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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Root Salmon

The Mix-Up of Borrowed Chairs


Matthew and I had been in Indonesia as missionaries for almost three months and were sitting at the kitchen table eating our breakfast on a Saturday morning when we thought we might have heard a gentle knock at the front door. Matthew got up and checked and found no one. After hearing another knock, he went to the back door and was met by our neighbor, who wanted to make a small request.


Matthew, still being new to the Indonesian language but starting to understand, picked up the words “borrow,” “chairs,” and the idea of “this evening” and thought that they wanted to borrow our chairs for a celebration we knew they would be hosting that evening. Matthew agreed and invited her in to get the chairs, but shaking her head, she responded, “No, it’s okay. I only wanted to ask.” He thought this was weird, but after rejoining me at the table, we quickly finished our breakfast. Then we collected all our chairs only to open the back door and find large stacks of chairs on our back porch. So, we were left there surrounded by chairs and feeling a little confused, but it didn’t take us long for us to realize there must have been a misunderstanding.


In Indonesian, you can ask to “borrow” a space. For example, when people ask if they can use your bathroom, they sometimes ask if they can borrow your bathroom. So, our neighbor hadn’t asked to borrow our chairs but instead our back porch. We’ll never know exactly what she said, but she probably asked to borrow our back porch to store their chairs until that evening.


Language learning is a process, and beginning to understand a little bit is exciting. But when you think you know what was said but you actually don’t, it can lead to some interesting situations. Thankfully, our neighbor’s request was one we would have happily agreed to even if we had understood what she was asking for.

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