A Real Lesson, in Life

By Richard Boughton

In last week’s column I mentioned my purchase of a bilingual language book called Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan (Education in Citizenship). I spoke mostly about my own difficulty with learning the Indonesian language, but I’d like to say something this week about the actual contents of the book, which turn out to be as strange to the Western point of view as the title is to the Western tongue, leaving both mind and tongue to work quizzically at formulations that defy articulation within the framework of the conventions we bring from the west.

The first section of the book deals with differences in gender. We are told that mankind consists of people who are male or female. Mr Mijan is a man, Mrs Mijan is a woman, while Andi is a boy and Ani is a girl. So far so good. Mr Mijan is tall and handsome; Mrs. Mijan is beautiful and elegant. Well, okay.

Andi, the boy, stands upright, wears trousers and wants to be gallant like his father. Ani wears dresses and wants to look beautiful and elegant like her mother.

Can you tell yet where this is headed?

Sometimes a girl likes to wear trousers, the text explains. Ani likes to wear trousers when she plays outside because they make her feel more comfortable and free – and I quote: “Nowadays women wear trousers. It has been common indeed.”

Indeed.

And here it comes.

“Although a girl likes to wear trousers, a boy does not like to wear a dress like a girl. It is not proper for a boy to wear a dress.”

Now there’s a statement that is both wonderfully clear and wholly inappropriate as far as modern education in Western societies is concerned. A boy can’t wear a dress? The hell you say! Of course he can. He can wear anything he wants. He doesn’t even have to be a boy if he doesn’t want to be. Don’t go confusing us with these black-and-white notions – in this brave new world, anything is possible (and everything, too).

The volume goes on to instruct that there are certain activities that are appropriate for the male and certain that are appropriate for the female. The male, for instance, may be found repairing roofs, hefting shovels, pounding nails, whereas the woman’s place is in the kitchen and in the laundry room. The male wields the hammer and the hoe, the female the mop and the broom.

Now, for a person unfortunate enough to be as old as I, social mores like those presented in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan are not really foreign after all. At first impression they may strike us as foreign (as well as laughable), and yet if the mind has remained constant enough through the long decades of social conditioning, we will remember our own early years of instruction, the Dick and Jane books, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins – books which taught the same morals and mores as found in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan. The significant difference is that the latter was published in 2010, whereas the former were creatures of the last mid-century.

Most of us who have come to this country from afar are aware of having travelled not only through space but through time as well. We step from the plane into both the orient and our own back yard, circa 1959, where boys wear trousers and girls wear dresses, fathers are gallant and mothers are elegant, where men are men and women are glad of it, and so on as far as clichés can be extended.

We find ourselves impaled upon a double-edged sword, both edges of which are keen and true; and what we have learned through the decades and what we knew from the beginning are now laid neatly open in halves side by side. Neither the one nor the other knows for certain to whom it belongs. We are shocked by the sudden re-emergence in force of a set of notions we have come to see as antiquated and inappropriate, even humorous – and yet we are aware of some strange sense of propriety, right or wrong, residing in what we have learned to reject and shun. We call these notions truths, we hold them to be self-evident, when all they really are is easy. Life promises, once again, to become so very simple.

But it is not simple, is it? Much as we might like it to be, it is not. It is just this, in fact, that we have spent the last decades of our lives learning. It is this that progressive societies strive to acknowledge. And it is this that Andi and Ani will learn in due time as well – that the world is made not of factory pegs and slots, but of fabulous beings, no two the same, each more unique with every inspection.

Grow up well, little children. Do no harm. Love one another. That’s the lesson in citizenship for today.

Filed under: Practical Paradise

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