Indonesians are shy to express their wants, particularly in terms of food and drink. If they want something, they will repeatedly say “No, thanks!” when they really mean “Yes, please.” Accordingly, actually not wanting to eat or drink something doesn’t translate. Hence, I’m constantly stuffed, and slightly sick to my stomach at the thought of food or a food-related confrontation (all of which inevitably end in my eating more). In my mind, I want to be polite; I see repeated offers of food as attempts at politeness and see acceptance of those offers as reciprocation of the extended good manners. However, Indonesians see my eventual acceptance as something completely different: if after repeated declinations I accept the food, my host believes I have done what I’ve wanted to do all along (eat or drink what was being offered). I see accepting as accomplishing three things: my host stops his/her relentless offerings, which satisfies me; I satisfy my host by accepting; and I get a stomachache because I’ve eaten when full or consumed a cup of liquid sugar, which is called “coffee” in these parts (Bercanda! But seriously.). Normally, no big deal, but this kind of thing has been happening on a daily basis for the past…since I got here. You can imagine what days and days of stomachaches can do to a girl. Not ideal. Hampir dreading going to visit someone else’s house or the sound of the bakso vendor on my street is pretty depressing (though, I admit, equally humorous).
But earlier in the week I learned why this happens to me.
I’ve thought for the past two and a half months that I was being treated as a guest, which isn’t necessarily true. In fact, this system of offering/declining/accepting is called basa-basi and it’s commonplace here. What’s actually going on is this: Indonesians offer food and offers are initially declined because, in the words of my host family, Indonesians are too shy to reveal what they really want. So, the host keeps offering until she/he goes ahead and serves even if the food/drink has been declined repeatedly. Then, since the guest actually wants the food but has been to shy to accept it, they take what they really want(ed all along).
Can you see where this is going? I’ve been giving in after declining honestly, mainly to please my host, who really couldn’t care less—the host simply wants to be polite and is assuming that I in fact do want to eat or drink but will be too shy to say so. My acceptance affirms, in my host’s mind, that I always wanted something (when I didn’t!). Of course, Indonesians don’t realize that we don’t have basa-basi in American culture…and I didn’t realize it existed at all. So, I thought the Indonesians were being pushy* while they thought I was being polite (they were being polite and I just felt bad about giving in and making myself sick). They want me to have what I want and need…though by eventually accepting something, I was setting the level of my own consumption way above standard. Of course, this means the host becomes even more persistent because he/she thinks I’m capable (and desirous) of eating mountains of food. O, the many hours of pain and discomfort!
Luckily I discussed the issue with my host family last night because I learned a little bit about basa-basi in class this week. My host family had no idea that I wasn’t operating under that system and that my refusals are genuine. Likewise, I had no idea they weren’t treating me differently than they would treat anybody else (Indonesians “pressure” each other, too). I repeatedly accepted in order to be polite since I thought they were trying to be polite, too. We had a good laugh over it all and since yesterday I’ve been saying, before every refusal of food or drink, “Without basa-basi, I am not hungry!” It works, sort of! Plus it makes my host mother laugh, which is always excellent. We understand each other a little bit better now and I’m significantly less stuffed than days past (and the best part of all…today I did not have to have my traditional afternoon-off-but-two-hours-before-the-not-unusual-supper-of-gigantic-proportions “snack” of bakso!). I’m satisfied and my host mother is glad to know I’m not withholding any secret desires for enormous, never-ending meals and countless afternoon snacks. I’m glad she now knows that, too.
I also explained to the fam that I do, in fact, want to try everything, and if there’s ever any bit of space in my stomach and I’m offered a new food, I’ll try it. I told my host mom that sometimes there’s simply no room in my belly at all, which is true. At least I haven’t been stuffed with food I don’t like. It’s all delicious, and now I’ve regained control over how much I eat,** which means I can enjoy what I do eat even more. Just in time, too… now that my host family and I have an understanding, I’ve got less than two weeks left here. Oh, boy. It’ll start all over again, and probably be less ideal than ever…since my new host parents are grandparents, and grandparents in Indonesia like feeding me just as much as grandparents in the States (from what I can tell so far). I’m a little more prepared now, though, thanks to the newfound basa-basi knowledge.
*We’re talking pushy. This is way beyond the level of insistence I’m used to. In America, maybe someone would offer a drink/food twice before stopping. Right? Here, there are probably four or five offers from the main host and numerous offers from other Indonesians present. Everyone will sit and stare at you until you take something. There’s a sort of pattern to the offers, too… Take again, please take, what do you want to eat, take this, it’s delicious, let’s go, eat, let’s go, take, please, help yourself, take again! It’s the mantra of the Indonesian host. And they don’t stop until you take the food!! They “can’t” conceive that no means no because it doesn’t. I’m the anomaly.
**All the stuff we’ve read about how Indonesians won’t offer more if you still have food on your plate is complete hogwash, by the way. My host mother sometimes says “Let’s go, take again!” before I’ve taken my second bite of the first helping. It’s ridiculous and it would be funny if it didn’t always lead to extreme physical discomfort (okay…it’s pretty funny.).
Things that are unexpectedly ubiquitous in Indonesian popular culture: the phrase “OMG!”; Steven Seagal; cross-dressing; bling for jilbabs (and the combination of jilbabs and skinny jeans); Mr. Bean.
Eat things before asking what they are. This way, you can realize rabbit livers and cow skin can be quite delicious.
It’s gonna be two years here. It’s setting in. I miss my friends (and family, of course) so much. I miss hanging out at the house, drinkin’ coffee, relaxing in the basement…I’m fantasizing about trips to the farmer’s market, playing instruments, cooking…running, biking, washing machines, and Indiana air. Emily and Evelyn…where are you?
Today I love (about Indonesia): batik, es buah, catchin’ an angkot and chattin’ up strangers, seeing Southern Hemisphere stars for the first time (last night; it’s the dry season! No clouds!), eatin’ with my hands, Pallapa, my Tlekung pals.
PS: New template? Yeah! Plus, I took that photo at Candi Prambanan outside of Jogjakarta. Nice!