I really do love it here. I came to that realization a few weeks ago, sitting on an angkat on a hot afternoon, stuck in traffic while the van crawled its way through the teeming streets. Groups of ragged teenage boys strummed guitars and panhandled, men hawked cigarettes, bottles of water and plastic SpongeBob figures, and people on the ankgat stared at me openly or snapped clandestine photos with their cell phones.
Odd that this should be my version of happiness, isn’t it? But I’m so glad that almost six months into my grant, I’ve finally found real contentment in my day-to-day life in Bandung. Reflecting back, five months is a very normal adjustment period for transitioning into a new job, a new language, a new culture. But I feel sometimes like Verucca Salt, the spoiled girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – “I want it nowwwww!” I want to speak Indonesian fluently enough to communicate with ease, I want to start understanding the ridiculously complicated Sundanese language that most people speak at home, I want to find my niche in this culture, I want to form close friendships with people from the radio station and teachers at my school, I want to connect with my students and feel like I’m making a difference here. Much easier said than done. But if I haven’t accomplished everything on that long list, at least I feel like I’m having a full, rich, wildly interesting experience here.
This past weekend has been as busy as any I’ve ever had, and the upcoming one promises to be just as packed. Saturday was completely taken up with my first Sundanese wedding. Sundanese is the primary ethnic group in Bandung and the surrounding areas. They are the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia, after Javanese (for whom the island of Java is named after), and the Sundanese language boasts millions of speakers. Indonesia has thousands upon thousands of languages, many of which are dying out as the young people move to cities and focus on more business-friendly tongues. It’s a shame, especially as I see how much pride the people in my community have in being Sundanese and in speaking the language.
BuSry, a mathematics teacher at my school, invited me to watch the wedding ceremony of her daughter.
Bu Sry (L) and Bu Yati (R)
It’s the first child in her family to be married, so it’s a huge deal. Here, as in many other Muslim societies, children marry in order of birth. So if the younger daughter has a serious boyfriend but the older daughter is still unmarried, there is a lot of pressure to find someone suitable and get the process started. Bu Sry is one of my favorite teachers – we greet each other every morning with her cheerfully singing out, “Halo jelek,” or “Good morning hideous!” and I just as cheerfully reply, “Halo cantik!” or “Good morning beautiful!” We started this routine because I quickly became tired of everyone here labeling me as pretty merely because I have white skin. The market for skin whiteners is huge here, and I have a difficult time finding soap and shower gel that do not contain whitening agents. The market primarily focuses on women, and an Indonesian woman with darker skin will have a much harder time finding a job and a husband. It has to be partially class-based – lighter skin is a sign that you work in an office instead of in the fields, and is therefore more aristocratic. As a consequence, women here are obsessive about covering up – wearing mittens when they commute by motorcycle so their hands don’t tan, staying out of the sun – and often wear layers of foundation and powder. It’s not uncommon, on a particularly hot day, to see girls and women with two-toned faces, as half of their makeup has sweated off to reveal their true skin color.
This aspect of Indonesia culture frankly drives me crazy, especially when I see girls in my class with burns and patches on their face from allergic reactions to whitening efforts gone awry. So whenever I have the opportunity, I talk about the tanning culture in America, and how “brown is beautiful.” I tell my teachers and students that I frequently felt self-conscious growing up when my stubbornly pale skin refused to tan at the beach. They are often incredulous, but American culture has such a powerful presence here that maybe with enough repetitions, these gorgeous women will feel less bad about their lack of lily-white skin. Bu Sry was delighted with this idea, that in America she would be the beautiful one, while I would be the oddity, and so our morning routine was born. But I majorly digress. Back to the wedding!
Yati and her husband!
The morning of the wedding, Bu Yati, my counterpart, and her husband picked me up to take me to the ceremony. I wore a particularly fancy batik tunic that I haven’t had an opportunity to wear yet, and my mother’s skirt from the Sultan’s 50th birthday in Brunei, which was more than ten years ago! Bu Yati arranged my headscarf into a pretty configuration, and we set off. Most of the guests do not attend the ceremony, which is held in the mosque, because of space constraints, but the teachers wanted me to witness a wedding from start to finish.
We were held up a bit by traffic, so by the time we arrived, the ceremony had started and the bride and groom had processed into the mosque. I was fascinated by the sumptuous dresses the women wore, called a kebaya (just like the ones in Morocco!), which featured layers of gauzy fabric dripping with beads and embroidery. Bu Yati confessed that they are beautiful but horribly uncomfortable to wear because the tight skirt severely limits your motion and the cinched-in waist makes it difficult to breathe! Why must beauty be pain? The different colors marked a woman’s relationship to the wedding – white for the bride and groom, amber gold for a member of the wedding party (parents and siblings), purple for the bride’s relatives and green for the groom’s relatives. Men and women are separated in the mosque, so I could only clandestinely peer over into the men’s section, but the men all wore batik shirts, long sarong skirts and the distinctive rounded caps that Muslim men wear here. I think they look wonderfully dignified.
My two favorite parts of the ceremony were when the bride and groom, who knelt at the front of the mosque, went over to their parents to receive their blessing and bid them farewell. It was very emotional for both families, as they are both gaining and losing children, and everyone cried. The bride and groom then greeted their new in-laws, to be welcomed into their families. It was one of the more touching rituals I’ve seen at a wedding. My other favorite part of the ceremony was when the groom presented his wedding gift to his new bride – he had secretly memorized Surat al-Rahmani of the Qu’ran, which is the chapter about compassion, and is one of the loveliest sections of the Qu’ran, in my opinion. It is rare for Indonesians to actually understand the Arabic verses they recite from the Qu’ran – most books have an accompanying translation into Indonesian – so for the groom to have studied the words for meaning and not just rote memorization was a huge effort. He started out nervously, and I could tell that he was terrified of forgetting a word or of messing up the cadence, but his voice gradually gained strength and confidence as he lost himself in the beautiful words. The mosque was hushed and silent for the entire twenty-minute recitation, which is a rarity here!
The master of ceremonies who was conducting the ceremony from a nearby pulpit, finally declared them married in the eyes of God, and the wedding party dispersed to change into clothes for the reception.
Wedding reception space
The audience gathered into an adjoining room for a quick breakfast of lontong (long-grained cubes of rice), gule ayam(a wonderfully fragrant chicken with saffron and coconut milk), and tea. Several other teachers from school arrived at this point, so we drove over to the reception together at around 11 a.m. The wedding party had yet to arrive when we got there, so we amused ourselves by wandering around the reception hall (an army banquet space) and taking copious pictures.
Teachers from school
Apparently the cost of a wedding can run to more than 100 million rupiah, which is over $10,000, and a huge sum here in Indonesia. Especially when it’s the first child to be married, such as in this case, the families err on the side of lavish. There were flowers everywhere, decorative archways decorated with garlands and vines, and ornate golden couches to sit on. I garnered a fair amount of strange looks with my height and obviously non-Indonesian features combined with my Muslim clothes, but the presence of the teachers from my school as we joked and chattered in Indonesian allowed me to blend in more than usual.
The bride and groom finally arrived, and led an enormous procession of the entire wedding party through the center of the reception hall up onto the stage where they sat to receive congratulations.
Bride and groom leading the procession
A line quickly formed, and we moved from person to person clasping their hands and touching cheeks (in the case of women) and respectfully nodding at the men, and saying “wilujeng,” to everyone, which is Sundanese for “congratulations.” The bride, Bu Sry’s daughter, who had been nodding mechanically at the ever-moving line of well-wishers, sat up straight when she saw me and exclaimed happily, “Oh, you must be Miss Kathryn! My mother told me about you. I always wanted to have a bulé (foreigner) at my wedding!”
Our duty done, everyone made a beeline for the food. There were stations scattered all around the hall, with attendants serving everything from meatball soup to ice cream to cow tongues to, for some strange reason, chicken cordon bleu. We collected a variety of dishes and commandeered some a patch of table to stand and sample the food. Some of the male teachers from school joined us, and demanded to know when I would be married, always a favorite topic of conversation. Apparently I am supposed to have a preferred age and month in mind! My excuse is always that I need to speak to my father first, to ask his permission and get his blessing, before I even think about marriage, so one of the teachers snatched my cell phone and jokingly threatened to call my father, offer himself as a prospective groom, and settle things then and there! The arrival of more teachers thankfully saved my parents from a very surprising phone call, and Yati and I left shortly after that. More guests were arriving every moment, the dangdut singers (traditional Sundanese singing accompanied by very seductive dancing!) were in full swing, and this would clearly be going on for hours. I was happy enough to head home and take a quick nap to recover from my first Sundanese wedding experience.