Written by Tami Sulistyo
As I turned the key to lock my treasured moped that night in the wee hours of the morning, I distinctly recall thinking to myself with fervor that if my moped is stolen, it will be my fault and I will not be able to blame anyone but myself.
I had stayed out way past, in fact multiple hours past the boarding house curfew that evening, spending time with the boy I liked, now my husband of 22 years. I was working as a teacher, living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I paid room and board to a strict “house mom” who rented out single rooms and served a daily dinner in her home to a handful of women who were either in college or like me were just starting out their careers. The house had an ample yard, comfortable porch, and was surrounded by a high fence and gate with barbed wire on top to add to the sense of security within the grounds.
I knew what the house curfew was. I knew that it was strictly enforced. I knew I was a guest living in a culture that still held firmly onto their traditional and conservative social norms around collectively protecting the safety and reputation of unmarried young women. But I thought it would be fine. I was an adult, right? And I had grown up in Minnesota with parents who encouraged me from a very early age to be independent minded and to think outside the box. I was being me. When I finally hurried home, gliding along on my moped, relishing the feel of the pleasantly cooler night air brushing past me, the peaceful stillness enveloping me without the traffic and hustle bustle of the day, I was enjoying myself thoroughly, even as I worried a bit in the back of my mind about the late hour and my curfew. I nodded politely to the neighborhood volunteer security guards smoking and playing cards in their post as I rushed by, thinking I loved that there is a community watch system.
As I pulled up to our tall and solid house gate, I saw instantly that it was locked up tight. Boarders like yours truly were not given keys, as we were fully expected to arrive well before curfew. Recognizing this was a clear statement aimed directly at me by the house mom, whom I knew without doubt would have been well aware that I had not come home yet, I could quite literally feel her silent declaration of disapproval and saw this as her way of standing up to my disobedience. I took mental stock of my options as I sat on my moped in front of the gate under the soft glow of the streetlight. This was before the age of cell phones. I did not have money to go rent a hotel room. I certainly was not going to go back to my not quite yet boyfriend’s house. I was fairly new to Indonesia and felt I had nowhere else acceptable to go to.
I had to get in. I looked up and decided I would simply have to scale the wall and get over the fence. Glancing at the barbed wire, I realized this was my second time having to do this. Yikes. As a junior in college I had studied in Beijing for a summer. One night my roommate and I stayed out late and came back to our hostel to find the gate locked. We had climbed up and carefully skirted the barbed wire, only realizing as we jumped down that we had landed not inside the grounds of our dorm, but in some compound we did not recognize at all. Oops. Wrong address. Thankfully we got back out and all ended well, but we did find out later that we had entered a government compound. Could have been bad.
As the memory of that all flashed through my head, I turned the key to lock my precious moped with a determined click. “If this moped is stolen tonight, it will be all my fault and I will not be able to blame anyone but myself,” I thought. I brought this on myself. I guess personal accountability was already one of my three core values back then, though I hadn’t labeled it as such. I made sure the moped was as far out of the street as possible, pushed up against the gate, away from shadows and under the light. I took a deep breath and somehow, I literally don’t remember how, I got myself up and over the tall fence and jumped without a scrape or cut onto the brushed dirt of the yard. Whew. Looking around, I saw no one. I scurried up to the front door, only to find, not unsurprisingly, that it too was locked. No, the boarders were not given keys to the house either, as there was always someone on hand during the day.
Now what, I thought to myself, as I imagined sleeping uncomfortably in the porch chair as mosquitoes feasted on me. In what I thought was a brilliant flash of inspiration, I remembered that there was one rental room on the side of the house that had it’s own door, and was currently vacant. I turned the doorknob, expecting it to be locked as well, but with a hopeful breath I tried it anyway, and voila! It opened. Another whew! I went in, closed the door, locked it, and went to sleep on the bed instantly, thankful for having a place to rest my head.
Perhaps an hour later, sleeping soundly, I was startled awake by the noise of shouting combined with insistent and angry sounding pounding on the door to the room I was in. Jolting myself upright, I quickly pulled open the door. Facing me was the angriest and oldest looking elderly woman I had ever seen. I did not know who she was, but I saw out of the corner of my eye that the gate to the street was now wide open, even as this elder from the neighborhood was pointing her finger at me, shaking it with rage as she moved up to within inches of my face, shouting without stop at me in a jumble of words tumbling out so fast and constant that I had no idea at all what she was saying. I could not even tell if she was speaking the national language or a local dialect, and at that point my Indonesian language skills were quite elementary.
My mind instantly went into total surprise, as I remembered reading, hearing and witnessing first hand that one of the very strongest Indonesian values is harmony and avoidance of conflict. It struck me like a lightning bolt that I was experiencing the exact opposite of an effort to uphold harmony, and suddenly, without warning, I burst out in a giggle. Oh no! I truly meant no disrespect, but I have a tendency to laugh in times of severe crisis, as my body’s instinctive way of dealing with an onslaught of sudden stress. So crazily inappropriate, but I was unable to control it. The elder stopped shouting instantly as she heard me giggle. We simply looked at each other, appraising each other up and down; both still in shock, as my house mom approached us from behind and took over the situation.
She explained to me in English that because I had come home past curfew, as a single woman, and had left my valuable moped outside the gate, if anything at all had happened resulting in harm to either me or to the moped, it would have been a very bad reflection of the whole neighborhood, as it is a collective community with one group reputation and a group responsibility to keep it’s people and property safe. I was blown away. That value is beautiful and wonderful, and I had not understood it in all its implications because I had not grown up with anything like that. My value was upholding the fact that I knew I could not have blamed anyone but myself if the moped was damaged or stolen. The elderly woman of course did not know I would not have blamed anyone if my moped were stolen. If I had, the entire neighborhood would have lost face. I recalled this was another strong Indonesian value I had learned about, “saving face” – which means protecting the public dignity of someone, in this case a group of someone’s, my new neighborhood. By my staying out past curfew, and by leaving my moped in a location where it could have been stolen, I would have caused the neighborhood to lose face if anything bad had happened. This saving of face was a really big deal, as was shown to me by the elder who broke the strict code of keeping harmony by yelling at me so vehemently.
I am thankful for the lesson I learned that night. I apologized publicly to the village elders the next day, which in effect reinstated their “face” – and we all moved on from it. I was humbled by the fact that I was able to stay on and be comfortable living in that neighborhood, without being made to feel rejected by the community. Most of all, I came to be grateful for being able to experience life in a community that took that much personal accountability for the well being of the collective whole. I fell in love with the country and people of Indonesia that night.
- Recall a time you got in trouble that ended in you gaining an insight that has been valuable, memorable and helpful to you in a positive way ever since. What was it that you realized or learned and how could remembering that now be beneficial to some current challenge you are facing?
- What story comes to mind of something an elder taught you that helped shape who you are in terms of your values, and what is an example of when that clearly influenced your behavior sometime in the last year?
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