A Loaded Question

IMG_1104At the stroke of 6 this morning, just shy of dawn and under cover of near-darkness, I slid the compound gate open and was immediately greeted with gamelan music blaring across the (natural) air-waves, its volume pumped up to the max.* IMG_1106

Treading slowly down the driveway and then along the road, I came across a villager walking outside her home. Mau kemana?, she asked me. It took me a second to register her question because it was so odd. Or rhetorical. Take your pick. Either way, it was – even in my state of half-reverie – an utterly nonsensical question.IMG_1107

Mau kemana? – also often abridged to kemana? is a much-asked question posed by Balinese. Which literally translates to: Where are you going? It’s a greeting, much like “how are you?” is asked in the West, the only expectation being a curt answer such as “fine, thanks.” Here, even though a lengthy answer is not requested, I’ve yet to determine whether one is expected to answer honestly.

IMG_1108I was faced with an equally puzzling question when I spent New Year’s Eve at Villa Shang-Hay in Lombok, tossing and turning at a sleep-over, together with fifty or so of Hay’s relatives and friends. It was sometime in the middle of the night when I realized that I had to go the bathroom. In an overtired and somnambulistic state, I slowly ambled towards the rear of the compound, towards the only loo on the premises. On the way, I passed a couple of teenagers sitting on a step, in animated conversation , when they looked up to me and in unison asked, quite seriously I recall, mau kemana?

Need I even allude to the sheer ludicrousness of that question, at that time of night, in that particular spot? There was only ONE place where I could have been headed. Befuddled and bewildered, I thought it best to ignore the question, then walked past them as if in a haze.

IMG_1110So why was it a nonsensical, ridiculous question this morning? Because, here in little Mongan, at the dead end of a road, unless I was going to the temple (which I wouldn’t be doing at that hour, nor was I dressed appropriately), there is only one place that I (the sole foreigner this weekend at the site) could possibly be headed to; di proyek. The construction site.

Do they really want to know or is it just a rhetorical question, a form of social interaction? Perhaps it’s merely a greeting meant to elicit nothing more than a grunt, an upward nod of the head (so typical among the Balinese) or just a smile of recognition. I’ve not yet figured it out.

Then again, if they do mean it literally, I need to develop some other MOs.

IMG_1112I’ve not yet learned how to say “it’s none of your business” in bahasa Indonesia (aside from which it would be unacceptably rude to utter that phrase), so I vary my answers. Sometimes it’s jalan-jalan (just walking), other times I might be more specific; depending also on whom is asking. Once in awhile, I just nod and smile and walk on.IMG_1113If I’m feeling slightly irked, I might tilt my head slightly, wink and reply: rahasia (it’s a secret). But if I’m really on top of things, prepared for the inevitable, then I remember to give the best answer of all: pulang. I adore this one-word way of saying “I’m going home.” Yes, pulang says it all – even if I’ve just walked out of my compound and obviously cannot be heading home.

In fact, I’m thinking of adopting pulang as my default reply from hereon in, because though it may raise some eyebrows, the truth is that, wherever I might be going at that particular moment, eventually, ultimately, at the end of each day, I will indeed be going home.

*Turns out that during week or two of rice-planting season, the ear-splitting sounds serve a specific function; awaking the farmers at 6, alerting them to lunch break at 12, and finally sounding the end of their work-day at 6 in the evening.IMG_1115


    1. I don’t ask – unless I do so jokingly with (Balinese) friends. It’s a standard Balinese question, not one that’s posed by foreigners living here. And even when I’ve asked what it’s about, I get varying answers – usually with a smile 😉 More mysteries on this island..

      1. The other question is whether the Balinese do it with each other, or if it’s a special “foreigner” question. If the Balinese do it with one another, there’s no reason why you can’t ask it too. I have Indian friends who always ask me first if I’ve eaten. When I talk to them, I ask them that first. Why not? We all say hello differently.

      2. True, but my story was also a bit tongue in cheek 😉 It’s all really part of the mystery and beauty of living in such a different (Asian) culture.
        Like the Indians, the Balinese also will typically ask: Sudah makan? (Often instead of or together with hello) = Have you eaten? My sense is that it’s become so entrenched in the psyche and culture; this question that refers to the most basic of human needs

      3. I like culture, so sorry if I took you too seriously. Being a stranger in a culture involves interesting challenges and puzzles. Enjoy your island mysteries.

  1. I have pondered this too! At first I was taken aback at the intrusion, “Where are you going?” My immediate thought response was, “Why do you need to know?” Since then I’ve added some bahasa Indonesia to my skills list and I, like you, have found some ways to circumnavigate the question. But now I have two more! RAHASIA and PULANG! Thanks Amit!

    1. We tend to guard our privacy more than the Balinese do.. or perhaps it’s true that they ask the same of each other.. I wonder! Don’t you just LOVE this abbreviated way of saying “I’m going home”?!

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