‘The best thing about Indonesia is that anything is possible. The worst thing about Indonesia is that anything is possible.’
I don’t know the source of this quotation, but it is profound. And it just happens to also neatly fit the way Indonesians often view Western visitors.
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SUBSTITUTE the word ‘Westerner’ for the word ‘Indonesia’ in each sentence of the quotation above and you will have a good representation of the way many Indonesians feel about people from the developed West.
They are not quite sure what to expect from us … except the unexpected.
Fortunately, Bules (that’s us white Westerner foreigners), are generally granted a cultural free pass when we visit Indonesia. We can ignore or transgress local customs and conventions and get away with it.
All because many of the patient, tolerant and bemused people of Indonesia, routinely consider most Westerners to be bodoh (dumb or ignorant) and maybe a little gila (crazy).
It’s expected we will commit cultural faux pas. And when we do, they simply smile or nod to themselves and shrug, in that resigned ‘just as I expected’ kind of way.
Two hands and a light touch, perhaps followed by brushing your heart, is a common form of greeting in Indonesia. Pic (Flickr) Michael Thirnbeck
AND (below) a younger man touches his forehead to hand of an elder relative in a SalIm greeting. Don’t worry – you will not be expected to proffer greetings in this way. BUT at some point during your travels you probably will be greeted this way by locals, especially children and young people. Pic – theindonesianway.blogspot.com
Maybe some locals even enjoy seeing your social mistakes
I suspect some Indonesians may even savor a secret enjoyment from seeing our lack of couth, especially our discomfort once we realize we have stuffed up.
A few years ago, a comedy ‘reality’ TV series called ‘Bule Gila’ hit the Indonesian airwaves. The tile translates as Crazy White Foreignor.
Western visitors or new expatriates were persuaded to undertake tasks they couldn’t help but screw up.
It was all presented with a great sense of fun, but inevitably the show portrayed the hapless Bules as dumb and helpless when dealing with simple routine tasks every Indonesian takes for granted … and the Indonesian audiences loved it!
These days short YouTube videos sending up a lack of practical and social awareness among bules continue to attract big audiences.
But though you may be expected to inadvertently display bad manners and be quietly forgiven when you do so, it is well worth taking the trouble to learn the accepted social do’s and don’ts and follow them.
This will earn you respect and appreciation, even if you don’t quite get it right all the time.
Social differences can work both ways
Social cultural differences can be a two-way street – as a Westerner, you will sometimes find Indonesian people acting in ways that at first may seem odd, strange, or idiosyncratic.
Back in 2005 Dutch expat Bartele (Bart) Santema recounted some his challenges in coming to grips with the nuances of Indonesian beliefs and thinking in a collection of stories about establishing and running an Amsterdam-style bar in Jakarta.
He titled it ‘Bule Gila’ (long before the TV show) and his stories were both perceptive and hilarious.
The little Bule Gila book is still available on Amazon. Meanwhile, Bart has since established a prestigious gallery in Jakarta showing and selling rare historical Indonesian and Southeast Asian maps and prints – https://bartelegallery.com/
You too WILL find social customs in Indonesia are DIFFERENT. So, it’s best you know something about social expectations, traditional courtesies, and plain good manners, Indonesian style.
You will avoid culture shock and embarrassment, and greatly enhance your standing. When they see your awareness and respect for local customs and traditions local people will go out of their way to guide and help you.
Face and Civility - the two key elements behind Indonesian manners and attitudes
it is impossible to overemphasize the extent to which being POLITE and TOLERANT and PATIENT are highly valued and expected traits in Indonesia.
For example, this is a country whose main cities suffer some of the world’s worst traffic congestion. Yet road rage is relatively rare.
Perhaps this is because young Indonesians are brought up to respect the aged, provide support for parents and siblings, and believe in a God, community, and country.
Maybe it also has something to do with crowding. So many people living close together in places like Java means individuals must get on with family, neighbors, communities, and strangers for society to survive.
Regardless, the concepts of respect, courtesy, harmony, warmth, gentleness, filial piety, unity, and generosity are central to cultural traditions across most of Indonesia’s ethnic populations.
And these ideas and values transition seamlessly into the Indonesian and Asian concept of FACE as discussed in my earlier, related post on this topic. Click and scroll down to review Understanding the difficult and important concept of Face.
A basic understanding of this concept will help you interpret behavior towards you and guide how you should interact.
Don’t be put off – the rules are not too complicated or onerous
Below is a comprehensive list of Do’s and Don’ts, but don’t get hung up on these rules. You CAN ignore or dismiss them and still have a wonderful visit to Indonesia.
Bad manners will NOT see you being ostracized, shouted at, fined, landing in jail, or being deported.
But if you take the time to become more aware, your travel adventure will be so much smoother, so much more interesting, and more rewarding.
Use your common sense. Take your lead from the locals – if still uncertain of what is expected of you, then ask. If you screw up, then apologize and ask forgiveness.
And I cannot emphasize enough – in Indonesia the most potent tool you can have is a warm, genuine, heartfelt SMILE!
Use it often.
NAMES AND FORMS OF ADDRESS
Indonesians will typically refer to you with the honorific Mister or Miss followed by your first name – for example in Indonesia I am known as ‘Mister Douglas’.
Using your first name like this is not being impolite or overly familiar. Rather it follows the Indonesian practice of referring to men with the appellation Bapak (formal) or Pak (informal), denoting Mister, followed by a first name – viz Bapak Jono or Pak Budi.
For a married or older woman, the customary form is Ibu or Bu followed by the first name. For a single woman mbak, or more formally Nona, or Nonya followed by the first name.
This can sometimes get a little confusing because Bapak can also mean both “Sir” and “father” and Ibu also means “mother” and can be used as “Madam”.
A visiting journalist once excoriated Paul Keating, the then Australian Prime Minister, for addressing President Suharto as Bapak during a State visit. The journalist implied that the Aussie PM was somehow grovelling by calling Suharto “Father” when, in fact, he was following the correct honorific forms, showing respect and being polite.
Many have only one name
Use of first names rather than family names in Indonesia is for the very good reason that many Indonesians have ONLY a given name and no family name.
Where single-name Indonesians find they need both a given and a family name, for example to buy an airline ticket or make an online purchase, they simply enter their given name twice.
A document known as a Kartu Keluarga (family card) avoids Identity chaos. This document establishes residency and records family members and relationships like births, deaths, and marriages.
It is maintained by the head of the family and stamped and signed off by the official head of the village or neighborhood. A current copy is needed when transacting much official business, such as applying for a passport.
All Indonesians also must have a photo identity card known as a KTP – pron Kah-Tey-Pay (acronym for Kartu Tanda Penduduk). It is required for citizens and foreign permanent residents aged 17 or older
THE 'UNCLEAN' LEFT HAND
In Indonesian culture the left hand is considered ‘unclean’ because in the Muslim tradition it is the one you are supposed to use to wash your bum when toileting.
Consequently, it is considered impolite, even a rude put-down, to proffer your left hand when shaking hands, or to use it to eat, point, pass food, proffer money or gifts, or the like.
This is often overblown by casual visitors dispensing online advice for other prospective casual visitors.
After many years in this beautiful country, I can assure you that the earth will not open and swallow you should you have a brain fade and pass the plate of chicken with the wrong (that is the left) hand. And none of your hosts will show disdain or create a fuss.
If a mistake simply apologize
If you make a mistake and feel awkward you can always offer a “Maaf, tanganku kiri” (pron Mar-arf, tangan-koo kiri) – meaning “sorry my left hand”, and everything will be cool.
Indonesians are pragmatists and you will see them using both hands wherever it’s practical to do so. When eating with fingers they use the right hand, but if using cutlery then it’s a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left.
The 10% or so of Indonesians who are born as left-handers get along fine, and the teachers, parents and others who may have oppressed them in the past are becoming more enlightened.
After all, the lefties can claim they are in elite company. For example, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Henry Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Napoleon, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Aristotle.
CASUAL STREET GREETINGS
As you walk down the street in Indonesia you are quite likely to be greeted by total strangers with “Hello Mister (or Miss) … Where you go?” Or maybe in Indonesian: “Hey Mister … Ke mana?” or “Mau ke mana” (want to where).
For a Westerner it can be quite irritating at first, but you need to resist the temptation to retort with “It’s none of your bloody business,” as you march on.
Instead, stop being precious and try mentally substituting a “How” for the “Where” … and you get a breezy “How are you going?
Aha … now that puts a different complexion on things, doesn’t it?
The greeting is an Indonesian equivalent of “Howdy” or perhaps it’s an ojek (motorbike taxi) driver looking for a fare, or a street vendor or someone seeking to engage to try out some English.
Occasionally, very rarely, it could be a scammer.
Respond with a smile
Respond with a smile, and maybe a wave, and say a “Hi Pak (Ibu) … jalan jalan saja” – it means wandering about, taking a stroll, or having a look around.
If they persist then glance at your watch, smile, and politely say “Maaf (pron mar-arf), saya sudah terlambat” (Sorry, I am already late) and walk on.
Not only will you have brushed them off – you also will have blown them away with your command of Indonesian, and perhaps advanced the state of international relations with your good-natured courtesy.
Shaking hands has way less significance in Indonesia than in the West. It is customary to shake hands (using your right hand) when you meet an Indonesian man for the first time. but it SHOULD NOT be a contest.
Firm is OK, but an overly strong or crushing handshake is considered impolite and offensive. It is customary to also make brief eye contact, smile and nod slightly.
The Indonesian man you are meeting will often have a brief and gentle, or even limp, grip – and as he withdraws his hand, he probably will touch it to his chest, signifying that his greeting is heartfelt.
There is no need for a handshake at subsequent meetings – a smile, a nod and a hello will suffice. However, handshakes are used again to offer congratulations or when saying goodbyes.
Shaking hands with women
If you are meeting a woman, then avoid embarrassment by offering a handshake ONLY if the woman offers her hand first.
Many Muslim (and Hindu) men and women do not touch each other in public. Instead, they merely make eye contact, smile, nod, and say hello. You can add a brief clasping of your hands in front of your chest as for prayer with your nod (the Thai Wai greeting).
If a woman extends her hand, then the handshake should be a brief, light and gentle touch.
You can win more brownie points when meeting Indonesian Muslims by swopping “Hello” for the universal Islamic greeting “Assalamu Alaikum,” (Pron – Assa larmu alay kum) – it translates as “May Peace be upon you”.
THE SALIM GREETING
Respect for elders and people in senior positions is integral to Indonesian culture. When meeting local people, you may find children or younger adults take your right hand, bow slightly, and touch their forehead or nose to the back of your hand.
They may even kiss you hand.
This is the traditional Salim, a gesture of respect and reverence. This gesture is rarely used by adults unless they are meeting with someone very senior or whom they hold in the highest regard.
THE MUSLIM GREETING
When entering a Muslim home or joining a gathering of Muslim people it is usual to call out the Arabic greeting Assalumu Alaykum. The response will be Wa Allaykum Assalam. The call means ‘peace be upon you’ and the response ‘and peace upon you’.
No one will be offended should you choose to use this greeting – in fact, your effort will be appreciated.
You will hear many Indonesians greeting each other with these terms whenever they meet.
THE DUCK DOWN BOW
When a younger Indonesian person walks by in front of you, or between you and another person they will typically duck their head, below your eyeline, in a slight bow and hold their right hand over their left forearm.
As they pass by, they will probably say “Permisi”, which means excuse me. Another gesture of respect.
DINING OUT AS A GUEST
A most likely encounter as a guest will be joining Indonesian friends or hosts at a restaurant, café, or food court.
Unless you are in a high end or an international restaurant you will not be provided with a knife and fork – only plates, forks, and spoons.
And don’t be surprised if you see Indonesians in local restaurants putting the forks and spoons aside and eating with their fingers instead. Beside them will be finger bowls of water with a floating slice of lemon.
Indonesians have traditionally eaten using their hands and in many homes, especially in the kampungs, this is still the case.
Your food will come in serving bowls or plates from which you and your new friends make your selections.
If you are the guest, the protocol is that you do not begin eating until your host begins or specifically invites you to start. The meal is usually accompanied by a glass of water, juice, soft drink, or tea.
Indonesians rarely have sweet desserts but may follow the main meal with fresh fruit.
Staff in some smaller local restaurants or food courts may light candles on your table. They are not about creating a romantic setting, but rather to discourage flies.
Traditional dining styles
You will find some restaurants serving traditional foods have special areas, often in a garden setting, with cushions for seating around low tables, a traditional eating style.
It can be a very enjoyable dining experience – depending mainly on your flexibility and the state of your knees. (Great for Yoga devotees.)
The custom in Indonesia is that the person who issues the invitation to the meal pays the bill. However, unless your host is someone of substance, he or she will almost certainly be less well off than you, so consider sharing or picking up the tab wherever you can do so without causing offence.
The phrase for asking for the bill is “Minta bon.” Or you can just catch the wait-staff’s eye, hold up your hand and make a scribbling gesture on your palm. By the way, it is not considered rude to burp after a meal
VISITING INDONESIAN HOMES
You should feel honored if you are invited to visit an Indonesian home, especially for a meal. Be ready to enjoy delicious, though sometimes hot and spicey, foods.
You will be greeted warmly and ushered into a family-cum sitting-cum dining room. You may find yourself sitting with family members around a carpet with the food in pots and bowls in the center, along with serving spoons.
A word to remember is silahkan (pron sill-are-karn) – it means ‘please’ and is usually accompanied by a hand gesture, indicating “after you” or “please go ahead”. You host will probably use it to welcome you inside the house or signal for you to begin eating.
When asking someone to pass the delicious dish of chicken, vegetables, beef rendang or fish the word to use for ‘please’ is tolong.
If some members of your host family use their fingers instead of cutlery, you will see how skillfully they use their right hand to roll some rice and a side dish into a ball and pop it into their mouth, occasionally rinsing their eating hand in a finger bowl
Traditionally the men and boys ate first in Indonesia and then the women and girls. But times are changing. Banana leaves on wicker have given away to serving plates, forks and spoons have widely replaced fingers, and family members and guests usually eat together.
Your visit, as a Westerner, will be a special event for your host – be natural, be gracious, be appreciative and SMILE, often.
An appropriate gift is fine
It’s fine to bring a small gift for local hosts like fresh fruit or chocolates or candy, but not food (it would imply your hosts cannot provide). Also do not bring alcohol unless specifically asked to do so.
Consider carrying some small unique items from your home country for such occasions – they will be treasured. Be aware wrapped gifts usually will not be opened until after you leave.
It’s also OK to give small amounts of money as gifts to the children of the house, but do not proffer money to adults.
REMOVING YOUR SHOES
As in most South-east Asian societies, Indonesians remove their shoes before entering their homes and certainly before entering Mosques, temples or other places of religion.
Typically, they pad around their homes in bare feet or, occasionally, socks (remember Muslims wash their feet five times a day before praying).
Your hosts may tell you that it is OK for you to not remove your shoes … but remove them anyway.
The trick when planning your visit is to make sure you will be wearing shoes or sandals that are easy to remove and put on – avoid lace-ups and go for slip-ons, Velcro fasteners or elastic-sided boots. Or buy some sandals on arrival.
You do not need to remove your footwear when entering shops, offices and the like.
Unless you are only going to Bali, then leave your bikini or ‘budgie smugglers’ (Aussie term for men’s Speedos – look it up on Google) at home. Even in Bali, wearing a skimpy bikini is questionable.
Indonesians, especially the majority Muslims, believe in dressing modestly. In some areas very conservatively. Parading around in less fabric than your usual underwear transgresses that taboo.
Those of us who see this as staid, reactionary, and old-fashioned need remind ourselves that we are in someone else’s country and its citizens are entitled to decide their society’s rules.
For the beach or pool throughout most of Indonesia a modest swimsuit or shorts with a T-shirt is considered appropriate for women and swim-shorts for men. The general rule for young and old is to always dress modestly, even a little conservatively, if you wish to avoid drawing attention or disapproval.
Most Indonesians take pride in their appearance, even those from poor circumstances. All civil servants, school children and teachers wear a clean, smart, and freshly pressed uniform.
Pride in appearance
Shop assistants, office workers and business people typically are impeccably dressed and groomed. You will be diminished in their eyes if you do not do the same.
It’s fine, as a holiday visitor, to wear smart shorts, trainers, a Polo shirt (and cap or hat) as you tour the sights – most of Indonesia is hot and it is accepted visitors will dress this way. But for women the shorts should be Bermuda-style, stopping just above the knee (or longer).
T-shirts should have collars, and, for women, they should cover the shoulders and upper arms. Sleeveless shirts and tank or halter tops are not appropriate and should not be worn, except, perhaps, in Bali. Shorts should not be form-fitting.
Skirts (below the knee) or long pants and shirts for women with long pants with short- sleeved shirts for men are the better options.
If you dress like a holiday slob, then you will be regarded as one. This can work against you when dealing with authorities, seeking accommodation, or just wanting a good bargain when shopping.
Women who wear revealing clothing may be perceived as loose or as prostitutes. Despite the warm climate you will see most Indonesian men (and a few women) wearing long pants, with most women wearing skirts extending below the knee.
It is most disrespectful for men to arrive for any kind of official appointment or meeting wearing shorts, or for women to arrive in immodest clothing. The building security staff may even decline to admit you.
For business, the appropriate dress for men is long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and maybe a tie. No jacket is required.
For women, a suit or skirt to below the knee and a long-sleeved blouse in muted colors.
MOSQUES & TEMPLES
Common sense and RESPECT are the essentials when you are visiting shrines, monuments, mosques, or other places of religious significance.
If there is an attendant, you should first ensure you have permission to enter – usually you will be welcomed, but sometimes women may not be admitted to some areas or may be required to use a different entrance.
Before entering a Mosque remove your shoes, hat and sunglasses and turn off your phone. Do not carry food or drink. Some larger mosques will have numbered spaces for you to leave your shoes.
Modest and respectful clothing is important – you should not wear bright colors or T-shirts emblazoned with slogans. Shorts are not permitted for women or men. Women should not wear short skirts and are required to cover their heads.
Often attendants will have sarongs or robes and head scarfs available for visitors who are not dressed appropriately.
Check before taking photos
Sometimes taking photographs inside mosques is frowned upon and elsewhere it is OK – best to ask.
Holiday visitors are expected to avoid visiting mosques during prayer times, but if you are there during prayers then find a quiet space to sit at the back. Do not take photographs.
There are no admission charges to enter mosques, temples, or other religious shrines, but most will have a donations box. It is appropriate to leave some rupiah.
There are admission charges to visit major monuments such as Borobudur and Prambanan in Jogjakarta. The monies are used to help restore and maintain such world heritage-listed sites.
As a ‘rich’ foreigner you will in fact be expected to pay around 10 times as much as an Indonesian citizen (but it is worth every cent and the funds are used well).
If you have tattoos, then it is prudent to be cautious about displaying them across much of Indonesia.
In the Muslim faith tattoos are considered haram (forbidden) and historically the broader Indonesian population has associated tattoos with thugs, gangsters, and criminals.
For a brief period under the Suharto New Order regime in the early 1980s, vigilante gangs, allegedly part of military black ops, terrorized and murdered people with tattoos.
These events were after the style of the Duterte-inspired police killings of alleged drug offenders in the Philippines.
The irony is that Tattoos are an integral part of the culture of some Indonesian ethnic groups like the Dayak of Kalimantan (Borneo) and the Mentawai from West Sumatra.
Anti sentiments are softening.
Sentiments are changing – more Indonesian young people are sporting modest tattoos and punk cultures are emerging in some of the bigger cities.
Tattoo studios have long been a part of the Bali scene, and are increasingly found in most of the major cities.
None-the-less it is best to be discreet in showing off your body art, especially away from the big cities.
You will sometimes see male Indonesian youths holding hands or with arms around each other’s shoulders as they stroll down the street or through a shopping mall. You certainly will encounter such close contacts between women and girls.
These same-sex gestures are usually of friendship in the Indonesian culture and have nothing to do with sexual attraction.
Indonesians are gregarious and like to go places as part of a group, and rarely alone. Indeed, if they see you are alone and not with a friend, they may pity you.
You will rarely see overt shows of affection in public between the sexes. Kissing, hugging or other close contact outside the home simply is not done, even between married couples. Certainly not between boyfriend and girlfriend.
Airport greetings will often be limited to smiles all around and maybe a brief touching of hands, even among family members.
But attitudes to these traditional taboos are softening and a hug and a quick peck on the cheek are becoming more common. Take your cue from Indonesian friends and hosts and follow their lead.
Indonesians are usually eager to help you. But they also may feel they are losing face if they cannot do so. This can become a problem if you are seeking directions from a local.
He or she often will feel obliged give you an answer regardless of whether they completely understand your question, or know where you are trying to go, or how to get there.
If the directions you are given seem a tad vague, then before going too far it can be a good idea to check with others to see if there is a consensus.
And then perhaps check Google Maps as well.
NO BAD NEWS, THANK YOU
Indonesians hate delivering bad news for fear of losing face, causing you worry or disappointment, or making you upset or even angry.
This can lead to some awkward surprises when you only learn of an itinerary or accommodation change, an activity cancellation, or a flight delay as it is happening. Often after it is too late to make alternative arrangements.
I and a colleague once waited in frustration for around six hours in an airline boarding lounge after being advised of a ‘slight’ delay on a flight from Jakarta to Jogjakarta – a trip of about 70 minutes.
We received repeated assurances of imminent departures, precluding us switching to an alternative airline. Or taking a stroll out of the departure lounge for a meal or a massage, both of which were available nearby within the terminal.
Clearly none of the staff wanted to be the one to tell us we would stuck sitting around for more than half a day. Maybe they hadn’t been told either.
No good news, no call
In another instance I waited more than a week for a promised call back from a telecom Customer Service rep about a new landline telephone connection.
When I finally went back to her office to find out what had happened, she explained that she had learned there were no connection slots currently available at the exchange. She had not called me as she did not want to disappoint me with that news.
Employers can find they are not told in a timely way of potential equipment failures, or that stocks are running low, or of problems with transport or customers.
You may want to give ‘permission’ to your Indonesian visit organizers, drivers, or staff to tell you promptly of any changes, concerns, or problems.
Explain that you will not be angry or upset and will welcome knowing so that together you can work out the best way to fix it – that you will only be upset or angry if they fail to tell you about a small problem before it becomes a big one.
Then make sure you act according to your fine words when they bring an issue to your attention.
Common gestures and other tips are demonstrated in the this short video from the Mastering Bahasa YouTube channel.
Pointing with your index finger is considered rude in Indonesia. The accepted way to indicate a direction is to make a fist with your right hand, palm facing down, a bit like when hitching a ride. Then point with your thumb. Or you can indicate with your whole open hand.
You will find that Indonesians widely use the thumbs up sign to signal an OK, or approval (usually accompanied by a broad smile).
However, you should avoid beckoning someone with your thumb. This is considered rude and demeaning. Likewise, avoid beckoning by crooking your index figure.
Instead, give a wave or call to attract the person’s attention, extend your arm with your palm facing down and close and open all your fingers in a ‘come here’ or ‘follow me’ gesture.
Indonesians are more comfortable with silences that Western people. Sometimes there are long pauses when people are thinking.
Do not feel you need to babble on to fill the void – hold your thought, and patiently await the response or comment.
TOUCHING THE HEAD
Avoid patting an Indonesian on the head as you may inadvertently be delivering an insult. As in other parts of Asia, especially where the Buddhist faith is followed, the head is where the spirit is said to reside and considered the most important and cleanest part of the body.
The irony is that you will see Indonesians affectionately and routinely patting their children on the head or tousling their hair (but never adults).
A safe option as a visitor is to instead give a gentle pat on the shoulder. (But not as a hearty slap on the back.)
SHOWING YOUR FEET
In the Muslim faith and Arabic culture, the feet are considered the most unclean part of the body and shoes are considered dirty – hence the removal of shoes before entering homes or religious sites and the ritual washing of feet before prayers.
This has carried over to the culture of most areas of majority Muslim Indonesia and exposing the soles of the feet or using the feet to point is taboo.
It is most unlikely that you will ever point with your feet anyway or display your soles. But just be a little careful if you sit with legs crossed, particularly with one leg crossed over your other knee.
Ahem … perhaps best to always keep both feet on the ground?
CROSSING THE STREET
You will see zebra crossings in many Indonesian towns and cities. But DO NOT assume that they will make it a safe place for you to cross.
You will find that many drivers and riders tend to ignore the crossing markings and simply swerve around you. It is disconcerting and can be dangerous if you happen to panic and step the wrong way, so be aware.
In bigger cities like Jakarta there are pedestrian over-bridges for crossing major thoroughfares – look for them. Most Indonesian cities also have traffic signals where you can cross in safety.
However, you will see Indonesians waiting for a slight lull in traffic and then jay walking steadily across the street with an arm extended out from their side.
They gently wave their palm to signal on-coming traffic to slow down.
It is as though they believe they are creating a protective force field. Remarkably it works.
But it is not recommended unless you are in the company of a local who knows the drill.
Be prepared to have Indonesian people much closer to you than you might expect. As in other Asian countries the Indonesian concept of personal space is quite different to Western norms.
You will experience it most if you happen to be standing in queues at a bank, government office, airport, or the like. You may find someone standing uncomfortably close behind you.
When you move ahead to give them more space, he or she will simply also step forward to take up the space you have created. Try not to let it worry you. He or she is not trying to hurry or ‘push’ you – it is just the way it is.
If travelling on local public transport – trains, buses or angkots (minibuses) – you will often find yourself rubbing shoulders standing or sitting.
If there is the slightest space left on a seat, then another passenger will probably squeeze into it. I have experienced travel in a small Suzuki Carry van adapted as a minibus, along with as many as 15 others plus the driver, most of them adults.
It is a guaranteed way to get to know the locals.
Queueing can be an interesting experience in Indonesia.In many regions Indonesians, either deliberately or innocently, are not good at it.
You will often see people pushing forward en-masse without attempting to form a line.
Where there is a queue – called an antre (pron – ahn-tray) in Indonesian – you can expect to see people jumping the line or attempting to push in near the front. Older women seem to be particularly adept at this tactic.
Expect also to see people near the front inviting friends and acquaintances from near the rear to come forward and join them.
An extreme queue jumper
Once a colleague and I were shipping packages from a Post Office (kantor pos). My friend reached the front of the line, handed his parcel to the clerk, and stood with his hands resting on the counter as his package was being processed.
Suddenly, a young man ducked in from the side and popped up between my colleague’s arms, expecting to be served. My colleague was too shocked to react, but the clerk admonished the interloper and received vocal support of others behind us in the queue.
If something like this happens then keep your cool, take your time and go with the flow – remember that a few minutes more is neither here nor there in a country where time tends to move slowly.
Remind yourself that many Indonesians see and pity us Bules (white Westerners) as harried, hurried and stressed out. Try to avoid proving them right.
Many institutions like banks, utilities and government offices have installed electronic systems to bring order to the queuing chaos. You can take a numbered ticket and simply wait to be called.
WOMEN RIDING SIDE-SADDLE
The motorcycle is the main mode of transport in Indonesia – as at 2019 an estimated 107 million motor scooters and motorbikes plied the nation’s streets, highways, and backroads.
That’s one motorcycle for every 2.5 people – and compares with only 17 million cars.
So, it is no surprise that the Ojek (the motorcycle taxi) is a popular way for Indonesians to get around – for work, school, shopping, and play. This poses a problem for Indonesian women who wear modest skirts extending below the knee or full-length dresses.
It’s fine if they are driving a step-through scooter, and you will see them motoring sedately and skillfully down the streets. But it’s a different story if they are a pillion passenger.
So, you will see many Indonesian women modestly riding side-saddle with legs dangling, rather than astride. However, they usually ride astride if wearing appropriate clothing, such as jeans.
You will see many young Indonesian men sporting long and carefully manicured nails on one thumb or a pinky finger or both. The obvious question is why?
The explanation widely trotted out is that these men want to signal that they don’t belong to the lowly manual working class.
But an American who researched the phenomenon suggests it perhaps harks back to a mythical Hindu figure who performed great feats of courage and strength and used an elongated thumbnail on his right hand to devastate his enemies.
Perhaps a more likely explanation is that, like haircuts and body piercings among Western youth, it’s merely a fashion fad or a way of being noticed.
Not for picking noses or cleaning ear wax (or playing guitars).
Umbrellas (payung) are an essential in Indonesia’s rainy seasons, but you will also see many women using them as parasols on sunny days. They are trying to protect their complexion and avoid any tanning.
Sadly, many Indonesian women consider white to be beautiful and go to great lengths to prevent a darker skin color. You will see shelves of ‘whitening’ creams and lotions in every supermarket.
Young women will say that dark skin makes them look like a poor rice field worker. I have often tried to explain that many white Western women envy the darker complexions of their Indonesian sisters and spend hours baking on beaches to try to look brown and beautiful.
These Indonesians women find it hard to believe that the shelves of Western supermarkets could be stacked with tanning lotions.
Sometimes the world IS crazy.
BLOWING YOUR NOSE
Blowing your nose into a handkerchief in public or in front of others is considered unhygienic and impolite in parts of Indonesia. Worse if you then return the used hanky to your pocket.
When you need to blow your nose, try to find a quiet spot away from others in the same way you would if breaking wind.
I was blissfully unaware of this social constraint until my Indonesian wife quietly drew me aside and told me that one of the regular customers at her small local restaurant had complained.
She disliked my tendency to blow the horn while having a coffee at a nearby table. This lady allegedly said it had made her feel ill and she was not sure she could eat there again. OOPS!
On the other hand, many Indonesia do not carry handkerchiefs or tissues, and it is not unusual to see people coughing or sneezing openly without attempting to cover their mouth or nose.
This may have changed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. But if your driver or guide has this habit you may want to explain your concerns, provide them with tissues, and ask them (quietly) to cover their mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing near you.
Indonesian mothers discipline their children by pinching them. Usually on the arms or body, sometimes on the face. Often together with hissed threats of dire consequences for further misbehavior.
My generation of Australians believe children certainly need discipline sometimes, and that a slap on the wrist or quick smack to the buttocks is sufficient and appropriate. I was horrified when my Indonesian wife began pinching our kids when they did something wrong.
Sometimes she left marks or small bruises. To me this was ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’
A matter of perspective
But I soon learned that she, apparently along with millions of other Indonesian mothers considered my suggested Aussie style of discipline was equally horrific, if not worse.
In the circumstances, all I could do was to become Kid-cuddler in Chief.
The pinching thing goes further. Indonesian people also love to pinch the cheeks of a cute baby or small child as a greeting when visiting, especially blond Bule kids . It is meant as a gesture of affection, but sometimes it hurts.
The youngsters are rarely amused.
FOLK BELIEFS AND CURES
‘Tiger stripes’ from a coining treatment
Every society has its share of folk beliefs about illnesses and remedies. A big one in Indonesia is that illnesses like headaches, flu, nausea, fevers, and dizziness are the result of masuk angin (wind coming in).
People will go to great lengths to prevent wind entering their body like shutting the window, regardless of sweltering temperatures, when travelling in non- airconditioned buses or trains.
Motorcycle riders wear jackets back to front to prevent the wind entering their chest.
We can dismiss such beliefs, but before being too smug we should remember that modern hygiene and medicine is relatively recent in the West.
I grew up in my small rural village in Australia being told that if I allowed my head to get wet, I would inevitably go down with a bad cold or flu. And that if I touched a certain yellow wildflower, I would wet the bed.
Folk treatment called ‘Kerok’
The idea of masuk angin has led to a folk treatment in Indonesia called Kerok, or coining. The neck, shoulders and back (and sometimes the chest) are smeared with oil and a coin or spoon used to make contusions from ruptured capillaries near the surface of the skin.
The patient’s back will have a series of red welts like the stripes of a tiger. The aim is to allow the ill-wind to escape the body and lead to recovery.
It looks awful – for all the world like the patient has been whipped with a cat of nine tails. It must hurt, though Indonesian friends assure me it doesn’t.
Visitors seeing coining for the first time often assume that the welts are the results of abuse. They are not. Rather they have been administered by a friend or family member at the request of the patient.
Coining is not peculiar to Indonesia. It is widely used in countries throughout Southeast and North Asia.
A related treatment is cupping where a cup is heated and placed upside down on the body. As the cup cools the lower air pressure inside causes the skin to pinch upwards and draws blood to the site.
This treatment, also widespread in Asia and other parts of the world, leaves circular red welts.
If using the bathroom (kamar mandi) in many Indonesian homes, you may well wonder whether it has been hit by a recent tsunami – it will likely be wet everywhere.
It’s all to do with the traditional Indonesian style of bathing. In a corner of the modest bathroom is a tub of water called a bak mandi (literally bathtub) with a plastic dipper (gayung) floating on top.
To bathe you stand next to the bak mandi, NOT in it, and pour dippers of water over your body. Once thoroughly wet you soap up and then rinse off with more dippers of water. By then you and everything around you is soaking wet.
The bak mandi water is not heated, but most of Indonesia is warm to hot and the water will not be icy. However, that first dipper will probably provoke a sharp intake of breath.
However, you will find your mandi (shower) bracing and refreshing. The big shortcoming is the lack of hot water for shampooing your hair – it just doesn’t quite feel right.
Indonesians are very conscious of personal cleanliness and hygiene. They usually bathe at least twice a day. Water is also scooped from the bak mandi for cleaning after toileting.
Today many urban Indonesians are upgrading to Western-style bathrooms with showers, instant water heaters, pedestal rather than squat toilets, and even bathtubs.
Sometimes there are hybrids like pedestal toilets without a cistern – the bak mandi dipper is used for cleaning and flushing (guaranteeing wet seats).
Don’t worry, you will always have hot showers, usually a bathtub, and most definitely a Western toilet (with cistern) in your hotels.
You will see an extra item on hotel and restaurant bills called service charge and tax.
The service charge is typically 5% to 10% and is in lieu of tips. The tax of 10% is mandated by Government and is levied on both the price and the service charge, meaning your total bill will increase by about 21%.
The service charges are intended to be distributed across all staff of the establishment and are relied upon as an important part of their salary package.
Where there is a service charge, you are not obligated to tip, but you are free to do so, and it will be greatly appreciated. By Western standards Indonesian wages are extremely low.
Where there is no service charge then tipping is appropriate.
Where you should tip
Porters at airports and seaports rely on tips. A rate of 10,000 rupiah (less than US$1) per bag is appropriate. Give a little more if you can afford it and the service has been good.
It is also appropriate to tip tour guides and hire-car drivers and helpful taxi drivers. Likewise for personal services like hair and beauty treatments, massages, and other pampering.
Though they receive a cut of the hotel service charges, a little bonus tip for those anonymous people who make-up your room can be a nice gesture.
Try to always carry some smaller Indonesian banknotes as drivers, guides and porters will not be able to make change. Otherwise, you may find yourself giving much more generous tips than you intended.
PHOTOS OF LOCALS
Indonesia can be a dream come true for photographers. It’s a country of stunning land and seascapes, spectacular mountains, beautiful spaces and monuments, interesting and colorful buildings, and rare and unusual wildlife.
Bur some of your most unique and enduring photo memories will be of people – vendors in colorful market settings, cheeky smiling kids and excited young people, families on wheels (Dad, Mum and two or three kids on one motorbike).
Then there are the older folk in traditional garb and settings, Ojek riders on their motorcycle taxis, women riding side-saddle, or bicycle rickshaw riders in places like Yogyakarta’s Marlioboro Street.
You will find most Indonesian’s love to be photographed and you won’t have any trouble convincing them to pose for you. But you do need to make a note of a couple of magic words:
BISA – to be used as “BISA FOTO?” while holding up your camera or smart phone, meaning “Can take a photograph?”
BOLEH – the probable response, meaning “Yes, may.” Or sometimes the response will simply be a ‘BISA’ accompanied by a beaming smile.
Remember also that Indonesians like to have their photo taken with Western visitors so pose with them while your partner or a nearby volunteer takes the shot.
Or try a selfie with them. Then send the picture to their phone via WhatsApp (just about every Indonesian has a phone loaded with WhatsApp).
You will have a friend for life.
Remember when you have your pics to wish them a warm ‘Terima Kasih’ (thank you).
You will find many Indonesian people avoid eye contact with you.
They will make free and easy eye contact when joking or chatting with peers, but Indonesian culture requires they avert their eyes and look down when speaking to an elder or someone they accord higher social status.
So don’t push it. The person you are speaking with is not being ‘shifty’ or disengaged. Rather he or she is listening and simply being polite.
RELATING WITH OFFICIALS
Western directness and occasional unintended abrasiveness can sometimes lead Indonesians to consider you are deliberately embarrassing them.
You really need to avoid this, especially if dealing with Government officials, Police or other authorities who may have plenty of ways to make your life difficult.
Avoid raising your voice, being overbearing, demanding, accusing, or displaying frustration. Do not glare and stare. Speak calmly and reasonably and bring out that SMILE.
Avoid standing with your hands on your hips, as it can be taken as showing anger – in Indonesia’s Wayang Kulit puppet theatre hands on hips signals that the character is ready to fight.
Never get into an altercation
NEVER get into any kind of altercation, no matter how wronged you may feel. Once again, speak quietly, reasonably, and cooperatively and your standing will rise. Others may then intervene on your behalf.
If this doesn’t work, then walk away and perhaps seek help elsewhere if necessary.
If you are unhappy with employees, guides, suppliers, drivers, vendors, or others then avoid berating or criticizing them in public.
Should you do so they will lose face and your efforts will be counterproductive. Draw the offender aside and have a quiet chat in private.
On the other hand, give as much praise in public as you like – you will be rewarded with a beaming response and even more efforts to please.
COPING WITH BEING A CURIOSITY
Once you travel beyond the major tourist areas like Bali or the big cities like Jakarta, local people will tend to treat you as someone who knows more, has more, and is more.
After all you are an ‘exotic alien.’ You have been able to travel from perhaps halfway around the world. You have nice smartphones, cameras, watches, and clothes. You are confident and maybe even swagger a bit.
(And everybody knows from Western TV shows and movies that you have a big car, a big house, a big flatscreen TV and a great lifestyle back home. And probably a college degree.)
HEY – THIS IS YOUR BIG CHANCE! When you find people tending to defer to you, your challenge is to not blow the illusion!
Be kind, be calm, be measured, be happy. Act as a considerate elder or member of a hierarchy, a bit like royalty (forget that imposter syndrome).
Ask, don’t order. Decline when invited to pontificate beyond your levels of expertise. In fact, don’t pontificate at all.
Show respect. Inquire about the backgrounds, circumstances, concerns, and successes of the people you meet and their communities. Talk, joke and laugh with the kids and buy them an ice cream or candy.
Pull this off and you will be amazed at the good things that will come your way in this caring society. You will learn so much, make wonderful friends and go home with marvelous memories.
THE BIG PICTURE
It’s worth taking the trouble to get a feel for appropriate behavior before you visit Indonesia. Do so and you will experience a status and welcome you could not have imagined.
It is mainly a matter of understanding key cultural norms and differences and being polite. And usually, you will have the advantage of enjoying an elevated status. Westerners are perceived as being ‘rich’ and sophisticated.
Don’t take it for granted. Don’t let it go to your head. Feel special, but remember, be gracious, be generous, be kind and enjoy. Avoid being entitled. And remember to SMILE!
Despite the remarkable and profound changes of recent decades, to better understand Indonesian cultural traditions you really need to go back to the village.
Kampung Culture still underpins much of the way Indonesia works and thinks, even as an increasingly urbanized modern country. Perhaps it also offers some reminders on how communities everywhere might work better.
A reminder that this is the Second Part of a look at social customs and expectations in Indonesia – See the earlier article here:
Useful Reference -
For a further dive into aspects of Indonesian and Asian cultural mores try this website of Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) –https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/indonesian-culture/indonesian-culture-core-concepts.