After living in a foreign place for a while, perhaps one tends to forget how many painful exchanges have been inflicted upon the ever-patient native speaker, all for the sake of acquiring whole wheat flour or topping up one’s mobile phone credit.
And for whatever reason, no matter what language you are trying to speak in whatever country you may be in, universally, it seems the majority of these errors rotate around the unfortunate theme of body parts or functions or byproducts. Have you ever noticed? So here’s a list of top [mostly] Bahasa-bloopers I’ve collected thus far, with hopes to update it as I go:
1. Getting the words key (kunci) and urine (kencing) confused. This may be inconvenient if you desperately need to use a restroom, but it takes it to another level when you turn to the stranger who is helping you carry your bags to the front door, and with a smile of gratitude, ask him if he could just hold on for a second because you’re trying to find the urine in your purse.
2. This one, thanks to a friend who shared her story at dinner the other night: Heading out to purchase office paper, but due to the similarity between certain words, informing a much-flummoxed driver that one needs to purchase lady-pubic-hair-paper instead!
3. Regaling a driver [in my very best Bahasa] with childhood memories of my time in Indonesia, like the time I was doing somersaults in the front yard with friends and accidentally stuck my head in cow dung. That part was accurate. But what I actually said, was that I stuck my head into the unsuspecting bovine’s backside. I didn’t even know I’d made the blunder until the driver grew visibly disturbed, and after a few moments of absolute silence, asked in tremulous voice, “Your head really … entered?”
4. Cheerfully informing the local fish monger that I’d like my older brother filleted, but I don’t want to keep the head. (“Kakap” is snapper while “kakak” is older sibling.)
5. And for a non-Bahasa scenario: While living in Germany and taking a road trip to Luxembourg, the spark plugs in our really, really crappy car suddenly exploded out of the engine. Not to be deterred, we used our pocket dictionary to find the the word for “plug,” approached the closest auto shop, and explained to the polite mechanic that our car needed new tampons.
6. Asking the sweet, sweet girl who sells chicken eggs (“telur”) if her speech impediment (“telor”) is local, and how much it costs.
7. Insisting with the distraught waiter that I do not need a fancy bottle of Evian; all I want is a big, regular ol’ bottle of … poo. (“Air” is water, “besar” is big, while “air besar” is slang for something else.)
Update: Since posting this, I have been corrected on item #6. I had originally been informed by a Bahasa-speaking Westerner that I had indeed committed a faux pas when ordering my chicken eggs. Upon realizing this, I discussed my error with an Indonesian acquaintance, who upon listening to my story, blinked back at me and said: “I don’t know what you are talking about. You can say ‘telur’ or ‘telor.’ Same thing. They both mean eggs!”