Surviving the Big Durian

It comes to my attention when my two friends and I were discussing surviving living in the city of Jakarta and about the matter of privilege. We were first talking about how we would react to disruptive people in a public place. I said that I would always “rise my glasses and give them a deadly gaze”. We then conclude that it was one of my defense mechanism. We then proceed to discuss, what kind of survival skills we would need as we are living in a big metropolitan city such as Jakarta?

First, language. The three of us were enrolled in the international program of our university. Although Indonesian is our mother tongue, we also considered talking in a local accent as an advantage, how it helps us to sound more aggressive and even affect our personality. You can use a Betawi-like accent, Bataknese accent, or different accent and tones to make you sound a bit more familiar. A warning is that speaking in broken Indonesian when you’re an Indonesian will get you weird looks and some people may call you arrogant for simply being “too westernized”. Being able to speak proper Indonesian will also give you an advantage if you’re a foreigner in order to avoid scams or simply to get friendlier with a local. A local Jakartan would usually be excited to meet a foreigner and they will try to talk to you in broken English, referring to anyone with a blonde hair as a ‘Mister’. Imagine if you can respond back to them in Indonesian, they will all be so impressed and you’ll gain so much more respect. One time I was eating out with a German colleague in a traditional restaurant and he ordered an extra sambal in Indonesian. The waitstaff was so impressed we got a complementary dish.

Second, language (again). Aside from speaking Indonesian, being able to speak in Indonesian traditional language is also helpful — not just the accent. There were hundreds of traditional regional language but the common ones you can find in Jakarta are Javanese, Sundanese, Padangnese and a little bit of Hokkien Chinese will also be helpful. These are considering that there are many people migrated from the said area to Jakarta and many professions are dominated from those origins. I myself speak a little bit of Padangnese which is helpful in doing wholesale or when ordering in a Padangnese restaurant. Even referring to them in their language will really help to familiarize yourself with people in the certain environment in Jakarta, like referring to the vendor in Mangga Dua with “Cici” and “Koko” or greeting someone with a simple “Samlekum!” in Meruya can get you far. You would want to be seen as friendly and that you’ll be treated even friendlier by the people in the city. Learning an Indonesian traditional language as your third language will be as useful as being able to speak Spanish in the United States. You might think it’s unnecessary but it will actually get you far in life; at least in Indonesia. Also, speaking in traditional Indonesian in front of your Indonesian friend will also impress them too because frankly, not enough Jakartans appreciate their tradition and heritage to appreciate the importance of a traditional language.

Third, martial arts. I wouldn’t say this is necessary but with a good amount of street thugs around the corner of public places, having learned a martial art will be pretty helpful. But this goes for everywhere around the world. Some of the popular traditional art includes Pencak silat or joining Merpati Putih which you can pick it up in different places. My brother once enrolled to a Pencak silat class managed by a local mosque, when they are 28 years old. With the movie ‘The Raid’ being set in Jakarta, it has inspired many locals to learn traditional martial arts and at the same time made us all paranoid on the extent of how the local premans (street thugs) can intimidate us people that martial arts may seem necessary.

Fourth, dress appropriately. A majority of Jakartan are Muslims so most people will dress to close off their aurat (body parts that require clothing). Many women wore hijab as they go out, considering the population as well as how people value modest clothing here. One of the common way to dress it to use modest shirts and jeans. It is best to wear anything below the knee and tops that covers your shoulder. This is a tip on the most appropriate thing you can wear although in places like malls and modern cafés people are more open to a more casual fashion.

Fifth, say no, say yes — but say anything with confidence. Indonesian are famous for being hospitable yet at the same time passive. Be assertive and it will protect you from many things, including during the time you haggle or negotiate for a parking space you’d find closed off by an orange cone. You can either ask a good polite request or give out assertive questions to people in this town. But remember to always be respectful and respect your elders. Most people in this town are pretty conservative so it is important to be mindful of others.

Learn as many things as you can before you go around because it will be best to know how to get around things here to avoid shady people — it’s the basic thing you have to know before you simply go anywhere. Knowing standard retail prices, knowing the local emergency number, knowing the basic route of the city’s public transportation will be a good place to start. And once you’re sure, go ahead. Jakarta is not as scary as you might think and once you got through all of its layers, you will be greeted in one of the most welcoming people you’ll ever know. We’re all pretty crazy, and you can always be crazy with us. Communalism is the value that was held very dearly here, so if you’re welcome to the idea of the Big Durian, you’ll sure enjoy the smell, the taste and the experience provided in this crowded city.