I do not think it means what you think it means

تم النشر: 23 سبتمبر 2014 11:17 CET

By Ika Mudzar, IFRC

Being half Malaysian and half Indonesian/Dutch, I thought I knew enough of both languages to be able to use them without ever getting into an awkward situation. On my recent mission to Aceh, Indonesia, for the documentary shooting of the 10-year-anniversary of the tsunami, I learned that my preconceived notion of being adept practitioners of both languages couldn’t be further from the truth.  

In Malay, the word “seronok” (pronounced sur-oh-nok) means “fun” or “happy”. It is one of the most widely used expressions of glee in the country. If someone is asking you, “Seronok tak?”, it simply means. “Are you having fun?”

I assumed that the word has the same meaning in Indonesia. Both languages are similar enough that if you’re a Malaysian traveling in Indonesia, you wouldn’t have any problems getting around and communicating, and vice versa. During my one week mission in Aceh, I had the opportunity to speak to many Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI) volunteers, branch managers, staff members, as well as the locals we were filming for the shoot. The resilience and positive outlook on life that these people have – even after their harrowing experience with the 2004 tsunami – was inspiring on its own. There were several occasions when I used the word “seronok” to describe the feeling of being there. Whenever the word came into play the response would be the same; the person I was speaking to would either stare at me in disbelief or burst out laughing. I had always brushed it off, thinking I must’ve looked funny when I said the word, until that one day when I had a conversation with a PMI staff who was based in Banda Aceh.

“How do you find your stay here?” he asked me.

“Good! Ika seronok sangat!” (I am very happy!), I responded with my usual chirpiness.   

Once again, I was at the receiving end of that surprised stare, followed by a chuckle. This time however, the person asked, “Ika, what does ‘seronok’ mean in Malay?”

“Why, it means to have fun!” I said. “Why are you asking?”

He started laughing again, and when he regained his breath, he said. “Here, it means half-naked. You just said you were very half-naked!”

You can imagine my surprise and embarrassment, and we had a good laugh for a long time afterwards. It was a lesson in understanding cultural differences and I was a lot more careful after that, cross-checking words in case I said something silly again.

Being part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement means you sometime get to experience different cultures and subcultures. There is a wealth of knowledge and stories to be gained from immersing yourself in one culture and seeing how similar or different they are from yours. It reminds us of how different we are and how similar we are in our differences.

Ika Mudzar is a communications and knowledge sharing specialist with the IFRC and undertook a mission to Indonesia to witness the effects of Red Cross Red Crescent operations in the 10 years since the country was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2004.