Thank You For Smoking

This article was written by a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) who would like to remain anonymous.


My foray into cigarettes in Indonesia began at the hands of an elderly, six-toothed man. He was my RT, the head of the local neighborhood association, and the first of many signatures necessary for the arduous immigration process. With a pen in one hand and a cigarette in the other, it felt like my visa status was dependent on a single cigarette, which I hesitantly took. In doing so I delved into one of the most “Indonesian” habits one can possibly adopt.

Indonesia is one of the final frontiers of cigarettes. With 70% of all males partaking, smoking dominates coffee shops, streets, and homes. In fact, only food eclipses cigarettes for proportion of household expenditures, whether it’s a home-grown kretek* or a recognizable brand like Marlboro. Smoking is so prevalent that the current mayor of Pontianak has threatened to fire any public official caught with cigarettes, thinking draconian enforcement will make up for ineffective regulation.

So what does this mean?

As a Westerner, initially shock. Stores are littered with cigarette butts, toilets are sometimes accompanied by ash trays, and smoking advertisements dominate street corners. It’s a visual and olfactory assault that is heightened by the heat. Then, it slowly becomes natural.After that first cigarette, a window into a dominant cultural practice opened. Cigarettes eased many of the social hurdles early in the grant: something to connect with, talk about, and do together.

Walking into a warkop** alone generally engenders confusion, apprehension, and stares from locals. Tossing a pack of cigarettes on the table immediately eases those feelings and more often than not causes someone to join me at the table, and pull out their pack.

Waiting out the afternoon rainstorms can become a multi-hour drag. Often times, this even means huddling under the closest store’s roof with several other stranded drivers. Rather than spending the time hunched over a cellphone or jealously watching cars, a split cigarette can be a token of comradery in joint lamentation.

Parkirs*** can be an amazing source of help, or a horrific nuisance. They can charge ridiculous prices because you’re a foreigner, or they can give directions to the most indiscriminate store that has exactly what you need. Frequently, the difference between the two can be as simple as giving him a cigarette.

This is not an endorsement of smoking, but a series of anecdotes regarding the practice. Smoking is obviously harmful for your health, but still a means to reach commonality across cultures.

* Kretek are clove cigarettes that the majority of Indonesians smoke.

** Warkop, or warung kopi, are small, generally open-air coffee shops that line most streets in Indonesia.

*** Parkirs are usually young men who manage motorbike parking at nearly every store and restaurant.

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