That’s not how you preserve traditions (and treat your own family)

As an Indonesian, I rarely watch Indonesian films voluntarily. So, the fact that I decided to watch this newly-released feature is a rarity.

Ngeri-Ngeri Sedap (I still don’t know how to translate the title) tells the story of a fractured Batak family; the parents struggle to persuade their university-educated adult sons return home after years. They cannot stand their cold, headstrong father who disapprove of their life decisions.

One of them wants to marry a woman from another ethnic group, one becomes a TV comedian instead of a law practitioner and the youngest child isn’t interested returning home for good, even though tradition calls for it.

Desperate, the parents pretend they are going to divorce, which would compel the sons to return home and talk their mom and dad out of it. The plan works. But, the moment they saw their father, the atmosphere immediately thickens and it will get even worse from here.

The film is not that great, execution wise. The dialogues are full of info dumps, the cinematography fails to capture the beauty of rural North Sumatra (I have visited Lake Toba and I know how ethereally beautiful it is), the crying scene is unintentionally funny, the emotions could have been more intense and the conflict resolves a bit too quickly.

But, the film does have some gems in it.

While I cannot verify the authenticity of the Batak life depiction as I am not a Batak, I adore how it does not use a regional and/or ethnic identity as a punchline or a token, as the common practice in a country where media productions mostly centered in one snobby, cosmopolitan city.

I also love that it is written and directed by an actual Batak filmmaker and most of the main cast members are of Batak lineage; the ones who aren’t grew up surrounded by Batak people. It is refreshing how a film about a certain culture is made by people who have experiences with it.

But, that’s not even the best part: it is also a giant middle finger to “traditional” parenting and toxic loyalty to family.

The father loves accusing his sons of selfishness, even though he is the one who makes everything about himself. The sons always look uneasy and awkward in his presence. The comedian son loves making spiteful comments, even saying that his family is a joke, something to be laugh at. Even though the mother is just as traditional, she openly disapproves how her husband behaves.

It becomes so toxic, not only his sons depart angrily, his wife ends up wanting to divorce for real and the daughter – I forgot to mention the family has a daughter – leaves with her as well.

It also has unexpected commentaries about gender.

When the daughter asked why her brothers seem awkward with each other, the eldest son said their father was always aloof towards his sons, hence their inability to be warm towards other men.

She is also a testament that girls and women often have to sacrifice the most in a patriarchal society. She had to break a romantic relationship because the man was a non-Batak and she gave up her dream as a chef – her cooking talent has been shown from the very beginning – because the father thinks it is not a real job.

She could have easily rebelled. But, if she does, she would severe ties with her elderly parents and no one would take care of them.

The grandma – the father’s mother – is unbelievably wise. She gently points out that different children require different parenting style. You shouldn’t raise university-educated children like you raise ones who didn’t finish middle school, she says.

Okay, maybe not that wise. Surely, you deserve your parents’ warmth regardless of your educational level; I don’t see how dropping out of school makes you less of a human being with feelings.

But, as problematic as her advice is, her point about there is no one correct way to raise children still stands.

The daughter and grandma also represent the gender situation in Indonesia. While the film barely focuses on either character, they add depth to the story. Men are at the forefront with women supporting them behind the scenes.

What I love about the ending is the father finally and sincerely realises his mistakes and tries to amend his mistakes.

He makes a surprise appearance at his comedian son’s TV show which is shot in Jakarta, asserting he is not proud of his son’s success. Why? Because it is his son’s, not his. He has no right to take credit for it.

He visits his other son’s non-Batak lover in West Java and, much to his surprise, she is interested in learning Batak traditions. As a rural dweller, he seems unaware that many urban Indonesians have experiences traversing different cultures; dealing with other regional Indonesian cultures is a mundane task for them.

His visits his youngest son’s boss in Jogjakarta and he learns that his son helps the local farmers – a vulnerable group of people – increasing their agricultural yield, practically making their lives better.

After he gains his sons’ sincere forgiveness (which is what their mother desires), the family reunites.

I love how the film asserts that a family’s unity cannot be achieved unless every member – including the parents – makes their best efforts. In this case, the family reunites after the father finally leaves his bubble, both in literal and figurative sense.

Literally as in he leaves his rural homeland and travels to three different provinces, none of which are in Sumatra. Figuratively as in he leaves the world where views like his are king and enter one with greater diversity of thoughts.

I also love how the film is not anti-tradition. The traditional festival is depicted respectfully (or so it seems), the sons still love Batak food and the soundtracks feature Batak-language songs.

It is not about whether we should preserve traditions or not, it is more about HOW we do it. It is a cautionary tale of how tactlessness will tear your family apart and putting your beloved heritage in even greater risk of extinction.

And, in a rare moment, I feel proud of my fellow countrymen. I don’t know what the haters have to say about the film. But, I have seen so many positive comments online; many feel their negative experiences with traditional parents and/or husbands are validated.

I am glad such Indonesian film exists.

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A tangent about religion:

Indonesia is a place where religiosity is held with high regards, regardless of one’s ethnic and religious backgrounds. The film not-so-subtly hints at that fact.

The family’s house has a quite a few Christian-themed ornaments (if I can call them that), like the cross and pictures of Jesus Christ. There is a moment of brief close-up on a knitted(?) The Last Supper picture and the parents’ bed are often filmed using wide shot, ensuring the overhead cross is seen as well.

They also respect the local pastor. The father wants to impress him by putting a pristine mask on his marriage. The sons also ask him to discourage their parents from divorcing, even though his advice is the same as theirs.

Oh, and in the beginning of the film, one of the sons explicitly say, “we are Christians”.

While religion is not focused on, the film makes sure we don’t forget about its existence.

I wonder how much of the conservative attitude is attributed to their religious beliefs.

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If you don’t like them, just say it! Don’t make up excuses!

This blog post is a translation of this.

Indonesians know we are a nation ashamed of itself.

Of course, many of us are despicably behaved. But, many of us are ashamed because of things I consider trivial: ashamed of our own heritage.

Let me show you two example cases.

Case one:

On a food-related Facebook post, a foreign citizen of Indonesian descent said she disliked Indonesian cuisine due to the strong and “imbalanced” flavours of spices. That’s why she preferred Indian and Thai ones. She only liked Indonesian foods made abroad.

She also said Thai cuisine was more “sophisticated” than the Indonesian one, hence why there is an abundance of Thai restaurants everywhere.

Case two:

On Youtube, I made a comment about how invisible Indonesian culture was on the world stage. Not long after, a fellow Indonesian told me the lack of popularity was caused by the lack of aesthetic originality.

He said our ancestral cultures were just carbon copies of Arab and Chinese cultures. He believed that was the reason why foreigners were more interested in Malaysian, Thai and Filipino cultures.

If take a close look, none of their arguments make sense.

The first person said she didn’t like Indonesian cuisine due to the strong and “imbalanced” spices. But, she also liked Indian and Thai cuisines….. which are also known for strong spices.

The second person said Indonesian cultures were just copying foreign ones. But, he also praised Malaysian, Thai and Filipino ones…. which were also influenced by foreign ones; even the end results look similar to the Indonesian ones.

They criticise Indonesia for something…. and praising other countries which also have the same thing. It is obvious they can like something, as long as that something is not Indonesian.

They also said the lack of popularity was caused by its low quality. This also does not make any sense.

If we analyse every single worldwide cultural phenomenon one at a time, we will find a common thread: marketing. That can be done either by governments for diplomatic purposes or by corporations for profit’s sake.

Like it or not, the most effective way to globalise a culture is to showcase it on the world stage. Diligence is not enough; we also have to believe in the quality of the products we are selling.

Try remember: how often we hear news about Indonesians actively promoting our cultures abroad? I am certain the answer is either “rarely” or “never”.

Never mind culture, even our tourism campaign is pathetically sporadic. In 2019, Indonesia was visited by sixteen million foreign tourists. Singapore in the same year? Nineteen millions. We – -the fourth most populous country on earth and the most in Southeast Asia – are defeated by a petite country with frankly unimpressive cultural diversity when compared to Indonesian one.

Besides, if popularity is evidence of high quality, why is junk food popular all over the world? Why is Indomie instant noodle more popular than Indonesian traditional dishes? With that logic, does that mean junk food and Indomie are foods of the highest quality?

Years ago, I was just like those two people, especially when the Indonesian language was involved.

I used to think the Indonesian language – especially its standard register – was a language with rough and flat pronunciations, shallow and insubstantial vocabulary and simplistic grammar; hence why I prefer to blog in English. Nowadays, my opinions are still the same…. except in one aspect.

I still think grammatical tense is useful in decreasing temporal ambiguity. But, from grammatical standpoint, I finally acknowledge one thing which makes Indonesian better than English: the affixes.

Unlike in English, affixes in Indonesian (and Malay in general) are more extensive and consistent. Just by adding prefixes and suffixes, we can change a word’s meaning and decreases the risk of ambiguity. Unlike in English, we rarely encounter commonly-used words with multiple meanings.

I have rambled too much.

The point of my rambling is we – as Indonesians – have the right to dislike anything Indonesian. Not suitable to our tastes, low quality, lack of emotional attachments, morality, any reasons are valid…

… As long as they make sense. In those two cases, the reasons definitely make no sense.

Let’s recap: they criticise Indonesia for one thing and then praising other countries despite having the exact same thing. They also think the lack of popularity is a sign of its low quality, despite the fact that there are low quality foreign cultures which are popular all over the world.

They dislike anything Indonesian simply because those things are Indonesian. If they are foreign citizens with no Indonesian lineage, we would have considered them as prejudiced human beings.

But, those two human beings clearly have the lineage and they have definitely been exposed to life in the country. It is obvious they are ashamed of their own identities. If they have the choice, they would have swapped their ancestors with ones from other countries.

At the same time, they are aware that their honesty would provoke anger of Indonesian nationalist wannabes. As a result, they always find excuses to hide their true feelings.

But, no matter how hard we try hiding the carcasses, no matter how much perfume we use, the stench will seep through eventually.

If those two don’t feel ashamed of their lineage, I am certain their dislike of anything Indonesian would have been more reasonable and wouldn’t unfairly criticising the country.

Oh, and when I am say nationalist wannabes, I am referring to Indonesians who express pride when their country is insulted or sharply criticised and yet, in other times, they refuse to do anything to elevate their country’s esteem.

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Kalau gak suka, ya bilang aja! Jangan cari-cari alasan!

Orang Indonesia sudah tahu bahwa kita bangsa yang malu akan dirinya sendiri.

Tentu saja, banyak perilaku anak-anak bangsa yang memalukan. Tetapi, kita juga malu karena hal-hal yang saya anggap sepele: malu karena warisan budaya kita sendiri.

Saya akan berikan dua contoh kasus.

Kasus pertama:

Di Facebook, di suatu postingan tentang makanan, ada seorang WNA keturunan Indonesia yang mengatakan dia tidak suka masakan Indonesia karena rasa rempahnya terlalu kuat dan “tidak berimbang”. Itu sebabnya dia lebih suka masakan India dan Thailand. Dia hanya suka masakan Indonesia yang dibuat di luar negeri.

Dia juga bilang masakan Thailand jauh lebih “berbudaya tinggi” daripada masakan Indonesian dan itu sebabnya kenapa restoran Thailand ada di mana-mana.

Kasus kedua:

Di Youtube, saya membuat komentar tentang budaya Indonesia yang jarang terlihat di panggung dunia. Tidak lama kemudian, ada orang Indonesia yang mengatakan bahwa ketidakpopuleran budaya kita disebabkan oleh ketiadaan ketulenan estetika.

Dia mengatakan budaya leluhur kita hanyalah jiplakan budaya Arab dan Tionghoa. Dia percaya itulah alasan kenapa orang asing lebih tertarik mempelajari kebudayaan Malaysia, Thailand dan Filipina.

Jika kita kaji dengan teliti, dalihan mereka tidak masuk akal.

Orang pertama bilang dia tidak suka masakan Indonesia karena rempahnya yang terlalu kuat dan “tidak berimbang”. Tapi, dia juga memuji masakan India dan Thailand….. yang juga terkenal akan rasa rempah yang kuat.

Orang kedua bilang budaya Indonesia hanya bisa “menjiplak” budaya luar. Tapi, dia juga memuji budaya Malaysia, Thailand dan Filipina….. yang juga dipengaruhi oleh budaya-budaya luar; hasilnya pun juga mirip dengan budaya Indonesia.

Mereka mengkritik Indonesia karena suatu hal… dan memuji negara-negara lain yang juga memiliki hal yang sama. Jelas sekali bahwa mereka bisa menyukai sesuatu, asalkan hal tersebut tidak berbau Indonesia.

Mereka juga mengatakan ketidakpopuleran budaya Indonesia disebabkan oleh mutunya yang rendah. Itu juga tidak masuk akal.

Jika kita telaah semua fenomena budaya-budaya yang mendunia satu persatu, kita akan temukan satu kesamaan: pemasaran. Hal itu bisa dilaksanakan oleh pemerintah untuk alasan diplomasi kebudayaan atau oleh perusahaan untuk mencari keuntungan semata.

Mau tidak mau, cara paling jitu untuk menduniakan suatu budaya adalah mempergelarkannya di panggung dunia. Tekun saja tidak cukup; kita juga harus yakin produk yang kita jual benar-benar bermutu.

Coba ingat-ingat: seberapa sering kita mendengar berita tentang orang Indonesia yang giat mempromosikan budaya kita di luar negeri? Saya yakin jawabannya “jarang” atau “tidak pernah”.

Lah, jangankan budaya, kampanye pariwisata saja kita entet-entetan. Di tahun 2019, Indonesia dikunjungi oleh 16 juta wisatawan asing. Singapura di tahun yang sama? 19 juta. Kita – negara terbesar keempat di dunia dan terbesar di Asia Tenggara – dikalahkan oleh negara berukuran imut dengan keberagaman budaya yang tidak seberapa.

Lagipula, jika ketenaran adalah bukti mutu tinggi, mengapa ‘makanan sampah’ (junk food) terkenal di seluruh dunia? Mengapa mie instan Indomie jauh lebih terkenal daripada hidangan tradisional Indonesia? Dengan logika itu, bukankah berarti ‘makanan sampah’ dan Indomie adalah makanan bermutu tinggi?

Beberapa tahun yang lalu, saya juga seperti dua orang tersebut, terutama jika menyangkut Bahasa Indonesia.

Dulu saya beranggapan Bahasa Indonesia – terutama bahasa bakunya – adalah bahasa dengan pengucapannya kasar dan datar, kosakatanya yang dangkal dan tidak berbobot dan tata bahasanya yang terlalu sederhana; itulah sebabnya saya lebih suka blogging dalam Bahasa Inggris. Sekarang, pendapat saya kurang lebih masih sama…. kecuali dalam satu hal.

Saya masih beranggapan grammatical tense berguna dalam mengurangi kerancuan waktu. Tapi, dari segi tata bahasa, saya akhirnya mengakui satu hal yang membuat Bahasa Indonesia lebih bagus daripada Bahasa Inggris: imbuhan-imbuhannya.

Tidak seperti di Bahasa Inggris, imbuhan di Bahasa Indonesia (dan di Bahasa Melayu pada umunya) jauh lebih menyeluruh dan selaras. Hanya dengan sekedar menambahkan awalan dan/atau akhiran, kita bisa mengubah makna sebuah kata dan mengurangi resiko kerancuannya. Tidak seperti di Bahasa Inggris, jarang sekali kita menemukan kata-kata lumrah yang memiliki berbagai arti.

Saya terlalu bertele-tele menjelaskan.

Inti dari ocehan saya adalah kita – sebagai orang Indonesia – berhak untuk tidak menyukai hal-hal yang berbau Indonesia. Tidak sesuai selera, mutu yang rendah, ketiadaan ikatan emosi, masalah kesusilaan, semua alasan sah-sah saja…

… Selama mereka masuk akal. Pada dua kasus tersebut, jelas-jelas alasannya tidak masuk akal.

Coba kita ingat kembali: Mereka mengkritik Indonesia akan satu hal dan memuji negara lain walaupun memiliki hal yang sama persis. Mereka juga beranggapan ketidakpopuleran budaya Indonesia adalah bukti mutunya yang rendah, walaupun jelas-jelas ada budaya asing bermutu rendah yang mendunia.

Mereka tidak suka hal-hal yang berbau Indonesia hanya karena mereka berbau Indonesia. Jika mereka adalah WNA yang bukan keturunan Indonesia, kita akan anggap mereka sebagai manusia penuh prasangka.

Tetapi, dua manusia tersebut adalah manusia berdarah Indonesia, yang sudah terpapar oleh kehidupan di dalamnya. Jelas sekali mereka malu akan jati diri mereka. Jika ada pilihan, mereka akan pilih untuk mengganti nenek moyang mereka dengan nenek moyang dari negara lain.

Pada saat yang bersamaan, mereka sadar bahwa keterusterangan mereka dapat memancing amarah orang Indonesia yang sok nasionalis. Akibatnya, mereka harus mencari-cari alasan untuk menutupi isi hati mereka yang sebenarnya.

Tapi, sepintar-pintarnya bangkai ditutupi, mau pakai wewangian sebanyak apapun, baunya akan tetap tercium juga.

Jika dua orang itu tidak merasa hina karena berdarah Indonesia, saya yakin ketidaksukaan mereka akan hal-hal berbau Indonesia akan jauh lebih bernalar dan tidak memojokkan bangsa tanpa alasan..

Oh ya, yang saya maksud sebagai orang sok nasionalis adalah mereka yang mengaku bangga menjadi orang Indonesia saat negara mereka dilecehkan atau dikritik tajam; tetapi, di waktu lainnya, mereka ogah melakukan usaha apapun yang bisa meninggikan martabat bangsa.

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So, you think Indonesia is boring?

This is one of those petty blogposts of mine, in which I write them as responses to specific individuals. Spite is one of my life fuels.

There are many Indonesians who believe our country has nothing exciting to offer. This combination of ignorance and self-deprecation is unfortunately common. But recently, I encountered one person who stood out like an infected, pus-ridden toe.

They said Indonesia is nothing but a carbon copy of China and Arabia, hence why the world is more interested in learning about Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

While the amount is not infinite, there are still too many layers of idiocy to put with.

First thing first, being influenced is not the same as copying! If Indonesia is a carbon copy of China and Arabia, then Japan is a carbon copy of China and USA a carbon copy of England. Hell, why don’t we start calling every country on earth a carbon copy of each other? Why is Indonesia singled out here?

Second, we are influenced not just by China and Arabia, but also South Asia, Portugal and the Netherlands. Combined them with the cultures of our bountiful ethnic groups, we are culturally richer than that imbecile thinks it is.

Lastly, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have many similarities to Indonesia. All of them are Southeast Asian countries with Indian and Chinese influences and strong Hindu and Buddhist history. With Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia in particular, they also have Arabian and European influences, Austronesian roots and dominance of Abrahamic religions.

I don’t know how any informed minds can seriously believe the other three countries are more unique. Despite having heard so many dismissive comments about Indonesia, this one ticks me off the most.

I am sure many foreigners have said similar things. But, from my experiences, this dismissiveness is mostly expressed by Indonesians themselves.

Oh, and I am not done yet. I am going to list many facts about Indonesia to prove that it is an interesting country to learn about.

Buckle up, bitches!

It is the fourth biggest country, the biggest Muslim-majority country and the biggest archipelago country on earth.

It is sandwiched between two oceans and two continents; despite being considered a part of Asia, it is more accurate to describe as a transcontinental country. It forms a large chunk of the pacific ring of fire.

Indonesia has over a thousand ethnic groups, many with their subgroups; the biggest and second biggest form about 40% and 18% of the country’s population, respectively. The majority are of Austronesian roots, with minorities of Chinese-Indonesians, Arab-Indonesians, Eurasian-Indonesians, Melanesians and Indian-Indonesians.

Even though Indonesia has hundreds of living languages, only one is official: Indonesian. It is a standardised Malay dialect (many Indonesians refuse to call it Malay) and has partial intelligibility to standardised Malay dialects in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

It is an Austronesian language with Sanskrit, Arabic, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese (don’t know which dialects), regional languages and, of course, English loanwords. But, despite being the national language, it has no native speakers; people speak either a vernacular Malay dialect or an entirely distinct regional language, with Javanese as the biggest in the country. Both Malay and Javanese are in the top 30 list of most spoken languages on earth.

Interestingly, unlike many former colonies of western countries, the colonial language was never dominant here, not even during the Dutch colonial rule.

Well, Malay was already the lingua franca in many parts of Southeast Asian prior European colonisation; the Dutch might find it unnecessary to introduce Dutch as one. I also heard they refused to teach the language because they feared most indigenous Indonesians would have access to better education. Who knows?

I also don’t know why the elite Indonesians -who definitely spoke it- refused to pass the language down. But, knowing the nationalistic mood of the country’s earlier days, this might rub people the wrong way. Not to mention that Soekarno -our first president- expelled every white and Eurasian Dutch person. Again, who knows?

Apart from (Sunni) Islam, the state also officially recognises Protestantism (confusingly labeled as Christianity), Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and, recently, Confucianism. If your religion is none of the above, you still have to choose one for official documentations.

Oh, and official recognition is different from being state religions. The former means the authorities recognise your beliefs as religions of their own rights. The latter is about state endorsement.

Even though the ministry of religious affairs has always been dominated by Muslims, the state also funds Christian, Hindu and Buddhist activities. Public schools have religious studies lessons for non-Muslim students and there are state-funded Christian, Hindu and Buddhist universities.

Despite being a Muslim-majority country with actual practicing Muslims AKA not cultural Muslims, our national symbols are of Hindu-Buddhist origins. Garuda – the mythological bird – is seen as a visual representation of the country. Our national motto, the mottos of many national institutions and the name of our state ideology are in Sanskrit. Not to mention the Indonesians who still use Sanskrit-sounding names. Just because most of us are no longer Hindus and Buddhists, that does not mean we should forget our Hindu-Buddhist past.

Nowadays, the biggest Hindu denomination is the Balinese one; the other existing ones are numerically minuscule. The biggest Buddhist denomination is the Chinese one; the existing “locally-grown” ones are also tiny.

The Javanese people – the biggest ethnic group – are unsurprisingly predominantly-Muslim. But, interestingly, many Javanese embrace both Islam and Kejawen, a syncretic religion with strong animist elements.

Remember the aforementioned ethnic diversity? It comes with the package that we also boast culinary diversity. Our regional cuisines are so distinct from each other, they taste as if they are from different countries; Javanese cuisine is very sweet, Sundanese dishes taste earthy while Minang ones are drenched in spicy coconut gravy. Some cuisines are mostly indigenous while others have heavier foreign influences. Culinary wise, we can cater to a wide range of taste buds.

In spite of the distinctiveness, they also share traits. There are many variants of nasi goreng (fried rice), soto (a type of soup), kerupuk (fried crackers) and sambal (chili sauce). While some variants are available all over, others are exclusively found in certain regions.

Indonesia has 34 provinces, five are autonomous. One is Aceh, literally the only Sharia province. One is Jogjakarta, the only absolute monarchy province. Two of them are Papuan provinces. One of them is, of course, our national capital.

We also have five provinces with religion other than Islam as the majority or narrow majority. One is Hindu-majority Bali and the rest Christian-majority, three are Protestant and one is Roman catholic.

And just another reminder that we are a big ass country! We are a giant with many experiences to tell!

Do I think Indonesia is the most unique country on earth? No, I don’t. But, I still think the country is far more intriguing than many people think it is.

Here’s a question for you: what do countries like South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, India, Thailand, USA, the UK, France and Singapore – which are culturally distinct from one another – have in common but Indonesia does not?

Soft power.

Seriously, how often do you see Indonesian tourism advertisement? How often do you encounter Indonesian restaurants in countries with small Indonesian communities? How often do you encounter Indonesian culture festivals overseas? How often do you encounter organisations that promote Indonesian cultures overseas? How often do you encounter enticing depictions of Indonesia in foreign media?

I am certain the answer is either “barely” or “not at all”; when you do encounter aggressive tourism campaign, it was only certain years. I am also certain if you ask the same things about the other countries, you would be more likely to get answers other than “barely” or “not at all”.

Obviously, don’t take my words for it. Just do basic researches about those other countries’ heritage. You would find out that – when compared to the others – they are not as unique as you think they are.

Once you know, you would realise originality has nothing to do with a country’s popularity. If that is the case, diverse and highly populous countries like Indonesia should have ended up as cultural giants.

But, reality says otherwise. Instead, South Korea, Japan and Singapore – countries that relatively have way less cultural things to offer – easily kick us to the curb. The first two are known for their homogeneity; it is impressive such big populations can still be that homogenous.

And Singapore? Let’s face it: if it wasn’t for its small size, its diversity would feel way less impressive.

Oh, and I keep mentioning religion because we are barely included in global discourses about Islam, if at all.

Almost every time globally-influential western media talks about Islam, they almost always feature South Asian, West Asian, North African and western perspectives. Indonesia is rarely involved.

Obviously, we are just one country; we can only represent ourselves. But, it is short-sighted to exclude us from the conversations.

Not only we are fourth biggest country and the biggest Muslim-majority one, we are also the only one in the top 10 list which is neither South Asian, West Asian nor African; we are Southeast Asian. Not to mention the Indonesian diaspora is globally invisible.

We would have easily offered distinct perspectives about Islamic identity, interreligious lives and how religions interact with culture and politics. The global discourses about Islam would not be too dominated by South Asian, West Asian, North African and western perspectives.

If foreign media interview the right kind of Indonesians, we would have added even more nuances to the conversations.

Our exclusion from them is exasperating. If they are willing to ignore a country as gigantic as Indonesia, just imagine how they would treat the smaller and lesser-known ones.

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Angry for being taught to speak “properly”

Note: this is a loose translation of this article. Context: it was written with Indonesians in mind.

Every time an Indonesian Youtuber teachers their audience the “proper” English pronunciation (mind the air quote), there has to be people who react angrily.

Why angry? They say there are more than one accents. According to them, it is up to us to speak with any ways we desire.

it is true that every language has a variety of accents. It is also true that in linguistics, there are no such thing as “right” or “wrong” accents.

But, I do have a question: why do you learn a new language?

The answer is either your love of languages… or you have the desire to communicate with more people. If communication is your desire, you should watch your mouth!

The variety of accents is not an excuse. No matter how abundant they are, not all of them are considered the standards! Every country has their own standard accents and they are used to ease communication between citizens; it is pointless to have a unifying language that lacks a unifying accent.

English-speaking countries realise their language is also spoken elsewhere; they realise their standard accents must be intelligible for foreigners. That’s the reason why their standard accents are easy to understand for outsiders, despite sounding different from each other.

And you, who do you think you are? How can you think you can pronounce as you desire and expect everyone to understand you?

Imagine when foreigners pronounce Rupiah as Rupayah and the letter C as K… and they are angry when corrected. Not only you won’t understand them, you want to bitch slap them one by one.

Frankly, even Indonesians who speak with relatively better English also want to punch your faces.

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From shallots to religious peace

I hate how my fellow Indonesians represent their country to foreigners. They don’t seem to understand it even on the most basic level.

I will start ranting from the most trivial thing and ends on the least trivial.

For many Indonesians, the English word onion refers to not only actual onions, but also shallots. It is understandable if the Indonesian language calls them by the same name.

But, it doesn’t!

Shallot is called bawang merah and onion is bawang bombay! Not only we have different names for them, we know how to distinguish them just by looking at them!

I don’t know how we continue making this error. But, I do know it creates a misconception among some foreigners.

One time, SortedFood -a British cooking Youtube channel- made a video about rendang… and instead of using shallots as the recipe calls, they use fucking red onion!

Of course, shallots might not be available in shops near them and they needed a substitute. But, in this case, it clearly wasn’t the case. If it was, they would have mentioned the word shallot and yet, they didn’t mention it, not even once!

That makes me wonder if there are many more foreigners have made the same mistake when cooking Indonesian dishes.

I notice some Indonesians try to translate soto as soup… and that is incorrect. Soto is a type of soup traditional to Indonesia; we have words for soup: it is either sup or sop.

Maybe they feel obligated to translate every single word. But, the thing is, if the words have no direct translations and they are names of foods, don’t translate them! Just keep using the original words! I mean, languages like English have lots of foreign words in them; using soto in an English sentence is not a sin!

Oh, and I hate how we mindlessly call many of our dishes “curry” when -with rare exceptions- we almost never refer to them as such, even the ones with obvious South Asian influences!

Yes, it is easier this way if we want to explain Indonesian cuisines to uninformed foreigners. But, we also have to be explicit about the fact we rarely call our foods “kari”.

Still on foods, I am also annoyed that we never showcase the diversity of our cuisines. We love presenting the dishes as if they are of the same cultural backgrounds, even though they clearly aren’t. We literally have hundreds of ethnic groups here and yet, we love to represent ourselves as one cultural monolith.

To this day, I still don’t know why many Indonesians -the ones I have encountered, at least- never brag about our cultural diversity to foreigners. They also never realise that we have a relatively wonderful inter-ethnic relations.

Ethnicity almost never determine whom we befriend or have romantic relations with. While there are indeed ethnic conflicts, they mostly occur among people of rural backgrounds who grew up unexposed to other groups; they almost never occur among most people who grew in diverse urban areas.

I initially thought we were like fish who don’t realise they are in water. Probably because many of us had multicultural upbringings, we may be unaware of the existence of cultural diversity. But, I doubt that is the case.

In celebrations like the independence day, we love showcasing the contrasting styles of our traditional attires. We love making fun of other regional accents. We can be picky with certain cuisines because other regions’ taste buds may not suit ours. We even love stereotyping each other.

Basically, we do know how culturally diverse our country is. But, inexplicably, we never use that fact to positively boost our image on the world stage.

To make it even more confusing, we prefer to brag about our supposed religious peace instead.

One thing for sure, Indonesia is indeed way better than Iran and Saudi Arabia. We are not a theocracy which commands every citizen to live a strictly Islamic lifestyle.

But, at the same time, Muslims are clearly the most privileged religious group in the country and non-Muslims in predominantly-Muslim provinces have to adjust to life which benefits Muslims the most. Religious conflicts also happen far from rarely; while their occurrence is not regular, it is frequent enough to worry anyone whose heads are not on cloud nine.

And we are not even that religiously diverse.

With ethnicity, the biggest and second biggest groups comprise about forty and twenty percent of the population, respectively. With religion, the biggest one -obviously, Islam- comprises eighty percent.

Christians are the most visible religious minority and, for many Indonesian Muslims, they are the only non-Muslims we have interacted with. We are also exposed to Buddhism and Chinese religions, but only if we live in places with visible population of Chinese-Indonesians who still embrace their ancestral heritage (the ones who don’t are Christians). Hinduism is extremely rare outside Bali. Animism is rare in urban areas and it is not even seen as a religion. Judaism and anything Jewish are seen as bad as atheism; Indonesian Jews are practically non-existent. Oh and, it is much easier to find Hindus than it is to find non-Sunni Muslims.

Basically, many Indonesian Muslims still live a religious bubble. With that in mind, the existence of religious tensions -especially when Muslims are the bigoted ones- in Indonesia is anything but unexpected.

I don’t know exactly why we always brag about our religious pluralism instead of the ethnic one. Maybe it is our inferiority complex; we are seen as a model country in the Muslim world (for some goddamn reasons) and we rarely get any ego boosts on the world stage.

My point is we should be careful on how we present our country to foreigners.

If you improperly translate the words you use, you may end up giving them misinformation which is trivial but infuriating nonetheless.

If you are driven by feelgood, blinding nationalistic sentiment, you may end up sugarcoating your country’s image and burying the actual dirt underneath.

If the foreigners are gullible, they would be fed with factual inaccuracies and end up perceiving the world inaccurately, thanks to you. If they already have negative preconceived beliefs, they would accuse you and your fellow countrymen of whitewashing the problems in our country, inadvertently exacerbating its already-negative image.

Oh, and it can be a missed opportunity. Because you are too focused on exaggerating the positivity of some aspects of your country, you end up ignoring ones which are genuinely good.

Yes, I am also far from perfect. I still have surface-level knowledge about my own home country and I may have unknowingly given wrong info.

But, I am confident about something: I am not stupid enough to translate bawang merah as onion and soto as soup….. and I am certainly not dishonest enough to think Indonesia is an entirely heavenly place for non-Sunni Muslims.

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5cm: potentially deep, choose to be shallow

It has been more than ten years since I last read 5cm, an Indonesian novel written by Donny Dhirgantoro. My memory is foggy. But, I still remember the gist of it.

While Indonesia is not a global cultural powerhouse (which is pathetic considering the richness of our heritage), we have our share of novels translated into foreign languages. But, I can definitely say this one in particular will never be translated… and for two good reasons.

Reason number one is the pervasive presence of wordplay. It is not like in Harry Potter where the puns are hidden as place names and they have no effects on the narrative whatsoever.

Here, however, the puns are the dialogues. They affect the pacing, they are the jokes and they lighten the moods when needed.

The characters speak with Jakartan dialect, laced with English words, which is indicative of their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Without the puns, it would be harder to characterise their motivations and their social statuses; while it may seem trivial for some, I want my immersions enhanced with genuine depth.

The second reason why this novel is untranslatable is also the reason why it is a massive disappointment.

To summarise the story, it tells the lives of a group of friends who ceases any contact for three months. The reason? Wanting to leave their friendship bubble and experience life with a different light.

Three months later, unbeknownst to most of them, one person planned a road trip for the gang, in which they will hike Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak. To get there, they take an economic class train ride which is almost 24-hour-long instead of taking a plane ride (which is undoubtedly faster) or a business class train ride (which is undoubtedly comfier). After many arduous hours of hiking (their inexperience certainly does not help), they reach the peak just in time for a flag ceremony; their hiker friend makes sure they arrive on the morning of independence day. The novel ends with an epilogue set many years later, with them living lives none of us can predict.

Throughout, the characters have lots of philosophical musings, whether with themselves or with each other. From what I remember, they muse mostly about the meanings of life and what it means to be an Indonesian, the latter also includes commentaries about Indonesian mentality.

How the author treated his own idea, however, was unbelievably disappointing.

The philosophical dialogues proudly lack any subtleties; he felt the need to explain every thought, none of which were even that profound in the first place. It feels less like a philosophical novel and more like a preachy pamphlet.

The nationalism only worsens the shallowness. Instead of asking why Indonesians disregard their own homeland, it just simply demands us to love it….. just because.

Instead of subtly conveying how the characters feel about their own homeland, the book brazenly informs us about its positive features, as if knowing them is more than enough to make us love our country unconditionally. Not only that, a character calling off his plan to study abroad is seen as an act of love, love of his country.

It is very dishonest. It ignores that many Indonesians who study abroad -me included- eventually return home, some of whom develop a heightened appreciation for their country; because we have been abroad, we realise Indonesia does have strengths which many other countries lack.

It ignores the reasons why Indonesians hate their country: poor infrastructures, limited job opportunities, unappreciation of highly-skilled citizens, corruption, incompetent leaders, prejudice, widespread anti-intellectualism, sleazy media outlets, you name it. While cultural cringe is also a factor, the hatred is often justifiable. Educated Indonesians know damn well our country has strengths; but, the weaknesses are too big to ignore. It feels less like a social novel and more like a condescendingly-written children’s book with nationalistic agenda.

It is a giant pile of missed opportunities.

The author clearly set the story to become philosophical. Not only the characters face a sudden change in routines which greatly affect their daily lives, they also endure a once-in-a-lifetime physically and mentally-arduous journey. The ending’s lack of foreshadowing is a reminder of how unpredictable life is. In that situation, anyone are bound to contemplate about how they live their lives, albeit with varying depth. He could have asked what is the meaning of life.

The author also had the chance to discuss about what it means to be an Indonesian, especially when the characters are upper and/or middle class Jakartans who love western pop culture and speak with lots of English words, who travel to a relatively less affluent and more traditional part of the country. He could have also asked if the country is worth loving, how to balance love of one’s country and openness to the outside world.

Instead, he ended up with a pseudo-inspirational, borderline nationalistically chauvinistic piece of text. Even without the wordplay, the shallowness would still put foreigners off from even considering reading it.

It seems, at the time writing, he thought he was genuinely onto something and he thought writing his thoughts down did us a favour.

Obviously, I am projecting myself onto him; I never meet him, let alone knowing him personally. But, I genuinely cannot help it. The book’s content reminds me of my old self, who was a giant sanctimonious piece of shit.

In fact, me being one was the reason why I loved the novel. My pathetic excuse of a mind was so deeply inspired by it, I actually lent the book to a classmate of mine, thinking it would blow their mind… who lent it to another classmate and lost it in the process.

For a while, I hated losing my personal copy. But, after watching the film adaptation (which, admittedly, exceeded my low expectation), I finally realised how skin-deep the source material is. I guess the words hit different when they are spoken out loud.

I don’t know what will happen if I still own a copy. I can only imagine that pulling myself from the rut of self-righteousness would be an even more gruelling effort.

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The (so-called) United States of Islam 2

In the previous essay, I talked about how cute it is that non-Muslims are more obsessed with Muslims’ so-called unity than we are. Now, I will focus on my interactions with them. Disclaimer: I cannot confirm whether my fellow Muslims share my experiences.

If you have joined any conversations about Islam and/or Muslims, you would have heard of taqiyya and how people intentionally misinterpret it.

I won’t talk about the taqiyya-screaming crowd. Conversing with them is like to talking unhinged sentient walls that run in circles. I will talk about the ones who were open-minded enough to move the conversations forward, but still close-minded enough to move the goddamn goal posts.

Instead of dissecting those individuals one by one, I will summarise the gist of their belief as a group.

Most of the time, it started with my complain about our image as a monolith, which disregards our vast racial, ethnical, cultural, political and yes, even theological diversity. Even some Muslim-majority countries boast a high level of cultural diversity which tokenist westerners can only dream of.

If they didn’t use the Taqiyya card, they would “refute” me by claiming that Muslims do have a pope. But, they could not think of a single name! Those who could usually mentioned rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia or Jihadists who proclaim themselves as rulers of all Muslims.

Anyone with basic knowledge about Islam and Muslims know how brainless those people sound.

First of all, there are two main branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia; globally, the former is the majority while the latter is a minority. Mind you, I still haven’t mentioned the relatively smaller branches like Ahmadiyyah and Sufism… and how each branch has its own different madhabs or schools of thought.

How can the ruler of Saudi Arabia rule the entire Muslim world? Never mind the non-Sunnis, even many Sunnis would not be happy about having their religious lives dictated by someone who doesn’t share their madhab. Don’t forget about the ever-volatile Middle Eastern politics being a contributing factor.

I should also mention there are non-Turkish Muslims who believe Turkey -with Sultan Smeagol as the president- should take the lead. They genuinely believe in Neo-Ottomanism despite not being of Turkic heritage. They are like the Turkish version of Weeaboos.

In my home country Indonesia specifically, Muslim citizens have a long list of religious authorities to choose from. There are organisations like the ministry of religions, MUI, NU, Muhammadiyah and FPI.

You can also choose one out of many celebrity preachers or the imam in your neighbourhood mosque. You can choose more than one authorities at the same time and cherrypick their words or none at all and choose to interpret the teachings yourselves.

The self-proclaimed popes “refutation” was obviously their gotcha attempt. They didn’t take into account that I was not dumb enough to think authority -whether de jure or de facto– was valid without recognition.

If I proclaim myself as your ruler out of the blue, your immediate reaction would be seeing me as someone who needs psychiatric interventions and deserves a swirly, NOT as someone worthy to be led by.

Here’s a tip: unless you want to be seen as a pitiful human being with underused brain, never use the words of madmen we never associate with as your smoking guns against us.

At this stage, some would start using the taqiyya card. Those who didn’t would acknowledge the non-existence of a Muslim pope.

But, the venom-spewing didn’t stop there.

Instead of respecting our distinct sense of collectiveness, they insisted we should be more centralised like the Christians are if we want to be free from extremism. Of course, this insistence is problematic.

For one, it is naive. The idea that simply having a pope will help us fighting extremism means we have to believe every authority figure is morally upright… and we know damn well only bootlickers believe that.

Christian denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism and Roman Catholicism are highly-centralised yet still afflicted with social illnesses, some of which are undoubtedly caused and perpetuated by the leaders themselves; Roman Catholicism in particular is infamous for interfering with countries’ domestic politics, even to this day. Should I also mention about how centralised ISIS and Al-Qaeda are?

Secondly, Christianity is not centralised. Its denominations are. Believe it or not, only Roman Catholics acknowledge the pope as their spiritual leader.

Lastly, they were obviously irked with me shattering their make-believe. If they weren’t, they would have gladly moved on and learned from their mistakes. Instead, they demanded us to fit into the pigeonhole. They believed it was our moral duty to abide by their words.

They also unwittingly contradicted themselves. They demonised us because supposedly being one giant organisation made us prone to radicalisation. But now, they demanded us to become one giant organisation if we actually care about fighting extremism, framing our refusal to abide as a triumph for the extremists.

They are like parents who verbally abuse us for not doing something and then verbally abuse us for doing it.

They don’t care about the truths and they don’t care about humanity. They just want excuses to shove their beliefs down our throats and to make Uncle Toms out of every Muslim they encounter.

They just want excuses to be tokenist, gas-lighting, goal post-moving, delusional cunts.

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The (so-called) United States of Islam

For years, I wondered why many non-Muslims insist the entire Muslim is one giant organisation in which literally every member knows each other and shares the exact same admittance, trainings and goals and acknowledges the exact same centralised religious authority.

Basically, they think the Muslim world is more structurally rigid than any Christian churches. You know, a factually incorrect belief.

I still don’t know exactly why they posses it. Maybe they have Christian-centric views of religions. Maybe they want an easy path of dehumanising the others (just like they do to Jews and LGBT people). But, I do notice something else: some of them are obsessed with the concept of ummah.

In Islam, the Arabic word for community also specifically refers to the entire Muslim community, transcending literal and figurative border. We Muslims are encouraged to unite with our fellow believers. Ideally, that’s how the Muslim world should be.

Of course, reality is never ideal. We are anything but united.

Sunnis and Shias waging war against each other, Sunnis violently discriminating against Ahmadis, Iraq-Iran war, Qatar Gulf crisis, the unstable relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia, Bangladeshis still harbouring grudge against Pakistan, the Arab spring, the Somali civil war, ISIS killing fellow Muslims, just to name a few.

When we do care about the plights of Muslims abroad, we only think about ones like the Uyghurs and the Palestinians. You know, the ones persecuted by non-Muslims. Even then, we shoot our own feet by ignoring the nuances, not realising that religion may not be the only factor of persecution, if at all.

From my personal experiences as an Indonesian, the word umat -the Indonesian spelling variant of ummah– has a strong nationalistic connotation; every time I hear Indonesian says the word, they almost always refer to Indonesian Muslims specifically.

In fact, if you add the word manusia after umat, you will have the Indonesian for ‘mankind’. Basically, when we use it to refer to a global community, it becomes entirely non-sectarian.

As I said, I still don’t know exactly why people insist on seeing us as one giant organisation. But, it goes to show that they really overestimate our ability to unite and they certainly take our terminology more seriously than we do.

It is so cute, they should have be the Muslims, not us.

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Lessons I get from Indonesian national exams

This is an English translation of this article.

Lesson one: simply ‘studying’ is worthless.

Formal education demands us to ‘study’ to memorise things and to expect grades and bright future as the rewards. The demand becomes stronger once we are haunted by the shadow of the national exams, which easily kills students’ desire to obtain knowledge.

Ideally, we also have to learn critical thinking in order to not get deceived by the information we receive. We also have to learn because we love knowledge and we don’t expect any rewards; the sincerity is the thing which expands our horizons.

Despite university life being more demanding and the fact that degrees cannot guarantee a bright future, I prefer to study in universities.

Yes, the demand for grades is still there. But, because I chose my own major, most of the courses were within my interests. Moreover, we learned by analysing the information in front of us instead of simply memorising it.

The implementation of higher education is far from perfect and is not immune from indoctrination. It is also formal in nature and therefore, not everyone’s cup of tea.

But, compared to primary and secondary education, it is more successful in providing spaces for those who genuinely love learning.

Lesson two: In Indonesia, honesty is a weakness.

During my middle and high school exams, I was probably one of the few students who refused to cheat. Because I live in Indonesia, a country known for its morality, I was insulted by the people around me.

Both the students and my own parent perceived me as a smart-ass goody two shoes. The teachers willingly put blind eyes regarding this.

I passed the exams with relatively good grades and I achieved them without cheating. They were genuine results of my hard work.

But, to this day, I have yet to receive any praises for my achievement. In fact, some still insist I was just lucky. They are so obsessed with the final results, they venerate dishonesty and condemn honesty without any hesitations.

If that is not the case, they would have never spewed insults from their diarrhea-regurgitating face holes.

This experience teaches me that noble acts must be sincerely done, without any expectations of rewards. Besides fooling ourselves and others, the expectation gives us false hopes about our surroundings.

We will naively expect praises from others. If we are lucky enough to live in degenerate countries like Indonesia, the only thing we get is verbal diarrhea. We will end up dejected.

Even though I did not expect praises (and I already knew how degenerate Indonesians were), I am still a human being who can get hurt by insults.

Imagine if I had any high expectations. I would probably end up more cynical than I am now.

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