When I was young, I used to get so nervous about going to a friend’s house for dinner – I was shy and had no table manners so when confronted with a plate of spaghetti that looked to me like a plateful of embarrassment – how much of that spaghetti would land on my face, how could I get it into my mouth without slurping, how was everyone else so skillfully using that fork and spoon to twirl that spaghetti into neat mouthfuls, no sauce dripping down the chin and still able to have a conversation about world events? The only words that would usually exit my mouth were, “No thanks” to the polite requests of parents, and uncomfortable giggles to try and suppress the feeling of discomfort.
As I grew up, I learned the art of small talk, I felt I had something valuable to contribute to a conversation or wasn’t so self-conscious that I was struck dumb under pressure. I could charm a boyfriend’s parents, I could order more exotic food than chicken nuggets and chips when I went out with a family for dinner, I could argue with the dads about their political views and help with the washing up while having an intimate conversation about life with the mum. I understood something about the way people communicate and how easy it could be to engage in a conversation: ask a lot of questions, listen to the answers (though this isn’t always necessary), throw in a bit of self- deprecation (better to put yourself down in Australia than the big faux pas of bragging about yourself), and people would be singing your praises.
Now that I live in Jakarta, I seem to have regressed and have gone back to my teenage self of giggling uncomfortably and sitting like a mute lump as my rules of conversation fail me here. Of course there is the language barrier as my Bahasa Indonesia hasn’t done a lot of progression since the 6 month mark. Then there are the awkward meeting points where I have been struck dumb by openers such as, or “I am sorry about my little, dirty house” or “You are very beautiful, look at my wife, she is ugly, short and fat”. I haven’t yet truly understood how to start a conversation as, “So, what do you do?” often seems inappropriate or misunderstood. Sometimes I feel that no conversation is required of me, as the conversation about me is much more interesting.
In Australia, to go to someone’s house for dinner means that you will all sit down together after you have helped them set the table and the small talk will begin. In Indonesia, people eat at different times so often I would be the only person sitting at the table as the family sat around staring at me and taking photos as I stared at the bowls of food in front of me, wondering how to combine them. My choices often left the onlookers in fits of giggles, which of course meant in my insecurity, that more food would end up on my lap than in my mouth. It was the spaghetti fear all over again.
The first time I went to my partner’s house for dinner and attempted to follow the guidelines before me of who to double kiss (then realizing it was more of a cheek touching), who to shake hands with, whose hand I should place on my forehead as a sign of respect whilst feeling like a giant monster as compared to the crowd of miniature aunts and uncles, my face was burning with embarrassment, while the family enjoyed the spectacle in fits of laughter (oh god, are they laughing at me?) and then they brought me upstairs to the room with air conditioning and left me there alone. As I sat there with my heart racing wondering whether I had been banished to the isolation room or if this was meant to make me feel more comfortable, cousins who could speak a little English were pushed into the room while voices called, “Practice your English with Tante Treen” and the door would be closed behind them and they would press up against the corner trying to escape the monster in the room. I could feel the presence of the rest of the family with the muted laughter outside the door and the pressure to perform from the person in front of me, but all of my basa basi skills had dissipated under pressure, so all I was left with was, “How are you?” and the little person would bolt out of the room.
A few years have passed since that first visit, but little has changed in my ability to express myself at the dinner table. I haven’t worked out the rhythms of an Indonesian home at mealtimes, or if it just falls into place in its randomness. The last time I went to the family home for dinner bringing with me two Australian friends recently landed in Jakarta, we walked in the door and were immediately led to the table where an abundance of food was spread out on the table. Most of the aunties sat on the floor and gaped at the 3 amazon women in the room and giggled like school girls, while a couple joined us at the table. We posed for photos throughout the meal and I relaxed a little as it is easier to feel more comfortable when others are in the same situation. When the meal was over and we were taken upstairs, to our surprise, there was a whole gang of family members up there who jumped up and proceeded to say their goodbyes as we scratched our heads as to what was going on. Had there been a conversation about who would sit at the table and who would hide upstairs? Was there an English proficiency test to judge who could join or a family wrestle to get out of it? It was a mystery.
Often to live in someone else’s culture is to be confused, normal life goes on around you as you struggle to grasp with the idea of what is normal. As a bule, you become the point of interest whereas you find Indonesians to be much more interesting. You want to learn about the daily life, the etiquette, the rules of conversation, but the conversation seems to be about how beautiful your hair is, or how tall you are, or how much money you must be earning. It is difficult to find a common point of interest outside of traffic or weddings and it is not easy to ask the questions that I would love to ask about politics, religion and the equality of women around the family dinner table.
So it is my challenge now to get past my regression into my awkward teenage self with my monosyllabic responses to the questions asked of me about when I will get married and start having babies, to learn how to combine the betawi sour soup with a little rice and just a dash of sambal (choking on chillies is fun for the onlookers, but not so fun when you are feeling self-conscious), to resist asking, “So, what have you been up to?” and to be prepared at all times throughout the meal to pose for a photo. I have to realize the only pressure being applied is the pressure I put on myself and to have 100 aunties laughing and pointing at you is a good thing. I have to learn to get past my awkwardness without wishing I had a bottle of wine to skull. And in the meantime I will glare ferociously at my partner when it all gets too much in an expression he has at last learned to decipher as, “Save me”.