The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Love me, love my feline © Duncan Graham 2009

Memo Indonesian women: So you think it would be cool to hook a Westerner? Make sure you first check his passion for pets, or your catch could turn into a catastrophe,

Successful inter-cultural relationships demand understanding, tolerance and patience in spades. These factors feature in mono-cultural marriages, though by comparison they have a walk-on role, they’re not the starring characters in the daily dramas of domesticity.

All the clutter of culture, from washing the dishes (Indonesians do this plate-by-plate in cold running water, Westerners in a sink of hot water), to the way the WC is used (no details required), can quickly eclipse the honeymoon.

But these are all hiccups compared to his and her attitudes to pets. Particularly cats.

Unless these issues are resolved early in the mating game the results can be cataclysmic. Sharing your partner with a puss can be the catalyst for a critical marriage moment. When he says: ‘Love you, pet’, who’s he addressing?

Cats have no status in Indonesia. There’s a score or more of scrawny crinkle-tail strays in our street in Malang and none seem to have a home, though some kind folk put out their scraps to keep the animals alive.

Others put out poison to try and get some peace from the caterwauling while unsterilized toms cruise for queens. One Tom Cruise, seeking sanctuary in a house with a foreigner, perished in the roof. It took weeks to get the stench out of the house, and several layers of paint to cover the ceiling stains.

In the West cats are pampered pussies. Harm a cat and the law gets its claws out. Catricide is an imprisoning offence.

If your neighbor buys a Mercedes you can be sure he or she is a veterinary surgeon, not a property developer or merchant banker. You can even get acupuncture for your pet.

Cats’ culinary needs are promoted on TV commercials with the hype and style of shampoo ads in Indonesia: ‘Added vitamins and factor X19 keep fur bright.”

Large sections of Western supermarket aisles (catwalks?), equal to the amount of space given to rice in an Indonesian shop, are dedicated to pussy products. These come in colored packaging with prices to match, and include hygienic kitty litter, collars with bells (so you can bell the cat despite Aesop’s fable), medication to cure every known condition, bedding and baskets, even jewellery.

These goods are all listed in a catalogue.

The latest gizmo is an electronic door that can only be opened by a cat with an implanted microchip. This restricts all but the owner getting access to the house and prevents strays coming in to watch an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on TV or reading T S Eliot. The cat, of course, owns the house; the humans are only the occupiers.

The religious in Indonesia display holy book verses on their walls, little catechisms encouraging the Almighty to bless the building. Australians favor epigrams like: ‘A house is not a home without a cat.’ The Portuguese put it more bluntly: ‘A person who doesn’t have a cat is a scoundrel’.

Indonesian women who like to think they are the real ibu rumah tangga (boss of the household) seem to have problems with this arrangement beloved by bule (foreigners). Some wives get so worked up they turn catatonic. Others just become catty.

They imagine cats (the cleanest of God’s creatures) bring awful diseases into the house. Like cataracts and catarrh.

It’s true some breeds tend to shed hairs, claw carpets, clamber up curtains, vomit hair balls, steal the fillet steak while you’re answering the phone during dinner and bring headless rodents into the lounge as trophies to impress guests. However these are minor matters when compared to the benefits from being owned by a cat with charisma.

These include keeping the bed warm (better than an electric blanket, just purrfect), having someone to share your meal when you’re missing the missus, and playing with the mouse and pawing the keyboard when you’re lost for words.

In fact this By The Way should also include the catchline: ‘Additional reporting by Meow’.

(First published in The Sunday Post 31 May 09)