Formal Gathering

As soon as I walk in the UKJGS room, people comment on my clothes. “Bajumu hari ini bagus,” one of the gamelan players says, before haltingly translating it into English as, “Today you look beautiful because of your dress.”

I say thank you, tell him his English is good, and tug a little at the hem of the batik shirt I’m wearing. There is a whole culture and language of batik that I do not understand, but my senior fellow assured me that despite the fact that the mere sight of this particular batik shirt terrifies me (the colors! the ruffles!), it’s actually a very formal but “young” design. From the comments I’m getting, I guess she’s right.

Of course there’s also the fact that this is the most formal any of the UKJGS members have seen me. In some ways, when I’m around them, I try to downplay the fact that I’m here to teach English. Everyone knows why I’m here, but I don’t draw attention to it because I feel like it creates an unnecessary dichotomy between us–if I’m a teacher, why am I hanging out with students? That sort of thing. If there are days when I have to go right from teaching to the bus to Prambanan, I’m of course wearing formal clothes, but I try to make them a little less formal so that I look dressy but don’t necessarily scream “teacher.”

Luckily, no one seems bothered by my extremely formal clothes. I explain to a couple of the girls why I can’t come to class (“There’s this event for UGM’s anniversary that I have to go to? I don’t know, but I have to go.”), confirm that it’s indeed for UGM’s anniversary and not some sort of cultural event like other people are saying, and then sit down against the wall with a few of the other members who are currently strumming a guitar and playing drums.

Some of the girls are teaching several of the new dance students the beginning of one of the dances from the Ramayana. I already have the beginning down solidly because of one dance class when my dance teacher decided to focus on the first twenty-four counts. Besides, I have to leave in ten minutes, so there’s little point in my joining. I’m just happy that I get the chance to sit for a while with people who are slowly becoming my friends.

When I leave, I once again explain why I can’t stay for the next class and reiterate that I really, really want to. They’re going to learn a new dance tonight, and since up to this point I’ve been trying to learn dances they already know, I’m annoyed that I’ll once again be three steps behind everyone else. But there are some things that are required, so I head off to this event.

When I first got the invitation, I asked a few questions about what exactly it entailed, but didn’t get many clear answers. There was something said about awards and something else said about food, but no one knew anything concrete.

As it turns out, there’s food. Food and milling around looking social, two things that I don’t particularly enjoy. Luckily, on my way in I meet an Australian who has friends and is outgoing, so I stick close to him and let him do most of the talking. I poke at tofu covered in egg, sip too-sweet tea, and eventually we’re ushered into another room with rows and rows of chairs and a stage.

I’m assigned seat I-4 and the Australian has seat I-2, but the person in seat I-3 is missing, so he puts his bag on the chair and we talk over it. It takes a long time for everyone to come in and find their seats. During this lull, I check my phone and discover that my senior fellow has SMSed me: Shansi is getting an award. She’s offered some talking points in case I need to give a speech and says that I’ll be fine.

I’m not so sure about that. Fuzzy memories of the Shansi breakfast during senior week–my last public speaking event–begin to assert themselves. Maybe I should do a rap instead of giving a speech. I SMS this suggestion to Sara, but she seems unimpressed and tells me I should go to Aceh to see her.

Finally, everyone settles down and the event starts. I’m pleased to discover that, after some talking, we’re treated to a dance performance. I’m even more pleased when the dancers enter the room, because they’re not just any Javanese dancers; they’re UKJGS members.

I tuck my legs up under myself in an effort to look over all the heads in front of me. I’m trying to watch the dancers’ feet–I always watch the feet–but there are too many people in front of me and there isn’t a stage.

The Australian glances at me. “Is this the kind of dance you do?”

Earlier, in an uncharacteristic bout of friendliness, I’d dropped several sentences about dance class.

I nod. “Actually,” I say, “I dance with these girls.”

This isn’t strictly true. I’ve danced with one of those girls. The other ones are the really good dancers–including the woman who dances Sita–and you can’t really say that I dance with them. Mainly, I watch them put on makeup and very occasionally help with a piece of their costumes if there’s no one else around.

Nevertheless, I’m smiling broadly and craning my neck to try to see better, my hands making little movements in my lap, trying to mimic theirs. I haven’t seen these costumes before–green scarves, two of those bobbly things in their hair, little shiny brooches–and I haven’t seen this dance before, so the whole thing is exciting. Plus, it’s nice to see dancers I already know doing something out of the ordinary, nice to see something other than damsel-in-distress Sita, something other than the prancing movements of the golden deer. And I just like watching them perform, knowing also how they put on their makeup beforehand, how they sit in front of the mirror and paste on false eyelashes.

I clap heartily when they’re finished and watch a little longingly as they exit. Under normal circumstances, I’d loop around to the backstage area to meet up with them, but tonight I’m turning my attention back to the announcer, getting ready for another stream of Indonesian.

The whole event lasts for a very long time. There’s a speech from the rector, awards for students, awards for teachers, Shansi’s award (no speech necessary!), more awards for teachers. The whole thing closes with a chamber orchestra performance that begins, rather inexplicably, with “A Whole New World” from Aladdin (the Australian records it on his phone) and ends with a medley of Lady Gaga songs. Everyone around me, save for the Australian, seems unsurprised by the song choices.

Sometime in amongst all of this, I SMS one of my friends who I know is at the dance class that I’m missing: “The UKJGS dance was the best part, in my opinion.” I’m pleased that I get to practice the Indonesian for in my opinion.

“You’re a good UKJGS member,” he responds.

2 thoughts on “Formal Gathering

  1. “There is a whole culture and language of batik that I do not understand ….” I’m very curious about this comment. I love batik fabric & use it often in my quilting and your comment intrigues me. If you find out anything about this, I’d love to hear it. Share any references … you’ve opened up a whole new area of investigation for me. Very interesting!!

    Merry Christmas, Zoë. Thanks for enriching our lives!

    • It’s more to do with what constitutes “good” batik, what makes one piece of batik more formal than another, questions like that. It’s not that batik all looks the same to me, it’s more that I can’t tell what differentiates between one pattern or another in that manner.

      Merry Christmas to you too! Miss all of you!

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