This post was partly inspired by a conversation my friend, Aaron Connelly, and I had about categorizing bureaocrats. Aaron, Andrew (Aaron's friend visiting from Seoul) and I were at a bar and Aaron began to talk about what he called "the typology of beaurocrats". Andrew remarked that it was a potential thesis topic, and I thought it was funny, so the topic was still on my mind on my way home.
While waiting for the Transjakarta (the special bus-system in Jakarta), I felt beads of sweat begin to roll down the grooves of my spine on the back of my neck. My new friend that I made while traveling in Indonesia, Claustrophobia, appraoched me. "Where was the bus and why were people in the 'line' standing so close to me?!" I grumbled.
In my discomfort and impatience I thought about how lines in Indonesia (or lack of) baffle me. They baffle me because 1. they don't usually form - people just mash into each other and 2. When there is an attempt to make a line, people either cut in front of me or are oblivious to it. I was in the second situation. In the Transjakarta bus shelters, there is at least an attempt to make people conglomerate into a line-like formation. The city even recently posted signs that say "laki-laki" (man) and "perempuan" (woman) to create order and separate men and women. But that doesn't mean people actually listen, or that the rules are enforced.
There I was, still waiting after 15 minutes, and people began to cut in front of me. Instead of getting annoyed, though, I decided to change my perspective and have fun with the situation. I started paying attention to the people in the bus shelter. I observed how people cut in line. I tried to pinpoint their tactics: did they use distraction, brute force or a sweet smile? What made someone a more successful line cutter than others? I realized that, indeed, line cutters have strategies! Within a matter of 10 minutes I had already identified two types. This was getting interesting.
1. The opportunist: This is a person who sees an opening in the line and just goes for it. Nothing else matters. It's just about getting as close to the front as possible. If someone calls them out on cutting, this person will usually shrug as if to say "what, man? I saw a space and I took it. You've got to go for it if you see it". This is a 'survival of the fittest' kind of attitude.
2. The aloof 'bystander': This person usually has something in their hand, such as a phone or a newspaper, to appear busy or distracted. That way, people think of them as innocent bystanders, minding their own business. But that's exaclty what they want you to think. In fact, they are line delinquents! Eventually they inconspicuously slip into the front of the line, and go unnoticed because they appear to have been there the whole time. Perhaps he is just a straggler or an outlier people think to themselves. This is the more sophisticated type, as opposed to the opportunist.
Since playing this little game while in line, waiting has become much less burdensome to me, and even intriguing as I find ways to analyze the people I'm waiting with. I've realized that, contrary to what I used to think, line etiquette does exists in Indonesia, but it's different than in America. I just haven't figured out the nuances of the etiquette yet...
Then again, when I think about my days of living in New York, Jakarta's 'line system' doesn't seem so foreign. The Jakarta bus shelter conjures memories of hot summer days in the subway. Often during rush hour, the New York subway gets so crowded that I imagine people sticking their limbs out the windows as the only way to make more room for passengers at the upcoming stops (because New Yorkers know that people will find their way in the car, no matter how crowded). People often try crazy things just when the subway car is at the apex of impenetrability, such as squeezing themselves, their baby AND its carriage into the train car. Usually a purse, a jacket or the baby stroller wheel will get caught in the door as it's closing. The door continues to open and close until the person either pushes their way in (while people shout "take the next train!") or gives up and gets out.
Perhaps this chaotic mass of people, the pushing, and the lack of lines while waiting for something is a phenomenon of all people in large metropolises. Either way, whether it's characteristic of Indonesia or big cities in general, I'm still confused about the concept of 'waiting for your turn' in Indonesia. Meanwhile, I guess I just have to embrace the madness, or at least cultivate an expertise in identifying line cutters before they make their move!
Hi, I'm Megan. I am a writer, a photographer and an international public health professional. After a year-long research project in Indonesia, I'm back in my hometown, Chicago. It's great to see white snow again, but I miss the fresh coconuts that machete-slinging street vendors would chop open and sell to me for a mere 50 cents. Currently looking for ways, other than hibernating in a hat and gloves under my comforter, to stay warm. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to pitch your ideas. (FYI - I already tried hot potatos in my pockets, an old Irish tradition)