Riding in Cars with Strange Men

Oberlin winter. Not as bad as Rochester winter, especially with global warming, but still cold and still snowy and not something to trek through in high heels, which was exactly what I was doing. It made sense at the time, I’m not sure why, to walk to the performance in heels. I think I probably tried my tennis shoes on, cringed at the contrast between the dirty shoes and my pressed, black concert pants, and went for the heels.

Walking back after the show, though, trudging down dark sidewalks covered in slush, the decision made a lot less sense. This was why, when a man pulled up and asked if I wanted a ride back to campus, I said yes.

I thought it all through, of course. I looked at him and weighed the chances of him being a kidnapper and/or rapist. I did the calculations, I factored in my shoes, and then I accepted. I knew it was a risk, but it was a risk that I decided to take.

I’m here to tell you about it, so of course it turned out fine. He had been in the audience and proceeded to tell me about what Gilbert and Sullivan shows had been like when he was a student. He dropped me off in front of Asia House and I never saw him again.

It was uncomplicated and convenient and I didn’t have to stumble around in the snow with my violin. Under the same circumstances, I’d probably accept the ride again. Which brings us to Indonesia.

There is nothing remotely similar between the circumstances in Oberlin and the circumstances in Indonesia save for the fact that I’ve lived both. I’ve written a little bit about my discomfort around Indonesian men. Part of this discomfort is because that I’m a foreigner–I can’t read social situations that well and I don’t have as much of a gut to rely on. The other part is also because I’m a foreigner–I’m a foreigner and therefore exotic and therefore there’s the idea that men are entitled to some of my time and some of my body.

So, as a rule, I distrust men before I trust them and I try as hard as possible to pretend I’m Indonesian, especially when I’m on the street by myself. This means that I miss out on a lot of interaction, with men and women alike, because I’m the most convincingly Indonesian when I don’t speak. It’s a shame, really, but it’s how I keep myself sane and safe and it’s so habitual that I don’t even think about it.

Except when I’m out with a guy. Last week, a friend and I decided to go to a museum near Solo dedicated to Java man–a Homo erectus skeleton found in the area. We took a bus out to the museum and I had to haggle prices because he was white. While annoying, that was to be expected. The unexpected bit happened on our way back.

We straggled out of the museum, looked at the very sad monkeys kept in cages surrounding the museum steps, and then wandered out to the road, hoping to find an ojek station so that we could get back to the main road that the buses went down. There was no ojek station, so we wandered a bit further until the road split in two. At this point, we disagreed on which way we had to turn, so my friend asked a group of men sitting around in front of the store. They answered and then they offered to just give us a ride since they were going that way anyway.

And so we accepted. Just like that.

It was amazing.

Now, granted, I still fell immediately into my good-Indonesian-girl act, letting my friend do most of the talking and only saying something when it was clear that the men didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Not that Indonesian women are repressed and don’t speak. No, it’s more that I dislike speaking, and that there’s a certain amount of gender separation that just means it’s easier for an instant, uncomplicated rapport to develop between men than between a man and a foreigner woman. Plus, like I said, my friend is white and that’s just more exciting. “You look Indonesian,” was about the third sentence that the men said to us and one of the only sentences directed at me.

And that’s fine. I don’t need to be treated like a white man. It’s just really nice to experience the perks from time to time.


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