By Claire Harding (Semester 17/Aug 2003)
University of Western Australia
So here I am in Yogyakarta, which is a city in central Java (not to be confused with Jakarta people!). It is often referred to as the ‘cultural heart of Java’ or ‘city of students,’ as there are a huge number of students who study at the many universities here. Yogya-born inhabitants make up only about 40% of the population, so it’s very easy to meet people from all over the Indonesian archipelago. In the middle of Yogyakarta you will find the Keraton (Sultan’s palace), which was founded by Prince Mangkubumi in 1755. The building where the Sultan lives is called Gedong Kuning. Much of the palace is open to the general public, so visitors are able to view basically ‘everything short of the Sultan’s underwear,’ as my Dad once put it. A well-known landmark to the north of Yogyakarta is a volcano called Mount Merapi (which I’m proud to say I’ve climbed to the top of!). If you head south for about 27km you will reach Parangtritis – a beach which local legend claims is haunted by Ratu Laut Selatan (Queen of the South). Visitors are asked not to wear the colour green because it is her sacred colour. Apparently doing do will infuriate her and thus bring misfortune upon the wearer. You don’t have to travel far from Yogya to see some incredible temples. Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple compound in Indonesia, located 18km east of Yogyakarta. Meanwhile, Borobodur, one of the World Wonder Heritage Sites, can be found 42km northwest of Yogyakarta.
I have found that people here are very enthusiastic to befriend a bule (foreigner) in order to practice their English or simply be the envy of their friends (one tends to achieve instant-celebrity status upon arrival in Indonesia!) In general, Indonesian people are just so incredibly welcoming and friendly. They also want to know absolutely everything about us strange Western creatures, which is of course very flattering (can sometimes be difficult to remain enthusiastic about a conversation you have already had 40 times that day though!). Some standard questions include: ‘where are you from’, ‘how old are you’, ‘do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend’ (and if so, how many), ‘are you married yet’, ‘where do you live’ and ‘can I come and play at your place’. Yes that last one always threw me for a six!
After much careful consideration, I have decided that the 4 most commonly asked questions in Indonesia are, in no particular order: ‘sudah makan, belum?’ (have you already eaten?), ‘sudah mandi, belum’ (have you already taken a bath?), ‘mau ke mana’ (where are you going?) and ‘dari mana’ (where have you been?). On the average day I will be asked these questions at least 20 times. More often than not, the person asking them will not actually care whether you have had your bath or eaten yet or not…it is just a way of breaking the ice and starting a conversation with someone. I myself now ask these questions all the time too. It just becomes habit and then you find you can’t stop! Only when I step back and analyse what I am saying do I begin to think that asking someone in Australia repeatedly if they have ‘taken their bath yet’ might not be received all that well!
Indonesians are often very concerned with how much money we have and how much things cost too (eg: it is not rude to ask someone here how much they pay for their boarding room/house). However, none of the above questions are considered intrusive or impolite in Indonesian culture. They are facts and Indonesians want to know these facts!!! You are allowed to ask them the same questions in return of course.
They can also be very open about the way we strange bule’s look and are forever stating the obvious. Eg: ‘Claire, kamu tinggi sekali’ (you are very tall Claire) – for I am taller than the average Indonesian guy, therefore tower over the average Indonesian girl. Or ‘kamu putih sekali’ (you are so white). This is often followed by the question ‘Why?’ I am always at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to this one. Usually I amuse myself by saying something like ‘oh I started eating vegemite from a young age. You should try the same’ (of course, the only Indonesians who actually know what vegemite is, are those who I have tricked into eating it: ‘go on it tastes just like chocolate!!!’). Indonesians are often very open about the way they look too. Eg: ‘I am sorry but I am very black-skinned and short, do you like it and do you want to be my girlfriend?’
It doesn’t take long for one to realise that Indonesians are absolutely obsessed with rice. If you haven’t eaten rice, you simply HAVE NOT EATEN. Enough said. Every region in Indonesia is famous for a certain type of food. In Yogyakarta the food is often manis or sweet. Its most well-known dish is gudeg, which is usually made from young jackfruit, chicken, egg and tofu/tempe, boiled for several hours with palm sugar and spices. Other common dishes here include fried rice, chicken, catfish, pigeon, sate (goat, chicken or rabbit), gado-gado and lotek (vegetables, rice, tofu, egg and water spinach with peanut sauce) – all eaten with rice of course. But there are some non-rice dishes too, usually of the noodle variety.
There is a decent swimming pool near my kos (boarding house), so I have been going swimming after class about 4 times a week of late. This is always an interesting and amusing experience. If it is around midday the pool will usually be completely deserted because most Indonesian’s are ‘takut hitam’ (terrified of turning black) – basically this phrase means they are afraid of getting a tan. As such, I highly recommend going to an outdoor swimming pool during the middle of the day if you just need to get away from it all for a bit (a rare thing in Java!) Nobody seems to understand how I manage to go swimming in the middle of the day and remain extremely putih (white). Sometimes I try and explain the concept of sun cream in combination with the fact that my skin does not and never will tan. However, nobody believes this. Other times I amuse myself by telling them that I am a hantu (ghost). This explanation usually works on a younger audience, but can also have the effect of reducing them to tears (the Javanese are great believers in ghosts), so I have had to be a bit more selective about with whom I impart this information! If it is late afternoon or Sunday the pool is much more crowded but still worthwhile visiting, just so you can see how Indonesians swim and what they swim in. They tend to ‘swim laps’ across the pool, and the typical swimming style usually involves a type of stroke which I can only describe as halfway between drowning and fruit-picking! Makes me realise how lucky we Aussies are to have swimming lessons all throughout school. It also means that if I attempt a few (hazardous) laps lengthwise down the pool, I am greeted with immediate applause at each turn. Pure gold!