neighbor wanted to meet the dog to see what an Alaskan Marmout was like. Actually, the neighbor wanted to breed her dog with my host family’s dog, which is obviously not a topic to bring up at the dinner table. I apologized profusely, and decided not to assume I understood what was being talked about at the dinner table if I didn’t understand some very crucial Indonesian words.

– Nitika Johri, ETA in Salatiga


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