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Bobot, Bibit and Bebet

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No, it's not a name of another law firm.

I thought I should bring it up as I overheard an Indonesian lady talk really loudly on her mobile phone yesterday. No, I wasn't eavesdropping. She was literally shouting. I think mobile phones somehow always manage to transfer their users into a secluded space where nobody is distracted by their ear-splitting conversation. Anyway, enjoying my coffee latte in a café in Kemang, I couldn't resist reaching for my notebook to write down the subject of her conversation with a friend on the other end of the line.

She said: "Yes, I'm going down to Perth next week. I won't marry him until I meet his family and know exactly what kind of gene pool and background he came from. He has to be healthy genetically, if you know what I mean. It would be a disaster to find out one day that his brother has been treated in a mental hospital or something."

For crying out loud! Who said that love is blind? Love is calculating more likely.

Just imagine hearing somebody say something as shallow as this: " I really love you. I would marry you if your family wasn't allergic to fuchsia. I really love fuchsia."

Try to flip through the Indonesian-English Dictionary written by John M. Echols and Hassan Shadily (all male expatriates who have been whining about not finding 'decent' Indonesian woman are strongly recommended to pay attention!). You will find the words bobot, bibit and bebet (Javanese descent) which means quality, origin and rank. These are also the qualities for ranking a prospective son-in-law.

In the good old days, parents in a Javanese family applied the three criteria to screen their future son-in-laws. The first criteria, bobot, means the quality of the person. Ideally, people who have done a lot of good deeds fit this criteria. But bobot can also be translated as weight. Yes, body weight. A lot of Javanese people say that the heavier you are - the wealthier you are. Of course, many also believe that the grudging overweight community invented the saying.

Bibit means seed, or origin. This relates to your family background, whether you have 'normal' well-behaved parents and siblings or not. A few decades ago, blue-blooded gentlemen who were related to the Kings and their associates were highly preferred. At the present time within the modern society, these titles of nobility mean almost nothing.

And last but not least is bebet, which means rank. Rank is a big thing in Indonesia. Sometimes it doesn't really matter whether your salary is hardly enough to feed the family or not, as long as you have a 'big name' rank. Like 'Manager of Office Sanitation and Drainage Systems', which can be simplified as janitor, for example.

There's one more thing I think is important to be added to these criteria: health. Nowadays, there are so many diseases going around. New diseases, old diseases and some old viruses with a completely new set of clothing and accessories. Human beings are not the only living objects to follow trends, you know!

I heard that in the west, it is very common for a couple to inspect each other's medical check-up results in preparation for a wedding ceremony or for that matter, even for a one-night stand. I think it's a very clever thing to do. You never know what your good looking, loving and good-hearted potential spouse has been doing for the twenty years before you met them. This action, although clinical, would probably help put an end to the spread of STDs, don't you think?

So, what was it? Bobot, bibit and bebet and health certificates!

The conclusion is, remember to always have your name card, family tree and health certificate ready in your briefcase. You never know when you might need them. Maybe even in your favourite bar downtown!

I remember a story I heard few years ago. It's a story about Brad, a well-known chef from Sydney, and Putri, an Indonesian lady friend of mine Brad was going to marry. One evening Brad went to Putri's house with one intention only. Fully aware of the local tradition and culture, he wanted to ask permission from Putri's father, an old fashioned yet highly educated Javanese man, to marry his daughter.

After listening to Brad's proposal, Putri's father calmly asked Brad: "So you're a cook. I can't let my daughter marrying a cook. How are you going to feed her? How could you possibly imagine fulfilling my daughter's needs with the salary of a cook?"

Remember that in this country the title 'cook' doesn't have very stylish connotations. It's definitely not as stylish as the title of 'Country Manager' or 'Sales Executive'. Most Indonesians' understanding of a cook is somebody who works twelve hours a day cooking fried rice in a street side food-stall. At that time, Putri's father wasn't aware that Brad owned and ran the hottest restaurant in the heart of Sydney.

But, does it make any difference? Knowing Putri all those years, I'm sure she wasn't falling for Brad because of how much money he made, what he did for a living or even what colour his skin was. It was just pure love (and good food of course). Regardless of the regulations or criteria which are attached to it.

Love is simple. It's human beings who make it look complicated and full of calculations.

First published in The Jakarta Post on August 20, 2000.

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