Monday, May 16, 2011


After the videolog on the taboo surrounding the left hand, a friend of mine asked me to give information about any other weird taboos that are here. Well, there are a couple. For example, you should not show the soles of your feet to people. That means usually you ought to be sure you're sitting in a position where your heel isn't visible and facing someone. In fact, the only time I've seen people really, really relax with their sitting position -- i.e. stretch out their legs and not care that the bottoms of their feet are showing -- is when they are at home with their family. I'm not sure what the source of this taboo is. It might be that the bottom of the foot is considered dirty and therefore ought not be pointed at others, but that's just an educated guess.

Also, there is the taboo on drinking alcohol. Indonesia is something like 99% Muslim--the largest Muslim country on planet Earth--and alcohol is forbidden to followers of Islam. So those who take their religion with any seriousness do not partake. It's not illegal to drink, and there are shops around where you can buy beer or liquor (no 'liquor stores', just places that carry some alcohol), but you just don't. We have been strongly discouraged by Peace Corps from drinking and told that if we do, we are advised to be as discreet as possible. That means not drinking in any place where people who know us can see. It's kind of funny -- craving alcohol here makes you feel like half a criminal instead of half an alcoholic. Drinking alone in your room is considered antisocial and unhealthy in the US; here it's simply polite. More than five weeks in, I haven't had any alcohol since leaving the States. Thank God I'm not one of those people who suffers if they don't drink, or for whom relaxation is synonymous with drinking a beer.

The real taboo I want to talk about is touching between men and women. Here on Java, public exchange of physical affection between the sexes is a big no-no. PDA does not exist between boys and girls, at least out in the villages. The most I've seen is a young couple holding hands at the shopping mall in Malang (which is urban and therefore more liberal about such things). But to this point, I have not seen anyone give hugs or kisses or touch each other as an expression of affection while in my village. Really, the ONLY exception to the touch rule is between children and parents. Young children sometimes hug their parents and hang on them like little koalas, and parents will return the affection.

But to this point, I've never seen my host parents hug or kiss or touch in any way other than what you might call incidental contact. And neither has any other trainee. When you leave or enter a house, you give a handshake and say the appropriate greeting/leavetaking.

I wouldn't call it an 'exception', because this rule really only applies to contact between men and women, but it is acceptable for women, especially school-age girls, to hold hands or hug. Having looked around in schools, their physical interaction with each other is much the same as American girls. It's also okay for boys to hug or touch each other (I haven't seen any hugging or holding hands, but often enough one will have his arm around the other's shoulder in that partners-in-crime sort of way).

Still, to reiterate, I haven't seen any kissing or hugging between men and women, even married couples. Also, no affectionate hand-on-arm stuff, and not really any handholding. I've asked our cultural facilitators about it, and they confirm that it's just not done here. They assure us that married couples DO show each other affection, but they would never do it in the presence of children or guests. And for young people, romance here is mostly funneled into courtship. You can't be 'dating' without both families knowing about it and approving.

As you might expect, this unspoken prohibition has been challenging for some of us Americans. Obviously, we come from a culture where it's acceptable, even encouraged in some settings, for the sexes to touch each other, hug, kiss, etc. There are plenty of people in this group of trainees that might describe themselves as "handsy". Even I, who am not really a "handsy" person, struggle with this sometimes. First, the absence of touching makes you miss it and makes you miss the people with whom it was never a problem to show affection. I'm not handsy, but I am a hugger. One time I gave a quick hug to my friend Jennifer before saying good night, and Zaki (the cultural facilitator who was present) gave us each a serious look and a shake of his head.

Don't do that where people can see you. It's not good.


And that was the last hug I had.


  1. "And that was the last hug I had."

    What a sad ending to the entry! Srs, though, I hug the other PC dudes and it's totally fine. You probably have been/will be asked if one or more of the PC ladies is your pacar (my answer: ALL OF THEM), but people don't get too bent out of shape about hugs.

  2. Haha, it was the last hug I had until the writing of this entry. Since then, I've snuck a few here and there. But I am/everyone is getting a better sense of what's okay and what's not, so maybe we won't have to take ALL of PC staff's warnings like they're the difference between feeling loved and inciting anti-american riots.