Shabbiness will not pass here.
There’s a term here (or at least in East Java; not everything I’ve learned in East Java or talked about on this blog necessarily translates to the rest of Indonesia, which is important to keep in mind when you hear me talk about “Indonesia”… I’m often able to correct myself to say “Java” or “East Java” and “Javanese culture” instead of “Indonesian culture,” but this is becoming more imperative now that I’m in a totally new region of the country with a different dominant ethnic group– the Sundanese– and other groups like Cirebonese and Betawi instead of Osing and Tenggerese…more on this later) for people who are kind of, for lack of a better cultural equivalent, backwoods. The direct translation is an adjective form of “village,” which we might anglicize as “village-y” but might be more easily understood, cultural eqiuvalent-wise, by Americans as “hillbilly,” “redneck,” or “hickish”. I’m sure you can think of other relevant synonym. The Javanese term is “ndeso”, and I think it’s a perfect descriptor of myself in comparison with true Jakartans.
I think that lots of what I mentioned in my previous blog post about language might be connected to this term more than I realized before; once, in America, I chatted with a professor (American) in Indonesian, and he had studied bahasa in Jakarta and spoke in a perfectly trendy and fluent fashion. He commented that my bahasa sounded like I was from the sticks, which I suppose is true in terms of where I come from in the States as well as where my accent suggests I live/lived here in Indonesia (remember that I learned most of my Indonesian in a semi-rural East Javanese village; East Java is definitely “the sticks” as far as non-Jakarta locales go… Jakartans tend to ask everyone that’s not from Jakarta something along the lines of “Which part of ‘the land’ are you from?”, where “the land” is “everything that’s not the city”– there’s the city and there’s everything else). I think that I’ve slowly been realizing this week that people might, just might be commenting on my language because of how ndeso I sound. Of course, I’ve gotten comments about my accent simply sounding Javanese, but I think that perhaps there was a hint of surprise and derision underlying some of these comments that perhaps I hadn’t accounted for in previous attempts to understand why the comments have been so pervasive!! And lucky for me, ndeso applies not only to language but also to personal style; if you’re friends with me, you know I’m not the most put-together person on earth, appearance-wise. I bet you can imagine where this discussion is going.
So, I went to buy a new phone charger at a fancy store, and my shabby self was effectively ignored by the shop’s staff, mostly made up of trendy young people in trendy clothes. I was wearing yoga pants that were wearing at the knees, a loose and ill-fitting tunic with a gaudy black-and-white pattern, and grey/pink/blue jogging sneakers with neon pink socks. My hair was a stringy mess. I think my nose was sunburned, too. The red and blue bag I was carrying matched nothing (especially not my rusty orange scarf). I had on knock-off Coco Chanel sunglasses. Zero makeup. I was grubby, in full effect. And now, I realize my futile attempts to chat with those guys probably made them think I was even crazier than I appeared since my accent is so… ndeso. Uncivilized. Not trendy. Not like what we hear on TV shows from the chicest celebs. I don’t expect to be treated well just because I’m a foreigner or a foreigner who speaks bahasa, but it was strange to feel so… honestly, just low class. I was clearly out of my league in this outfit at this mall, and my generally-complimented-on bahasa skills couldn’t even save me. Actually, I felt totally shamed! Nobody did anything directly to shame me or make me feel inferior, but I don’t think an Indonesian would do something like that (as I can easily imagine an American doing). The indirect social shunning was enough!! What would have generally worked in terms of chatting up the staff didn’t fly at all here… I grabbed the charger and bolted, wiping away the sweat that had worked itself up on my brow, fleeing as quickly as I could.
I am clearly a country mouse in the big city. These experiences would happen to me regardless of context if I moved to a big city, since I actually am kind of ndeso, by American standards, even if most of my Malang friends wouldn’t use that term to describe me at all.
Anyway. I got a few new tops and stopped wearing my raggedy yoga pants in public. I fixed my shoe situation and got a nice pair of sandals that would pass as decent by bougie standards. The next time I went to the mall, I put on a bit of makeup. I’m not falling victim here, but I think that I need to step my game up a bit, regardless. Of course, I still laugh a lot on the inside when I see the girls and guys who are trying really hard to be trendy and chic; I can take all of this with a grain of salt, but I do think it’s important, well, not to look like a professional hobo, at least not all the time. This is connected with turning 30, too, I think; I need to be more presentable, in general, perhaps. Ugly duckling!!
The struggle is real, people!! The culture shock continues!