Sunday, April 29, 2007

In Da (Indo) Club

I found about the concert through the radio station where the SLO and I do our biweekly English program; there was a giant poster hanging on the wall and, after noticing that one of my favorite Indonesian pop songtresses would be performing, I wrote down the time and date and location and decided to go.

So that is how, on a Saturday night, at eight p.m., the advertised starting time, the SLO and I found ourselves wandering around the sixth-floor parking lot of the local mall, searching for evidence of a concert about to start, or, indeed, any sign of human life at all. When we finally found the cafe entrance, tucked away behind a huge “NO PARKING” sign and the bright red van parked in front of it, the eager, friendly, polite, bleached, pierced, Mohawked employees, after enthusiastically shouting SELAMAT PAGI, good morning, at us, and igoring my rather feeble and confused protest that wasn’t pagi, morning, but malam, night, told us that the concert would begin sebentar lagi, or in just a second. So we found ourselves some steps to sit on and began critiquing the short skirts and three-inch heels of the girls who arrived after us.

By ten p.m., we realized that, like dummies, like fools, like total Indonesia neophytes, we had been duped. Concerts, apparently, are not like movies, which start ten minutes early, but like meetings, bus departures, and, indeed, everything else in Indonesia: they start when they start. Indonesians call this jam karet, or “rubber time,” as “just a second” gets stretched into ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, never. But we’ve learned, this year, the fine art of hurrying up to wait, so we were content to use our time to not only speculate what would happen if the girl in front of us bent over in a skirt like that, but also to drop 100-rupiah coins off the side of the building to see what, or who, we could hit, wander onto the seventh floor and into a group of teenage boys, post-birthday party, who were eager to show us what, exactly, they were doing, or maybe just wanted to do, in the elevator, and, of course, grow increasingly more annoyed with the employees’ constant shouts of SELAMAT PAGI. ("But...but...but..." I wanted to say, "it’s not morning! Stop it! I don’t understand!")

Around eleven p.m., finally, the show started. The first singer, Rio Febrian, was fairly uninteresting, musically, but was one of the most performance-happy lead singers I’ve seen in a long time. He strutted and preened and emoted and mugged for the many cell-phone cameras shoved at him, all with a giant grin that said, “Look at me! I’m a real rock star! Don’t you just adore me?” I usually frequent indie concerts, at which the lead singer looks far more likely to break down and cry, whether over the indignity of performance or the cruelty of society and/or women, it's unclear, so the contrast was somewhat, well, adorable. I thought about throwing my panties on stage to show my adoration, but was too pressed in by the crowd to even breathe deeply, not to mention strip and toss.

Perhaps the crowd was just drunker by the time the second singer, Bunga Citra Lestari, arrived, or perhaps she is more popular, but as she skipped onto the stage in a tube top and tiny miniskirt, suddenly the audience surged forward and I had elbows in my stomach and back and a camera resting on my head. (Note to the man standing behind me: I know my head may make a good stable platform, and maybe you thought I wouldn’t notice, but, please! I can feel that.) Her set, like her skirt, was short but sufficient; she danced around rather awkwardly, smiled a lot, sang her two or three popular songs, as well as a few American ones, invited a flamboyantly gay man to join her in a romantic duet, and, in my favorite moment of the evening, looked momentarily nonplussed and faltered in her singing as she looked into the crowd to see a tall white girl mouthing the words to her hit song. (This seems impressive on my part until you consider that those words were “Apa kabarmu? Kabarku baik-baik saja,” or “How are you? I am fine.”)

As Bunga took her final curtseys and pranced off stage, a strong techno beat began and one of the employees climbed up to the stage to shout, one more time, SELAMAT PAGI! (By this time, though, it technically was morning, so I felt less annoyed.) Taking this as their cue, all the other employees jumped onto the tables and bar and began dancing; the other concert-goers followed suit, as the SLO and I stood, mouths agape in amazement and amusement. Could this really be Indonesia, all this drunken dancing, all this hip-swivelling, booty-shaking, bumping and grinding? Or, more to the point, could this really be Semarang? Nice, innocent, conservative, Muslim-majority Semarang? And ha! Does that guy in the loafers really call that dancing?

Figuring we couldn’t embarrass ourselves more than the guy in the loafers, we shrugged off our shock and joined in, though still giggling at some of the dance-floor of drunk Chinese-Indonesian men. So now I can say, with perfect honesty, if you ever get to chance to visit this particular cafe, the tempat party, or party place, of Semarang, do. You’ll have a pagi to remember.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Proof Is In the Picture

Remember when I said (or, okay, wrote) that traffic in Indonesia is dangerous?

This lovely sign, all brightly colored and cheerful, keeps track of the number of accidents happening in the immediate vicinity. (How immediate, I must admit, I am not sure. I hope it's larger than the one intersection where it was posted, though.) In any case, in the month of February 2007, there were 14 incidents, with five people dead, 12 heavily injured, and 13 lightly injured. Oh, and this all cost roughly 6 million rupiah, or about $600.


Yeah. Or get out of Indonesia.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spring Break Part Deux

The second of my vacation times began not so auspiciously, on a Saturday night, when, after teaching church English class and piano lessons, but before midnight, the appointed time to pick up my mother and brothers from the airport, the phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize, which is almost unfailingly a bad sign. Usually on the other end is someone who, having gotten my number from goodness knows where, wants me to help them learn English, or teach English, or recite English, or, barring all that, cheerfully butcher English. In this case, it was my father, calling to tell me that, due to visa issues, my mom and brothers were detained in Singapore, unable to enter Indonesia. They would visit the embassy first thing Monday morning and hopefully arrive on the midnight flight that night, but, until then, I should proceed with my routine as usual, going to church and school without family in tow, and the cereal I bought, the mattresses laid on my floor, and the Indonesian food cooked by the maids would have to all go untouched.

Oh, who am I kidding? I ate the cold cereal myself as soon as I hung up the phone.

I’m not going to go into detail about the precise nature of the visa issues, as, first, they’re rather boring, and, second, I’m not the sort of daughter who would take advantage of a public platform such as a blog to proclaim her own and her mother's silly mistakes to all the world--except, of course, when I am--so suffice it to say that they were simple problems and, with some smiles and patience and souvenirs given, two-handed, to custom officials, my mother and brothers arrived safely, and still on a high from their unexpected boon of a Singapore vacation.

Semarang couldn’t quite offer them the same level of Westernized sophistication as Singapore—no Border’s Books, no midnight movie showings, no coin-operated public toilets—but what my city and I had to offer was, I hope, enjoyable in its own way: a trip to my school, to be mobbed by excited teachers and alternatingly excited and shy fifteen year olds; a trip to Yogyakarta, to sample street food, ride on motorbikes, visit Borobudur, and watch a wayang kulit performance; and a trip to Jakarta, to visit our old house, hospital, and haunts, eat at Wendy’s, and commemorate Good Friday in an eighteenth-century Anglican church, decorated with tombstones of sea captains who died of typhoid, while, outside, a solemn darkness veiled the sky and a tropical rain fell.

So. It wasn't the SPRING BREAK! that my mom had been so eagerly anticipating--no beaches, no spas, no flashing people--but it was still a vacation to remember. Thank you, Mom and The Duke and Klement, for coming, and thank you, U.S. Consulate in Singapore, for allowing them to come. My life, at least, is better for having seen my mother holding onto her hat on the back of a motorbike, The Duke performing songs on his guitar for my eleventh-grade classes, and Klement sneaking around Borobudur trying to get his head, and just his head, into our photos. Indonesia will never be the same.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mormon New Year

To celebrate April 6, the date of both the Church's founding and Jesus' birthday, and therefore an important day in the Mormon ecclesiastical calendar--if, that is, we had one--the branch in Semarang gathered together for a small commemorative activity. The program was fairly standard, as Church things go: we sang some hymns, heard a "spiritual thought," and watched various "spontaneous performances," meaning, mostly, listening to our district president sing love songs from the 1940s.

After the closing hymn, one sister brought an Indonesian dish, yellow rice shaped into a tall cone, that's used for special occasions like births, deaths, marriages, and circucisions. Standing around the yellow rice cone, we sang "Happy Birthday" to the Church, and the branch president invited the "oldest" member of the branch--the one who had been a member the longest--to cut the yellow rice cone and eat the first serving. Before we ate, we all held up our plates of yellow rice and said, by way of a toast, "Endure to the end!"

Why can't all church activities be like that?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Maid To Order

At first thought, living in a house with eight servants seems wonderful. It struck me as such at first, too—that, plus the appellation “Miss Hannah,” made me feel so very antebellum South that I caught myself longing for hoop skirts and handsome moustached suitors. Sometimes, it’s true, having servants is great. I’ve never been much of a cook, and, after several months of doing so in Egypt, I have no particular desire to hang my own laundry on the line to dry. For the most part, though, I’d trade them, yes, all nine of them, for, like, ten minutes of privacy.

They’re nice and all, I'm sure, "nice" only goes so far when it means putting up with the constant presence of ten people intent on, from my perspective, bothering me. I couldn't possibly detail everything that has ever bothered me about the servants--we'd be here all day as I complained about how sometimes they lock me out and I'm stuck standing on the street in the rain for thirty minutes at eleven P.M.--so we'll just do the biggies.

First, while their constant confusion between “foreign” and “stupid” may be amusing, and fodder for some good blog entries, it does get tiresome. They delight in pointing out the obvious to me, until I feel just the tiniest bit like pointing out to them that I am, in fact, seven or eight years older than them, and, what’s more, perfectly capable of intuiting that yes, that mouse poop on the counter means it is dirty. They also can't seem to believe I can do things alone: yes, it’s been a long, hard battle, but after twenty two years on this planet, I am also capable of toasting bread, boiling water, and peeling oranges by myself.

Second, they clean my room. What am I complaining about? you may wonder, especially if you are my mother. I’ve never been the neatest person in the world, and the room probably needs the cleaning.

Sure it does: tile floors do get dirty surprisingly quickly. I wouldn’t mind having someone swipe a mop over them once a week or so. But the maids do far more than that—they feel the need to tidy. Since I generally do keep my room fairly neat, they indulge their clenaing urges by moving things, rather than actually neatening them. Every few days, I come home to find the door to my room wide open, with the stack of books I had left on the bed suddenly moved to the desk, while the papers that were on the desk are moved to the bed. They mix piles of paper—tenth grade homework wantonly shuffled in with twelfth grade homework—and frequently they change the setup of the room as I liked it. Sometimes I think the next time I come home to find the air conditioning temperature reset, the curtains closed, and my shampoo bottles moved, I’m going to scream. Or throw things. Now that would be a reason for my shampoo bottles to be in disarray.

Third, and finally, the kicker: food. Indonesia is still a scarcity culture—the thin are poor and malnourished, the rich are fat and happy. Having food to offer is not only a sign of generosity and good host behavior, it’s a sign of social status, and, as such, is hugely important. Everywhere I go, I’m dogged by people offering food—at friends’ houses, at school, even after church. I understand the reasons. I know they’re just being nice. That’s fine.

It’s not fine, though, when it’s at home, my one supposed place of refuge. Yet every time I come home, the first thing I hear is a maid saying, “Have you already eaten?” They’ve even given up on hello, just going straight to the food issue. Worse still, there are four, sometimes five maids, and they all feel it necessary to check on my eating habits, which means walking from the front door to my bedroom means running a gauntlet of “sudah makan?”s. Worse still, they don’t believe me when I say that I have, and so then I have to endure an interview, every day, without fail, about what I’ve eaten: what? When? How much? I don’t know why they even bother asking, because their conclusion from the interview is always the same: I must be hungry. I must eat more. I must try the chicken, the fish, and the vegetables. I’ve taken, lately, to sneaking food into my room just so that I have some privacy about what I eat and when—if I eat in the dining room, there’s always at least one maid hovering over me urging me to add more. They also, in desparation to please, knock on my door every hour or so to bring me a plate of snacks. Sweet? Yes. Kind? Yes. Utterly invasive of my personal space and decisions? Yes.

This all drives me insane, in case you can't tell. My eating habits aren’t exactly the greatest, but at least they’re my own; moreover, I resent the implication that I cannot, by this point, figure out when I’m hungry and when I want to eat. I mean, anyone who knows me well knows that I cannot, in fact, figure out when I’m hungry and when I want to eat, but, by golly, it’s my right to suffer hunger headaches and nausea if I want to!

We’ve come to an uneasy peace, though, these past seven months, all of us learning to compromise. They’ve stopped hiding the toaster in the mornings, their initial strategy for keeping me helpless, though they do still hang around and watch me spread the jam on the bread, checking that I’m doing it to my own specifications—"Are you sure you don’t want apricot? Or chocolate? Why aren’t you using butter?" I’ve stopped offending them by rinsing my own dishes. I still put them in the sink, though, which, judging by their faces when I do, causes them endless amounts of pain. They clean my room, but they don’t move stuff off the bed, and I’ve learned to grin and bear it when I come home to find it all in stacks. As for the food, well, that’s still a battleground, though now it's more like a Battle of Cheat Mountain than a Gettysburg. harder. I’ve basically just learned to lie to their faces with deliberately vague answers: “Have you already eaten?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Yes.” “What?” “Food.” “Where?” “Not here.” It may not be terribly polite on my end, but, hey, it’s a compromise: by definition, everyone’s unhappy.

I never thought I’d say it, but I’m looking forward to not having servants anymore. And if I have to eat my words as soon as I get back to the States, well, no problem—at least that way, I won’t be lying when I claim I’ve already eaten.