Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Dear Mom, Part 6

Every six months, we bang out a novella to the folks back home, updating our progress integrating into the vast unknown. Those letters are serialized here, dating back to the first month we started putting electrons to phosphors here.

Dear Mom,
I’m starting this letter early in the hopes of actually being able to complete it by February 15, which will be the third anniversary of my arrival here. With any luck, and a little persistance, I should be able to meet that goal.
At any rate, it seems almost trite to say that my arrival day seems like yesterday, and yet generations ago. I can vividly remember walking from the plane to the luggage claim, and then the drive from the airport to Kemayoran, where Steve and his family lived. I distinctly remember looking around on the drive and thinking how it looked just like every movie set in southeast Asia, with coconut trees and rice paddys all over the landscape.
I recall the feeling of severe disorientation when I encountered a language unlike anything I was familiar with in the past. I strained to listen to conversations and try to catch individual words. I looked at signs that meant absolutely nothing to me; all of which seems so basic to me now. I even catch myself thinking in Indonesian on a regular basis.
At that time, I made numerous social faux pas, like paying with my left hand or waiting for women to go first through doors, and such. I would forget to remove my shoes at the door constantly. All those things have become automatic nosw. I’ve even adopted local table manners, like putting my arms on the table, eating with my hands and drinking soup from the bowl. And I can’t forget to belch at the end of a meal to signal that I have had enough to eat.
Those first few months in Balikpapan, I struggled to communicate. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t get the most basic ideas across. I spent hours with my dictionary memorizing words, though I had no reference for the grammar, which still flummoxes me. I was eating foods I had never encountered, much less heard of, and tastes that were completely foreign. Some of the ones that initially reviled me are now among my favorites.
In three years, I’ve gone from a suitcase and $1,000 and sleeping on the floor of an office, to a house that requires a rather large truck to move. My wardrobe has expanded to include a dozen dress shirts and ties, as well as a collection of batik shirts with motifs from various areas around the country. I’ve also added several pairs of shoes, two of which are sandals, which are the primary footwear here.
In a sense, Indonesia has as much invaded me, as I have invaded it.
It’s not all peaches and cream, of course. The first year was a nightmare sometimes, and I nearly gave up and came home a hundred times. The big turning point was when I cashed in my return ticket, with about a week to go. At that point, cut myself loose and chose to stick it out and see what it would be like to live somewhere new without the thought of running home at any minute. That was really the moment things started to change, not in any physical way, but in my perspective.
It was all a matter of prepositions. There was nothing to go back TO, and everything to stay FOR.
In so many ways, I feel more alive now than I have in years. Every day is a challenge, though not always in a positive way. That would be too simplistic. There are many tests and it is difficult to come to grips with being a perpetual outsider. No matter how long I live here, how much I adopt the local custom or how well I speak the local tongue, I will never fit in completely. I look and act nothing like any Indonesian anywhere in the country.
That leaves me with two alternatives: get upset all the time, or make lemonade.
I have come to enjoy the kids following me through the neighborhood chanting, “Bule kampung!” (village white boy) I have encountered very little prejudice (quite the opposite really), but it does let me know that I will never be mistaken for a local, as I might in Ireland or Germany, or even northern Italy. Here, I am an eternal outsider.
It does have its benefits, though. There is a certain deference to bule. The folks here give a wide latitude and extra consideration to foreigners. However, it is always assumed that I am ignorant, and vendors constantly try to rip me off. I call it harga bule, or white boy price. Instead of getting angry though, I have made a game out of it. In fact, I’ve gotten quite good at negotiation, much to the amusement of onlookers, who watch to see how much the vendor will scalp me for. I’m quite sure it makes for half an hour of chatter after I leave, that I not only know the real prices of things, I try to get an even better deal. Just like a good Indonesian housewife, they say.
Another trick with the buying racket is to have my girlfriend, Wati, go in and get the price settled, then I walk in to pay. It always gives me a certain satisfaction to see their faces when they realize that a bule was the buyer. The only bule I know who is better at it than me, is a Dutchman, who being Dutch, is notoriously cheap.
There is a certain attraction to the country that appeals to foreigners. The vast majority of bule I know have been here between 10 and 30 years. The few newbies I know catch the bug in about the same amount of time as I did, around six months. I have known a few who come here on a one year teaching contract and then can’t wait to get out. Invariably, they are women, just as most of the long-termers are men.
The reason is simple. Indonesia has a very traditional culture in which women are most definitely subservient to men. Part of it is the muslime influence, but most of it is just adhering to the old ways and eschewing modern feminism. It is a function not only of men demanding it, but the women themselves enforce it on each other. It is the way things are, and that’s good enough.
As a westerner, it does take some getting used to though. Having the woman walk behind you and even open doors for you is a rather strange feeling. The women won’t eat until the man has started. They will request, but never demand. In fact, of my female students, their greatest goal in life is to be a housewife and care for home and hearth. It is quite refreshing, actually, coming from a culture where the behavior of women is virtually inditinguishable from that of men. There is a reason that Asian wives are so highly prized by western men.
It is hard for me to put my finger on what it is that draws me to this place. It is a problem of having too many points, and most of them being so subtle. It’s a lot like Carroll’s, “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” There are some very obvious differences, but most are very small and take a while to notice. There is a certain unspoken initiation into the culture, in which one is slowly given the full revelation of what it is to be Indonesian.

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