Sunday, December 20, 2009

Graffiti and &#*$!!

I think foreign graffiti is one of the funniest things in the world. It makes me giggle like a little girl to see words I don’t understand splayed across the side of a bridge or train. I see a word, hardly ever as elaborately drawn as what you’d see in the US, and I blink. I blink again, slowly, but the letters never move. It’s just so completely… pointless. I want to find whoever did and say, “Look, you might have defaced this piece of property out of pride or to offend me or to leave your mark, and it didn’t work even a little bit.” And then I giggle again.

Which brings me to an interesting topic—swearing. (I despise the word “cuss.” It is the word I hate most in the English language, second only to “crotch.” Must be something about the hard C sound. I promise that after this point I won’t use either in my blog.)

I guess I hang out with a somewhat classy crowd here in Palembang, because I’ve never heard them use an English swear word. I’ve never taught them, either, because they’ve never asked.

Once my friend Didi leaned across the table and whispered, “I heard this word. This word f***. I tried to look it up. It’s an action?” Ehh. I explained that it’s mostly just used as an exclamation or a derogatory adjective. That’s it in Palembang, though.

In Depok, however, where Jakarta is right next door, and they’re all nearly fluent, bad words flow more than running water. But ONLY in English. Christine’s friends taught us some bad words in Indonesian, and they gave us strict instructions to never, ever use them. Even these people, who swear more comfortably in English than I do, wouldn’t dare to say bad words in Indonesian.

So I started thinking, and they’re right. Even when people yell at me on the street, even when I saw a motorcycle accident, even when a security guard chased away a man who was trying to rob me… I’ve never heard an Indonesian swear in Indonesian.

We met a couple students from the University of Indonesia who were very friendly. I asked one of them about swearing, and he laughed. “What words did you learn?” he asked. He leaned in and I whispered it. He then covered his ears and gasped. I waited for him to laugh again. He didn’t.

I’m not sure why there’s such a stigma here about swearing. People yell out all sorts of nasty things all the time, but I guess they’re never actually bad words. It’s even horribly offensive to call someone a dog or a pig. They simply won’t say those words.

I also wanted to mention that every region of Indonesia has certain specialty foods. Just like in the US we associate lobster with Maine and Wisconsin with cheese, Indo has the same. Except that while the US’s regional foods range from dairy to meat to fruit, most of Indonesia’s specialties are some sort of rice with a topping or some sort of fish with a topping. Of course, Palembang is known for those delightful balls of fish called pempek. (Cue me gagging softly in the background.)

As we were driving around in Jakarta, I saw signs for “mie aceh,” and I asked Christine’s friend John what was so special about noodles from Aceh. (Keep in mind, Aceh is the most fundamentally Muslim area of the archipelago. This is where two American teachers were shot at around Thanksgiving.) I am immediately suspicious when I hear the word “Aceh.” Fulbright won’t let me go there, and honestly, that’s all right with me.

John said the noodles from aceh are special because “they put in cannabis.” “Like… as in marijuana?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows up and down a few times. “Yes, like that. The food will make you laugh and feel like you’re flying. You want to try?”

As much as I’m trying to be an equal opportunity food-sampler over here, I had to politely decline. The last thing I need is to “feel like I’m flying” while I spend the whole night retching up street vendor food.

I wasn’t sure if John was telling me the truth, or maybe if he just didn’t know the truth, but I looked it up, and sure enough, he’s right. For God’s sake, this is a country where signs screaming “Death to drug traffickers” greets you as you walk off the plane, and they cook it right into their noodles?

I’m sure there’s a terrifically offensive joke to be made here connecting Aceh’s recent attempts to pass a stoning law and eating their native noodles, but I shall resist.


  1. John taught Pete how to say 'balls.' On New Years. With rambutan and alcohol can imagine where this lead too. I learned a few new ones, remind me to share.

    Oh, and Joe asked for you. He wants to hit that Jakarta scene...

  2. Spill it on the Indonesian swear words. I didn't know you disliked "cuss" or "crotch." I'm still learning new things about you!