Friday, 5 November 2010

Going Native

In this previous post along with this one, I've tried to discuss my ambivalence on the subject of immigration. Lacking clear opinions is a weakness of mine, although I do now feel that I've affirmed my stance on the subject as one where I believe that open borders are the only answer. My position as an inhabitant of two disparate worlds has helped persuade me that I am right, because like many foreign passport holders living in Indonesia, those rubber stamps are essential to my peace of mind, and so are never too far from it. But while I am technically a British citizen, at this point in my life, I have lived in Indonesia longer than anywhere else, having spent a year as a young child in this country, and almost all of my adulthood here.

I've watched many friends who've stayed or are staying here for shorter terms struggle with the perplexities offered by Javanese life, and while, for obvious reasons, I may be regarded as a good source of information,  I find myself often at a loss if asked to provide insight on the daily peculiarities of life here. It is very likely that this is partly what makes life so much more attractive to me in the country of my mother. Never a dull moment. Certainly, when I meet friends, none of us ever appears to be lost for an anecdote; a tale of the unexpected. One general observation which I am surely not the first to have made is that we pay much closer scrutiny to the actions of others when we are an outsider.

Of course, the seemingly inexplicable approaches to the conduct of the mundane can just as easily become a drag as they can be funny. While I have lived here for longer than any of my expatriate friends, I may be the least tolerant when it comes to jam karet, or literally, rubber time. In fact, I'm chronically nervous about punctuality, and am prone to arriving for appointments far too early. This has led to my having had to wait around for hours for appointments at times, and I do mean hours. What I continue to fail to comprehend is if it is considered undesirable to be on time, then what time is one meant to aim for? Ten minutes late? Half an hour? An hour? I suppose these questions bear little relevance when juxtaposed with the concept of elastic schedule-keeping itself, and it must be concluded that at least one party is going to have to wait under such arrangements.

Despite my brain apparently not functioning in a way suitable to academia in the strictest sense, I do seem to have been born with a gift for mimicry, which led me to absorb a practical understanding of Indonesian early on. Naturally, this has often been to my advantage as, when coupled with my ambiguous ethnic appearance, it has allowed me to navigate the country and its culture unimpeded. Something that makes me very happy is my large network of 'ordinary' Indonesian friends, as opposed to the creepy characters who seem to make a career of ingratiating themselves into the lives of some expats.

However, since I am meant to be a native speaker of English by profession, speaking Indonesian in a way that sounds as though I am a native speaker and looking sort-of Indonesian can work against me, as those who are partially gaining the benefit of my linguistic services can feel ripped off if they suspect I'm simply an Indonesian who speaks English well. I've learned not to try and show-off too much at work of late, but still have raised eyebrows when I've performed simple tasks like ordering food in Indonesian. There's not much I can do about that other than order food from a developing country minimum-wage worker in an exotic language, or try downgrading the standard of my Indonesian. Two options which I find patently ridiculous. When I entered the language business, I naively thought that having decent spoken Indonesian would help me in the eyes of my employers. I've learned not to assume the obvious since then.

It's difficult to put a finger on exactly why I prefer Indonesia to my father's country. It's mostly a feeling perhaps, usually a feeling of great depression when I'm back in the UK, although I haven't been back in over ten years, so the time is ripe for re-testing the waters. One of the prime movers of depression is boredom, and it's probable that this is a contributing factor. You can do more with less in Indonesia - although I'm under no illusions about the fact that my standard of life is far superior to the majority of Indonesians. I'm also partial to warm weather and sunshine, and when versus the UK, Indonesia definitely wins in these respects. 

That's not to say there aren't many things about Indonesia which I don't wish were more akin to a developed European country. Constantly having religion and the supernatural (listed here separately, but they don't necessarily need to be) in your face is something I find to be trying indeed. New York Times columnist Charles Blow's findings on religion's relation to wealth were a cause of consternation to me, given Indonesia's high ranking on his chart. 

Indonesia is vastly over-inhabited, and while I prefer the liveliness of Java to the long silences which are to be found in my father's native Scotland, the evident social problems caused not only by over-population, but also by a very uneven distribution of population make me yearn for a happier medium. Nowhere are these issues more apparent than in Jakarta, with its unmanaged urban sprawl and hordes of densely packed citizens. 
At the end of the day, I can't call myself Indonesian as I'm neither a full-blooded Indonesian, nor a citizen. Only the latter has scope for change, though it would seem a low priority despite this still being the age of reformasi. While I can do an extremely good impersonation of an Indonesian, I am still not wholly familiar with its language or any one of its many cultures. These aspects of my existence may well be what have led me to a serious distaste for nationalism and man-made societal divisions. For having only lived eleven years in the country whose name is emblazoned across my passport (a document envied by most Indonesians), how can I call myself British? The internet, ultra-cheap airfares and the globalized workplace have been making borders increasingly meaningless, and I can only hope that they continue to do so. 

What is a culture anyway? To my mind, it cannot exist as a list of characteristics defined by experts, otherwise, what would be its point? Rather it should be a living, evolving, undefinable entity which serves to enrich our lives and not restrict them.

In the meantime, I will continue to muddle my way through life here, and hope that I don't get booted out of a country that at least never fails to be interesting.

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