J Simens.com

An Unfortunate Misunderstanding Between Expats and Not Lost in Translation

What the waiting room knows about you . . .

What the waiting room knows about you . . .

Out of the vault – I miss living abroad!

Jumping out of our car as the driver slowly made his way to the apotik or farmasi (drugstore-pharmacy), I couldn’t wait to get the thick white paste that would stop my hands from itching. While gardening in Balikpapan, I often get down in the dirt and end up with small ant bites. I don’t go to our company doctor because I know the local pharmacy or apotik will be able to sell me the cheap local paste. I have used it in the past, and it gives immediate relief. This day made me think about the Kinsey Reports for some reason. The publications were immediately controversial among the general public. The findings caused shock and outrage, both because they challenged conventional beliefs about sexuality and because they discussed subjects that had previously been taboo.

Challenging conventional beliefs 

As I made my way to the front of the line, I showed the young girl behind the counter my red scratched hands. My Bahasa Indonesian isn’t all that great, but I know the word semut means “ant.”

So I pointed to my bites and said, “Semut.”

She nodded and in perfect English replied, “Please have a seat over there and the doctor will send out the paste in a few minutes.”

I love to people watch. I slowly glanced around the crowded room and counted 35 people all waiting to be ‘fixed’ for some unknown medical reasons. For some it is easy to see what is the problem, they are the ones whom normal coffee colored skin looks pale, and they seem shaky. I choose not to sit by them.

There in one corner of the room is a large group of moms with tiny babies, and they are there for a ‘well baby’ check up. I know this because the nurse measures all parts of their babies and making notes in the Wellness Journal. I choose not to sit by them because it is rather nosy and cluttered with toys.

In the middle, the room sits a small group of people who look like they work in the doctor’s office. They might be stocking the shelves or sweeping the floor. At that moment in time, it looked like they were sharing local gossip. I choose to sit near them to see if I could pick up anything they were talking about. After a short wait, the nurse called me up to the front of the store to get my medicinal paste.

Subjects that had previously been taboo

As she handed me a small white envelope, she asked me to pay 80,000 rupiahs or about $6.50 US dollars. As I gave her the money, I felt the little bag. It didn’t feel like the typical tube I had gotten in the past. I carefully pulled the two staples out of the top of the envelope and saw two small pills.

The nurse rang up my bill; it showed two entries written in Bahasa Indonesia. I had given her the exact change, so she handed me the bill.

I said, “I did not want pills.”

The nurse replied, “Pills seem to work best.”

I responded, “I really would like the lotion, it worked well in the past.”

At that moment, a different nurse came up and handed me my usual tube of paste. Now both nurses looked confused or at least as confused as I am. As I stand there with a tube of lotion in one hand and the pills in the other hand, I try to get clarification.

“Do I use both of these?”

“Use both if you want to use them,” Nurse One replied.

“I am uncomfortable using pills I don’t know,” I replied as I handed her back the pills.

She pushed them back across the counter to me and started to walk away.

“Excuse me, I don’t want these pills,” I stated.

Nurse Two looking over my shoulder and into the busy waiting room said, “Your husband asked for these.”

My husband was at work and nowhere near the clinic so I knew she was mistaken. I started shaking my head side to side. She smiled broadly and nodded towards the only other expat in the whole office. I had not noticed him before. As she made eye contact with the gentleman, he slowly made his way around the baby toys on the floor to the front of the counter.

He nodded at me. Even though Balikpapan is a small town, I had never seen this expat gentleman before. I smiled and started out of the clinic. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up the two pills.

Nurse Two replied, “Here are your Viagra pills.

I am not sure what the gentleman said, but I clearly heard what the nurse said as I exited the building.

“Your wife has already paid for your pills.”

I don’t know if I am more excited about doing a “pay it forward” for an expat in Balikpapan or if I am more surprised that you can buy just two Viagra pills in Balikpapan.

I was tempted to go back and ask how he determined he needed to buy two pills, but my driver was holding up traffic as he waited for me to climb into the car. So I got in the car, just shaking my head about this interaction that was somewhat lost in translation.


For my Balikpapan friends once, I tell you the next story you will never be able to sit at a guard gate without smiling. For those of you not living here, we have a routine all cars must go through when they enter or exit a security area.

A guard will run a mirror under the car to check for anything strange. Another guard will ask permission to check inside the vehicle. This means you roll down the windows so they can see in and he opens the truck to see what is also in that part of your car.

Security guards in IndonesiaIn Bahasa Indonesian, the word “permission” sounds like “per- miss – ey”.   When my daughter was here, one of the guards always smiled and asked her how she liked Balikpapan. They would chat while his co-worker did all the checking on how safe our vehicle was before letting us move on. One trip, he asked her if “permission” meant the same as “perty mission.” We tried to understand and just couldn’t seem to get the translation explained. On our next time through that checkpoint, he handed her a note in English.

Pretty – Miss = You are beautiful.

Now every time, I hear “permission” I just smile to myself and my mind tells me that the guard has just called me a “pretty miss”. But more importantly – it reminds me of my daughter.

The guards – They all make my day!

Not lost in translation: A very fortunate understanding between my daughter and the host country worker.






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