Finding my way around Indonesia is quite a daunting task. It’s like driving with blinders and I was never really good at driving sans blinders to begin with. Undaunted by the cultural humps, I navigate through the social landscape of Indonesia with steadfastness.
One cultural nuance I find incredible is the dynamics between men and women. In high school, I was taught earlier on about the concept of platonic relationships, that both genders can occupy space without it having to mean more than it should. Apparently, in the real world, it’s not always the case. When I was talking to the Muslim religion teacher, a colleague sidled up and blurted: “Miss, you better be careful of him. Actually, you’re better off with the other guy.” Poor man, he didn’t know what to do or where to look with the impromptu match-making, which wasn’t my first. One time, I was asked about my marital status and when I replied “single”, a new colleague said with a mischievous grin, “Oooh, there are a lot of single men in our department.” I was dumbfounded and flashed an uneasy grin.
A friend explained that singlehood was akin to a fraternity. All the singletons felt an affinity towards fellow singletons as they’re not alone plus the pool of potential life-long partners becomes bigger. Everyone is waiting for couples to get together like in Hollywood. It’s also always assumed that one is married thus it’s shocking news if you’re not, but the shock quickly dissipates and is replaced with wicked glee. There’s a new member to induct into the Singletons’ Fraternity!
This same friend once found himself in a bizarre situation. He asked a male co-teacher to open his bottle of water for him. He suffers from arthritis so his grip is far from strong. Within minutes, snickers filled the room. They certainly weren’t insinuating that romance was in the air – or were they?
Compliments can also be misconstrued so expect the gossip mills to turn when you remark to the opposite sex that they’re pretty or look good. The spin doctors will be busy too when they get whiff of the news that you’ve been giving tokens of appreciation. It’s a cultural thing, I was told.
How one is addressed has me thinking too. Women – single married, local or foreign – are referred to as Ibu (Indonesian for Miss) or Miss. Local men are called Pak (short for Bapak which is Indonesian for Mr.) while my two Filipino colleagues and an American colleague are addressed as Mr., never Pak.
Lunch is something I find equally baffling. Unlike in my high school days where going out for lunch at the nearby mall or the cafeteria was the norm, most high school students at Bekasi prefer to bring lunch to school because the prices, I heard my students exclaim, are very expensive, and the parents are generally very fastidious about their child’s diet. One student from Grade 7 had a Tupperware full of tofu and sausages, which he was gobbling as fast as he could. Another student, a gangly Grade 9 student who’s tall as a lamppost at 14 years, had a Tupperware of rice, meat and a liter-bottle of water, which he carried around in a nondescript plastic carrier.
Teachers dig into plates of rice, vegetables, meat or a bowl of noodles at the cafeteria, which is a routine habit. A colleague took note that he had never seen me in the canteen; I stopped eating there after suffering from a massive migraine for two days. Too much salt and MSG never sat well with my system so I usually head home for a quick lunch of couscous, tofu and vegetables, if I don’t get to pack bread.
A most telling cultural thing that I recently learnt from a student is to never call them Indons. The moniker is a pejorative; they prefer Indonesian. Duly noted.
Am still driving on the cultural highway and wondering what’s up ahead.