So, Are You Married?


Oh, sorry, was that too personal? Too much, too soon? While it’s not something that we usually ask strangers in the US, it’s a pretty typical get-to-know-you question here in Indonesia. In the US, we more often ask people, “What do you do?” as we tend to attempt to understand who people are based on their occupation. Here, though, people ask a lot about family. For example, once people find out that I don’t have children, they want to know about my siblings – how many I have, and whether they are older or younger. Interestingly, there are words to differentiate between an older sibling (kakak) and a younger sibling (adik) but not specific words to designate gender, you just add male or female to kakak or adik.

Even though I’d heard that people would ask me if I was married, it still surprised me when, about a week into my time in Java, a woman from the dormitory where I was living asked me if I was married. It struck me as odd because we’d been living in the same building for a week and it seems to me like, 1) if I had a husband that I would have brought him with me to Indonesia, assuming, of course, that I was married to someone I like spending time with. And 2) that I would have at least mentioned him in that amount of time. The question, it seems, is mainly just a form of small talk.

Actually, I’ve been feeling a little left out for the past few months, because it was starting to seem like no one cares whether or not I’m married. No one ever asks me, but people ask Febby all the time. Not a good situation for my self-esteem. It could have something to do with the fact that Febby has a long daily commute on public transportation with people who ask lots of personal questions. But finally, a few weeks ago, there were some women who came to P3W for a two-week course and on the first day, they went around the room introducing themselves, and yes, talking about their families.

When it was my turn, I gave a short spiel about being here for a year, studying the language and doing a little bit of everything around the office. Just as I was sitting down, a woman across the room said, “but wait! Are you still single?” I said, “yep” and she was like, “oh, good, just checking!” and we laughed. Oh, one other small thing about asking if someone is married, “no” is not an appropriate response. The answer is “not yet.” Same with do you have children? It is assumed that you will eventually. There’s a cultural difference for you.

Asking people about their families, and also how old they are, helps to establish what title should be used. Titles include, but are not limited to:

Ibu = Mrs/ma’am

Bapak/pak = Mr/sir

Kakak/kak = older sibling (for someone who is close-ish in age but older than you)

Ade = a term of endearment for someone who is younger

Nona = Miss

Tanta = auntie

Mama ade = your mom’s younger sisters

Mama tua = your mom’s older sisters

At least where I live, people don’t use the word “you” very often, even though there are both formal and informal versions of it. Instead, people will speak in the third person just using titles. For example, my host mom has never once referred to herself as “I” when speaking to me, and always calls me Annie (or Eni, as the case may be) and never “you.” I have a hard time getting the hang of always using titles with people, and it seems a little overly formal to someone like me, who thinks that even saying “Aunt Marilyn” is a little much – why wouldn’t I just call her by her first name? I don’t understand.

In Spanish there is a phrase, “tuteame,” which means, “call me tu,” the informal word for “you.” Sometimes I just want to tell people, “it’s ok! Call me kamu, I promise I won’t be offended.” I think maybe I will help them out by inventing the Indonesian equivalent of tuteame: “kamukan saya.” I’m sure it’ll catch on soon.

Just to make my life more complicated, titles are not as straightforward as I’d originally hoped. It is my understanding is that:

  • Anyone can call me nona, but people hardly ever do.
  • Very small children call me tanta.
  • Medium-sized children call me kakak.
  • Anyone older than me can just call me by my first name, with no title.
  • People who I call kakak call me ade.
  • When someone older than me is referring to me while speaking to someone younger than me, they call me kakak.
  • When someone on our staff is talking about another staff person to someone who is not on staff, the staff person may be referred to as either kakak or ibu, regardless of marital status.
  • When I am stuck at the airport because my flight has been overbooked, the men working for the airline call me ibu.
  • When I’m walking down a residential street, as I may have been earlier today, one middle aged man might call me mama ade, while a different man will opt to call me mama tua five minutes later.
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