Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Excuse me, why are you so rude?

It is the first day of the Lebaran holiday.  An opportunity for me to sleep in as long as I wish.  After eating at half past three in the morning, I return to bed.  For the next five hours, I drift in and out of sleep.  My room is dark and cool, while outside the day is heating up.  Above my room’s door and window, built into the wooden frames, are large open rectangles meant to enable air flow, but to me their primary function seems to be to let any and every sound penetrate my sanctuary, no matter the time of day. 

I lie there in my bed and listen, reminded how noisy this country is.  Four and a half months in, I have learned what kinds of noises a pillow over the head will block effectively and what kinds require headphones.  In Florida, I could lie in my bed all day—chances are I would hear very little aside from the air conditioning, the occasional car engine starting up, and the other doors in the house opening and closing from time to time.  But here, all sorts of sounds reach my ears through those openings above my door and window.

The dopplered rumble of motorcycles on the main road; the first fifteen seconds of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—my host mother’s SMS alert—sounding off; several jabbering neighborhood children stomping in and out of the house; a handful of neighborhood women milling in and out, chattering about who-knows-what in those elongated, exaggerated Javanese tones, as if they were constantly surprised or scandalized; the manic laughter of television cartoon characters at high volume; the periodic pattering of grandfather’s flip-flops in the back area as he goes to the bathroom (prostate issues mean frequent trips to the toilet); dangdut music coming from the radio function of my host father’s cell phone; Qur’an recitation, the call to prayer, and extra praises sung and broadcasted from the nearby mosque; the screech of wandering roosters; the infant next door crying in that desperate, full-throated way that newborns do, as if all their existence depended on communicating utter panic.

Most of the buildings here are made of brick.  Walls are smoothly finished with cement and painted bright colors.  My house is entirely green on the inside.  The ceilings are high—usually at least twelve feet—as you would expect in a hot climate.  All floors are tiled, because anyone dense enough to lay down carpet on an island this close to the equator, where it can rain for months on end, would soon be living in a forest of mold.  These elements of construction mean that most rooms reflect and carry sound to an extraordinary degree.  The resonance is fantastic for playing music, but terrible if you are seeking quiet.  It can also make teaching difficult, as the din of thirty-plus boisterous children is ever amplified by the classroom’s acoustics.


Politeness vs. Privacy

Broadly speaking, when it comes to deciding what is socially permissible in the West, the prevailing attitude is: do what you want as long as you don’t disturb other people.  I was raised always to be mindful of the effect of my actions on others.  On the whole, the culture here operates on a different principle.  Paradoxical as it may seem, politeness is far more important here.  It’s just that the concept of politeness occupies a different social space.  To be polite here means never to undermine another person’s dignity or pride, while always showing them proper respect according to their social position. The latter is done by using the appropriate speech and body language.  There is a certain way to shake hands with someone who is your superior, a certain way to address them, and a certain, crouching way to hold your body if you are walking by them. 

An example: When children leave or enter their home or “shake hands” with a teacher or parent, or any old person, they are expected to salim.  Rather than shaking hands, they take the elder’s hand and touch it to their face as they bow.  Sometimes they bring the hand to their forehead, sometimes to their cheek, and sometimes they go all the way and kiss the hand.  Despite the fact that I am only seven or eight years older than my students, they will often salim with me, because I am their teacher and it is the suitable gesture between teacher and student.

Despite this high degree of sophistication, the concept of politeness seems not to encompass privacy.  Encroaching on the privacy of others is not impolite, or at least is not high on the list of mannerly considerations.  I think that the sense of personal or private space as it exists in the West is absent here.  There may be some embryonic version of a private sphere, but it does not come near to the elaborate Western system.  Men will smoke in confined spaces with non-smokers, pregnant women, and children.  The world of sound is completely public domain, and disturbing everyone for the benefit of a few is not rude.  Certain personal characteristics often deemed off limits in the West, such as one’s religion or physical appearance, are assumed to be open to inquiry and comment here.  Though men and women may not touch, it is not unacceptable to touch or grab someone of the same sex.  Once or twice, I have bristled at an older man’s attempt to guide me somewhere by taking a firm grip on my upper arm—for me, an extremely rude way to touch someone.


When I talk about my assumptions frequently being challenged, this is an example of my meaning.  As an American/European, I have always assumed that respecting privacy is an integral part of politeness.  I knew abstractly that there were societies with different ideas of privacy, but grasping what life in such a culture might be like was beyond my imaginative power.  I knew my privacy would be greatly restricted coming to Southeast Asia, but I did not yet expressly understand how closely I (and Westerners in general, probably) linked the notions of privacy and politeness.  It has become clear on those mornings when I am jarred awake by the blaring of the adzan and droning of pujian and find myself not just frustrated, but angry at the blatant rudeness and disrespect inherent in the concept of broadcasting religious services.

Yet calling it rude or disrespectful is too simple.  If people here don’t think it’s rude, then it isn’t rude.  Perhaps, raised as I was in a culture that cherishes and guards privacy, I am beyond help in this matter.  My notion of right and wrong here, especially at an emotional level, is already formed (“It is wrong to disturb people unnecessarily”).   People here don’t even apply the idea of right and wrong to the matter.  Which, of course, makes it even more perplexing.  It’s always strange to see people attach no importance either way to something about which you care deeply. 

[A parallel example in politics: While Americans argue bitterly over the right of the government to mandate its citizens to purchase health insurance, the question simply does not enter into most Europeans’ minds.  The right is assumed and everyone agrees on it, so there is nothing to debate in that regard.  How amusing, and perhaps vaguely alarming, it must be for Europeans as they observe the life-and-death rhetoric employed by American ideologues.]

Or how about when people call out to me as I am walking by, even if I’m already engaged in conversation.  There’s almost never any ill intention, but the act itself presumes that it’s okay to distract me from whatever I was doing or thinking before, or that I want to be drawn into some kind of exchange.  It also demonstrates a lack of empathy—after all, so many people call out, yet none think of the cumulative effect this might have.  Then again, from their perspective, why would I ever feel negatively about it?  In this culture, you should call out to people as a sign of friendliness.  You should invite people to join you wherever you go.  People here very rarely seek privacy, so it doesn’t occur to them that I might just wish to be left alone.

Really, I find it much easier to incorporate the Indonesian notion of politeness into my own deportment than to ignore the conspicuous absence of respect for privacy on the part of others.  Though, let me set it straight—it’s not as if people are barging into my room and I never have time to myself and everyone is invading all my stuff all the time.  I have plenty of physical privacy.  I find my host family to be very respectful, all things considered, and I think I succeed in drawing the line where I don’t want people to step over it.  But there is still the whole issue with sound and the general cultural insensitivity to privacy.  Day to day, it can be a grind.

It’s also interesting where one draws the line for adaptation.  I don’t mind holding my arm in a certain way for a handshake or bowing a bit when I greet someone, and sometimes I even do the Indonesian crouch-a-bit-as-you-pass-between-people thing, but there are limits.  There is a little too much deference to authority here.  I don’t salim with my elders (except under exceptional circumstances) and I don’t go out of my way to appear obsequious to my “betters”.  I also don’t lie about things I dislike if people ask me.  Many people ask my opinion of Indonesian students or music, and I tell them pretty honestly what I think.  Okay, maybe not everything I think, but I don’t just say I love everything when I don’t.  I also make a point to bring up cultural differences with Indonesians, especially regarding politeness, both so that they will be more aware of what is likely to make me uncomfortable, and because it’s good to make them a little bit uncomfortable.  People get too cushy when they never get a taste of the outside world—so why not let ‘em have a real taste of it, rather than pretending that their way is perfect/the only way?  Despite what manners here might say, being honest doesn’t mean being disrespectful.

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