My yard guy, an ancient Papuan man, came to me recently with a request. It went something like this:
Pak Aki: “Ibu, saya minta ijin tidak masuk, karena ada keluarga meninggal.” (Ma’am, I ask for permission not to work today, because a relative has died.)
Me: Siapa meninggal? (Who died?)
Pak Aki: Itu kakak punya anak ipar saya (My older brother/sister’s son/daughter-in-law – OR my brother/sister-in-law’s uncle/aunt/older sibling - OR perhaps something totally different)
Me: Jadi itu saudara kandung Bapak, nggak? (It was your sibling – literally – of the same womb?)
Pak Aki: Ya, kakak punya adik dari sepupu saya (Yes, my older sibling’s younger sibling’s cousin)
Me: [Still quite confused but feigning comprehension] Oh jadi itu saudara Bapak (so it was your relative)
Pak Aki: Ya itu saudara saya (yes it was my relative)
And so concludes another round of “Name That Relative,” a little language game I get to play frequently with my Indonesian friends and acquaintances.
Oh, how I sometimes yearn for the precision of English family terms. We don’t just call someone our “saudara” but our second cousin by marriage on our mother’s side. I loved it when my grandmother would refer to her “double first-cousins" who were not to be confused with the regular first cousins. Why are we so precise? Why the detail? Why is it so important for me to nail down the relation of the dearly departed to my yard guy???
I have yet to hear a word for “half-sister,” “great-grandparent” or “double first cousins.” Indonesians seem content with their family words. They are liberal with their use of saudara (sibling or relative), kakak (older sibling or relative), adik (younger sibling or relative), sepupu (cousin), and tante (aunt). In fact, I have been called all of these at some point by Indonesians, despite the fact that in Indonesia I am related by blood only to my children.
Indonesians, on the whole, are a gracious people. Arms open wide, they’ll take you as a saudara. And their language and culture make a beautiful allowance for forgetting or not knowing someone’s name. Can you determine the person is older than you? Call them kakak. Is it a child? Adik will suffice. Your neighbor lady? Ibu works wonderfully. An old man? Kakek (Grandpa), or Om (Uncle) will do.
Doesn’t matter. You’re family.