You Must Eat Rice, and Other Lessons Learned


This week marks the beginning of my fifth month in Indonesia, right at the halfway mark of my time in the Archipelago. It’s been an incredible experience thus far. I’ve had enough free time to read about a book a week and take an online photography course. I’ve picked up enough of the language to where I can hold my own in a basic conversation, and I’ve gotten used to cold bucket showers in the morning. I’ve enjoyed running wild around East Java with my motorcycle, a white Honda Beat (a ubiquitous motor due to its low cost and reliability). In my free time I go jalan jalan (literally, “walking walking,” but translates to “traveling around”). A good day spent on my motorcycle walking walking looks like this: cruising through rice paddies, the sun shining on my face, speeding through sugarcane fields, the wind rippling through my shirt, weaving around traffic, passing through a small village, stopping to take a picture of a chicken, or a rusty bike on a discolored wall, inhaling fresh mountain air, taking in the view. I’m all smiles, and muddy feet. If I go an hour south to the coast, I will find dramatic caves, fishing villages, and crystal clear blue beaches. If I go an hour north, I will find hulking mountains, breathtaking views, and apple orchards. I love East Java and I feel lucky to be here. It’s got everything a traveler dreams of: mountains, beaches, volcanoes, waterfalls, hikes, and pleasant cities; the whole package steeped in history and culture.

Most importantly, beyond all these experiences, I’ve forged meaningful relationships with people from a culture and background that is more different than anything else I’ve ever encountered. My best friend here is a deeply conservative Muslim woman. We have forged a close friendship due to our mutual curiosity of each other’s oddities, quirks, and perspectives, and I’ve spent hours asking her questions about Islam, women’s rights, sexuality, and the intersection of it all. She has given me honest answers and, in turn, has asked me about my own context. We’ve covered topics as varied as adoption, American race relations, and female genital mutilation. We have found common ground, not in our socioeconomic status, upbringing, or worldview, but rather in our shared humanity and mutual respect for our differences.

When I first got here, I was just trying to absorb all the information I could, trying to soak in the novelty of it all, letting all of the cultural differences wash over me rather than analyze and put them under a microscope. However, halfway through my time here, I am able to look back and digest some of my experiences with more clarity. So, what are some interesting nuances or observations I’ve noticed along the way? Below is a collection of musings from a decountrified mind in Indonesia.

Makan, makan

If you are walking by a group of people eating, you might hear them say makan, makan, or “eat, eat.” This is actually a polite but fake invitation to join them in the meal. It’s more of a sign of a respect than an actual invitation. Politely smile and continue to your destination.

You must eat rice

In my broken bahasa Indonesia, I try to explain to my colleagues in the canteen that bread in the US is kind of like rice in Indonesia. Roti di sana itu nasi dari sini, or, roughly, “the bread there is the same as rice here.” However, I quickly realize that rice is more than just a staple here. It is an Indonesian’s lifeblood. People often consider Islam to be Indonesia’s biggest religion. False, I say. It’s rice.

It’s not a meal unless there’s rice, people will tell you. If you are sick: eat rice. If you are tired: eat rice. The white grain is the solution to most ailments and weaknesses. A student of mine won a national speech competition a few weeks ago. What did her mom give her to celebrate? Nasi gunung. Literally, a mountain of rice. You should have seen the look on her face, she was thrilled. She’s been eating rice all her life and to celebrate her achievement her mom gets her more rice. All this talk of rice reminds me of that classic Mitch Hedburg joke: “Rice is great if you’re really hungry and you want 2,000 of something.”

Hello Mister! As a bule, or foreigner, don’t be surprised if random people shout “Hallo Meestair!” in passing. They recognize a bule from a mile away, and they want to be friendly, and show you they know English, even if only two words. People who don’t speak a word of English still know these two words. Shopping for mangoes, making a difficult U-turn in the middle of speeding traffic, waiting for your noodles in the rain: “hallo meestair!” In Indonesia, they have one word, dia, for the English equivalent of he, she, him, and her. So even bule women will get greeted with the familiar adage: “hallo meestair!” This always gets a good laugh from the woman in question, so the kind stranger that proffered this greeting now walks away beaming, fully confident in his ability to hallo meestair the next bule woman he sees. And thus, the cycle continues.

Playing telephone, or how to deal with conflict

Imagine person A and person B have a conflict. In what I’m used to, person A and person B will have an argument, and basically whoever talks the loudest or is the most stubborn wins. In Indonesia, people approach conflict differently. Person A and person B will have a conflict. A will tell person C to tell B what they are thinking, and C will tell B what A was thinking in the guise of advice. Then B will disagree politely with that advice, knowing it came from A originally, and so C will go back to A, until the problem is exhaustively whittled away through third party arbitration. This way everyone saves face and direct conflict is avoided. Which segues into my next point…

Asal bapak senang (keep the boss happy)

I’ve seen several instances of bosses being overly demanding, nitpicky, and unreasonable to the point of absurdity, and I’ve been surprised to see the subordinates always follow the directions no matter what. In my previous experiences in the west, the boss will usually have the final say, but subordinates will have a chance to provide feedback and advice in a more democratic fashion. But things are more hierarchical here, and what the boss says, goes. I’m used to a less vertical system, and to just do what you’re told without question has taken some getting used to. Moreover, this type of mentality pervades almost every interaction in Indonesia. The students do what the teacher tells them, the kids do what the parents tell them, the employees do what the boss tells them, always, and without question. It makes navigating power relationships easy, but it doesn’t always lead to critical thinking. When I was a kid, if the teacher said something wrong, he or she would be corrected by the student. We were encouraged to raise our hands and participate in class; we would combatively resist our parents if they wanted us to do something we didn’t. This resistance or backtalk from someone lower on the totem pole would be unimaginable here.

Momma knows best

I’m sitting with my friend, let’s call him Viro, sharing a coffee. He loves American movies and TV shows, so he always excessively peppers his conversations with the word dude. He’s telling me about his girlfriend, who he’s been dating for about a month, and tomorrow he’s going to introduce her to his mother (keep in mind, he lives with his mother).

“Nice,” I say, “that’s exciting. Have you introduced girls to your mom before?”

“Yes,” he replies. “Every girlfriend, I have introduced to her dude.” “Really? And how did it go?” “She didn’t like any of them.” “Oh ok… so how did you handle that?” “Well I break up with them, of course.” “What?” “Yes, if my mom doesn’t like my girlfriend, I tell her the next day, sorry, this won’t work. But they always understand dude. We are still in touch.” “Well, how many girlfriends have you had?”

“Five.” “And you’ve introduced them all to your mom?” “Yes.” “And she’s approved of none of them? So you’ve broken up with all of them?”

“Yes dude, of course. This is tradition in my culture. My mom is number one, she decides if she is good for me or not. When my mom meets my girlfriend, she is like Iron Man dude, she is scanning her. She looks at her from the bottom of her toes all the way to the top of her head. If she is not charming enough, she will not accept.”


Community first

When someone is sick or dying, the whole village and all their colleagues visit them at the hospital, not just their immediate family. If a kid at school has an accident or injury, a box will be passed around each classroom until it is full of money, and everyone contributes, even if they don’t know that student. A colleague’s father died recently. In the proceeding week, he hosted nearly a thousand people who came to pay their respects at his home. To go anywhere, you might go with six to ten people; seldom do you go alone. Recently, a simple trip to the airport turned into a van full of people as the two friends accompanying me brought their friends and their children along for the ride. Children usually live with their parents until they pass away, and the youngest children are under an obligation to do so. The other week, I visited a house where a man in his mid-30s lived there with his children, his parents, and his grandparents, and this is perfectly commonplace. Simply put, Indonesian society is structured around a collectivist system as opposed to an individualist one.

Pay to go away

One of the most endearing and hilarious little aspects of Indonesia that I love is the dynamic between street performers and their audience. I was eating at a warung when a man came and started playing ukelele. I was surprised to see him leave immediately after the owner of the establishment paid him a few rupiah, thinking that instead he would stick around due to the tip he had received. However, street performers here are, by and large, seen as a nuisance. Usually a raggedy group of men or women will come to a restaurant and play a jumble of annoying noises. They leave as soon as they receive a few coins, and go on to victimize the next establishment. In other words, we don’t pay them to stay and play. We pay them to quit bothering us.

Mau mandi?

Several times, I’ve been randomly asked at people’s homes if I want to take a shower. In every country I’ve been to, it would be considered odd if you were at someone’s house and they would just offer you to bathe. But Indonesians shower two to three times a day, at all times of day, and it’s considered completely acceptable to take a shower at someone else’s home. It’s common, in the middle of a long day trip, to stop and pay a few rupiah to shower at a local bak mandi facility. If an Indonesian offers you the chance to shower at their home, it is their polite way of noticing you haven’t showered in a few hours, and extending that courtesy to you.



Already/Not Yet

Time is often measured in sudah (already) and belum (not yet). “Class, Have you finished your homework?” I ask. Normally, I will hear a collective groan of “beluuuuum.” I look at my co-teacher. He’s not surprised. Eh, so what, no one’s done their homework yet. It will get done. The time constraint is not important here, what’s important is that it be finished eventually. In fact, we can give them the rest of class to finish their homework. See? there’s a simple solution to everything. Belum is my favorite word in Indonesian. Because questions regarding if you have done something are always answered by either sudah or belum, there is a sense of limitless possibility for anything. For example, belum is a valid response to all of these questions: “Have you been skydiving?” “Have you been to Iceland?” “Have you tried chicken heart?”

These are just a few observations, from one region, in an incredibly large and diverse country. But I have enjoyed taking advantage of every moment I’ve been here, and when pressed with the question of whether I have done something I have not yet done, I revel in always being able to answer: belum.