Jam Karet: An Indonesian Approach to Time

Bunaken island, March 2018. Photo by Lotte Troost.

To take a little break from my fieldwork project in East Kalimantan I decided to discover the northern tip of Sulawesi. More specifically, the island of Bunaken, a small island close to North Sulawesi’s capital Manado that is famous for its coral reefs and colourful fish. After arriving in Manado, I was told what time the boat would leave for Bunaken. 

“Around 2pm noon,” my hostel owner said, leaving me a little puzzled, since this ‘around’ could mean either earlier or later than 2pm. Afraid to miss my boat, and thus an exciting snorkelling opportunity, I arrived at the port well ahead of departure time. Although the boat was already there, it seemed I was the first passenger to arrive. 

NANTI

“Nanti,” the lady at the ticket counter said in response to my attempt to clarify what time exactly the boat would leave. I felt somewhat frustrated, since nanti (later) could mean anything from a few minutes to a few hours or even a few days. Waiting for a departure whose exact time was unclear felt like a waste of my time, which I could have spent exploring Bunaken’s aquatic landscape. But I had no other option than to accept this different dimension of time I was faced with. 

Eventually, more passengers arrived. They did not seem to worry about when they would leave. They rather enjoyed the waiting. A young guy started playing his guitar and soon his friends joined in singing. A family in front of me enjoyed the snacks they had bought at the market near the port and the lady next to me used the waiting-time to comb and braid her daughter’s hair. 

Three hours after I had arrived at the port we finally left for Bunaken. I breathed a little sigh of relief. “Begitulah: jam karet,” said the lady next to me with a smile. Translated literally, this means “it is what it is, rubber time.” Allow me to explain. 

THE LIMITS OF PREPARATION

For many activities it can be said that the first blow is half the battle. Before moving to Indonesia for a research project in East Kalimantan as part of my master’s program at the University of Amsterdam, I had tried to prepare as much as I could. Practical things like visas and vaccinations, and cultural preparation such as reading books and taking a crash course in Bahasa Indonesia at my home university. But soon after arriving in Indonesia, I learned that some things cannot be prepared for, and just need to be experienced once you’re in the country itself. The things that are inherent to Indonesia. 

JAM KARET: FLEXIBLE ‘RUBBER TIME’

One of these things is jam karetJam translates as time and karet means rubber. Time being rubberish, or stretching from minutes to hours, suggests flexibility and the unsureness of time. Jam karet is a widely known concept in Indonesia, and it is used to indicate that time in Indonesia moves at a different, slower pace. In practice, it means arriving late and waiting are common habits and experiences. 

CULTURE SHOCK

I was raised in an environment where arriving late is a sign of irresponsibility and time is often synonymous with money, and so jam karet was certainly something of a culture shock when I moved to Indonesia. 

It often happened that my research subjects would arrive an hour late for an interview, or that meetings started later than scheduled because my friends wanted to eat first. Besides nanti, expressions such as tunggu sebentar (wait a moment) and sebentar lagi (soon) indicate that time does not need to be exact. It can be either very soon or later in the future. 

It took me a while to let go of the feeling that jam karet was wasted time, and even towards the end of my research period in Indonesia I still struggled to recognize that taking my time and accepting the wait could also inculcate valuable skills and offer up precious moments. For one thing, being confronted with jam karet for a long period taught me to be patient and flexible, skills that I still apply today. And often while I was waiting, someone approached me to have a chat, which offered up a perfect way to practice my Indonesian and meet new people. 

THE WIDER CONTEXT OF INDONESIAN NORMS AND VALUES

From many conversations with my Indonesian friends, I have learned that jam karet is more than just an expression of time alone. It is a concept that relates to how life and relations are looked at. 

Taking care of others and quality of life are important values in Indonesian society. 

Disputes are resolved by compromise and negotiation, and relationships – and thus money – must be allowed to grow over time. 

Pushing others to conform to your schedule is regarded as impolite. 

Even if jam karet is slowly but surely becoming less acceptable among businesspeople and in educational and other formal settings, it is still a habit of many Indonesians. 

What’s more, jam karet because of traffic is not surprising when you consider that roads in Indonesia can sometimes flood, or be poorly maintained, congested and damaged by landslides. Or it may be the case that there is just one motorway for too much traffic for too long a distance. 

Although jam karet was sometimes my worst nightmare, I am also grateful to have been confronted with it. By moving to Indonesia and building up my life there, I learned about a different approach to time that has helped me to develop a more balanced approach to my daily activities. When I’m late for a meeting or when friends ask me when I will arrive, I recall what the lady on the boat to Bunaken said to me: begitulah: jam karet.

Jam karet because the roads are too small or the buses are too big? Flores, December 2016. Photo by Lotte Troost.

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Lotte Troost

Lotte has a master’s degree in Contemporary Asian Studies from the University of Amsterdam. She lived alternately in Yogyakarta and Bandung to study the Indonesian language and to volunteer with various NGOs. In East Kalimantan she conducted fieldwork research on gender and social movements. Lotte has a genuine passion for intercultural learning, ethnology and languages.

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