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Strange Encounters in Medan by A Singaporean

Struggling with Bahasa Indonesia

I have been in Medan for almost two years now. It’s been quite an interesting cultural shock compared to life in Singapore. I am not the fussy type as far as food and eating places are concerned. Back home in Singapore, if you want normal coffee with milk at a coffee shop, you just tell the coffee shop stall holder "kopi". Over here I learnt that "kopi" is without milk and if I had wanted hot coffee with milk, I have to say "kopi susu panas". Otherwise, expect cold black coffee when you are served.

I also soon discovered that the kopi susu here was extremely sweet. I wonder how many diabetic cases there are here in Medan. I saw from the glass which contained the hot coffee that the sweetened condensed milk was about 1 inch thick from the bottom. No wonder it was that sweet! So the locals taught me how to overcome this. Just stir the coffee with a spoon without touching the base of the glass around half the height of the glass. Well I thought a better way was to tell the Indonesian stall helper who took my order to make it less sweet. I told her "kurang manis" which to me means "less sweet". As each day past by, I repeated the same two words to her but the coffee she served got sweeter and sweeter. I gave up and followed her to show her how to put in just half a teaspoon of milk. She just looked at me with a bizarre look. I later found out that "kurang manis" actually meant that I found the coffee not sweet enough and I am asking her to make it sweeter. I was later told by the locals that the right way to tell them is "Jangan terlalu manis" or "Not too sweet".

I went to a small rumah makan (restaurant) near to where I live to have dinner. Translated literally Rumah Makan is "house eating." Actually it means "eating house" One of the things I learnt about Bahasa Indonesia is that the adverb and adjective come after the verb or noun. So if I want to play football, it is literally called "ball foot" or "bola kaki" in Bahasa Indonesia. Likewise I find singer Siti Nurhaliza "beautiful very" or "cantik sekali" And toilet is not tandas but kamar kecil (Room Small). Just wonder why there is no kamar besar (Room Big) for doing big business since there is buang air kecil (throw away water small) and buang air besar (throw away water big). But come to think of it, doing big business does not just throw big water but some additional stuff?

I also discovered that the Chinese people here speak Hockien where out of 10 words in a statement, inevitably 3-4 words in that statement are in Bahasa Indonesia. If you think you speak perfect Hockien, tell me what is Hockien for cockroach? or Cucumber or Cheese? If you say kecoa, timun and keju, these are actually Bahasa Indonesia words. I asked my Chinese staff what cockroach was in Hockien, and all of them said kecoa. Just wonder if it is also called kecoa in Fujian China?

One of the things you will notice on the streets is signboard advertisements in a mixture of English and Bahasa Indonesia. One day, I passed by a "Cat Oven". My God!! They bake cats for dinner? I thought only the Chinese did that as a delicacy in China. My local friend laughed at me. And I saw a "Semen Andalas" factory. My God! a factory producing semen!! No wonder the population of Indonesia is more than 200 million. Just wonder how they produce. Probably any able-bodied man can go there and deposit and they probably give the necessary stimulation by showing blue films and be stripped by a lady called Biru as I also noticed a few blue lines and the word STRIP BIRU on the same signboard. Actually cat means paint and cat oven means baked-on paint. Semen means cement.

Eating Out

One of the strange encounters you will find at the rumah makan is that even though it is a small coffee shop, it has a menu and issues a bill when you pay. And on each table, one will find a roll of toilet paper housed in a case and tooth picks. This is a good idea as customers can clean their hands with free "tisu" or toilet paper. Perhaps Medan coffee shop owners have not learnt from the Singapore coffee shop owners that they can get extra income by selling proper tissue paper had they not provided the free 'toilet roll".

At the street stalls along Jalan Semarang where I have been a few times, I have been constantly harassed by a particular male street basker with a guitar who seems to like to target me while I am eating, singing the same old song each time I go there. I felt I had no choice but to give him his dues so that he would stop singing further.

Then there are these 3-4 year old shoe shine boys who wanted to kiwi and shine my shoes for a fee. They looked at me with an earnest look and I had to let one of them earn his daily keep. My local friend had earlier advised me to give the boy one shoe at a time. Otherwise I may end up walking home barefooted.

One of the good things when it comes to settling the bill is that despite ordering your food from different stallholders, you just need to signal someone that you wish to pay and you just pay to one stallholder and they settle amongst themselves. I am not sure, though whether I have been overcharged as I never ask the breakdown of the cost.

Ever Drive in Medan?

If you can drive in Medan, you can drive in any place on earth! Fortunately, my company provides me with a car and a driver who chauffeurs me daily to work from home. Driving in Medan is probably the most challenging place to drive on earth! A Malaysian colleague told me that Singaporeans classify Malaysian drivers as 'too bold and aggressive'. But Malaysian drivers are just "kittens" compared to Medan drivers. Driving in Medan follows the rule of "First Mover Advantage", i.e., whoever reaches a spot on the road first has the right of way. I was amazed that my driver, who was turning right from a road junction, got into the middle of the opposite road and blocked the incoming vehicles from the opposite direction. He would probably have gotten beaten up in Singapore if he did that. But in Medan, they waited for him to pass without any sign of anger.

Trying to beat red traffic lights is also a common sight here in Medan, even in full view of the traffic police observing the whole event. I could see the traffic policeman shaking his head, but he did not give the motorist a summon ticket. When I asked my local friend why the traffic police did not issue a summon ticket, his candid remarks were, "Why would he want to do more work without getting any extra money?" I have never met a more "practical" traffic policeman! Despite all these crazy road behaviors, there seems to be no traffic accidents at all!

Parking a car is not a problem in downtown Medan. There are no proper parking lots and one just parks by the roadside. No car park attendants were around when we arrived at a popular food haunt, great! Not quite. It was a case of "Now you do not see them, now you see them." They will appear out of nowhere when you start to drive off and collect "parking fees". If you do not have any small denomination notes, it is bonus time for them as they never seem to have enough change for you, even when you give them only Rp 5,000 (about SGD$1) and the car park fee was Rp 1,000 (about SGD$0.20). At the grocery shop it is a different story, sometimes I get my change back in the form of 2-3 sweets. No wonder Medan people have such a sweet tooth!

In Singapore, drivers are not allowed to have dark-tinted glass on their cars for security reasons, so that people outside can see who and what is inside the car. In Medan, it is also for security reasons that they have tinted glass for cars. But it is to disallow people outside to see who and what is inside the car! I can understand why as my neighbor who is only a high school girl sometimes drives alone at night.

Motorcycles are a common sight in Medan. A motorcycle is the 'family car" for many family outings. I watched how a motorcycle could accommodate four people. After some observations, it seems that the youngest child always sits in front of dad. After dad, the older kid will stand behind dad holding his shoulders. Mum comes next and protects the standing kid. Lady pillion riders wearing skirts have no problem being ferried around on motorcycles. They sit sideways with their legs together. It seems that most sit with their legs on the left side of the motorcycle. Not sure why, but probably more comfortable for right-handers. I wonder what would happen if the lady was a left-hander; would she sit with her legs on the right side of the motorcycle? The chances of finding any lady in Medan who knows how to ride a motorcycle is probably 70-75%. In Singapore, if you find a lady who can ride a motorcycle, she is probably a traffic policewoman.

Viagra anyone?

On my way home to Singapore from Kuala Nama Airport, I was greeted at the duty-free shop by a young lady manning a stall selling viagra and other sex stimulants for both males and females. Out of curiosity, I went closer to take a look. The sales girl asked me whether I wanted the Australian or American brand. She said the Australian brand was cheaper and assured me that it was just as good (bagus juga)! I did not ask her further how she could be so sure of the product quality! (I would if I had known how to ask in Bahasa Indonesia) I proceeded to go upstairs to have my hand carry baggage checked by the customs officer in light blue uniform. The officer who wanted to check my passport and boarding pass was perhaps more "courteous" than any Singapore ICA officer I have ever met. He immediately stretched out his hand to have a "handshake" with me. I smiled and put my passport and boarding pass on his outstretched hand and declined the "handshake". No Singapore ICA officers have ever offered to shake my hands!! The Courtesy Campaign in Singapore does not seem to work as well?

I have never fallen sick in Medan until recently, after living here for about two years. I had a flu and bad cough recently. I am not the type who likes to see a doctor for minor medical problems. Anyway, don’t bother to go to any private clinics during the daytime as none are open. They are open only in the early evenings from 5-8pm. Why are they not open in the daytime? It seems so obvious, the doctors are not available until after 5pm. Why are the doctors not around? Because they are employed mainly in the hospitals in the daytime and “moonlight’ only after work.

Anyway, I did not visit the clinic and instead I asked a staff member at my office to buy some cough medicine from the apotik (Pharmacy). He came back with some cough tablets and antibiotics. I asked him how he managed to get antibiotics without a doctor's prescription. His reply was, ”You pay, they sell.” It seems that people here self-medicate for minor medical problems. You can find an apotik on almost every street in downtown Medan, just as you can find a 7-Eleven on every street in downtown Hong Kong.

Rumah Sakit or hospitals are also a common sight in Medan. I just wonder what I could find in there. The bigger and more well-known hospital is Gleneagles Hospital which I understand is opened by a Singaporean. I was there recently for a medical check up for some medical benefit insurance coverage from my company. The doctor who attended me was a beautiful and fair complexion native lady doctor. After asking me the normal clinical questions, she proceeded to ask me to lie down on the couch. I did as instructed and she took my blood pressure. She told me it was 110/80 which she said was quite low for my age.

After taking the blood pressure, unexpectedly she started to unbutton my shirt which I thought was a 'No-No'. In Singapore, the doctor would have instructed me to unbutton my shirt myself even if he is a male doctor. She used a stethoscope to listen to my chest. She said my breathing and heartbeat seemed fast. I told her it could be because I was just recovering from the flu. Luckily she stopped there and did not proceed to unzip my pants for other examinations. Otherwise she might probably have to re-take my blood pressure and this time she would tell me that my blood pressure was not low but too high.

Am I at the Company Dinner and Dance?

I got invited to several wedding dinners by some of my Chinese colleagues, but ended up being entertained as if I was at a company dinner. I was even given a lucky draw number; like at all company dinners the grand prize was drawn just after the last dish was served. It was also a fashion parade for the family members of the host. When most of the guests had arrived, the family members of the wedding couple parade in to the music and a welcome speech by the MC. Next we were entertained by a dance performance given by a boy and girl that were 4-5 years old - to welcome and usher the wedding couple in. I did what I always do in Singapore and stood up as a sign of courtesy for the wedding couple, but was told to sit down as I was blocking everyone’s view and the video cameras. It seems like the only people who stood up during the wedding march were the photographers and waiters.

I was served with an auspicious red-coloured Fanta drink. No cola or orange soft drinks. If you are a lady, kid or elderly person, you will be given a drinking straw. Why so? For a lady, it is to help her keep her lipstick on; for kids, so that they do not mess up their clothing; for an elderly person, so that they do not choke. Luckily the waitress did not give me a straw; as the only other category I was likely to fall in was the last category.

Throughout the dinner, we were entertained by karaoke and dance performances. Some were professionals, but the majority of the karaoke performers were from the host families. They were rewarded with ‘ang-pows’ (red packets containing money) as they sang. Family members went up to the stage to give them these ‘ang-pows’ despite how badly they sang. It seems that the winner of the ‘most ang-pow recipient’ invariably goes to the bride or bride’s mother.

In Singapore, traditionally, the wedding couple would organize a ‘Yam-Seng’ (toasting) gang to “thunder” the wedding hall with three Yum-Sengs. In Medan, there are no such ‘Yam-Seng’ gangs, just one short Yam-Seng conducted by the MC. When dinner is over, don’t expect to see the host families thank you for attending the wedding at the exit door, which in Singapore is a must. They are busy taking photographs on stage and you can leave at any time without informing them.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly about Indonesian Banks

In Singapore, it was so hard to get people to sign up for direct deduction from bank accounts to pay utility and phone bills, even though these services are offered free of charge by the banks. In Medan, my utility bills are deducted directly from my bank account but there is a service fee of Rp 2,000 (S$0.40) for each deduction! And the utility bills which I have arranged to pay by direct deduction are not sent to my home for verification. If I wanted these utility bills for verification, I have to go to the bank to collect them. Why are the bills at the bank? Well, they are sent by the utility companies to the bank so that they can be manually deducted from my account! Will Singaporeans still be so reluctant to sign up for direct deductions in Singapore if they know what is going on in Medan?

You can get internet banking with some local banks here. I have a Permata bank account. Creating internet banking access is even more convenient and secured than some banks in Singapore. I just create another password (called TIN) using my ATM card. This password is different and separate from the ATM card password. With the TIN password I can register as the system counter-checks the TIN with the ATM Card ID. Checking balances from internet banking requires two passwords. First you need to have the internet access ID and password. After you get into your bank account, you still need the TIN to check balances and perform fund transfers.

Fund transfers to a third party bank account with the same bank are perhaps the most valuable lesson I think the Singapore banks have something to learn from Indonesian banks. Many Singaporeans fear entering an incorrect but valid transferee account number when doing a fund transfer. Singapore banks have always been handicapped by the bank secrecy requirement in that banks cannot reveal third party names. I am not sure whether Indonesia has similar banking secrecy laws but Permata Bank has overcome this in a very interesting way. When I key in the account number of the transferee, the system generates a crossword puzzle by giving only a few characters of the name of the transferee and not the full name. So if I add the account number of VIOLET DESIREE as a transferee, the system will give me the crossword puzzle VI_l_T D__S_R_E to solve. It is time Singapore banks learn something from Indonesian banks on how to overcome the banking secrecy restriction for better customer service!

One other feature for which I have to give credit to Permata Bank is the SMS notification feature. Permata Bank allows us to store our mobile phone number and every time there is a transaction with our account, for instance a withdrawal from an ATM, the customer receives an SMS immediately telling him/her which shopping center and ATM the money was withdrawn from. It would be really useful for parents in Singapore who open a bank account for their children. Every time the child withdraws money from his/her ATM, the parent will know how much he/she withdraws and where he/she is hanging out.

We thank Bin Hee Jum for sharing his new experiences in Medan!

© Bin Hee Jum