One of the first cultural confusions I encountered in Jakarta was these strangely dressed young girls wearing matching pink or green, or white with blue trimmings uniforms – sometimes hanging out together but more often alone. Sometimes they were clutching a child, or carrying bags, other times they were to be found in kitchens or loungerooms or on the street with a straw broom endlessly sweeping.
In my first job here in an Early Childhood school, I met these women en masse carrying Ben 10 and Barbie backpacks, helping children with their shoes and sometimes even being yelled at by toddlers. They would sit out the front of the school for hours eating gorengan and having their daily curhat until class time was over. After school finished there was a buzz of children running to these women who were armed with a spoon and a lunchbox full of rice and they proceeded to chase after the kids shoveling as much rice as they could into their mouths. When I went to the malls, this phenomenon continued. Here were the uniformed young girls clutching the baby, and there was the mum wearing 5 inch heels and clutching an enormous handbag. Let’s call this phenomenon ‘pembantu-itus’ or ‘Mbak Time’ or ‘the Art of Sitting Around Comfortably While Another Sweeps’ or ‘Ways To Have A Baby Without Having To Change All Those Pesky Nappies’.
Where we come from, nannies are a luxury only afforded by the rich, here in Jakarta it seems that everyone has one. If not a nanny, then some kind of pembantu to look after you. It was a strange thing to become accustomed to as I moved into my school lodgings. Every morning as I got ready there was a woman in my room who could speak no English, and I could speak no Indonesian so conversation was limited. It didn’t take me long to learn “sudah makan?” as it was the most common question asked and if I shook my head some toast would appear. Then she would walk around the room shifting things and wiping things with a cloth. I couldn’t work out what on earth she was doing there, surely I could add my own hot water to my 3-in-1 coffee and put the bread in the toaster? But it seems that this wasn’t an option here.
In the beginning I felt like a neocolonialist having a woman cleaning up around me as I attempted to do work or be comfortable in my room. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my life. And I could never find anything. Everything was tidied up into neat piles and put in some unlikely place never to be found again. This woman was employed 6 days a week by the school to clean up after me, and I was only living in a single room. It seemed totally absurd. I would wander the streets after my working hours waiting until her working hours had finished so I could relax in my room. I would speak to other bules who had been here for a while and they said it was a good thing, it gave many people jobs so they could send money back to their families. But something didn’t feel right.
As I went into Indonesian friends’ houses, after my eyes started to adjust and I stopped trying to shake the hand of the ‘mbak’ when I was being introduced to everyone else, I saw that Indonesians were very comfortable asking this woman to make them a cup of tea or to pop down to the warung to pick up some nasi pecel. And that chasing after a child (or someone seemingly big enough to feed themselves) with a giant spoon of rice wasn’t just done at preschools.
When we were growing up, we couldn’t ask even our mum to make us some tea, and if we did ask for anything it was met with a resounding “you have two arms and two legs, go and make it yourself”, so we would. If you wanted someone to do something for you that made them get up from the couch you had to flip a coin or agree to do a different job later. We had never heard of a land where you had a woman living in the tiny room of your house who would do stuff for you. This only happened in fairy tales and she usually ended up married to the prince. Inconceivable.
Even after 3 years, I am not at all comfortable with the whole business. There is an agreement in my house that I do not deal with the pembantu and that my boyfriend, who is Indonesian, takes care of her. Experience has shown us that when I deal with her, the guilt and neocolonialist feeling grip me, I feel awful that I am sitting down while they are sweeping, I send them home, I give them money at random moments until after a while they are constantly asking for loans and spend most of the time sleeping in the upstairs room and telling me how their brother or sister can’t afford an education and could I pay for their school fees? This feeling that I have too much while they have too little envelopes me and I don’t know what to do with that guilt. So I try and push it to the back of my consciousness and enjoy this new feeling of ironed clothes.
There is a strange hierarchy in Indonesia, of which I am yet to understand, where it is okay to employ people for a tiny wage to do all the things you don’t want to do; drive your car, iron your clothes, clean your pool, feed your children. I can’t work out if it is an effect of Javanese culture or 300 years of colonial rule or a combination of both. I saw the movie “The Help” recently and had a little panicked feeling that 1950s America, looked a lot like 21st century Jakarta – just replace African American women with the country girls of Java and Sumatra. Perhaps I am being over-dramatic. Perhaps it will just take some more time to adjust to this culture.
Maybe I could buy a little bell to summon my mbak, maybe I should look forward to having children and have someone else to wake up in the middle of the night to soothe my child. Maybe I will even let her come to the mall with me and hold my child while I enjoy a delicious meal that costs more than what I pay her for a month.
I have a fear that, if I return to Australia, I will have forgotten how to turn on the vacuum cleaner, or will have forgotten how to have an argument with my boyfriend about the unfairness of me always having to clean just because I am a woman. I will have forgotten how to boil the kettle or drive a car. I will have forgotten my belief that all people have a right to equality. Or I will ask mum to make me a cup of tea and she won’t leave me her porcelain figurines in her will. So many worries. So futile. Hmm, now I am thirsty and my legs don’t seem to work…”Mbak..lagi di mana?”.