Thursday, September 29, 2011

Culturally Insensitive

This month, I've spent three weeks with 40 young American volunteers, who just came to Indonesia and will teach in various high schools, madrasahs and pesantrens across the archipelago. One of our sessions in the three weeks orientation was about culture, especially the differences between Indonesian and American culture.

After the session, some of the youngsters asked me about why Indonesians do this and do that. And suddenly I became very aware of our Indonesian culture. Some of the culture is actually a bit rude, impolite and inappropriate. Here are the most questionable culture according to those Americans (and actually, according to me too!):

- When an Indonesian meets a friend, they won't make small talks about weather or politics or current news. Instead, they will make comments about the friend's appearance: "Gemukan ya sekarang?" or "Tambah item aja!" Imagine if you translate that into English: "You're so fat now!" or "Your skin is darker!" I don't think you've ever heard someone made those comments in English. It's not nice, it even could be considered rude.

- In Indonesia, everybody wants to know everybody else businesses. When you meet someone you know on the street, what will you ask? "Mau ke mana?" "Sama siapa" or "Dari mana?" And it's not considered impolite if you ask somebody's marital status or even salary. That's the bright side of being a part of social-culture-community =D

- Indonesian do not like to receive compliments. If somebody said to you that you look great or your dress is so nice, you can't just simply say thank you. You have to find an excuse to lower yourself. "Well, I bought this dress in Mangga Dua, only 50k rupiah!" Sounds familiar? We are not only rendah hati, but sometimes we are almost rendah diri.

-Someone said to me that in Indonesia, you can't take things as they are. You have to master the art of reading between the lines. So, if someone said "nanti", it means "never"; "mungkin lain kali" means "not interested at all", and "kurang tahu" means "no freaking idea!"

One thing I remember from the session is, when Ibu Irid Agoes, the speaker, said that no matter what Indonesians said to you, please don't get offended. It's culture, not personal. So everytime you want to strangle someone because of his/her hurtful comments, just tell yourself: It's culture, not personal!

Lately, that worked for me too! When I wanted to punch an old friend who just met me after years and his first comment was "Gendut banget ya loe sekarang!"; I kept saying to myself, that's culture, not personal! (but added: freaking idiot! anyway).

What I promised myself since that day was, I will teach my kid to differentiate between the great Indonesian cultural heritage, and the so-called idiotic and insensitive comments. My kid is Indonesian, but I'm sure he'll become an Indonesian gentleman, and not an Indonesian jerk! =)