Saturday, September 3, 2011

Awkward Situations & Amusing Questions

Like every other Volunteer, I get a lot of strange questions/comments and often am put in situations that would be terribly awkward in the US (see Nicole's post).  At some point, things stop being surprising and you have answers ready for even the weirdest inquiries and cultivate a certain what-the-hell approach to the unfamiliar.  For your entertainment and edification, here are a couple brief episodes.

·      Yesterday I went back to Giripurno, my training village, to visit my family.  It was a Friday, so I accompanied Pak Rodli to the Friday prayers.  I was dressed like any self-respecting Javanese Muslim man—kopiah, sarong, and baju koko.  I borrowed the last item from Pak Rodli, and I like it way more than the one I already have and plan to get a bunch just like it.  Anyway, I looked really Javanese.  Later, I was walking up the road to visit Cody’s training family, and I was stopped by one of the neighbors.  He said something about me looking very Muslim or Javanese.  So far, so good.

And then, vaguely in keeping with the whole Oh-you-resemble-a-Muslim shtick, he asked me if I’d had my foreskin cut off yet.  Well, I didn’t exactly understand the words he was saying, but when he pointed at my crotch with the devil’s own grin on his face and blathered something in Javanese, I put it together.  Unsure how to answer, I stalled a bit, and he repeated his query.  Wanting to be sure that his point came across, he mimed a most vulgar snipping of the member in question.  He was, of course, teasing, but he seemed alarmingly interested in the answer.  I told him that it was a private matter and we tried to move on with as little awkward lingering as possible.

·      The first (and thus far only) time I went to get a haircut, I went into the village salon with my Ibu.  The two hairdressers were already attending to some clients, so we took a seat.  I was soon joined on the cushioned bench by a plump, well-dressed, and immoderately made-up woman in her mid-fifties whose manner could be termed “handsy”.  Drawing upon every reserve of restraint and composure, I sat there like a Zen Master as this woman caressed me.  Yes, caressed me.  She 1) put her hands on my face, touching my nose and admiring its straightness; 2) examined my hair, which is thicker and wavier than Indonesians’ hair; 3) stroked my thighs and shoulders; 4) compared her dark skin to my light skin; 5) generally smothered me.  All the while, she was peppering me with questions and bursting out with exclamations about how handsome/smart/generally awesome I was.  Javanese frequently praise foreigners in this way—they’re really very complimentary, and they’re up-front about how they think white skin and “straight” (rather than flattish) noses are beautiful. 

[Side note: Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my eyes here, which are my best feature.  I’d certainly never been praised for my skin color or nose-straightness before arriving.  Weird place.]

At one point, I tried to shift my posture so that she would no longer be able to hold my hand, which she had seized upon arrival.  I succeeded in freeing my hand, only to watch as she quite deliberately grabbed it, as if it were a puppy wandering into traffic, and set it in her lap, fixing me with an “OOOH NO YOU DON’T!” expression that transcended any language barrier between us.  She invited me to eat dinner and spend the night at her house.  Mind you, this all happened in the presence of at least four onlookers, and she was simultaneously talking with everyone in the room.  After an eternity, I was rescued by the hairdresser.

·      Some interesting questions I’ve fielded/assumptions I’ve attempted to set right, ranging from the innocent and cute to the redundant to the awkward to the unintentionally depressing…
o   Does it rain in America? (I think all the PCV’s have gotten this one)
o   Is there rice in America? (…and this one)
o   What is your religion? (Extremely common and meant harmlessly, but could be awkward if you say anything except one of the six recognized religions of Indonesia…makes it hard on atheists/agnostics)
o   Does the sun rise in the east in America?
o   What is the weather like in America? (Implicit assumption that the US has a single climate)
o   What’s farther from Indonesia: Hong Kong or USA?
o   Assumption: Latin America and/or Mexico and/or Canada and/or Europe are parts of the United States.
o   Aren’t Indonesian people ugly/stupid!?!?
o   Do you want to marry an Indonesian?
§  Why not?
§  Could you be convinced?
§  …but what if you stay here for a long time?
§  Don’t you know you can have more than one wife?
§  Not going for it? Oh well, you’ll probably find an Indonesian woman anyway tee-hee tee-hee.
o   Would you consider converting to Islam?
o   Why are there black people in America?
o   Have you met _________ (Obama, Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, or any other international celebrity)?
o   Why do seasons change?
o   Oh, are you _________?
§  Answer: Yes, as you can CLEARLY DEDUCE from the visual evidence, I am in fact eating/washing clothes/leaving for school/coming home/going to bathe/making food.
o   Do you have a goat in your house?
o   What is to like to eat pork/drink beer?  Why don't you like eating chicken feet/cow skin?
o   Which country has better people, Indonesia or America?
o   What is a planet? (After me explaining that a certain point of light in the sky was not a star but, in fact, Venus)
o   And my greatest pet-peeve: What kind of music do you like—pop or rock?
§  Frequent corollary: Well, do you like (insert shitty band here)?
§  Inevitable follow-up: WHY NOT?
§  THUMP THUMP THUMP as my head bangs against a wall.

Interestingly, I haven’t gotten many questions regarding sexual culture in the US, at least from people I didn’t already know well enough for it not to be awkward.  I have gotten some, most of which centered on how exactly people do the whole "free sex" thing.  Free sex is the Indonesian term for the right that Westerners have to just sex up people who aren’t spouses without any societal hammers dropping.  They are amazed.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Tim,
    This was fascinating, albeit uncomfortable,to read. I'm sorry for your discomfort, but just think about the great job you're doing edifying the Indonesians about our customs and traditions/likes & dislikes. (Or at the very least what Tim Curtin likes & dislikes!)

    This was just beautifully written. Keep up the good work, and know that people many miles away are thinking about you, and hoping that it gets a little easier with time.

    With much afffection,
    From Your American "Mom," Anne Miller