Little Cultural Differences

— By Clara Summers —

After six months in Malang, I’m still finding it difficult to describe the fullness of Indonesia. There is so much that’s novel; how can I possibly portray it all? In that spirit, I have compiled some little cultural differences and described them here. Two things to keep in mind: 1) Indonesia is incredibly diverse, so my observations speak more to my experiences here than the country as a whole, and 2) this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, so please read it with a light heart.

Who are these “Ibus”?

“Ibu” means both mother and Mrs./Ms. in Indonesian, and is frequently shortened to “Bu.” The male equivalent is “Bapak,” usually shortened to “Pak.” Every female in her 20s and older and all female teachers are known as “Ibu.” This can be disconcerting to me, because at my age, I’m still “Mbak” (a title for younger women) but as a teacher, people sometimes refer to me as “Ibu Clara.” Referring to a woman as “Ibu” is a sign of respect.

Rice! Along with the Ibus who believe you can never eat too much of it.

Rice! Along with the Ibus who believe you can never eat too much of it.

For us English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), Ibus are an institution. They bring us copious amounts of food, always keep a sharp eye out for a photo opportunity, provide us with clothes and medicine, and keep track of our daily activities. Bus travel in packs, exuding an inexplicable aura of Ibu-ness. At my school, almost all the Ibus are in their forties or fifties and wear jilbabs, the style of hijab most typical in Indonesia. Since every ETA is assigned a coteacher and a counterpart, and they are frequently female, we spend a lot of time discussing our Bus. Pictures are captioned “hanging with my Bu” and sentences begin with “My Bu says…”

If you don’t eat rice, you will be sick

Rice is the answer to everything here. A commonly asked question is “have you eaten rice yet?” If you haven’t yet had rice, you haven’t eaten, no matter what else went into your stomach. Rice is necessary for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Conventional wisdom is that not eating rice will make you sick. When I was hospitalized for dehydration as a result of food poisoning, one of my Bus went around telling everyone it was because I didn’t eat enough rice. This despite the fact that just days before she saw me puking all my rice up…

Shoes are for sharing

In the U.S. people sometimes borrow clothes from each other, but it is much less common to borrow shoes. Not so here! I discovered this the hard way when I moved into my new kos (boarding house). There is an area at the front where everyone leaves their shoes, so I left my only pair of flip flops there one afternoon. In the evening I wanted to go out, and couldn’t find my flip flops anywhere. It turns out that the girls at this kos share shoes, so someone had walked off in mine. Similarly, I had my sneakers out in the common area, and returned to find that a guest had decided that they would be a good repository for the dirty socks that he wasn’t currently wearing. I now tried to strategically camouflage my shoes under the table on the porch, but it doesn’t always work. Besides these instances at my kos, communal wooden platform shoes are provided at school for using the bathroom. All I can think of when I slide my feet into those shoes is how likely it is that I’ll get Athlete’s Foot…

You’d better be clean, but forget sanitary

Indonesians are horrified when they find out that many Americans only shower once per day (or even less often!), since they typically shower 3-4 times per day. They also spend a lot of time cleaning their floors (my kos friend mops every morning). That being said, sanitation is not up to American standards. Food is left out in the open overnight and only sometimes covered, so you’d better check before you put a spoonful of gecko poop or cockroach in your mouth. And forget finding soap in public bathrooms—hand-washing is a step that most people tend to skip altogether.

2016-02-08 01.48.48

A typical bathroom in Indonesia.

Put your left hand away

In Indonesia, water is used to clean oneself after using the bathroom. Toilet paper is used as facial tissue and sits on desks in the Teachers’ Room, but you won’t find it in the restroom. Instead, you will typically find a large tile basin of water, called a bak, and a small handbucket. The toilet is a squatting platform in the floor. When you finish doing your business, you are supposed to pour the water over the necessary area and use your left hand to spot clean. As a result, bathrooms are perpetually wet, and that’s why it’s impolite to pass or receive anything with your left hand, let alone to touch someone with it. You should only use your left hand if your right hand is already doing something.

If I pay you, will you go away?

In the States, we contribute money to buskers that we particularly appreciate. Paying them is like asking them to continue playing. In Indonesia, if a busker comes by and you pay them, they will go away or stop playing. Perhaps this is because the point of a busker is different: in the U.S., buskers can be considered atmospheric and positive, whereas buskers here are an annoyance. Busking here doesn’t need to include talent, or even an instrument: the most common type of Indonesian busker is a man dressed up in a creepy costume carrying a speaker blasting obnoxious music. He will stand at the door to your business or house until someone pays him to go away. I mostly try to hide from these guys. The one time I did pay a busker was when it was a guitarist and I actually liked his music, but he took my money and left.

Jam karet and tidak jadi

Jam karet means “rubber time.” According to jam karet, if a travel agency tells me that they will pick me up at 11:00pm, that could mean that they will show up at 10:40pm, or it could mean that they’ll show up at 12:00am. You just never know. While I absolutely appreciate the ability to be late to social engagements, jam karet becomes the bane of my existence at school. The last five minutes before a class starts always seem to be prime time for coteachers to run an errand, go pray for 45 minutes, or begin a group conversation with other teachers. Meanwhile, I sit in the Teachers’ Room, watching the hands on the clock tick by and thinking of how I will have to modify my lesson plan…None of this seems to bother the students. When we stroll in anywhere between 5 and 45 minutes later, they’re just chillin’ in the classroom. Tidak apa apa (no worries).

Tidak jadi means “it didn’t/it isn’t/it won’t happen.” Tidak jadi applies to classes, festivals, English Debate Club, flights…they just don’t happen. I stopped going to English Debate Club because it was in a constant state of tidak jadi, which was perplexing to me, because I could tell from our group texts that people were still preparing motions and meeting with the coach. I am convinced that they must all be psychic, since my students always knew when club meetings were tidak jadi and when the next competition was, even though there was never any discussion of this in our group text. Needless to say, attitudes towards scheduling are much more relaxed here.

Touch and masculinity

Bodies are not considered personal property here in the same way that they are in Western countries. Friendly Ibus will rest their arm on your butt, and women are regularly seen walking arm-in-arm. While touching between women is not unusual in the U.S., touching between men is looked upon with discomfort and homophobia. This is not the case in Indonesia, where concepts of masculinity are markedly different. Most Indonesian men are more open about expressing emotions and also make grand romantic proclamations, which is endearing. The bonds of friendship between men are also more obvious, mostly because of the way they manage physical contact. I did a double-take in one class when I saw one of my male students absentmindedly stroking the ear of another male student who was sitting by him. Indonesian men play with each other’s hair, lean on each other, and walk arm-in-arm. I also have intelligence that men sleep next to their buddies with their legs overlapping, no biggie. These different attitudes toward masculinity are a refreshing change of pace from the “macho masculinity” found in the U.S.

Your problem is my problem

Being a collectivist culture, Indonesian communities are much more tight-knit than any American community I’ve ever seen. For example, the other week I went with a group of Ibus from school to visit another Ibu’s adult son who was in the hospital with dengue fever. I had never met this son, and neither had any of the other Ibus. The son’s mother wasn’t even there when we went. We simply showed up for five minutes to say hi and hope he gets well soon.

At school, I’ve seen students take up a collection in class for a friend who was in a motorcycle accident. Even if they don’t know the friend, students donate. Indonesians don’t need crowdfunding websites, because they do it naturally.

Being collectivist also means that the community takes responsibility when someone fails. A few weeks ago, I got frustrated because my students did not do their assignment, despite having ample time and several reminders. My coteacher patiently told me that it’s because “the students couldn’t do it yet,” and that they perhaps had problems at home, e.g. their parents didn’t remind them to do their homework. I insisted that it was the students’ responsibility, not their parents’, but she reminded me that student autonomy is a fairly new concept in Indonesia, and that it would take awhile for it to catch on. Each semester, the students who don’t pass their exams get remedial attention until they can pass. Failing out is never an option, because there is a community behind them to support them.

Alone?!

Most people hate to be lonely, but Indonesians hate both loneliness and being alone. Every time I meet someone new, they ask me if I live “alone” at my kos. I explain that yes, I have my own room, just like everyone else…what do they mean? They mean do I have a close friend who lives at the same kos as I do. When I explain that my nearest American friend, a fellow ETA, lives in a kos on the other side of the city, people’s faces immediately contort in pity.

Sometimes, when I want to focus on lesson planning or simply read a book, I go to cafes alone. The first time I did this some inquisitive high schoolers started talking to me, and told me that they felt sorry for me because I was alone. When I leave my kos to go out, alone, my kos friend is always confused about why I would want to do so. If she can help it, she spends no time alone: despite having her own room, she sleeps in her friend’s room each night, and doesn’t run errands without an accompanying buddy. This is the norm.

Help me help you

Combining collectivism and the avoidance of doing anything alone means that people are fairly dependent on each other for basic needs. As a result, where Americans would feel put upon by some requests, Indonesians are frequently delighted to be asked. One of my friends neither has a motorbike nor rides public transportation, so she constantly needs to bum rides off of people to run errands. Her friend who has a motorbike told me that he was happy that she always called him for transportation help, because he liked being the person that she relies on. Similarly, my Ibu Kos loves to help me set up transportation when I travel around Java. I always worry that I’m imposing on someone when I ask for help, but as I’m usually met with a smile and enthusiastic assistance, asking for help is easier here than in the U.S.

Stay chill bro

Last month, another ETA and I accompanied my coteacher to her niece’s wedding. A good thirty people were staying in the family home, with one usable bathroom (multiply time in the bathroom by the frequency with which Indonesians shower and you’ve got a bathroom that is perpetually unavailable). Perhaps because of the bathroom’s overuse, the water pump broke and began to cascade down the stairs in a rushing waterfall. In an American household this would cause dismay at the best of times, but it was even worse, because dozens of people were gathering in the front rooms for a pre-wedding prayer meeting. My and my friend’s immediate response was to panic and frantically start bailing the water out, first into an indoor pond (yes, complete with fish) and next into a random hole under the tiles in the floor. This entire time, my coteacher’s great-aunt and several other Ibus in best dress calmly sat chatting as the water swirled around their ankles. They were completely unfazed. The water poured on and on and on, for a good 20 minutes, and during that entire time, the only people frazzled were the Americans. I aspire to someday be as chill as Indonesians.

Clara Summers, a native of Vashon Island, WA, is an ETA at SMAN 7 Malang. She graduated in 2014 from the University of Washington, where she majored in Anthropology and Czech Language, but also studied Indonesian. In her spare time, she enjoys killing mosquitoes, singing dangdut, and learning about Indonesian ghosts.

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2 thoughts on “Little Cultural Differences

  1. If you don’t mind me commenting on some of these:
    – rice is very Javanese, hence the question. On other cities and culture, the food considered to be main meal can differ, like noodles (mie, bihun), pempek, etc
    – You are too nice, thank you. it is not because “shoes for sharing”, but it is almost a similar thought level as “finders, keepers” and people who don’t care of other people. I think they just find your stuff is too good to pass. My parents always taught me that for anything that you don’t want someone steal from you, keep it in a private room that can be locked. In your case, it will be to bring them by hand to your room after you take it off on the front door. At school, put it in plastic bag then in your bag.
    – sanitary depends on the family, most people I know always cover theirs, and majority put it in fridge after finish eating.
    – ” You should only use your left hand if your right hand is already doing something.” Or what would be considered better, transfer whatever you hold on right hand to left hand, and use right hand to greet/touch people
    – Jam karet depends on the teacher and culture (and school culture) you are in, in this case Javanese. In my school, 10 minutes late will get punishment or at least stares from other students and teacher will interrogate you why you are late. This is in Indonesia.
    – the second part of Alone?! is more likely happen in smaller cities. I was never questioned by anyone when I travel alone in larger cities
    – They chill probably because:
    – they don’t want to get their best dress damaged
    – because they are guest (guest are not to be bothered and to get best hospitalities. Sometimes helping can make the host feel inadequate, though you being American will get less wrinkled eyebrows if you (want to) helping because it is considered that you act based on different culture).
    – the house is solid stone and brick or solid hardwood, which has no problem if get soaked like that (unlike modern wooden house in US)

  2. – rice is very Javanese, hence the question. On other cities and culture, the food considered to be main meal can differ, like noodles (mie, bihun), pempek, etc
    – You are too nice, thank you. it is not because “shoes for sharing”, but it is almost a similar thought level as “finders, keepers” and people who don’t care of other people. I think they just find your stuff is too good to pass. My parents always taught me that for anything that you don’t want someone steal from you, keep it in a private room that can be locked. In your case, it will be to bring them by hand to your room after you take it off on the front door. At school, put it in plastic bag then in your bag.
    – sanitary depends on the family, most people I know always cover theirs, and majority put it in fridge after finish eating.
    – ” You should only use your left hand if your right hand is already doing something.” Or what would be considered better, transfer whatever you hold on right hand to left hand, and use right hand to greet/touch people
    – Jam karet depends on the teacher and culture (and school culture) you are in, in this case Javanese. In my school, 10 minutes late will get punishment or at least stares from other students and teacher will interrogate you why you are late. This is in Indonesia.
    – the second part of Alone?! is more likely happen in smaller cities. I was never questioned by anyone when I travel alone in larger cities
    – They chill probably because:
    – they don’t want to get their best dress damaged
    – because they are guest (guest are not to be bothered and to get best hospitalities. Sometimes helping can make the host feel inadequate, though you being American will get less wrinkled eyebrows if you helping because it is considered that you act based on different culture).
    – the house is solid stone and brick or solid wood, which has no problem if get soaked like that (unlike wooden house in US)

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