Raise your hand if you are an Indonesian female and you have been subject to this question. I bet 99% of you have experienced it more than once.
For my mom’s and grandma’s generations, social norms dictate that a woman has two ultimate goals in life: to get married and to have kids. For my generation, the demand has slightly shifted: get your bachelor’s degree, get married, and have kids. Two possible extensions to the clause that is still a subject of debate may also apply: you need to also have an awesome career, or you can’t be too successful or guys will find you intimidating. As soon as you are in your mid-20s, or even earlier, you are expected to at least start showing signs of the normative life track happening to you in the future. Read: you need to be in a serious relationship. Standard deviations are perceived negative.
Going to weddings and family events as a singleton is the worst. Typical conversation begins with a comment on your weight. Kurusan ya? Gemukan ya? (Translation: You lost/gained weight, have you?) Most married individual you meet will then ask the darn question, whether they are seriously concerned or they are just making small talks. This will then be followed by some “friendly advice.” Don’t wait too long, it’ll be hard for you to find someone when you are older. You’re a woman, don’t worry about education. You’ll end up taking care of your husband and kids anyway. Look at X, she’s married with two kids now! The worst part is that such exchanges usually happen with someone who’s not even close to you, someone who has no clue who you are as a person.
Translation: Support the ‘Stop Asking “When are you getting married?” During Eid Fitr and Other Family Events’ movement. Source: img.duniaku.net
My mom started getting nervous when I was on my fourth year in college because I had no boyfriend. She tried to fix me up and I kept saying no because, well, I was still in college! She got so desperate, she agreed to introduce me to an acquaintance of an acquaintance without knowing the suitor’s background. He turned out to be a balding guy 15 years my senior. After that, the introductions stopped.
Oddly, when I told her I wanted to go to graduate school, she didn’t put any objection. It was her friends and our relatives who started chirping: She can’t get her Ph.D. before she gets married. She’ll be too old and too educated. No guy will ever want to marry her. In my mind, if this guy can’t handle who I am and is intimidated by my degree, then maybe he’s not worth marrying. Getting hitched is not a priority for me. I just wanted to build my teaching career and see what happened as I did it. At some point, I even thought I was not the marrying kind. I left Jakarta knowing that spinsterhood might haunt me in the future.
Despite my personal decision, I think such social pressure has a role in shaping the demography of Indonesian academia. It is pretty common for women (and men alike) in Indonesia to get married and possibly have kids before they embark on the doctorate journey. Of course, there are some exceptions like me – I started grad school when I was 25 and single – but statistically we are a minority. Take the Indonesians I met in Davis. They were split into two groups: undergrads who were too young to hang out with, or 30-something married graduate students with kids who had different priorities in life. They were really nice and friendly people, yet I found it difficult to connect with either parties. For this reason, I tend to make friends with graduate students and postdocs from other countries.
Being away from home, I thought I would be deliberated from the marital status psychological terror. Man, I was wrong. My mom’s concerns grew even more as I stepped into my late 20s. In addition, I gained A LOT of weight. Thanks, bacon and beer industries of the America. Our phone calls are usually laced with the “so there’s really no nice Chinese-Indonesian boy to date in Davis?” undertone.
Once I went home on a winter break and attended my cousin’s wedding. My elderly grandpa could not recognize me at first. Upon remembering who I was, his first words to me were, “Kapan kawin?” Then my grandma proclaimed that she wanted to see her great grandchildren (from me), and she would wait until I got married before she could pass away peacefully. The horror, the horror. My uncle, who got married in his late thirties, asked me the same question. Three times, to be exact. As someone who has surely been through the same peer pressure in the past, I can’t help but wonder why he would want to pass on this toxic tradition to another human being.
It was hard to react to this kind of situation, especially because I couldn’t say I was seeing someone. My parents have met Sean a while back, but I didn’t tell them we were dating until him and I had a clear vision for our future, about eight months before we got married. I knew if I introduced him as my partner earlier, at which point we were yet to think about what to do once I graduated, my parents would be showering us with questions we do not have the answers for. Failure to provide clarity on those inquiries would be translated as the lack of commitment in our relationship. Yes, dating in Indonesia mostly means dating your partner’s family, too.
It’s no surprise that when Sean finally asked my dad’s permission for my hand in marriage, my parents responded like the it was the grandest event of the century. My Dad then wrote a letter to Sean because he wasn’t able to express his happiness in spoken words in English. My mom even made a vow to visit the famous Wong Tai Sin temple in Hong Kong as a thank you to her gods for finding a man crazy/stupid enough to marry her sarcastic overweight thirty-year-old daughter. This comes from a woman who despise travelling, who thinks once you see a mountain you have seen all mountains, so you can imagine how relieved she was.
On our end, my husband and I decided to get married through a very adult conversation. We weighed in the pros and cons, with our potential move to Jakarta in mind. The proposal itself did not happen until we got my parents’ blessings. Sean insisted on doing things the traditional way. We ordered a custom-made, double helix-inspired engagement/wedding ring because I’m a geek, and he hid it until he found the right moment and the right way to propose.
I have to give him credit for it. He told me he was going to see his mom, and he was going to get us two cups of boba on the way back. When he arrived with the drinks, he asked me to go on a short walk to a park two blocks away from my apartment, because it was a nice day. Everything seemed normal, we used to take a walk to the park every now and then. We had a chat on the way there, then he stopped in front of a big tree and said, “Oh, what’s that on your cup?” There it was, a proposal written on my cup of hazelnut milk black tea, extra ice, less sugar. He took out the ring from his pocket and popped the question.
I still have the cup to this day.
Now that I’m married, I do not see it as a happy ending. I am indeed happy, but an ending refers to the achievement of a goal and this is not my life goal. One thing for sure, I have made a personal promise to never impose kapan kawin? to anyone. Coming up with other questions to converse with other people takes an effort, but it’s an effort worth to make.