[Published on 1 October 2012]
People ask me this question all the time when I walk along my street. Mau ke mana? is the shorter version of kamu mau pergi ke mana?, which literally means you want to go where? But the question is more direct than that and when it is translated loosely it means where are you going? Mau ke mana has come to symbolize some of the lack of privacy that I have been experiencing in Indonesia. Everyone wants to know everything. The word privacy doesn’t even really exist in the language. When I searched for what privacy is in Indonesian, I got this definition: kebebasan pribadi or pribadi. And when I looked up pribadi to see if the entries matched, I got this definition: self, individual, and personality. In my community, there is no individual, no self. Anyone who sees me has the right to interact with me. Bu Jess talked to me about this when I first arrived in Pontianak. She told me that Americans and Europeans don’t like it when Indonesians ask them those types of questions. And she wondered if that would make me upset. I told her that Americans and Europeans don’t respond to that question if it is coming from a stranger or other people we don’t know very well. I also told her that I would not get upset, and that I would get used it. (Di sana, which means there, is my usual response. People get a kick out of that because I have told them nothing.)
Once I reach my destination, I get asked dari mana, which means, from where? or where are you coming from? And once we start to talk, people want to know more. Upon meeting an Indonesian, these are the first set of questions he or she will ask you:
Where are you from?
Where do you live?
Are you married?
Do you have children?
What is your religion?
Are you dating someone?/Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
(And if you don’t have the aforementioned) Why don’t you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
Do you/would you want to date an Indonesian?
I usually tease people and give them hope on the last question, and respond with mungkin, which means maybe. People throw up their hands and laugh in response.
So, I am doing my best to get used to it, but it’s clear now that my personal bubble popped the moment I set foot in this country, and in some cases, it is an interesting challenge for me. People who enter a café, for example, walk up to me, look at the screen of my laptop, and ask me what I’m doing. If I am reading or studying Indonesian, they want to know what I am doing. If I am texting someone, they want to know who is receiving the message. Ah! Who are you? And why do you want to know?? Ultimately, I laugh and answer their questions. There is nothing else to do but laugh. Why should I be mad? This person has been raised in a society where that kind of behavior is acceptable, and I am coming from a society where if I did that to a stranger he or she would call me crazy. I think that is hilarious. So, I laugh.
Not too long ago, I was at Rayhan Coffe(e), a cool restaurant located at the end of my street, talking to a male nurse. We had just met and he asked me all of those questions. Up until that point, I had accepted those questions as just being a part of Indonesian culture. But, after being asked so many times, I wanted to know why. I answer most of their questions, but sometimes I can’t help feeling exposed because they are very personal; for 22 years, I have been socialized to get to know people differently. “Why do Indonesians ask people they just met those personal questions? The ones you just asked me” I asked him.He said that they were talking points for a conversation. “But why those questions specifically?” And before he could respond to my last question, I found myself answering it. I told him that in America, for the most part, people start with somewhat general questions and work their way inward. We build on relationships and those types of questions are answered later on. Indonesians, on the other hand, become your best friend within the first five minutes of knowing you. It’s like the mau ke mana’s and dari mana’s are ways to connect with you right then and there. That instant connection is the basis of their relationship with you. Those questions along with the talking points mediate the connection. “So these questions are what make you get closer to someone?” I asked him after I finished my thoughts. “Yes,” he responded. These are the questions that help them connect to you quickly and make them feel like they have known you for a long time. At that point, I thought of people as being the center of concentric circles. Indonesians and Americans just have different starting points; Americans start on the outside while Indonesians start on the inside. Now, this all seems obvious to me. But at that moment in the café, I had to talk aloud to figure it out. I am leaving behind the notion that the way Indonesians get to know people is different from the way Americans get to know people. It’s just the Indonesian way, and I am slowly embracing it.