Thursday, April 15, 2010

Karaoke and Buffet meals: my summary of Indonesian culture

Obviously, a culture cannot be summarised in one blog post. And Indonesian culture may be more diverse than most. So obviously, I am grossly generalising when making observations about Indonesian culture.

That being said, to my Indonesian friends, here are some observations I've made about your culture:

1. Karaoke. In the West, we grow up with a strong sense of image. After living in the Middle East, my sense of image may be even stronger. Almost universally in places I've lived before, part of a good image requires avoiding giving the impression that we want people to notice us. Of course, we do want people to notice us, but we don't tell them we want them to notice us. We just hope it happens, and draw attention to ourselves in less than obvious ways.

Singing Karaoke is all about drawing attention to ourselves. We stand up in front of a TV screen flashing stupid images, we grab a microphone, the louder the better, and we sing. Hopefully we sing well, but that is less important than making noise into the microphone. Most of my Western friends will only touch Karaoke if they are drunk. Otherwise, it breaks the image rule.

Not Indonesian culture. I hope I never forget the night our driver, who was waiting for us to finish eating so he could take us home, asked the restaurant manager to turn on the karaoke machine. Then some of my colleagues around the table jumped up and joined him. Before having even one sip of beer, the three of them took turns singing into the microphone with the rest of us watching and listening. They seemed little bothered about the perfection of their performance: they did it for fun and it seemed to little matter who was watching.

2. Buffet meals. I come from a cultural heritage in which I was taught to always defer to others. Serve others before myself when cutting a birthday cake, allow others to enter a room in front of me, invite others to speak first in a meeting. I was taught that this kind of deference is a way to show respect for other people. Other times, in my culture, we do all this to make ourselves look humble (not because we are humble) - the image thing again.

Since I've been in Indonesia, on a few occasions I've participated in group meals. A spread of food is laid out on the table, little welcome speeches are given, then we eat. Without fail, for about 2 seconds people wait for others to help themselves, and then they jump in and don't look back nor do they look around. They don't insist that someone else go first, and they only occasionally dish out for others. They just eat. That's all there is to it!

Once, about six people were waiting around the water cooler to serve ourselves some water. We all knew each other as acquaintances - not good friends but not strangers. In the West, such a relationship would evoke extreme politeness and deference. Not here: people pushed their way in to serve themselves with little concern for the thirst of the others. (To be fair, I fared reasonably well in the rush.)


I get the impression there are a lot of cultural rules in Indonesia, and quite of a few of them have to do with showing respect to people according to their status. Perhaps the lack of rules regulating karaoke and the water cooler helps balance things out.

Indonesian friends, I do love you. I've had a fabulous time with you and getting to know your lovely country. But I'm a sociologist and you can never take the analytical questions out of me! These are just some of the musings I've had about your lovely world.

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