Monday, November 2, 2009

Monkey Love

Notions of love and marriage are dancing around in my head after having spent all of last week comparing Indonesian and American dating customs in my Cross Cultural Understanding classes and then attending my third Indonesian wedding of the month last Saturday (photo below). Let me share some highlights.

For starters, “monkey love” or cinta monyet is the Indonesian equivalent of “puppy love” – or an adolescent crush. My students explained that this is because monkeys are cute, funny, shy and small. My Indonesian Idioms and Expressions book gives further clarification, “Indonesians think monkeys are as foolish as starry-eyed lovers.”

Popular dates for local teenagers, who tend not to start dating until they’re at least 17, include going to the beach, studying together, going to concerts, and riding around on motorcycles. In fact, riding around on motorcycles in the evening, especially going out to the beach to look at the stars, is known here as jalan jalan sore, which is roughly the equivalent of “lovers’ lane”.

Jalan jalan is an Indonesian term that I actually really like. Jalan means to walk and jalan jalan means to stroll around leisurely for fun. Sore means evening. People who remain indoors during the heat of the day suddenly pour out into the streets around 5 pm when the sun starts to set. For teenagers and young adults, jalan jalan sore takes on an extra meaning when done with that special someone. And because Indonesians are so fond of acronyms, jalan jalan sore is usually referred to as JJS.

Many aspects of dating in Indonesia are actually quite similar to customs in the U.S. People are free to choose their own dates (although family approval plays a much stronger role here than it does in individualist cultures in general), blind dates are common, men and women sometimes share expenses on a date, people of different social, economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds can date, and girls or guys can do the asking. Now let’s talk about some of the surprises.

Quite a number of my students were surprised to learn that many young Americans move out of the parental home at around age 18 to live at college or in their own apartments. Here, young adults tend to live at home until they marry, which might not be until their mid to late twenties. Even more surprising for my students was the fact that many American couples live together without being married, a practice that is virtually non-existent here because of the strong taboo against pre-marital sex. (One student charmingly asked if couples are at least “betrothed” before living together).

This taboo also led most of my students to answer the following question incorrectly on a little quiz I gave them on dating situations in America (which I found in a book the head of the English Department at UNG lent me):

You are a young woman on a date. Your date says, “Let’s go back to my place.” What does this usually mean?

a. He wants you to go to his apartment and have sex with him.

b. He wants you to meet his parents.

c. He is very proud of his apartment and wants to show it to you.

The correct answer, in case you were in doubt, is "a". Most of my students, bless their hearts, when I asked for a show of hands, picked "b" or "c" as the answer and were SHOCKED to find out that it was "a". I hope I'm not corrupting their innocent minds, but at the same time, I also think this is important to know if they ever date an American over the age of 18 who no longer lives at home with his parents. Otherwise, they'll be in for an even bigger shock once they get back to his place. Although, hopefully, they can find men to date who are culturally sensitive enough to know that good Muslim women do not have sex before marriage.

Last but not least, the purpose of getting married, for Muslims, is to have children. I had falsely assumed that the purpose was to have legitimatized sex after years of waiting. So, in hushed whispers during the wedding reception for Ibu Noni's brother, I asked Tia for more details about Muslim marriages. What shocked me was that a Muslim woman has to start trying to get pregnant as soon as she is married because otherwise people will wonder why she isn't being a "good wife" and giving her husband children. Couples aren't allowed to use birth control until AFTER they have finished having children. But what if you don't want to have children right away? This was mind boggling to me. What if you want to gain work experience first or study for a second or third degree? Or just enjoy being married and finally out of your parents' house?? To my modern American mindset, unless you feel your biological clock is ticking, what's the rush in having children? Live your own life first. Ahh...individualism.



  2. One of my students ran up to me the other day (out of the blue) and asked "is it true that in America couples sometimes live together before they are married?" I said yes. I opted not to tell her that for 7 years I was one of those couples. :)

  3. First, please forgive me for strongly disagreeing with something in your blog. In your last post, you wrote "I am becoming the person I always hated; I am becoming the foreign expat who doesn't speak the local language..." Well, let's leave aside for the moment the part about learning the local language. I really do not think you're becoming the type of expat whom you hate.

    This blog entry clearly shows that. You might not be making the progress in the language that you initially hoped for, but you've managed to write a senstive, informative, and thoughtful essay about marriage and courtship in Gorontalo You've included both numerous specific examples and a more general perspective on some of the joys and perils of love and family. Not an easy thing to do.

    This is a tricky subject to write about cross-culturally: people tend to swing between a rose-tinted view and complete rejection. You avoid both of these extremes and instead describe Indonesian marriage in a way that I think most of your local informants and friends would find credible, sympathetic and nuanced.

    Take a minute and ask yourself--honestly--how many of the "expats you hate" write in this vein? Very few, if any. You're clearly making friends, and that's something the proudly monolingual expat doesn't do. You also don't pontificate about some monolithic Indonesian culture (something monolingual expats love to do) but instead work with an ever-growing body of empirical facts to try to make sense of a very different culture.

    I look forward to reading and learning from your blogs as they continue to emerge.

  4. Thanks for your encouragement, William! I always enjoy reading your responses to my posts, and I especially appreciated this one.

    I think a lot of my frustration with learning Indonesian also stems from the fact that I am used to being competent in another language (German) and here that competency has been taken away and I no longer feel like the “insider” I did in Switzerland, where I could easily understand everything being said around me and could easily converse with the Swiss about all sorts of professional and personal topics.

    I also really liked and admired the Swiss way of life. Granted it sometimes seemed more formal or stiff than American culture, but it was also clean, organized and efficient – qualities which I rarely encounter here in Indonesia. I liked Switzerland so much that I wanted to blend in as much as possible and thought the ultimate compliment was to be mistaken for a Swiss. Here, I have no such desire to blend in.

    So, thanks for sticking up for me at a time when I didn’t even stick up for myself. I’d like to think I do have more cultural sensitivity than the average expat who lives in their own expat world. But I still find it hard to connect to the Indonesian culture and language on the same level that I connected to Swiss culture and the German language.

  5. I also discovered that Thursday and Sunday nights are the designated nights in Gorontalo to have sex. I discovered this cultural nuance after Arzal got married: we were having a Friday department meeting, and one of the lecturers kept giving Arzal a hard time. Of course this was done all in Indonesian, so I asked for further clarification. "We are saying Arzal must be tired and thirsty from last night." Nudge nudge, wink. No further explanation. Of course I started laughing hysterically and asked: "Well, what if you dont' want to do it on those days." "Well, it's ok then Ibu Jonna. You can do it on Friday." Oh Indonesia. :)

  6. Finally I've found a moment to catch up on all your adventures. Yay! I thought of lots of comments along the way, but this one goes for everything- your writing is so good. It totally pulls me in. I'm so proud of you, Julianne. You're such a bad-ass. Do you think we could skype sometime?

  7. Jonna - That is so funny about Thursday and Sunday nights! I had no idea...

    Anna - I'm so happy to hear you've caught up on reading my blog! So good to know you're out there reading about my life in Indo. How is everything in St. John?? I miss you so much and I would love to Skype, but see my most recent post about the difficulties of Internet access here. If God is willing we shall Skype soon!