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Lagi Apa, Mas?

In Texas, every man is his own king, and every woman, his queen, so we use "sir" and "ma'am" when addressing pretty much anyone but a Yankee or Dallasite. Also, as Thomas Jefferson famously said, "An armed society is a polite society." In Texas, it's safe to assume anyone you meet is armed, so it's wise to be polite to anyone you meet.

Here in Indonesia, there is a very complex system of social address that perplexes most Westerners, at least those who haven't lived here for a while, or commonly, don't learn Indonesian.

Much of the confusion stems from the plethora of cultures and peoples across the archipelago. By most estimates, there are around 300 separate groups, tribes and ethnicities here. There are as many languages and customs, as well. The island of Java tends to dominate national culture in a way that New York tends to dominate American (and Dallas) culture.

Where all of this is leading, is to survey the means of addressing others in social and business situations. By way of explanation, one must keep in mind that Javanese culture was strictly feudalistic for centuries, with two royal sultanates surviving to this day: Yogyakarta and Solo. Of course, the Batak claim that all Batak are of royal blood, since there were ten kings, and every Batak was related to a royal family.

Generally, when one meets someone of obvious greater age or social rank, one addresses them with "Bapak" or "Ibu," which more of less translates as "sir" and "madam," though ibu also means "mother." Bapak also means "father," but in common usage, one uses the Arabic word "ayah." Now, that seems simple enough, except that the language has separate words for addressing older and younger siblings, and these words translate into social discourse. A younger man or one of lesser rank is referred to as "Mas," which really just means "older brother." Younger women are addressed as "Mbak," or sister.

It gets worse. In Sumatra, one generally uses "Amang" and "Kakak," which depending on which source you listen to, mean more of less the same as "older brother and sister." However, in a lot of the Batak dialects (there are ten of them), "amang" means father, while "inang" means mother. There are similar variations across the islands, with most being more egalitarian than Javanese.

The Founding Fathers of the Republic, Soekarno and Hatta, insisted on using "bung," which is a generic term meaning "brother," but without any consideration for age or rank. One thing the revolutionaries wanted was a classless society, much like Texas. The effort was all but abondoned under Soeharto, who wasn't so much a dictator, as he was a revival of the monarchy. Steeped in Javanese culture, he was unable to conceive of any form of leadership that didn't involve social ranking and subservience to the superiors.

The revolution in Indonesia was a protracted one. It began in earnest in the 1920s, with a concomitant effort to unite the islands under a single language: Indonesian. It reached a fever pitch in the 1940s, immediately post-WWII, with leaders such as Soekarno and Hatta. The date is marked as August 17, 1945. However, it is an on-going process. This is not the homogeneous society that appears to those outside.

There is a lot of resentment outside Jakarta and Java, because one perceives that power, resources and culture center here. It's not unlike the resentment of the "fly-over" country in America to the hegemony of New York and Los Angeles (we in Texas couldn't give a damn about the Yankees, Fruits and Nuts, of course...). The primary difference being that American culture is bi-polar, while Indonesia is mono-polar.

It's quite interesting to learn these things as an outsider looking in. Indonesians are aware of these issues, though it is virtually impossible to extract one's self from one's culture and look at it dispassionately. As I have explored before, the Javanese culture has a certain inherent power because it has the benefit of planning and future awareness that is virtually absent from other regional mentalities. Java culture, being historically dependent on rice production, had to plan for the rainy season and storage for the dry season, in much the same way Western cultures had to plan for winter. This one seemingly simple difference gave the Javanese a cultural edge.

Consequently, Javanese culture is exported to the rest of the nation through the media, which is obviously centered in Jakarta, as it is in New York and Los Angeles in the States. For that reason, terms of address like Bapak, Ibu, Mas and Mbak pervade the national culture. This promulgates the class structure, which is very strong here, in a way that many Westerners can't even comprehend.

Because language and culture are inextricably interrelated, it makes sense that hierarchy in one enforces it in the other. It stands to reason that changing one would translate into changes in the other, as well. Perhaps returning to the salutation of "bung" would serve to level society, and subsequently serve to open society to participation by all members, not just the privileged few. Thinking follows vocabulary, and culture follows thinking. Just as Hollywood has coarsened American life with nothing more than movie dialog, a simple change to social titles would open Indonesian society to greater upward mobility.

Of course, that assumes that there is a will within the culture to bring everyone up, rather than, as in the States, to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

The danger lies in the American glorification of coarse, uneducated gang-slang, which is anathema to an educated society seeking to elevate its members. Slavery takes on many forms, and language is a tool for maintaining it.

My upbringing taught me to address all men with "sir" and all women with "ma'am." Thus, my thinking is that all people are worthy of respectful address in a classless worldview. Indonesia would do well to consider the concept of their Founders, would forged their relationships in the common desire for liberty and the struggle for independence. Perhaps it's time to revive the title of "Bung," and to consider what their society and culture holds as its ideals.

A true Republic thrives on egalitarianism and education. Indonesia has taken great strides in the realm of education, with most people seeing education as the stepping stone to wealth and properity, and social mobility. Converting that desire into language would further the cause and install the idea within the thinking of all people.

Know what I mean?

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