Cultural Humor

Life is funny, wherever you live.  But when you add cross-cultural elements to the mix, very strange things begin to happen.

Similar Words Cause Problems

Rumput / Rambut

Here are the words you need to know for this story.
     Rumput = grass 
     Rambut = hair
     Harus = must 
     Potong = cut

I heard this story of a foreigner living in Indonesia who wanted to ask his gardener to cut the grass. Let's call the foreigner "Gary" and the gardener "Amir". The conversation over the next few days went something like this.

"Amir, I need you to potong rambut," Gary said.
Amir responded, "OK."

Amir did indeed have rather long hair, so he went home that night and got a haircut. The next day, he got to work. His hair was a bit shorter. The grass however, was not cut. Gary was a bit perturbed. He found Amir to tell him again to cut the grass.

"Amir, I asked you yesterday to potong rambut. You haven't done it yet. Please potong rambut."

Amir watched Gary walk away, and scratched his head, puzzled. "I guess I didn't get my hair cut short enough," he thought. That night, he went back to the barber and got it cut truly short. The next day, he arrived at work with neatly trimmed hair. The grass however, looked increasingly shaggy. Gary was quite upset.

"I've asked you twice now to potong rambut, Amir. Why haven't you done it? Harus potong rambut!!!"

"Wow!" thought Amir. "He really has a problem with hair length." But Amir needed the job, so he went back to the barber and got a "military-style" haircut. The next day, he arrived at work wearing a baseball cap. As he crossed the shaggy lawn, Gary came out to meet him, visibly upset.

"Amir, I have asked you three times to potong rambut. Why won't you do it?"

Sweeping off his cap to reveal a bald head, Amir said, "Rambut apa, Pak?" (What hair, sir?)

"No, no, no," Gary said. Pointing to the grass he said, "Harus potong rambut!"  
Suddenly, Amir understood the the problem. Pointing alternately to the grass and his head, he said, "Rumput, rambut, rumput, rambut!" Hopefully, they both got a good laugh. And hopefully, Amir's hair grew back quickly.  

This story may not have happened exactly as I wrote it. It does, after all, read like an urban legend. Amir may not have actually shaved his head completely  bald. But I am quite certain many a foreigner has made this very same mistake.

Pesawat / Perawat
The word "pesawat" means either "airplane" or "the handset of a telephone". "Perawat" is the word for "nurse. Kent and Jennifer (names have been changed) had been in Indonesia for a while. I'm not sure how long. It was not long enough, however, for these two words to get straightened out. Kent became seriously ill and was being treated in a local hospital.  Jennifer wanted her husband to be evacuated to Singapore for care as she knew the hospitals there are excellent. She wasn't sure of the word for "evacuate", so she tried to get the doctors to know in some other way. She tried to say that Kent needed to ride a pesawat. What she actually said was, "He has to ride a perawat. He has to ride a nurse." Oops!

Celana / Jendela 
Two words in the Indonesian language that are very similar are celana and jendela.  Celana means “pants” or “trousers”.  Jendela means "window”.  These two words have caused more than one person to open mouth, insert foot, and chew vigorously.
  • A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, was sitting in his living room one especially hot day.  One of his employees was passing through, and he wanted to ask her to please open the window.  What he siad, however, was, “Please open your pants.”
    Of course, this young woman was shocked.  “Pak!” (meaning “Sir!”) 
    My friend knew immediately that he had made a big mistake. “What?”  Pointing to the window, he said, “I just wanted you to open the window.”
    The young lady understood and burst out laughing.  Pointing alternately at the window and her pants, she said, “Oh Pak!  Jendela, celana, jendela, celana.”
    Fortunately, my friend has a good sense of humor.  They both had a good laugh.

  •             A Korean professor who spoke fairly good, but not perfect, Indonesian was teaching an intensive masters level course in Indonesia attended by a group of pastors and other professionals.  The class met in a room that was supposed to be air-conditioned.  Unfortunately, the air conditioning was broken, and the room was extremely hot.
    In an effort to make things more comfortable, the professor wanted to encourage the students to open the windows.  What he said was, “Please, go ahead and open your pants so you won’t be hot.”
    Needless to say, his students all looked at him in confusion.  (To them, jendela and celana sound nothing alike.)  He repeated the invitation, this time motioning towards the window.  “Please, go ahead and open your pants so you won’t be hot.”
    Someone finally caught on and opened the window.  I am not certain if anyone ever explained the mistake to the professor.  It is very rare for students here to correct the teacher.  The story has circulated, though, and new language learners can at least reap the benefit of learning from the professor’s mistake.
Kepala / Kelapa
    • While on a sight-seeing trip early in my stay in Indonesia, I saw hundreds of coconuts piled up alongside the road.  In my beginning Indonesian, I commented, “Look, lots of kepala on the side of the road!”  Everyone else laughed because kepala means “head”.  The word I wanted for coconut was kelapa. 
      Kancing / Kencing
      • It is easy and affordable to get clothing custom-made in Indonesia.  You just buy the material, buttons, zipper, and so forth, take it to a tailor, get measured, and a few days later, it is done.  Whenever I wanted something made that required buttons, I was always careful to wear a shirt with buttons on it so I could point to the button and say I wanted to buy those.  The shopkeeper would then usually provide the word I was searching for...kancing (KAHN-ching).  I was always afraid to directly say that I wanted to buy buttons because another word, kencing (KƏN-ching) is very similar.  Kencing means “urine” or “urinate”.  Nope…I don’t want to buy that!


        1. Good stuff. I just emailed you thinking these type of cultural differences would be funny, I just didn't investigate your website thoroughly.

          1. Great minds think alike. We think alike. Does that mean we have great minds?

          2. Hopefully. Although, don't they say the same thing about crazy people? Or do all crazy people think different crazy thoughts...I don't know.

        2. People said the same thing to my father in the late 60s. 'Course, he needed a hair cut, that rebellious hippie Jesus freak that he was.


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