Saturday, December 5, 2009

In defense of a little political correctness...

I think my dear friend Christine explained it really well in part of an email she sent to her family and friends back home:

“‘Hey N*gger,’ Miss, my friend is a ‘n*gger.’ I hear this all of the time. I try to explain why this is wrong, but all I get is, “We are just joking. This is Indonesia. It is ok in Indonesia.” I hate that expression: “This is Indonesia.” I get it all of the time for the faults of people. It’s become an excuse for things I promise you are not cultural. People also call the darker skin students in the class “Obama.” Indonesians can be brutally honest with each other too. A teacher said this to me and a student in regards to the student’s appearance: “Look at her Miss, isn’t she fat. She is so fat. Haha, we call her the fat one.” The student puts her head down and looks mortified. I correct the teacher in front of her. The teacher tells me “But this is Indonesia. We joke in Indonesia. It’s OK in Indonesia.” When the teacher leaves the girl lifts her head, tries to smile, and thanks me.”

When my students got new uniforms earlier this year, one of the other teachers paraded two boys in front of me. “Which one is the fattest one?” she asked. Excuse me? She said they only had one uniform for “really fat boys” and this year they had “two really fat boys.” So the smaller “fat boy” would get the uniform and the bigger boy had to wear a white dress shirt to school every day. I said, “I think you’re hurting their feelings. Maybe you could just order another of the larger size?” She laughed. “Hurting their feelings? They know they’re fat boys!”

I was showing a group of teachers some pictures of mine, and they saw one girl who’s overweight. They all gasped and pointed and asked, “What is wrong with her? Why is she so fat? Does she have a disease?”

So what’s cultural and what’s rude?

I finally tackled the post office alone last week. I marched in, head held high, repeating all the words I’d made sure to memorize before I went inside. Behind the counter was the same man who is always sitting behind the counter, but this time I had no Yana.

He found my packages and was very polite this time, but then he asked, like every Indonesian always does, “Are you single, miss?” I suddenly realize I’m in for an uncomfortable conversation. I pretend to misunderstand and try to back out the door, but he stops me. “Do you have a boyfriend?” (This is in Indonesian.)

I weigh the odds. Be honest, reject him, and wind up with him withholding my mail from now on? So I decided to lie. I intended to say yes, I have a boyfriend, and he is very muscular and jealous. I figured a little description couldn’t hurt. Sadly, my knowledge of Indonesian adjectives is limited, and I wound up saying “I have a boyfriend in America who is fat and angry!” He took my number anyway and called me immediately, making me show him my phone to prove it was my number. Sigh.

I visited another English school in the area, and one of the teachers demanded to talk to me. I say demanded because he told the students I was talking to that they couldn’t talk to me any more and beckoned me into a classroom. Luckily, I brought my Indonesian friend with me.

Teacher: So, where are you from?
Me: America.
Teacher: Not from Australia?
Me: Nope.
I’m from America.
Teacher: Is this your boyfriend?
(points at my friend)
No, I don’t have a boyfriend.
Teacher: Why don’t you have a boyfriend?
Me: I’m too busy for a boyfriend.
Teacher: So who do you like better—black men or white men?
Me: I like nice men.
Teacher: But if you met a black man and a white man, which would you make your boyfriend?
Me: I would say that I’m too busy for a boyfriend.
Teacher: Would you go on a date with me?
Maybe be my girlfriend?
Me: I’m sorry, I’m too busy for a boyfriend.

I love it when Indonesians are brave enough to just plow through English even though they don’t get the words in the right order. I feel like a character in a Dan Brown novel, decoding some mysterious message. “Rain rain. Makes you wet. Not hot. You is diseased. Responsibility mine not if you do.” I concentrate very hard. Aha! Being outside in the rain will make me sick, but you warned me so you’re not responsible! I pat myself on the back for a job well done. And then two days later I have a cold.

I can’t quite catch on to some cultural things. A few friends dropped me off at my house the other evening and came in to use the bathroom before they started the 45-minute trek back into the actual town. I let them in and, completely without thinking, apologized for the mess.(Really, I don’t have enough stuff to count as a mess, but there were some lifesavers strewn around from an unfortunate cockroach-spotting incident earlier that day.) Anyway, I said, “Oh, it’s such a mess!” And they all said the word aloud, turning it over in their mouths and repeating it. “Mess. Mess. Meeehhhh-usssss. So your house… this is mess?”

I stammered a little. “Well, not really a mess, no.”

“You said it was a mess.”

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes we do that in America. We said something is a mess when it isn’t.I’m sorry to confuse you.”

“Why would you say it was a mess in America when it is not?”

Good one, Katie. Now where do I go with that? Sometimes in America we say bad things about ourselves or our belongings because it’s considered polite? Why DO we do that? It’s happened other times, too.

I was talking to a teacher who said, “I hate my shoes. They are so ugly!” And I instinctively replied, “Oh, no they’re not. Just look at mine!” And so she did. She just looked. And then she looked back up at me and said, “What did you want me to see on your shoes?” And I said, “Well… umm, my shoes are… kind of… ugly… too.” She just looked at me confused and said, “No, they are not.”

And she’s right. My shoes aren’t anything special, but they aren’t ugly. They are perfectly fine shoes. Why do I do that?

And then, there was the time one of the teachers asked to introduce me to her boyfriend who was picking her up outside.

Her: My boyfriend is so ugly. I hate how ugly he is. He is so very ugly. Please do not tell me that he is ugly.
Me: Oh, I would never say that. I’m sure he’s not ugly.
(We see him. In the interest of full disclosure, the guy was ugly. No way around it.)
Me: This is your boyfriend? He is handsome!
Her: Really?!
(She jumps up and down and tells her boyfriend I think he’s handsome. He whispers something back.)
Her: He says thank you and he thinks you are very beautiful.
Me: Makasih! [Thanks!]
Her: Now I am jealous! We have to go. Don’t ever call each other handsome and beautiful again!

And check out this poster that hangs in our school:

"I'm not handicapped... I'm just lazy! Why?"



  1. GREAT question: what's cultural and what's rude? Most internationals can't get over how nicely Americans "line up" for things, when many other countries just push their way. My students will put their feet up on a chair in class, when many Asians would see that as a personal insult to the teacher.

  2. i love that illustration, Dom. so many reasons why Americans line up "nicely," including, of course, respect for order and for each other (but one of those reasons also might be that we so dearly love our personal elbow room and really don't want anyone in our faces). niceness and selfishness together, and subtle.
    so many reasons why an Asian student would never dare to put his/her feet up in class, including, of course, that it implies relaxation and maybe less attention paid to the instruction (since teachers are to be paid respect)...but aren't feet also a sacred space on the body, or am i getting that wrong? so to point your foot towards someone, or to touch your foot to someone, is a kind of disrespect colored by spirituality?
    something that wouldn't occur to us: politeness AND spirituality together, and subtle...

    oh, all the seemingly small stuff that makes up the complex delight and frustration of crosscultural experiences : ) the thing about you, Katie, is that you seem to think in and through and out of it, when so many people would just say, "eh, they're Indonesian. we're different" and let it go at that. it's the difference between simple tolerance and attempted understanding...

    so i'd say you're doing okay, yeah?

    i love reading this blog :)

  3. Katie--love reading your blog. You are getting real "deep" with some of your questions/comments. It is like reading a professional journal or something.

    OK, lighten up a little. Christmas is 18 days away. Love, Dad

  4. Well, guess I won't come and visit you... the fat, gay bule. LOL. They'll think I have so many diseases or something.

    Oh, taking in so many different aspects to a culture - the advantage of being there for an extended period of time and not just a few weeks or months. All these little idiosyncrasies would have gone unnoticed if you were just passing through.

    I miss you! See ya' soon!!!