By: Clarice Cheong
The rustic natural landscapes, vast sandy beaches and the vibrant cultural scene have swathed the Indonesian archipelago in a dreamy allure, attracting over a million tourist worldwide. A second contrasting image of Indonesia is saturated with tension over the surge of terrorist attack. These notions albeit pervasive,are merely stereotypical images engendered by the international media and should not underpin the whole Indonesian experience. In light of this, I delve into the perspectives of two Indonesian students studying in the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) as they reminisce their everyday lives growing up in their home country. Through this, I hope to offer an enlivened insight into the tribulation, joys, and the day to day academic and cultural encounters that are viscerally and intimately experienced by the interviewees, growing up in Indonesia.
Background of our interviewees
A brief insight into the backgrounds of the interviewees will set the scene for a nuanced discussion into the aspects of the Indonesian experience. Naufal, a driven third year Politics and Economics student, shares that his core motivation for studying abroad to experience a world-class educational experience in the LSE has remained firm but taken a more personal turn after 2 years.
In his words, “I enjoy the wide variety of lectures from a wide domain of disciplines, unmatched to the ones in Indonesia.”
Our second interviewee, Anastasia, is a cheerful and bright-eyed fresher who seeks to experience the vitality of the international community that defines the LSE experience.
During the discussion with Anastasia, I was intrigued by her interest in making new friends hailing from different backgrounds. When I asked her to elaborate further on the driving factors that motivated her to study abroad, she offered a unique insight on the closed-off nature of her town.
She said: “I live in a small town called Lumajang in East Java, many Indonesian do not know of its existence. Personally, I feel that my hometown is detached from the outside world.”
She pauses and adds that “Similarly, with education, many people move out of the town during University but they return back to the town… I wanted to break that bubble.”
While both students have vastly different goals and ambitions for studying abroad in the UK and their courses will inevitably lead them to divergent paths, a common thread that seem to tie their experiences together is their uniquely Javanese identity.
Politeness- The Javanese example
A subtle bow of the head and a polite demeanor are ubiquitous features of the day to day formalities practiced by Javanese. The customary code of politeness reflects humility- a dignified aspect of Javanese culture but perhaps, underlying the impeccable manners, are the undercurrent notions of power and seniority.
A conversation with Anastasia, reveals that in traditional East-Javanese culture, one has to take stock of the way he/she addresses another party, particularly someone older. She shared that addressing a senior whose age gap differed by a few years, on a first-named basis is considered “rude”.
I asked her if she felt uncomfortable in the UK, having to address others by their first name since it has become an ingrained habit, where we refer to our professors on the first name basis. Seeing no explicit dissonance between her customary practice in Javanese and her experience here, she chuckles nervously and comments that: “Sure, initially, it took some time getting used to, as back in Java, we addressed our seniors who were a few years older as ‘Kak’.”
When I arrived at the topic of seniority,Anastasia explains that: “In Javanese culture, when we walked past the elderly,in the train carriages, we would acknowledge them with a bow of our head.” I probed further and asked her if this applied to strangers, to which she replied: “Yes, even if they were strangers, the fact is that they were much older than us, so I would bow my head slightly when I see elderly on the train.”
The speech patterns and small gestures revealed in Anastasia’s account, brings to light the model of the polite code in Javanese culture. Ostensibly, there are different social spheres in Javanese culture, separated and distinguished primarily by age. Javanese people are particularly cognizant of their age difference and this keen awareness has shaped their manners of conducting oneself.
Festivity for the Javanese underpinning the culture of diversity
The festival of the Eid al-Fitir is one which most Indonesians anticipate with fervent enthusiasm,as it is the time to celebrate the month-long fasting (Ramadan) coming to a close.
When I asked Naufal about the important festivals that he celebrated in Indonesia, he responded: “I believe the most exciting festival which all Muslims look forward to is the Eid Festival. It is a time where everyone gathers together to celebrate the festival of breaking the fast by praying and involves lots of gifts and feasting.”
Intrigued by his peculiar use of the word‘everyone’, I asked him if the Eid al-Fitir is celebrated by the minority Chinese Indonesians, to which he quips excitedly: “Of course! It is a time when even the Chinese-Indonesians (Chindo) would join in and I believe that this is one of the most amazing aspects of Indonesia- the diversity.”
Anastasia also revealed that as a minority Chinese Indonesian, she had never felt that she was detached from the predominantly Muslim community. In fact, during the Eid al-Fitir festival, she shared that her family would open their doors to her Muslim neighbors and they would come together and enjoy a hearty meal together.
It is of particular interest that Eid al-Fitir, despite its widespread recognition as a Muslim festival, is not exclusively celebrated by Muslims in Indonesia. The Eidal-Fitir festival unifies the different tenets in society, encompassing people of different racial and religious background. This is a telling revelation of the united front which Indonesians bear, notwithstanding the media’s extensive coverage of the suicide bombings that took place in May calling into question the degree of religious tolerance in Indonesia and casts mounting pressure on the Government to take more active steps to mitigate the rise of extremist conceptions. Certainly, such events are anomalous and do not undermine the homogeneity of the collective whole. Diversity underpins the uniquely Indonesian identity- one which Indonesians take pride in and are proud to call Indonesia their home.
A taste of home
On a more light-hearted note, the amalgamation of aromatic and flavorful cuisine forges a sense of community amongst Indonesians and is what draws most Indonesians close together.
Upon coming to the discussion of Indonesian cuisine, both Anastasia’s and Naufal’s eyes lit up excitedly as they are reminded of the scrumptious food back home.
Anastasia’s personal favorite is the Indonesian beef black soup (‘Rawon’ or ‘Nasi Rawon’), she describes the taste as “like no other, it can be somewhat of an acquired taste and uses interesting spices such as black nuts from the kepayang tree to give it the thick and dark consistency.It is amazing.”
Naufal is equally illustrative in his response.When asked what his favorite Indonesian food is, he promptly answered with a nostalgic smile, “The Dendeng balado has to be my favourite! It is cooked by first frying thin slices of beef, thereafter marinating with red chili and other spices. I love to eat it with rice.” Imagine the undertones of umami emanating from the dried beef slices, cushioned in a seamless blend of chili,cayenne pepper and turmeric- it is no wonder that Naufal holds the taste of this Indonesian dish so close to heart.
Beyond a media-constructed impression of Indonesia
Through the eyes of Naufal and Anastasia, threads of visceral everyday experiences are interwoven to reveal part of the idiosyncratic Indonesian narrative. In this way, although proliferating media coverage on the religious violence in Indonesia should not be taken lightly, it must not consign to oblivion the rich diversity of the local Indonesian experience.