Time is very important to Americans. Punctuality is a virtue held with high regard for most citizens of the United States. The phrase “time is money,” was coined by the “First American,” Benjamin Franklin, and might as well be stamped right below “In God we Trust” on US dollars and coins. I was raised believing it is better to be thirty minutes early to any event, be it a meeting, doctor’s appointment, or date, rather than thirty seconds late. I’d imagine most Americans feel similarly, though perhaps not to such a degree.
Indonesians do not place nearly as much importance on time as Americans do. During the West Java counterpart and principal conference we were discussing cultural differences and one insightful teacher said, “In America time may be money, but in Indonesia time is time.” Time does not mean much beyond itself in Indonesia. Though time in Indonesia does take on some interesting properties which are antithetical to its relative in America.
Time in Indonesia is flexible, like rubber. Jam karet literally translates to rubber time. It is this phrase Indonesians incant when they are running late or someone they are supposed to meet with has not yet shown up. Rubber time applies to deadlines, appointments, meetings, schedules, anything with a dimension of time involved.The school I will be teaching in begins their first semester of their academic year on the eighteenth of July and they have not yet produced the class schedule for the new academic year. I do not know when the classes I am supposed to teach will happen each week and classes begin in less than two weeks. The American in me finds this frustrating, but it’s not like knowing when my classes will be will change much anyways. Jam karet, right?
Buses and angkots in Indonesia do not have schedules. They run from some indeterminate early hour in the morning until there are no more people to move around sometime in the evening. Buses and angkots will not leave their station or terminal until they are full or nearly full. On my most recent trip into Bandung I waited for close to two hours for a bus to pick me up. Sure, it would’ve been nice if the bus to Bandung was scheduled to show up and depart from designated areas at predetermined times, but even if such a schedule existed it would likely never be adhered to and could be a potential source of frustration when the buses are running “late.”
Jam karet seems to stem from necessity as much as anything else. I live perhaps twenty-five miles from Bandung, as the crow flies, but my commutes into the city take anywhere from two and a half to seven hours, all depending on traffic. Java is the most populated island in the world with roughly 145 million people occupying a little less than fifty thousand square miles. That works out to be a population density of about 2,900 people per square mile. Oklahoma, my home state, has a population just shy of four million and an area of seventy thousand square miles—a population density of 57 people per square mile.
Transportation in a region as crowded as Java can be quite challenging. Add poor road conditions and a tendency for Indonesian motorists to disregard civil driving practices and traffic jams are about as common as two-legged men. Constant delays and roadblocks (sometimes literal), have people approach being on time with a great sense of leniency and flexibility. Jam karet.
During PST I sent a few letters away to friends and family back in the States. I had to have my community liaison help me figure out Indonesia’s postal system. When I asked my CL how I would go about sending some letters one of her first questions was why wouldn’t I just send a text message or email? I found this question harder to answer than I expected, but I ended up coming back to time in order for it to make sense.
I like sending physical notes through the mail as often as I can and whenever etiquette suggests the sending of a note would be proper. Who doesn’t like to receive a handwritten letter in the mail? But why exactly is that so special? Email is faster, more reliable, less expensive, and can be richer in content. What makes the analog cousin of the email so appealing is, more or less, the time that went into preparing it.
I told my CL sending someone a letter is a gesture of respect, a demonstration of thoughtfulness, a display of cordiality. To each of these answers my CL always asked, “Why?” Extending the adage “time is money” into letter writing made things a little clearer. Americans, being the individuals we are, tend to think our time is worth more than others’. That is to say my time is more valuable to me than anyone else’s time.
To sit down and write out, with a pen and paper, a letter specifically for someone else, then to find an envelope, address said envelope, buy a stamp, and place it all in a mailbox takes a fair amount of time. Certainly, when compared to the ease with which we can send an email or a text message, sending a letter is, at best, tedious, and at worst it’s imprudent. Nonetheless, Americans remain vaguely enchanted with the idea of mail.
Still! Even after my poetic explanation about why Americans send letters my CL didn’t quite understand. To her, time was just time, and the time required to make a note does not bear much weight on its importance, it is always the note itself. The medium does not matter, the message does.
Rubber time allows one to be delayed without worrying about consequences upon arrival. Rubber time is calm acceptance of a late start to a meeting. Rubber time means not valuing anyone’s time above anybody else’s. Rubber time says “tidak apa-apa,” it’s nothing, when the schedule falls apart. Rubber time is Indonesian patience with a bit of a smirk.