DO YOU SPEAK CHINESE ? Cross Cultural Encounters at Breakfast and Other Adventures Leading to An Indonesian Demolition

| August 9, 2011 | Comments (2)

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Some decades ago when I was living in faraway places, I found myself  in the United States on what my employer, the United Nations, called home leave. At the time – I believe it was in the 80s  because one day on a street in Queens I had my photo snapped next to a life-sized card board cut-out of the president of the moment who was Ronald Reagan (I still have the polaroid capturing the two of us in a solemn pose standing side by side) – I was living in Burma.

My hosts in New York happened to be recently arrived Burmese  who had immigrated to the U.S. from Rangoon not many months before my arrival. The four of them – husband, wife and two young children –  were living in a tiny, cramped apartment, topsy turvy with suitcases that had not yet been unpacked, but despite the domestic disarray, they insisted, with their trademark Southeast Asian hospitality that I stay with them. So I camped out happily with my friends for a week, heedless of that Western caveat about house guests, fish and limiting visits to three days.

On my first morning with my friends, after an evening of late night catching up, we sat down to a Burmese breakfast of Mohingga, a delicious bouillabaise laced with hearts of banana tree stems. As we were slurping our soup, bowls raised up to our faces, Asian style, their five year-old daughter appeared, taking her place at the table opposite me. She was all ribbons and freshly ironed school uniform as she sat down with an ear-to-ear grin on her face. For several weeks she had been attending a local primary school and, as children will do, was learning English with lightning speed.

Peering at her over the rim of my soup bowl, I saw Thamee (daughter) lean forward pointing her face as close to mine as she could get. Realizing she wanted to say something to me, I put my bowl down and smiled back at her whereupon she stretched her face in an even wider grin, asking me with slow, carefully ennunciated words, , “Are you Chinese?” I looked at her quizzically and after a thoughtful pause, replied, “Sometimes.” I might add at this point, that I am of Scottish and  Norwegian origin. My answer seemed to satisfy her and we all went back to finish our meal before she hurried off to school.

The following morning found us at the breakfast table once again, eating and chatting with family-style abandon. Enter Thamee, black hair braided, shining like a diamond. Taking her place across from me, she once again screwed  up her cheeks  with a smile, and  blurted out “Are you Chinese?” Taking a sip of tea, I looked her squarely in the face and replied pensively, “Hmmm. Thamee, today, not so much.”

Each morning at breakfast we  repeated this same ritual. After she left for school, her parents and I had a good laugh as they told me how she was settling in nicely at school and making new friends in  the mostly Irish-Italian neighborhood. As one of the first Asians on the block, she certainly looked different to her little peers who repeatedly asked her each morning, “Are you Chinese?’ I then realized, as I had suspected earlier at the breakfast table, that Thamee’s “question” to me was not a question at all, but rather a ritualized greeting she had learned;  a phrase tantamount to “Good morning” or “How are you?”  As a child of five, she had no inkling that she was “different” from the other children around her and so could only construe such a question as a simple greeting.  Sadly but inevitably as she grew up, Thamee learned that people are “different.” We are not one happy band of playmates as she once thought was the case back when she was five.

 Now 30 years later when we meet , we continue our private joke.  She still asks me, “Are you Chinese ?”  and I give her the first whimsical reply that comes into my head. Nobody else knows what we are talking about  and  people look at us as though we were adled when we break down into gales of  laughter. Even though the ending to this little story is not as happy as I would have had  it – that her innocence not be shattered – at least there is laughter and no tears. 

But that is not the whole story today. Let us turn from  not being Chinese to demolition and the tale of my little house in Jakarta.

When I moved from Rangoon to Jakarta, Indonesia I found myself living in the tiniest of houses in a charming section of  that city called Menteng. Built by the Dutch towards the end of their 400 years of colonial empire  in the  East Indies, my new neighborhood was a riot of flowers and fruit trees. With its rich volcanic soil encouraging nature, it was no exaggeration to say that fences planted in the ground often ended up sprouting blooming vines.  With such verdant embellishment even the most  modest  houses, built  in charming  Dutch tropical style,  were inviting, quaint dwellings lining  quiet, tree-bordered streets named for national heroes and exotic flora. There was Sandalwood  Street,  Jambu (custard apple) Lane  and my street, Jalan Cokroaminoto. 

My house, located at 26A Cokroaminoto, was what you would call a real find. In a beautiful neighborhood, secluded but still near shops and cafes and only five minutes walk from my office at the United Nations Building on Jalan Thamrin, the rent was  unbelievably low. The reason I got the house was because of its  primitive bathroom which few foreigners could negotiate. A Turkish colleague was about to rent it but his wife balked when she saw the simple bathroom. With no tub or even a shower, the facilities were only equipped with a receptacle from which water could be dipped for a cold splash bath. This, ofcourse, was my preferred way of bathing. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the day was taking a morning splash bath. Using a silver Burmese dipping bowl,  I would turn my morning ablutions into a ritual, drenching myself with cool, envigorating water that chased away the previous night’s tropical slumber and the cobwebs of numerous cockatils consumed the evening before.  As I bathed, melodious strains of the morning call to prayer from the neighboring mosque  would reach me as I readied myself to face the world.

My miniscule house was  fronted  by a wild, jungly tropical garden. A gigantic banyan tree dominated the yard, its huge branches reaching out to provide shade to an emerald green lawn and an endless variety flowers – jasmine, hibiscus, tube roses, trumpeted, lethal nightshade and orchids which hung from the tree and the surrounding walls.

Unknown to me, hundreds of rats lived in the garden and would only emerge in full view during the depths of night. I became aware of my tiny neighbors when I awoke once  before the crack of dawn to visit the bathroom. Puzzled to see what seemed to be my servant bending over a huge bowl on the front verandah, I walked outside to find him pouring milk into an immense container. Gathered around the rim  of this king-sized receptacle were scores of slick rodents, their furry coats shining in the moonlight, lapping away, contented, well-mannered diners. Speechless, I looked from the four-legged congregation to my servant who smiled at me uttering one word, ” Rats.” I went back to bed shaking my head, knowing that these little neighbors were well-fed and, hopefully  would not be tempted to enter the kitchen to feast on other treats. Their immense numbers precluded my getting a cat who would certainly have been overwhelmed by the challenge of his job.

I spent much of my time on the front verandah, starting my day with cups of strong Javanese coffee (kopi tobruk) and greeting the twilight drinking gin and tonic served to me by my Javanese houseboy, Triyono. Triyono was, as the French would say, “tres originale”  or eccentric. Although far from being gay or having a tendency to cross-dress, he often wore an elegant little black  designer dress that a french girl friend from Paris had discarded during one of her visits after she wore it to death and decided to dump it in my trash. Triyono fished it out of the garbage bin, washed and ironed it and wore it about the house as he served dinner and drinks. When I asked him why he chose to wear a dress, his answer was classically simple and brooked no discussion: “Because it’s pretty.” I could go on , on ad infinitum, about Triyono’s quirks and idiosyncracies. Shopping was always a challenge for him. I remember once sending him to the market to buy  a chicken; he came back instead with four long-stemmed wine glasses, saying he thought we needed them more. He was what he was, but he made the best cocktails I have ever tasted.

My house was well-used, to say the least. In the 1980s, Indonesia became a popular destination for world travellers, and Westerners seeking exotic, inexpensive vacations flocked to the “Emerald Girdle.” There was  fabled Bali, beaches on hundreds of islands, the ancient temples of Borobodur and a host of other attractions from volcanoes to orangutans. I suddenly became popular and found myself hosting friends and people who claimed to be friends or friends of friends. Word spread that I had a beautiful house and garden and a world-class cook  and a houseboy who was not adverse to washing and ironing  soiled travelers’ clothes. Lucky for these globe-trotters – today in my current curmudgeonly state I would call them free-loaders – I had yet to enter the hermit state which today I proudly claim as my modus operandi.

For me the most happy memory of  26A Cokroaminoto  was the time I spent there with my partner, an Indonesian from West Java who still shares his life with me thirty years later in crowded New York City. In the early days of our life together in our little Menteng house he brought wild  orchids from the jungle  for the garden and beautiful ceramic jars from his village to decorate the verandah. These jars were particularly unique. Not spun on a potter’s wheel, they were carved out of clay, more sculpture than pottery.

I had never lived with anyone before in what had been a solitary, and even with people  constantly around me,  lonely life. For the first time in my life, I learned to treasure the comfort of true intimacy. In the evening we would sit in the garden while he told me stories of life in his village, how as a child he rode to the market with his grandmother in a  horse-drawn dolman (phaeton) to sell fruit from their orchard; how he climbed tall coconut trees in his back yard and saw eagles flying overhead. Sometime he would recount  tales and fables he had heard as a child, passed down through  generations in his family. And there were stories of Javanese black magic and witchcraft.

After I left Indonesia, we parted for a while then happily reunited in far away Bhutan and later again in New York. But it will always be the matchbox house in Menteng that I will remember as the best place I ever lived.

Not long ago, an old friend journeyed to Jakarta. He had visited me at 26A Cokroaminoto back in the old days and I asked him  to pass by the house and take a picture for me. When I opened my email a few days later, it was all I could do not to choke back a tear. The picture I received showed an empty space, a gaping hole, dominated by a pile of rubble. My cherished little house had been razed to the ground; only the front gate remained with its inscription intact: 26A.

I had not been in Jakarta for over 20 years, but my memories of  life there remained vivid and ever with me. Now with my old house gone from this world, reduced to a pile of dust and crushed bricks, I came to feel it was time to close that fabled chapter of my life. Goodbye to all that and thanks for the memories !


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Comments (2)

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  1. Gary Presley says:

    I hope you’re compiling another memoir, Sam. These stories have a Graham Greene’ish in-another-culture quality, although far less discordant.

  2. Dick says:

    So poignant, and always worrying that the truly beautiful, simple life is disappearing, along with the forest.

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