It looks like a lot of heavy intellectuals want to take the pulpit and teach us all about how the Asian mind works. Let me get my contribution in early.
Shortly after I was discharged from the Army, I moved to Washington, D.C., and set about trying to get a job with the Indonesian Embassy. Here was a brand new nation, freed after 400 years of Dutch rule, sitting atop what could still be the most valuable mineral deposits – plus petroleum! – in the world. Besides, their language was so easy to learn. When they want to make a noun plural they just repeated it twice. Orang in Indonesian means “man.” “Men” is orang orang. When they write it they just put the numeral “2” after it, which makes a page of written Indonesian look like an unending algebraic equation! Moreover, Indonesian had none of the complicated grammar that made Slavic and even Romance languages so annoying. I never got the job I wanted, but I made good friends with some of the top people at the embassy and wheedled invitations to come help them celebrate their independence on Aug. 17, their equivalent of our July 4.
One of those friends was Supadmirin Martadirja. She said, “Just call me ‘Wees’!”. She did all the major inviting and really ran the embassy. I loved those banquets with all those luscious and virtually unknown spices and condiments. They didn’t call Indonesia “The Spice Islands” for nothing.
After dinner, however, came the big treat. The table was cleared and a talented musician, a troubadour with a guitar, took over and sang one fetching and appealing Indonesian folk song after another. I learned long ago how to fake it and pretend I’m enjoying guitar solos. But this time no faking was necessary. His performance, even in a language I didn’t fully understand, had me swirling and swooning.
Normally, I have to hear a song 50 to a hundred times before I like it. I don’t think I’ve really embraced and adopted more than five songs upon hearing them for the first time. This song had me immediately enraptured.
Afterward, I asked Wees what that extra special song was all about. “That’s ‘Terang Bulan,'” she explained. “It’s about an alligator lying on his back with the moonlight reflecting off his white belly.” “Nice!” I said. “Really nice!”
Fast forward now, exactly one year. The same guests gathered in the same embassy ballroom to enjoy the same masterpieces of Indonesian cuisine followed by the same songster with the same guitar. I settled in with that wonderful feeling that I was going to hear that super-song one more time.
Twenty minutes later I got a little queasy. The troubadour seemed to have changed the order of his selections. I was hearing songs I was sure had followed my favorite the first time around. Suddenly the concert was over, and he started putting his guitar away.
“Wait a minute!” I yelled, I fear a bit too stridently. “You forgot my favorite. What about that song about the moon shining off the alligator’s belly?”
There followed what the French call a frisson – a bone-marrow-curdling chill pervaded the chamber. An obviously uncomfortable Wees leaned closer to me and said, “We don’t sing that one anymore.” “Why not?” I demanded to know.
“Because,” Wees explained,”It’s become the national anthem of Malaysia!”
And Indonesia was then at war with Malaysia! So, for the next two decades I figured – with my Western mind – that they had naturally elected to forgo singing the national anthem of their enemy.
The Asian mind now gallops to the rescue. Everything so far is straight. The melody of “Terang Bulan” – with different lyrics, of course – had indeed become the national anthem of Indonesia’s shooting enemy, Malaysia. But that’s not why the song was banned. It was banned, not to show hostility to a belligerent foe, but to respect their neighboring nation of Malaysia, even though they were at war with Malaysia!
Who was it who told us, “The rich are not like you and me”?
Well, neither are the Asians.
P. S. We rarely deal with Indonesia in this space, so while we’re there let me tell you about the Most Hilarious Headline of the 1960s. Indonesia’s “George Washington,” Sukarno (like many Javanese, he had only one name), had a strange desire to turn his country over to Communist China. The aging Sukarno admired Mao and was going to hand Indonesia over to him. But Sukarno’s right-wing generals got wind of the plan and aborted it. An American newspaper in the Midwest headlined the story: “Sukarno’s Attempt to Overthrow Himself Fails!”