January 28, 2023

Like Sands Through the Hourglass….

by Vago Damitio

No matter who a person is or where they may be growing up, there is no doubt about the fact that they will, at some point in their lives, deal with some sort of rite of passage. If a person is Caucasian, middle income, and living in an American town with a population of between 100 and 50,000 people, chances are probably pretty good that they will deal with one of the following before they reach the age of twenty two years old; throwing up from too much alcohol, running away from home, losing their virginity in a vehicle, sneaking out for the first time without permission, and/or using a fake identification to go to an age limited venue.

These, in this author’s opinion, are just a few of the ‘standard’ coming of age rituals that take place at some point in the lives of most ‘white kids’ in the United States. While these rites of passage may be a much more universal phenomenon within a broader demographic than that listed above, the author has provided neither the time nor the effort to substantiate any of this with background source material other than his own experience and that which has been related to him through his peers, popular media, and personal observation. Such is not the case however, with the ideas which the author will be presenting in the forthcoming paragraphs.

Amongst groups of people who are most assuredly not self-described ‘white kids’, there are also rites of passage which are likely to be encountered because of the unique cultural, geographical, and temporal position of the given society to which a person may belong. Many of these societies have (and sometimes continue) to exist in the region described as Southeast Asia. Within this region a diversity of people lead lives that, in some ways, are very different from the life of Caucasian white people in medium sized towns in the United States. For example, among the Kayan people of Sawak young girls received tattoos starting at about the age of ten years old! This tattooing process would continue until a girl reached sexual maturity and showed the people in Kayan society that the young woman was capable of enduring the hardships of bearing children (Andaya 2006: 201). This ritualistic tattooing is no longer observed, but throughout Southeast Asia there are many other rites which are still practiced or survived until more recent times.

The Sama Dilaut Tawi Tawi of the Southern Philippines have elaborate marriage rituals that include a general state of sexual openness for young people (those not getting married) as the festivities take place. Rather than losing their virginity in the back of a Nissan Sentra, these young people are more likely to experience that particular threshold crossing in the bushes near the moorage where the marriage ceremony takes place (Nimmo 2006:177). While this is not a formalized way to lose one’s virginity, there can be no doubt that it has marked a life changing moment for some of those who have partaken in it. While attitudes about sex may be very different from culture to culture, it seems to be a cross cultural moment of transition.

Amongst the Minangkabau of Sumatra, the sexual free license that the Sama Dilaut Tawi Tawi are able engage in is not encouraged. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This is especially true for young unmarried women. As Evelyn Blackwood explains in Webs of Power, a family’s future is often dependent on the young women in it. (Blackwood 2000: 78). This importance of women’s virtue is mainly because the Minangkabau have a matrilineal kinship system. Thus even if a woman in this society claims to be a ‘housewife’, she may be claiming a different cultural status than the same claim would make in a different part of the world (Blackwood 2000: 91). However, while the coming of age ceremonies of the Minangkabau may have different values, rituals, and backgrounds than those of the Sama Dilaut, there are still specialized ways of marking adulthood unique to each culture.

The Toraja of Sulawesi mark different periods of their lives in different ways than either group. Like ‘white kids’, the Toraja often run away as children when they feel unappreciated (Hollan and Wellencamp 1996:46). This may be a reflection of the relative autonomy with which both American children and those of the Toraja are imbued with through childhood. Amongst the Toraja, as opposed to many other Southeast Asian people, the children decide for themselves when they are ready to go through ritualized passages(Hollan and Wellencamp 1996:143). This sort of stoic view of life can be seen in many of the cultural viewpoints of the Toraja, such as their view that death for one’s self or others is inevitable and thus not something to worry about (Hollan and Wellencamp 1996:175). This seems to hold true with the Toraja viewpoint that life is “rarely without its challenges, disappointments, and moments of despair (Hollan and Wellencamp 1996:201). Many of these crucial points in life may be connected with growth from one stage to another.

It is easy to see, even without the most recent studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that there are many things which bind all of the people of the world together as a unified species. One of these things is our need to know that we are getting somewhere within the scope of our narrow existence. Human beings start out unable to walk, talk, or take care of ourselves but once we get up on our legs, humans, wherever we are, love to tag off the relay stations of life in order to show that we are someone. Whether it is marriage, sex, or getting one’s name in the phonebook for the first time, human beings can and do create significant marks to count off the days of our lives.

Andaya, Barbara Watson. 2006. Being Female in “Early Modern” Southeast Asia. In The Falming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Blackwood, Evelyn 2000. Webs of Power: Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers.

Hollan, Douglas W. and Wellenkamp, Jane C. 1996. The Thread of Life. Toraja Reflections on the Life Cycle. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Nimmo, H. Arlo. 2001. Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut. Honolulu. University of Hawaii Press.

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