There is a phrase in Bahasa Indonesia that has popped up over the past two weeks that I think deserves some attention: pulang kampung. In the driest and most direct sense of translation (i.e. Google), the English equivalent is “back to hometown”, but as is generally the case with this kind of cultural-specific saying, a deeper explanation is necessary. It helps if you take the words individually. While pulang on its own means “to return home”, kampung means village, so an even better interpretation would align with the American “homecoming” or best of all “heading home for the holidays”.
Which is apropos because we are in the midst of the Balinese version of that week between Christmas and New Years when no one works and everything is closed. It’s called Galungan and is the ten-day period when the spirits of the ancestors return to Earth. One special day, the day after the spirits arrive, is devoted to visiting family, quite literally: pulang kampung. This year, coincidentally, it is also the end of the Ramadan, Islam’s month of fasting that is broken by Eid al-Fitr, or in Indonesian, Idul Fitri or Lebaran, the Ummah-wide festival that requires you to show happiness.
Every culture has days that are central to its calendar and as those cultures change, their most important days may change overtime. Christmas wasn’t a popular holiday until the mid-19th century and now it’s a global wave of fake snow and tinsel. It’s interesting to note that while national holidays, ‘Independence Day’s and the like, aren’t often a time for family, those holidays with a religious origin are a time when family is celebrated as much as the holiday itself. No one would pulang kampung for the Fourth of July, but one would feel a certain sense of grief if left alone on Thanksgiving[i]. I know I did.
I’ve spent five of the last six Thanksgivings away from home and one (2012) I barely celebrated at all. I’ve learned a couple things from celebrating holidays remotely. To begin with, there is the surreal notion that while in your country of residence, life proceeds as it would on any other day, at home, all the traditions and elaborate meals and dramas are playing out as you remember. This can be taken a step further to the realization that your holidays, your traditions and elaborate meals are not universal (the dramas likely are).
At first thought, this might devalue your holiday; after all, Thanksgiving is just the third Thursday of November everywhere else in the world. But then, once introduced to the traditions and elaborate meals (and dramas) of another culture, you begin to understand that the actual things being celebrated – family, community, love, etc. – are actually the same. So really, celebrating that which is most important is universal, you just have to find the right day and remember what your holiday is at its core. Being home just makes it easier.
So, pulang kampung for your holidays if you can, but enjoy the celebrations that are around you and please remember those that couldn’t make it home. Selamat Hari Raya Galungan and Eid Mubarak, especially to my girl who couldn’t pulang kampung for the big day.
[i] While Thanksgiving is a fundamentally American holiday, the Thanks you’re Giving are meant to be to God. No battle or declaration is being celebrated so at the holiday’s core, at least there’s little patriotism involved. A quick side note: It would be interesting to look at whether Bastille Day (also this week) in France – that most secular of republics – is looked on as a family occasion. The only Bastille Day I’ve spent in France I spent at a family dinner but whether this is regular practice or not, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.