To Be – Or Not

By Richard Boughton

“What do you do here?”

This is generally the eighth in a line of questions I am asked during the polite though somewhat unsettling and curiously thorough process of everyday Indonesian interrogation.

Apa kabar? (How are you?) comes first, as is the case in most languages and cultures. In America this is sufficient, perhaps even excessive. The question itself has taken time for the asking, and thus has been an interruption of schedule. In Indonesia, however, there is much more to come.

How are you? Where do you come from? How long will you stay? Are you married? What does your wife do? How many children do you have? How old are your children?

The first seven inquiries are fairly simply addressed. It is the eighth that I and my interrogators get stuck on. What do you do here? It seems to border on the existential. It’s a philosophical puzzle, a conundrum, like “What is the meaning of life?? or “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Firstly, one must rightly interpret the question. One must determine exactly what is being asked. Are we talking about a justification for my presence in terms of occupation (gainful employment), or does the question pertain to my existence alone – Why are you here and not elsewhere, or anywhere for that matter?

The most natural conclusion, as well as the one most likely to be accurate, is to presume the first case. The question seeks to determine something specific about my employment, business, financial status, property, possessions and so on. In other words, it is a typically Indonesian question regarding typically Indonesian concerns and seeks a typically predictable answer – I’m a doctor, an hotelier, a landowner, a school teacher, an exporter, an architect, a drug dealer – something by which I may be pinned down and pigeonholed. Only then can the questioner be satisfied, having collected reasonable, albeit abbreviated, data regarding my country of origin and marital, family and employment status. It wouldn’t bother me in the least if I were actually doing something here. The problem is that I am not. And the trouble, therefore, is with my answer.


To which the usual response is:


“I’m retired.”


Being retired is clearly unacceptable. The word is not in the Indonesian vocabulary. It is no more than a sound, like “woof” or “quack.”

“But my wife works,” I say, throwing out a bone for the perplexed interrogator’s relief.

“Ohhh! So you have business together!”

“Well, it depends on her mood.”


“Sometimes she has a headache or needs to wash her hair.”

Humour does not help the situation. I have merely become stupid as well as suspicious.

Now this is what gets me. One spends his entire working life waiting for that day to arrive when he can finally say “I’m done; I’ve finished,” and then happily retire to a life of repose in his country manor, or on the island of Bali, or at least in a low-income housing project in Pittsburgh or LA. And yet the expectation of gainful employment persists, not only in the minds of those who ask after the matter, but in one’s own mind as well, perhaps even more acutely so. Little do we know, while working, how soothing it is to be defined. Little do we anticipate that the occupation we had long dreamed off – specifically: nothing – will be a matter of personal discomfiture, even shame. Theoretically, we have earned the privilege of rest; realistically, we shall never do so.

What am I doing here? What is my function? Does lying almost perfectly motionless on a chaise lounge count? How about reading the newspaper at Luhtu’s? How about flirting with the waitress in the bar?

“What did you do today?” my wife will ask, in that particular sort of way that sounds more like an accusation than an inquiry.

Rare is the occasion wherein I can think of a satisfactory answer – for I know, you see, what is really being asked. And so I might say instead:

“I’m retired.”


My wife is a native speaker of Indonesian. She is fluent in English as well. I offer the two cases as proof that the word “retired” does not exist in the Indonesian vocabulary. It has no meaning for the Indonesian mind.

But wait! I work for this paper, right? I wrote the very words that are being read.

“And what do they pay you for that?” is her barrister-like rejoinder.

The fact is I cannot receive pay in Indonesia because of my visa status as a retired foreigner. And so the answer to the question is … well, you guessed it.


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Practical Paradise

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