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By The Way: Marriage sans frontiers

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, September 12, 2019  /  03:33 pm
By The Way: Marriage sans frontiers

Illustration of marriage. (Shutterstock/-)

Once upon a time, kiddies, we knew who we were.  I was Sir, your Mom was Madam, you were Miss and your brother Mister. Now language is gender-free.

Miss is short for Mistress – an upright position in the 18th century but now with a laid-back meaning in the 21st, so no wonder you want to be labeled Ms.

Here’s another term that needs revising – “cross-cultural marriage” with its hint of annoyance. These are the complex-compound relationships that sparkle with the challenge of delightful differences, so every new day is a discovery of the other. 

Capitalizing on this fantasy an Australian insurance company ran a popular series of cheeky rom-com commercials showing the less than ravishing Rhonda on holiday in Bali getting seduced by dishy Ketut, a resort waiter.

The big screen head-in-the-clouds version has a blond escapee from cold climes swooning in the exotic tropics where love is endless. The realities are more down to earth, or to be precise, the kitchen.

If one thinks bubur (porridge) should be made with oats and the other insists on rice the relationship will suffer indigestion.

The road to true love never runs smooth but in Indonesia the potholes are more like craters. 

Time management is a particular hazard, like leaving for a function on the far side of town at 6 p.m. when the invitation says that’s when the show starts.

For those bule (aka londo) who think punctuality is next to cleanliness and Godliness, slackness is a sin.

It also provides a true test; if the matrimonial deal is real, one party will adapt and tolerate their beloved’s weird ways.

Tiny tiffs can be overcome by chanting just four words five times a day: “I’m right, you’re wrong”.  

Or maybe: “You’re right, I’m wrong”.

But who says the words? He or she? That is the question, to paraphrase a Danish prince who also had in-laws behaving like outlaws. In Indonesia the newcomer doesn’t just couple with her or his betrothed – they also join the extended family. 

Approval is essential. Civil ceremonies abroad lack pictures of batik-clad free loaders parading across a plywood platform to shake hands, bow and kiss. If there are no wedding photos for mother-in-law’s lounge walls positioned at visitors’ eyelines, doubt sneaks in like an unwanted guest.

In a country where PhDs can be bought, even marriage certificates endorsed with government crests are considered forgeries.

The hidden message is that the daughter or son is kumpul kebo, living like a buffalo out of wedlock. In Indonesia that’s bovine behavior.

“Inter-marriage” sounds like a train and bus terminal. Such places are defined by connection. They’re also zones of chaos and confusion, with individuals rushing in different directions, so maybe that image doesn’t travel too well. Likewise: “Terminal”. We need a term that implies continuation.

“Inter-gender union” has a clumsy post-modern #MeToo feel, while capitalists would fret about the connotations with organized labor. Yet this happens in the best marriages: One does the cooking, washing and cleaning, while the other consumes, complains and befouls. 

That person is usually the head of the household, the other half, the one who wears the pants – though in our place they’re covered by a skirt. We can smooth out our pressing problems provided one wields the iron.

Harmony can be elusive. Glamor gets tarnished, fascination fades, the mystique molds. The fail percentage is rocketing. In some provinces almost half of all marriages end in divorce, according to the Religious Affairs Ministry.

One of the highest rates is in East Java. Pause to ponder: Oldies say that until the mid-1970s people of different religions were getting hitched with little or no condemnation by relatives and neighbors. 

That changed with the 1974 Marriage Law. Interpretations abound, but the website of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta advises that “both parties must hold the same religion, if not, one party must convert to the other religion”.

Forcing one member of the couple to renounce the faith they were raised to love must hurt deeply and cause great resentment – hardly the emotions on which to build a stable relationship. It also seems like an offense against human rights.

Yet joining faiths provides an opportunity for both to learn and develop the tolerance that every responsible leader promotes. She goes to the mosque on Friday and he sits in church on Sunday. 

At home they eat, pray and love together – and the kids take note.

There are hundreds of different ethnic groups and six religions across the archipelago but these don’t have to be divisive. In 1991 the Berlin Wall tumbled and East and West started to live together. A germane inspiration for the French title at the top of this column – Marriage without Borders.