04 December 2009

Great, Expectations, Thanks for Nothing (or: I'll Take it from Here)

One thing living abroad in Indonesia has taught me is that having expectations is a bad idea.  Entertaining expectations that aren't ultimately met usually leads to disappointment, and in Indonesia, the only thing you can safely expect is that your expectations for any given situation will be swiftly and thoroughly dismissed.  Luna has a nice way of describing this phenomenon, which relies upon the idea that there is not necessarily any relationship whatsoever between something that is promised to you in words or writing, and reality.  For example, if you are out to dinner and see a food item listed on the menu, that does not mean said food item is actually available -- it could just as easily mean that it is sometimes available, or that at one time in past it was available, or maybe that it might be available at some point in the future.  It is according to this logic that our favorite pizza joint has been all out of medium size pizzas every single time I've been there (except for one time, and I almost didn't know what to do with myself).  See, I would have thought that if you have the ingredients to make a large pizza, the same ingredients could be used to make a medium pizza -- but that is an expectation, and we all know how dangerous those can be.

Sometimes, though, I get too comfy and forget about the danger of expectations and start having them again -- but never for long, as there is always some totally unpredictable turn of events to shepherd me back to the real world. One such turn of events occurred last Saturday, when I was invited by one of the professors at my school to witness the preparatory activities for his son's wedding, which was to be held on Sunday.  He instructed me to show up at his house around 11 so as not to miss any of the important aspects of this pre-wedding gathering.  Directions to his house and a time to arrive was pretty much all the information I received, so it is truly unfathomable why, in my mind, I assumed the event would last only a few hours and I would be home by mid-afternoon in time to do some grading and peruse the New York Times before dinner.  Expectations!  I should have known.

I got a little lost on my way there, so I showed up late, around 11:20, sweating like I lived on the equator (oh wait ... I do) and worried I'd already missed something.  My lateness didn't seem to faze my host, however, who welcomed me into his home and proceeded to introduce me to 20 members of his extended family, who then all commenced to speak to me in rapid Indonesian, most of which went completely over my head.  Many of his female relatives were inside preparing baskets and baskets of produce and goods to bring the bride's family, a litany of gifts that included such far-flung items as clothes for the bride's mother, two huge sacks of rice, a complete set of pink lacy lingerie and a couple of live chickens.  Word.  After a tour of of the gift preparation, I made myself comfortable outside in the courtyard where a smattering of relatives were camped out with snacks, and waited for whatever was going to happen to happen. After about an hour of sitting around eating sticky rice cakes and mustering up my best Indonesian to chat with one of my host's relatives about a wide range of interesting and complicated topics, such as where I am from and what I am doing in Indonesia, I started to wonder what exactly was going on with this whole wedding preparation thing, since nothing really seemed to be happening at the hour was approaching 1 o'clock PM.  At that moment my host announced that we would be "leaving soon," whereupon I learned that the main event of the day actually involved the bearing of all of these gifts to the home of the bride, and that we would be back around 5 o'clock.  It was also at that moment that all the lessons I had learned about expectations came flooding back in, and I suddenly completely understood and accepted that I had signed up for an all-day activity -- on Java, how could it be otherwise? It couldn't. It really couldn't.

The day itself turned out to be quite lovely.  After a half hour drive that took us out of Yogya and east of the city through some rice paddies, we arrived at the bride's family's home and unloaded our booty.  I was given the honorable task of carrying the box that contained a gold lacy dress intended for the bride's mother, as we all processed down the driveway and into a covered courtyard that had been set up with a long table flanked on both sides by rows and rows of folding chairs.  I deposited my gift on the table and took up residence on the edge of the audience, which turned out to be a great vantage point from which to observe the events of the ceremony.  After many long speeches in Javanese from various old men whose relationships with the two families I couldn't decipher any better than the words they were saying, the preparatory ceremonies for the bride and groom finally began.  The ceremony for the bride was first and began indoors, where (as we could see on the TV monitor outside while the whole thing was being live recorded inside -- whacky) she knelt before each of her parents in turn and requested forgiveness for her wrongdoings against them. (I should note here that everything I'm about to say only represents my best interpretations of the events that transpired -- since they all took place in Javanese or Indonesian, their meanings were obviously not rendered completely transparent to poor English-speaking me.)  This proved to be an extremely tear-jerking phase of the ceremony, as all the old Javanese ladies sitting around me commenced to weep heartily into their sarongs. Forgiveness was seemingly bestowed, and then the whole party was relocated outside to an alcove off the courtyard, where the audience could now witness the goings-on in person.
The bride was seated on a low bench in front of a iron cauldron of cold water into which various and sundry items had been previously deposited, such as flower petals, banana leaves and one whole coconut.  As the bride sat, members of her extended family came up to dip a gourd into the cauldron and pour water over her head -- while she was still in full dress -- presumably in an act of cleansing. After the bride had been thoroughly soaked, a lock of her hair was snipped off and she was lead back inside by her parents, her father in front and her mother behind, in a kind of train-like procession reminiscent of a conga line.  The whole process was then repeated, of course, with the groom.

The most poignant part of these ceremonies, in my mind, was how much care was taken with probably one of the most scary and painful processes two parents have to undergo: the giving away of their child to another person; the relinquishment of their son or daughter to the care of someone else.  Past wrongs were forgiven and past mistakes washed away as two families readied their children for that great adventure of marriage -- a process that is scary and painful, ultimately, because of all the unknowns it comes up against.  As 5 o'clock approached, I finally realized that it wasn't just me who had had no idea what to expect at the beginning of the day -- no one really has any idea what to expect, in Indonesia or anywhere else.  Whether it's the day before your wedding or the year after you graduate from college or any old Saturday of any old month, you can never really know how it's going to go down until it goes down. One of the things that sometimes frustrates me about living abroad is this feeling of never knowing what to expect, but when I think about it, that was always true in my life -- and if I ever thought I knew what to expect, if I ever thought that I knew exactly what was going on, that was probably mostly an illusion of control that I didn't actually have.  The bride and groom at this wedding were getting ready to embark upon a completely unknown chapter of their lives, which -- if you'll pardon the cheese -- is really just a larger-scale version of what everyone does pretty much everyday when they get out of bed.

So what about expectations, then?  While they definitely help contribute to a feeling of safety and familiarity, I think that for me, as I learn to accept more and more how fast things can change and how unknown the future really is, I might as well just throw them out the window.  When you don't expect anything in particular to happen, anything can happen, right?  Alice Walker once wrote, "Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise" -- but I'd like to think that subsisting on the thrill of surprise wouldn't have to be frugal life at all, but rather could be -- can be -- a life full of abundance and bounty.  I mean, come on -- pizza is a case in point.  Who needs medium pizzas, anyway?  I'll take a large, thanks.  And hold the expectations.

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