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Peculiar Questions

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I work out now. I don't just work out say - once a week for half an hour with my AB-roller in front of a TV munching chips at the same time. No. I seriously work out, in a serious, well-equipped gym, four times a week, doing the walking uphill thing for an hour, the tummy-crunching thing one hundred times and the butt-lifting thing fifty times.

Why do I do it? Did I finally realise that gulping red wine and dancing till two o'clock in the morning is not an ideal fat-burning, muscle-tightening routine? Not really. Actually, I started to work out because I got fed up with people - mostly Indonesian females - saying: "Aduh, kok sekarang gemuk, ya?" ("You have become fat now, haven't you?"), with a devilish grin obviously inferring how delighted they were to see my body looking more like Monica Lewinsky's rather than Penelope Cruz's. One less intimidating female in their way.

The worst chubby-tummy-related statement so far was: "Lho, barusan nglahirin sudah hamil lagi?" ("I thought you just had a baby, and you're pregnant again?"). I felt like striking the heel of my stiletto on the person's nose when I heard that remark! Nobody cared to give me a break. So what, I still had my after-pregnancy blubber, but did these people have to point it out so cruelly? I genuinely believe that these very same people are partially responsible for Post-Natal Depression.

Still talking about pregnancy, most Indonesian women just love talking about this particular subject! They love it so much that a discussion of pregnancy is definitely not categorised as a private matter. I remember when my husband and I visited my husband's previous place of employment in Yogyakarta a couple years ago, less than a year after we got married. The staff, who still recognised us, greeted me.

One female staff said: "Ibu, lho mana anaknya? Sudah hamil belum?" ("Ma'am, where is your child? Aren't you pregnant yet?").

Why did they ask me such a ridiculous question? There are several logical possibilities. The first possibility, which is a harmless one, is that they genuinely cared. Most local women want to have children as soon as they are married; either because of their love of children, as a proof of their womanhood, or simply to have a stronger foundation to confine and commit their husbands to their marriage. The second possibility is that they wanted to point out that you might be an incomplete woman - not able to conceive a baby. The third possibility is rather cruel. They might have thought that I got pregnant to push my then-boyfriend to marry me. For what other reason would their previous not-so-docile boss want to be tied up in marriage, if not because of an unplanned pregnancy?

Indonesians - the masters of small talk and peculiar questions.

Let's see... aha! "Sudah mandi belum?" ("Have you taken a bath yet?"), is one of my relatives' favourite things to ask every time I stop by for a visit. Why? Beats me. Or stating the obvious: "Baru makan nih?" ("Are you eating?"), when they see me sitting in my dining chair, with a plate of food in front of me, and a spoonful of rice in my mouth. What else do you think I'm doing? Having an orgasm?

A German friend once told me, "I can't stand it when they - the Indonesian colleagues in my office, my landlady or my neighbours - ask me "Dari mana?' ("Where have you been?") whenever they see me arrive from somewhere and when they ask me "Mau ke mana?" ("Where are you going? ") every time they see me ready to go somewhere. Why do they ask me these personal questions? Where I have been and where I want to go are not their bloody business!"

What is it? Is it being courteous, nosy or just annoyingly stating the obvious? I realised, that in the Indonesian language, these peculiar questions are called 'basa-basi'. In my dictionary, basa-basi means courtesy or conventional phrase of greeting. My toes just curled up - that always happens when I disagree with something! I think these Indonesian courtesies can be divided into three categories: positive courtesy, meaningless courtesy and cynical courtesy.

Which one is which? O God - I'm driving myself crazy. I think you have to be an Indonesian to truly understand the difference.

Somebody like me, who has voluntarily positioned myself in between two cultures - western and eastern - by marrying an expatriate, sometimes feels trapped in the middle. Part of me understands how to play the language game but another part of me acknowledges that some of those basa-basi questions are improper, illogical, or just a rude invasion of privacy.

To make peace with myself, I've decided to simplify the situations I encounter. I decided to believe that people ask me basa-basi questions because they care about me. For example, when people pointed out how heavy I had become, I decided to believe that those people were happy for my prosperity. Mind you a lot of Indonesians believe that being fat equals being wealthy or prosperous.

After all, a language is only the invention of an imperfect society, don't you think? Especially Bahasa Indonesia, which was introduced to people across a vast archipelago whose native tongues are not the Malay dialect it was derived from; it is easily misused and can sound awkward. Myself - I'm way more fluent and politically correct in Javanese and English than in Bahasa Indonesia.

When I was working at my previous place of employment, there was one receptionist who used to always ask me "Mau pulang Bu?" ("Going home Ma'am?") every evening after office hours. I just smiled, though I was dying to say out loud: "No, actually I'm not. I just love to pretend that I'm ready to go home by carrying my bag, putting on my jacket, walking to the elevator, going down to the basement, unlocking my car only to lock it again to return back upstairs to my comfortable office cubicle - just to amuse you, alright?"

First published in The Jakarta Post on Sunday, May 5, 2002.

Housing and schooling information for expats in Indonesia expatriate website for Indonesia Indonesian language translation of article

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