'The translation fail that brought me closer to my in-laws'

Kirsten Laiken Brown
·5-min read

Well, there I was – I was all of 30 years old, an LA girl born and raised, and now living a new life in Oz.

I had hardly lived in the lucky country for a full calendar year and everything was still seen through fresh American eyes.

On my initial journey here to meet my then-fiancé’s family, I had thought to myself, “How different could it be? I mean, they all speak English, right?” I chuckle now at my ignorance, but back then I had no idea how little I knew.

Kirsten Laiken Brown wearing a hat at an outdoor cafe
So innocent. I didn't know what I didn't know! Picture: Supplied

A year later, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed addition by marriage to an Australian family.

And my in-laws frequently talked about so many vacations! They went off to Bali every year and called it a ‘holiday’, like the Madonna song. As the word ‘holiday’ fell on my ears I was swept away in my mind to England, or Europe. It sounded fancy.

The vast amount of travelling I heard about from every Australian I met bewildered me, too! How much vacation time does an Aussie get per year, anyway?


I mean, coming from LA we hardly needed to go anywhere. We had the snow, the desert, and the ocean within a few hours of each other and if you felt you needed a bit of culture you could always hop on the next plane to NYC for a weekend, or drive to Mexico. What were you missing out on?

But when I heard stories about Bali, oh my – my imagination wandered to islands scented with freesia and gardenia. Green, rolling mountains and swaying palm trees. Drum beats, fire dancers and woven sandals. Though in all reality, the only real association I’d ever made with Bali was in a song sung by Sting. Either way, this place had to be magical!

Woman using a swing over the jungle and Bali rice fields in Tegalalang, Ubud
Me, in my imagination, enjoying a Bali holiday. Picture: Getty

My mother and father-in-law departed on their annual vacation to Bali in November. This time my husband and I were invited to join.

I squealed in delight!! My mother-in-law's stories echoed through my memory, of how kind the people were and how much they smiled, full moon gatherings... I was beyond excited.

She called me from Bali with suggestions of clothing for the trip. I found this incredibly helpful as I had no clue of dress-code expectations.

“Make sure to pack your thongs,” she said.

“And bring two pairs, in case one breaks. One for the plane because darling, the heat hits you like a brick when you land!

“And one for when you’re here – but not to worry if you forget. We can go shopping together and buy a pair if you need.”

I was horrified. The questions running through my mind… How close were she and my husband that she felt ok discussing my thongs… how many I should bring, exactly? What kind of plane is this where they need to wear thongs – and how exotic is this place Bali where they wear thongs off of the plane?? Why would one break? How fat does she think my butt is!?

Young woman dreamily looks at bikinis in the store
Was I really ready for this kind of display in front of my husband's parents? Picture: Getty

She patiently waited for my reply. She had to be wondering why the long pause, but being trapped in alarm and confusion, I simply could not speak.

Finally, my mother-in-law broke the silence, asking, “Darling, are you there?”

“Yes” I awkwardly replied.

“Everything all right?”

The word ‘darling’ had already taken me a little further from a shared reality, since this word isn’t used in LA unless you are disgustingly posh or an imposter pretending to be an upper-class Englishwoman. The way the word rolled off her tongue made me somehow feel richer. I enjoyed it.

I giggled and she asked, “What’s so funny?”

I could only ask her in an embarrassed whisper, “Why are we discussing my underwear?”

“Underwear??” she shrieked. “Darling, I’m talking about sandals! You know – the thong sandals!”

Pair of thong sandals on a lawn
The thongs my MIL was talking about. Easy to break. Picture: Getty

“... You mean flip flops?” I asked, the truth beginning to dawn at last.

“Yes!” she replied, already laughing, “I don’t want to know about your knickers! What did you think I was referring to?”

“Well, you know the underwear with the string in the back?”

She bellowed with laughter, “Oh my god no, not those!

“I don’t want to see you in those – that’s between you and Regan!”

We jointly laughed in slight embarrassment but mainly, especially for me, relief.

Sheer thong underpants pegged on a washing line
NOT this kind of thong. Picture: Getty

At the end of the day, being lost in translation is a part of living in a new country and not giving up on the communication brought us closer together in the end.

And Bali was wonderful in my thongs! Both kinds.

Oh, but lastly – I asked, and it turns out Sting did not sing about Bali. He was singing about ‘fields of barley’.

Good thing I didn’t leave that lost in translation!

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