Archive for ‘Indonesian Culture’

May 28, 2013


by Tabitha Kidwell

I just made the mistake of looking at facebook pictures of my first class of 7th graders from Kilbourne Middle School at their senior prom and graduation ceremony, right after cleaning out my office here. This made me simultaneously nostalgic for my own high school days, for the time I spent teaching middle school, and for all the exciting and wonderful places I have ever lived and had to leave behind. In short, it made me miss every ending of every experience I have had thus far. Except maybe for college. But now that I think of it, I really miss college too. Now, I have this deep feeling of loss and sadness. I feel like there isn’t possibly enough time in the world for everyone to do everything they need to do. My mom told me that, after dropping me off at my dorm freshman year, she cried for 24 hours straight. I didn’t really understand that at 18. At 30, I’m beginning to.

I don’t mind this sadness – It’s only sad because it marks the end of happiness. You should be sad at the end of an experience like this. So I’m sitting in it, feeling it, poking at it. I’m regretting the progress of time, but I also feel a little bit like time doesn’t exist, like I am partly still back in high school and like that high school girl is also a little bit here. We’re united by longing and memories, just as the me of today will still be there when this feeling surfaces again sometime far in the future.

After the closing ceremony of a conference we attended together last November, Bu Rini, my partner at the university here, asked me “Taby, what is that word for something that is both sugary and unpleasant?” “Bittersweet?” I offered. “Yes!” she exclaimed, “bittersweet! I feel bittersweet because you will leave soon!” I thought this was a little odd at the time, given that I had over 8 months left to go, but Bu Rini was just thinking ahead. The bittersweetness is really kicking in now. I’ve loved living here, but I can’t wait to move back home. I’ve met wonderful people, but I’m so excited to be back near family and old friends. I’ve had great career experiences, but now I’m ready for a new chapter. When I started this blog almost two years ago, I wrote about how I love the beginning of things. Now I realize I also love the end.

May 26, 2013


by Tabitha Kidwell

No matter how many Indonesian people I meet, they always seem to say the same things. The order varies, but I get the following questions/comments basically every time I meet someone new:

Where are you from?
You speak Indonesian very well! (This often comes after hearing me say only a handful of words. They are easy to please.)
English is very difficult.
How can I learn English?
Where do you live? (They mean, like, which street, which is creepy in America, but just curiosity here… I think…)
What do you do?
What do you think of Indonesian people? (Duh, they’re awesome!)
Which is better, Indonesia or America? (Duh again… I give the people what they want.)
How old are you?
Do you have children?
Are you married?
You should marry an Indonesian man!

I have perfected the answers to these questions, making me sound like a much better Indonesian speaker than I actually am. I even have a few comedy routines I can throw in (Yes, Obama and I are good friends!… I’d love to marry an Indonesian man, do you know any?) I don’t often get thrown for a loop. But this morning, my horse cart driver and I were making small-talk when he asked “So, are you a virgin?” as if it were the most logical and normal question to ask. I suppose it was, from his point of view, or he wouldn’t have asked it. After 2 years here, it’s amazing how surprises can still come up!

May 7, 2013

Lets (not) talk about sex, baby

by Tabitha Kidwell

This morning, one of the groups in my reading class presented a puppet show about one of the articles they had read. The topic was Rob Portman, the Senator from Ohio who had “flipped” his opinion on gay marriage after his son came out. It was strange to sit in a classroom on the other side of the world and watch a puppet show about my own senator. Without the gay marriage controversy, Indonesian students would never have known the guy’s name.

A few groups picked this article to read, and their reaction papers are very interesting. I write comments on most of the reaction papers (I agree! How interesting! Do you think that will be true in the future? etc.) but I have avoided comments on the papers about gay marriage or gay rights. As a guest lecturer at a Muslim institute, I’m just not sure how to weigh in on it. Most students say something like “I am Muslim, so I do not support gay marriage.” A couple said very enlightened things like “I do not agree, but I understand that marriage is a right for all people,” though many don’t seem to have thought about it much.

In terms of romantic relationships, Indonesia seems to be about where the U.S. was in the 1950s. Society turns a blind eye to pre-marital sex. Sex education is not taught in schools based on the idea that students won’t need it until they get married at 20 or 21. Because of that, Indonesian teens have very limited knowledge of sex. Condoms are available at any mini-market, but many teenagers (and children as young as 12!) end up married “by accident.” As to same-sex relationships, I have had students tell me flat out “Indonesia has no gays.” Maybe because they are so sure of everyone’s sexuality, men are very comfortable showing physical affection with each other. It’s not at all strange to see two men walking down the street arm-in-arm, or a teenage boy reclining between his friend’s legs. Men are even comfortable wearing women’s clothing. There is a great tradition of cross dressing in Yogya, the cultural capital of Java. I first took this as evidence of tolerance for homosexuality, until I was informed that it actually stems from women historically not being allowed onstage. So it’s more like evidence of close-mindedness. Fail.

So, while America is debating gay marriage, Indonesia is debating instituting raids on hotels to catch unmarried couples. The two countries may be light years apart from each other ideologically, but there is still the same impulse for the government to decide who can love whom and under what circumstances. I’ll stay out of the debate except to say that, in both instances, the country would probably be better off without the government meddling in its bedrooms.

April 16, 2013

Thoughts on Violence, Marathons, Indonesia, and Boston: Alhamdulillah

by Tabitha Kidwell

One of the best parts of living somewhere 12 hours ahead is waking up in the morning and scrolling through my facebook feed to see what my friends in America did yesterday.

Today was not a good morning.

Last night, as I went to bed, I saw pictures of friends from my running group as they were preparing to run the Boston Marathon, the country’s oldest and most iconic race. People train hard for years to qualify for Boston. Even if we know we’ll never qualify, we still think about the possibility (if I had a great day…; If I could lose 15 pounds..; If I can still run this fast when I’m 70…). We know random facts about a race course we have never seen (10 AM start in Hopkinton; Newton Hills between miles 19 and 26). Based on my age and gender, I would have to run a 3:35 marathon to qualify. That will never happen, but for my friends who are just a little faster and a lot more competitive, it’s within the realm of possibility. This morning, I was excited to wake up and see how they had done in yesterdays race.

And, of course, the first thing I saw was the terrible news of 2 bombs at the finish line.

For some reason, when people hear about a senseless act of violence, we want to find a connection to our own lives. Maybe it’s human compassion, maybe it’s voyeurism, but we want to take someone else’s tragedy and make it our own. We update our facebook status, we tweet: We are all Virginia Tech; Praying for Sandy Hook families; Those could have been my friends; That could have been my child. We want to be part of it, and somehow we feel like we are.

People here in Indonesia feel the same way, and often, I am their connection. For many of my students and colleagues, I am the only American they know well, or even the only American they have ever met. When a tragedy occurs in the States, they often seek me out. “We are sorry to hear the news,” they say. “Are your family and friends okay?” Usually, my family and friends are hundreds of miles away – many Indonesians don’t know New York from New Mexico. I let this slide since many Americans don’t know that Sumatra and Java are more than coffees at Starbucks. But, by being able to connect with me, an actual American, they feel a connection with the tragedy, and they have a conduit for their condolences.

Of course today, some of my friends were there, had passed the exact bombing site only minutes before. And even more of my friends felt like they were there. People come to run Boston from all over the country. I would bet that any distance runner in the US who runs with a group knows at least one runner in Boston today, and immediately thought of that friend. Actually, many of them had already been thinking of those friends all morning as they ran the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Copley Square, mentally sending luck and encouragement. We think about them going to the expo while we are doing our own long run Saturday morning. We see Facebook pictures of them having their pre-run pasta on Sunday night. We post good luck comments on the picture of them on the bus that morning. We follow their progress online. A little bit of us is there too. So when we imagine their finish line excitement and triumph turning into tragedy, we feel that, too.

I feel a little bit sheepish saying this about something as secular as a foot race, but there is something sacred about the finish line. I always cry as I cross. I’m not sure if that is because I’m proud of my accomplishment, overcome with endorphins, or just happy I don’t have to run anymore. The feeling of finishing a marathon is an incredible peak experience. You think back to the long months of training, to the runs in the snow and the rain and the sunshine. You think about other things in your life you are proud of and of what you still have to accomplish. You think about all the people that supported you, all the people who love you, and all the people that you love. It’s a thin place, a place where you are more connected to the fundamental magic of the universe. To have that feeling changed to fear and tragedy in one second is unpardonable.

Living in Indonesia, among a Muslim society, there is a phrase I have come to love: Alhamdulillah. It’s roughly translated as “Praise be to God,” but that doesn’t have the same ring to me. Muslims continue to recite the Koran in the original Arabic because of the power and the beauty of that language, and that may be why Alhamdullilah just seems more powerful than “Thank God” or “Praise Jesus.” So that’s what came to my mind.

When I read the e-mail from Marathoners in Training (MIT), my running group in Columbus, saying that all the runners from our group were safe.


When I saw my friend Katie’s facebook status: Just wanted to let you know that I’m okay


When I thought about my friend Debbie, who has tried for years to qualify and missed it last year by a maddening 26 seconds.


I know that many people think of Islam when they think of terrorism, and that is a sad and unfortunate connection. But after two years of living in a Muslim society, among some of the kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met, I do too – as a source of comfort.


March 30, 2013

What do you Think of Indonesian People?

by Tabitha Kidwell

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.

In America: Just Say No! In Indonesia: Well, we're not going to tell you what to say, but you probably shouldn't say yes...

In America: Just Say No! In Indonesia: Well, we’re not going to tell you what to say, but you probably shouldn’t say yes…

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 on the 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.

Bag Street

Bag Street

Flower Street

Flower Street

Handicraft Street

Handicraft Street

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.

Which way to Borobudur? Straight... and left...

Which way to Borobudur? Straight… and left…

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.

In English: Camera battery belonging to the foreign girl

In English: Camera battery belonging to the foreign girl

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!

March 18, 2013

What’s in a Name?

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I was in high school and the internet was basically brand new, I typed in to see what it was (come on, you did the same, right?). I was surprised to see that it was a logistics and shipping company in Jakarta, Indonesia. I thought that was weird. Now, I pass that shipping company every time I take a taxi to or from the Jakarta airport. I think that is even weirder.

This doesn’t mean that Tabitha is a common name here. Not whatsoever. When I say my name, people give me a confused look that makes me think I don’t know my own name. I’ve gotten misspellings like Capita, Sabina, Zabita, and even if they get close, they have no idea where to put the H: tabitah, tabhita, thabita, tahbita. All this confusion has lead me to typically use my friend Jackie’s name when ordering drinks, reserving a table, etc. But even that doesn’t always work:


Sometimes my last name is even a problem, like on the new calendar for the school I work at:

I'll take that as a compliment

I’ll take that as a compliment

In general, names are used a little differently in Indonesia. In books and articles about Indonesians, you’ll often see the cliché “…who, like many Indonesians, goes only by one name”. Yes, some Indonesians go by only one name. But even more go by 3 or 4. The issue is that Indonesian names don’t conform western ideas about names. There are no first names or last names. There are no family names. Women don’t take their husband’s name at marriage. Kids don’t take their father’s names. Officially, the entire name, whether one or five words, is what is put on documents, announcements, class lists, posters, etc. The western habit of skipping the middle name seems a little odd. Nicknames might come from anywhere in the name, like my students Muchammed Fatmi Latif (just Latif), Indisa Dwi Ciptaputri (just Disa), or Fatihah Fajar Sari (just Ika… I don’t know why, either). This system prompted one of my friends to start calling me “beet” from “Ta-Bee-ta.” Some students use different parts of their names for different parts of their lives, like an Elizabeth who is Beth at home and Liz at school. But some students seem willing to go by anything. I always ask what I can call them on the first day of class, and many say “up to you, miss.” And I always say “no, up to YOU! It’s YOUR name,” and they pick one part for me. I’ve wondered if this apathy about one’s own name might be come back to the collectivistic culture: if individuality isn’t prized, individual names are less important. But that is almost certainly simplistic given the many complicated issues floating around names here. So, while I’m here, I’ll respond to Tab, Bit, Julia, Capita, etc… as long as it’s not Chucky.

March 13, 2013

Bahasa Inggris

by Tabitha Kidwell

A student sent me this text message this morning:

Miss, i’m sorry i can’t attend your class today. I spewed all foods that went to my stomach since yesterday and I don’t feel good today. Sorry I do not send you any license, because i did’t went to doctor, i only use pills to cure it.

I found this message quite clear and even a little charming… but it’s full of errors. This comes from a second year English major, and it is a good illustration of just how low the English levels are here. Now, I do have some very strong students, and students at other universities are typically stronger. Even though it grants an equivalent post-secondary degree, my school is actually classified as a “school of higher learning,” a couple of steps down from a university, so the brightest students typically go elsewhere. Many Indonesians speak better English than my sick student, particularly in the cities. The vast majority, though, cannot string a sentence together. This includes many English teachers – there is no qualifying test to become an English teacher, so out in the villages, even if English is part of the curriculum, it’s the blind leading the blind. Even test prep schools put up signs like these:

...apparently not very well

…apparently not very well

Now, I don’t think people need English just so they can fit into some American imperialist master plan. They don’t all need to be fluent native speakers. But, nationwide, Indonesia does need English. English is the official language of ASEAN and the lingua franca of the region. The latest scholarly research in science and engineering is available in English only. The TOEFL and other language tests are de facto gatekeepers for the best universities worldwide. The lady selling fried bananas on the side of the road in a tiny village might not need English, but if her children don’t learn it in school, they’ll never get out of that tiny village.

It’s important to remember, though, that almost everyone in Indonesia is bilingual, speaking both Bahasa Indonesia and a local language like Javanese or Sundanese or Sasak. That puts them way ahead of the US. In fact, I would bet there are far more people in Indonesia studying English than Americans learning any other language. So Indonesia still has a long way to go… but at least they are better than the US!

March 2, 2013

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and…

by Tabitha Kidwell

Yesterday, I traveled from Malang, in East Java, to Salatiga, in Central Java. I started my journey by being driven to the train station by my friend Iris on her motorbike:


Then I took the train:


I was so impressed - the chairs could rotate around so you could face a group of 4 or face forward.  Brilliant!

I was so impressed – the chairs could rotate around so you could face a group of 4 or face forward. Brilliant!

Then I took a beck (a bicycle rickshaw):


Then I took a bus:


Then I took an angkot (a city-wide mini-bus):


Then I walked the last three blocks to my house!

In addition to all that, in the last month, I have used the following modes of transportation: airplane, taxi, private car, motorcycle taxi, ferry, speedboat, carpool, bicycle, and horse cart. Indonesia is great because they seem to embrace every new option without losing the previous ones. I regularly see motorcycles zipping around SUVs trying to pass horse carts that are held up by bicycle rickshaws. This apparently necessitates these signs at the highway on-ramp:

1, no walking, 2, no motorcycles...

1, no walking, 2, no motorcycles…

...3, no rickshaws, 4, no push carts, 5, no pull carts...

…3, no rickshaws, 4, no push carts, 5, no pull carts, 6, no bicycles, 7, no bicycle rickshaws…

... 6, no... um... covered wagons?

… 8, no… um… covered wagons?

So it looks like horse carts are totally allowed! Or maybe they need a few more signs…

February 19, 2013

Turning Javanese

by Tabitha Kidwell

This recent article about how Barack Obama’s time on Java as a child influences him today got me thinking: how have I changed after my 18 months here?

Yesterday and tomorrow are no longer limited to one day

The tendancy of Indoneisan people to use kemarin to refer to any time in the past, and besok for any time in the near future, is a little infuriating sometimes. For example:

Tabitha: My water is broken. When will it be fixed?
Landlord: Oh, yes, tomorrow.
Tabitha: My water is still broken. When will it be fixed?
Landlord: Oh, yes, tomorrow.


Secretary in my office, on a Wednesday: So, you were in Jakarta yesterday?
Tabitha: No, I was in the office yesterday. You saw me.
Secretary: Yes, but yesterday, you were in Jakarta?
Tabitha: Well, I got back Sunday… but, yeah, okay, yesterday.

But now it’s useful to not really have to worry about if something was precisely one day, two, or a week ago, as long as it is still present in my short-term memory, and to think of what I will do in the somewhat near future as plans for tomorrow. Why waste the mental energy splitting hairs?

I often take on this posture:


This is Srikandi, one of the most powerful female warriors in the traditional Wayang Kulit puppet shows. She is looking at the ground as a sign of her humility and strength. She doesn’t look around haughtily, and she doesn’t even need to acknowledge her far inferior adversaries. I find myself often looking at the ground and adopting an unassuming smile when I walk or run around town here. I find it’s the best way to avoid unwanted attention, which could come from tiny grandmothers giving me dirty looks for parading about in so little clothing (is that an ankle I see?), lascivious youths declaring their passion, (you are beautiful! I love you!) or motorcycle taxis offering their services (where you going? I drive you faster!). It’s no fun engaging with someone who won’t respond, so not making eye contact avoids a world of trouble. When I first realized how often I did this, I regretted how passive and weak I was acting, but then I learned that this is the way that the heros of Wayang Kulit stand. I prefer to think of it as standing like a hero.

Yes/No answers have a third option: Yes/No/Not yet

Indonesian speakers are very careful not to negate a future possibility. If there is a remote possibility that something will happen in the future, it would be inappropriate to close the door on that possibility with a unilateral tidak. Far better to give a non-committal belum. For example:

Are you married?
Not yet.
Do you have children?
Not yet.
Have you made your fortune selling fabric gift wrap under the catchy name “fab wrap?”
Not yet.

Everyone is Miss/Mrs./Mister to me

It’s a little bit rude to refer to Indonesian people by their names only – you should use Bapak, Ibu, Mas, or Mbak, respectively, before the names of old men and women and young men and women. This had led me to think of even my close friends as “Miss Jackie” and “Mister Jon.” To complicate things more, these four titles are only the main ones – there are also many different titles that are used for very old people, foreign people, highly respected people. Oh, and they change regionally. Just throw something in front of someone’s name and you’ll be better off. I now feel like something is missing if I just say someone’s name.

Of course, I have changed in many ways that will only become apparent when I go home and realize what is different and what is out of place in America. Hopefully I’ll lose the verbal oddities but retain the open-mindedness and the heroic posture. Just like my friend Barack Obama.

February 1, 2013

Ode to Durian

by Tabitha Kidwell

Durian fruit is one of the most intriguing things I have come across during my stay in Indonesia. It is incredibly divisive – people either love it or hate it. It is often banned in hotels and on public transportation. Apparently it can’t be harvested, so you just have to wait for it to fall. I’ve heard stories of people being killed when the very fruit they were waiting to enjoy fell right on their heads. There are also stories of men running through the forest after hearing the distinctive clunk of a Durian hitting the ground, only to turn and run the other way upon finding a tiger already eating it. Because of all these perils, Durian is very expensive, but it is worth the cost to the many Indonesian durian fanatics. Indeed, Javanese people describe Durian as the “fruit of the Gods.”

Foreigners are more likely to compare it to stinky feet. It is incredibly hard to describe to someone who hasn’t actually tried it. Here is an example of my conversation with Erica, my visitor from America: Is it like melon? No. Is it like fish? Yes. Is it like cheese? Maybe a little. Is it like garlic? Yes. Is it like tomatoes? No. Is it like ice cream? Yes. Is it like bananas? Maybe a little bit. Is it like plain yogurt? No. So what is it actually like?

Well, it starts as a green spiny fruit the size and weight of a watermelon. Duri actually means thorn in Indonesian, and the spikes are surprisingly pointy. You chop it open and find three small sections each made up of two or three seeds surrounded by creamy white flesh. There is surprisingly little meat in the giant, heavy fruit, but what is there is unlike anything else in the world – sweet and pungent, creamy and rich.



I first tried Durian during training in Bandung last year. While I didn’t think it was horrible, I definitely didn’t like it. At the height of Durian season, I would get to the grocery store and turn right around because of the stench coming from the produce section. But somewhere around the six-month mark here, I inexplicably started to crave it. Something about it’s sharp taste and intense smell appeals to me in the same way as Roquefort cheese, black coffee, lemon juice, and liquorice.

Javanese durian season started a couple of weeks ago, so I was excited to get back home, if only for a few days in the middle of Erica and my travels around Bali and Java. Almost as soon as we showed up at my house, a man rode by on his motorbike with a basket full of durian! I called him over, picked the smallest one, and cracked it open.



Erica was almost immediately put off by the smell, but she was a good sport and gave it a try. Here’s what she thought:


I think it may have been the only food in Indonesia she actually didn’t like. Yet. Like so many aspects of like here in Indonesia, durian takes time to grow on you, but then you love it… and you know that when you leave, you won’t ever have quite that experience ever again.