You’re Confusing Me

You’re confusing me, Aceh!  I don’t understand you at all.  Your contradictions have me shaking my head in bemusement.

Your townsfolk shocked me almost speechless one evening when A, B and I went for dinner.  We went a little earlier than normal and ended up overlapping with mahgrib.  We got to the restaurant at around 6:15 pm, placed and received our order and enjoyed interesting dinner conversation while we ate.  Lo and behold, when we were finished and ready to go, we looked around and found that all the staff, even the bike parking attendant, had disappeared.  Everybody had apparently gone to a back room of the restaurant for prayers (or who knows what else?) and left the few non-praying customers like us to chill until they were done with prayers.  They assumed that we wouldn’t leg it out of there with a free meal in our bellies.  We waited until about 7:30 pm, when a waiter reappeared, then we paid and left.  I’ve seen this many times since – various shops left wide open and unattended while their proprietors disappear into the back for prayers, trusting that their goods will still be there when they return.


An empty shop during midday prayers

On the other hand, the Imigrasi and the village chief are trying to get us to bribe them them to get a document renewed so we can get our visas extended.  And apparently, it’s an accepted practice that your government workers don’t move fast for any reason unless they get a bribe.  And one of your townsfolk stole one of our outside light bulbs.  Aceh, you’re confusing me!  How can you accept corruption in your government officials and petty thievery in your population as normal but expect your restaurant customers to be honest during mahgrib?

You require that your women wear head scarves that cover their entire head, neck, shoulders and chest in order to suppress their sensuality, I suppose so the men won’t be overcome by lust.  You insist that they dress modestly, so much so that I haven’t seen a local female elbow or strand of hair in the months since I’ve been here.  But you have no problem with them wearing skinny jeans and jeggings.  Am I to believe that not 1 of the men living in this entire province is a leg man?

Aceh, your men feel free to hit on my Asian-American colleague and say flirtatious things to her that they would never say to an Acehnese woman.  For example, the village chief said with a smarmy smile, in my hearing, “Don’t get a coffee, A, we can drink from the same cup!” and, “Oh, A, you don’t feel well?  I’m the love doctor, you know!” while his idiot posse laughed like he had just said the funniest thing ever.  (I think I threw up a little in my mouth each time he dropped one of those sleazy lines.)  But you arrest a young girl whose boyfriend left her house at 1 am (seen and reported by a nosy neighbour).  No punishment for the boyfriend, Aceh, but her family had to move out of the city from the shame of it all.

Your streets are so clean, Aceh!  There’s no litter in sight.  But if I cast my eye a little to the side and down a few inches, I can see that your drains are littered with rubbish.  They’re green and murky and filthy with the garbage that you keep off your streets because people toss their rubbish there without a second thought.  [Hmmm…I wouldn’t complain if the komodo dragon that lives in the drain across from us chokes on the garbage and dies one of these days.  That thing is creepy!]

Your townsfolk are purportedly very kind and welcoming.  I’ve met a few of those people.  There’s our roofer, who brought us gado-gado that he made for us one day, and banana chips that he made another day, just because.  There are the local volunteers here at the centre, who are so warm and helpful, translating during ceiling estimate negotiations with a contractor, or coming an hour before classes to help me learn conversational Indonesian.  There are A’s friends, who are trying to help her handle the village chief and the Imigrasi so we can get our visas extended.

And then there are the others.  The ones who stare unabashedly at me when I’m out and about like I’m a curiosity, the ones I usually ignore but who I now stare down to see how they like it.  The ones who call out offensive things in Indonesian as I walk past them on the road, like I’m too stupid to know that they’re mocking me because of my dark skin.

Aceh, I think you’re schizophrenic or bipolar or something.  There’s no middle ground with you!  There are 2 of you and both are extreme.  One of you is warm, welcoming, friendly, helpful and just so nice.  The other you is offensive in so many ways.  You confuse me, Aceh!

Even so, am I being a typical westerner, ready to look down on you for being contradictory?  Because, honestly, are you really that much different from any other place in the world?


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