My mother, her mother and I were sat in a cafe. Three generations cradling rooibos tea as the rain and the wind ripped through the streets of Brighton outside. We were discussing language, and in particular the language of mothers.
I was explaining how it works in Indonesia with parents of loved ones. The first of the linguistic jumps one has to make when speaking to a parent – or parent of your partner -in Java is speaking using the passive, third person. So, as an example, rather than saying directly to your mum, “would you like a drink?”, or “would you like a drink, mum?”, you would ask, “would mum like a drink?”, “is mum cold?” “what time will mum get here?”. At the beginning of mine and Obi’s relationship, this way of speaking felt particularly unnatural, as if you were speaking to your mother, but focusing on the space next to her. The bodily reaction to not using the direct ‘you’ for me was strangely intense, I felt myself shrinking when using this passive voice.
For Obi the situation was equally awkward as he was thrown into the world of first name terms. My mother was – and continues to be – Deborah, something particularly rude in his mother tongue. “Would you like a drink, Deborah?” wouldn’t quite cut it in Yogyakarta, and, at the beginning, we shared many a whispered conversation about if each of us were doing it right.
Before marriage, you refer to your partner’s parents as om and tante, or uncle and aunt. Once married, the titles change, and they effectively become your second parents – your partner’s mother becomes ibu and their father becomes bapak, literally mother and father. Their family too, becomes your family, with aunts and uncles also being referred to as om and tante.
My mother, grandmother and I discussed the significance of calling another’s mother your own. In Indonesia, marriage is only partially about two people uniting, and much more about two families. The families are involved throughout the whole process: there is the symbolism of the engagement, in which both families meet to discuss the arrangements, and agree or disagree on the union. Education is discussed, whether the partner’s family is suitable enough is discussed, where they will live is a topic of conversation, how big the wedding will be is a family matter. Families will generally only meet the boyfriend/girlfriend if there is the intention that they will marry. Careers are important, and if parents decide ‘no’, then that is usually final. In this sense, you are receiving two new parents.
From a UK perspective, this could seem a little suffocating, depending on your community. While the tradition still somewhat exists for the father of the bride to be asked whether the groom can marry the daughter, this is dying out, and the decision is very much the couple’s own choosing. If parents were to disapprove, I imagine in many cases the marriage would go along anyway. That’s assuming couples choose to marry, as every year the institution of marriage looks a little less necessary for young people. Two years ago it was made legal for heterosexual couples to hold civil partnerships once reserved only for LGBTQ communities. This year saw the first of the hetero civil partnerships – the argument? For most couples going down this route, they want all of the legal and social recognition of their relationship, but none of the outdated and negative associations that come with the institution of marriage. When marriage – or civil partnerships – occur, parents are often involved as a blanket of support, yet they are not fundamental, and that’s the difference. A marriage for many couples in the UK is primarily about two people, not two families.
In our discussion, my grandma, mum and I discussed the feelings of betrayal, perhaps, that comes with calling your partner’s parents your own. As I live on the other side of the world, did that feel like I was moving away from my parents? Was there a fear it’d look like I was replacing my own mum? Did it feel like doing something that takes me away from my own upbringing? Maybe, maybe not. Obi’s family, his mum and dad and aunts and uncles have always supported me, smiling encouragingly every time I’ve slipped up with my Indonesian, gently squeezing my hand to help me feel welcome. We didn’t have any sort of official engagement meeting with parents, and they willingly helped organise our wedding in the way that we wanted it. While linguistically it was difficult to call his parents my parents, has there been an emotional struggle? Perhaps I do feel a tug for my own mum when I call Obi’s mum ‘mum’, but at the heart of this new naming comes emotional expanding rather than switching.
At the same time, we considered ibu and bapak as phrases. The other confusion for me when thinking about what to call Obi’s parents was that all older people in Java are called ibu and bapak. Neighbours, people sitting next to you on the bus, your lecturer at university, your doctor. While it is significant to call your partner’s parents ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, really, this is what you call everyone anyway. So it was weird changing from the specific tante and om when referring to Obi’s parents, which seemed closer almost, and moving to what to me felt a more general ‘bu’ and ‘pak’. Strangers around the same age are called ‘kakak’, ‘mas’, and ‘mbak’ or ‘brother/sister’. In general, society is then reflected as one big family. There are rules within this, and subtleties which I have not yet learned, but the sense of a communal connection is much greater than that I’ve experienced at home.
My grandma, having lived a lot longer than I, and a little longer than my mum, reminded us that this used to be how it was in the UK. You would call your spouse’s parents your own, and everyone would be an aunt or an uncle. My mum considered when she was growing up, and couldn’t pinpoint when the change happened, where this familial language was lost. She would never have called my dad’s mother ‘mum’, but after I was born called her ‘nanny’ for my sake. She remembered the widespread use of ‘auntie’ though. And I did too, growing up all of my mum’s friends were ‘auntie’ to me, although we couldn’t say if this was still common with children today.
We questioned what this decline in familial language meant for the UK, and what the effect is of using familial language. Our combined first reaction was sadness, it is sad that there is growing individualism (is this the right word?) that draws people away from these familial terms for strangers, an awkwardness, a wariness. But then again, with movements like #metoo, fear of stranger danger, everyday sexism, is it something necessary? Are communities actually tighter in Indonesia for this use of language? I think so, but then again there are issues surrounding domestic violence, and difficult family relations with families not liking partners, issues where different religious followers aren’t allowed to be together. There’s also racism towards Papuans, Indonesian Chinese – despite this closer language, it doesn’t always make it so in action.
Yet I can’t help that thinking in a lot of ways, the Indonesian community systems in place have got it right. ‘Social capital’, the way of assessing the ‘wealth’ of the community is high. If someone dies, the whole community will come together – whatever the hour – to comfort the family, and they will continue to be there for the first week, the first month, the first 1000 days after. Recently, after a large storm my favourite soto restaurant’s roof blew off and everyone from the local kampung came together to fix a new one. Next to my house, the ibus of the kampung work in rows planting rice together in a patch of field, sharing irrigation and resources. A small table set to the side with water and biscuits to be consumed in the midday heat. While this does happen in the UK in many cases, one example being the shelter created by students at my university, it is not something that would happen often without thinking, or hesitation. Particularly not in cities like London. The saudara, or siblings, don’t come together in quite the same way.
Whilst we didn’t come to a fixed conclusion, my mother, my grandmother and I, in that moment, in that context we felt the importance of family – those genetic, those prescribed and those chosen, and the importance of connection between mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters, best friends and neighbours. At that time, a few weeks before the Brexit deadline, the UK felt more removed from familial language than ever, rather than aunts and uncles there were brexiters and remainers, traitors and bemoaners, cosmopolitan elites and millenials, foreigners and immigrants. Perhaps its time we all reflect on what we call each other and the language we use for our both local and wider community, remembering that whether we call someone aunt or immigrant, they are human, we have some things in common and some things we don’t. We all have to work harder to build up that social capital, those bonds wherever we find them.