By Brooke Nolan (Semester 27/Aug 2008)
Curtin University

The first time I was told to go to the men’s toilets by the half-asleep Javanese girl masquerading as a toilet attendant, I got a bit cranky. After a few weeks in Malang, it became patently clear to me that this was to be a continuing trend and instead of chucking a tanty everytime some dozy cleaner masticating in the corner motioned to the blokes door, I had better get used to it.

As with the pollution, the incessant ‘Hello Mister!’ babble, and the phlegmatic indifference to anything resembling a rule, I soon drifted into the whatever-o-sphere also on this matter, mainly for the sake of my own mental health.

Then my friend on the Dharmasiswa program arrived in Malang showing visible signs of suffering from this dreadful affliction known as ‘short-hair-on-girls’. We were back to square one, tanty-time when she was instructed to stand up while taking a leak. I gave her my pass to the whatever-o-sphere and all was fine and dandy.

A few months later I was in Kalimantan at some fancy event or other. Round I went with my friend Wati doing the usual greeting drill. After I’d done this I realised the women were all huddled in the kitchen looking most furtive and talking in hushed voices. The most vocal woman strode towards me with two teenage girls on either arm and said, with all the other women watching eagerly, “Pretty, aren’t they? Which one do you want?” Gobsmacked, I said nothing.

Wati had overheard this bizarre exchange and launched into a thorough castigation of this woman for assuming I was a fella. The cluster of women in the kitchen, who had been debating my gender, dispersed lickety-split. As Wati paused for breath in her stream of damnation, this woman blurted out, “Well if she’s female, she should grow her hair and put socks in her bra if there’s nothing there!” and shuffled off. I actually thought this was a hilarious statement. The whole episode seemed to be over.

Oh no. As Wati and I turned to walk outside a group of older Banjar men came towards us. “Selamat sia—” I started. “Man or woman?” Came back the abrupt reply, in English. “Man.” I retorted, claiming my place in the Theatre of the Absurd.

Wati stifled a giggle.