“Ah, I thought you’re Indonesian!” she exclaimed, as a smile crossed her face. She had been speaking to me in Bahasa Indonesia in rapid-fire fashion, which always left me with a puzzled look on my face.

“Saya tidak orang Indonesia. Saya orang Filipino,” was my normal reply to such exclamations of discovery. Translated: “I’m not Indonesian, I am a Filipino”, which is one of the few complete sentences that I can utter in Bahasa Indonesia aside from “How much is the chocolate bun or brownie?”

What’s different about this situation is, aside from not raising my hackles, the sincerity in the smile. Unlike elsewhere in Asia where I’ve been to, generally speaking, my identity as a Filipino – after a long and winded guessing game of where I’m from – has always been met with either a snide look or a sudden switch from being interested to coldness or both. And the conversation ends abruptly. The ambience suddenly hangs heavily with a mixture of disguised disdain and forced civility. Suddenly everyone seemed to be seized with the bizarre triskaidekaphobia disorder. Yet, the one time I said that I was a Filipino-American from Palo Alto, California, on holiday in Asia, the causerie flowed like the gentle rushing of the waves to the shoreline.

The astonishment that accompanies the smile is more because of their folly in automatically assuming I’m an Indonesian – which, apparently, borders on rudeness (isn’t talking to someone in a language they don’t understand impolite?) – than a bigoted perception of a Filipino who keeps Singapore and Hong Kong, among the many countries, tidy. I’ve slightly let my guard down against questions on my national identity in Indonesia, having observed that I’m asked not out of malice but pure interest in knowing who I am and my culture that is similar and dissimilar to theirs.

Language is one commonality although not in its entirety. It’s more the parallel words such as, to mention a few, payong (umbrella), mangkok (bowl), kanan (right – as in the direction), mahal (expensive in both languages, but which also means love in Filipino), murah (inexpensive), panas (warm or hot) and sala (mistake). The Filipino phrase for I love you, “Mahal kita”, strikes the funny bone of the Indonesians all the time.

When it comes to food, Filipinos and Indonesians like to eat rice and sweet stuff. Rice is a staple feature of meals, which is accompanied by vegetables and chicken or beef and fish dishes. Couscous, my rice-substitute, is not part of their menu though. Similarly, instant noodles are part of the repast, which is disconcerting for me because of the proliferation of MSG and other preservatives. However, I’m certainly one with them when it comes to the sweet stuff  that run the gamut of brownies, chocolate bread, banana fritter with chocolate, martabak (Indonesian pancake with fillings of caramel, chocolate and cheese) and sponge cake. Concomitantly, donuts bond Filipinos and Indonesians together much like what fags do for smokers.

On the other hand, unlike Indonesians, Filipinos (excluding me) have a great proclivity for pork dishes – grilled, stewed, boiled, roasted or fried – and sour dishes. Obviously, pork is absolutely haram (forbidden) in Indonesia and the locals’ palate is more attuned to the taste of chili. Vegetables are laden with diced red chili; the Indonesian croquette, risoles, is best eaten with green chili; and fried noodles are equally laced with chili sauce.

Faith in the Almighty is another trait by and large shared by the two races. Each day is began and ended with a prayer to their own deities to express gratitude for the abundance of blessings and also to convey their concerns in life. Indonesians practice a high level of tolerance towards religious differences, which strongly mirror author Karen Armstrong’s discussion in her book Islam:

“Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in a most kindly manner – unless it be such of them as are bent on evil-doing –and say: ‘We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you; for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that we [all] surrender ourselves.’”

–          Page 10, Islam

The Filipinos’ religious tolerance is summed up by unpleasant experience with my grade 2 teacher who loathed agnostics.

Laughter is another commonality. Amidst the disasters, personal problems and angst, and the stresses of the daily grind, Filipinos and Indonesians never fail to see the therapeutic power of laughter. The situation reminds me of Persepolis the book by Marjane Satrapi.  In one of the comic strips, The Joke, Marji reaches an epiphany after visiting an old friend who had been seriously maimed during the Iran war. She learned, “We can only feel sorry for ourselves when our misfortunes are still supportable…once this limit is crossed the only way to bear the unbearable is to laugh at it.”

And, finally, hospitality is a common ground that Filipinos and Indonesians trek upon. There’s nothing like being welcomed as a friend each morning, which crackles with amity. Given this, it’s no surprise that resort islands in Indonesia and the Philippines are teeming with Europeans and Americans who, aside from escaping the cold season, bask in unparalleled warmth and generosity.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by i_am_aoisoba on October 13, 2009 at 11:45 am

    you forgot both are cute, loveable and huggable (love handles and all)


  2. Posted by Grumphy elephant on October 23, 2009 at 1:03 am

    i am aoisoba has to be the other grumps of cavengah right? anyways i’m still trying to work out the benefits of religion to society.


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