Written by Api Sulistyo
The teenage years hold tons of memories, both fond ones and those that should be forgotten. However, any memory about romance is usually interesting to be shared. As a teenager, I wanted to feel close and to be accepted by girls that I was attracted to. Those that I had feelings for.
I grew up in a village in Klaten, Central Java, Indonesia. I learned what our local concept of an ideal man was and how to try to become one from other people in our village. I learned how to be a capable rice farmer who able to cultivate the land to grow rice, and how to nurture, harvest, and prepare the land for the next season. I also wanted to be a successful student. But, there were two specific criteria that I learned from the men in the village. It was said that a macho man should smoke and should have a very thick mustache. At that time the young village boys wanted to look like The Marlboro Man.
I learned how to smoke when I was in middle school together with my peers. We smoked dry corn husk without tobacco in it. It was naturally followed by continuous coughing, a red face and being laughed at by other kids. Eventually I got used to it and started buying filtered cigarettes when I was a freshman in high school. I did not cough anymore when I smoked, so it meant that I am now a man. After smoking for many years and trying to stop a few times, I finally stopped this unhealthy habit for good more than ten years ago. I replaced smoking with long distance running.
I do not have thick hair and I did not have a thick mustache. I sometimes felt shy and less confident because of this. I was not able to compete with other boys in attracting girls because of my less than desirable mustache . My friends told me that my mustache would grow thick and healthy if I often rub it with the liquid from burned nutmeg. I was very interested in the idea and wanted to try it. I took a piece of nutmeg from the spice box in the kitchen and I burned it with an oil lamp. I intentionally put oil on my mustache in the night so that people would not see me. I was strongly convinced that it would work. However, I eventually lost my patience. My mustache did not look the way I imagined it would look like. It did not look healthy and thick like the one that belongs to the ideal man. I just had to keep it the way it is.
New York Subway
Completing a cultural exchange program in Canada, I had a chance to visit New York City. I stayed with a few friends and they advised me how to be careful in New York. “Try not to be at the subway after midnight, to be safe” a friend told me. That was exactly what happened. On the way to a friend’s apartment I was at the subway almost at 1am. I was carrying my backpack, going through the subway tunnels by myself. I saw some policemen in blue uniforms. They made me feel safe. There were some people who seemed to be living in the subway. They hang out in a few places. “Hola Senor…..” I heard them greeting me as I was walking by. I did not understand the other words they said. After a few incidents of these greetings toward me, I responded in my Javanese language, “Oh ya, aku ora mudheng.” (I do not understand). They were surprised to realize that I did not speak Spanish.
The next day I told my experience in the subway to my friend who said that they greeted me in Spanish because they thought I was a native Spanish speaker. He made me curious. “What makes me look like a native Spanish speaker?” My friend said that was because of my skin tone and my mustache.
A few years later I went to graduate school at Arizona State University studying Intercultural Communication. The state of Arizona has a border with Mexico and many people in Arizona speak Spanish. What happened in the subway in New York often occurred in Arizona. People greeted in me Spanish and I felt embarrassed that I did not speak Spanish. I was indeed very interested to learn Spanish and at some points I was able to understand parts of people’s conversations. They were surprised and might be disappointed that I was not speaking Spanish even though I looked like I did.
My American girlfriend – she is now my wife – often teased me saying that she was attracted to me because of my mustache. However, she also teased that my mustache was mischievous and made me look like I had a hidden agenda. I do not have a mustache anymore now and there was not any hidden agenda. I do not have to burn nutmeg in the night. I shave almost every day and I still enjoy any opportunity to practice my Spanish, which I learned from the self-taught Behind the Wheel system of audiotape I played in my car on the way to work.
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Note: Picture is from Google Images.
The Marlboro Man