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, July 01, 2012


 Inheriting the curse of culture

Are disputes over rinsing a coffee cup grounds for divorce?  Can conflicts about ironing ever get smoothed over?  When clocks aren’t in sync is it time to wind up a marriage?

These are some of the tangled questions any couple considering a mixed culture relationship need to consider before tying the knot.  Otherwise it might strangle the pair once they’re hitched.

When you fall in love there’s no space for the trivia of domesticity.  Who cares about the kitchen and laundry when attention is focussed on the bedroom?

But once the fantasy fades the upheavals begin.  These can be seismic enough when he and she share the same culture.  When they’re not, the molehills don’t become mountains – they’re the real Ring of Fire.

As always, it’s the simplest and silliest things that cause the biggest problems.  Like washing up.

In my culture this is a duty to be shared.  In hers it’s a job that men are genetically programmed to be incapable of performing.  If they do manage to sneak into the kitchen (assuming they know its location) and start scrubbing. then everything from teacups to toothpicks has to be washed again by the born-to-clean professional.

My system requires a sink full of hot water mixed with detergent.  Hers uses running cold water and a soap-soaked sponge.

With the absolute certainty that would give me honorary life membership of the Front Pembela Islam, I know my way is right. That’s because, well, ‘er, because it was taught by my mother.  It kills germs and doesn’t waste a precious resource. 

She claims the static water gets greasy and fouls other dishes.  She also knows her system is superior because she learned it from her mother.  In any case, this is the way things are done in Indonesia.

The differences are irreconcilable – like those over the ironing.

I say it’s unnecessary to iron underwear, sleepwear, socks, towels, tea towels and just about everything else apart from the clothes we wear outside.  That was the way my parents handled the laundry because it saves time and power.

She says everything must be steamed, heated, pressed and folded and it doesn’t matter if the job takes for ever – because that’s what happened when she was toddling around her mother’s knees.

Are these serious matters?  Is the President a Muslim?
If there’s one issue that really puts a mixed marriage into the blender it’s jam karet. This has nothing to do with fruit conserves but everything to do with the elasticity of time.

If you come from a culture where your parents taught that punctuality is next to piety, then marrying an Indonesian will really stretch your wedding band.  Though not if you learn how things function in Indonesia. Here time is a work in progress, not a reality that’s been running for millennia.

The hour marked on invitations has nothing to do with a start for the event.  It’s just a helpful indicator of when invitees might consider commencing bathing, changing and applying make-up.  Only when these are complete can we call a cab.

Two hours late - who cares?  What’s one hundred minutes or more when everyone is doing the same? Except the naïve and fidgeting Westerners who have been pacing the empty function room since the advertised start, boiling up their blood pressure, shredding their nerves.

It’s said that love conquers all.  If so it needs to have some heavy armor to defeat the battalions of cultural differences that threaten to over-run mixed-race relationships.

So what’s the solution?  Cut yourself free from the cords of culture binding you to a different country, a lost lifestyle, an alien world.  Altering the beloved’s work styles and attitudes might mean changing the qualities you first found so cute and adorable.

Westerners living in Indonesia face the dilemma that confronted the dinosaurs:  Adapt or die prematurely of a stress-induced coronary.

(Written in the lounge, comfortable in ironed undies, hearing the tap run in the kitchen, a forbidden zone.  It’s 3 pm.  We might leave for a friend’s wedding soon. It’s set to start at 2.  But hey, take it easy.  I also want to be late for my funeral.) 

(First published in The Sunday Post 1 July 2012)


1 comment:

Jakartass said...

I read this with a very wry smile in the Post this morning.

There's nothing on your list of "irreconcilable differences" that I'm not familiar with.

Nice one.