Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Sweetest World-Weary Toddler in All of Jogjakarta

There's this thing that Indonesian children do that is just so unbelievably sweet. They take your hand like they might shake it or kiss it but instead, they lightly bring it to their face. When I think of kids, I think of them rough-housing or squeezing things too tightly (like our neighbour Russell did to our pet finch to unfortunate consequences) but these children don't do that.

I met a baby yesterday with his mother. His name is Putri and he is 18 months old. He has a perfect little serene face that doesn't move much. His expression is that of a world-weary toddler. It took a lot of peek-a-boo-ing to get him to crack a smile (the golden prize!).

I sat with him and his mother outside their temporary shelter, on the site of their former home. His mother showed me where their kitchen used to be (now a pile of rocks), where they dining room used to be (simply a flat, cement foundation) and where their temporary washroom area is (disconcertingly, by the well).

She held Putri the whole time. He didn't cry or make a peep really. But she told me a story that just broke my heart. Apparently, he will not fall asleep inside their home. He refuses and he'll start wailing when she tries to put him down. Instead, she has to hold him outside in the open air and then tuck him in once he's already fallen asleep. He's been like this ever since the earthquake three and a half months ago. Psychological damage isn't any less tragic in an adult but this just seems wrong, like his body is too small for him to be so traumatized. It isn't fair. He is still being breastfed. And he has bigger problems than I've ever had.

In parting, we all shook hands and said, "Terima kasih, Ibu!" many times ("Thank you, ma'am!") and in the handshaking, good-bye greeting melee, Putri just silently took my hand. I barely felt his little hand. It was like he didn't use any strength or force from his own hand, just his little baby mindpower. Then he put my hand on his mouth, with the gentlest pressure, ever so lightly. No kiss, just a whisper of a touch. I think it was the sweetest gesture I have ever experienced in my life.

The children in Banda Aceh also do it. When I was at a primary school (these kids were probably 5-10 years old) a whole classroom of them all lined up and went by me, taking my hand one by one and touching it to their foreheads. I was speechless. So precious.

Today the children I met at a small, countryside mosque also did that with my hand but they touched it to their cheeks. So many variations on this most adorable custom! I've learned a lot of Bahasa Indonesian words (just the basics, like food names and niceties) but I think this hand-touching gesture is the best part of their language that I'll be taking away.


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