A confronting part about living in Indonesia is the Indonesian style of commenting on your appearance every time they see you; if you have a zit, if your bum looks big, if you have lost weight, or your new hairstyle makes you look “fresh”; if your face is red after too much sun, or you look a lot darker since the start of the holidays, you have to be prepared to look forward to a blatantly honest judgment on how you are looking.
Being a woman with constantly fluctuating weight, where some days I have to squeeze into my biggest pants and not feel totally great about it, it takes a thinking shift to accept that someone at some point throughout the day will tell me that it’s amazing how quickly I can get fat.
These comments aren’t meant in a spiteful way, but I find it to be a hilarious point of difference between the cultures. Even with my closest friends from Australia, apart from a general comment in the positive such as “I like your new dress”, “you look great”, we don’t generally dwell on how someone looks. This has been taught through our education of being politically correct; to speak generally about appearance, to not mention racial features (wow, your skin is very black today), to be aware that to be a woman generally means to have hang ups about how you look with a potential eating disorder just around the corner. So whether we have a quick thought upon seeing our friends such as “damn, I wish I had her ass” or “maybe she shouldn’t have worn that dress”, we keep our mouths shut and move onto other things.
Indonesians have a different style altogether. When I was chatting with one of my fellow teachers, a beautiful teeny-tiny Indonesian woman, she told me that she was on a diet because she had got really fat over the past few months. I looked her up and down, and could only see size teeny tiny, and told her that I hadn’t noticed and that she looked great to me. She said that her old friends who she hadn’t seen in a few years had told her that her bum was looking very large and her face was chubby when they had met again. I laughed out loud at these comments and tried to explain to her that in Australia, we don’t ever meet old friends in that way. She was kind of amazed that it wasn’t a part of our general conversation, and after mulling it over in her mind for a while she said to me, “You know Katrina, if I had met these old friends and they hadn’t commented on how I looked, I would have been offended and assumed that I looked ugly. And I would eventually ask them..soooooo….how do I look?”.
Over lunch with Indonesian friends, a constant topic of conversation (aside from men and sex – there go those Muslim stereotypes again) in which I usually listen mouth agape thinking “oh my god, I feel like I should be wearing the jilbab (head scarf) cause I am obviously more conservative than these women”, the women are always talking about the size of someone’s boobs or bum, telling each other who is looking fatter than usual, or who definitely should not have chosen the outfit they are currently wearing cause they don’t look very beautiful. Another friend of mine hangs out with her friends and each of them has been named after a sea creature depending on their personal appearance or personality; try and imagine being nicknamed the whale or the salty fish. I think I might be the puffer fish.
In a more politically correct country if you are trying to describe someone, you try and choose the most polite ways to describe them such as, “Which one is Douglas?”, “Oh he’s the tall, slightly built man with the short black hair”. When you meet Douglas, he may be a 10 foot giant albino with buck teeth, no legs, 6 fingers on each hand. But we were just trying to be nice. In Indonesia they get straight to the point. “Who is Hasan?”, “Oh he’s the really black one with greasy long black hair with a bad side parting, small wrinkly hands and Chinese eyes. His wife says he has a very small penis, and he is really lazy at work”.
Working in an International school, the kids come from everywhere. In the middle of my class when one of the teachers said, “Wow, what an international class we have; the Indonesians, the Indos, the black one, the Chinese one and the bule”. All of my political correctness training made my stomach lurch, and then I looked at her smiling face, looking at the children and loving them, whatever they looked like, I had a feeling that my training had left a gap in my consciousness.
Indonesians aren’t afraid to let it all out. They share their thoughts and feelings as soon as they happen (well it seems that way to me). I could sit with my Australian friend and laugh all night and months later she might say to me “you know that night we met, god I felt really depressed”, but it’s all stored inside.
Indonesians talk about appearance, analyse it a little together and move on. I don’t think eating disorders are really an issue in Indonesia (for the people who can afford to eat). We keep our mouths closed and hope that no one notices us too much. And the rate of eating disorders is forever rising in Australia.
Well whatever the reasons, at least I know straight up if I should have chosen my outfit or if it makes me look fat. And then I can move on. I have to learn to accept that my boyfriend will grab my love handles and say “wow you have been eating a lot of toblerones” and laugh, and for me not to decide then and there to cut down on chocolate consumption. Cause that just wouldn’t be me.
And if Indonesia is teaching me anything, it’s that there are a lot more important things to worry about than how you look. Things like “how can I afford to educate my children?”, “should I eat nasi ayam or nasi gila?”, “is that a bule shopping at a warung?”, “were Ariel’s moves that great?”, “should I let him hold my hand in public?”, and the most important question, “what would Allah think?”.