I’ve been in Indonesia for one year now, and I have become pretty good at doing things the “Indonesian way.” Indonesian culture can be quite different from American culture so, for the people who don’t have a year to figure out how to blend in, here are a few tips on how to act like an Indonesian.
I should probably start by saying that none of this is meant to offend or to be taken too seriously. At times, Indonesian behavior can seem a little quirky to someone of western sensibilities but then again, I am certain many of the things I do are seen as really odd, even to my own countrymen.
The items on this list are not objective facts. There are lots of Indonesians who don’t do these things and will find them just as odd as I do or did. Many of the things I have observed could be limited to specific peoples on Java. There are literally hundreds of different ethnic groups in Indonesia I’ve had absolutely no exposure to.
I’ve mentioned how Indonesians like to eat rice in a few of my other posts. There is a saying here, “if you haven’t eaten rice you have not eaten.” They really mean that. Rice is always the main part of a meal, everything else is a side.
The prevalence of rice doesn’t seem to bother many people, either. Indonesians genuinely love rice. Some say that if you don’t eat rice, you’ll get sick. And I’ve had Indonesians tell me they don’t feel full unless they eat rice, but that’s not true of everyone. I’ve met several Indonesians who would much rather eat bread instead of rice.
If you really want to act like an Indonesian I think the easiest and biggest change you’ll need to make is eating rice at least three times a day and loving it.
After Ramadan is Eid al Fitri, or Idul Fitri as it’s said in Indonesian. One of the most important components of Idul Fitri, and a very Indonesian aspect of the holiday, is going around to all the people you know and asking them for forgiveness for any possible wrong doings which may have been committed during the previous year. They will say “mohon maaf lahir dan batin,” which essentially translates to “please forgive my body and soul [of any transgressions].”
But it’s not just after Ramadan when Indonesians are prone to apologize. There are many situations which regularly call for apologies in Indonesian life. At the end of a speech or presentation the speaker will apologize for any errors which may have been made. When receiving guests, hosts may apologize about the accommodations not being up to the standards of the guest. When leaving a person’s house after an extended stay it’s common for the guest to apologize in case they have done something wrong or offended the host.
Those are situations which pretty much always call for an apology but there are many smaller, informal instances where Indonesians also apologize often. If you’re trying to mesh with all your Indonesians friends try apologizing a little bit more.
This one is focused more on the younger generations. There seems to be no bashfulness around the practice of taking selfies. Absolutely anything can create the necessity to capture a moment through the ultra-modern, and imminently polarizing, medium of selfie taking. Young Indonesians must live some of the most well documented lives of anyone on this planet.
The frequency with which Indonesians engage in selfie taking is staggering and surely yields an inordinate amount of photos. What they do with all those photos has oft been a topic of discussion among volunteers. But I don’t think they need a specific reason to take selfies. One never knows when they could come in handy. So to be a good, modern Indonesian you should take a selfie, I’d say, no fewer than three times a day.
Take pictures with/of foreigners
There’s nothing more exciting than meeting someone from outside your country. And what better way to commemorate such a meeting than by taking a selfie? Sorry, so many of these are selfie-centric but selfies are big here.
Many of the places volunteers live in Indonesia aren’t exactly known for ethnic diversity or having large numbers of foreigners visit. Encountering a foreigner outside of the big cities in Indonesia is still very novel. The natural response is to take pictures of these out of place foreigners or, for the more brave Indonesians, ask to take a picture with the foreigner.
The curiosity is interesting in the beginning but after several months of being seen and thought of as an exotic animal I am not nearly as enthused to endure being photographed as I once was. It can quickly become too much—especially when people take photos without asking.
My worst day in Indonesia was when I visited Borobudor temple with some other volunteers near the very busy holiday season. I usually always try to say ‘yes’ to photos when Indonesians (or anyone, for that matter) asks. But that day was too much. I started to say ‘no’ to their requests but people still followed me around and took pictures anyways. To escape, I fled to an empty corner of the parking lot and as I was sitting by myself, far away from the crowds, someone drove up next to me, rolled down their window and took a picture. Never have I felt less human.
To really be Indonesian it’d be appropriate to think of foreigners as novel and unique. Feel free to take pictures with them, even of them, just be sure to ask politely and respect their answer. Chances are that foreigner has already been in a dozen or so pictures that day, so a little understanding will go a long ways.
Use a photo of yourself as your background
One use for all those selfies is as your cellphone or computer background. I have seen many people in Indonesia who use a photo of themselves as their desktop wallpaper or cell phone background. At first, this innocuous predilection for vanity seemed odd. In America there seems to be a decent emphasis placed on not dwelling over one’s own appearance much and certainly not obsessing over it so it’s what you see every time you turn on your phone or computer.
Americans, I believe, are much more likely to use a photo of some natural landscape, urban environment, pattern or design, or perhaps a group photo as a background. I have a picture of a scissor-tailed flycatcher (the state bird of Oklahoma) as my phone’s background. But that’s not to say some Americans don’t use selfies as their background and Indonesians only use selfies. I just hadn’t noticed this practice in America and it seems quite common here.
Initially this habit came off as a little shallow or vapid, even narcissistic. But my perspective has since changed. Is it a sin to dabble in a little narcissism? I’m not the pope, but if I was I would say, “no, a little narcissism is good for the soul.” Life is short and hard enough as it is, why not love yourself, including your appearance?
You took a particular good selfie? Set it as your phone’s lock screen background. Then you get to see how beautiful or handsome you are every time you turn on your phone.
Maybe “be late” is the wrong way to phrase this Indonesian tendency. What I really mean is to think of time as though it is very flexible, rubber-like. You may remember my post on jam karet (rubber time) and so you’ll already know about this one so feel free to skim.
Time is only ever inclined to stretch here, never contract. I chose to title this section “be late” because that’s how jam karet is used most often. This might’ve been frustrating at first but I have since come to really appreciate (read: not love) how quick Indonesians are to forgive tardiness or easily accept the schedule might be more of a suggestion than a rigid list of events and their times. This attitude is in stark contrast to how I was raised to think about time.
Back home my high school freshman orientation teacher frequently played a sort of game with the students in his class where, if they didn’t have their homework, weren’t prepared for class, or came to class late, he would allow them to try and make excuses and he would rebut each one with reasons why they are not legitimate excuses. The point being that there is never a reason to be late, unprepared, or have not completed an assignment by the due date.
To be Indonesians requires one to think of time as flexible and accept that, sometimes, circumstances arise which may call for lenience and grace to be extended to those of us who are late or underprepared.
This little action is signature Indonesian. When walking through or past a group of people it is polite to “bow” a little so as to not bother them. I wrote about this a little in From Monggo to Mangga. It’s common to merunduk when walking by older people as well. Merunduk is fairly formal so it might not be necessary to do it around the house when with family, but it’s something so ingrained within the cultures it’s common to see people do small or faint merunduk in many different situations which don’t necessarily call for it.
I merunduk often now and I don’t think about it so much. I imagine it will be one of the harder habits to break once I get back to America as it has become so second nature. To merunduk, and do it correctly, is to really know your Indonesian culture.
Think of strangers as family
Indonesia: the land of family. This subject probably deserves its own post but it’s so telling and exemplary of Indonesian behavior it fits here well.
Indonesians address people they don’t yet know using the words for sister, brother, uncle, aunt, mother, or father. It’s much more polite to address people this way rather than saying, “hey, you with the green shirt.” Among Indonesians familial terms are what they most commonly use to address people they do not know, but I’m usually addressed using “mister” unless someone knows I speak Indonesian.
Bahasa Indonesia does not have a word for “stranger” like English does. The closest translations are orang asing, which means foreigner; orang baru, meaning new person; or maybe orang yang tidak dikenal, meaning “a person not known.” In Indonesia there are no strangers, just friends that haven’t been met yet.
Referring to people (strangers from a westerner’s perspective) as though they are family was one of the oddest things I noticed about Indonesian conversational habits during my first months here. But now it makes total sense. It’s a way to express respect and be polite. Indonesians don’t think of people as strangers, but as extended family you haven’t spoken to in a while. It will help when you practice the final tip.
Ask people where they’re going instead of how they are
I wrote about this in depth in Mau ke Mana but it’s very important to becoming an Indonesian. “Mau ke mana?” is the most common question Indonesians ask. It means “where are you going?” and they ask it of almost everyone. To an American, being asked “where are you going?” might elicit a response of “none of your business!” but Indonesians never react with that attitude.
To ask someone where they’re going is not invasive or prying and the question provides a much wider foundation on which to form a conversation than “How are you?” But it’s also perfectly fine to brush off the question by answering simply, “over there,” when busy or not interested in small talk.
The common answers to “how are you?” do not offer many paths forward conversationally. But to know where someone is going gives the questioner several options for follow-up questions. It’s also common to ask, “dari mana?” or “from where?” Asking people about where they’re going is probably the most Indonesian thing someone can do. Adjusting to this different approach to greeting people was challenging but I imagine, once I’m back in America, I’ll probably be asking people where they’re going more often than how they are.
Despite all the things PCVs do to adapt and become more like the people we’re living and working with there is a limit to how far we are able to integrate into our communities and Indonesia in general. It’s frustrating that no matter how far we come with speaking the language, how much we learn about the culture, and regardless of the affinity we develop for their traditional foods, volunteers will never be seen or treated like an Indonesian.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying to master all the facets of this wildly different, unique, and wonderful land.
Big thank you to Evan and Rachel for all the photos! Definitely check out their YouTube channel if you have a minute.