Tino Merino '12: Telling the Story One More Time
Tino Merino was the 2012-2014 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is his second year narrative.
Aan and I (center) with our friends
I can spot the look of bewilderment before the creases on Firman’s face take shape. This facial topography has become common over the past two years in Banda Aceh. It’s usually followed by a long pause as the person tries to fill in the cracks with the prefixes and suffixes I forgot, to see if anything makes more sense than what they think I’ve said. In the end, they give up and ask what I mean or in an attempt at politeness give an enthusiastic nod that I’ve learned signifies the impending death of our conversation. I try to redeem myself, say the same sentence a different way, gesticulate like I was seizing at a rave in the 80’s. But sudden surges of self-awareness tend to gag a person. I wonder what Firman is going to do next, if he’ll nod or ask why I look like a frazzled mime when Aan interjects. He explains what I wanted to say only more elegantly and clearly than I could’ve ever hoped. The fit subsides and is replaced with the realization that somewhere along the road to fluency in Bahasa Indonesia I took a detour and became fluent in Bahasa Aan instead.
I met Aan my third week in Banda Aceh when I approached a group of law students in lieu of taking a nap. He didn’t introduce himself as Aan but as the Alejandro who inspired Lady Gaga to write a song with the same name. I relished the opportunity to answer the get-to-know you questions everyone asks. By this point, I’d said them so often that if a person was blind and going deaf they might mistake me for a native Indonesian. That is until Aan asked if I wanted to marry an Acehnese woman. I didn’t have a stock answer for this question, at least not yet, and I didn’t know how to respond. Should I say I don’t, potentially insulting all the women in Banda Aceh? Or would answering affirmatively be in and of itself more offensive? Aan seemed to enjoy watching me struggle. I’d spent two months aware that I was being handled like a Faberge egg though in truth this probably started at birth. But now that I’d noticed it, I couldn’t think of anything else. If I really wanted to belong, I needed to be treated like everyone else— I needed to be humiliated— Aan seemed more than willing to fill that role. And over the course of countless coffee dates that’s exactly what he did.
It’s a Tuesday night and I’m late, even by Acehnese standards, to meet friends. I’m stranded on the side of the road with my motorbike chain broken. I haven’t been afflicted with the unwillingness to walk that plagues some of my Acehnese friends but I’m not totally immune either. I can’t leave the bike on the side of the road to walk to a mechanic for fear of being the topic of playful office teasing. I’m ok with being known as the loud/disruptive one but being the one who got his bike stolen is not an option. I call Aan, who is waiting for me, to tell him that I’ll be late. He asks why then tells me he’ll be over in five minutes to come help me. I’m surprised. I shouldn’t be but I am. In the states, I’d been conditioned to ask for help only as a last resort. I was taught to fix my own problems and let other people deal with their own. With friends back home it was only after I’d found a solution by myself that I would tell them there was ever a problem in the first place. I thought everyone else was the same. Turns out, I was just a terrible friend. Aan came, we took off the chain and pushed the bike to the nearest mechanic, we laughed together. It didn’t matter that our coffee date had been inadvertently ruined, we were together and that was enough.
Aan doesn’t believe in aliens. He believes that we have soul mates and a destiny. He doesn’t totally buy Darwin’s theory of evolution or that men have gone to the moon. Whenever we discuss these things he takes great pains to remind me that these are just his opinions like he reminds me every so often that he is not a terrorist. He’ll ask me questions about what I believe and he’ll listen even if by the end of the conversation all we’ve agreed on is to disagree. We’ll spend 45 min trying to explain to each other one point. Drawing diagrams, translating words, rephrasing and then rephrasing again till the other understands or kind of understands or nods enthusiastically. What makes these conversations impressive though is that they take place between 1 and 4 in the morning and we are up to even have them at all.
I’ll be thinking about Banda Aceh a long time after I’ve left. I’ll think about the coffee, the islands I’ve seen, the mountains I’ve climbed. I’ll think about the mistakes that I’ve made and how I wiggled out of uncomfortable situations. But I’ll remember Aan and the other friends I made most. How they made me feel so at home that it’s hard even thinking about leaving. What they taught me and how it changed what I knew about relationships and religion and friendship. I’ll remember the fights we had and the laughter we shared. As I prepare to leave, I can’t help but feel sad although I know that it means it was worthwhile. I’m most afraid, that I’ll forget and that in a couple of months I’ll regress back to the person I was before I left. That I’ll forget the stories I’ve made or heard. I’ll do anything to avoid that even if it means groans of children and grandchildren at my insistence of telling the story one more time.