8 Unusual Things And Traditions In Indonesia

Indonesia. What is the first thing that come into your mind when hearing that name? A beautiful country in Southeast Asia? Bali? Batik? Corruption? Well, you are correct.
Welcome to Indonesia! Yes, we always smile!
Image source: Flicker.com - M. Bob

Most foreigners recognize Indonesia because of Bali. Bali itself is a province in Indonesia and quite famous. There are many other interesting places to visit in Indonesia besides Bali, just so you know. Indeed my country Indonesia is well-known for its hospitality and rich culture. Yes, I can ensure you we love foreign tourists or "bule", that's how we will call you in Bahasa, our tongue.

Thinking to visit Indonesia? You are very welcome! However, just like any other countries in this planet, Indonesia has its own uniqueness, such as traditions. Below I listed 10 things that could be problematic for you but very common in Indonesia. By doing or not doing these traits, you could blend and be well-accepted in Indonesia.

1. The lefty problem
Are you left-handed? Well, you must be quite careful in Indonesia. Handling things, doing handshake or lifting a spoon is considered rude if they are done using left hand. In Indonesia, we still believe that left hand is the "dirty" hand, because we use it for "cebok", a term for cleansing after defecating using water. It is a very common situation where left-handed kids are forced to switch hand when writing because, well, they better not using the same hand for both writing and "cebok".


2. Good manner while eating
Indonesian people love to eat together! :)
Image source: blog.djarumbeasiswaplus.org
Every time you meet with an Indonesian at meals, don't be surprised if they offer you their meals. Even if the food is only enough for one person. Don't take it seriously, it is call "basa-basi" in Bahasa. Usually we respond by saying "No, thank you. You're welcome." Trust me, we do not mean to share. Although some people with excess food might actually mean it. How to know the offer is sincere or not? Simple, if the offeror insists or ask you for the second time, you're expected to take the food. 

3. Call all older or respected persons with "Pak / Bu"
"Pak" and "Bu" are the Bahasa for "Mr" and "Madam", and we use them a lot. You meet someone you don't know yet, you call them "Bu", or if she's still a maid, "Mbak". A man is addressed with "Pak", younger one with "Mas". We keep using these titles even when we already know these people, especially in formal circumstances like office or schools. Calling someone, especially the elders without these titles are considered rude.

4. Ask ANYTHING on introduction
It's not because we Indonesian are very curious. We have a saying, "Tak kenal maka tak sayang". In English, it is translated as "Do not know then do not care." Please don't feel uneasy or angry if we ask so many questions doing introduction, we just want to know you better so we can care! I guarantee you questions about religion, address, family, kids or even love life (if you're charming enough) will be asked. Do not answer these question however will make you look arrogant and unsociable. In return you are free to ask us with similar questions!

5. We shower like whales
Twice a day or even thrice. Indonesia is located right in the middle of the planet and it's a tropical country with two seasons: the rain and the dry. Most Indonesian shower twice a day, in the morning and after work. Sometimes even thrice, simply because of the sweat and humidity. We're not magician though, we can't guess how many showers you take every day. Yet if you sweat easily, I highly recommend to adopt this habit in order to always feel fresh.

6. The hidden meanings
This trait could be very Asian. Indonesian highly respect courtesy and we often don't say what we truly mean. This is quite tricky and a part of the "basa-basi" tradition so you need to learn how to guess the meaning correctly. Bluntness is considered rude in Indonesia. We like to wrap criticism and negative utterances using metaphors or delicate phrases. If you're not sure you're guessing the right meaning, I recommend you to ask twice until you get the real meaning. For example, if you want to rent your Indonesia neighbor's bike, he will likely to say yes with a smile but you have to make sure whether he's really okay if you do it. Sometimes the clams open after two or third trial.

7. Love thy neighbors
If you're living in a small town or a village, you must know your neighbors whether you like socializing or not. It's an unwritten rule. By knowing I mean deeply acknowledge them, not just knowing their names. This is because in our tradition, social bonding is very vital. Do not be surprised if you're asked to join the local "arisan" (gatherings). We can just pop up in your house without prior notice and you can do the same to us :) You're also expected to be helpful in the community and in return, you'll get the same treatment. It is called "gotong-royong", the mutual assistance.

8. The starving man
If you're invited to a wedding reception or any reception including meals, you'll notice that frequently no one will take the food. Yes, it may sounds very awkward. Rushing to the pork or salads might make you look like a starving man with no courtesy. Let the host or the elderly to take the first turn. After that you and the other guests can freely take the food. Another thing to be noticed is do not make sound while eating. The sound of smacking lips or tongues while eating is considered rude.

9. The walking rule
If you have to walk through in front of an elder, a respected person, you boss or any valued person who has a conversation on going with another person, make sure to bend your back, and say "Permisi" (Excuse me). By doing so, you show that you respect the persons, the conversation and you have no intention to bother them. Normally the person will step aside and let you pass. If you don't do this and just walk straight through, people will think you are disrespectful.

Learn how to greet in Bahasa could give you a lot of
advantage. Image source: Wikihow
10. Greetings. Anytime. Anywhere.
When visiting a new place, a restaurant, or anything, anywhere, anytime in Indonesia, make sure you great the persons, the host or any persons who come to welcome you. Simply saying "Selamat pagi / sore / malam" - "Good morning / good day / good evening", "Hello" or even "Permisi" - "Excuse me" and you will be welcomed with a smile. It's identical to saluting with "Bonjour / bonsoir" in France. In big cities like Jakarta, this courtesy has sadly been forgotten but in small towns and regions still in practice. Do not say your intention straight forward without greeting first.

In addition to 10 things above, there are still other "rules" you need to observe further and do in some regions as they have their owns. I'm not saying that Indonesia has so many norms, they're just a small part of our rich tradition. Even I myself sometimes do not acknowledge some of the old customs. If you have a guide, you can ask him / her about these so you can make sure you will not offend anyone. Feel free to ask me if you have questions, I promise I will help.


Welcome to Indonesia!