Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Marriage is made in heaven, so are thunder, lightning

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE (JP): Old people used to say, "marriage is made in heaven", implying predestination, hence an inevitability. The inconsistency here is, people of the older generation were so uptight about their off-spring marrying outside traditional stereotypes. If it was all predestined, why worry? Sit back and enjoy it. No, they would go to almost any length, using practices that fall in the continuum between trickery and coercion, to prevent their children marrying people of a different race, religion or social class.

The younger generation is more prosaic about this. "Marriage is a gamble," they say.

Which is closer to the truth, depends on how life is treating you and the marriages in your family.

Marriages across cultures have taken place for a long time, have caused untold anguish on the part of parents and families, yet have been the theme of numerous romantic stories. Curiously the romance usually stops at the marriage itself. From then on, stories about mixed marriages deal with the more mundane reality, which can well be a continuation of the rose garden, or an unending tedious path, a winding rocky road, even ugly battles.

In Australia there is an increasing number of couples, where one of the spouses is from Asia, including Indonesia.

What makes a mixed marriage different from a monocultural one?

To begin with, since the couple is of two races, they visibly stand out, in public as well as in private gatherings. So on top of the potential internal problems, they also have external problems to contend with.

They have to continuously confront preconceptions about their particular races, even from their circle of friends and family. In a Caucasian Australian community, an Indonesian wife for instance, is invariably regarded as docile and submissive. This idea is more problematic than a mere joke.

Certainly, there are all sorts of Indonesian women, and they do not all have the same sentiments about various issues. However, for a fairly educated Indonesian woman, the idea of docility and submissiveness is offensive because it smacks of condescension. Driven to show that she is not the "little woman", barefoot and pregnant, and chained to the kitchen sink, she tries to behave in a way that she hopes will counter the preconception. If she is too successful, her Caucasian Australian family and friends, even her husband, will begin to think that psychologically she is no different from any Caucasian Australian woman. If she has been brought up in an Indonesian community and ambience, this could not be further from the truth.

She could not be like any Caucasian Australian woman if she tried. She has not been conditioned to argue openly with her husband. She has been taught not to make her husband feel inferior if she wants to maintain conjugal harmony, so even if she wants to point out her husband's shortcomings, she will force herself to assimilate the disappointment instead.

In the meantime, her husband, thinking that he has always pleased his wife, subconsciously feels that he is a sensitive, perceptive man. He believes he is good at relationships, and in many ways, better than his friends whose Caucasian Australian wives, having told them in no uncertain terms that they were "hopeless", left them.

This discrepancy of perceptions can grow into a deep resentment on the part of the wife, if not addressed properly.

If the couple consists of an Indonesian husband and a Caucasian Australian wife, there is a different public perception. If the husband looks like a working class man, people tend to suspect he treats his wife worse than a Caucasian Australian man would. If the husband looks refined and educated, then the suspicion would be that he would not lift a finger to help in housework. "He's used to having domestic servants," they would whisper to each other. Discovering that their preconceptions are wrong often gives friends and family a pleasant surprise.

Mixed marriages between a Caucasian Australian and an Indonesian are so varied, it is like a big album with many, many photographs.

At first, Nanny, who has been married to Bruce for 30 years, said personal traits count more than cultural origins. However when pressed to explore the origins of many of her personal traits, she conceded that they were culturally based. Nanny observed that most of her Caucasian Australian friends would voice their opinions or confront their husbands' perceived bad habits more readily than she would. "Maybe because of my Javanese upbringing, I tend to get my message across by roundabout ways, avoiding direct confrontation," she said. One of the things still unresolved in their relationship is the tendency for Bruce to plan things in detail, while Nanny, like many Indonesians, is more inclined to let things happen. Nanny's "Insya Allah, God willing," could drive Bruce into exasperation, as he does not like uncertainties.

Putu, married to Helen, has another story. Like Nanny, he also said that the issue was not cultural. However when asked how he assessed people, he confessed that his Balinese upbringing often influenced his judgment. Putu still believes in bibit, babat, bobot principle, which basically says that a person's family seed or background is more important than anything else, such as upbringing and current position. "Maybe that has something to do with our views on the caste system," he theorized.

Nonetheless, Putu thinks that adjusting to the milieu of where you live is also important. He and his family behave like most other Australian families. They go on camping holidays, and he regularly mows the front and back lawns, takes the garbage bins out and plays with his sons. "Just like any Aussie dad," he said.

As it is the case with any other type of marriage, Australian- Indonesian marriages are not immune to breakup.

A friend once said, "Marriage is made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning!" How true.

The writer is an Indonesian married to an Australian.