Batas / The Line

Not long after my Java-style shotgun wedding I returned to the States, and a few weeks later I paid a visit to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services in San Francisco. As I entered the building I could feel the air thicken with hope and desperation, even before I passed through the metal detectors and took a number to speak to one of the attendants stationed behind bulletproof glass. Forty-five minutes later, my number was called.

“It’ll take about two years,” said the female attendant when I asked about a residency visa for my Indonesian husband. “If he is granted one at all.”

“Two years?” I cried. “If?”

I told her that I was pregnant and couldn’t possibly wait two years for the father of my child to show up. The woman sighed as if she’d heard the same story a hundred times each day before taking her first cigarette break.

“The best scenario,” she explained without much conviction, “is to return to his country of origin and apply at the U.S. Embassy. They’ll need to verify that he’s not attempting to enter this country just to take advantage of our benefits.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying hard not to raise my voice. “You did hear me say that I’m pregnant, didn’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.”

“If my husband was a white European, would you still insinuate that he made a child with me just so he could ‘take advantage of our benefits’?”

She looked at me through the heavy glass with an expression both intimate and sadistic. Making people squirm was probably the only real pleasure this woman derived from her job.

“Next in line,” she said, motioning to the person behind me.

“Bitch,” I muttered as I walked away.


Samino’s extended family of eleven invited me to share their little house with its woven bamboo walls, palm thatch roof and fastidiously swept dirt floor, their water drawn from a communal well, their evening conversations lit by tiny kerosene lanterns. Millions of women had spent their pregnancies in similar circumstances yet despite the generous offer I was reluctant to do the same. It wasn’t so much the simple lodgings as the lack of space for privacy and solitude. Privacy here was mostly symbolic: a batik cloth hung over a doorway; a well-timed glance away. Solitude was generally avoided.

I took some of my meager savings from my former job at the S.F. Art Institute and rented a house. Surely Samino and I would only need to live there a couple of months, the time I figured it would take to obtain his visa from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. In Java it was customary to pay a year’s rent upfront, so I gave the landlords the $300 they asked. My in-laws were shocked. “What a waste!” they cried, shaking their heads. They advised Samino to begin my immediate reeducation in practical economics, or there would be trouble in our marital future.

Pananjung house, West Java, 1992

Our house sat off Pananjung Road. It was a secluded old stucco, u-shaped around a carp pond, with wild orchids spilling over the courtyard walls. From the Dutch colonizers the house had inherited its sharply peaked roof, its clay roof tiles and shuttered windows. There was a large main room, three small bedrooms, and a closet-sized kitchen in the back. The walls were whitewashed with lime bought from the market in chalky clumps.  You’d add water, and it would bubble up like porridge. Once it had cooled you painted it on.

courtyard carp pond

The house came with furniture crafted of bamboo, and kapok-filled mattresses to sleep on. A well near the pond supplied water for bathing, cleaning and cooking. Electricity was only recently available in the village, and though most people could not afford it, the landlord insisted he would have the house wired for us. I think he assumed that without electricity a white person would shrivel up and die. The wiring ended up looking dangerous, but I tried not to think about that.

Samino was out on the sea much of the time, and though I had made some friends in Java, I suffered the loneliness of a foreigner who was far away from her two small daughters. My days were structured by the movement of the sun– with most chores carried out before sunrise and naps taken during the heat of the day– and by the sounds made by others, not only the muezzin’s call to prayer, but those made by the roving snack sellers (called kaki lima, or “five feet”– two for the vendor, and three for the wheel and two legs of his cart). They would pass by my house every day, each with his own special noise announcing his presence. In the morning I’d hear the tok-tok-tok of the porridge man tapping a stick upon a piece of bamboo. At midday was the ting-ting-ting of the chicken soup man hitting a bowl with a spoon. In the afternoon the resonant strike of a bronze gamelan gong meant coconut ice cream was nearby, while in the evening the rat-a-tat-a-tat of a metal poker across an iron grill jump-started my salivary glands for barbecued chicken satay.

My favorite snack seller was the pecel lady. She didn’t have a sound, other than to call out, “Pecel! Pecel!” as she approached, a large bamboo basket strapped to her back.  After I had stopped her a few times and happily eaten her wares, she’d come looking for me every day, usually in the early afternoon.

A well-prepared pecel is divine.  A type of salad of lukewarm steamed vegetables such as cassava leaves, long beans and mung sprouts, it is often flavored with a fragrant, shredded flower called bunga turi, and dressed with a spicy peanut sauce. Street pecel is usually served on a piece of banana leaf, with a bamboo toothpick as a fork.

My pecel lady was a thousand years old, with branch-like limbs and eyes sunk deep into folds of skin, yet she smiled like a young girl, and had a voice to match. She’d sit on my porch in her faded sarung and compose my pecel, taking her time, offering me boiled water to drink from a chipped glass as I ate. She once told me she had no family–  she was barren, she explained, and after her husband had left her for a fertile woman many years ago, she’d never married again.

To get to our house we had to pass through the front yard belonging to another old woman. This one was stunted, with a lopsided hump that loomed over her left shoulder and an outsized attitude that appeared designed to make up for her odd form. Soon after we moved in, our neighbor came over to visit Samino and I. Like any decent Indonesian fisherman’s wife I served her some tea and we all sat and chatted in the front room. Then she got down to business, switching to Sundanese, a dialect I didn’t understand, though I could tell by the subtly strained quality of Samino’s smile that he was annoyed. Finally the old woman rose, grumbling under her breath as she walked out the door.

“What did she say?” I asked.

“She wants us to let her hook up a line so she can siphon electricity from us.”

“It probably wouldn’t cost much, would it?” I said.

“That old grandma sees white skin and thinks free cash. If we say yes to that, she’ll be asking for favors every day. Better to cut her off from the beginning.” He made a chopping gesture.

As a Western expat living in a “developing” country, I had run into this before. My assumed wealth sometimes weighed down my relationships, saddling them with desire and resentment, guilt and confusion.

Samino in the Pananjung house, West Java, 1992

After the visit from our elderly neighbor, whenever we’d pass by her house we’d see her sitting on her front porch as rigid as a sentry. Once she’d caught sight of us, her face would screw up in disgust and she’d rant to herself, just loud enough for us to hear her. “Aduh! This house is too dark! These old eyes can’t see a thing. Any day now I will fall down and break a bone.” Or, “A woman this old shouldn’t have to live without a fan. Who will carry my body out once I’ve died from this heat?”  We took to calling her Nenek Listrik, or “Grandma Electricity”.

“Maybe we could help her out a little,” I said to Samino.

“She lived her whole life without light bulbs or fans,” said Samino. “She’s just trying to shame us into giving in.”

Our house was surrounded by trees: a giant mango that fruited gloriously once each year; papayas that had germinated from seeds tossed out a window; bananas whose withered carcasses spawned babies to continue their lineage. A banana tree takes nine to twelve months to grow from tender sprout to mature tree so heavy with fruit that it doubles over and must be staked. A large bunch of Pisang Raja (“King of Bananas”) could have hundreds of fruits. Bananas were a staple food during my pregnancy, easy to digest during the sweltering days when I had little appetite. There was one lovely spiraled bunch in our yard drawing close to ripeness, and every day Samino and I would discuss its progress, anticipating the harvest. Like everyone else we knew, we had very little. During my time in Java I’d discovered that food had a heightened significance, revered almost like a deity. A freshly caught fish, a gift of a bubblegum-flavored jackfruit, a young coconut carried down from the top of a palm–  food was a reason for celebration, for sharing the satisfaction of simple abundance.

One afternoon we returned from an errand to find that our banana tree had been butchered of its long-coveted bounty.

“Anjing!” Samino swore.

Of course we suspected Nenek Listrik, but couldn’t prove anything. For several days after the banana snatcheroo, we’d return home to find her on her porch as usual, her misshapen body languorously stretched out on a straw mat like a sultan’s favorite concubine. As if on cue she would reach over to a fruit bowl conveniently placed at her side, pluck a banana and peel it slowly with her stubby fingers. After a pause, she’d gum the fruit in her toothless mouth as unadulterated evil frolicked in her eyes, causing my husband to silently tremble with rage.

Samino had discouraged me from eating a banana in this way. It was not polite (in other words, too sexually suggestive) for a woman to eat a penis-shaped object in public. Better to break off bites, or fry it beyond recognition. Old women were exempt: aging had drained their desirability, earning them the curious freedom to do all the things frowned upon during their youth: flagrantly munch on bananas, puff on kretek stogies, cackle like demons, let their breasts hang out for all the world to see.  Javanese men, of course, were free to do as they pleased from the moment they were born, a gender inequity for which I’d occasionally feel the urge to compensate. Sometimes if I was really pissed at Samino I’d eat a banana on the street, making a big show of it, watching his eyes narrow and his face stiffen as every nearby male gawked at me and laughed.

young bananas

One day we came home from visiting friends to find a humongous boulder sitting smack in the middle of the path that passed through the old woman’s yard.                               

“Gobloke,” Samino muttered. With effort he heaved the boulder over to the side.

Later that night we discussed just how Nenek Listrik could have gotten the boulder to the path. We agreed that she didn’t do it herself, and that it was much too heavy to have been transported by becak.

“Who would want to push that rock to her house?” I asked.

“Somebody who is jealous,” Samino said.

He meant somebody who was jealous of him for his marriage to a bule, who in the minds of many was simply a ticket to the West and success.

A few days later we came home with produce from the market to discover a newly planted plumeria tree in the path where the boulder had previously rested. The tree’s fragrant, creamy buds were just beginning to open. There was no way a becak could maneuver around it and we were forced to haul our groceries from the road.

Samino’s face turned to stone, a bad sign.

“Just talk to her,” I said, but he ignored me.

Indonesians generally don’t like confrontation. Tidak apa apa (“no problem”) is their default motto, and it works most of the time; people cool down and back off. Occasionally a person will boil over. That husband of mine had a temper that made your average bad-ass Javanese fisherman look like a quivering jellyfish.

Samino pedaled over to a little petrol shack near the market, bought two liters and ferried them home in the bike basket. He sat in the house with the glass bottles on the floor next to him, waiting. He waited until the holy hour of maghreb, when people would be praying in the mesjid, and then he went out to do his unholy deed. There was no way I could stop him, so I followed him. I watched him douse the plumeria with petrol and toss a lit match. Together we listened to the tree hiss and pop as its fresh young cell walls exploded. It felt violent and sad.

The next day I went out in the front yard and noticed that a white line had been drawn on the ground with powdered lime, marking the boundary between our property and Nenek Listrik’s. Something about that invisible border and how it had suddenly become visible made me feel ashamed. I had never seen such a distinct boundary mark in the village before. In Java, most boundaries–whether between people or their physical spaces– were permeable.

I grew to hate walking through Nenek Listrik’s yard. I felt like a trespasser, someone who didn’t belong and never would. I went out less, just to avoid feeling her glare on my skin. I became more isolated, and more lonely.

Not long after the tree burning incident, Nenek Listrik summoned recruits, a couple of young male relatives who hung around her house for several days. Their long hair, tee shirts with the sleeves cut off and old batik rags tied around their heads made them look like pirates, and they’d sit around on the porch, smoking, swigging arak and talking trash. I expected them to haul out some big knives and meticulously hone them, but the most aggressive thing I ever saw them do was a weightlifting routine, using a primitive version of a lat pulldown machine: a giant rock had been tied to one end of a heavy rope looped over a tree branch, with a stick tied to the other end with which they’d heave the rock from ground, exhaling with that universal grunt dating back to the Pleistocene epoch. Mostly they just sat around. Whenever we passed by they would flash the customary polite smile, while their eyes flared with a contempt that Samino returned in double measure. I was fascinated by just how much hatred could be transmitted in a smile.

One evening I was alone in the house while Samino was out night-fishing. I heard a noise on the front porch, and thought maybe he had come home early; perhaps there was a problem with the boat. I opened the door to see a shadowy figure run from the yard. I switched on the light and there on the window was the perfect greasy imprint of a person’s features, as if he had coated his face in coconut oil and pressed it upon the glass. Its creepiness was enhanced by the burgeoning hormones of a seven months’ pregnant woman who would burst into tears over just about anything, and which she did right then.

When Samino returned home the next morning– barefoot, sandy, stinking of fish– I was waiting for him. “No more feuds with the neighbor,” I said as he stumbled, exhausted, into the house. I didn’t demand that we give her electricity, but I insisted that we were friendly every time we met her.

Nenek Listrik still glowered at us when we passed, but her frown lacked commitment, as if she, too, was weary of being angry. For a while things were calm between us.

It was around this time that I noticed that the pecel lady had not been by for more than a week. One afternoon I asked the chicken soup man if he knew why she hadn’t come around. “She’s sick,” he said. “She’s in the hospital.”

I went to see her, filled with dread. A village hospital was no place for a sick person. When I entered the building, I realized that I didn’t know the pecel lady’s name. I’d always called her ‘Bu, which is like “Missus.” I found her lying on a thin, dirty mattress in the section of the hospital reserved for people who had no money. Her body had deteriorated to an old piece of skin draped over some bones, but when she saw me her eyes lit up. I told her my name, and asked for hers. She smiled weakly but didn’t answer. I sat and held her hand for a long time, until she fell asleep. The next day I returned, and was told she had died. When I asked where she would be buried, the nurse waved me away as if the idea was silly.

Lati eating pecel, Central Java, 2010

One afternoon, I heard a voice call from the road. “Pecel! Pecel!” I ran out to see. There was a young girl with a basket strapped to her back, just like my beloved pecel lady. I motioned for her to come over. As the girl walked toward me, I saw Nenek Listrik watching from her porch. I called out to her, inviting her to eat with me– in Java it was customary to invite whomever was nearby to share one’s food,  though the invited one would usually decline. I was surprised when she got up from her mat, walked into my yard, and sat down on my porch next to me.

The old woman was just inches away, and for the first time I saw that the hump on her back was large and cumbersome. It occurred to me that she rarely had visitors. We were both outsiders, each of our own lonely stripe. I was suddenly curious: What had her life been like? I wanted to know her name.

“Pecel, ‘Bu?” I asked her, and the old woman nodded in reply.

The pecel girl was no more than thirteen, in a faded dress and flip-flops. She took out her bowls and utensils and set them neatly on the tile, then folded a banana leaf  and sliced it in half. On each leaf plate she forked ingredients and spooned sauce she had made earlier that morning in her small abode somewhere, long before the sun had come up. She tossed the pecel with a precision and grace that caused a trickle up my spine. Did my neighbor feel it too? She and I ate together under a sky growing heavy with clouds. We could hear thunder in the distance, and within the hour we would both have to run to take our laundry down from the line, but for now we enjoyed a delicious snack, relaxed in the company of women.

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Pantai Berhantu / The Haunted Beach

The Javanese don’t like to be alone. To them solitude is a sickness cured by surrounding oneself with people. The only encouraged antisocial activities are bathing and using the toilet, and even then true privacy is not guaranteed. If you are visiting friends in the countryside and are forced to conduct your personal business with merely a flimsy rattan partition as cover, don’t worry. People will pretend they don’t see you, even if they do. You may not have privacy, but you will have the illusion of privacy. At any other time, those around you will make sure you are never by yourself. It’s for your own good. This is especially true if you happen to be bule hamil– a pregnant white woman. Because there is so much you don’t know, and the world is a dangerous place.

I had successfully given birth to two children back in the States (both born at home, thankyouverymuch),  yet here I still received plenty of advice pertaining to my current condition, wisdom passed down through generations of Javanese mamas.  Don’t eat that kind of banana or your crotch will break out in a rash. Don’t consume iced drinks or the baby will grow too big and get stuck inside. Don’t squat for too long or the baby will fall out (if only it were that easy!) Don’t go out at maghrib or someone might cast a spell on the baby and it will be born deformed.

I went along with the advice and only squawked about the iced drink ban, due to my unholy relationship with the Java sugar-sweetened drink known as es cendol. I was thousands of miles from my little girls, and I was lonely, grateful for the attention from my well-meaning Indonesian friends. But sometimes I just wanted to be by myself, and on those days I would bind my pregnant belly in a sarung, take a fishing pole and some cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves and walk to an isolated stretch of beach that was haunted by Nyai Loro Kidul, a goddess who lived at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Nyai Loro had a beautiful face and a voluptuous torso, while her lower body was that of a sea snake. She was known to be moody. She loved the color green, but didn’t want anyone else to wear it. Every year the fishermen threw a buffalo head into the sea to soothe her temper and insure a bountiful season. Nobody liked to go to Nyai Loro’s  beach, which made it the perfect place for someone who craved solitude.

suspiciously innocent-looking

To get there I had to hike through the jungle. It was populated by shy black leaf monkeys with long fingers and pale faces who would watch me from their high tree perches, and stocky grey monkeys whose bad boy cuteness– crew cuts, quizzical expressions– turned nasty when they went after my food. These guys were mercenaries. No doubt they would have happily killed me for a banana if they could. It was no use hiding anything; they could always smell it, and they’d drop from the trees and surround me like gangsters. The cockier mofos would make running drive-by attempts to grab my bag, scolding me if I didn’t give it up.  Once a grandaddy monkey with bushy sideburns jumped on my back but I managed to shake him off. I didn’t want them to think I was a pushover, or I’d never hear the end of it. Recently I had complained to Pak Selap about this unscrupulous bunch. He gave me a couple of monkey skulls he’d found and told me to tie them to my bag.

The haunted beach was scattered with ivory-hued coral, glistening seashells and a galaxy of smooth pebbles that reminded me of afternoons spent with a friend in Southern California. C had mentored me in his unique beach rock taxonomy, cataloguing finds into Stripers, Pills, Junior Mints and One-Eyed Mexican Fighting Rocks. Since my move to Indonesia I’d developed my own categories, like Screams, Sardines, Broken Hearts and Deadpans. This beach had a high concentration of Screams.

I liked to wade in the tide pools and gaze at the green waving arms of the anemones and the stiff orange arms of the starfish suctioned to the rocks.  I’d catch my lunch, a buttery fish that I roasted over a driftwood fire and ate with the rice and hot chilies I’d brought with me. I’d spend the rest of my time choosing treasures to send to my far-away daughters.  I was always as thoroughly alone as I could be. There was nobody to tell me not to cry, that doing so I’d make myself sick or hurt the baby.

One day I went to the haunted beach with the monkey skulls dangling from my bag. I entered the jungle, and this time the wannabe snack snatchers eyed me bitterly but let me pass. I arrived at the beach to find an outrigger canoe and some fisherman sitting and smoking on the sand nearby. What were they doing here? Didn’t they know this beach was haunted? I put on my fiercest don’t-talk-to-me face and walked by without engaging in eye contact.

I could feel the fishermen’s stare as I baited my hook and cast my line. They watched me wait for a bite, watched me shift the weight of my big pregnant belly from one leg to the other. They watched me bring in a fish, gather driftwood, light a fire, cook my catch and eat it. I ignored them the whole time. I would have my solitude. After lunch I found a spot under a tamarind tree to take a nap, dug a hole in the sand for my belly so I could lie face down, and fell asleep.

I woke to a loud THWAP! and the hysterical shrieking of monkeys.

A humongous python had thrown itself from a tree and landed right next to my head. Had it swung just a few inches to the left I might not be writing this now. At its widest the python was thicker than my thigh, with skin bitmapped in grey and black, a head shaped like a shovel, and the cold eyes and flickering tongue featured in anybody’s worst snake nightmare. I’d heard stories of pythons stealing village chickens, some even sneaking into houses in the middle of the night and making off with babies. Monkeys were also a favorite python treat, which was probably why at this moment all those little grey thugs were losing their minds, climbing on top of one another in terror.

I scrambled to my feet and ran down to the sea. I had yet to learn that pythons are excellent swimmers, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. There was nowhere else to go. I turned to see the creature surging into the water after me. You know that cliche, My blood ran cold? I could feel my body freeze solid, my brain like a block of ice. I struggled to swim away.  I did not want to become just another completed task from a python’s to-do list.

Then for some reason the snake changed its mind and retreated back to the sand as casually as if it were on vacation.

A crowd of fisherman and monkeys had gathered. The men were armed with bamboo poles, and they began to beat the python with the detached focus they might have had while digging a hole or hauling in a net full of fish. The creature hoisted its massive shape as tall as a man, ducking and swerving with the grace of a prize fighter. The noise of the beating was gruesome — the thwack of bamboo upon reptile flesh, the grunts of the fishermen, the snake’s enraged hissing and spitting, the monkeys shrieking their approval like a lynch mob. The python grew tired, the effort to lift its head and avoid blows increasingly difficult, until it could only lie on the sand and sigh pitifully as the last moments of life were beaten from its body.

baby python locked in a cupboard

The monkeys had watched the killing from a safe distance but once the snake was dead they rushed forward and assembled along the corpse’s length and dragged it away into the jungle, bickering all the while. The fishermen squatted on the sand, lit up their kretek and recounted the event, finessing the details–hissing; slithery gestures– for the later retelling.

I’ll admit to a giddy chemical rush while witnessing the death of the snake. Now that it was over I felt spent and ashamed. I gathered my things and made my way home, nodding at the fishermen as I passed. They nodded back, one of them murmuring, “Isteri Samino.” Samino’s wife. Then I heard somebody call after me, “Jangan pakai hijau, ’bu.” Don’t wear green, Missus. I was wearing my favorite batik kain, decorated with green fans against a black background.

The hour of maghrib was approaching. Time to get on home before my unborn child fell victim to black magic and sprouted an extra head. I walked through the village and from the houses I passed I smelled fried food and heard water splashing. I felt suddenly burdened with an amalgamated loneliness made up of many lonelinesses stacked one upon the other. There was the one I was born with that always had me running, running, running, recklessly trying to fill a bottomless hole. There were the twin lonelinesses of loss and regret. There was the one that likes to shuffle in on the heels of death and lie down on my heart. All around the pile of lonelinesses rose the kinds of questions that don’t have question marks. How does one fashion grace in a world filled with cruelty, destruction and death. What, if anything, happens after we die. What is love and how can one become better at it while wearing a thick cloak of sorrow buttoned to one’s soul.

The Indonesians I knew didn’t worry about such things. They thought a lot about food. They laughed at overturned buses. They refused to let tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions keep them down for too long. They chose not to be alone. Perhaps they were not always content, but they allowed what is to be. I walked the rest of the way home, picturing the monkeys gobbling their python dinner. Eat or be eaten. I wondered what they would do the next time I passed by them on my way to the beach.

monkey skulls on the gate to an artist's studio

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how to make an Indo (scary hair not required)

At Nenek Daryati’s, a giant lumpy mattress lies on the tile floor in the main room. During the heat of the afternoon it is the coolest spot in the house, a place to play with the babies, to chat and take naps, and in the evenings to watch television. TV is big in Indonesia, especially the serial dramas. Normally I avoid TV, but Lati and I watched a fair amount while we were visiting her father’s family in West Java, because that’s what they did, and we were trying to fit in– me, the ex-wife of the son who’d achieved success in America, and Melati, the child we’d had whom nobody here had seen since she was dubbed The Fattest Baby in the Village seventeen years ago. Back then, hardly anyone owned a television. At night people would sit around on straw mats and talk by the light of oil lamps. Now television is the hearth around which the family gathers. Lati’s aunts still chat and nurse their babies while their toddlers jump up and down on the mattress, but they are distracted by the shiny TV world. At prayer times an image of a mosque appears on the screen with a recorded muezzin’s call, and the kids get wilder.

I got hooked on three Indonesian television shows. One was an Islamic drama: half an hour of hand-wringing and sobbing, of faces stricken with guilt and remorse. Every episode ended with a lecture from an old man wearing a topi about overcoming such weaknesses as lying, gossiping and unchecked longing, and the importance of humility, patience and sacrifice. Occasionally a younger, heavyset guy in a turban and thick eyeliner would fill in, speaking in a high-pitched voice and gesturing with delicate hands. I liked this odd religious program partly for its unintended comic relief, and partly for its belief in the cultivation of basic human virtues. There’s not enough of that on TV or elsewhere in the modern world.

Upin dreams of fried chicken

Another favorite was a cartoon called Upin Ipin, about two little Muslim brothers who get into all kinds of trouble but always straighten out by the end. The animation techniques are low-tech and wooden, but the cultural references are comfortingly accurate: people live in simple houses in rural villages surrounded by rice fields and palm trees, shop at open air markets, and have close relationships with their families and neighbors. Again, in Upin Ipin there is always a moral lession. In one episode the little guys struggle with the month-long fast during Ramadan, getting so hungry they hallucinate about fried chicken. In another there is also a homosexual character (around 2:35 on the video)– a bit of a caricature, but still something I have never seen in any American cartoon.

The last was a show about a girl who as an infant had fallen out of an airplane, landed in the jungle and was raised by monkeys. Later she was found, brought to civilization and ends up living near her natural parents (only the viewer knows the truth) who find her odd, what with her one shouldered animal skin dress, dreadlocks and monkey-like mannerisms. The tension of each episode is fueled by her strangeness, though I found her the most functional human in the story. What is even more intriguing about her, her co-stars, and the casts of all Indonesian television shows is that most of the actors are half-Indonesian, or “Indo.” TV commercials also feature Indos, plugging American products that not long ago were hard to come by in Indonesia: disposable diapers, deodorant, moisturizers that “clean” (lighten) the skin.

The Western fantasy of the pale-skinned beauty with light hair and eyes hasn’t caught on in Indonesia as it has in other Asian countries. Unlike in Japan, there are no anime-inspired bottle-blonde Lolitas with eye-fold operations and blue contacts. Here the ultimate standard of beauty is the Indo. Like most Indonesians, an Indo’s eyes and hair are dark, but her skin is lighter–kopi susu, or “coffee with milk” people say. Her nose is longer and she is often taller than average. She looks. . . different.

The Indo has a complex and ambivalent history that began in the East Indies during the 16th century with the influx of Portuguese traders, and continued through  the 17th century with the Dutch control of the region. Most of the Dutch settlers were men who were encouraged by the colonial government to mix with the local population, resulting in a Indo-European society that lasted about 400 years.

Indos inhabited an in-between place that wasn’t quite European, wasn’t quite native. Their slightly elevated status was based on a European bloodline, variations in skin tone often seen as a measure of European stock. A half-Dutch child was illegitimate unless recognized by his father, and only then was considered Indo. As it was common for Dutch men to take concubines, many Eurasian children were ignored by their fathers and thus absorbed into their mothers’ extended families. Indos generally had more privileges than natives, including the right to retain Dutch citizenship, though most never set foot in Holland. Many Indos felt pressured to become more European, and learned Dutch, wore European fashions, and were baptized as Christians. Over time the majority of low-level civil servants were Indos, but few were allowed to hold high-level positions in government or society, and what status they did have rose and fell according to the political and economic climate.

During WWII the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies and imprisoned all people of European descent. After the war, the independence movement stirred up a nationalist fervor. Once-envied Indos were now targeted as remnants from the old colonial order and persecuted so heavily that hundreds of thousands left Indonesia for Holland and the U.S.

Most Indonesians are too young to remember the period when an Indo was physical proof of the domination of one group over another, when she occupied an uncertain middle place in society, when she was resented and driven out. Today the Indo is again a symbol of privilege, of access to a world that average Indonesians will only see on television. During our travels in Indonesia, Melati attracted a lot of attention. While I was just your everyday pale-skinned bule, Lati was something more. Everywhere we went, people stared at her. Girls smiled and whispered, Cantik! and boys requested photos, some of them forward enough to put an arm over her shoulder so they could later show off on Facebook. Friends and family encouraged Lati to look for a job as an actress. At first she was flattered by the attention, but it was so relentless it lost its novelty and became an annoyance.

Once when Lati was little we took a walk on our Northern California country road and met a woman and her daughter who had just moved into a house at the bottom of the hill. The little girl had curly dark hair, doe-like brown eyes, and skin the same shade as Melati’s. The woman and I talked, and discovered that our daughters were the same age and had similar backgrounds: both had dark-skinned, black-haired fathers who were fishermen, both were born on islands starting with the letter J (Jamaica, Java), and both had blue-eyed, light-skinned mothers with anthropology degrees from San Francisco State. We talked about raising children of mixed ethnicity, children who were gifts born of their mothers’ curiosity. The curly-haired girl had a roommate, a blond boy who liked to draw. The three of them became pals. Together they looked like poster children for diversity.

Lati remembers only one time when she was treated unkindly for looking different. She was ten, playing in a friend’s suburban neighborhood when a boy ran up and said, “Hey, you! Indian kid! Go back to where you came from!” Most people are curious about Lati’s name or her looks, but aren’t mean about it. There were a few times when she was given preferential treatment– usually by some camp or private school that wanted to add more colors to its ethnic rainbow. As a single mama with limited resources, I was grateful for such consideration.

On a recent night in Java, Lati and I stopped at a guesthouse to ask a question about train tickets. It was owned by a Frenchwoman who had once been married to an Indonesian and had a child with him. Her ex-husband also had a couple of kids with other European women, and one of them, a daughter, happened to be visiting from Australia. Lati and the two half-siblings sat and talked for a while. They looked similar: sepia-toned skin, dark brown hair, almond-shaped eyes,  the three Indo kids whose mixed pedigree has such a profound impact on how Indonesians feel about them.

Lati and her cousin Fani

I’ve wondered if Melati’s relatives see her differently because she is an Indo, and I’ve decided (without asking them) that the answer is yes. How can they help it? A white woman comes and marries their brother. The couple have a baby, and then the three of them move far away. Many years later the mama and her daughter return. The girl is their blood, and yet she doesn’t quite look like them, doesn’t speak their language. It’s as if as an infant she’d fallen from a plane and was raised in the jungle by monkeys. But every day she makes an effort, writes new words in a notebook and then bravely uses them, even when people laugh at her pronunciation. She journeys far into the countryside to visit relatives who’d last seen her when she was nine months old, and still they burst into tears and smile and pinch her cheek just like they did when she was a baby, and they apologize for having so little to offer her– a cup of tea, a young coconut. She plays with her nieces and nephews and cooks with her aunts and listens to advice from her grandma and in the evenings she flops on the mattress with everyone else and watches TV.

We are all Indo. Each of us wears history on our skin. While I understand the impulse to turn toward one’s ethnicity for a sense of identity, I like to imagine a time when the configuration of our cells doesn’t have so much power, when nobody is forced to pay for events that happened before they were born. Being Indo will mean simply that we each have a story, one that might begin something like, “My mother went to Indonesia, and met a fisherman. . .”

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Pak Selap Gatal / Pak Selap and the Itch

Pak Selap's offerings to the spirits

My father-in-law, Pak Selap, was cursed.

At any moment he resided in one of two states: biasa (normal), or disiksa (tortured). He didn’t get to pick. The evil that had chosen him decided. Pak Selap was not afraid, but he was often tired. Fighting evil is exhausting.

During periods when the curse hung back, Pak Selap was a well-respected village elder, a man sought by others to counsel and advise, to mediate disputes, to prescribe herbal remedies and perform traditional massage.

But when the curse overtook him, he could not help anyone, not even himself.

The curse came in the form of an itch, one so sure of its own existence and power that it could not be questioned. The itch had its pattern. It chose to strike when Pak Selap was under pressure, especially when money was scarce, which was often. First it would erupt on the skin of Pak Selap’s neck and cover it in a bumpy red rash. He couldn’t help but scratch at it, and over hours and days the rash would grow like the evil it was, migrating to his chest and arms, his scalp, his legs, until every moment was overtaken with the relentless business of scratching. He would scratch and scratch until his skin broke, until vicious bloody welts covered his entire body, until Pak Selap became enraged and desperate, as if trying to kill something inside himself.

Pak Selap fought the itch with poultices of crushed herbs, and he could beat it back for a while. He would shave his head, which also scared it off temporarily. But sooner or later it took hold, and when it got real bad, he’d travel into the hills to see one dukun or another. The most powerful dukun lived far away, and had near his house something the other dukuns didn’t: a geothermal hot spring whose water had magic healing properties. After spending a few days with him, Pak Selap would return home calm and itch-free.

Deep in his liver, Pak Selap knew who had cast this hideous curse against him. The culprit was once pointed out to me. We were on our way to the beach one afternoon, Pak Selap pulling a wooden cart full of the paraphenalia of fishermen: nets, kerosene lanterns, a fisherman’s dinner (just rice– with the expectation of fish to fill it out), and large, hopeful baskets to hold catch. He would load the boat and embark on the evening’s gamble, and I would pull the empty cart home.

As we neared the beach,  Pak Selap began to quiver, though he was not the quivering type.

“Over there,” he growled. “That’s him!”

The only other person nearby was a shuffling old man who wore a rag wrapped in a sloppy turban around his head. He was so old he was bent over like a dying tree, and the pupils of his eyes were milky. Apparently he spoke Dutch, which nobody around here had spoken since 1942, before Holland had given up its 350-year control over what was then the Dutch East Indies. I can’t remember exactly why the little old man had levied such a curse. Pak Selap told me once, but I’ve forgotten. There might have been a woman involved, somebody’s great-grandmother wronged. Watching the old man tottering down the road, it was hard to imagine he had the energy or desire to do damage to anyone.

“That old guy?” I said.

Pak Selap nodded. His neck had started to redden, and he scatched at it angrily.

I blabbed away about something else to distract him, and we walked right on by the feeble little man as if he did not exist. Tidak apa apa. No problem. Intentional ignorance is one of the tactics Indonesians use to keep difficult shit from driving them crazy, and much of the time it works. But not always.

A few weeks later, Samino and I went over to my in-laws’ house to find his mother and sister sobbing in the kitchen. Pak Selap sat crossed-legged on the dirt floor, sharpening his kris on a flat stone. Ssk, ssk, ssk. He’d had enough, he said firmly. The only way to escape the curse was to kill the old man. My mother-in-law, Ibu Daryati, frantically convinced Pak Selap to ask the village headman for permission. I think she was trying to buy time, hoping he’d calm down, though back then it was also possible to get the go-ahead to kill someone who had used black magic on you. The curse had to be so terrible that your life had become unbearable. One look at Pak Selap–his skin torn and bloody from scratching– ought to convince anyone.

In the end, the village headman did not oblige. Pak Selap believed the denial was due to the fact that he could offer little more than a few packs of kretek cigarettes to grease the wheels.

“If I had given him a goat. . .” he grumbled.

By then he was too exhausted to kill the old man anyway.

Let me say here that my father-in-law was not a violent man, and nobody really believed he could kill anyone. It just shows how fucked over you can feel when you are cursed with something so beyond your control. A Western medical doctor would probably have diagnosed Pak Selap’s curse as excema or psoriasis, and prescribed a hydro-cortisone cream. Before my last long stay in Indonesia I had brought with me a year’s worth of such oinments from the States. I explained to Pak Selap that they were very potent and must be used sparingly, especially the prescription-strength version my dad had obtained from his doctor. The creams helped a bit, but not enough to kill the evil completely. Despite my warnings Pak Selap spread them on his skin as thick as frosting, and within a month they were finished.


People say that what finally killed Pak Selap’s itch was the death of the old man who spoke Dutch.  The man died around the same time that Samino’s success in the States had enabled him to build a house for his parents and start a business in Indonesia. Relieved of the relentless pressure to scratch up enough money to buy rice for his family, I am told Pak Selap now spent much of his time playing with his grandchildren and dispensing advice and traditional healing to anyone who asked for help. For the first time in his life, Pak Selap could relax. Life was good.

“I don’t want to die young,” he told a friend. “I want to see my grandchildren grow up.”

One day in 2005, Pak Selap was riding a motorcycle up a steep, winding road, lost control of the bike and crashed. His leg was badly hurt, but he managed to get home and immediately began mixing up an herbal remedy. His family urged him to go to the hospital, but he refused, which is not surprising. Indonesian village hospitals are hit-or-miss. Everyone has a scary story or two about the “House of Walk In, Carry Out.” Pak Selap figured the odds were on his side to take care of the wound himself. The wound did heal up, and he seemed to be doing better. People saw him in the village, limping around on crutches.

One day he collapsed. He was brought to the hospital, and diagnosed with severe blood poisoning due to gangrene from the leg wound. It was too late to do anything for him. He died soon after.


Pak Selap and the fattest baby in the village

When Melati was a baby, Pak Selap carried her everywhere. Back then she was the fattest baby in the village.

“Mel,” he said to me one day. “People keep asking what kind of formula you feed her. I tell them, Susu Buleh!” (Susu Buleh means loosely, White Girl Milk).

Pak Selap often advised me about caring for Melati. He insisted I did not leave the house with her or let her to touch the ground for 40 days after her birth.  Once my seclusion had ended, he forbade me to take Melati outside during the hour of maghrib, the time when masuk agin— the entering wind– was most dangerous, and when I did go out I was to hold an umbrella over her everywhere I went. He used to pinch the tip of Lati’s nose, and told me to do it every day to make it longer, like mine.  He gave me a bottle of minyak kayu putih (a pungent oil whose odor reminded me of middle-of-the-night painting sessions at the Art Institute), and he instructed me on giving Melati a daily massage, paying special attention to her feet and belly, then dusting her with rice powder to prevent chafing.

He would dispense his advice in simple, matter-of-fact language so I would not misunderstand. I did what I was told. Nobody argued with Pak Selap.

Melati was nine months old when we left for the States. She never saw her grandpa again. When we returned to Indonesia last month, wherever we went people told stories about Pak Selap, mostly about how good-hearted he was, how much he helped people. His presence was everywhere: a photo of him on a motorcycle with a grandbaby tied to his back with a length of batik cloth; the orchids he loved, still growing in front of the house; the painting of lotus flowers blooming in a rice paddy that he had purchased to help out an artist friend; the tray of offerings his wife Ibu Daryati would prepare every month, an old Hindu tradition of his that she carried out in his honor; his grave just a few minutes walk from the house.

One afternoon, Ibu Daryati took Melati and I to the grave. Ibu swept the grave clean while she talked to Pak Selap, telling him that his granddaughter Melati had come. Then she and Lati sprinkled it with flowers. It had been many years since I’d seen Pak Selap, and Lati didn’t remember him at all, but we were both teary-eyed.

Once home, I went in the kitchen and prepared kopi susu, the Javanese style-coffee I was in the habit of drinking a few times a day. Lati’s uncle Sajimin came in.

“Bapak Selap was obsessed with kopi susu,” he said.

I swear every time I drink kopi susu, somebody says this.

Pak Selap is still around.

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Melalui Jendela / Through the Glass

I have a  thick stack of letters written in Noland’s tiny, elegant hand, long before the art of letter writing was lost to the Internet. In them he addresses me as My Dear, or simply, Muse. I don’t like to read them anymore. Though many years have passed since we were in the habit of putting pen to paper for one another, something about them still stabs at me.

When I boarded the plane to return home from Indonesia in December 1991, I was pregnant and newly-married to Samino. Mere weeks before, I had spent a lovely week in Hawaii with Noland, who had promised to write to let me know whether he was able to reschedule a prior work commitment on another island and spend time with me on my way home. No letter had arrived. His silence pricked at me during those tumultous weeks in Indonesia, but obviously not enough to stop me from falling in with a man I’d just met and taking a sudden swerve down a new road.

Once on the plane, reality climbed out from his hiding place and circled me slowly, creeping closer as I neared the States. Everything had happened so fast. Just months before I had decided it was most definitely not the time for another child in my life, and here I was cooking one up with someone I hardly knew. What the hell had happened?

For years, various friends would tell me how much they admired my courage and spontaneity, my willingness to leap in. For these same traits, others would trash me. What most of them didn’t understand is at what cost such wildness inhabits a person, what kind of hell we create for ourselves. It takes some of us many years to learn how to temper that impulse, redirect its fire in a direction that doesn’t burn the place down, doesn’t singe the people closest to us.

The plane landed in Los Angeles. I had to disembark and wait in a special area for the connecting flight to San Francisco, where I would go through the usual customs procedure. The transit “lounge” was a kind of soft prison, with three glass sides through which you could look out at the parts of the airport from which you were banned.

I slumped into a hard plastic chair, feeling depressed. I told myself it was just the double shot of jet lag and morning sickness, and tried not to think about how I would live my life once I arrived home. A moment later I heard a rapping on the glass wall nearby. I looked up.

It was Noland.

He was standing outside, all tan and tousled in his usual cut-offs and sandals, holding a beautiful ginger flower lei. When I saw his smile I felt lightheaded, overcome with a terrible freefloating fear.

Due to my transit status I was locked in the lounge, and Noland was not allowed in. I went to him and tried to hide my avalanche of emotions. We were just inches away from one another, but the glass was so thick we wouldn’t hear each other even if we screamed. We both found paper and pens and wrote notes back and forth and held them up for the other to see. The lei swung from Noland’s elbow as he wrote, and I had this heartbreaking desire to smell it.

Hello, Dear! he wrote.

Hi! was all I could think of to write. My hand shaking.

Aren’t you coming out? he wrote.

I was confused.

I figured you weren’t available, I wrote.

Didn’t you receive my card? wrote Noland.

I paused again.

No, I wrote.

Can’t you come out now?

The first tear fell. I couldn’t tell him the truth this way.

I’m very sick, I wrote. I need to go home and rest.

His look of concern coaxed my next tear. Noland held up a finger as if to ask for time, and then scribbled away.

I’m very sorry you aren’t well, my dear. I will miss you terribly. I couldn’t wait to see you and tell you the news. I’ve decided to move to San Francisco! I think I might even have a job at the Natural History museum. I don’t want to be far away from you anymore.

By now I was a sobbing mess.  I was shaking so hard I could barely write.

I’m so sorry. I’ll call you when I get home.

The truth of my life had taken this moment to cast its long shadow over me, and leave me in darkness of my own making.I turned from Noland and walked away. I didn’t dare look at him again. I focused on an old man sitting in a chair across from mine. I could tell by his face that he had watched the whole through-the-glass story unfold. He nodded at me with a kindness that seemed to say, I remember once being young and foolish.

I won’t describe the phone conversation. Just know that whatever you can imagine can’t possibly come close to the heart-crushing tenor of that call. That there are moments of reckoning that reorganize your whole anatomy, that cast an unrelenting hue over everything you ever see from that moment on.

Not long after, I returned to Indonesia (for reasons having to do with obtaining a visa for Samino) and lived there for almost two years. During this time I continued to write to Noland. Despite what had happened, I had hoped we could continue as friends.

He never responded.

Then one day I went to the post office to find a postcard waiting for me. It had a  photo of one of King Kamehameha’s feathered helmets. On the verso it said this:

The postmark shows that instead of Indonesia, it was mistakenly sent to some post office in Gary, Indiana where it languished before it was finally rerouted to its rightful destination, where the pregnant fishwife received it many months later.

Though I won’t look at the letters, I have gazed at this postcard many times in the past 18 years. I look at it to remember, to remind myself that while much of what happens in life can seem random, coincidental, or just a stroke of good or bad luck, there is also the narrative that we write for ourselves by the choices we make. I could have written the story differently, made it less painful.

But then again, what would my story be without Melati?

9-month-old Melati and I left Indonesia on May 31st, 1993. Soon after arriving in the States, I visited my dad in San Francisco. He gave me a letter that had been mailed to him, dated five days before I left Indonesia.

(Later I discovered that Noland had written to me many times but his letters had been intercepted and destroyed by a certain someone, who also never mailed the letters I had written, as I was led to believe.)

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January 23, 2010

It sounds kind of nasty to call it “loot” but I feel like I got away with something, bringing all these treasures home from Indonesia.

Clockwise from top left:

1. Handmade twine that is VERY strong. The superglue of twine.

2. an old rusty lock I found on the ground near the gates of the Hindu temple Prambanan near Yogyakarta, Central Java

3. bottle of wild honey bought from a beekeeper in Yogya– flavored with the flowers of tangerine and kelengkeng (longan fruit)

4. salt-dried fish made by Lati’s grandma, Nenek Daryati

5.  Balinese offering baskets

6. sarungs worn by Javanese men to the mosque

7. Balinese curry powder

8. black sand, newly-made by the volcano, Gunung Merapi

9. Java sugar, made from trees owned by Nenek Daryati

10. sarung worn by Balinese men to the temple

11. Javanese coffee

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Addictions, Reignited


kopi susu-- Javanese coffee with condensed milk-- drink the grounds for extra lift


pedas sekali! eating food that is so spicy I break out in a sweat


es cendol-- coconut milk, Java sugar, ice and the only green worms I will ever (knowingly) eat (they're made of rice flour)


kretek--clove cigarettes. (just kidding, but I can't say I didn't want them, constantly surrounded as I was by their spicy, perfumed smoke)


now I don't need to tell you that this one is a joke, too. Right?

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