Words That Don't Mean
A departing Indonesian said something to us that made me turn to an English woman for help. She had credentials aplenty – English literature and Southeast Asian studies, and a house in Lombok where she’d lived for many years. To top it all, she worked among Indonesians in this metropolis. I thought I’d heard a familiar cry from the old Tanjong in Kuala Trengganu, in the market. “Did I hear him right?” I asked, “did he really say mari-mari before he went jalan-jalan?”
“Ah well he did,” she said, “it’s quite a common expression in Indonesia, probably of Sumatran origin.”
Mari-mari meaning “come, come!” is the familiar cry of market traders, but why did he say it as he was leaving?
The answer to that is typically Eastern, it’s a courteous statement dressed in an invitation. “I’m going now,” the Indonesian was saying, “do come with me if you want.” But of course no one was expected to follow him home.
“Do women say it too?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s used by everyone,” the English lady said.
So it’s just like the time when you open your packed lunch in front of the office crowd. You turn to everyone to say, "Makan...makan!" ("Eat...eat!"), then everyone says no, no honestly, thank you before you can comfortably begin to tuck in on your own. These are words that strike a pose but don't mean anything beyond their social import, they are the grease that makes our wheel turn.
Meetings and departures are peculiar rituals in most cultures. “How do you do?” raises the question of “what?” but it is seldom necessary to think of it like that. As it is merely ritualistic without being interrogative, most people will simply hurl the question back: “Oh, how do you do?”. But if the question then turns to “How’s your wife?” some may want to retort, “Compared to what?”
But never, never ask a Saudi man that, or your tarbouch will be knocked into a cocked hat.
“Have you eaten?” some Chinese hosts would ask, as would some Malays. The idea is to show concern over the welfare of your friend or guest. In some Indonesian islands they go one better, “Dah mandi?” is the polite concern. “Have you had a bath?” In Trengganu we are often quite cereberal and take it straight to the head. ”Guane gamök?” we ask of passing friends, “What do you think?” Of what? A better translation is perhaps “What do you make of it?” which opens it wide for the receipient: himself, the world, the day so far, the price of chicken.
To Gamök is to appraise, often by tactile means, by taking the appraised object and handling it, in your hand. The phrase dök tegamök is a useful all-purpose phrase to express distaste, an embarrassment induced by even thinking of it, or a conduct that is unbecoming though not wrong. I suppose here the mere thought of taking it — a thing, an idea, a proposal — in your real or metaphorical hand is unthinkable, outright embarrassing. ”La, ba’ape yang mung dök nniköh denge budök tu?” Well, why didn’t you marry her then?
”Hisy, aku dök tegamok eh, dia muda jjetik.” “No, I can’t do that— , she’s much too young!” In other words, I can’t handle that. So, in a sense that is now almost frogotten, gamök is a touchy-feely word.
Often someone known is met with just a one-word greeting, ”Guane!” (How?). And the stock answer to that is not how your are, or that your tummy’s upset, or your toenail’s ingrown and your ducks have stopped saying quack, but probably ”Dak guane-e, ggitulah.” (The extra 'e' in guane-e is merely there for balance). “What else can I say, it is ever thus.”
As children we used to say to leaving adults, "Nök ikut, nök ikut!" ("I wanna come, I wanna come!"), and often we were left behind dok gelepör gelenyong, nnangih wek-wek! bawling and throwing a tantrum. Is the Indonesian "Mari, mari!" connected to that, as a nod to past regrets, but secure in the knowledge that now there's no fear of the person you're addressing it to taking it up and tagging along?