I don't know about you, but I am endlessly curious about the differences between myself and the other people around me. Every human is exotic in his or her own way, and I love to explore how and why we do what we do. The only problem is, sometimes, I'm not sure how to go about it without the risk of offense. What if someone perceives me as being critical or judgmental when I don't intend to be? What would it be like if the tables were turned and I became the subject of someone's curiosity? Out of my desire to be polite, I usually refrain from asking questions that focus on our differences. Our recent venture to the Island of Kangean (pronounced Kan-yan) in Indonesia and my new friend Dawi gave me an interesting experience of being "The Exotic One."
Arriving at the mouth of our anchorage early morning, a fisherman named Sonny escorts us in through the reef. He and his two brothers show us where to anchor. He speaks about ten words of English, and what little Bahasa Indonesian we’d learned feels very rusty. No matter, he offers to take us to shore to meet his family and buy vegetables at the market. I’d like to spend a bit more time with Sonrisa to make sure she’s well hooked, but Andrew consoles me that the bottom is deep, heavy sand and he has 5 to 1 scope out on our chain. Sonrisa would have to drag about 20 miles before the shallow inlet drops off into open ocean, anyway. With that much chain and my 75lb birthday anchor, I’m sure she’ll be fine for quick trip into town.
We climb into Sonny’s boat. As we zip away, I swear I can hear Sonrisa calling something to me across the distance… A couple hours later, as I stand on the beach stranded high and dry by low tide, I realize what she said. “Tide is falling and the beach is shallow! You’d better hurry!” Right. I peek around the point of the island, trying to confirm she’s still in place.
Sonny says we are going to be stuck for at least six more hours. We try to tell him we can sit and wait on the beach. He really needed to go home and take a nap. He’s been out fishing all night, and he will go out again this evening. He hears nothing of leaving us there alone, so we sit in the sand visiting with Sonny, his daughter Dawi and other “brothers” who join us now and then. The beach is a pretty spot, Dawi looks for mud crab to collect and cook over a fire. A man leads a pair of cows through the mud that should be ocean, around their necks are giant bells carved out of wood. The cow bells make such a pleasant sound, I am tempted to request “MORE COW BELL!” as they fade into the distance. But, I don’t think I could deliver that joke in Bahasa.
Eventually, Sonny’s wife arrives back at the beach on a motorcycle to ask “What in the world are you doing?” I don't know exactly what was said, but the hand waving seemed to indicate she thinks Sonny should bring us back to the neighborhood with haste. So, we walk the picturesque paths back to the village.
Sonny’s mother, a cheerful matriarch of 60 who does not hesitate to throw a 10 kilo bag of rice over her shoulder, suggests he take us to crash our second Indonesian wedding. We stand with the village and watch as the bride and groom are swatted with a small broom and suffer the dancing, fawning, and prodding of friends, family, neighbors, village onlookers and apparently two sailors from America. Their family loops money necklaces over their heads, dance, sometimes toss money into the larger crowd. Their crazy Aunt joins everyone on stage, and while I thought she was just doing a regular dance, it must have gone on too long because eventually a larger crowd of family members crush on stage and guide Auntie off. It takes seven family members to carry away the happy, dancing Aunt off to the sidelines.
Back at Sonny’s house, they install us on the family’s shade hut. Sonny begins hand building squid lures, while friends and neighbors circulate through the yard. They seem content to sit and watch us do nothing but sit and watch them. We take turns taking selfies together.
They feed us sweet and chewy pancakes made with raw palm sugar juice to tide us over while Sonny’s wife cooks a fish stew with a broth made from fish bones, onions, garlic, kafir lime, salt, and chilies. We pour it over white rice and slurp it up with gusto.
Once their shyness abates, we try to talk, and they ask about the few curiosities we can communicate to each other through our ten words of common language: Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you like Indonesia? Are you married? Where are your babies? Why are you so fat?
Sonny’s nine year old daughter inches her way closer and closer to me as the day goes on, first grabbing my hand, then giggling, dropping it and running away. Eventually, her curiosity gets the best of her, and since I don’t shoo her away, she warms up to holding my hand on all of our walks to and from the beach. That evening, after dinner, she decides she wants to figure out why I look so funny. She places her arm next to my arm, rubs my skin, then her own and says “sangat bule!” which means “so white!” I rub her skin with my hand and say “cantik!” which means “beautiful.” She loops her hands around my arm, then dances away laughing with the shock of how big around my arm is. She attempts to squish my nose (It does not squish), she pokes the side of my butt and scowls, looking at it to figure out why it looks like that. Eventually she pokes at my belly: “Are you sure there are no babies in there?”
“Nope, no baby.”
“Well, why not?!” These guys come up with all the easy questions.
Today isn’t the first time this has happened, it is just the first time that skin, nose, body size and child bearing has been questioned and prodded all in one sitting. Meeting new friends in foreign lands always results in a mixture of fun and discomfort for me. By the end of a day like this, my brain is smoldering and I probably carry the scent of an electrical fire. It takes an energetic toll trying communicate meaningfully across the language barrier, and usually I’m required to sort through some deep philosophical question that intrigues and confuses me. This particular interaction, though completely innocent, is running headlong into a minefield of two difficult topics: body shame and racism. I feel a responsibility to hold up my side of the conversation wisely, so my brain is working overtime to figure out what I should do.
Of course, I feel funny when someone pokes and prods at me because I physically look so different from them - especially when their observations are focused keenly on size and body composition. Don't get me wrong: I love the strength and health of my body. It’s my soul’s travel pod, and so far it has been functioning like a champ on this trip. But of course, I carry with me all that social training that says we should be as slim as possible. So, when a person half my body size at full maturity is fascinated by the largess of my rump or the circumference of my rather impressive biceps…I admit it triggers a measure of body shame I am forced to process in my own way.
I also ponder to what extent race and racism exists in all of this. Humans are biologically skilled at identifying differences in their environment. It’s a survival skill, no doubt, to see when the sky changes in some way to warn of approaching storms. Our friends are spying and exploring the differences they see in my body, my cultural upbringing. They are exploring differences in our race and culture, sure, but am I experiencing racism? No, racism is not currently being directed at me. Racism requires an element of unkindness, antagonism, intent to harm, along side an assumption that one person is superior to another person because of these racial or cultural differences. They may think they are superior to me in some way (I don’t know), but even if they do, their assessment of our differences and their conclusion of superiority is not translating into any harm to me. They are welcoming me warmly and treating me with respect.
I consider whether I should put a stop to it all and explain that in my culture we do not ask these particular questions of others. But, I don’t do that. First of all, I've read that Indonesians as a whole place a high priority on learning about the core of a person. They tend to nose about until they get the information they desire. Besides, I am as curious about the nature of their curiosity as they are curious about me. They let me explore their towns, homes, and lives, the least I can do is let them try to squish my nose. I might shoo her away if she pokes my butt again, though.
Grandma’s sister looks out from her patio across the street and sees all the commotion. Not to be left out, she comes marching across the street, and makes a beeline toward me. Measuring exactly as tall as I am while sitting on the shade platform, she grabs both of my forearms, sticks her face about six inches away from mine and at full volume, full speed, shouts something I have no hope of understanding. “!!!!…>!!! Bahasa Indonesia !!!>>…..>>>!!!!!.>>>!!!!!, English….!!!!…>>>>
There is nothing I can do but laugh and say “I don’t know! I don't understand!” in Bahasa. Grandma repeats herself at full volume, full speed. The only words I can make out at all are “Bahasa” and “English”.
“I think she’s yelling at you for not producing babies,” Andrew says, laughing.
“No! No! She is not!” I wave over a little gal who has been speaking the most English of anyone in the group, studying at University. “What is she saying?”
Grandma repeats herself, again at full volume and full animation. It seems imperative that I understand her, this moment. She smiles a huge grin, laughs and laughs. The girl laughs, too.
“She said that she doesn’t speak either English or Bahasa Indonesian, only Kangean, but she wants to talk to you so badly. She also says it wouldn’t matter if she could speak either language because she has no idea what she should say to you anyway, even if she did speak English or Bahasa.”
“OOOOhhhh!” I say, laughing. I turn to her and try to match her good natured intensity, speed and volume: “That’s okay, Grandma! I can’t speak Kangean, but I love to talk to you anyway. What should I say…I’ll say! Kangean Indah! Kamu cantik!” At this, Grandma laughs because I just spoke English and three words of (terrible) Bahasa to her even though she speaks neither Bahasa or English. I pat her forearms, as she is still hanging on to me, just below my elbow. We sit down side by side. Grandma, Me, Grandma’s Sister. “Let’s get a picture, I tell them.” Suddenly, the ladies who were all smiles draw serious. “Okay? Ready?” They nod and get ready:
It's hard. I don't want to shy away from learning about my friends at home or abroad, but I also want to undertake the project with grace and kindness. After this experience, I think it can be done if I follow one simple rule:
Always assume the other person is as intelligent, capable, and as human as I am.