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This post was written by Della Bradt after her first few weeks volunteering in Indonesia at Dian Interfidei (The Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia). The post was originally published on the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy Website, here.
My Indonesian friends have taught me a very important expression in Bahasa Indonesia: “jam karet.” It literally translates to “rubber watch.” To me, this phrase is essential to understanding the slow and flexible pace of life here in Yogyakarta.
For example, if someone is late to something, you just chalk it up to their “rubber watch.” I’ve found there is essentially a 30-minute to 60-minute grace period on any meeting time. If you’re supposed to meet someone at noon and you show up at 12:30pm, it’s not a problem, “jam karet,”
Believe it or not, this has proved extremely difficult to adjust to. I often find myself stressing out when people are late to meetings we set up at work. I can’t help but feel anxiety creep up on me when I am sitting around and chatting with my co-workers instead of getting back to work. I feel the usual knot in my stomach after realizing I’m going to be 30 minutes late to work and once I finally arrive, I’m unable to shake the feeling even though no one is mad.
It’s also interesting to note that I’m not alone in these feelings. At the end of our first week, all the AUA volunteers gathered together to discuss the highlights and challenges of living in Indonesia. As we went around in a circle, there was one overwhelmingly common thread in our challenges; we were all confused about how to adjust to the pace of life in Yogyakarta. Volunteers were shocked when their work supervisors had very little expectations of them or didn’t specify a time to show up to work. Everyone was awestruck by the relaxed nature of the workplace in particular.
In the United States, we are programmed to constantly be doing something, especially at work. If we take a break for even a few minutes, it’s easy to be characterized as lazy. Hard work is prized above many things, even sleep or personal happiness. There are almost always specific expectations asked of you.
My experience as an unpaid intern at the State Department last summer followed this mentality. While I was working there I constantly felt the pressure to succeed. I knew exactly what my bosses wanted from me and when they wanted it. My work this summer has been drastically different.
I dove into this internship the same way as the last one, driven and excited to work really hard for a great organization. Willing to do whatever my supervisors expected of me, my enthusiasm was initially dampened when I realized they had very few expectations. Adjusting to this more relaxed mentality has taken time, but I think it’s an important experience for me. Interfidei wants me to do whatever I can to help them as a volunteer. They appreciate however much I can give them and just want me to do my best while having fun at work.
I think all Americans can learn a lot from this different pace of life and relaxed mentality. We do not always have to create set expectations for the people around us. Hard work isn’t a bad thing, but taking a break isn’t either. Sometimes it should be enough that we just do the best we can. And when people are late, maybe we can learn to just smile and say, “Oh, it must be that rubber watch again! Jam karet.”