Bahasa Pasar - Understanding the Language of the Markets

As you fight your way through the streets, restaurants and markets of Sanur, Ubud and Kuta, you quickly realize that there is a small selection of "standard" English greetings and phrases used by many of the people involved in the tourist industry.

The first greeting is always "Hello Mister/Missus/Boss", usually followed immediately by "You want to come to my shop?", or something similar. (Although, in Ubud, the whole conversation often consists solely of the word "Transport?") If you keep walking, you will hear "Where are you going?". For many people in Bali this is serves the same purpose as "How are you going?" in the English-speaking world. The actual answer is not relevant. (Just as few people are really interested in how you really are going.) For Indonesians, it is usual to ask someone out in the street where they are going, because, even in modern Indonesia, there are still many people who have not traveled more than a few kilometers from their village. An honest answer to "Where?" you are going is more interesting and acceptable to the inquirer than an honest "How?" you are going.

If you have stopped to browse and/or chat, you are asked "Where do you come from?". Again, in a village, this would be a natural question to ask a stranger. Once this topic has been dealt with, the conversation turns to topics that seem to verge on an invasion of privacy. However, people who grow up in a country as populated as Indonesia have a different concept of "personal space" to many born in countries such as the United States and Australia. Answers to questions such as "Are you travelling alone?" and "Are you married" (both absolute certainties for women on their own) are of interest to many young Indonesian men and women. A "Yes" to either, or both, questions has led to many happy relationships.

Once the small talk has been dealt with, it's down to business. "You want one more?" is a common opening once the "salesperson" spots the shirt/t-shirt/sarong/watch that you are already wearing. (It would be interesting to find out how many people actually buy a second item, once the opportunity to do so has been pointed out to them.) For most people, this doesn't work, because they are looking for something they haven't yet bought. This seems to be not obvious for many stall holders.

Another common practice, again, unlikely to encourage anyone to buy anything, is to keep badgering the customer. Even though you have said "No", probably more than once, and, possibly, in more than one language, it is not understood as an absolute refusal. Again, how many people will change their mind and buy, after having refused several times?

The current phrase in the Sanur beach markets is "Only two dollars!"(U.S.) It is a mystery why this phrase has suddenly become the only one in use, because most tourists in the area would be carrying rupiah, Australian dollars or European currencies. It is also interesting to note that, in other parts of Bali, "Only one dollar!" is the cry - inflation? Since U.S.$2 is currently worth at least Rp 20,000, and many of the items on sale can be bought for half this amount, bargaining down to, at most, half the opening amount is still economically smart.

When clothes are being tried on for size, "personal" remarks about your body size, shape, colour, etc. are often made. To the stall holder, they are honest, often helpful, observations, and may help you to make a more satisfying purchase. As in many other countries, being "large" is a sign of wealth, and is usually complimented.

The important thing to remember is that, even though every person with something to sell wants you to buy it, most stall holders and street sellers have a genuine interest in people and things foreign. Enjoy the conversations.

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