Speaking about Family, Age , and Gender

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In all Indonesian languages, social hierarchy becomes quickly displayed by a deft combination of word selection, honorifics, terms of address, and general tone of voice. In the Tobaku highlands, adults most often are addressed by their “teknonyms”—kinship titles in the form of “mother of X,” “husband of Y,” or “grandparent of Z”—rather than by any given personal or family name. As a Tobaku person goes through life, her or his name changes from a generic term for “female/male child,” to a childlike personal nickname, to “wife/husband of X,” to “mother/father of Y,” to “grandparent of Z.” Outsiders find this naming system impossibly confusing, but local community members have little trouble keeping track. Knowing these changing monikers is simply part of knowing a consociate’s life story, and people love to talk about family relations. Throughout Indonesia, kinship titles are used not only for relatives, but also for new acquaintances one wishes to respect or humor. Bus drivers often are called Om, meaning “Uncle,” a strategy that reminds the driver that you respect his position of authority, and also that you expect him to care for your well-being on the journey as if you were cherished kin. Indonesian terms denoting hierarchy emerge through contextual interactions. Early in my fieldwork, I met with a young professional Indonesian woman who worked at a university office in Central Sulawesi’s district capital. Before we had completed two minutes of opening chit-chat, the woman inquired about my age. I found this a striking question, especially since we appeared to me to be roughly the same age. The woman explained patiently that, in Indonesia, we needed to know each other’s exact age in order to establish which one of us would be addressed as “older sibling” (kakak) and which one as “younger sibling” (adik). This practice contrasts sharply with U.S. conventions where, as my son’s fourth-grade teacher advised, “The three questions you should never ask a woman are her age, her weight, and her natural hair color.” Note that the Indonesian terms kakak and adik are gender neutral, applying to elder/younger sisters or brothers. In this respect, the Indonesian language suggests that age ranking is more critical for organizing Indonesiansocial relations than gender ranking, which indeed generally proves to be the case. One’s age always must be known in Indonesia to enable elders to act beneficently and parentally toward their juniors, and juniors to act helpfully and respectfully to their elders. Similarly, visitors to Indonesia can expect to be asked quickly about their work roles, marital status, and children because bosses, spouses, and parents—who bear more responsibility—warrant more respectful language use. The concepts and family terms wielded (mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc.) ideally allow Indonesians to recreate the familiarity, caring, and protectiveness of families beyond the household into the public sphere. This extended deployment of kinship metaphors also affects national politics. Indonesian citizens called their first two presidents “father” (bapak; also, “mister” or “sir”) for twenty and thirty-two years respectively. In response, first President Sukarno and second President Suharto called Indonesian citizens their “children” (anak). These linguistic practices at times instill a cozy family solidarity to Indonesian politics, but they also sometimes aid the surrender of political authority to some less-deserving father figures, who reciprocate with patronizing paternalism (Shiraishi 1997).



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