“You can’t simply decide to be Asian. You must have an Asian culture. This means, for a start, changing your attitude and improving your manners. Asians don’t go around telling others what to do.”
That contradiction from the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in response to a journalist who asked whether Australia could affiliate with ASEAN.
More than a quarter century has passed since the PM’s provocative pronouncement. Although most Australians have reluctantly accepted they don’t live in the mid-Atlantic twixt the US and Europe, Canberra remains as only a ‘dialogue partner’ outside the Southeast Asian ten-member block.
Twelve per cent of the Australian population was born in Asia (2016 census), yet ASEAN’s leaders reckon the Great South Land remains the same white outpost it was in the 19th century.
As for nations, so for individuals. Here’s the uncomfortable though slowly changing reality: Ex-pats may marry a local, have a residency permit, be fluent in Indonesian, love the cuisine and be unbothered jumping traffic lights, but we’ll be forever foreign. That’s because skin-color, facial features, behavior and body size scream: Non pribumi. (Sanskrit pri = before and bhumi = earth.)
The maintenance of separation is more subtle, a deeply embedded view that only a pribumi can be a true Indonesian. The word is overloaded with hard-to-grasp connotations. The US Library of Congress reckons it means:
Literally, an indigene or native. In the colonial era, the great majority of the population of the archipelago came to regard themselves as indigenous, in contrast to the non-indigenous Dutch and Chinese (and, to a degree, Arab) communities. After independence the distinction persisted, expressed as a dichotomy between elements that were pribumi and those that were not.
To say non-pri are rejected or spurned would be too harsh. It’s more about holding onto identity than discrimination. Endy Bayuni, a former editor of The Jakarta Post, is sufficiently pribumi to venture where a non-pri fears to tread, suggesting Indonesians’ ‘inferiority complex’ may have developed from centuries of violent suppression. Whatever, the uncomfortable fact remains: Ex-pats will never get full membership of this nation’s exclusive club.
Government ministers claim the Republic is multi-cultural because around 300 ethnic groups live together in the Unitary State. The term has a different meaning in the West.
A large sign on a wall at the Brawijaya University Hospital in Malang lists all medical staff. Everyone has an Indonesian name. In an Australasian hospital there’d be names with links to Africa, India, Europe, China, the Asia Pacific, South America and the Anglosphere. That’s multiculturalism.
Those who’ve married an Indonesian know about the sometimes annoying, often funny but always challenging differences which need to be handled dexterously if the relationship is to endure.
Trip-ups can include gaps in ages, education, expectations, likes and hates, politics, ideology, religion, money matters and the overweight baggage both dump on one twisted-wheel trolley while heading for arrivals.
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Compounding the obvious difficulties are the subtleties. Prime is jealousy. Bule (Caucasian) brides tell of hostility from locals refusing to acknowledge the lady demands equality, so won’t have her husband considered the household head.
Indonesians who move from Ibu to Mrs will likely be assaulted by the green-eyed monster. The malicious will tell all who’ll listen that the match wasn’t made in heaven but in the goldfields where she must have been digging. Then they’ll whisper she’s struck paydirt, even when her nugget is so tainted with impurities of alimony it’s almost worthless.
If not jealousy, it’ll be spite. There must be something wrong with him / her if they couldn’t find a soulmate from the same background. Backbiters and the bitter won’t accept there’s a reason called love, and it can transcend all the difficulties.
Communication remains critical. The national tongue is Bahasa Indonesia, but for most locals it’s not their first language, just the one they use in formal settings.
If your darling is Javanese you’ll have problems unless you’re a polyglot with a PhD in linguistics as there are multiple levels depending on whether you are talking up or down the social ladder. In Malang there’s even an argot which stirs up spelling so the city becomes Ngalam.
When your beloved is rabbiting along with her or his mates and you fear they’re talking about you and your faults, the tiny seed of doubt slips into a crevasse of the mind. Here it starts to germinate, irrigated by anxiety. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to talk.
That’s fine if she and he are equally competent in one language – a rare situation. In most cases the Indonesian member of the union is the more linguistically adroit, and the language used in kitchen and bedroom is English.
That statement is made as an Antipodean where being monolingual is a badge of merit. Speaking BI doesn’t necessarily equal communicating.
Shock and awe – the listener’s face goes blank and the eyes flicker to my wife for an explanation. She speaks the same words but understanding is immediate.
Until an academic offers a more credible reason the problem is that few expect to hear a stranger use BI, particularly the stilted, formal, weird-accent variety we’ve learned, so find comprehension difficult.
Indonesians reckon they’re friendly, and if that means the casual exchange of pleasantries and passing waves, then the cliché is spot-on. Going deeper can be awkward even on a so-called liberal campus. Is it safe to talk politics and religion without alienating colleagues?
If seeking a fellow expat so you can explore the taboos and exchange anecdotes about Widgiemooltha or Woolloomooloo it’s worth asking: Would I enjoy this idiot’s company back in my homeland? Better look for an Indonesian who shares my interests.
It will take truck-loads
of effort, but eventually we may get to expunge the arrogance of Mahathir
Mohamad by creating a global citizenry. Cross cultural marriage can be a good
start. Just be prepared for some hiccups
along the way, laugh a lot at the mutual mistakes, and learn to ignore the envy.
First published in Indonesia Expat, 7 May 2021: https://indonesiaexpat.id/featured/forever-foreign-in-asean-and-what-it-means-to-be-pribumi/