Posted by Paul Mason on June 19, 2008
While passing through Jakarta in early May, I picked up a copy of the Sunday Jakarta Post. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoy reading The Jakarta Post. It is full of cynical, pessimistic and diplomatic stabs at every shortcoming of the country where it is printed. The front page of the May 11th issue (2008 ) had a particularly funny, yet in reality frustrating, article about pedestrian strips (or the lack thereof) in Jakarta. The article is called, Unnatural Selection in the Concrete Jungle. It’s a very witty piece! The author, Rhiannon Zepol, even manages to take the mickey out of her host-country’s love of acronyms by referring to the ABDPPCDYB (Anak Buah Dari Pohon Pak Charles Darwin Yang Besar = Operation Charles Darwin Citizen Selection Program).
Zepol’s piece appealed to me because it speaks of some daily frustrations that seem to have been solved in so many other cities of the world. The article alludes to a political ignorance that is reflected in Indonesian lifestyle. The best example I could give is a TV commercial created by the Health Department for people to put a cup of Dettol (a brand of anti-bacterial disinfectant) into their Mandi. A Mandi is basically a large tub/upright-bath from where people scoop water for washing and flushing the toilet (aka hole-in-the-ground). One would think that putting dettol in this water is a good idea. However, the shower-using politicians and council workers have probably neglected the fact that most Indonesians use Mandi water for cooking as well. Dettol tasting rice is not exactly what I would like on my menu.
Another government run advertisement, this time for bird-flu, told people to alert the authorities if you find a case of bird-flu in your village. The only problem was that the advertisement gave no information about the symptoms of bird-flu. The following editorials are informative pieces about public health and the lack of political efficacy:
For a student interested in the relationship between the way people think and the culture in which they are immersed, Indonesia is rife with quandaries. People know to boil water before they drink it, but they wash their vegetables and fruit in dirty water even if they eat these fruit and vegetables uncooked. Those who live in flood-prone areas none-the-less clog their drains with garbage bags. Most people own two mobile phones if not more, but cannot afford the credit to use even just one of them. It makes me ask, what kind of thinking creates these behaviours and what are the factors that have shaped this kind of thinking?
An old conference paper I found at the Perpustakaan Peringatan Za’ba at the Universiti Malaya (UM), by Professor Khoo Kay Kim from the department of Asian History, UM, pointed out that more research needs to be done in this area. In this 1979 speech, Professor Kim addressed important issues regarding Western scholars studying Asia. He brought to light the fact that scholars, especially western scholars, had almost entirely overlooked the fact that the vast majority of Asia comprises an “intellectually simple” population. Professor Kim emphatically encouraged Western scholars not to ignore this aspect of Asia but to actually try and understand it in it’s own right. “The simple and unsophisticated logic of the Asian majority,” he said, “deserves greater attention.” Today, I have come to believe that Professor Kim’s words are just as pertinent as they were almost thirty years ago.
The following is a selection of fieldwork stories which I now share in order to seek for a dialogue that may enlighten the factors that have influenced the behaviours that I observed.
Shortly after arriving at my field-site, I was invited to a local wedding. The wedding was a splendid day complete with lavish costumes, traditional dances and local cuisine. One of the most interesting experiences of the day, funnily enough, was watching people at the buffet table.
At one point during the wedding, there was a gentleman who was in the middle of picking up a piece of finger food from one of the buffet table trays. By accident, he dropped the piece of finger food on the ground, which he proceeded to pick up and place back on the original tray before taking a different piece of finger-food from the same tray. I was half bewildered, half disgusted at this person’s behaviour. By deduction, I could assume that the gentleman didn’t want to eat the piece of finger-food that had fallen on the ground, otherwise he would have picked it up and placed it on his own plate. However, I could not understand why he replaced the dirty food on the serving tray! Did he just not think about the person who was going to pick up and eat the dirty food, or did he just not care? The curious action was replacing the fallen finger-food onto the serving tray.
As it happened, the incident occurred again with a different person. Another man dropped a piece of finger-food as he was picking it up from the serving tray. He picked up the fallen finger-food, replaced it on the serving tray and picked up another piece to place on his own plate. I had to enquire about this strange behaviour so I asked the man in a neutral voice, “Why did you not want the piece of food that fell?”
“Because it is dirty.” He said.
“So why did you put it back on the serving tray?” I enquired further.
“Um, I don’t know.” He said with a puzzled expression that indicated he was wondering why I asked the question.
“If it is on the serving tray, won’t someone else pick up the dirty food.”
“Oh.” He replied in a tone that suggested that he hadn’t thought of that before. He subsequently took the dirty piece of food and threw it in a nearby bin before walking away to a table to eat.
Only a couple of hours later, I saw a lady drop almost a whole plate of finger food from the table. I watched her pick up the food and place it back on the serving tray. She then chose a piece of finger-food which hadn’t fallen and placed it on her own plate and continued down the line without blinking an eye. I was puzzled to the extreme!
On another occasion, I went with a group of friends for a picnic at a popular local park. The amount of rubbish left all over the park was astounding. Fish skeletons, empty drink bottles and plastic wrappers were strewn across the whole park. While looking for a clean spot to place our picnic blanket, one of my friends informed me, “See Paul, this is Indonesia, people just leave their rubbish lying everywhere.” My friend’s observation was acknowledged by the giggles of the other members of the group. What I found even more astounding was that after we finished our picnic, while I saved my rubbish in a plastic bag, the other members of the group including my friend who had made the earlier observation threw their rubbish into the bushes behind our picnic spot. Soft-drink cans, food scraps and plastic wrappers were all simply discarded to the immediate convenience of my companions. Another puzzling experience!
Indonesia is not a culture of privacy or silence at all. Once, during a conversation with an Indonesian friend at a café, we were continually interrupted by people asking us questions, wanting to say hello, or wanting to share a joke. The situation might sound common for a cafe, but it made me realise something about Indonesian culture because such social intrusions are not isolated to bars and cafes. It is almost impossible to walk down the street without people interrupting your silent thoughts. Neighbours of mine had people peering in through their windows at all hours of the day and night. Noise is ubiquitous. The sound of the call to prayer from early to late hours, the obnoxious rumble of motorbikes and cars, the incessant need to honk your horn, rattle objects to make people notice your kaki-lima (a street-seller’s mobile shop/cafe) – it is all very invasive. I noticed that in many of these situations, it was actually quite hard to carry thoughts through to their conclusion. My thoughts were continually being cut short. I was continually forced to be made aware of where I was and whoever I suddenly acquainted. This awareness was imposed on me in much more forceful ways than have ever been forced on me in any other country. It has made me realize that the socially organized ways of interacting in Indonesian society somewhate preclude people from thinking about things beyond their immediate needs. Hence, forethought and planning suffer. (As a sidenote, I have often wondered if the pressure to practice forethought and planning is reduced by a tropical climate which makes work more exhausting but which also means that with the right form of agriculture food is always plentiful).
My final story is from a day I spent with a local family. The father who was driving us to a nearby rock-pool was a jovial character who enjoyed socialising and joking around. When we had to find a car park, he became quickly frustrated, as there were no spots available. The father decided to double park, just as a majority of other cars had already done. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder how the person we blocked is going to get out.’ I also remember feeling sure that someone was going to triple park and block our parked car as well.
Sure enough, when we returned to our vehicle a couple of hours later. We had been blocked in by a van. The father of the family took a few minutes to assess the situation. He looked to see if there were still keys in the van, if the van was in neutral, or if the van could be moved by sheer force. After realising that his car was well and truly blocked, he became visibly irritated. “What can I do now?” he said, lifting his arms up and flopping them back down by his sides. By this time, the owner of the car that we had blocked in came across to ask if we were parked in front of him.
“Excuse me, is this your car?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m blocked in, do you know who owns this van?”
“No, I’m sorry, but my car is behind yours, would you mind moving your car.”
“Well I would, but I first have to move this van.”
I won’t continue the story, but I’m sure you can imagine the situation that ensued for the next hour.
These stories demonstrate a way of thinking that focusses on the needs of the present without any particular forethought or recollection of previous experience. My nine months research in Indonesia convinced me that such stories are common daily experiences. In fact, most close acquaintances i made during my fieldwork openly spoke of the laziness and unsophisticated thinking of their society. And that was in situations where it wasn’t for purposes of politeness or cultural etiquette. Without undue prompting, deep inquisition or invasive questioning, the people I work with openly admitted simplicity and laziness. In fact, admissions were at times almost comical. It is comforting that I am not alone in talking about these cultural traits. Many of my informants would complain to me about these aspects of Indonesian culture as well. In fact, the most comical example was when the representative of tourism for a particular region approached me and asked me what he could do about the lack of discipline and laziness of his society. I told him that I don’t know, but that maybe we could put our ideas together and write an article about it. When he said he wasn’t interested in doing that, I asked him why, to which he responded, “Oh, I can’t be bothered, I’m too lazy.” True story!
In conversation, the above stories are quickly dismissed by some of my colleagues and sometimes thought tangential to ethnographic research, but I think that such stories may in fact be doorways into understanding a certain kind of thinking. (I am open to the possibility that such a way of thinking is not culture-specific). I can think of many similar stories in my life in Australia and Europe. I have also seen, in my own society and through my experience in Indonesia, how quickly people dismiss and explain away the discrepancies in thoughts and behaviours within their own society and culture. The ultimate question I raise is what are the effects of a poor economy, the influence of globalisation, the political forces, tropical climate and environmental factors as well as the dynamics of social norms on regional cultures and the ways of thinking of the respective people.
From my encounters with other students of anthropology and sociology currently working in Indonesia, it was evident that they too struggled to understand and grapple with an abundance of anomalous fieldwork experiences. When I shared these stories with some colleagues who were in the field with me–students of sociology, anthropology and asian studies–a common response was “It’s just a different culture.” Dissappointingly, their analysis stopped there. Although observing the same phenomenon as I did with ostensibly similar perspectives, they explained away anomalous behaviour with the catch-phrase, “they’re just different.” Sometimes this phrase can be an escape from exploring the matter further. By simply accepting someone elses behaviour as different because they come from a different culture may obstruct a deeper exploration of why this may be so. Some colleagues were interested in mentally exploring the issue further, but seemed to be trapped by their disciplinary training. By presenting the raw data, maybe we can begin to talk about the differences with more clarity. My hope for myself is to come closer to a better understanding of the communities I study. And then, the bigger hope is to contribute to theory and methodology for cognitive ethnography.
[i] Khoo Kay Kim, The Western Scholar and the Study of Asia, Paper read at the Third New Zealand Conference on Asian Studies, University of Auckland, 1979. New Zealand Asian Studies Association Occasional Papers, volume 2 edited by W.E. Willmott, pp 7 – 16.
p.s. In searching for Zepol’s lecture online, I also found the following article on Islam ‘recognises Homosexuality’. Check out the comments below the article for a real head-spin!
Homosexuality in Indonesia is a fascinating topic. When every radio station and almost each and every TV show has its token transvestite, homosexuality is something that is still overtly shunned, but popular on the TV. In fact, cracking gay jokes, momentarily pretending to be camp, and men dressing up in women’s clothing for parties and festivals is all the rage. You might like to read this article, Just call him Madam and The Sexual Evolution To get a feel for this cultural phenomenon.
In West Sumatera, I befriended a small community of gay guys who were very open to me about the problems and difficulties of being Minangkabau and being gay. They firmly believed that the majority of Gay prostitutes in Jawa were from Padang (West Sumatera). What surprised me even more was that even though it was blatantly obvious in some cases that someone was homosexual, everyone around them avidly denied it to be the case. It shocked me even more to discover that most homosexuals who live in West Sumatera will marry and have kids. It shocked me not because people don’t have a right to marry and have children, but because of the social pressures, the hypocrisies and lies that were involved. The most shocking revelation was the reluctance of men to purchase and wear condoms. Thank goodness they get circumsized! (Circumcision is believed to lower infection rates of HIV). Although, having documented a circumcision ceremony, I thank Allah that I was not born in West Sumatera. There were no gloves, anaesthetic or sterilisation methods. Further to that, the whole village were outside watching through the window while young boys of 6 or 7 years were getting the cut. If the villagers weren’t cramming outside the window, they were trying to get through the door just to see what was going on. Now I understand why every village I visited had satellite television, but a severe lack of all of life’s other essentials. But I digress…
I often wondered if Homosexuality in West Sumatera has a relationship with their ‘adat’ (local tradition) where young boys from the age of about 6 or 7 were no longer allowed to live at home but were brought up in the mushola/Rumah Adat by older men. During my fieldwork, I did not find any villages that still practice this tradition, and it would seem that the last village to practice this stopped in the late 80s or early 90s. West Sumaterans now adopt the nuclear family structure no doubt because of the influence of satellite television, nationalist propaganda and organised religion. But I wonder what effect ‘adat’ had on sexuality and if this effect is still observable a decade or two later.
Another question to ask is, what is the effect of severe social pressures that do not allow unmarried boys and girls to be in the same room together unwatched? Does this inadvertantly encourage boys to turn to each other to release sexual tension? And what about women? I knew a lesbian couple who said that they were quite happy living together because social pressures only applied to what they said, not what they did. On one occassion, I met two policemen who told me that they would storm people’s rooms while they were doing the dirty if the couple were unmarried. (Mind you, the same policemen then tried to hook me up with prostitutes). Additionally, some hotels in Indonesia do not allow couples to book into the same room if they are unmarried.
Sexuality is a confusing topic for many people. Introducing religion, politics and media into the picture just makes it a more meatier subject. It is an interesting topic to explore further, but I am not sure that I necessarily have the sensitivity and wisdom that is required to deal with this topic. In fact, I apologise to anyone that I may have offended in this article. In my defense I am sharing the above stories because of my confusion in trying to understand them. It is my hope that this blog might inspire other researchers to complement my findings with a more complete arrangement of data.
On a final note, A fantastic book that opened my scientific thinking about sexuality is Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999, 752 pp: