A lot of what I experience in Indonesia is just day-to-day teacher stuff–my expat life is, without a doubt, much different from that of an average Indonesian. But that doesn’t mean that I never get to see a deeper look into Indonesian life and culture. On April 21–Kartini Day–I was lucky enough to experience an elementary school’s observation of a holiday that was established to commemorate the Indonesian national heroine Raden Ayu Kartini.
It was the in-school where I teach most mornings that invited me to attend their ceremonies, and I was pleased to accept, though slightly nervous about the part of the invitation that asked me to wear traditional Indonesian attire. Nonetheless, I arrived at the school on Monday morning, excited to take part in the celebrations and to see what exactly this holiday meant.
I walked into the teacher’s room and they clapped and cheered when they saw me decked out in borrowed Indonesian garments. All of the teachers were dressed in elaborate outfits, and everybody insisted on taking group photos until it was time for the first event of the day.
The weekly flag ceremony was much more colorful than usual, as we joined the hundreds of costumed students in the sunny courtyard and listened to an enthusiastic speech–it was unintelligible to me, so I spent my time looking around and taking in all of the colorful outfits that the students were wearing.
When the flag ceremony ended, students filed out of the courtyard, led by us teachers. We walked down the hall, out of the school, off the grounds, and down the road. I wasn’t sure where exactly we were walking, but at the point we turned around, I realized it was just a little parade. By the time we got back to the school, about fifteen minutes later, many of the students were drenched with sweat, and I was starting to feel sunburnt.
However, the good cheer still remained as we got back to the school. That was when one of the other teachers leaned over and excitedly told me that it was time for makanan tradisional–traditional food. During our parade, the indoor gym had been set up with tables that were now heavily laden with regional snacks.
As everyone ate, I had a chance to mingle with the students and notice their outfits in much more detail. Rich fabrics, shiny jewelry, and elaborate headwear contributed to some of the most spectacular costumes I’ve ever seen.
I was so surprised that all of the students have the means to dress so elaborately, and I don’t know if it’s because these students come from wealthy families so it’s no big deal to buy a fancy costume (this is a very nice private school) or if it’s because Indonesian people just find it important to own traditional clothing.
I simply can’t think of an equivalent to this in the US–imagine if every single person had a 1700s colonial-style outfit tucked away in their closet that they donned every year for a Presidents Day celebration.
Next, I had a chance to be still more impressed when the local English teacher at the school led me to a classroom to show me something. It was a classroom that I’ve often walked past but never had any classes in, and I realized why when she unlocked the door and invited me in to see what was almost like a room out of a museum. She demonstrated some of the instruments, pointed out the pieces of shimmery batik cloth that were draped across the walls, and asked me if I knew about the wayang.
“We collect traditional things,” she told me, “because it helps us learn about our culture.” She left me to wander around the tables and take in the colorful artifacts.
Soon after I finished looking around the room, it was time for everybody to assemble once more in the courtyard for a fashion show. Grades 1-5 strutted down the makeshift red carpet, twirling, waving, and bowing for their audience.
Proud parents scampered around, trying to photograph their costumed children from every angle as the judges jotted notes on their clipboards.
Students stood in their sweat-soaked clothes as the sun beat down and teachers raced around trying to position them on the “stage.”
Some of the students were clearly having fun, and their smiles were just as charming as their costumes.
And other students looked a little uncomfortable, impatient, bored, antsy, or downright miserable. It was, after all, a very hot day–even by Indonesian standards–and not every kid wants to be in a fashion show.
After all of the classes had a chance to show off on the runway, the judges made their decisions and awarded the winning classes with their prizes. It was late morning, the celebration was over then, and students were sent home.
I went home feeling like I had gotten to see something very special.
But what did any of this have to do with Kartini, you ask? It’s worth noting that I didn’t see how any of the celebrations were tied to the mother of Indonesian feminism. And a quick internet search revealed something that I had suspected might be true: While Kartini Day was once a holiday that encouraged women to be involved in politics and other areas where they’re underrepresented, more modern state leaders have reconfigured it into a day where young girls are expected to wear costumes that in reality are much more constricting than what Kartini would have worn. (Though of course, I witnessed that the celebrations aren’t exclusive to girls and women.)
History tells us that Kartini was a determined woman who supported emancipation and encouraged women to become educated, but the government now praises Kartini for her virtues of being a dutiful wife and obedient daughter. I have to wonder what Kartini would have thought if she’d known that more than a century after her death, people would be celebrating her legacy with day of fashion shows and regional snacks, some meat-filled (she herself advocated for vegetarianism).
If I’m honest, I simply can’t say that in my experience of Kartini Day, I got to see anything resembling feminism–however, I certainly did get to see a celebration of Indonesian heritage and culture, and it was definitely one of the more interesting moments I’ve had this year.
Indonesia is still a developing country that has a long way to go in many areas, and gender equality is just one issue that will hopefully improve with time and increased access to education. But for now, it’s a country that has a lot of culture on display and people who are eager to share that heritage.