Anywhere you go in Indonesia, if you are European looking, you will be called ‘Mister’. No amount of persuasion that this form of address is rarely used, perhaps never, can dislodge enthusiasm for the term. It feels mocking. But it’s not. Indonesian is a language with no tenses nor grammar, but there are 20-plus ways of saying ‘you’.
Something happens in a foreign culture where there are 20-plus ways of saying ‘you’. It’s like a tool belt for any social situation: meet a young kid, call him Adik (younger sibling) and he will sit in your lap and steal your phone; call an older person Mbah (grandpa/grandma) and they will put their arm around and tell you stories; call them Gusti (Lord) and, well, you’ll make them laugh at least. In a secular country like Indonesia, where familial language cuts across religious divides, the correct ‘you’ can determine the difference between culture shock, and changing your life.
I first came to Indonesia in 2015. My parents were living in Malaysia, and I was intrigued to learn the language in case I visited. There was no Malay class, but, at my university, the Indonesian lecturer assured me that Indonesian was maybe what American is to the English: similar enough to understand, but distinct enough to make fun of. I took it up in a flash. I felt that, if you live a new country, but remain in a cultural bubble, what is the point? Your understanding of the world will not change, your culture will not be enriched. Looking back though, this probably said more of the issues I wrestled with, than my family did.
I first learnt the word Om when travelling during Ramadan with an Indonesian I had befriended. Rather than calling older male strangers the common Mas – for an unmarried, or youngish looking man – or Bapak – literally ‘dad’, for an older man – my friend called them Om. Calling someone Kamu – ‘you’ – is extremely rude if said to an older person, and using a first name is out of bounds. Encoded into these terms of reference are precise rules that govern relationships. Whereas in English, the first person ‘I’ is capitalised, in Indonesian, all forms of ‘you’ inherit this reverence. On occasion, you must do as a Bapak says, or everything falls apart.
Om was different though. Om is what you’d call the youngish uncle you had. The one who’d take you out for a spin, or who knew how to box, and would steal you out of the room you’d been grounded in to play in the garden. If you say Om right, something changes in the person you are addressing – suddenly there is generosity where before there was nonchalance, there is connection where once there was estrangement. You can get discounts, or a fixed motorbike, or just a nice chat.
But you have to say it right. If you want to be treated a certain way, you must act accordingly. If you want an Adik you have to be prepared for sword-fights; if you want an Om you need to play the inquisitive nephew.
I then met a man who I was brave enough to call Om. Everything changed. We still had half the world’s cultures between us, ‘I’ a Christian and ‘you’ a Muslim, but somehow aku and Om meant something else. I lived with his family for months as we worked together, me the foreign intern, him the driver. We spent long journeys in the car speaking of bad experiences with girlfriends, we took care of his lovebirds, and he let me be his special bird-handler at the songbird competitions so ubiquitous in Java. We shared long motorbike rides, and his clove cigarette smoke drifted over views of fireflies in the rice fields at night.
When I left Indonesia to go back to England, he began to cry. It threw me off guard. It wasn’t until take off that I too began to weep. I bawled! It was weird, my family have never cried when I say bye (except for my grandma, but she’d cry if you just say “Hello” politely). It was a two-letter word, but it was the philosopher’s stone to a foreign culture. Om broke down all the walls. Perhaps, I realise, an aku and Om style relationship is what I’ve wanted with my own father, but until I find the keys to my own culture, we are stuck in ‘I’ and ‘you’ – each too proud and too close to give way.