“I like babies,” the waitress said. “I like them a lot. I want to have the baby but I don’t want to have the husband.”
I told her that I was sure somebody would be happy to oblige; and, as she was a comely young maid, I forwarded myself as a possible candidate.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
I tried to explain my passing attempt at humour, but the more I explained it, the more inexplicable it became. This form of humour often fails to translate to the Indonesian sensibility. A friend of mine, an Englishman, once declared that the Indonesian people have no sense of humour at all. Of course that’s not true. They do have a sense of humour. It simply tends more toward the physical, as when someone falls off a ladder or slips in the mud. It’s a Jerry Lewis, Three Stooges, Chevy Chase sort of humour, and, providing that the victim is not seriously injured, these sorts of accidents are generally considered hilarious. But one does best to steer away from the understated style of jest, and most certainly so where some nuance of language is involved.
“Bercanda kok,” I said. “It’s just a joke.” I waved the thing away, pesky fly that it had become, and started over again. “Just have the baby then, and don’t bother with the husband.”
“But how can I have the baby without the husband?”
Hmm. This looked like another slippery slope, and we’d hardly gotten started. Was I to give a birds and bees lecture?
Happily, her next comments made this unnecessary.
“Here in Bali you must have the marriage. If you have the baby, you get the husband; and if you have the husband, you get the baby. Here in Bali is not like America. In America this is possible because everything is possible.”
“You don’t say! Well that’s good news indeed. I think I’ll go back.”
“When do you leave?”
Of course, the young woman is quite correct. In Bali the family unit remains at the centre of society and culture. It is the very hub of life, from which the entire network of daily existence extends. It is the glue that holds the world together, and the world itself a garment sewn whole with the thread of relationship and community. To transgress against the tried and true pattern must compromise the integrity of life and will surely bring consequences both instant and enduring.
And then we have America, where all things are possible, of both the sacred and profane. Sadly, she is quite right on that score as well. We’ve been there, done that, and have now no idea where we’ve arrived. Strangers in a strange land. It’s a confusion of existence that we like to call freedom.
And yet the parameters of morality by which I was formed are not unlike those which infuse the fabric of life in Bali, such that I find myself continually struck anew by the irony of having somehow come home. I return, as it were, from a shattered land to find old sureties reconstituted, and I find myself in many ways more comfortable in this foreign place than in that country of my birth which lies on the other side of the world.
I tell the waitress that America was once like Bali, but she doesn’t believe me. It spoils her dreams. In America there is snow, she says. And Hollywood, and Broadway, and Caesar’s Palace. In America everyone is rich, and because they are rich, they do as they like. They will not believe that I, an American, am not rich. I’ve tried to tell them many times, but they only laugh. I have said that I am as poor as the people themselves, but they will not believe. It spoils their dreams. You’ve just ordered a large Bintang, they will say. And so of course I am rich.
In America babies are had without men. They are had without husbands or fathers or families. Mama’s baby daddy, we say. And significant other. And birth parent. And surrogate donor. The very notion of family is subject to interpretation. We don’t let tradition or moralities, or even love in the common sense, get in the way.
Facetiousness seems suddenly not so funny. I care for the girl, her choices, her future, her family, her island, her country, her baby. I want to explain to this woman what we have learned and know. I want to tell her where we’ve come from and where we are. I want to tell her about the loneliness and despair that lies on the other side of rebellion. I want to warn her not to forget the father. But I cannot do so. My grasp of Indonesian falls far short of the task.
It seems she will have to find out for herself.