When I meet new people, I always get asked this infuriatingly broad question. If I’m feeling pedantic, I explain that I haven’t yet met all 240 million Indonesian people so I don’t feel comfortable generalizing. If I feel playful, I ask “What do you think of Indonesian people?” But usually I just answer with what is, of course, the correct answer: “I love Indonesian people!”
But what do I really think of Indonesian people? Below are some of the generalizations I can make, at least about the Indonesian people in Central Java that I have interacted with. As generalizations, they aren’t true for every Indonesian I’ve ever met, and, having lived here only 18 months, I’m not the world’s expert on Indonesian culture. These are just my own opinions, based on my own experiences.
Indonesian people are indirect
Saving face is important, so it’s important for Indonesian people to avoid looking stupid, wrong, lazy or ignorant – and to help others avoid the same fate. So when I am planning a meeting and ask my colleague (who has no intention of attending) if she will come, she will answer “maybe” or “insyaallah” (god-willing). This means no. If I ask someone directions and they answer with a vague “keep going straight, it’s still far,” this means they do not know. If I bumble through a speech in Indonesian and my listener has a completely blank expression, then says “You speak Indonesian well,” that means I do not speak Indonesian well. This is often maddening to an American who just wants a straight answer, but I suppose it fosters a more harmonious society.
Indonesian people are conformist
Indonesia is often described as a collectivistic culture, while America is an individualistic culture. One of our facilitators during training mentioned a study (which I’m sure is not he internet somewhere, but I can’t find it now) that showed that the US to be one of the most individualistic societies, while Indonesia is one of the most collectivist. One of the ways this manifests itself is that Indonesian people seem to prefer to blend in with the crowd. In America, there is a great value placed on being unique and different from others – this is not so in Indonesia. At an English singing competition I judged, out of 17 competitors, fully NINE of them chose to sing When you Believe by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. And 3 more sang I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly. At one point, we had four versions of When you Believe in a row, including two sisters who sang the same song one after another. No one seemed to be upset that someone else had chosen the same song, let alone that over half the competitors chose the same one!
Indonesian People are cooperative
The day I arrived in Indonesia, while on the way to Salatiga from the Semarang airport, we passed a bunch of sweet potato vendors. I asked my hosts “Why are there so many sweet potatoes here on this street?” They said “This is where you can buy sweet potatoes,” which I had already gathered. “So, do the vendors have, like, a co-operative?” I asked, at which point my hosts looked at me blankly. Despite the fact that they were in direct competition with the other 10 sweet potato vendors on the street, this was the place to set up a sweet potato shop. I asked why they didn’t set up somewhere farther from their competitors, and my host said “That would be unfair competition.” I would call it “good business sense,” but whatever. I’ve since noticed this trend with any number of goods – streets full of shoe vendors, of key-copiers, of fabric shops, of fruit stands. My friend Jonthon told me about how hard it was to buy flowers in his city because all the flower shops were on one street on the opposite side of town. If anyone wanted to open a shop in an area of town that didn’t have a flower shop, they probably would have done great business… but that would be unfair… I guess.
Indonesian people are comfortable with ambiguity
This is probably along the same lines and being indirect, but it is okay to not have an exact answer to any question. When will you pick me up? After breakfast. When does the ferry go? 3 days a week. When will classes start? Soon.
Indonesian People are thoughtful
Indonesian people are unfailingly kind, and always thinking about other people. For example, when I forgot my camera battery with the bouncers at a bar (you couldn’t take pictures inside, so they kept the battery – whatever), when I returned the next night (when the bar was closed), the battery was wrapped up neatly and left with the security guy out front. So sweet! In America, it would have been tossed in a drawer under the cash register and forgotten.
Indonesian people love photos with foreigners
I don’t really have any witty observations about this, mostly because I still don’t really understand why random strangers want me in their photos. My friend Iris says it goes back to the Dutch colonial legacy of telling Indonesians they are not as good as foreigners, but the girls in the photo below were probably born in 1997! Are they really still culturally oppressed by colonization? I don’t know… but I’ve perfected my paparazzi smile.
So those are my very unscientific thoughts about Indonesian people. Some aspects are maddening, some are endearing, some are charming, but they are all part of the reason why… I love Indonesian people!