Before arriving in Bandung to learn Indonesian language, I knew that part of the course was going to deal with Indonesian culture and to be honest, I just wasn’t interested. Mainly because I already knew quite a bit about different customs and the ceremonies that the different ethnic groups like to undertake. The other thing was that I thought I could just pick up the nuances of the culture by living here. I thought the culture was the stuff that as outsiders we observe. The surface stuff. The ceremonies, the way people interact, the way people talk, the styles of people’s houses – the things we can see. But it’s much more complex than that.
After almost 2 months of learning Indonesian, learning about the culture and living in a kampung, I can honestly say that I could never have understood the subtlties of this culture on my own. It would be impossible. And I now feel for many of the expats living in Indonesia who are regularly frustrated by some of the little things in day-to-day life when dealing with Indonesians – it’s really all about cultural misunderstandings.
So what am I talking about? Well, I’m talking about understanding the way Indonesian people think and feel and how that impacts on the words they use, the way they use them and the body language that accompanies that. There’s an obsession with status in Indonesia that I never really understood before. But it’s complex. It’s not just about wanting to be at the top of the hierarchy. It’s also about being polite about it and not boasting about your wealth or social standing. There is a constant struggle to lower oneself to ensure that other don’t view you as being a snob.
It also goes for things like new clothes or shoes. If you complement someone on the new clothes, the person will be embarrassed and will say they’re cheap, not good or were on sale… anything to devalue them so that the person doesn’t appear to revel in having someone praise their wealth or social standing. It’s all very strange and very complex.
By the same token, even though you’re lowering yourself at every opportunity, it’s only on the surface. You really do try and move up the social ladder while acting as if you’re not and that it’s not important. So you might buy an ipad partly because it increases your status in the eyes of others, but you’ll try and say it’s rubbish and not that good knowing that it still makes you look richer and more important. I love it.
So why is this important? Well, if I want to be something other than just another white guy living in Indonesia that can throw around a few dozen Indonesian words, I need to fit in. I need to cocok. And I think it’s every person’s responsibility to cocok if you go and live in another country. In Australia when we see immigrants stick within their enclaves and fail to embrace the local culture, we castigate them — we discriminate against them. The same happens in Indonesia and I think it’s fair enough.
So this culture thing is all important. It can’t be learned from a book, it can’t be learned from the people. It has to be taught to you, you have to experience it and you have to be pulled up when you get it wrong. And that is something that is not likely to happen from an Indonesian person as it’s embarrassing to correct someone when they do something wrong. Especially a bule. Which is just another one of those cultural complexities.