09 Mar 2023

What Shall I Call You?

A Short Story

He yanked at my foot, telling me to wake up and get out of bed. Only half joking. He said he wanted to buy some underwear and a pair of swimming trunks. It was dark outside. My joints felt loose and the lids drifted down over my eyes. He said there was a bustling market down there, not far from our hotel. And the later it got, the busier it got. But he didn’t want to take me to the night market to get just those things, believe me. Sure, we hadn’t brought any clothes with us when we’d decided to stay there but I’ll tell you what he really wanted. Condoms. “No, there’s no way you’re going to fuck me without a condom,” I’d told him straight up. He’d said nothing would happen. “It’d be OK. I’m clean, there’s nothing wrong with me.” But I didn’t give a shit — I wasn’t listening to any of that. So, he slowly unpeeled himself from my body, the mouth that was pressed to my neck, the hands that groped at my nipples, the cock pressed against me, the legs entwined with mine. He was desperate to fuck. He wasn’t a bad person, wasn’t forcing me, or any rape shit like that. But whatever it was, he wasn’t going to do it. Sex would never happen if I didn’t choose to give my body to him.

In the depths of my soul, in my heart’s deepest reaches, there were glimmers of happiness, joy even, but at the same time something sombre and sad. He—this man now dressed in a white polo and jeans—had turned my world on its head. He’d lifted a thick fog from my eyes, showing me how beautiful the world could be. How completely exquisite it is. It was just me who hadn’t realized that. Only me.

Don’t be too easy with foreigners you’ve just met. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? So I’d refuse his demands and would only do it on our seventh date, by which time I could tell if he was serious and that he really liked me. Not just because he was desperate for it.

But how could I say no? I couldn’t bear to see him disappointed. I’d have no clue how to tell him to take it calmly and not act up. To behave properly.

What if he went off because he couldn’t handle being turned down? Or he thought he couldn’t get what he wanted from me, that he’d rather find someone else? Someone better, more attractive, more fun. It’d be clear he didn’t want me.

And as it’s only ever about sex, my body could always be replaced with someone else’s. Maybe he’d only be into me if I was a good lay. And if that’s the case, then I had to satisfy him, to keep him happy, to stop him drifting away.

So, that decided it, that was what I wanted. I had to do it. Because having someone who loves you and can take care of you in a foreign city, a foreign country, is better than having no one. There’s at least someone who can try to help you if you run into difficulties. So, I got up off that big, luxurious bed, got dressed, splashed water on my face, and walked out with him.




It was a fine night, with a stiff breeze from the south, the sky thick with stars and a bright moon. The moon was round in the same way I used to draw it in my sketchbook for art and craft class in school.

We left the hotel, crossing crowded streets that fanned out like the girls’ hair used to back in the village. We went up over a footbridge—quite long and a little tiring. I looked across at the face of the man walking beside me. It was tranquil, friendly, polite. He couldn’t walk very fast, definitely wouldn’t be able to run. He wasn’t as talkative as me, and was a little out of breath because of his weight, and because he wasn’t used to walking. But I didn’t dislike him for it. I sensed that he was a good man, with a pure heart. And I hoped that what my own heart tells me will never be wrong.

That morning, by now it was 11:36 p.m., so thirteen hours ago, he had picked me up. He’d parked right in front of my boarding house. How did he manage that? Google Maps never usually gave such accurate directions. But this time the app did itself proud, which meant that when I stepped out of the door he saw me right away.

His name was Razuan. He’d messaged me very early in the morning on a hook-up app. I‘d just woken up, and was chatting and eating breakfast with a friend. (Of course, the message was in English. Even now, after we’ve spent dozens of hours together, we still use that white person’s language). The chat went roughly like this:



“What’s up?”

“Can you send me your photo?

I wanted to see his photos because he hadn’t used a profile picture. Just a picture of coffee being poured into a delicate white cup.

“Sure,” and he sent one through.

“Okay. Thanks!”

“What are you up to today?”

“Not much. Just chillin’ at home.”

“Wanna go for a walk?”


“Sure, if you want. I can pick you up at 10.”


I said yes but wasn’t convinced he would actually turn up, since we didn’t know each other. But I like to string people along, so I said yes.

At nine thirty he messaged again. “On my way. See you soon!” I was a bit taken aback. I hadn’t thought he was serious. I went to shower and get ready. I’d feel bad if he got here and I wasn’t ready. I never like keeping people waiting, whoever they are. Thankfully he messaged again to say the roads were busy and he might be late. “Not a problem!” I replied.

The weather was dull. No sun, although the drizzle had a beauty of its own. As if casting a spell. Razuan picked me up at ten thirty. Sat there in the driver’s seat, his pot belly looked enormous. He wore the kind of peaked cap an artist might wear. And a neat shirt with jeans.

He seemed withdrawn. Somewhat cold. At the beginning he went on about his experiences dating younger men. He complained, making it clear what he didn’t like about them. Almost none of them behave ethically. He’d met one boy, about a week before, who’d wanted to be bought a bunch of stuff. He explained.  “I’m not angry or anything, but he shouldn’t have asked for so much all at once. One day it would be clothes, the next day shoes, the day after that it would be a phone. Razuan spoke with restraint. “If it’s like that, then don’t even try. I’m not an ATM.”

I said well that’s the risk you take if you want to sleep around with young guys. Only to myself, of course, I didn’t say it out loud. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, or for him to think me rude. After all, we’d only just met. It wouldn’t be wrong to say we didn’t even know each other. Because the fact is we didn’t. And I didn’t want him to kick me out at the side of the road. Anything could happen with a stranger you’ve just met, right?

His car was heading to a new mall, opened three months before—the biggest in town. We were going there because I really wanted to see it. I’d never been inside. It was so tall, with dozens of floors. Such a vast expanse. The impressive underground parking lot amazed me.

As soon as we’d arrived, Razuan had taken me to Starbucks. I’d asked for chamomile tea, and he’d ordered an Americano. And we’d had two pieces of red velvet cake. We’d chit-chatted in that way that only happens when you need to cover up feelings of awkwardness.

Razuan told me he worked in an office in downtown Johor Bahru. He didn’t live there, but in Taman University, about thirty minutes away. He was originally from Negeri Sembilan. He often visited his older brother, the only close family member he still had, even though the brother lived in Melaka. I told him I came from a city in Indonesia and worked for a chef in a four-star hotel. That I lived in a rented room with a co-worker, also Indonesian.

After sitting drinking for a short while, we walked around the huge mall. My eyes ranged off and up into the distance. The interior of the mall was no less impressive than its exterior design and architecture.

“Do you like to read?” I asked, after Razuan had asked about my hobbies. I said I liked reading books and writing stories.

“Of course I like reading,” he replied. “However, as the world gets more advanced and technology more sophisticated, I watch movies more often than reading books.”


“Yes. But, you know, there’s one thing that bothers me a little about movies. With a book you can tell whether it’s good or not from the first sentence. But you need to watch at least a quarter of a movie to know if it’s worth watching.”

“I know, right!”

Razuan and I walked on, taking an escalator up that brought us out in front of a shop selling clothes and sporting goods. Now! Shops like this are what I really, really like. “Shall we go in?” he asked. I nodded.

I’m not lying if say that everything in that shop was fantastic! Much better than the clothes and sportswear in any other shop I’d ever been in. I used to dream of owning a sports shop just like this, you know. So that when I went anywhere, I wouldn’t be at a loss as to what to wear. I could just take whatever I wanted.

Razuan walked around, checking out clothes one by one if they caught his eye. I just bumbled around like someone who’d just found a world they’d long dreamed of. I wanted to race around, going over to the clothes and seeing if they were nice and fitted me. But I remembered I was with someone I’d just met. I had to keep my head!

When you see things you like, you want to own them. And I’m no different. I wanted to buy shirts, jackets, shoes, socks and sweatpants! But I didn’t have any money. I only had enough savings to get me through to the end of the month—until I got my first wage packet. I needed to be thrifty.

“Hey, check this out!”

I went over and looked at what Razuan wanted to show me. “Fantastic,” I said.

He held up the white polo shirt to my body. It looked like it fitted. “Maybe not. What about a small instead of a medium?” Razuan picked one out and held it up against me. “Yes! That’s better!”

“A small for you, and an XL for me,” he added.

He led me to the changing room to see if the shirt he’d chosen fitted and looked good on us.

In the mirror, my skin looked pale against the white polo shirt. Someone knocked. “Hey?”

It was Razuan. He wanted to see if it fitted.

“It’s good, isn’t it?”

“Perfect! You look adorable…”




We slowly made our way down the stairs that led to the night market. And there it was, just close by. I could see people parking their vehicles and walking towards the entrance.

Everyone going in was having their temperature checked. If it was above 38 degrees, they couldn’t go in. It was a new regulation. According to television and the newspapers, there was a kind of virus on the rise. From China. I didn’t really understand, or care that much.

Razuan and I wandered through the snaking, winding market. People sat touting their wares on both sides. Some selling food, others clothes. In a couple of places, I saw buskers singing, their voices lilting.

Not far from the entrance, I saw a cut-fruit vendor. “Want some?” Razuan said.

I nodded.

While walking and eating, I joked: “Why are Indonesia and Malaysia always bickering?”

“Dunno…isn’t everything actually from Indonesia? Batik’s from Indonesia, rendang’s from Indonesia, even the President of America Barrack Obama is from Indonesia.”

I laughed. It turns out you don’t have to be young to have a killer sense of sarcastic humour.

Razuan asked if I wanted to stop by a cafe for a cup of kopi tarik or tea tarik. Why not?

There were so many people in the market, coming and going in an endless stream. We stopped at an eating spot that was an open space filled with tables, surrounded by food stalls. There were musicians. The male singer had a fine voice. Full, with a clear tone. He performed not only Malay songs, but some Indonesian ones too. Like those of the bands Wali and Ungu. I was pretty amazed. It turns out that Malaysians really appreciate Indonesian culture. My colleague, Chek Ita, is Malay, and knows Krisdayanti’s songs by heart, and often asks questions about Indonesia. Most Malaysians like Indonesia, perhaps even love it. Some speak fluent Indonesian. It’s just that Indonesians often misunderstand, accusing Malaysia of claiming Indonesian culture as their own. But what if, by not making a big deal of owning something, relations could become closer. Like family? Malaysians often say that Indonesia is their brother. Besides, weren’t Indonesia and Malaysia once not separate? Part of a Malay realm? Nusantara? Another meaningful point: Malaysians are very receptive to Indonesians coming to work in their country, like me and my roommates. And so many Indonesians marry Malaysians. It’s not problematic. They can even get citizenship easily.

We walked back after having our drinks and a small plate of curry puffs. We didn’t forget to stop at a clothes stall. Razuan chose some underpants for me. Some for me and some for him. And since there weren’t any swimming trunks, we chose some soccer shorts instead.

It was me that needed the swimming trunks. It was me that wanted to stay in a hotel with a pool. That afternoon, Razuan had asked “Would you like to stay in a hotel like this?”

By that time, we were no longer in the mall. After buying the polo shirts we were now wearing, we’d headed off to an exclusive, well-manicured part of town. It didn’t look like it was in Asia, but somewhere in the West.

It was called Puteri Harbor, with two luxury supermarkets, numerous apartment complexes, a couple of hotels, an international school, a university, and even an international port. It was amazing! It took about thirty minutes to get there from the centre. But that didn’t matter, the stunning views made up for the traveling.

“Where are we going?”

“I should be the one asking you, because you know it better than I do. Don’t you work here?”

“Yes, but I just come here with my boss every day, to work. After work we just go home. There’s no time to look around!”

Razuan drove casually and easily. Past apartment block after apartment block. The roads were well-paved, orderly, with their beautiful perfect lines. Leafy trees had been planted to complement the buildings, and along the roads too. The leaves looked lush and green. So verdant.

He took me to the hotel next to where I work. That’s right, right next to it. The guests in both places mostly came from other countries, sometimes other continents. Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, China, Australia, Russia, Germany and the United States.

Razuan parked in the basement. When I got out, it felt like I was walking along with my own father. But even more than that. With someone I’d long been searching for, longing for.

We ate at an American restaurant at the back of the hotel. It faced the sea. So beautiful. A blue sea with an orange-tinged sky. That marvellous light lit up everything that lay before me. The trees, the cafes, food stalls, the calm, stunning sea, and the luxury yachts tied up at berth.


“What should I call you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Can I call you ‘daddy’? I’m uneasy when we’re around people. If I call you Daddy, then at least they’ll think you’re my dad.”

“Hmm. Sure, whatever,” Razuan replied. “That’s cute of you.”


To be honest, I didn’t really have strong feelings about it, but something had happened during the day that had made me think, after buying the white polo shirts and leaving the sports shop, I was carrying a paper bag, as you can expect. There were two women  who seemed to be discussing something very specific about us. I saw how they looked us up and down while passing comments. They clearly liked judging other people’s lives. They worked in the clothes shops they stood in front of. 

I pretended not to see, or to give a damn about them. But I can’t deny that I felt ashamed. Especially when the people talking about us were women. That had stayed with me all day.

At the restaurant my new daddy asked me if I’d like to spend the night together. “You mean tonight?” I replied. Yes, of course, he’d said. “I need to ask my boss, he needs my help tomorrow. There’s some kind of last-minute work that needs doing. Not at work, but at his place.”

After I’d called my boss, telling him I couldn’t help his parents move house as I was at a friend’s house some way away, I said yes to Razuan’s offer. I don’t know why I accepted. It was just so easy to nod in agreement. If I think about, it was because he had been so kind.

We went on to a shop that sold pipes and tobacco. Not for me, of course. For Daddy. It turned out he smoked a pipe. Those beautifully shaped, hollowed pieces of wood. I sensed how thrilled he was to be there. He looked at pipe after pipe, and box after box of tobacco, asking about one brand or another, what promotions there might be, and so on. I wasn’t really interested so I just stood outside and gazed out at the sea. To my right was a bar, though not very busy. Just a couple of white guys. Maybe because it wasn’t yet nighttime?

We walked along by the rocks that separated the sea from the land. Yachts were lined up neatly, white and shiny. So beautiful. I wanted to climb aboard and go somewhere, I didn’t yet know where. Somewhere I could live happily without the burden of thinking about money and debt. I didn’t know where, or with whom. Maybe with this person now walking beside me?

There was a large seahorse statue at the point. It was well-executed, amazingly detailed, and really attractive. I asked Daddy to take my picture with it.

“Ready, one… two…”

Twilight had fallen unnoticed. The deep orange sky looked as though it was wounded with its reddish streak. Luckily, we were in time to capture the moment. A photo of me on my own, one of him on his own, and then us both together.

I asked him if we should stop by my place to pick up a shirt, underwear and a swimsuit. I hadn’t brought anything with me. But it wasn’t on the way, he said. If we went there first we wouldn’t be at the hotel before nine, it was in the city centre. We’d be staying the night in that luxury, high-rise hotel.




We walked back to the hotel room after buying the clothes, Daddy chatting away. He’d completely forgotten what he’d brought me out for. I reminded him, because I didn’t want to disappoint him later.

“Isn’t there something else we need?”

He remembered straight away. “Oh yeah! We can drop in to the 7Eleven up ahead.”

Damn! It was me that had to go in and buy them. He said he was uncomfortable doing it. He waited outside, along with the strangers and whatever it is that they do standing on the roadside.

We crossed the footbridge, heading back. It had been quite a day. But he still seemed happy. Chatting away. About the history of the archipelago, the Indonesians in the city, the growth of Johor Bahru.

“How do you know so much? And about other countries, too? America, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia?”

“Dutiful citizens need to keep up with domestic and foreign news. So we won’t be caught out if something unexpected happens,” he said with a friendly smile.

The air felt comfortable in the room. Not too cool. Nor too warm. Daddy asked me to wash my face, and my hands and feet. We both did it, together.

After turning down the lights, Daddy pulled the cover up, it’s warmth enfolding his body and mine. He stroked my face, kissed my lips. His hands moved over my body, not missing a part. I don’t really remember how it went after that. But I do know we became entwined with each other—before becoming one. (*)


Sugar Nutmeg is made possible by our supporters.
Help us sustain our work through one-time or monthly donations.

As a young man, Hadiwinata (Palembang, 1998) left his home in Indonesia to try to make a living overseas as a migrant worker, like 4.5 million other Indonesians. Responding to grinding poverty and lack of opportunities at home, he set off for Sarawak in Malaysia, where he worked at a plywood factory. He has since published a collection of 35 poems reflecting his experiences in Malaysia, with themes of dislocation, loss of identity, estrangement, and hopelessness. He writes both fiction and non-fiction. He has published poetry and short stories in eleven collections and has two dedicated publications.

  • Hadiwinata

    As a young man, Hadiwinata (Palembang, 1998) left his home in Indonesia to try to make a living overseas as a migrant worker, like 4.5 million other Indonesians. Responding to grinding poverty and lack of opportunities at home, he set off for Sarawak in Malaysia, where he worked at a plywood factory. He has since published a collection of 35 poems reflecting his experiences in Malaysia, with themes of dislocation, loss of identity, estrangement, and hopelessness. He writes both fiction and non-fiction. He has published poetry and short stories in eleven collections and has two dedicated publications.

  • Ian Rowland

    Ian Rowland is a literary translator from Indonesian into English. He graduated from SOAS, University of London, with bachelor and masters degrees in Indonesian, and has maintained a strong interest in Indonesian literature since. He has an ongoing collaboration with Hadiwinata, which has seen a translated short story accepted by Portside Review and a poem by Oxford Anthology of Translation. He has also placed a short story by Pratiwi Juliani in B O D Y, and a translation of a poem by Erni Aladjai in Chogwa. Mostly recently he collaborated with AW Priatmojo to place a poem in Modern Poetry in Translation.

Recent Post

February 21, 2024

From Bangkok to Surabaya and Back: A Reflection

It’s late at night in Bangkok. I’ve just returned from the SEANNET 2.0 launch meeting in Surabaya, where I had the pleasure of meeting wonderful people and new colleagues, trying new foods, and seeing new…

Read More

September 18, 2023

Rafael Miku Beding on Life in Lamalera and the Leva Nuang Ceremony Often Misunderstood as “Whale Hunting”

There are thousands of islands in Indonesia, with over 1,300 recognized ethnic groups. Time and open-mindedness are needed, surely, when traveling from one island to another; when learning about (and from) each tradition and every…

Read More

November 1, 2022

Migrating Out of Poverty: The Case of Indonesian Migrant Workers

In my hometown of Palemraya, a small village in South Sumatra, most people live in poor conditions. While some live in rental homes for years because they cannot afford to buy homes, some live by…

Read More

December 1, 2021

Covid-19: A Wake-up Call for Indonesia’s Medical Education System

For the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the flaws in every country’s healthcare system with no exceptions. Indonesia was one of the top 10 countries with most new daily Covid-19 cases in…

Read More