In late October I was asked to serve as a judge for a storytelling competition at a school in my district. Like most things Peace Corps or Indonesia I tried to limit my expectations and assumptions but was still surprised by many aspects of the event.
The competition was held on a Saturday, a school day in Indonesia, and was scheduled to begin at seven thirty in the morning. In some ways the competition ran very well, but in others not so much. For example, I was asked to be a judge only three days before the competition began. Also, on the morning of the event, I was told the other two judges wouldn’t be able to come so I would be acting as the only judge. Then, just as the event was about to begin, some of the host school’s own English teachers stepped in to act as judges. That was just the handling of the judges—and this event had been in the planning for almost a year.
The competition was emceed by a couple of English students and they did a terrific job. The opening ceremony was mostly in English but included a reading of the Quran, which was in Arabic, of course, as well as some thanks given to Allah. I found it interesting, but not surprising, that a competition would begin with a religious reading. There were some words shared by the school principal and the event administrator and then the competition was to begin.
To be clear, this was an English storytelling competition. All of the stories had to be told using English. These kinds of competitions are fairly common around Java. They can also include other aspects of using English such as debate, writing, or just culture sharing. This was the first English competition I had attended and when I heard it would be a storytelling competition I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite radio shows that I often listened to in the States: The Moth.
It wasn’t much like The Moth at all. I had assumed that since the stories would be told in English the storytellers would be able to speak English. The competition was for middle school aged kids but I did not take this as an indicator of their language proficiency. Grade level is rarely indicative of English proficiency in Indonesia. Claiming most of the story tellers could speak English would be a dubious assertion. No doubt, their storytelling capabilities were good, but it proved to be, more often than not, memorization rather than a genuine understanding of the story being told.
Shortly after arriving at the venue I was given a scoresheet which would be used to rate each storyteller on their performance. The categories included pronunciation, manner, comprehension, expression, property, body language, story, and message. Each category could be given a number of points ranging from zero to ten or zero to fifteen. I was not given a rubric on which to base my ratings in relation to an individual’s performance. I tried to write one so as to not compare one storyteller with another.
The comprehension category was based on a question, by one of the three judges, at the end of each story. This turned out to be my least favorite category because the judges took turns asking the comprehension question and the other two judges, non-native English speakers, invariably asked exceedingly obvious, softball questions.
I was the first one to ask a question and I didn’t yet know the competitor’s level of English capability so I was working off of only having hear the story, which was told quite well. My first couple questions were much too difficult and I still feel bad for the students who had to answer them. My judicial counterparts would ask questions like, “who is your favorite character?” My first question was somewhat along the lines of, “how were the motivations of the main character changed after enduring such hardship?”
The competition itself was quite different from how I think it would be conducted in America. One thing I found odd was how there wasn’t much regard given to limiting the mess left by each competitor’s act. At one point a storyteller busted out a satchel of salt and started strewing it out all over the stage. As it was happening all I could think was, “I hope they have a vacuum because that salt isn’t coming out of that carpet with a broom.” Others left glitter and confetti behind after they finished their performances.
The audience was unlike any I would expect to be found at a similar competition in the States. They were actively chatting during most of the performances. Luckily, the performers seemed to have known how the audience would act and were not easily disturbed; however, a couple of audience members took it upon themselves to correct a storyteller’s mistakes during their performance and that did manage to throw off the storyteller. It is not good for a language learner to be corrected midsentence much less mid-performance. Generally, the performers were quite nervous and I don’t think my presence, one of an obvious English-speaking foreigner, did much to alleviate their anxiety despite how much I smiled and nodded in approval at them.
Now for the interesting stuff. Over thirty students from around Sumedang participated in the competition. Each had ten minutes to tell their story. Many had unique stories, although there were also some repeats. Some of the stories were ones westerners would be familiar with but most were Indonesian or Sundanese folktales. They were all fictitious and ranged in theme from Frozen to The Tortoise and the Hare. I’ll give a brief summary of the five stories told the most. There was some variation between each telling of a particular story but I’ll try to preserve the general ideas as best I can.
The first story of the competition was also the one that made me realize these stories would not be like the ones I had heard growing up or while listening to the radio. This story was told twice and both versions were pretty similar.
Malin Kundang was a young man living on the north coast of the island of Sumatera. He lived with his widowed mother and they were impoverished because, apparently, there was a lack of economic opportunities on the island at the time.
One day Malin proposed that he should sail across the sea in order to make money. Malin’s mother wasn’t happy about the idea but she eventually made peace with his decision and wished him success and safe travels.
Several years later a very nice ship arrives at the port in the mother’s village. A man gets off the ship with a beautiful wife and Malin’s mother believes this to be Malin. She goes to greet him but he acts like he doesn’t recognize his mother because she’s dressed in rags and looks poor. Malin even goes so far as to say to his guards, “take this old woman out of here and give her some money so she won’t come back.” Malin believed his mother would never wear “rags,” I guess.
Malin’s mother is devastated by this turn of events and as Malin’s ship begins to disembark she prays, “dear God, if he isn’t my son, please let him have a safe journey. But if he is my son I curse him to become stone.”
Well, as luck would have it, the man was, in fact, Malin Kundang, his ship gets wrecked in an awful storm and he’s turned into stone. Moral of the story: don’t upset your parents because they just might get God to turn you into stone.
Once upon a time there was an old widow who lived with her beautiful daughter. The daughter was lazy and arrogant (cultural note: arrogant is just about the worst thing you can call someone in Indonesia). The daughter was also very concerned with her appearance. She spent a lot of time looking in the mirror and affirming her beauty to herself. She also wanted to be rich and she rarely helped her mother with the housework. Overall, she was just an awful person, apparently.
One day the widow asked her daughter to go to the market with her. The daughter refused at first but agreed to go so long as her mother walked behind her. The mother reluctantly agreed and they went to the market.
While at the market people asked the beautiful daughter who was walking behind her and she told them it was her servant, not mother. The mother understood her daughter was ashamed so she just rolled with it at first.
On the way home a handsome man asked the daughter why she wasn’t helping her mother carry the goods they bought at the market and the daughter replied, “What?! She is not my mother. She’s my servant. I shouldn’t spoil my hands by carrying stuff.”
The mother was very hurt by this and had had enough. So the mother did the only sensible thing possible: pray for God to punish her daughter. And wouldn’t you know, God delivered. The girl’s body suddenly became stiff and from the feet up she began to turn to stone.
As her body petrified she began to cry and apologize to her mother but it was too late—she became a big, crying rock. The daughter became batu menangis, a crying stone.
I think it’s important to note here the importance the stories we tell hold in reflecting and shaping our culture. If I had heard these stories growing up I probably would’ve been more mindful of my parents so they wouldn’t have God turn me into a rock. Luckily for me, and not so much for figures of authority in my life, I was raised to be inquisitive and questioning of almost everything, respectful but not blindly obedient.
I was quite fortunate in that my parents were proactive in fostering an affinity for critical thinking and objectivity in both my brother and me when we were young. This tendency to play devil’s advocate later added to their consternation of trying to rear me during my teenage years as I would often argue with them and tell them how wrong they were. But instead of telling God to turn me into stone they allowed me to take to task their alleged infallibility. Oftentimes they ended up being right, much to my chagrin, but such interactions greatly benefited me during later years and I don’t think I would’ve had those interactions had my parents been Indonesian.
The story of Timun Mas begins, not too surprisingly, with a poor, lonely, old widow. This old woman wanted a daughter so she summons a giant with supernatural powers to help her out. The giant’s name is Buto Ijo. He gives the woman some cucumber seeds, tells her to plant them and crack open the largest golden cucumber when they’ve grown. Inside the cucumber will be beautiful baby girl.
Part of the deal with Buto Ijo is that the woman will have to give up her child to the giant. In one story they agree on the age of six but the giant tries to take the girl at six but decides she’s not ripe enough and waits another four years. In another story they agree on seventeen.
Anyway, the cucumber baby—appropriately named Timun Mas which translates to golden cucumber—and the widow live happily until Buto Ijo comes back to take the child. Despite having known this would happen for literally all of the child’s life the woman is caught off guard by the giant’s arrival and quickly gives Timun Mas a satchel with some unique items in it that are supposed to help her escape the giant but without any explanation as to how the items will be used. The satchel contains four things: salt, chilies (in one version of this story these were needles), cucumber seeds, and terasi (a shrimp-based paste used for seasoning.
With her satchel of sensibly assorted goods in hand Timun Mas begins to run away from Buto Ijo. As all giants do when they are in pursuit of a meal Buto Ijo calls out about how he can’t wait to eat Timun Mas and how she can’t outrun him. Timun Mas is about to be caught when she throws out the salt from her satchel which turns into a large sea that now separates her from Buto Ijo. The giant swims across it without tiring much because he’s supernatural.
The giant is about to catch Timun Mas again so she throws out the chilies/needles which become a forest of prickly trees which Buto Ijo now has to get through in order to reach Timun Mas. You can probably guess what happens next. The cucumbers become a cucumber field and the giant, for whatever reason, feels compelled to eat all the cucumbers and then take a nap. The terasi becomes a swamp that drowns Buto Ijo. Rest in peace, Mr. Ijo.
Timun Mas goes back home and lives out the rest of her days with her widowed mother.
Not sure what the moral of the story is but it does pose a lot of good questions. Why didn’t the giant just grow his own kids? Why not use the terasi earlier? Is it alright to go back on your word if you’re a widow who made a deal with a supernatural giant? Did Buto Ijo deserve to be killed simply for expecting the widow would hold up her end of the bargain?
This story was told five times. No two versions were exactly the same but the essential premise remained fairly constant. A long time ago there lived a woman, a widow in some versions a young woman in others, who was incredibly wealthy but also terribly avaricious. Her name was Bagenda Endit. She never used her money charitably and in the version of the story where she did lend out her money she charged exorbitant interest rates and would collect her debtors’ possessions as payment if they didn’t have enough money.
One day a beggar woman came with her baby to Bagenda Endit to ask for some food, money or water from her well. Bagenda Endit refused to help this poor woman and even splashed water on her and her baby. The rejected woman cursed Bagenda Endit and was on her way. Despite how miserly Bagenda Endit was people still came to her to ask for help even though she never rendered them any aid.
Some days later an enfeebled old man came to Bagenda Endit’s house to ask for some water from her well. Bagenda Endit also refused him but he insisted. After arguing for a bit Bagenda Endit had enough so she began to pummel the old man with a large stone.
After Bagenda Endit had sufficiently beaten the old man he stood up and suddenly appeared quite healthy. What he said next varies a lot but essentially is along the lines of, “You want water, Bagenda Endit? You gonna get water!” With that declaration he plunged the walking stick he had been using into the earth and water began to come up from the ground. Enough water comes up that Bagenda Endit drowns and justice is served.
In all but one version of the story it is mentioned how the town she lived in was also submerged by the water which went on to become known as Bagendit lake. Kind of a bummer how, in his vengeance, the old man had to destroy the town too.
Sangkuriang/Legend of Tangkuban Perahu
This story was told six times and is probably my favorite tale from the competition. It takes place in West Java and involves a place I have visited. All of the stories were pretty surreal but I thought this one was the most surreal and I love all things surreal. It also seemed to be the only commonly told story to not feature a widow, which was cool.
A long time ago, in West Java, there was a beautiful and intelligent girl named Dayang Sumbi. Her beauty and intelligence were so great that a prince from the heavenly kingdom of Kahyangan desired her as his wife. The prince’s father, the king, didn’t want his son to marry a mortal but the prince was insistent. The king agreed to let his son marry Dayang Sumbi on one condition. The king said, “You may marry Dayang Sumbi, but when you have a child you will transform into a dog.” The prince was fine with this, naturally.
The prince and Dayang Sumbi married and lived happily until she gave birth to a baby boy. In accordance to the agreement the prince was transformed into a dog and, for unexplained reasons, took on the name of Tumang. Their son was named Sangkuriang. Sangkuriang was smart, handsome, and loved to hunt, which he did with his trusted hunting companion, Tumang.
One day Dayang Sumbi wanted to eat some deer heart so she sent out Sangkuriang to hunt. Sangkuriang did not have much luck with the hunt and, depending on which version of the story you follow, he either killed Tumang out of frustration with not being able to find any game or out of anger for not following orders. He felt bad about killing his dog but not bad enough to keep him from taking the dog’s heart and trying to pass it off as a deer’s heart to his mother.
Later, at dinner, Dayang Sumbi asks about where Tumang has gone off to. After a little evading of the truth Sangkuriang eventually admits he has killed Tumang and tried to pass off his heart as the deer heart. Dayang Sumbi becomes enraged and in her righteous anger she yells at Sangkuriang telling him what he has done is bad and that he has killed his father. Why that fact never came up before now, I don’t know. Dayang Sumbi throws out Sangkuriang but not before hitting him on the head with a spoon hard enough to leave a scar.
Dayang Sumbi and Sangkuriang part ways. Dayang Sumbi is sad because of the loss of her husband and for having driven away her son. She goes to sleep and has a dream featuring her late dog-husband who tells her not to be sad and that he wants her to be happy so he blesses her with eternal youth and beauty. In another version of this story she just prays and because her prayer is so good god gives her eternal youth and beauty.
Some years later, after Sangkuriang has become even more handsome and successful touring around Java, he returns home to find the place very different from how he left it. He decides to live in his old town and while there he meets a woman who is very beautiful. Sangkuriang and the woman get along swimmingly and after a period of time Sangkuriang proposes they get married. The woman agrees.
On a morning before Sangkuriang is about to go out on a hunt he asks his fiancé to fix his head band. The woman notices a scar on his head and asks him what happened. Sangkuriang tells her that when he was younger his mother hit him on the head because he killed their dog. At this the woman realizes that the man she is engaged to is her son because she is Dayang Sumbi. WHOA!
Let’s stop for a minute and appreciate how oblivious these characters are. How did Sangkuriang not recognize his mother? I guess, given the story of Malin Kundang, a son might not recognize his mother after a couple years, especially after she has been blessed with eternal youth and beauty. But how could Dayang Sumbi not recognize her son? Was it at all a little suspicious that the man she agreed to marry was named Sangkuriang? Maybe that was a common name back then. I don’t know. Okay, let’s move on.
Dayang Sumbi, now realizing that she is engaged to her son, tries to stop the marriage. She asks to not marry him but Sangkuriang says no and the marriage is still going to happen. Instead of explaining her predicament she decides to pose two challenges to Sangkuriang in order for them to be wed.
First, Dayang Sumbi asks Sangkuriang to dam the Citarum River. Second, Sangkuriang must create a very large boat with which to cross the dammed river. Both of these tasks must be completed before dawn. No big deal for Sangkuriang. Apparently, during his years away from home, he befriended a bunch of supernatural sprites, nymphs, elves and other mythical woodland beings who can help him.
Sangkuriang finishes building the dam and starts to work on the boat. Dayang Sumbi realizes at the pace he has been working he will be able to complete the tasks and proceed with the marriage. Dayang Sumbi, being the cunning and eternally beautiful woman that she is, decides to fake a sunrise. She gets the women of her village to all wave red silk cloths around which look like the rising sun to the magical beings causing them to run away scared.
Without his magical helpers Sangkuriang is unable to complete the boat by sunrise. Sangkuriang, now enraged to a supernatural level himself, destroys the dam which then floods and destroys the town and then kicks his boat which turns into a mountain. The mountain is called Tangkuban Perahu, meaning upside-down boat.
Thirty-seven hundred words later and I think it’s best I wrap this post up. But first, some thoughts I’ve had about stories.
The stories told during the English competition were very interesting to me. I was always raised to believe—and I think the stories I was told would reflect—that children are a product of how their parents raised them. These stories seemed to show that children are innately good or bad.
In the Western world I think it would be hard to find a story where a parent asks God to punish their child. Wicked stepparents are everywhere in our fairy tales but they only highlight how birth parents can only ever unconditionally love their own children. Unconditional love seems to have a limit in these stories.
One thing I particularly loved about these stories was how they often tied into the land and its geographical features. There were many stories which told of the origin of mountains, cities, lakes, and rivers. America, being as young and culturally diverse as it is, lacks similar tales. Maybe it would be a good idea for Americans to take it upon themselves to write stories about their city, county, or state, and its many features, and tell them to the next generation.