Sun, 06 Jul 2003

Do you take this ethnic stereotype to be your wife?

Love is in the air! Finally, after a long, agonizing period of looking for Mr. Right -- during which I bumped into Mr. Married Jerk and Mr. Closeted Gay Man -- I think I've finally found the one.

Well, perhaps I'm still blinded by love, as this new relationship has only been going on for a few months. But I'm happy with the way things are going so far because we click in so many ways.

Maybe it's because we are both approaching 30 and are hopefully mature enough that the usual getting-to-know-you bickering between couples can be minimized.

However, learning from past experiences, both ours and those of others, we decided to keep this relationship a secret from our parents until we were very sure about the direction it was going.

But as people say, a mother always knows, and my boyfriend's mother found out about us. And guess what her initial reaction was? She did not talk to her son for a couple of days afterwards.

Is it because I am from another religion? No. Am I not educated enough? Not that either. Or does it have something to do with the way I look? Well, we haven't met, and she hasn't seen my picture.

It's because I am ethnic Sundanese from West Java.

To quote from a song by Patti Austin, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I heard about that.

In the judgment of my prospective mother-in-law, Sundanese girls are:

A. Gold diggers

B. So vain they will never do household chores or lift a finger to take care of the children

C. Promiscuous and disloyal

D. Have no respect whatsoever for their husband's family.

For anyone who knows me well, the facts are:

A. I earn more than my boyfriend

B. I hardly wear any lipstick, my daily attire is jeans and living in a rented house, I do the laundry myself (perhaps the point about children is right because kids take a natural dislike to me)

C. Hate to admit it but I'm a virgin, and kid singer Maissy probably has more boyfriends than me.

Point D may be valid as I'm actually poor in the niceties of small talk, which does not amuse the elder members of my family.

However, although her reaction does not affect our relationship, it shocks as well as amazes me. I had never thought that the "right" ethnicity is still an important requirement from parents for their future children in law.

In fact, I have never thought about my ethnic identity as a defining point of who I am. Yes, I speak Sundanese with my family, and I have this certain fanaticism about Sundanese food (a taste of home cooking), but that is about it.

Now, living in Jakarta, I always consider myself part of the melting pot of the city. I'm friends with people from different ethnic groups, nationalities and religions, all of us in the process of releasing ourselves from the boundaries of birth and culture.

For me, such vices as materialism and promiscuity are human ones, not particular to any one group.

It's even more shocking to me that, even in 2003, mine is not an isolated case.

A friend of my friend cannot get married because her Javanese mother is strongly opposed to her Sundanese boyfriend ("Sundanese men are lazy and disloyal!!").

Another friend was scolded because her boyfriend comes from Palembang, South Sumatra ("Violent and wife beaters!"). Her parents are Manadonese ("Party animals") and Javanese ("Backstabbers") who, being a cultural mix themselves, one would expect to be a little more tolerant.

But my boyfriend's mother is a Malay and comes from Sumatra, an island whose people face stereotyping from us living in Java. Nevertheless, without seeing me, she is quite willing to discriminate against me.

Right now, she no longer opposes our relationship, telling my boyfriend, "Whatever, marry anyone you like, as long as she's nice".

But her expression told otherwise, and until now, she has never made any attempt to meet me. She has, however, taken to making insulting remarks whenever she sees Sundanese actresses on TV ("gold-digging tramps").

As for me and my boyfriend, we've no plans for marriage anytime soon. Hopefully, by some miracle, if that time comes, my future in-laws will see me for who I am, not the stereotype of where I come from.

-- Ira Padmadisastra