SURABAYA DAYS; A name for everyone jostling under the sun

My friend speaks Dutch to his wife, Indonesian to his children and Javanese when shopping
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Having a double-barrelled surname can be an inconvenience when abroad, especially one rich in Rs and Ls, and especially in Asia. "Richard" most people can just about manage, but "Lloyd" is pushing it a bit, and "Parry" is frankly asking for trouble. In Indonesia, this is the first thing everyone wants to know. Taxi drivers, waiters, museum attendants - no transaction is complete without the question: "What is your name?"

At first I compromised with simply "Richard". But after a couple of days in Surabaya I decided it was time to come out of the closet.

"Hello mister!" said the man sitting next to me in the market cafe. "What is your name?"

"Richard Lloyd Parry," I said apologetically. "And what is your name?"

"Bambang Edy Santosa Soeyitno," came the reply.

Never again will I consider my name a problem. For oddity, unwieldiness, and sheer unpronouncability, nothing can match the names of Indonesia which seem to embody the unpredictability of the whole country.

The Justice Minister is Oetojo Oesman. The opposition leader is Megawati Sukarnoputri. There is a photographer called Alfa Bravo. Skimming the bylines in the Surabaya Post I find Herman Basuki, Oei Eng Goan, Fatchur Rozy, Hyginus Hardoyo, and Dja Welman Son Andries. Almost everyone sounds like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel.

The cornucopia of names is only part of the story. Geographically, linguistically, and ethnically, Indonesia is more like an empire, or a solar system, than a nation state. The islands were diverse enough before the arrival of Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Japanese, colonising, proselytising and trading. One reckoning counts 365 Indonesian languages and 300 separate ethnic groups. My guidebook lists 35, from the Bati to the Yali. That such a mixture manages to coexist under one flag is remarkable enough but, predictably, it is also the source of some lively prejudice.

Even after a few days in Surabaya, you get a glimpse of these sentiments, and of the ethnic and religious land mines waiting to explode beneath the unwary traveller. Surabaya is Indonesia's second city, and like second cities all over the world, it has a mingled envy and contempt for the pampered yuppies of the capital. But Surabaya is also a capital - of the East Java region, and just as Surabayans despise Jakartans, so they are also held in contempt by migrants from the outlying islands, and even by the inhabitants of other East Javanese cities.

"My parents came from the Moluccas," I was told by one Surubayan, "and maybe it's just me, but I can't get used to East Javans. They're arrogant people, and quite touchy too. Not as touchy as the Madurese, though: those Madurese you've really got to look out for. They are stupid, uneducated people and easily aroused. Anything gets them excited, anything. But they hate us Moluccans as well."

My friend was born and grew up in Surabaya. He speaks Dutch to his wife, Indonesian to his children, and Javanese when he goes shopping. His name is Yan Paul Kost Soerjadi. Our conversation was conducted in schoolboy French.

This impression of almost ridiculous diversity is borne out by a stroll through Surabaya. I take my breakfast in a cafe close to the main market. More than anything, it reminds me of the space bar in Star Wars: a gathering place for life forms from all over the universe. It is in an old Dutch colonial house; on the walls are framed Muslim prayers in Arabic. The food is Indonesian-Chinese, and I sprinkle it with Japanese salt (Ajinomoto), and American pop (Fanta) bottled under license in Jakarta. The man sitting on my left is a naturalised Arab of Abyssinian and Iraqi parentage. He introduces me to his friend who came to Surubaya from a town in the jungles of Irian Jaya, and has thick fuzzy black hair and an almost African complexion.

His ambition is to go back to Holland, where he once worked, and marry a European woman. He asks me if I know any girls I could introduce him to, but is embarrassed by his English. "If only you spoke Dutch," he says, "then we could talk properly."

After breakfast, I head towards the market. The stalls groan under the produce of the islands: cinammon sticks, tubers of ginger and ginseng, baskets of cloves, nuts, garlic, tomatoes, cabbages, coconuts, bananas, papayas and chilis. At the far end is a stall selling a variety of sex toys and aphrodisiacs - creams, sprays and transparent packets of Chinese condoms. Most repulsive are a pile of penile rings, made out of the skin and bristly hairs of an indeterminable animal.

Outside the market is a sluggish river in which a group of small children are washing themselves. "Hello mister!" they shout as I pass. I wave back, and lean on the bridge to look down into the murky waters. A shoal of turds floats out from beneath the bridge and bobs gently past the children.

I cross the bridge and at last find a familiar sight: yellow arches, chrome and glass, and inside a party of children throwing Big Macs at one another. Almost sentimentally, I stumble through the McPortals, avid for air conditioning and predictability. A Chinese girl takes my order of French fries; her badge identifies her as Rita and she urges me to have a nice day. "What's your name?" asks Rita in an American accent. "Where do you come from?"