the ape; Lolo could sign for our dinners at a company club. Sometimes I would overhear him and my mother
arguing in their bedroom, usually about her refusal to attend his company dinner parties, where American
businessmen from Texas and Louisiana would slap Lolo’s back and boast about the palms they had
greased to obtain the new offshore drilling rights, while their wives complained to my mother about the
quality of Indonesian help. He would ask her how it would look for him to go alone, and remind her that
these were her own people, and my mother’s voice would rise to almost a shout.
They are not my people.
Such arguments were rare, though; my mother and Lolo would remain cordial through the birth of my
sister, Maya, through the separation and eventual divorce, up until the last time I saw Lolo, ten years later,
when my mother helped him travel to Los Angeles to treat a liver ailment that would kill him at the age of
fifty-one. What tension I noticed had mainly to do with the gradual shift in my mother’s attitude toward me.
She had always encouraged my rapid acculturation in Indonesia: It had made me relatively self-sufficient,
undemanding on a tight budget, and extremely well mannered when compared to other American children.
She had taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans
abroad. But she now had learned, just as Lolo had learned, the chasm that separated the life chances of an
American from those of an Indonesian. She knew which side of the divide she wanted her child to be on. I
was an American, she decided, and my true life lay elsewhere.
Her initial efforts centered on education. Without the money to send me to the International School,
where most of Djakarta’s foreign children went, she had arranged from the moment of our arrival to
supplement my Indonesian schooling with lessons from a U.S. correspondence course.
Her efforts now redoubled. Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed
me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and
she went to work. I offered stiff resistance to this regimen, but in response to every strategy I concocted,
whether unconvincing (“My stomach hurts”) or indisputably true (my eyes kept closing every five minutes),
she would patiently repeat her most powerful defense:
“This is no picnic for me either, buster.”
Then there were the periodic concerns with my safety, the voice of my grandmother ascendant. I
remember coming home after dark one day to find a large search party of neighbors that had been
assembled in our yard. My mother didn’t look happy, but she was so relieved to see me that it took her
several minutes to notice a wet sock, brown with mud, wrapped around my forearm.
“That. Why do you have a sock wrapped around your arm?”
“I cut myself.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Barry. Let me see it.”
I unwrapped the sock, exposing a long gash that ran from my wrist to my elbow. It had missed the vein
by an inch, but ran deeper at the muscle, where pinkish flesh pulsed out from under the skin. Hoping to
calm her down, I explained what had happened: A friend and I had hitchhiked out to his family’s farm, and it
started to rain, and on the farm was a terrific place to mudslide, and there was this barbed wire that marked
the farm’s boundaries, and….
My mother laughs at this point when she tells this story, the laughter of a mother forgiving her child
those sins that have passed. But her tone alters slightly as she remembers that Lolo suggested we wait until
morning to get me stitched up, and that she had to browbeat our only neighbor with a car to drive us to the
hospital. She remembers that most of the lights were out at the hospital when we arrived, with no
receptionist in sight; she recalls the sound of her frantic footsteps echoing through the hallway until she
finally found two young men in boxer shorts playing dominoes in a small room in the back. When she asked
them where the doctors were, the men cheerfully replied “We are the doctors” and went on to finish their
game before slipping on their trousers and giving me twenty stitches that would leave an ugly scar. And
through it all was the pervading sense that her child’s life might slip away when she wasn’t looking, that
everyone else around her would be too busy trying to survive to notice-that, when it counted, she would
have plenty of sympathy but no one beside her who believed in fighting against a threatening fate.