It is ridiculous to try to address culture in one tab of a blog. That won’t stop me from trying. 

Truth is, I still have no clue about the culture. Every day I try to decipher experiences and maneuver, adjust, and tweak my own actions and perceptions to live harmoniously within the framework of this new world. And, as our handy-dandy Junior Woodchuck guidebook from Peace Corps mentions, having a cultural experience does not necessarily mean understanding it fully. I am sure upon my departure from Indonesia two years from now, I will still have many questions unanswered and will have missed huge pockets of all this rich culture has to offer. Not only that, but there are so many layers to sift through. My small mind is constantly trying to asses and label if certain situations, reactions, or ways of being are: 
  • Indonesian
  • Javanese
  • East Javanese
  • Muslim
  • if they are specific to my village culture
  • or purely particular to the individual
It’s a lot of sifting. 

I remember a passage in one of my college textbooks that took an American baseball game and tried to describe how it may be seen through the eyes of a person from a remote African village with no prior context for what baseball was. It was a humorous read that detailed the game as a religious ceremony with the pitcher being perceived as some sort of priest. Any observations I document here risk the same outcome. Any story or picture I portray will always be tainted by my own culture, values, thoughts and perceptions and will severely lack in historical and cultural context. I will, however, spend the next two years trying to narrow that gap to gain somewhat of a better understanding. Again, I could possibly fail miserably, but I am sure the attempt will be entertaining.

Anyway, here is a list of things I hope to get to the bottom of in the next 2 years: 

  • There is a lot of excessive blinking from some individuals as they are speaking. I have asked a few Indonesians about it, but they had no idea what I was talking about. Without having any other sort of reference, I can only ascertain in my narrow view that this could just be an East Java thing? 
Long thumbnails on men
  • I remember this from Jordan and Egypt as well. I think my friend Dena told me why this is the case, and I forget. 
Not smiling in photos 
  • It's interesting because there is constant joke-making and laughing in my school and village. One wouldn't know it from looking at the posed pictures they take. Some people still look at picture taking as a formal thing where it may not be appropriate to smile. Today, however, the teachers at my school did suggest taking an informal picture of us in a senam (aerobics) pose. Progress.
The paradox that all music is played at mind-numbing decibels, yet most people speak at a barely audible volume
  • The jury is still out on this one. 
  • The paradox that everyone takes at least 2 mandis (baths) a day, and it is weird to wear the same pajamas twice without washing them - but in my family, undergarments are changed less frequently and bed sheets are washed maybe every couple of months.

    Hierarchy of pests 
    I compiled a Pyramid of Pests (not to be confused with the infamous Pyramid of Swears) as a result of short and non-scientific observation of the degree of effort put forth in trying to eliminate certain unwanted specimens from the home.

    • Mosquitoes are public enemy #1 as my host ibu will spray and bat at mosquitoes with a vengeance.
    • My host ibu and real mom in the US (Peg, Marge, or Mumma) have a similar attitude toward village cats. They will feed these stray cats every morning and then are surprised when they take the first opportunity to dart into the house or sneak in the back door to get at the day’s garbage lying on the kitchen floor.
    • There is some effort to try to eliminate ants as we put food under a plastic cover. However, I have been offered cake that appeared to be moving and looked around as no one else seemed to mind as they happily scarfed it down. Makes me wonder how many ants I will inadvertently eat during my 2-year stay.
    • Giant roach carcasses are left for days, and a rat running across the floor is barely glanced at - which leaves me to deduce they are tolerated and not thought of as worthy of effort for removal.
    • Cecaks (lizards) are welcome and are a constant on our walls. 
    Small Talk
    Pretty much anything you should never ask someone in America is what you will be asked in the first 5 minutes you meet someone. It's actually not that bad, and I wonder when I go home, if I will all of a sudden start asking people some of these by mistake. Top 5 questions:
    • Where are you going? This isn't particularly weird, but it is definitely question #1 where people aren't really looking for a response as much as making chatter.
    • How old are you? 
    • Are you married? To which you should always respond, "Belum", or "not yet". Saying no is not an option here. Everyone is always hoping to get married. 
    • What is your religion? I hope to become more educated on this to contribute to additional blog entries, but there are only 5 recognized religions in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism was lumped with Buddhism somehow. With Muslims making up the predominant amount of the population, religion is engrained into daily life, and it would be just weird to say you don't have a religion. Volunteers were coached that if they did not subscribe to any religion, they should pick one and say we pray in our room. Atheism is associated with Communism by some Indos, so it is not a popular stance.
    • Are you happy here? Not that this one is odd, but since day one of arriving at site, I have gotten this question. It makes me feel for my poor brother who was single-handedly building his own house for several years and was constantly asked, "Is it finished?". It wasn't gonna get built any faster the more you asked him about it, and I was not going to get any more comfortable the more someone inquired into my current degree of happiness. I am sometimes tempted to say that I am not happy just to see what happens, but that would just be silly. 
    • BONUS: Occasionally, I will be asked if I am menstruating. This caught me off guard, but because it determines if Muslim females can fast, pray, etc, it is pretty normal to discuss out in the open.
    • Oh and what is your Hp (cell phone) #? If you spoke two words to someone, you will be expected to provide your cell phone number.
    Why not walk there? 
    On this one, I have reached some level of understanding. While it may only take me 12 minutes to walk to my school, at 2pm when I have to go home, it is a hot and sweaty 12 minutes as there is zero shade. It can be even worse when you forget something at school and don’t realize it until you are almost home and have to do the 12-minute walk 4 times in the blazing sun. So, I ride my bike to school as suggested by my Indonesian friends, and I have a new appreciation for why they never sweat. 

    Concept of time
    I have not yet cracked the puzzle of how time works here. Indonesians will speak about “rubber time”, but it is not like everything is always late. 

    As an example, we were scheduled to leave for a school trip at 8am. We left at about 9:30am. We were scheduled to return home at 12pm the following day. We left at 11:05am. So in my limited view, I can only deduce that one is always late in leaving home but early returning to it? Not sure. 

    Still, having no way to read the queues, I am always early when I was supposed to be late, I am always late when I should have been early. I eat slowly when I should be eating fast, and my ibu will comment I ate too fast at times when I guess I should have taken longer. Much to learn on this one.

    How information is disseminated
    It seems at times everyone knows about schedules, events, and changes except me, and other times these occur even without key people being aware.  

    Example 1: I arrived to a school dinner at 7:00pm dressed in batik as I was told. I met the vice principal of the school who was also dressed and ready. When we arrived, all the teachers were still in the sports gear and said we weren’t meeting until 8pm. The vice principal was just as surprised as I was, so I went back to my room and watched some Indo telenovelas.

    Example 2: I went on a road trip with my principal, vice principal, and counterpart to observe another high school’s advanced English class. We arrived, chatted with the principal, and then my counterpart and I were left in a room to eat some snacks. A teacher came by and advised there were no advanced English classes today, but I could introduce myself to another class. My principal found us and said it was time to go. When we were in the car, the vice principal asked my counterpart how the observation was, and she said we did not observe anything as there were no advanced classes today. He seemed shocked, and then we drove the 3 hours home.

    Information also seems to be shared on a “need to know basis”. Sometimes this is 5 minutes before the event, or sometimes 10 minutes to 4 hours after the event has already started. We received our school schedule 3 hours into the first day of school, so I had already missed all my classes. This was actually pretty good compared to other volunteers who are still waiting for their schedule 3 weeks later. 

    What will Indonesians think about Americans after I leave?  
    This culture thing works both ways, and as it stands currently, there is a good chance I will leave some villagers behind believing that all Americans are poor bike-riders who drink large quantities of water, play lots of cards, and perspire excessively.

    How about some pics of cool tidbits of Indonesian culture? You got it:

    Making batik fabric is an art form, and I am privileged to be close to the center of it all. Here are some pics of a recent school trip to see batik being made. 

    Wayang Kulit
    The shadow puppetry in Java is something to behold. Usually, the shows will begin at night and run until the morning, but this one I attended was an abbreviated one held during the day. The show features gamelan music and usually all in a high form of Javanese which, sadly, fewer and fewer people can understand as time goes on. For a more expert description of wayang, please refer to Mas Jay's blog: