01 February 2004

Torajan Carvers in Exotic England

Anthropologist Nigel Barley invited a team of Indonesian woodcarvers from Torajaland to build an exhibit at the British Museum. They found the British to be an exotic people.
The first shock for them was that all British were not white. West Indians look to them like Irian Jayans, the Indonesian half of New Guinea, so they tended to expect them to talk Indonesian. Chinatown did not surprise them. 'Chinese are good at business. They get everywhere.' Indians they would assume to be Arabs. The most mortifying experience was to discover that there was no slot 'Indonesian' in English folk categories and that they themselves would be regarded as Chinese.

A second shock was that all Europeans were not rich. Admittedly, they had seen young puttypersons [i.e., orang putih 'white person', like orang utan 'inland person'] in Torajaland playing at being poor, but everyone knew they would be carrying larger sums of money than a Torajan farmer would see in a lifetime. Why did I have no servants, no car, and no chauffeur? They were distressed by the drunks who roam the streets of London, being unused to situations where you pretend that people shouting at you are not there. That people should have no work and receive money from the government staggered them like right-wing Tories. Surely they had misunderstood. Were these people not pensioners? Had they not at some time been in the army and were receiving money for their wounds?

They arrived at a moment of high political activity, just days before a General Election, and were amazed at the lack of respect we show politicians. 'We would go to jail for that!' was their constant cry. Yet it should not be assumed that they envied us our freedom. To them, it appeared more as lack of order, as messy and reprehensible ill-management. Johannis summed it up swiftly, 'I see that England is a place where no one respects anyone.'

The position of the Queen puzzled them too. Like many foreigners they found it hard to imagine the relationship between a female prime minister and a female sovereign and drew the inevitable conclusion that only women are eligible for positions of power in this strange land. 'It is like the Minang people of Sumatera,' they opined with appropriate ethnographic example. 'There it is the women who own everything and the poor men are sent abroad to work for them. You are just like them. We feel sorry for you.'
SOURCE: Nigel Barley, Not a Hazardous Sport (Henry Holt, 1988), pp. 182-183.

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