Friday, June 01, 2012

Hello Mister!

After a week with my friends in Cyberjaya it was time for me to move on. They had already postponed my departure by insisting I spend the weekend with them, but the easy life wasn't getting me any further, and so with a last farewell I set off for Port Klang, Kuala Lumpur's port on the coast. It seems strange to me that despite all the difficulties in getting by sea from one part of the country to another, Peninsular Malaysia has good maritime connections with several neighbouring countries, including Indonesia. Although I liked my time in Malaysia I find it a rather dull place to be honest. Whether it's to do with the rather staid, conservative Muslim culture favoured by the authorities, or whether it has to do with reaching a certain level of development and therefore eschewing the happy chaos of less developed countries I'm not sure. But a difference in chaos was certainly evident in the transition from Malaysia to Indonesia. Boarding the ferry at the Klang terminal was a muted affair, with slowly shuffling rows of passengers trickling through immigration. Disembarkation, on the other hand, was joyously raucous as porters, passengers and onlookers jostled for position on the jetty. The immigration hall was full of shouting, sweaty bodies and a dense fog of sweet kretek (clove cigarettes that have already become one of the hallmarks of my time here in Indonesia) smoke. Nevertheless the bureaucracy was dealt with surprisingly swiftly as people huddled round the immigration desk where the clerks were a blur of furious stamping. The crossing was also quite merry as there was a karaoke video of popular dangdut (the Indonesian music of the masses, best described as the bastard offspring between Polish disco polo and Romanian gypsy manele) songs, which the passengers sang along with when they weren't quizzing me about who I was, where I was going, and other personal questions.

Medan's crowded public market has possibly the largest collection of dried fish in the world. It also has lots of smiling vendors who seem to want to talk about Chelsea or the upcoming Euro championships.

Indonesians are naturally curious, and foreigners are a rare and wondrous sight to be properly investigated. In my first couple of days in Medan I was feeling like a minor pop star as I was constantly mobbed by school and university students who would demand to interview me. It seems that a popular ploy of lazy language teachers here in Indonesia is to tell their students to hunt down random foreigners on the street and then to ask them questions. To prove that they have done the deed the whole episode is usually recorded on the pupils' Blackberrys. (Yes, the same Blackberrys that dominate Western boardrooms and are the prized possessions of suited investment bankers are to be found everywhere here in Indonesia, thanks to its free messaging software that appeals to the text-obsessed locals.) I'm sure there are already half a dozen videos of myself responding to cliched questions out there on Youtube, if only I knew how to search in Indonesian.

I managed to turn the tables on one of my interviewers and get a photograph with her.

Other displays of curiosity come at you randomly from left field. Whilst walking along a pavement in town you might hear a "Hello Mister!" bellowed at you from a passing motorbike that is already behind you and going too fast to wait for an answer; or deep in concentration over a museum exhibit* a visiting family will sidle over to get a group photo that, who knows, may find its way onto the family mantelpiece (do Indonesians have fireplaces?). The attention is both flattering and entertaining, but also a little irritating. Though one thing it certainly isn't is threatening. Everyone is all smiles and warmth which has me looking forward to exploring this giant country further.

*As an aside it was interesting to visit the Medan museum as an excercise in completing a circle. In Groningen I visited an informative tobacco museum, harking back to the hey-days of smoking and the Dutch tobacco industry, which has its roots in northern Sumatra where the Dutch set up successful tobacco plantations in the late 19th century. And whilst the tobacco museum closed down over a year ago due to the political incorrectness of somehow promoting tobacco (which the museum didn't do) smoking is thriving here in their ex-colony.


Big Bule said...

Living in Indonesia for two years I've had the chance to receive every possible personal question from strangers I meet in buses or on the street, the usuals about my family, religion, country, sallary, favorite foods etc.

Definitely the funniest question which I got (once a month or so) is "What is the size of your penis?". Apparently the white people are not wealthier, smarter et all, but also more potent in the imaginary of Indonesians.

And they're direct enough to unleash their curiosity.

Erik said...

Nice. I'm looking forward to that one. Is it usually guys who ask it or girls?

BTW, how is Orthodox Christianity viewed given that it's not one of the "authorised" religions according to the Pancasila?