Warning: This topic of conversation may make male readers uncomfortable.
I sat at my kitchen table, helping my host mother prepare dinner. I was focusing hard on peeling a cucumber, because since coming to Indonesia I’ve learned that my way of peeling things is unacceptable—but that’s another story.
In this occasion, I sat innocently peeling cucumbers while my Ibu sat across from me attending to the more difficult task of grinding garlic, peanuts and small red onions using the stone grinder for our dinner’s sambil, or hot sauce. How to grind properly on a stone grinder is another aspect of the Indonesian kitchen that eludes me, but again, that’s another story.
In this story, my mind was filled with curses for the blunt, broken knife I was using to hack away pieces of dark green cucumber peel. I watched as my stumpy cucumber steadily diminished in size, when suddenly, my Ibu took the opportunity to ambush me.
Ibu: Mel, oeioriukdjfhsdifjaijfoajdffa iaoueioraeofijaoidfhad lkfaererworfiaif?
Yea, that’s exactly what I thought to her indecipherable Javanese and/or Indonesian.
Me: Umm…Apa? / Umm…What?
My ibu smiled, took a deep breath and spoke much slower this time.
Ibu: Miki gah inkut puasa juga. Apa ya? MeeeeeeNNNNNNNNssss.
She made an extraordinary effort to enunciate every syllable. Her face distorted in exaggeration. Yet, I still looked at her blankly. She went on to explain my host sister’s condition and her reason for not fasting. The only words I understood were setiap bulan, every month, perampuan, women, biasanya, usually. Finally, it clicked.
Me: Oh ok!
Thing I Would Have Said If I Knew How To: Please let this stop here.
Nope, no such luck.
Ibu: Melanie sudah mens?
All I’m going to say about this is that sudah means already.
Thing I Would Have Said If I Knew How To: You mean ever or this month?
What I Actually Said: Uhh, ya ibu.
Ibu: Pakai apa? / Use what?
She again spoke in indecipherable Indonesian as she made a sliding back and forth motion with her hand across the air.
Thing I Would Have Said If I Knew How To: Ah yes, the universal hand gesture for pads.
What I Actually Said: Ah, nnnn…
In this moment I debated internally on whether to even begin trying to explain the alternatives, but I swallowed my words before I could even finish the word no.
Me: Ya! Itu!
I added an enthusiastic nod for conviction, but my ibu looked at me skeptically and challenged:
Ibu: Di mana sampah? / Where’s the trash?
I was not prepared for this question. Where does one put the trash? I paused for a long time trying to think of a plausible lie to then, translate.
Me: Di plastik! / In a plastic bag!
She didn’t look convinced, but in that moment I finished my clumsy task and said:
Me: Ibu saya mau lihat HP. Mari…ya! / Ibu, I’m going to get my phone. Ok…bye!
Her laugh trailed behind me as I dashed to my room.
Now, usually, this wouldn’t be an awkward conversation. We are both women and my ibu is pretty cool, but I was getting deeper and deeper and I’m not a very good liar in my own languages—much less so in Indonesian—so it had to end there.
Also, a note to women traveling to Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia with squat toilets: Learn to use this device or something similar and save yourself a lot of bathroom drama.