These kids are feisty. Lives lived in a feverish frenzy, all bursting hearts. Don’t like being let down. Hungry for a challenge. These kids don’t want their hands held. They know that tough love is one of the best loves, and they run heart-first into the thick of it.
This post is going to be about what revolts, disgusts, enrages, embitters, and disappoints me about experiencing, studying, and living Indonesia, as myself in all my bias and positionality. So, some caveats are necessary.
There are plenty of amazing things about Indonesia that keep me inspired and mystified; Java is a magical place, and I greatly enjoy living here. My curiosity and confusion–as much about my own experiences as the country and culture, land and people–lures me back, lures me out into the Java-world, lures me away from my home and into a liminal space of contradictions and strange syntheses: emotions, realities, ideas, beliefs, and actions that make little sense but seem to be the way “here” functions.
As someone whose current career trajectory and personal history position me not as a wayfarer just passing through Indonesia on the way to an elsewhere, other-time future, I feel both responsible and justified, in an ethical sense, to explore the elements of Indonesian society and culture that leave something to be desired. Of course, these are all merely my (mere) perceptions. And it’s tough love. I wish I heard more Indonesians constructively criticizing their world or at least doing so in conversation with me, but I’m happy to share my feelings and thoughts on these matters if there’s any remote possibility that I could in any way help the efforts of the activists, social critics, and political dissidents in Indonesia trying to get the ball of change and revolution rolling. If this post it in any way validates what they’re doing, seeing, and feeling, then perhaps its ultimately a shot at solidarity? Unity of opinion? We have to agree on what’s wrong before we can work together for change. Too much empty rhetoric? Too narrow of an audience, surely. But here I am.
There are plenty (plenty) of elements of American society and culture that I find beyond revolting, and sharing thoughts and feelings about these subjects does not make me remorseful in the slightest. I feel the same about my criticisms of “Indonesia”–my second home country, for all intents and purposes. We should all be invested in improving our world. Being honest and certain about the flaws of ourselves and our countries is one step towards holding responsible the people, politicians, institutions, and/or socio-political/cultural/religious systems that cause pain in our lives and, quite often, wreak havoc on people and the planet.
Many of the items on the list are problems in my country and other countries around the world; that I’m pointing these out doesn’t mean I love this world, my country, or Indonesia any less. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m quite sure that sharing like this is all too American, but there we are; no matter how many of my Javanese friends insist that I’m turning, I’m not actually Javanese. The only thing I’m sure I am is imperfect.
So, in absolutely no particular order, here’s my list:
- Littering / pollution culture and the fact that parents don’t teach their children to throw garbage in the trash despite knowing about global warming and the consequences of pollution to the environment (see #97)
- A long history of repression of political dissent on the part of the Indonesian government
- Colonial hangover / cultural PTSD: Indonesians, especially the Javanese, were mentally traumatized during the colonial period and developed extreme inferiority complexes. Deference to the superiority of the Dutch was ingrained into the cultural subconscious. Today, this history is written in the interactions that westerners, especially light-skinned ones, have in Indonesia. Granted, Indonesians are often very polite, warm, and welcoming to foreigners and in general with one another, but the extremity of obeisance to light-skinned westerners, is disturbing. My office friends and I call this, with tongues in cheeks, “bule (foreigner) power.” Foreigners are often granted special privileges and treated with extreme respect, and–as you probably expected–there are plenty of westerners who abuse this power dynamic. So, the anger here for me is directed at the Dutch colonial regime and the contemporary foreigners who abuse their positions, with annoyance at this element of culture in general because it reproduces itself through generations.
- Lack of a standardized system of education for people with exceptional needs (and, frankly, human rights abuses involving people with exceptional needs)
- The extreme wealth gap
- Skin-whitening “beauty” products
- Getting the third degree from skeevy dudes about who I am, where I’m from, what I’m doing here…it’s just chit-chat, but for some reason I have a hard time being rude (so I suppose this is a personal problem…but it’s also about how frustrating it can be my body language and signals of disinterest don’t “work” here)
- Fucking flies, ants, and cockroaches everywhere all the time
- Racism towards dark-skinned people, such as people of African and Melanesian descent
- The questionable treatment of Indigenous Peoples here, especially regarding land rights and government concessions to multinational extractive industry giants
- People who have conversations on their two motorcycles while driving slowly in front of me
- That moment when you realize the food you just put in your mouth has already spoiled (because it has been sitting out all day)
- MSG in everything (I’ve talked plenty about this before, I know, but it had to make the list)
- No being able to get water in any container but plastic; not trusting that boiling tap water will be enough to sanitize and therefore being effectively forced to drink every drop of water I consume from plastic
- Young people who don’t look before crossing the street (no magic hand, no checking left-right, just strolling into the middle of the road like they’re the only ones in the world, backs to traffic and no backwards glance)
- Watching people I love and care about eat so much sugar and rice all the time, knowing it’s just awful for their health, and not being able to do much about it at all
- Lack of infrastructure, especially decent, well-moving highways
- The cultural pressure on women and young girls to marry early, ideally well before age twenty-five, and the fact that getting pregnant after 1-2 months of marriage is generally viewed as a great thing. Actually, there are all sorts of things about marriage I disagree with, both in Indonesia and in general, but I think the issue feels particularly acute to me since the pressure on young people to marry is so pervasive here. I would call it bullying and abuse. Chalk it up to lack of understanding or unwillingness to understand, but these are my thoughts. I’ve talked to too many Indonesian women and girls who see this situation similarly to accept that I’m just imposing my own cultural expectations and beliefs on the situation.
- Motorcycling men who grab pedestrian women’s breasts and speed away (this didn’t happen to me, but it has happened to more than one woman I know)
- Motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets. I especially hate seeing families of two helmeted parents and one or two helmetless kids on one motorcycle, or helmetless kids propped up in the front of the bike on the lap of a helmeted adult driver. If you can afford a motorcycle, gas, motorcycle maintenance fees, taxes and registration fees, and to buy whatever you’re going to buy when you end up wherever you’re going, then you can afford to protect the head of your child.
- LGBT human rights abuses and lack of healthcare/sex ed and disease prevention ed for this population
- Lack of sex ed for all students. Generally, if a girl gets pregnant, she is no longer permitted to attend school, and her family pressures her to marry the father of the child as soon as possible. The boy is not always kicked out of school and could deny his actions and probably get off the hook; the negative consequences of the lack of sex ed fall disproportionately on young girls
- Lack of basic dental care for the majority of citizens, probably due to affordability and the pervasiveness of non-professional/non-medically-trained dentists in rural and semi-rural areas
- Guys who tease one another about being feminine and being womanly/girly/un-masculine without realizing the sexism inherent in this teasing (happens in the US all the time, of course, about being girly/gay/ghetto/etc.)
- The severity of legal and social repercussions for those wishing to express freely their religious beliefs; there are six legally permitted religious options in Indonesia, and atheism is effectively illegal
- Internet and media censorship on the part of the government
- Pervasive anti-Semitism (I once met a man who, upon first meeting and after asking me my name and religion, interrogated me about whether I’d ever consider marrying a Jewish person)
- No wide-scale recycling initiatives or community recycling programs to make recycling easy and commonplace
- Human trafficking and sex trafficking
- Rampant fat shaming (this is not just my construction of what is really harmless teasing as “fat shaming;” it is actually fat shaming. I have spoken to several Indonesian women about the negative effects of body shaming for their mental and physical well-being; beauty standard issues are just as problematic for women’s lives here as in the west)
- Despite rampant fat shaming, women in rural and semi-rural areas (and many urban areas) have very few opportunities to engage in fitness activities due to standards of modesty and the inappropriateness of too much female exertion
- Indonesian stereotypes about foreigners: girls are easy, foreigners just want to party in Bali, every foreigner is wealthy, etc. Of course, there’s a basis for these stereotypes in reality (and Hollywood has to shoulder some of the blame), but no matter where you are in the world or who you are, being stereotyped is shitty (and can also be very dangerous)
- Chemical pesticides that kill farmers are necessary to sustain the massive rice production so necessary to the people here and for the Indonesian GDP
- Kids in the lowest socioeconomic stratum can be roped into gangs of street children forced to beg in the streets and report back to their gang bosses to give over all profits. Children are threatened with physical violence to make sure they don’t try to escape or go back to their families
- There’s a lot of rotting garbage on the sides of roads and in most waterways
- People drink and consume so much sugar here, it’s just crazy; kids’ teeth rot out black from their heads, and parents aren’t empowered with the knowledge to prevent bad habits and poor health in their children. If they are aware, then they consciously choose to ignore promoting good habits in their children, which is almost more insidious and disturbing
- In my experience, Indonesians can’t and won’t queue. They are ruthless
- Some Indonesian Muslims are often disgusted by and wary of pork-eaters; for me, it’s fine to do what you want for yourself, but it’s not fine to harbor negative feelings for others based on dietary choices, no matter what your religion says
- It’s incredibly easy for men to hire prostitutes and the hidden economy of this industry is enormous
- Nepotism is strong, even where civil servant / government positions are concerned
- Some people feel that making jokes at my expense because of the way I look, behave, and dress is acceptable, and they automatically assume that I don’t understand what they’re saying just because they are speaking Javanese
- To do my research, I had to get research clearance in order to get my temporary visa in order to get my permanent visa upon arrival after visiting federal, regional, and local authorities and police stations. I was also given letters to pass out to three authorities in every county in the regency I am conducting research in. This amounted to over one hundred letters. In one word: bureaucracy.
- Most local emblems are phallic monuments a la the Washington monument, and this greatly displeases me
- Fried food is everywhere, and it’s often when visiting people’s homes that I am effectively forced to partake of oily, fried carbohydrates that make me feel just terrible about my life
- The governments, federal/regional/local, don’t try hard enough to reform and/or ensure public transportation safety regulations to ensure the well-being of the general public
- Indomaret–effectively Indonesian Wal-Mart or CVS, if you will–while convenient, is driving out small, independent businesses left and right (I’m guilty of contributing)
- By my standards, which are of course totally and absolutely biased, more people than not have questionable table manners; Indonesia has forced me to the painful but ultimately beneficial realization that no matter how accepting and open-minded I fashion myself to be, there are some things that I just can’t stand and can’t accept, which means there are culturally engendered aspects to my personhood that are outside of my ability to control. Of course, I’d prefer to be a blissed-out, all-loving buddha-type, but it’s actually not achievable for me (at least presently), and this process of awakening to the reality of myself has been painful
- Police shakedowns and other forms of financial corruption are pervasive here, and even though they can be considered a cultural norm (and therefore off-limits to criticism by an outsider??), they still create a system of economic oppression where the poorest people (i.e. those who can’t afford to pay people off or pay people under the table to get things done faster) are barred from upward mobility
- Not many people enjoy reading as a hobby. Sometimes people try to get me to stop reading so much because they think I’ll get sick or dizzy from reading
- People often use gasoline as a cleaning product, and it smells awful and it just isn’t safe or healthy in any way
- Ice never stays ice as long as I’d like it to
- Salty fish on my plate
- I’m pretty sure there’s formaldehyde and borax in most meatball vendors’ meatball recipes (meatballs are as popular here as burgers and fries are in the US; that’s a lot of chemical consumption)
- Towels are outrageously expensive here
- Lots of people think that if they’re in the village or near home, it’s okay to ride their motorcycle without a helmet; protection is only deemed necessary on major roads and/or in the city
- There are very few social or welfare programs for “crazy people,” as the homeless and/or mentally ill people who roam the streets are deemed. They are almost universally reviled and ignored, even though the professed religious beliefs of the majority of people would suggest that charity and beneficence are important responsibilities and moral obligations (of course, hypocrites exist in every corner of human culture)
- It takes a very long time to go not-very-far distances; generally, it takes 4-5 hours to cover the same distance that it’d take 1-2 hours to cover in the US. This is primarily due to poor roads and poor infrastructure
- There are way too many plastic bags in circulation here and no system for reducing the use of plastics in development for the foreseeable future. I try to recycle the bags I use, but ultimately recycling within the home can only go so far. This is of course a global problem, but the gravity of it is particularly salient here since one can easily spot plastic waste in every waterway (sometimes even when snorkeling/scubaing in natural parks or preserves)
- The indirect communication style of the Javanese make it difficult for me to work through conflicts when they arise (of course, I’m sure that my direct style often creates difficulties for Javanese people; sometimes, cross-cultural communication is exceedingly challenging, as much as I’d like to believe I’m special and it should always be a cakewalk for me)
- Transgender and other trans* people are often reviled and shunned by general society and their individual families (as can be the case in the west)
- Indonesia is very far away from the US and very costly to get to; why can’t it be cheaper and closer? ::sly eye:: Doesn’t the world revolve around me?
- Sometimes, foreigners are abused for publicity purposes, and the experience can be dehumanizing
- Indonesia runs on jam karet or “rubber time”–basically, what we normally call “island time”–and sometimes it’s hard for me to remember, so I show up early or freak out unnecessarily about being on time
- Jam karet means that teachers are often late to class, but jam karet doesn’t mean that class periods get extended past their scheduled finish time, even if the teachers arrive late
- Some Indonesian guys grow their pinkie fingernails to excessive lengths and I find it quite repulsive; again, something makes me confront the fact that there are certain negative aspects of myself that I can’t change. I’ll never be as chill and accepting as I’d like to imagine I am (I can just imagine Scott and Lauren rolling their eyes and telling me I don’t have to accept everything and shouldn’t accept everything and/or telling me I’m a loon)
- Indonesian Facebook culture (I’m not going to clarify here…it’s too trivial…but it annoys me, to say the least. Did you ever realize or think about the fact that there’d be different social media cultures in different cultures? It is so obvious now, but it was so unexpected. And Indonesian FB culture can be very annoying; tags on advertisements and hundreds of outstanding friend requests from people I don’t know, to say the least)
- Inter-religious violence and terrorism is all too common here
- Bali has been effectively prostituted to the West and Australia/NZ for the sake of the national economy and tourism, and it’s depressing to go there (especially to Kuta) and witness the foreigners’ debauchery and the debasement of Bali. I am guilty of participation. I think as Bali developed as a tourist destination, it began responding to the demands of the visitors…and that’s why I started this item in the passive voice, since I don’t think that Indonesia would consciously sacrifice an entire island for the sake of tourism and economic gain, but I do think that Bali has been sacrificed in some ways
- It’s very difficult to find “plus-sized” clothing here, even though there are plenty of plus-sized girls. I often see fuller-figured ladies wearing clothes that are way too tight for them and obviously uncomfortable, especially bras. It’s also hard to find large-sized women’s shoes
- Another item related to being bigger in Indonesia: pervasive plastic stools are often the only seating option. These stools are made for tiny, light people, so for me there’s always a constant fear that the stool will collapse and everyone will laugh and I will be horribly embarrassed. I assume other larger people (Indonesians included) feel the same
- Standards for child-rearing and disciplining are very different here, and some Indonesian children’s behavior makes me feel uncomfortable and angry. I want to discipline them, but I know I can’t without causing upset on the part of the parent, so I have to stifle my urges and find a way to trust that the children will turn out fine (even if it seems to me like they are allowed to be complete monsters and demand that their every whim be catered to! Although as I re-read this, it sounds just like some American kids and parents I’ve known…not you, my dear readers with children)
- Double standards: foreigners often get special privileges and treatment over natives for no simple reason other than their foreignness (see #3)
- Because of the aforementioned indirect communication style here, bullying is much more subtle than in the US, so it’s hard to catch and correct. Imagine if there was only cyber-bullying in the US…that’s pretty much how it is here, based on my experiences teaching
- Mold grows freely and with alarming rapidity wherever it damn well pleases, including on walls, floors, and clean/stored clothing–especially during the rainy season
- As an outsider, I find Indonesian politics quite tricky to get a decent grasp on because there are so many political parties that are united into various coalitions (and for a variety of other factors as well); there doesn’t seem much to do besides try to get a grasp by keeping up to date with current events, and I haven’t been able to find many resources to help me understand the basics. I suppose trying to learn the details of a political situation/system so foreign to me is what I’m getting at, so perhaps this isn’t really specific to Indonesia, but there you are
- On a very light and ridiculous, self-serving note, I can’t access free Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, etc. ::galau::
- The Pemuda Pancasila (and I don’t even care if they read this list)
- Speaking of free speech, this past August, a university student in Jogjakarta twittered some negative commentaries about her campus administration and Jogjakarta in general, made national news, and was punished by relevant authorities for her comments. If I’m remembering correctly, she was suspended from classes for the remainder of the semester and not refunded her school fees
- Recent Indonesian history (I’m thinking especially since World War II) is generally outside the realm of socially acceptable topics of discussion, especially the issue of mass murder of “communists” and other leftists in the mid-1960s.* There has still been no form of reparations or apology to the general public on behalf of the government or any citizens’ groups, and many of the perpetrators of murder during this time period still roam free (you may have heard of or seen The Act of Killing)
- Women have no access to a sufficiently wide variety of menstrual hygiene products; the only widely available menstrual hygiene product is the menstrual pad. Tampons are not widely accessible because they are inserted into the vagina and can damage the hymen, leading to the common belief that tampons ruin a girl’s virginity (which is still highly prized and necessary for a girl to be of marriageable quality). There are no menstrual cups available of any kind, as far as I can tell. Let’s not even talk about access to contraceptives or the social acceptability of a woman purchasing condoms at a store, especially in rural areas
- Kartini Day is supposed to honor Princess Kartini for her feminist writings and positions as well as her efforts to improve girls’ access to education, but in many areas Kartini Day seems to be reduced to a chance for girls to dress up and get made up in the old-fashioned style of Kartini’s era without critical reflection on the state of women’s rights in contemporary Indonesian society
- Have I mentioned the mosquitoes?
- Men here, as in much of the west, are taught to hide the more “feminine” of their feelings and emotions; crying is a sign of weakness. There are rigorous cultural standards of masculinity here and plenty of damaging repercussions for men who don’t or can’t conform
- Indonesia is the third-highest producer of rice in the world (behind China and India), yet still imports rice. The new administration seeks rice self-sufficiency, but at this point it’s still importing due to inefficient production techniques and extremely high per capita rice consumption
- Flip-flops, one of the most common forms of footwear in and for Indonesia, are gawked and laughed at if worn in public. They are viewed as bathroom shoes and poor-people shoes, so wearing them in public is very distasteful despite the insane practicality of flip-flops for this climate/environment
- The most common form of trash disposal is burning (obviously, landfills aren’t better and we as humans don’t have an efficient system for trash disposal…but burning is particularly disgusting to me)
- In rural areas, based on my experience, it’s not very acceptable for unmarried girls and young women to go outside of the house unaccompanied after dusk
- Mangoes, when picked unripe, are like pears: you wait and wait for them to ripen, and when they’re finally ripe it’s for about five minutes, and you are inevitably asleep or out of the house and thus do not to enjoy the mango you waited so long for
- It’s very hard to find wine here (at least in East Java, in my experience) and, if you do happen to find it, it’s quite expensive. During PC, we used to buy $30 bottles at an Italian restaurant in Surabaya…and that was all we ever found
- Indonesian TV commercials…I have a love/hate relationship with Indonesian commercials. Good for language learning but terribly annoying and grating at times
- Second-hand smoke; it’s still culturally acceptable to smoke in most offices and buildings, so avoiding second-hand smoke is very difficult
- Indonesia is a land of immense natural beauty, and much of it is being slowly destroyed (e.g., waterways and pollution, land/forest degradation and extractive industries, coral reef destruction and natural habitat loss…again, these problems are not limited to Indonesia but are global in scope)
- A4 paper. What’s with that. It doesn’t fit in my bag, people.
- Certificates and attendance of conferences, trainings, workshops, etc., are often viewed as more valuable than whatever new skills or knowledge could have been gleaned from active participation
- Social norms of hierarchy make it pretty much always acceptable to be interrupted by someone who views him/herself as the socially superior person in the conversation (lack of egalitarianism in social interactions; to me, this is a challenge…and I think some of my Indonesian friends have also been frustrated by this before)
- Large crowds more often and in more places than I’m used to (you all know I can’t stand a crowd!)
- This one’s from my friend: if there’s no rule or clear direction for what to do, people are paralyzed. However, if there are clear rules and people know them, they decide not to follow/obey
- The fact that I have to think twice about publishing this because there could, theoretically, be social/political repercussions for me, even though I view myself as simply sharing my opinions, thoughts, and feelings. There are standards for what’s allowed to be shared and criticized here and what’s not. This is probably not a super-safe set of topics to write about, and blatant criticism is very un-Indonesian (read: outside the cultural norm)
- Actually, I like Indonesia so much that I didn’t want to finish this list. At about #59, I started to wonder whether or not to continue. I find it maddening that despite all of these problems, I still love Indonesia, which is exactly how I feel about the States. I find it maddening that I can’t just magically fix everything. I find my own optimism maddening at times. I find it maddening that my loved ones have to live in such an imperfect world. But, maddeningly, we need all of the imperfection, ugliness, hate, and filth to give substance to our potential, beauty, magic, and love. I believe in the in-betweens, but I believe as well in the truth of certain binary oppositions; the reason we feel passionate about changing the world is because we are full to bursting with both love and hate.
Interestingly, this list took me two days to create; its friend, 100 Things I Love about Indonesia (Redux), took about two hours to write. It’s much harder to explore the negatives. This was a heavy entry for me! I blame this list-or, the act of producing this list–for my sour mood yesterday…
If you’d like to learn more or explore some other writings about any of these topics, feel free to leave a comment and I will share resources. Or, you can always Google stuff. I thought about linking to external resources throughout, but it’s easier for me if you just request what you want (if anything). I’d very much like to hear responses/criticisms from anyone who might be reading this with experience in Indonesia.
And so, that’s all from me.
*The US effectively sanctioned these killings because, well, the Cold War.