What’s Old is New: Great Expectations in Central Java
May 5, 2020
“He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18
“Seek, and ye shall find.” Matthew 7:7
I had spent several years in Southeast Asia, and it was time to assess De Toqueville’s observations of the Americas. The second half of 2019 I went to Medellin, Colombia for three months and then Macaé and Såo Paulo, Brazil for another three; I stayed in Mexico City for about a month, too. I met kind people everywhere, but the Mexicans proved the warmest, friendliest, and most sincere. Mexico easily matched the level of customer service I had found in Asia, but Colombia and Brazil fell far short. Health care in South America is a bureaucratic nightmare, a knotted shoelace one scissors and discards in foolhardy bliss. Some Colombians seemed hurried or on the take. They’re not lazy, but they only do what they have to do and sometimes less. Brazilians are straightforward, bright, and adventurous, but they have a habit of making promises they often forget. Things are expensive in Brazil; taxes are ridiculous. On the food front, they pour all their culinary talent in to dessert. Healthy food is slap-dash and often unappetizing. Be that as it may, the churrascarias, all-you-can-eat BBQs where beef is featured, are tasty and inexpensive.
Visiting stores and supermarkets can be depressing in Brazil. Many shelves are empty. In the Age of Covid-19, I suppose that’s universal, but I was there last year when reports of the virus were nonexistent.
After Christmas I returned to Los Angeles, and the lure of the Orient returned to me. My doctors gave me a five-week reprieve before they wanted to see me again. Relieved, I booked a flight to Indonesia. After a few days in Bali, I flew into Central Java.
I’m here now. Stuck in lock down. My visa has expired, and it’s Ramadan. If all the world’s a stage, there’s none quite like Indonesia. What follows is as true an account as memory and emotion will allow.
I have read a couple articles on Stickman’s site about Indonesia, and they ring true. Indonesians are friendlier than Thai. Warmer. Very, very eager to please. And they can speak English well – as well as Korean and Chinese. I find this fascinating. (Okay. I know this doesn’t apply to the population at large, but I stayed at 4- and 5-star properties.)
Unfortunately, a grasp of English makes Indonesians more beguiling and difficult to read. Like Thai they can be indirect and downright evasive. They’re not openly critical, but their language is full of terms that identify EVERY type of person, emotion, and desire. One interesting phrase is “memberi harapan palsu” which translates as “giving false hope.” As in Thailand, bursting another’s bubble is the unforgivable sin, but encouraging self-deception has an emotional consequence similar to continued financial stimulus. A Google search yields 7,680,000 results for “giving false hope in Bahasa Indonesia,” so I suppose it’s a common occurrence. Mai pen rai, chai mai?
My comments refer largely to girls I’ve known for 2 3 months, who work at 4- and 5-star properties, and with whom I enjoyed Platonic relationships. Pretty, energetic Estella is a standout. I met Estella at Satis House, a five-star American property where she works in Central Java. And though I never made amorous advances, she was always guarded. Thoughts of physical intimacy never entered my mind. I hadn’t ruled it out, but I just liked being around her. (I like that feeling. I suppose every guy does.)
There is an inviolable hierarchy here. When one of my prescriptions ran low, Mr. Pumblechook, a Satis House administrator, wanted cash up front to fill it. He said that imported drugs are expensive and can take several days to arrive from Jakarta. I needed it sooner. I had been at Satis House for almost eight weeks, and not one of my acquaintances would help me find an alternate source. I tried local pharmacies, but they could not supply me. Time was not my only concern. With Mr. Pumblechook’s help a 90-day supply would cost me over $2,500 USD. In the US the same would cost $75 without insurance. Indonesia and surrounding countries were in lock down, so I couldn’t fly to a neighboring country and pick up something on the cheap. I wandered far from the hotel and found a stranger who helped me. The medication was roughly half what Mr. Pumblechook had quoted, and I was able to pick it up in town the following day. The situation gave me an uneasy feeling at Satis House, and for that and other reasons I left the hotel. What follows may help explain why.
You may wonder why I didn’t ask for Estella’s help. It’s simple. I didn’t want to hate her. I knew she’d defer to Mr. Pumblechook, and I wasn’t going to give her that chance. I recently dissolved our friendship – not because I can’t trust her but because I can’t talk to her. She’s an upbeat person with a winning personality, and she loves her job, but she’s reluctant to engage in any intellectual intimacy. You’re probably thinking, “Wise up, J. She’s pretty, and she’s interacting with you. Enjoy what’s on offer. That’s the way Asia works.” I’ve been wandering the region for several years, and I know that. But there’s a rigid hierarchy here and a strong element of conservatism that muddies the waters like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Reputation is everything, and the concept of face is raised to the nth degree.
Additionally, the opportunity for corruption to pervade rigid hierarchies where superiors go unquestioned is ever present, and there’s a lot of glad-handing. Almost immediately upon my arrival, Mr. Pumblechook channeled his inner Walken and said, “Wow! You look so young! What’s your secret?” while his property denied the suite upgrade I had earned by becoming an Elitist Vagabond, the brand’s highest rewards tier. In the Vagabond Lounge they served cheap, local spirits. The wittles they served downstairs at The Blue Boar were good, but in the Vagabond Lounge they served wommit and lip service. (This is not true of an IHG lounge in lowly Vientiane, Laos where the food and drink are superior.) The gym was small and underequipped, not the five-star experience one expects. (Bali is different. I stayed at one of Satis House’s Bali properties, and they upgraded me to a top floor, corner suite. The food and alcohol were good, and the hotel was fresh, exotic, warm, rich, and modern yet traditional. Every cable channel I enjoy was available. Staff, too, were friendly but unobtrusive. And the gym was nice. I enjoyed my time there.)
Occupancy rates at Satis House in Central Java declined rapidly after I arrived. They fell below 5% for a while, yet Satis House granted me a suite upgrade for only three nights of my sixty-night stay. Though I contacted my concierge in the US about this, she read me the corporate line: “Standard suites are assigned to Elitist Vagabonds when available at check in.” (Such is customer service in America.) When the hotel finally obliged me the three nights, the receptionist quipped, “Don’t you like your room?” as she handed me the key card.
Underlings always defer to management. Well, not all of the time.
Early February, Sally, a pretty, married staffer with seniority over Estella, invited me to Mill Pond Bank. She explained that it would be a shame if I left Java without visiting one of the area’s most famous landmarks. When I accepted her invitation, Estella, who was sitting beside her at the desk, smiled brightly and said, “I’m going, too! Georgiana will join us. We can be the Charlie’s Angels.”
I didn’t expect to find Estella in Sally’s car the next morning. Though Georgiana was not there, Estella sat smiling in the back seat and poked her head out the passenger window. On the way she sang to the radio and hit every note. She tapped my shoulder and shared a bag of cassava chips. At Mill Pond Bank we ran into groups of students that were intrigued by my exotica. Their teachers asked permission for them to greet me and take photos. As they swarmed me and one by one reached for my hand, Estella shouted instructions on how to correct my every faux pas. “Don’t shake their hand.” “Let them raise your hand to their forehead.” The kids were sweet, but it was difficult to enjoy myself knowing that I was doing everything wrong. Sally stood by quietly.
I’ve known for a long, long time that the odds of establishing a friendship with a 5-star girl are low and as much a fool’s errand as attempting a connection with an EVA Air stewardess. I make a point of enjoying both and pursuing neither. But when I faded, Estella shimmered. I told her several times, “You are good at your job,” admittedly a slight but more a way of giving her an out. She remained constant. I asked her about having a boyfriend, and despite unsolicited notice from staff that she had one in South Korea and one at the hotel (more on that later), she said, “Not yet.” I took her at her word mainly because the cloud of hierarchy, which hangs over every relationship, obfuscates things.
One Satis House admin, Miss Havisham, pursued me for several weeks after I had arrived. She was often overbearing. Interaction with her was stifling. At times she seemed angry, determined to patch together a romance from a series of forced relationships. Miss Havisham had the power to hire and fire. Occupancy rates were in free-fall, and I didn’t want to endanger Estella’s job. So Estella and I became an open secret, and things got terribly confusing. (A similar conflict exists in the film Ex Machina.)
With Valentine’s Day approaching, I made clear that I flat out avoid it, that it’s my least favorite day of the year, and that massacre and martyrdom are more indicative of what happens on that day than eating chocolates and finding love.
Undiscouraged Miss Havisham invited me and “the group,” a cluster of Vagabond Elitists, to Valentine’s Day lunch at the canteen where Satis House staff are fed. I made clear that I would not attend, and I lunched alone in my room. But after successive texts from her and encouragement from my fellow Elitists, I caved. Miss Havisham sat beside me. Aware I love pasta, she pointed to the pasta bar and warned, “We only wheel that out on special occasions. Once a year at most.” I thanked her and told her that I had already eaten.
It grew hot and crowded in the canteen as a new wave of employees rolled in. Sweat dripped down my forehead, and my shirt was saturated. “Are you hot?” Miss Havisham asked an Elitist across the table.
“No,” she replied, and the air con remained off.
After lunch I went to the lounge to visit Estella. She was cordial but failed to mention Valentine’s Day. I resisted the impulse to remind her.
Later that night I went back to the lounge. Estella was not there, and I joined a retired couple. Sally brought each person a chocolate bar with a heart-shaped note that read, “Happy Valentine’s Day from the Satis House staff.” She leaned into me and lingered. It felt good. (A little comfort may not resurrect the phoenix, but it can stir the ashes.)
Not long after that, Miss Havisham joined us with candy bars and personalized notes. She sat down and pointed to a glass barrier across the room separating the lounge’s reception desk from the lounge and announced, “Oh! There’s Estella’s boyfriend!” She called him over, and a handsome young man appeared and stood beside her. He was silent as she glared at him: “You never admit to being Estella’s boyfriend when she’s absent, but it’s a different story when you’re with her, isn’t it?” He smiled warily and nodded. After several awkward moments, Miss Havisham released him, turned to me, and slowly said, “How do you feel now?”
As I composed myself, I summoned Richard Burton’s line from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
The table fell silent as the retirees finished their wine; then, we walked to the elevator and bid each other good night. I stayed in my room, turned off my phone, and rode a storm of emotion. How foolish I had been. I imagined leaving the hotel then and there. I don’t remember when I turned the phone back on, but I discovered two messages from Estella, which she had deleted. For three days I paced the room trying to figure out what if anything needed to be said. Finally, I sent a few lines of innocuous text. Estella’s response was immediate: “I waited in the lounge to see you this morning. I miss hearing about your experiences. It’s sad you’re leaving tomorrow.”
“I leave in two days. God is good. There is tomorrow.”
That night I went to the lounge to see her. It was busy, and there was no time to talk. I apologized for being a distraction and joined the retired couple.
My return to the US began to weigh on me. Would the doctor ground me permanently in Los Angeles? I had one day remaining in Java, and that day I went to see Estella. There was a small group of people in the lounge when she announced that she could not see me off at the airport, which was odd because we had never discussed that. “Tomorrow is my day off, so I cannot join you.”
I imagined this might be a ruse, but the next morning I did not find her at the airport. I was determined to forget her, but the long flight gave me too much time to think. One Malaysian stewardess remarked, “You appear to be soul searching.”
With an unforced smile: “I cannot hide it.” And with an effort to return her conviviality: “I’m staying at Satis House Saigon for a few days.”
“And all alone,” she noted. Though she saw right through me, it felt good to be understood.
I said nothing to the stewardess about my illness. I had told no one.
Within a week I arrived in Los Angeles. The test results were more favorable than I had expected, and I made plans to revisit to my favorite hotel for a few days. So I left LA and returned to Viet Nam, and while I traveled, I kept in contact with Estella. Her texts were always amusing. She never suggested what I should or shouldn’t do, what I should or shouldn’t love. She respected my choices, and I loved her for that. It was difficult to reciprocate in kind.
Estella did suggest I return to Satis House. She accompanied that suggestion with no emotional gush, which I found disconcerting, but I told her she’d see me again. In all honesty, I had decided to return long before that. Central Java is intriguing, and I wanted to take a deeper dive. But mostly I wanted to see Estella.
Before I returned to Los Angeles, the long-term rate at Satis House had jumped 20-25%. While in Viet Nam, I was surprised to find the rate still elevated. Many Indonesian hotels adjust online rates on the fly. Rates can change several times in just minutes. If you check into a hotel for a short period, they will ask where you’re going next. If they suspect you may extend your stay, the rate will often jump. It’s as mercenary as it is obvious. It would happen to me several times here. It didn’t happen at Barnard’s Inn, an international chain, but the website has lots of options that suddenly go “sold out” even when the hotel is empty. (This observation takes into account that the rupiah continues to fall against the dollar.)
Upon returning to Satis House, I engaged with the staff—both male and female—to diffuse my focus on Estella. And though I didn’t really want to, I found engaging with them delightful. They were all friendly, playful, and happy to chat. One night I asked Biddy if Clara was around, and a fat tear dropped out of her eye. (Biddy and Clara are both receptionists.) She wiped her cheek, forced a kind smile, and looked away. I asked what was wrong, and she replied, “I’m just tired.” Indonesians keep emotions locked down and secret. Unlike Thais, who can react in odd ways, their disposition starts at pleasant and gets better from there. Though males can get excessively smiley when they’re ill at ease, the women employ an alluring sang-froid. Sometimes they crack (like poor Ophelia in Hamlet) and exhibit vulnerability. It’s prodigious—like the Aurora Borealis or a falling star. Unexpected. Beautiful. So pretty. No! So lovely. But when I mentioned the incident to Mrs. Joe–without mentioning Biddy’s name, she rebuked the unknown girl by saying, “They should not be emotional. They should be professional.” Heartlessness exists in this pretty place.
Previously Biddy had invited me to join staff on a river rafting trip, and I had never been on one. I had restarted my medication, which is enervating, and was hesitant to accept until Clara came to the desk, smiled, and encouraged me to go. I had noticed Clara before, but that was the first time I had interacted with her.
The next day we waited for cars to take us to the river, and while we waited, Estella was circulating among friends. I recognized some of the staff, but they, too, were preoccupied in one way or another. I stood feeling self-conscious and out of place, and I considered fading away and opting out.
But the cars came, and behind me sat Estella. On the way she chatted, laughed, handed me three bags of cassava chips, all different flavors, and sang to songs on the radio. Ahhhh, Prufrock. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
There were about five other people in the car, and they asked a lot of questions about America. All were fun to answer, and the ride was enjoyable.
But when we arrived at the river, they dissipated, and I was again feeling like I didn’t belong. They played some silly games; then, we counted off numbers as they assigned rafts.
In my raft were the two receptionists, Biddy and Clara. Estella was in another one.
About an hour in, we stopped for a coconut water break. I saw Estella and asked if she wanted to sit with me.
I stood with egg on my face and had to figure out something quickly, so I crossed the complex to a restroom, counted down from twenty, and reemerged to survey the scene.
Sitting on a bench was Clara, who noticed me, smiled, and tapped the empty seat beside her. In the ten years I’ve been wandering the globe that was one of my favorite moments. I found her beside me when we played another game and throughout the day. What a delight to discover that life can be both blissful and joyous (to nick another phrase from the Bard). She mentioned that she would finish her training in a week and leave the hotel. That gave me a chance to see her again.
After another hour on the river, we went to a place that had showers and served lunch. I tried to time things so that I could talk to Clara alone, but when I got out of the shower and sat at the lunch tables, neither she nor Estella were around.
Then Clara appeared. She was dressed to the nines. Estella was with her, but again she became the steel ball in the Pachinko machine. Clara sat opposite me, but when Estella dropped down beside me, Clara moved to another table. She had something in her hand, which she gave to Estella; then, Estella handed it to me. It was antibacterial ointment. I had scratched my foot on a rock when I had fallen out of the raft. (Falling out of the raft was a common occurrence and a big part of the fun.)
But the gesture was significant in many ways. First, I had been in Indonesia for more than a month, and it was the first time that a girl had “taken care” of me. When I first came to Thailand in 2005, those gestures were commonplace. They seem rare now. They had been rare, at least, in Indonesia.
It also testifies to the hierarchy and the necessity of surrendering one’s interests to one’s superiors. Clara is a trainee. Estella had been on staff for a year or two. Miss Havisham is an admin with seniority over both. See how complicated things get? Subordinates concede to the boss’s will. Or do they? They don’t give themselves away.
In Indonesia single girls wait for interested guys to approach them. That Clara had made moves toward me spoke to her interests; switching tables spoke to her respect for hierarchy. Her confusion with Estella mirrored mine, and her actions were understandable. But when I approached Clara the next day, she was nice but not warm. After that, she disappeared from the hotel. Was she fired? I didn’t anticipate her return, but a week later she was back at reception, and I approached her a couple more times. She was friendly but didn’t return the volley. Tough tough read. I know that’s all I needed to know. Or was it?
Fast-forward a couple of weeks. Mrs. Camilla, another hotel admin, greeted me and told me that all the staff—especially the girls–look at me as their “favourite uncle;” then, she segued into Miss Havisham’s interests. She waited for me to respond, but I just sat there. Finally, I heard a faint ticking noise from the corner of her mouth, and she begged off. (There’s an almost imperceptible noise Indonesian girls make when they await an answer to a question they haven’t completely formulated, a question often couched in statement. I’m reminded of the click Magwitch makes in the back of his throat when he feels deep emotion.)
Obviously Mrs. Camilla was helping out her fellow admin, but my interests were not taken into account. I recalled a prior conversation with Mr. Pumblechook who crudely remarked that the gap between women’s legs is all that makes them tolerable. In a flash he had summarized The Misogynist’s Guide to Hetero Sex, and perhaps he was speaking from experience, but his locker room banter failed to impress. I recognized it as a ham-fisted sales pitch for Miss Havisham. This is a hard place for everyone, and she didn’t deserve that.
And then the contradictions began. I suppose the admins suspected that my feelings for Estella were genuine and that Miss Havisham had no chance with me, so Mr. Pumblechook and Mrs. Camilla returned and sat with me at breakfast. There was no more talk of Miss Havisham or “favourite uncles,” and Mr. Pumblechook finally asked the relevant question: “Who is your favorite girl?” But as is his want, he continued, “You can pick single or married. They will all drop their pants for you.” Mrs. Camilla chuckled.
Epic fail. I had gotten to know these girls. They did not deserve this.
I had promised Estella I’d keep everything between us a secret– mainly to avert general gossip and possible retaliation from Miss Havisham. She, on the other hand, was free to share anything with anyone she chose. But now I was overwhelmed by feelings for Clara (shades of “Araby”?). So I answered, “None of these girls meets my standards.”
That night in the Vagabond Lounge Estella would not make eye contact with me. Miss Skiffins, a Vagabound Lounge hostess who loved Shakespeare (though her interest focused on Romeo and Juliet and its tangential connection with the overtly maudlin Qays and Layla, which Lord Byron presciently dubs “the Romeo and Juliet of the East”), handed me a menu and awaited my order. I made a quick survey and pointed out that my favorite menu item, just there the previous day, was missing. “May I suggest the snapper?”
Though I really wasn’t hungry, I responded with suppressed agitation, “I don’t like snapper.” I handed her back the menu and walked out.
When I arrived to my room, the phone rang and rang. It was Estella asking if I was okay, if I wanted food sent to my room. It was Sally, Estella’s friend, asking the same. I tried to be nice. I liked them both, but I was fed up. I declined their offers even though they said they’d fix the salmon that I liked. Instead I took a sleeping pill and drank a Bintang (arguably the worst beer in the world). I fell comatose and rose early the next morning in hopes of leaving the hotel unnoticed.
But things went awry. Three weeks before this, I had given the hotel my passport to extend my visa. Renewing the visa requires three trips to immigration: One to fill out a form, one to take a photo, and one to pick up the passport. The service they used was slightly more expensive than taxi fare and a lot more convenient, so I opted in.
But it was not necessary, and neither the hotel nor the service had let me know. Immigration was forgiving overstays due to Covid-19 and the inability for foreign nationals to travel. They even went so far as to inform the US consulate that there was no need to come to immigration.
When I checked out that morning, the service had not yet returned my passport. And there was Mr. Pumblechook and his smiley smiley self. I immediately mentioned the missing passport and the fact that I didn’t need to pay to renew the visa. He made no offer of a refund, and he got chatty. I warned him to back off and give me some space. The staff knew I was angry, and they disappeared, but he continued. Like York with Buckingham in Henry VI, Part 2, I could NOT control my anger. I warned him and warned him; then, as he tailed me to the front of the hotel, I exploded in front of three staffers and yelled at him until he finally backed off. That’s the first time I had lost my religion in Asia, and I had had plenty of opportunities for better reasons.
It was not a toad elevating moment.
Fortunately, Grab came, and I escaped. And though they didn’t know where I was going, this sprawling city is small-town: Everyone talks, and high-level admins are a brotherhood.
Nevertheless, everything began to fall into place. My new hotel accepted a photocopy of my passport. I contacted Estella who agreed to let me know when my passport was delivered to Satis House. Then I thought, “Let’s light this candle.” I immediately texted her: “Why don’t you bring it by?” She had always said that Satis House admins could allow staff to see patrons off campus. I never pressed it because I feared Miss Havisham would retaliate if the romantic intrigue she craved was enjoyed by someone else. In deference to her and the hotel’s unwritten policy, I asked Mr. Pumblechook for permission to “see someone” off campus. Though he assured me that the girl would not be fired, he guaranteed that her reputation would be destroyed. Then he puffed up his chest and glared at me. Ahhhh Hamlet: “Though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.”
Estella agreed to meet me.
A couple days later, we met at McDonald’s and bought some food. She suggested we go back to my hotel and eat. Wow! What a change that was!
Or was it?
When we arrived, Barnard’s Inn was empty. Estella approached reception, conversed in Javanese, turned to me, and said, “We cannot eat this in the lobby.” I was irate. Earlier that day a woman was eating food delivered to the pool by Grab. But worse, instead of grabbing my hand, pulling me into the street, and finding one of the numerous park benches outside the hotel, she demanded that we eat hotel food.
“Let’s eat in the room.”
While we waited for the drinks, she pulled my passport out of an envelope, handed it to me, retained the receipt and the envelope, and asked if I wanted them. I was so relieved to get my passport that I inadvertently said, “No.” She immediately ripped up the receipt for the visa extension. Innocent move on her part? What should I presume?
Estella visited me one more time at breakfast before Ramadan, and she wasn’t shy. She ordered a table full of food. (In all fairness, she shares the metabolism, iridescence, and motions of a hummingbird. And she ate it all.) At breakfast she mentioned some “bad boys” she knows from high school that were making entrées into the businesses world. One owns a restaurant, and they all get together to make dinner boxes to hand out to people living on the street. I imagine the venture was Estella’s idea, and without hesitation I gave her 202,000 rupiah. She lit up like a Roman candle. I’ve never seen her so happy. That night she sent photos of herself with street people accepting food and smiling. It was all legit.
She invited herself over one more time, but she canceled the next morning. “Sorry, pak. My mom made me breakfast.” Then she asked if I wanted to get pizza later in the week.
“Sure.” Later she asked if she could bring her sister. “Sure.”
Occasionally Barnard’s Inn uses ketchup on the pizza when they run out of pizza sauce, but there is a pizza place next door. (Why wasn’t she showing me around the town and telling me about her life, one of the most fun things one can experience with a local?) I texted her about the restaurant next door, and she responded, “But we cannot eat it in the hotel.”
“They have benches in front of the hotel where the Grab drivers eat. Are you game?”
No response. I was sick of all the rules and the unclear motives. I gave up, and I decided not to meet her in the lobby when she arrived. Then my room phone started ringing. I got a couple texts from her demanding I come down, that she and her sister had arrived. I refused to answer the phone. Instead I texted her: “TOO many rules. Go find a nice Javanese boy who can understand you.”
“Sorry, pak.” Ten minutes later: “My sister and I are at Burger King.”
So she didn’t want to be seen with me in public. Or was it free food she wanted? Who knows? I’m older, but I dress well, and I keep in shape. I’m not bad looking either. After all, her superiors, who aren’t that much older than she, were chasing me at Satis House. And Clara had shown care and attention.
She called me not long after all that. We talked, and she mentioned that I was mad at her. No sense escalating, so I said I was just mad at the world. Still I wanted to get to the bottom of things at Satis House. I had not figured out whether she was assigned to be nice to me when staff presumed I liked her, if she was acting on her faith, conservatism, and fear of public opinion, if the admins had sent her to assuage me and deliver the passport, or if the girl was just being herself. (It’s hell when you genuinely like someone. Cue Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You.” I’m not alone in this.)
Finally I checked into the ancient ecclesiastical house where Molly, Estella’s mom, works. I found Molly a lot like her daughter: pretty, energetic, and much less guarded. She complimented my appearance and asked, “Do you want to marry my daughter?” The culture shock rolled in like a crash of startled rhino. How could I answer? A no would be insulting, and a yes would mean I’m either a liar or a fool. How provincial is the thinking? Was she just trying to discover what I had hidden from Mr. Pumblechook and Mrs. Camilla a few days earlier? After all, Estella and Molly shared one set of ears with the community.
But what was really at issue was that Estella had failed to confide in me about the workings of Satis House. She cowered, dodged, and flat out refused to answer. And before I left the hotel, she texted me that I was like a part of her family, like another father, in fact. (“I bet you laugh out loud at me. A chance to strike me down.”) I, sprawling on a pin, struck back in tacit mental anguish: Why not just say you are betrothed to Bentley Drummle? (A male friend, perhaps one of those high school “bad boys,” gave her a head massage on the ride back from the river. I had spoke to him earlier when bragged about punching a girl in elementary school for teasing him. By all accounts, she was just flirting with him.) Why join Sally and me at Mill Pond Bank? Why get between Clara and me? Why is Molly so curious about my intensions?
I fell off the radar for 2-3 days to get my head together. I had sworn to walk away and forget everything, but I answered a days-old text, made comments about Asia in general and Satis House in particular, and galloped full speed back into that wasteland. Her response? “I know you have lots of experience in Asia, but I do not want to discuss any of that. This is a difficult time during Covid-19. Let’s just talk about silly/fun stuff.”
“Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.”
She’s playing a heavy hand. I called.
“Go back to your Korean drama.” I haven’t heard from her since.
There’s a lot going on in my head. I’ve found Javanese to be a lot like Thai, but FACE takes precedence over status or money—until, of course, when one achieves status. They are not needy, and they show spontaneous appreciation for small gifts—a bowl of chocolate ice cream, a bag of cold French fries, a hollow, chocolate Easter bunny. Like Khmer they’re more conservative and often less affectionate than Thai. They fulfill job requirements but rarely go beyond them. They are very friendly, but their community is rigid, hierarchical, and complex.
It’s no wonder that I have seen very, very few expats in Central Java. While hotel hopping, I met Startop, a gay expat whose taste for adventure rivals my own. He knows the score, and he was generous with his insights. We both enjoyed shared empathy. Though I’d only run into him twice, I never conversed like that with an expat in Thailand. In Thailand all had drunk the Kool-Aid and prematurely excused valid observation with the mindless mantra, “No place is perfect.”
I have dated two conservative Khmer girls. One works for a theatre troupe that performs traditional dance in Phnom Penh. The other is a very shy Christian girl from Battambang. I trusted her shyness, but she appeared thin and sickly. Who knows what kind of hell she endured there. I told her I could not remain, and she would not follow me out. Neither would. Even so, Indonesians outdistance their Southeast Asian counterparts with unreasonable conservatism. Still their charm and HUGE, upbeat personalities add to their considerable beauty. Boy, are they feminine.
Two endings seem fitting. Let’s try this one:
In sum, the ethos is contagion. Hamlet remarks, “I’ll touch my point with this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly, it may be death.” Indonesian romantic theory operates on the hypothesis that one only wants what he cannot have. The proof? How about a proposed $50,000 USD bridal vig for foreign nationals coupled with a 60% plus divorce rate among locals. (Cf. https://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/indonesia/bahasa/englishedition/154709-divorce-abuse)
How about this one:
I met a Christian girl after I left Satis House, and she took an interest in me. She’s much younger than Estella, and she told me, “God brought us together.” (Who knows? She may be right.) But when I asked her how things work here, she became reticent. Perhaps relationships begin in the deep freeze and thaw over time. Perhaps the ethos prevents even a fellow believer from becoming a friend. I do not know. It’s twenty minutes to nine, and the intrigue wearies me.
Had TS Eliot followed Somerset Maugham into Indonesia the same way he followed him to the grave, these lines may have appeared in “The Hollow Men”:
Between the arrogance
And the neediness
Between the community
And the individual
Falls the shadow.
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