Last weekend I went to the birthday party of Sam’s co-teacher. It was actually a joint birthday venture because it was Ibu Sintike’s birthday and her husband, Wayan, had his birthday the day before. It was an interesting experience for two main reasons:
1. We didn’t get to the eating and celebrating part for at LEAST half an hour, probably closer to an hour, because there was an extensive session of various prayers and hymns that had to happen before anything else did. Perhaps I was a little more impatient because A) I’m not Christian, and B) I didn’t understand anything they were saying except for Yesus (Jesus) and Tuhan (God). But it was even more excruciating because we spent the entire time staring at a large chocolate cake in front of us. But after they made Sam and me sing a song (we chose Amazing Grace which was a great choice and crowd pleaser) we finally got to the eating part! The food–entirely cooked by the birthday woman–was delicious even though I could only eat the rice and the sauces because everything else was meat or fish. There were also sweet bananas and bountiful watermelon.
2. After we had finished eating a sufficient amount and said hellos and goodbyes to the various people coming and going, one of Wayan’s friends came into the main room and asked us “do you drink whiskey”? Sam and I kind of froze for a moment and didn’t know what to say. Indonesia is fairly conservative and in the more Islamic areas (aka basically anywhere that isn’t a major city, Manado, or a tourist area) have little to know drinking culture. But we were in Manado. Sam and I finally stammered out a response of “Uh, yeah, sometimes” and were promptly invited out to the porch for “whiskey with the boys”. They didn’t actually call it that, but that’s how I read it once we went out there and it was entirely guys and whiskey.
So that’s how Sam and I ended up drinking whiskey with a whole bunch of polisi. “The police?!” You might ask in alarm. Yes, the police and (from what I gather) one or two former preman (aka Indonesian gangsters with a history of being used by the government and a pretty bad connotation in Indonesian society). How in the world did it come to this?? Well Wayan (aka birthday girl’s husband aka birthday boy) is one of the police who I believe works in my neighborhood.
So as Sam and I gingerly sipped at whiskey and coke on the rocks we chatted with Wayan and all of his friends (who were all polisi or similarly related). The night continued and ask Wayan was our ticket home it seemed that we had to settle in for the time being. At some point someone went on a run and returned with what looked like clear but slightly yellow-green liquid in a bag. Yes, in a bag. They poured this bag into a cup and poured each of us a little into a cup, insisting that we try this traditional Minahasan liquor called cap tikus (“chahp-tee-kus” which I guess directly translates to Rat Stamp or Rat Brand…). It was made of palm sugar and tasted kind of like if someone had fermented all Indonesian desserts into an alcohol. Aka quite strong and quite sweet.
Now you might be thinking, oh Shalina what happened after you got drunk with all these Indonesian police dudes? Hold your horses, there was no drunk getting involved in this whole shebang. This entire time Sam and I are looking back and forth to each other whispering and mouthing “WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL IS GOING ON?” How did we find ourselves drinking what seems like the Minahasan version of moonshine with a bunch of polisi and preman? And is it okay? As women is it okay to be drinking with a whole bunch of guys? No one–not the men nor the few women who were around/in the house–seemed to be off put or surprised by the situation, so I am guessing that it was okay. But the whole situation still seemed bizarre.
New Friends, Zumba, and… Preman/Bampol/Polisi Protection??
What we did get out of the whole thing was a bunch of friends in high places and lots of practice speaking Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Manado (the local dialect). I am going to call this a victory because friends in high places (like, ahem, people who know the people at the immigration office…) can’t really be a bad thing. And in a place like Indonesia where the police are maybe not always the most helpful with bule, it’s good to have people we know and like.
And having friends in Indonesia is great because they will invite you to everything and take you places. For example, the next day we ended up going to Zumba with one of the guys from the party because he happened to also be a Zumba instructor! The Zumba-ing was very fun and there were three other women there who were apparently in the intelligence division of the police. So at this point 100% of our friends outside of our schools are polisi. Afterwards the instructor took us out for ketoprak, which is basically gado-gado, which is one of my favorite foods in Indonesia consisting of blanched veggies like spinach, green beans, and bean sprouts with tofu and/or tempeh topped with peanut sauce. Another friend from the night before joined us and, from what Sam and I gathered with the use of our elementary Indonesian skills and dictionary app, learned that he (and I think our Zumba friend, Berry) were bampol and possibly former preman. It seems the bampol are citizen “police helpers” but we were unclear on the details. The main point is that he said we had no need to ever be afraid because if we were ever in trouble or scared we could just call them. And also that they had guns? I think that was suppose to assuage any fears we might have in the future. The point was to reassure us and let us know that we always had someone we could call if need be, but the effect was a tad more alarming than reassuring.
There had been talk at the birthday party of possibly going swimming at a beach and/or joining in on their shooting practice on Sunday. We were pretty excited at the possibility of a beach and rather hesitant about shooting (once again: is this okay?? Is it normal to go shooting in Manado? Is it normal for women? who knows? because we definitely don’t…). As it turned out, it ended up being just shooting practice. At the beginning of this program we were encouraged to say yes to as may invitations as possible, especially at the beginning of the grant, so on Sunday a friend of Berry’s (who, for once, was NOT related to the polisi–he was a chef) picked us up from our kost and drove us up to the villages of Malalayang. There we found our Berry along with a number of others from the original birthday party. Again, basically all polisi or related.
Out of general reluctance, being uncertain about the general acceptablity/appropriateness of all this (us being all women and them being all not), and not knowing anything about the culture and politics of guns and shooting in Indonesia, we were pretty hesitant about the guns. But we did get to shoot a Czech-made rifle-like gun and a handgun, pose with a bow and arrow, attempt to pull the bow, and also drive an ATV. Hanging out, experiencing the view of the villages, talking in Bahasa Indonesia/Manado, and chatting with everyone was pretty fun! I feel like my Indonesian has improved vastly just from that one weekend (though it is quite helpful that they know SOME English especially when things get confusing). And again I am so happy that Sam and I were together as it cut the discomfort quite a bit. And it turns out that we are better shots than Indonesian police??*
*In this ONE instance where we shot with the Czech gun at a small metal target, both Sam and I hit it (obviously using a sight), while some of the polisi (I won’t name names…) seemed to have a lot of trouble. Everyone found it quite amusing.
If there is anything I have learned about Manado people (and Indonesians in general) is that they like their food and drink. Pisang goreng (delicious fried bananas) and fried tofu stuffed with veggies were acquired from somewhere and Berry produced a green mango out of nowhere. Once again the cap tikus was brought out (in a bag again??) in mixed into what they called Gorontalo Jungle Juice (thus named because the chef is from Gorontalo and used to make it in the jungle… this does not change the fact that it sounds 100% like some dangerous concoction made by college students more hardcore than I was). It consisted of a generous portion of cap tikus, lychee syrup, some kind of orange drink, and sprite. Again we had to taste it and honestly it wasn’t too bad. Thought it was concerning that they said that if I keep drinking cap tikus I would forget about America… Given that I wasn’t inclined to forsake my home and country for fermented palm sugar, we eventually asked to go home (also because we knew that if we didn’t it was likely we would end up staying late into the night).
And so ended our weekend-long adventures with the polisi and preman (and chef and others).
Oh wait, no it didn’t end there. The next day Berry texted me to go have kopi (coffee) and tinutuan (traditional Manado rice porridge made with pumpkin, spinach, and other vegetables) with him after school. Sam was away and also very tired from the Immigration Office so I ended up going with him alone which ended up NOT being alone because what he meant by getting kopi and tinutuan was hang out in a rumah kopi (coffee house) with him and like 20 other friends of his who were all somehow related to either government or polisi or something. Apparently they go there every day to hang out, talk business and politics, and snack. The rumah kopi was pretty big but I think it was at least a third filled with people in the government/polisi/related group. It was actually pretty fun and I got to practice more Indonesian/Manadonese and deflect all of their odd jokes and baku seydu (‘joking’ in Manadonese) about how I need an Indonesian pacar (boyfriend). But it was also kind of weird because for the most part I was the only woman in the group (since Sam couldn’t come with me) and I am still uncertain about the whole “is it okay that I am here” thing. Also this was the fourth straight day of hanging out with Berry and friends.
Thoughts and Conclusion
In every cultural exchange program they will tell you to prepare yourself for “culture shock”. Everything from the food, to the interpersonal relations, to the way people go to the bathroom can be different and this can cause discomfort (both emotional and sometimes physical). Things you took for granted as being rooted in culture rather than some universal idea of how things are done will be exposed for the context-dependent elements they are. This can create anxiety, frustration, confusion, and anger, which is why there is such an emphasis on preparing people like me (aka people going to other places) to deal with it.
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing cultures other than my own through my travels abroad. Yes, I’ve experienced “culture shock” but in the most part it has been adjustment to a way of life I already knew about. When I went to Japan I knew it would be different and often I knew in what ways it would be different. I was prepared for a culture with a stronger emphasis on hierarchy, on politeness, on awareness. I had an idea about what life would be like. And it did take some adjusting because there were many aspects that were different than my own culture. It was often uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating, but I felt like I knew what I was getting myself into.
I don’t know what I’m getting myself into here. I was preparing myself for a fairly conservative culture, but my experiences here have not been conservative. Not that I’m complaining at all, it’s just not what I was preparing myself for and now I feel a little lost. It is hard for me to put my finger on the problem…
Maybe I am expecting the gender conventions to be much more different, more conservative than what I am used to. This makes me more cautious because I’m worried that if I get too “comfortable” I will end up making a mistake and getting into trouble (and when bules make mistakes, the word tends to get around). At the same time there are even some moments that push the envelope of what is acceptable in my American culture (e.g. they invited us to go on an all-expenses paid trip to one of the Spice Islands for a weekend–even in America, doing that with a bunch of guys you just met is a little out of the ordinary and uncomfortable).
So, do I know how I am supposed to be acting as a woman in Manado? Not really. Is it okay that I am hanging out with all these men in what feels like a boys’ club? I don’t know. But am I making friends and learning a lot of other things besides? Definitely. And apparently now I’ve got friends in high places, so there’s that!