Daniel Pope muses on how sometimes it’s better to tell fibs when you want to fit in with the culture.
When I came to Indonesia I was surprised by the number of holidays, or tanggal merah (red days), that people enjoyed. This high number of days off is largely due to the government recognising six official religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And you have to follow one of them. Atheism isn’t an option, since it’s equated with Communism, a dirty word dating back to the 1965-66 communist purges that followed a failed coup.
Mind, not supporting a football team is scorned upon in this soccer-mad country too. During major international tournaments like the world cup, ‘up late watching the match’ becomes an acceptable excuse for being late for work in Jakarta, alongside the perennial ‘stuck in traffic’.
The closest I’d ever come to attending a football match was on a visit home from Indonesia some years ago, during which I went to see how my local railway station in Oxford was looking after a renovation. Unfortunately, I got caught up in a crowd of rowdy Birmingham City away-fans being led from the platform by the police and herded onto special buses. I tried to separate myself from this scarf-waving mob, but the police officers refused to believe that I was an innocent Oxford resident, mainly on account of the colour of my woollen bobble hat, and they insisted that I get on the buses with the rest of the supporters.
I didn’t fancy my chances bundled onto this bus along with a bunch of rowdy, hostile, beer-swilling football hooligans. I pictured being forced to chant along with them in my best Birmingham accent (which sounded Australian), shouting obscenities about my home town as we sped through its streets to the football ground, hoping to God that nobody around me saw through my desperate charade. Thankfully I managed to break free and make a run for it before I had to start kicking and screaming.
After years of explaining to astonished new students at the Jakarta language school where I worked that, yes, I was English, but no, I didn’t support a football team, I gave up and pretended to be a fan of a team chosen at random. However, too often I got caught out with questions from genuine fans in my classroom. Then I switched my phony allegiance to an obscure team that nobody in this Premier League-loving nation would have heard of. Often I made one up. Broadbottom United was one. Muggleswick City was another. Either that or I said I was a cricket fan. That shut them up.
Something else that prompted my students to view me with concern was learning that I was an unmarried middle-aged man.
It’s significant that while a single Westerner’s reply to being asked if he’s married is usually a straightforward ‘No’, an Indonesian’s is always ‘Not yet’, as though marriage is inevitable.
It should be remembered that polygamy is legal in Indonesia, and that a man may take up to four wives. So, if you haven’t bagged yourself a solitary bride by the time you’re 40, most people look at you with suspicion.
Inter-religious marriage is forbidden in the Muslim faith, so had I wanted to get married, I would likely have had to convert to Islam – in effect becoming a ‘Muslim of convenience’. This requires several commitments, such as gaining knowledge of the Quran, and adopting an Islamic name. Indonesians invariably mispronounced my name ‘Denyel Popay’, and I reckoned that this would do as my Islamic name if spoken with an outrageously coarse Arabic accent.
So awkward did my admission of bachelor status become at the start of each new term, that I resorted to saying that my wife was dead, a situation which my students seemed to prefer. Naturally they asked for details. And so my tragic story, told with a stiff-upper lip before a sympathetic class, was that she had been killed in a car accident. When I was asked whether I had any kids, I was tempted more than once to retort that, no, I no longer did, since they had been in the car along with their mother.
In fact, over the years I amused myself by changing the story for each new class. Sometimes I said my wife had been killed in a parachuting accident. Other times it had been a snowmobile pile-up. Once I explained that she had been shot dead in an armed post office raid. These were among the more credible tales. Her abduction by aliens topped the list of outlandish ones. But in the end the novelty of being a heartbroken widower whose wife had suffered a bizarre death wore off and I just said that we were separated – all this to spare my students being confronted with the tragedy of an unmarried adult.
Indonesians from poorer families tend to marry young, mostly because pregnancies among inner-city teenagers without much to keep themselves otherwise occupied are common. For some others weddings are popular community pastimes. Every one of my middle-class students seemed to attend a reception every weekend. In fact, on my first day in Indonesia I went to a wedding reception myself. The entire affair was taken up by waiting in a long queue to shake hands with the bride and groom, then to mill around eating from a buffet before buggering off.
It wasn’t anything like the English wedding receptions I was accustomed to. There was no best-man telling risqué stories about the groom through a whistling PA system, no disco afterwards with drinks spilled over the dance floor, no drunken conga dancers winding through the kitchen, no brawl spilling out into the car park.
I knew nothing about Indonesian culture or Islamic rituals on that first day in the country, and I went around asking other guests where the bar was and whether there were any pork scratchings. I was escorted to a table stacked with cans of a drink called Green Sands, which was an insipid shandy with less than one percent alcohol. It was produced by the makers of Bintang, the country’s proper beer. I pretended to approve of the can of Green Sands. Then I buggered off too and caught a taxi home.
While chatting with your taxi driver can be good for both of you – he can practise his English, and you your Bahasa – sometimes you just want to use your commuting time for reading the newspaper, or for reverie. I was dismayed whenever a taxi driver glanced at me in the rear-view mirror and asked, “Bisa bicara Bahasa Indonesia, Mister?” (Can you speak Indonesian?) Often I’d just say no and give him a big tip when I paid the fare.
During my twenty years in Jakarta, the conversations with taxi drivers rarely changed much. They always asked the same questions. One was ‘How long have you been in Indonesia?’ Even after ten years my reply to this query remained ‘A year’, otherwise they’d expect my Bahasa to be impeccable and, after establishing that I was English, would rejoice at believing they had picked up the ideal passenger to have a long discussion with about football and David Beckham.
Another common question was ‘Do you like Indonesian girls?’, to which I’d just give the expected thumbs-up and grin inanely. And then would come the inevitable ‘Are you married, Mister?’. And off I’d go again with the dead-wife yarn.