The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Feeling like one grain of small green pea © 2007 Duncan Graham

Like most foreigners I’ve made some awful errors. No point in compiling a list – there’s insufficient space. Best to confine my revelations to the recall of one ghastly event.

I should have known better. I’d been in the country long enough to sense the sensitivities. My motives were pure. But I’d forgotten the old saw: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And my feet rapidly hit that road outside the Surabaya tourism department not so long ago.

It happened like this: As a happy resident grateful to a country that’s offered friendship and overlooked my foibles and mispronunciations, I thought I owed something in return.

Word addicts suffer side effects. Like a disgust for those who abuse language. Scold your spouse or scald the cat, but whatever you do don’t violate the vulgate.

And that’s happening in spades, particularly in tourist brochures. The most ghastly gaffes are a hoot. Getting a mention in Lonely Planet, is a coup – though not when the backpackers’ bible gives a full paragraph to quote a guidebook:

‘Bromo should be the choice, for only there, on the crater rim with the sea of sand stretching below as far as the eyes can see on one’s left and the ghostly grumble mixed with dense lumps of smoke crumple up from the inner pitfall on one’s right, and on the height of 2,383 meters above sea level would one see how lustrous the aurora of the sun in mixing colors of white, pale yellow, yellowish red turning red appears from behind the hills quite in front, to brighten the atmosphere to daylight, does one feel oneself to be like one grain of small green pea amidst a vessel of sand – you’ll be aware of the greatness of men!’

It’s not just the government that gets it wrong big time. A favorite is a hotel in Batu, East Java that invites guests to ‘lay down at the poolside (and) enjoy the sunburn.’

OK, have a giggle, move on. Who cares? Well I care because I live here and hate to see this archipelago of astonishments sneered at by supercilious Singaporeans-la or the Truly Asian Malaysians who produce the most meticulous International English prose in their PR.

The Europeans may be forgiving, but our near neighbors aren’t.

So duly authorized by a folder of fully franked letters of introduction, smart in pressed batik and shoes like mirrors I respectfully presented my humble self at the office of the Big Man.

An ingratiating preamble; surely Sir’s department had a Westminster reputation with outstanding staff producing credit-worthy material?

This was bending the truth into a hoop; the grimy office was overstaffed and underworked. Its pamphlets came in two grades - ink stencils or heavyweight gloss with smudged text, blurred color and glued pages.

But I confined myself to the language, kept my knees together and posture attentive. I just loved the brochures – the language was practically Shakespearian when compared to my Indonesian. Who else writes jemput (to be picked up) when he means jembut (pubic hair)? Or should that be the other way around? Ha, ha!

But little mistakes can creep in – you know how it is. That’s why newspapers have so many copy-editors. If Sir would care to occasionally use a native speaker’s services, absolutely free and no strings attached, maybe I could help polish the prose a little?

Get your competent colleagues to e-mail me the text. Just in case there are any teeny-weeny errors that might want correcting, so together we can help visitors really appreciate this most perfect of provinces …

In the West the unwelcome can be forcibly evicted. The Javanese solution is for the host to get up and stride out, trembling in fury, while the guest is in mid sentence, tea cup poised, and let the sidekicks show you the other door.

One was apologetic: He disclosed that the brochures had been written by the boss who had a master’s degree from a Mickey Mouse campus 30 years ago. Although the young graduate from Airlangga University (East Java’s finest) knew the department’s handouts were gobbledygook he dared not gainsay a superior.

Maintaining protocol, he explained, was more important than improving performance. So home ways you go quick – and your business you mind yourself, ya. Like Frank Sinatra, we do it my way.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 November 2007)



Mandeep Gill said...

Blogging foreigner in Indonesia! And i thought i was alone :D !

Nice blog you got here. The stories are amusing. And i KNOW EXACTLY what its like, having miscommunication here.

qnoi said...

they should've thanked you instead of maintaining protocol.. akh.. bureaucrats.. that is soo embarassing!