Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Dear Mom - Part 2

The Javanese people identify most strongly with the central part of the island, including the cities of Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Solo, and Tegal. Javanese culture values politeness and deference above all other characteristics. However, these traits are carried to the extreme and so they can be very frustrating at times. A Javanese person will never tell you “no.” Rather, they will seem to agree and consent, even when they have no intention of fulfilling a request. If you ask directions from a Javanese, they will tell you even when they don’t know, which can lead you in circles quite often. When you make a request to a Javanese, you must listen for words like, “Yes, but…” If you hear that, then they have just said no. Many Westerners complain about Javanese because they think they have an agreement for something, when in fact they only heard the “yes” and not the “but.” Javanese have a reputation for being very polite to your face, while acting quite differently behind you (or in front of you, as the Indonesian expression goes). The Javanese have been very successful in government and diplomacy, as you can imagine. The national government is dominated by Javanese, much to the consternation of many other groups.

The Javanese are lowlanders and their counterparts are the Sundanese, who are the mountain people of central Java. The Sundanese language is cognate to Javanese. For instance, saying “thank you” in Javanese is “matur nuwun,” and in Sundanese is “hatur nuhun.” In both cases, the response is “sami-sami.” The Sundanese are an unassuming and generally uneducated people. They are very small, even by Indonesian standards. Of the many I have met, on average they come to my solar plexus. They are highly prized as household servants and nannies, however you will be strongly cautioned, as they have a reputation for thievery. More than once I have been told to be very careful hiring Sundanese servants, as once they have the key to your house, the family will back the truck up and start loading.

I could go on ad nauseum. I have not even begun to describe the Betawi, who are the native inhabitants of Jakarta and West Java, nor have I mentioned the Dayak, Banjari, Manadonese, or the dozen other groups I have encountered so far. Each group sees themselves as the best and is prejudiced against some other group. Almost without exception, however, is the pervasive dislike of Papuans. Papuans are Negroid, not unlike aboriginal Australians and Africans. Their biggest problem is that the color black is considered dirty or filthy, therefore black skin is reviled and the Papuans therefore are looked down on. I have only met two Papuans, so far, who are both successful business people, so I can not describe the culture there with any authority. But, their general reputation among most Indonesians is one of savagery and illiteracy.

Having mentioned skin color, this would be as good a time as any to discuss a rather interesting topic, at least to me. There is a strong identity with white skin and wealth, status and success. There is a large industry here which caters to the desire of almost every Indonesian to be as white as they can be, which is remarkable since without exception, Indonesians are black haired, black eyed and dark skinned. The supermarkets are full of whitening creams and TV commercials hype products that lighten the skin and hair. The most successful actors/musicians, and the like, are mixed European-Indonesian. Prized features on mixed people are pointed noses, rather than broad, flat noses, narrow lips, and hair, eye and skin color which is shades lighter than average. The obsession with being white would be almost comical if they were not deadly serious about it. Being dark skinned is considered a sign of being low class, meaning you are an outdoor laborer. Many women aspire to marry Westerners, or at least breed with them, as the result is considered very attractive and desireable. A single white male will find himself pursued not very sublely for his DNA, if not for marriage. It is difficult for me to discern if this desire is the result of centuries of colonization, or if it in fact existed previously. At any rate, the level of attraction to people of mixed heritage is genuine and pervasive in the cuture and media.

This segues nicely into some observations on love and romance. It is endlessly fascinating to me that in Indonesian, love and pity are more or less equivalent. The local word used in the same context as “dear” or “honey,” is “sayang.” A dictionary will translate this as “to pity,” but it is used as an adjective, a verb and a noun. Lovers will say, “Sayang kamu,” instead of “cinta kamu,” which more directly means “I love you.” “Sayang” is also a term of endearment, not unlike sweetheart. In effect, it is more common to tell your lover, “I pity you,” rather than “I love you.” This would not be so strange, except that one also pities less fortunate people, in the same sense as in English. You can also say something to the effect of, “This is my sayang,” though more common would be to say, “Ini pacar saya,” or this is my boy/girl friend. By adding –an, pacar becomes a verb, so that you can say, “I want to pacaran her.” “Mau pacaran wanita,” thus transliterates as “I want to love-friend her.”

Another interesting concept is “cium.” Cium translates as sniff or kiss, and in fact, the way Indonesians kiss is by touching lips and making a swift inhale through the nose. Indonesians are deeply attuned to smells. There is a separate word for good smell (wangi) and bad smell (bau). Indonesians bathe almost constantly, spend millions on laundry scents, and aroma therapy is a huge industry here. Therefore, it makes sense that kissing and sniffing are the same thing. My theory, which I will expand on shortly, is that this practice is related to food. By sniffing someone, you can tell if and what they have eaten in the recent past. To a Westerner, this can be rather disconcerting, as we don’t generally acknowledge personal smells and don’t conceptually think of kissing in terms of smelling someone else. The exaggerated sniff associated with kissing here will seem somewhat shocking, if not downright impolite, the first few times. The practice is not just for lovers either. It is done with the social kiss on both cheeks, as well. The only other culture I know that has a similar practice is the French, where one takes the hand of a woman, bows slightly and sniffs the back of her hand (thus the floral nose-gays popular at prom time).

Social kissing/sniffing aside, it is considered very impolite, and almost taboo, to perform public displays of affection. Though slightly relaxed in Jakarta, which is comparatively cosmopolitan, one never holds hands or kisses in public. Playing grab-ass or tonsil-hockey in front of strangers, popular in the West, is unheard of here. It would be shocking and could even elicite a response from the FPI, the self-appointed morality police who make it their business to enforce rather archane morality laws influenced by muslim sharia.

As with all things, there are regional variations based on local tribal culture, history and religious mores. Indonesia is dominated by Islam, however Bali in predominantly Hindu, the Batak were chistianized by Lutheran missionaries in the 1700s, and the Manadonese have long intermarried with Dutch and Portuguese and are considerably more westernized in both culture and looks. There are pockets of Buddhists on Java and Kalimantan (Borneo), and smatterings of other religions, including a thriving Rastafarian group here in Jakarta. All must bow to the overarching and government-sanctioned Islam, however.

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