Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Diversity that is Indonesia

The Diversity that is Indonesia

Ibu Titi is a good friend of mine in Jakarta. She is happily married and blessed with a pair of lovely twin boys. She is Javanese but happens to be a Christian, which is not an uncommon thing in Indonesia. The interesting thing is that her husband is a Muslim and they both still keep their own religions.

Usually in marriages such as this, one of the parties would convert to the other's religion, though it is not exactly a legal requirement. In Ibu Titi's case, apparently their families were understanding enough to let them keep their respective faiths. She told me that they managed to make both sides happy by registering their marriage twice--once as a Christian couple and the second as a Muslim one!

Some of my other friends in Indonesia were not so fortunate. Wiwik (whose rumah kos I visited before), a Betawi Muslim, had to break up a relationship with her longtime boyfriend because her family couldn't accept her marrying a Javanese Christian, unless he converted to their religion. When I first met her two years ago, they were still clinging to their six-year old relationship. They seemed like an inseparable couple but the relationship was heading towards a stalemate. Middle of last year, with no solution in sight, they had to break up.

Relationships between couples of the same religion but of different ethnic groups could also prove challenging. Another friend of mine, Marlyn is also a Javanese Muslim. She was going out with a Batak guy, also a Muslim. The Bataks are a very interesting group people; most of them are Christians and their traditional homeland is the Lake Toba area of North Sumatra. Bataks are known to very clannish--only they and the Manado people are among the few groups who have a tradition of keeping family names (they call it marga). The former MTV DJ, Nadya Hutagalung is one of the most famous half-Bataks. Hutagalung is a common Batak clan name.

Some of the Batak clans are Muslims: examples are the Siregars and the Nasutions. Bataks are known to be very aggresive people, whereas the Javanese are reserved, soft-spoken and very indirect in their ways. Marlyn, the Javanese girl told me that she had problems with her Batak boyfriend because they were very different culturally, even though they shared the same religion. They too eventually broke off.

The Sundanese, though technically West Javanese, are also culturally different from the "real" Javanese from Central and East Java. The older generation of Javanese are very proud of their culture and normally do not favour marriages to the Sundanese, whom they consider to be of "lower class". (Even East Javanese are also considered less refined than Central Javanese). This makes Ibu Titi's marriage even more interesting--for her husband is a Sundanese from Bandung and she hails from the capital of Javanese culture, Yogjakarta itself.

It may sound like some tourist industry cliche, but the fact is, the cultural diversity of Indonesia is what I find so fascinating about the country. In my two years there, I've made good friends from many different ethnic groups and tried to learn as much as I could about their language, food and culture. In the end, I realised, even a lifetime is not enough for me to savour all the wonderful delights of their diversity.

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