“To speak or not to speak?” is rarely, for better or for worse, a question I ask myself. Maybe ‘how much to speak?’, or ‘in what tone to speak?’, but in an effort to learn this language I rarely let a conversation opportunity float by untouched. It is oftentimes only by forgetting an important word or grammar structure in a crucial moment that I then sear the term to memory for future conversations.
So in a rare moment of intimidation I sneak a nervous peek over my laptop screen into the next room. A cluster of slang-chattering Indonesian undergrads sit around the television at Lauren’s new home, friends of her new housemate. I am here helping her move in before I travel to Bandung and begin work with Rumah Cemara, but I sit in pause mode, wondering whether to introduce myself. Yes, I would love to speak with them, befriend them, glean important young-adult-in-Indonesia information from them. But no, I don’t want to make a fool of myself, appear unintelligent or fall prey to the embarrassing”what if?” scenarios that suddenly cloud my thinking.
After a few rounds of internal deliberation I decide I’d rather be a friendly bule (foreigner) with a lot to learn than a mysteriously silent peer too afraid or apathetic or uninterested to say hello. I fold up my Mac and make my move, and despite some blundering conversational campur (indo-english mix), I find that contrary to my fears these guys are delightful and hospitable. They invite me to go swimming later at the University pool, and they welcome me to sit and watch with them, flipping back between a Manchester United game and the inescapable MTV VMA reruns. Among the common ground opinions that emerge, we all agree Lady Gaga is gila sekali (absolutely insane).
New moves – Lauren’s into this house, and mine to Bandung- align with the new moon that signifies Idul Fitri. On this Muslim holy day the month-long fast of Ramadan is finally broken. Fireworks explode by night and dustclouds rise in the abandoned streets by day, as everyone has returned to their home village or is busy cooking in their own homes to partake in this religious and national celebration. Swarms of street children strategically print “Zakat” on their collection boxes as they approach car windows and motorbike drivers with an unrelenting eyes, Zakat being an expected donation of food or money to the poor. Families of four or more clutch onto each other atop a single motorbike, dressed in their best clothes, heading to communal prayers at the local masjid (mosque) and to grand feasts at the homes of families. En route to Lauren’s new home we watched a parade of celebrators shuffle by, children processing with colorful paper lanterns and adults behind, calling out the Takbir in unison with the muezzin’s calls, “Allaahu akbar wa li-illaahil-hamd” (God is the Greatest and to God goes all praise). Round upon round of voices echo through the streets, unintentionally creating a single giant choir.
And because of the new move after the new moon, I studied kuat sekali (very hard) in my final week to master more vocabulary, grammar rules, and cultural idioms alike. I sat Thursday morning at the batik-tableclothed table, one on one with Pak (Mr.) Yos, who after thoroughly intimidating me in the first lesson has now become my most cherished guru (teacher). Pak Yos is one of the eldest among a mostly young adult staff, the kind of guru who corrects you the millisecond you mispronounce a word, and begins a lesson as if an interrogation, with a tone of warning as if there will be eternal consequences for incorrectly forming the intransitive verb. His style has pushed me quickly to stand firm and be more confident in my speaking, and through our conversations I began to see in him all that he truly is – a loving a father loyal to and longing for his home island of Flores, a jokester appreciative of my attempts at humor, and a philosopher pensive about the precarious politics of his own nation.
I began on Thursday as usual with a layout of my intended weekend activities ahead, and a discussion of current events. I noted that I would return to the Orthodox Church in Solo, where, he was quick to remind me, there had just been a deadly police shootout, in which one of the most wanted terrorists in Southeast Asia, Noordin Mohammad Top, was killed by police. I asked why the newscaster used the word tewas to describe his death instead of instead of the word I had learned for murdered, pembunuh. It was, after all, an intended killing by the police. Pak launched into a lecture about the different words for death – mati (for animals and plants), meninggal (from old age or sickness), tewas (from natural disasters or accidents), gugur (from fighting in war), and wafat (death of a saint or holy person).
“But Noordin didn’t die accidentally!” I argued, “The police had every intention of killing him, it was an assassination.”
“Betul (true)”, sighed Pak Yos, leaning back in his chair against the board as if pushed back by an invisible weight.
He continued on that to bunuh diri is to murder alone, or commit suicide, but no word exists for assisted suicide or euthanasia, a concept that would invoke extreme punishment from the community if performed (even on a pet). (Click here for Lauren’s analysis!) I dig in again a bit, though cautiously, suggesting that a government who funnels money away from basic health care and sanitation and into its own pockets should possibly be considered eligible for this unnamed concept. Or maybe that’s called tewas too, I thought to myself, biting my tongue from sounding too critical or rude.
But Pak Yos picked up on my tone and wove it into his own heavy thoughts. I paused, and let his gaze latch onto the thought floating before him. “The Javanese are like the Wayang” he revealed in a rare instance of using English. He came to attention, both elbows planted on the table. “You will never see a Javanese express much.”
Wayang is Javanese for “shadow”, and refers to Indonesia’s unique traditional storytelling theater, where 2-D puppets of buffalo hide perched on bamboo shoots act out lessons behind a sheet of thin, white cloth. Whether electric bulb or oil lamp, a bright light shines from behind the cloth, onto which the puppets’ shadows are then cast. The Dalang, or puppet-master, can manipulate the principles of light and shadow to adapt tales from the Ramayana, depicting the eternal battle between forces of good and evil.
Now back to Indonesian, Pak elaborates, “From the audience’s position, it all looks wonderful. But up close you can tell the puppets are made from bad materials. Here people always want to look good even if they are bad.” I sit with his thought, I scribble it down, and we move along to studying the passive voice, as Pak Yos so characteristically darts back and forth between the practical and the philosophical.
His musings follow me into my weekend. I remain in awe of the diligence of my fasting Muslim friends, disciplined in their prayer and generous in their charity. Yet my awe is struck down when I pick up the newspaper and read about the western province of Aceh, where a new law has just passed making adultery punishable by stoning to death. “This law is a preventive measure for Acehnese people so that they will avoid moral degradation,” said a spokesman for the Prosperous Justice Party. There has of course been immense resistance to the law, much of it led by groups like Human Rights Watch. In addition to outrage over what the law allows, they wisely point out as well that, “(The law) only deals with petty crimes, adulterers, but it doesn’t deal with (significant crimes such as) corrupt officials.”
Now I am no where near as eloquent as my beloved Muslim professor Irshad Manji on the topic, but certainly this constitutes a wayang dilemma, where the Acehnese government cares more about their province appearing morally sound than about their government behaving in a morally courageous manner. Irshad’s recent book review for “Half the Sky” highlights one of many ways she sees this dilemma played out, describing “a Muslim woman in Sweden who hides immigrant Arab girls threatened by honor killings. She told me that many Western feminists condemn her because, she believes, they care more about looking tolerant than about saving lives.”
But neither the Javanese nor Indonesians nor Muslims deserve such a solitary bad rap, as the wayang dilemma is clearly more a matter of human nature than culture quirks. Later in the weekend I had my own wake-up call to American image hypocrisies on a trip to the mountain retreat of Kaliurang with new friends. One new friend is on a work assignment to the US Embassy and she revealed her amazement at the luxurious accommodations she is being provided in Jakarta. After my own naive questioning I learn that this luxury is standard, and not the exception, to US representation abroad. My brain ached with frustration, and despite attempts to hide my disapproving wince and suppress rolling my eyes, my face communicated the struggle. How is it that we spend extravagantly in putting up our overseas ambassadors in the absolute highest quality accommodations, yet we are facing a near revolution in bickering over health care costs for a plan desperately needed to keep our own citizens healthy and alive in-country? Surely a competent representative can achieve the same results at work whether sleeping in a king size bed or a simple single? Why does the obsession with image win over the pursuit of substance?
And as not to excuse myself, I also fall prey to the dilemma, as when I sat today thinking about whether to approach my peers or not. Certainly the concern for portraying an accurate and amiable image is a worthwhile goal. For example, in accepting a gracious invitation from my friend Vivo to her family Idul Fitri celebration, I worried I might make a fool of myself in front of the woman who has gone to such incredible lengths already to welcome me into her country. My first Idul Fitri!, I wondered, did I bring enough oleh-oleh (small gift)? Am I dressed nicely enough? And as is usually the case, my image concerns melted away upon meeting her adorable nieces, her brilliant sister, her aging Ibu and Bapak (mom and dad), both clad in traditional batik, with a youthful twinkle still in their eyes. They were far more interested in learning about my life, and telling me about theirs, than what I brought or wore. The funny part is, as I realized with my peers and with Vivo’s family, is that no matter how the shadow casts off of us, we are all made up of the same material.
The best thing about a new moon? There is actually almost no light at all, as it occurs when the moon lines up directly between the sun and the earth. So rather than having to worry about how my shadow will fall under a fluorescent full moon, I can take this moment for reflection. There is time, albeit brief, to focus on the details of substance, rather than become distracted by perceptions that can lead us away from who we ideally want to be.