Indonesians are quite the inquisitive people. Upon first meeting someone they are prone to inquire about all sorts of things most Americans would find odd, or even impolite, to ask an acquaintance. Age, marital status, religion, and when you have had your most recent shower or meal are all things Indonesians do not hesitate to ask. These are not questions many Americans would readily find appropriate to pose, even to someone with whom they regularly associate.
The answers to these questions are not as important as the questions themselves. From what I have gathered, and heard, I can say Indonesians ask these relatively personal questions to express care, concern, and interest about and for others. These very direct questions go against what I was so often told during PST—Indonesians are “indirect” and do not like to ask or be asked difficult and probing questions.
One strange incident when I was asked such a direct question followed a long day of PST. My host sister, without prompt, grace, or any attempt of a segue, asked me, more or less, “Why is your face pimply?” This was only three weeks into PST and my language skills weren’t great, so I first looked up the word for pimply to confirm her question. Once clarity had been established I laughed at how ineloquently she managed to ask her question, at least by American dialogue standards.
Once I had gotten over the hilarity of the situation I tried to answer her question as best I could. Though for what kind of answer she was looking, I do not know. So my response ranged from the biological to the biblical in trying to explain why my face was “pimply.” I also, somewhat sarcastically, expressed gratitude for being made aware of the condition of my skin, because up until her question, I believed my face to be relatively clear and pimple-free.
The next day I told some other volunteers this story and, in typical American fashion, they rushed to assuage my fears that my skin could be anything other than terrific. They also mentioned similar stories of their own. For many Indonesians the only Americans they see are on television and in movies and those Americans always have flawless skin. So it must be somewhat curious to see an American in-the-flesh, realize they are indeed made of flesh and that their flesh is not perfect.
Instances like these make me doubt whose culture is really the more direct. As I said earlier, the answer to the question is not the primary concern. When I have been asked about my religion I always respond by saying I am a Christian, one of the six state-approved religions in Indonesia. Beyond a fleeting moment of disappointment at finding out I am not a Muslim, the people who ask me this question usually do not press much further into religious topics.
When the subject of religion is entertained in conversation I am almost always told one or two things immediately after disclosing my beliefs. Frequently, I am told, “not all Muslims are terrorists.” Sometimes this elucidation comes up unaided, and whenever it does I feel nothing but regret for the fact that any individual finds it necessary to tell me something so plainly obvious.
Occasionally, after I share my religious beliefs, the response is one of camaraderie and kinship. When meeting the matriarch of my PST host family for the first time she said to me, “no problem, no problem! You Christian, he Muslim. No problem! One God, one Allah.” My bapak was the “he,” to whom she was referring. Casual discussions of religion regarding doctrine or theology are very rare, and certainly never undertaken lightly.
Most of these probing, yet brief, questions will happen when there is obvious time to strike up light conversation. Such as in an angkot or while waiting for coffee at a warung. But one question Indonesians like to ask, a question which Americans would find odd to be asked by a stranger, is “mau ke mana?” Mau ke mana essentially means “where are you going?” But literally, word-for-word, it translates to “want to where?” It is a question readily asked by children, adults, and elderly people alike.
The first time I was asked this question was early on in PST. I was on my bike headed to some class when an Indonesian boy, probably around the age of ten, biked up next to me and asked, “mau ke mana!?” Like the American I am, my initial internal reaction was, “why the heck does this little kid need to know where I’m going?” I was out of my desa and did not recognize him from any of the neighborhood children with whom I had become associated, so I simply replied, “ke sana,” to there, and pointed in the general direction of my destination. Satisfied, the little boy biked away.
Later I found out that “ke sana” is a very common response to “mau ke mana?” The acknowledgement, by both parties, is what matters more than the answer to the question asked. For all intents and purposes, “mau ke mana” functions more like “what’ up,” or “how’s it going,” in English. The literal, or descriptive answer to the question isn’t what the asker is looking for.
The morning of swearing-in was quite somber. I was pleased to be finished with PST and to get started on my two years of service, but I felt as though my time in Manisrenggo had been too short. There were still many relationships which I hadn’t developed near to the level I had wanted, primarily the relationship I had with my ibu, my host mother.
Since my PST ibu spoke Javanese and very little Indonesian we had never had a really good conversation. Despite not talking much, I could still sense great care and love from her, and there was certainly some level of communication, albeit not verbal. Most of our interactions would be limited to a couple of words, lots of smiles, and occasionally an apology on my part for not being able to understand.
The hours before I left for the swearing-in ceremony were spent organizing the last of my things, and making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. As I was making some final arrangements to my backpack my ibu walked by my room, stopped at my door and said, “mau ke mana?” This question, which I had been asked of me many times before, was suddenly impossible to answer.
I had been relying on my bapak and host sister to explain my timeline of events for departure to my ibu. I knew they had explained to my ibu that I would be leaving soon. We had talked about what I’ll do in Sumedang, how I’ll get along eating without silverware, and the “cold” weather in the mountains often in the preceding weeks.
I was certain my ibu knew I would be departing; however, there was a very small part of me that thought, “perhaps she doesn’t know I’m about to leave.” So I explained what I was doing, why I was packing, with my language skills that suddenly seemed grossly insufficient. My ibu nodded and smiled as I spoke, as though everything I said made perfect sense and she understood my grammatically disastrous sentences perfectly.
When I finished explaining, and when my ibu walked away, I shut the door to my room, laid down on my bed, and tried not to cry. I don’t think of myself as an emotional person. I didn’t get teary-eyed when my parents dropped me off at the airport to start my Peace Corps journey. But this interaction hit me especially hard. Pinning down the exact mixture of emotions I felt is difficult, but I suppose it could be best summed up by saying that it seemed as though “goodbye” was coming before anyone had finished saying “hello.”
There’s plenty which can be said on “mau ke mana,” what it means, what it implies, how it’s used. But I think that much of what can be said on the matter is best left unsaid. It has been three months since I, and the rest of my cohort, signed the papers that began our 27 months of service in the Peace Corps. Barely a tenth of the way though our time in Indonesia. Hardly any time at all, but already I am wondering where the time has gone.
Without explanation, one of my favorite quotes is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned “There’s no beauty without poignancy and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books, houses—bound for dust—mortal—“
Mau ke mana?