The Indonesian penchant to inquire about someone’s origins is embedded in the culture. Especially in Bali, where the class you belong to dictates the choice of language you use and the physical position you are entitled to.
On a regular basis we hear the ubiquitous Balinese greeting ‘Dari mana? Mau ke mana?’ – Where are you coming from? Where are you going? It is so ingrained in daily exchanges and was totally encapsulated by the focus theme ‘Sangkan Paraning Dumadi’ of this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF). It was succinctly translated into plain English as ‘Origins’. However, this translation conceals the deeper intrinsic meaning of the festival theme in the original language. Janet DeNeefe, Founder and Director of the UWRF explains that the theme is drawn from the Hindu philosophy ‘Sangkan Paraning Dumadi’ which speaks of our eternal connection to where we have come from, and to where we will ultimately return. By extension it considers the origins of the elements that shape us, the things we carry with us through life, and the things that draw us back.
What does it mean to the majority of expats when we talk about origins or roots? When expats talk about roots, we think of the ‘home’ culture we came from, our nationality, our native language and the various elements that sets our ethnic background apart from another’s. We carry certain elements with us wherever we go, like our favorite food recipes, music and dance, literature and art, our physical characteristics, our body language, style of clothing and our overall behavior. These are the elements we contribute to the wider community into which we migrate and integrate, be it a totally different culture or one similar to our own. In so doing we become part of the melting pot phenomenon and share in an expansion of culture. By amalgamation we create a new level to our origins, imbued with elements from other cultures or subcultures and it is this new expression of identity that we bequeath to our children.
Leaving our roots and integrating into another culture more often than not engenders a loss of familiarity or closeness with our actual origins. When we live abroad, we are removed from directly experiencing the ongoing evolution of our home culture, the swells, surges and undulations that ripple through the fabric of the left-behind society. These changes no longer have a direct impact on our new lives. Some of us experience this as a loss of culture or a watering down of the close ties that once bound us more intimately to the homeland, the ‘old country’.
We can forget or deny but never negate our origins. We always carry a remnant everywhere. As such we need to ask ourselves if we are good ambassadors for our origins or roots. Like it or not many people are judged by their nationalities or original culture and its peculiar characteristics can be perceived as good, cool, funny, awkward and even less positive by other people. Sometimes our nationalities become the butt of bar-room jokes. We all heard the one about the German mechanics, Italian workers, British cops, French chefs, Irish storytellers and Polish farmers. Sometimes the peculiarities that set us apart or make us stand out stem from our religious adherence, our physical appearance or particular mannerisms. What is acceptable behaviour in one culture may look abhorrent to another. Some hand gestures or facial expressions are A-OK in one environment but positively insulting in another. The inevitable result is that there is a lot of misunderstanding going on and from there, animosity or contempt is born.
Whenever there is a melting pot, sensitivity, understanding and appreciation of another’s culture is paramount to successful integration and mutual respect. It behooves us then, as a representative of our own unique culture, to show the most positive aspects of it and invite dialogue with others to clarify the elements that may cause misinterpretation and distrust.Incidentally, the essential meaning of Sangkan Paraning Dumadi is also recognised by other religions and philosophies. Islam teaches the Sangkan Paraning Dumadi philosophy when celebrating Eid al-Fitr. Indonesian Muslims prefer to spend the Idul Fitri holidays with family and do all they can to go on ‘mudik’, the annual trek to their home villages, to celebrate their homecoming. When going home, they say, we are required to understand where we came from, and where our lives will go on from there. Understanding of the philosophy Sangkan Paraning Dumadi teaches us about our life’s purpose and beyond.
Other philosophies call it the science of the way home or ‘what is coming will return to that origin’. As an analogy, think of a cage with a bird. You consist of two elements: your body as the vessel and your mind/spirituality as the content. Your body and your mind have their own, separate origins and also have their own way back. When the cage is ultimately damaged, the contents will be released. Your body is created from elements of nature, earth, wind and fire which ultimately will return to nature again. Your consciousness or mind is your essence, the domain of God, the universe or whatever your concept is of that essence above and beyond us. It will return to “the one who made you”.
The biblical quotation ‘From ash you are made and to ash you will return’ also refers to the round-trip theme and reminds us how we were created and where we are ultimately going back to. Here the focus is more on the impermanence of the physical body. Presumably the spirit will escape and ultimately return as well to the wild yonder. Obviously you can interpret the philosophy of Sangkan Paraning Dumadi within your own framework of reference. As I write this, snatches of ‘I’m going home…’ the eponymous song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show drift through my consciousness.
‘Cause I’ve seen blue skies through the tears In my eyes
And I realize, I’m going home’
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