Toba Batak Selves: Personal, Spiritual, Collective

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Who is “me”? For the Toba Bataks of North Sumatra, Indonesia, probing that question might take a lifetime. My first experience with the complexity of a Toba Batak notion of self occurred when I was listening to my carving teacher’s wife, Ito, talk about one of their sons, a young man who had serious learning difficulties and who was recalcitrant and mischievous. Their son always played with children much younger than himself, or played by himself; he spent hours toying with kittens, often chatting with them. The other children liked him, but it was clear that he was unlike the others. When Ito spoke about him, she had a kindly and bemused tone, and once told me, “Yes, he is different, but we have to be careful because his spirit is very strong.” I was not certain what she meant, so she gave me an example. She told me that some years earlier he had repeatedly asked her for a red plastic toy car from the market. The only toys her eight children owned were homemade, constructed out of drinking straws or rubber bands, and Ito explained that the family could not afford such an extravagance, especially not for a young man who was too old for such things. He persisted, not begging or cajoling, but simply stating over and over that he wanted the toy car. She refused. He persisted. After a month of this, she told me, he fell out of a tree and broke his arm in such a way that required an expensive trip to a specialist. They had to ask her husband Partoho’s sister to sell her only gold necklace and then they borrowed the money she received. “After that,” Ito continued, “it was clear I had to buy the toy for him.” Her husband Partoho nodded his head in agreement as she stated the conclusion to the story. I did not understand the tale, and wondered if I had misunderstood something along the way. To make sense of this story, we need to try understanding Bataks’ notion of “self,” a complex conflation of individual personality, the particular spirit, and the collective group. Understanding how other cultures construct their notions of the self has been of interest to social scientists since the beginnings of the discipline of anthropology. In the early years of the twentieth century, scholars investigated connections between the self and society, from Freud’s (1918) and Frazer’s (1910) work on totemism1 to Levy Bruhl’s on the “soul” (1966 [1922]), which unfortunately seemed to imply that people from non-Western cultures possessed only a group identity. Other scholars, such as Ruth Benedict (1934), Margaret Mead (1937), and Cora DuBois (1944), proposed that personality and culture were inextricably bound, creating a culturally shared identity called the “modal personality” (DuBois 1944:2); some critics rejected these concepts as being too mechanistic and difficult to support. Anthropological research on differential constructions and notions of the self continue, ranging from works on the philosophical explorations of “technologies of the self” (Foucault 1988) to those that introduce notions of a cyborg self that is postgender, polymorphic, and disembodied (Haraway 1991). This chapter presents information about Toba Bataks’ senses of self not to support a theoretical position but rather to help illuminate some of the complexities of everyday life in this part of Southeast Asia. The Bataks are one of Indonesia’s many ethnic groups, and are divided into six subgroups, of which the Toba are among the most numerous (about two million). Although they have migrated widely across Indonesia’s islands, they consider their homeland to be the North Sumatran lands that sur�round Lake Toba, including the island in the center of that lake, �Samosir. I studied with the Toba Bataks living near the shore of Lake Toba for a year and a half. Some of my first impressions were that they were entrepreneurial, passionate about exploring ideas, ready to laugh, and individualistic. As an American who had lived in the state of Texas for more than a decade, I found the character of many Toba Bataks to be completely familiar: they were spirited, independent, brash, opinionated, and self-possessed. The longer I lived on Samosir Island, the more I began to understand the Toba Bataks’ sensibilities concerning the “self.” Far from being simply “individualistic” or “independent” (as they are sometimes described by other Indonesians), I learned to see that most everyday social interaction required Batak individuals to constantly balance—you might even say juggle—a number of different notions of “self” that were constructed both by themselves and the social-cultural world around them. I should underscore that I am a student of the Bataks’ cultural life, not a spokesperson for them; just as Americans have varied conceptions of personhood, not all Bataks think or feel the same way about the topic of self.

Toba Batak Selves

In addition, Toba Bataks’ notions are not entirely unique: there are other groups in Southeast Asia (indeed, the world) with similar or comparable conceptions of self. For example, Ward Keeler (1987) writes of the various ascetic efforts a person can undergo to strengthen the self, noting further that the potency of the self “does not simply stand prior to speech, seeking expression by means of it, but rather is constructed in the play of speech itself” (37), while Michael Peletz (1996), in describing the lives of Malaysians from Negri Sembilan, notes that the notion of self is strongly relational: personhood is equally grounded in social relations, the physical body and character, and the spiritual essence (Peletz 1996:202–209). It might even be tempting to see the Bataks’ conception of self as a part of a larger Austronesianbelief system, for similar notions of a segmented self and soul are found in the Solomon Islands (Fox 1925:240).




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