“I felt like a bird with too little flying experience being thrown out of the nest! And in my husband’s world, I remained the spring chicken, because he was much older. I had to grow up spiritually as fast as I could. But how? By listening to the conversations of the white adults around me, about French cheese, fine wines, new herring, Paris and Brussels, politics in France, Germany, Holland. And by reading.”
Anna was in the late September of her years when I interviewed her several times. But she had a very strong memory. An Indies (Dutch-Indonesian) lady with painted nails in a decent color and always her home-baked nanas-taart, a shortcrust cookie filled with pineapple jam. This is Anna’s story.
“I visited a Roman Catholic secondary school for girls. My classmates had different (ethnic) backgrounds, origin and religion. The rule was that everybody joined with the prayers at the beginning and at the end of a school day. The Angelus prayer was recited at noon. The non-Catholics did not make the sign of the cross if they did not want to or if their parents did not allow this. It was a micro multicultural world where we learned to respect each other, celebrate Chinese New Year, Christmas, and Idul Fitri together, and appreciate different habits and traditions.
Twice in those three years an Indonesian classmate dropped out of high school, because her parents had married her off. I was close with one of them. Although she cried a lot, because she wanted to finish high school first, she obeyed her parents.
“I have no choice,” she said. No choice? Why not? How was I to know that a year later the same would happen to me.
A few weeks before the final exams I walked to the China center in our town with a friend. We passed the office where her mother worked as a secretary and she went in to ask her for some money to buy us an ice cream. Say hello to Anna for me, her mother said. Her boss, a Swiss, looked out of the window to see who Anna was. That is how it started. I want to marry her, he said.”
Anna looks at me. “As incredible as it may sound to you, that is the story. Without me knowing about it he asked my parents’ permission to marry me.”
She stood up and came back with a photo album. I saw a picture of a typical Indies wedding with baskets with flowers. She pointed at a tall handsome young man: “We were in love…”
Anna grew up in a close-knit Indies community with loving aunts and uncles. When she wanted to back out and flee to another town they warned her: “Don’t make your parents lose face!” That was considered kualat or bad fortune. Anna also had to think about her younger brothers and sisters.
“And so I stayed… My mother insisted that I marry him. What was the matter with her? I went to a well-known fortune teller. Aunty Nimah everybody called her. She said that I would leave Indonesia, but had to remember the date of departure. For exactly twenty-five years later, I would come back and meet my first love again.”
We drank our tea, ate a few nanas-taart. Then Anna continued her story.
“The night before the wedding I could not fall asleep. I heard the shuffling step of babu Ti’a. She stopped by my bed. Non Anna, she whispered, Tuhan, God, has lighted this way for you and darkened the other. You must therefore go this way… But do not be afraid. Ti’a will come with you.”
Anna raised her index finger. “She kept her word and stayed with me until I left for Europe.”
So now she was married to a man twenty-eight years her senior and suddenly belonged to the small group of expatriates.
“I was married… and felt lost in a strange new world. You know, being married off is being lifted and put on a different road. The horizon, the people on that road, the scenery, all is very unfamiliar. In The Townsman, Pearl Buck writes that there are two kinds of marriages. One is like a thick strong rope, but when it snaps, there is nothing left. The other one is made up of countless threads. When a few of them snap, there is no harm done. My marriage was neither of the two.”
The political situation in Indonesia came to a boil again because of the New Guinea issue. How much longer could they stay?
Anna remembers: “I wanted to know more about Europe, because I knew that I would have to leave my dear country of birth sooner or later. I started reading the books from my husband’s bookcase. Books by P.G. Wodehouse, The Townsman by Pearl Buck, and Liebe und Tod auf Bali by Vicki Baum. I was shocked when I read Het Achterhuis by Anne Frank. I barely knew anything about the Holocaust. I asked my husband about it and he started telling about his experiences in World War II in Europe. I told him I remembered asking about the scars and stretch marks on the back of my father when we went swimming one day. My mother, nervous and agitated, snapped: I told you to put on a shirt! The Asia-Pacific war was visible, but nobody talked about it, I told my husband. At such moments he and I actually had a conversation. But we were not growing closer. I kept my distance.”
Twenty-five years seemed a lifetime then. But they passed. The day came when Anna packed her bags to go back to Indonesia, a young widow in her forties. Because of a delay in Hong Kong and the time difference she stepped out of the plane in Jakarta one day later than planned. She checked in at the hotel she had booked. When she had to fill in the date of arrival, her hand stopped. She looked at the date and remembered the prophecy of Aunt Nimah.
Anna wondered: “Would the other part of her prophecy also come true? But how? I had no idea where he lived. In those days you still had phone books. I looked for his name. You never know…My heart almost stopped when I found it.”
They met on the doorstep of her sister’s house.
I looked at Anna’s face: a bit pensive and a bit distracted.
“We talked for hours. With a razor sharp eye I saw we did not match anymore. Had we ever…? He had wanted to reach the top and had succeeded. I had learned to stand my ground and in this process I grew away from concepts like sabar and halus, patience and refinement. Because you won’t get very far in the western world if you keep wrapping your message in pink cotton wool. Sometimes I look back with melancholy at that soft, modest girl of the past. The strange thing is… I wouldn’t want to be any different now.”
Was that the end of her quest?
Anna smiles. “Oh no! I wanted to know why my mother had married me off to a man I did not know. In fact, all I wanted to know was whether she loved me. I had visited the orphanage in Surabaya close to the Kepanjen church she had told us about many times. I walked in my mother’s footsteps: the dormitory, the long corridors, the dining hall. Clean and cold. I took pictures and flew back home.”
“Finally I could ask her: Why, mamma? She started explaining that she had lost her parents at a very young age and that she grew up in a Roman Catholic orphanage, led by nuns. No hug, no encouraging smile, no warmth, all those years. She did not want her children… But I interrupted her. Mamma, all I am asking is if you loved me as your child… Her answer opened the door between us.”
I sat there, waiting for the last part of her story. The expression on her face relaxed. She talked very slowly.
“You care so much for your brothers and sisters… I should have known you would always have looked after them if something should happen to me or your father. Then she took my head in her hands. You know Anna, you are soft and sometimes fierce. You are so much like me… maybe that is why I love you… most.”
I found Anna’s life story so impressive, with its ups and downs. Every time she emerged from the ashes. I asked her permission to adapt it into a monologue. She agreed, but I had to promise to change the story here and there.
I gave it the title: “Yes, I do… do I?” It was translated into German, English and Indonesian.
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Ingrid Dumpel Performing the Monologue "Yes, I do... do I?"
(Video in Dutch to give you an impression)