Bapak-Anak: The Complexity of Family-ism and Childhood in Indonesia

Saya Shiraishi starts his politically potent and anecdotally mesmerizing ethnography “Young Heroes” with the simple setting of an airport arrival terminal. Noting the divide between the stark right angles and dark glass of the air-conditioned indoors and the steamy sidewalk teeming with faces outside, Shiraishi takes the opportunity to notice the cultural construction of ritual that takes place in greeting. In Indonesia, particularly in the urban hub of Jakarta, the meeting of a relative at the airport is an obligation that demonstrates the strength of your relationship. Representing the strength and importance of maintaining relationships through the ritual of escort, the eyes of the herd of strangers crowded around the entrance to the airport terminal are completely focused. They stare straight ahead at the entrance, transfixed with the goal of recognizing and retrieving.

Moving from this scene of such devoted connection, Shiraishi goes on to reveal the questions of his anthropologic exploration, asking: How has the Indonesian family been constructed in Indonesia historically, culturally, and politically? How are childhood and family constructed in Indonesia?

As Shiraishi points out again and again, being Indonesian in a post-colonial and modern world means understanding a complex web of interrelationships–navigating a hierarchy of family in every social situation. The relationship between Bapak (Father) and Anak (Child) is quintessentially Indonesian. From the living room of a family home, to the sophisticated high rise of the work place, the titles of government officials, and the orderly rows of desks in the classroom, the Bapak-Anak relationship manifests itself in titles and authoritative understandings. These are the dynamics Shiraishi expertly examines. In every realm of everyday life there are roles to be fulfilled–“parents” to offer every opportunity of happiness and well-being possible, and “children” to accept these gifts graciously and mature to adulthood by learning not to make their own decisions. The complexities of the “family-ism” of Indonesian culture are overwhelming, and cannot possibly be explained with one blog post. As I begin to reflect upon reading this book so rife with Indonesian history, emotion, culture, and connection, I don’t know where to begin. To avoid rambling in ambiguities and explanations of Indonesian words and history, I have decided to write a series of poems to express what I’ve learned from this enlightening ethnography:

Measuring Worth in Jakarta (A Haiku)

Car wheels skid across

smooth pavement as doors open

Street hierarchy.

(Note: In Jakarta, escorting happens with a car. Families without cars feel inadequate. Company cars become a status symbol, and sidewalks are places for peddlers rather than pedestrians. To get from point A to point B in a car in Jakarta also means understanding a complex web of relationships–following a map not on paper, but in the mind of social connections and obligations)

Slendang (Sling)

She remembers that prickling heat

and the rhythm of her mother’s footsteps

rocking her small body to sleep

and the warmth of flushed cheeks

when she was old enough to walk alone

and wrap her arms around him

constructing a house of nostalgia

a tower of remembered bricks of that feeling…

collective memories of isolated moments

as the landscape of her mother’s breast

blurs into the whooshing green portrait

of her nation.

How do you become a mother?

In that moment when the first piercing cry slices through foreign air?

Or when those pudgy fingers grow into slender caregivers of their own?

Does it mean indulging?


Can a teacher be a mother…

when a mother is so obviously a teacher

as she pushes her weight to the front of the classroom on the first day of school

and demands her child be seated in the front.


The List

Clutched to her chest

the black notebook holds more power

than the structured spiral of metal

could ever let on.

The columns of wide eyed children

sitting upright in their stark white uniforms

are here because of those lines.

If they don’t make the list

they belong somewhere else

with another teacher called ibu (mother)

and a different textbook

with the same national lesson

teaching how to be an Indonesian

and to avoid the taste of fear

always apart

from the unknown

Part of the collective swirl

The necessary limb on the family tree.


They are trapped inbetween


unable to rebel

in a system designed for children

and adults.

Where you spend months living with grown ups

who love you

but only conditionally

to teach you how to be mature

by letting others make up your mind for you

until the day

when you finally make it

with your own office in a skyscraper

and a boss to call Bapak.

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