Picture this: a young woman sits on a rickshaw pushed by a man wearing a conical straw hat. In her right hand she holds a bag of banana leaves and in her left a cell phone. This image is most evocative of Indonesia, the place where I lived for two-and-a-half months this summer studying the Indonesian language. During my time there, I grew to expect the unexpected and saw many examples of contrast like the traditional woman with the cell phone coexisting beautifully.
This nation of islands is sometimes referred to as the ‘biggest country no one knows anything about.” Therefore, let me begin by answering a few questions I was commonly asked about this fascinating land.
No, Indonesians do not use chopsticks. They use their hands or thanks to Dutch colonialism forks and spoons. Yes, the national language really is called ‘Indonesian.” And no, Indonesians do not use toilet paper. OK, so no one actually asked me about the toilet paper, but it is a reality I needed to share.
Indonesia is both the third largest democracy as well as the world’s largest Muslim majority country a major contradiction in the eyes of those who question whether Islam and democracy can truly coexist. Indonesia has even beaten the United States and many other ‘advanced” countries in already electing a female president. And while many women don headscarves, there is a high level of female empowerment. In fact, Indonesian females have a reputation for being the more capable sex. And in major Indonesian cities, it is common to see women in traditional Muslim attire socializing with women in miniskirts, just one demonstration of the mutual tolerance between the religious and the secular.
To slip in a few more generalizations, Indonesians tend to have a soft-spoken yet entirely intrusive demeanor. Their culture commands the utmost politeness, encouraging an avoidance of confrontation or strong displays of emotion in public. Yet Indonesians contrast this convention by not hesitating to say things that could easily offend someone particularly someone who is used to the cultural norms of the West. For example, while it is taboo to embarrass someone in public, Indonesians will not hesitate to ask perfect strangers personal questions such as, ‘Why do you not yet have children?” or ‘Have you been gaining weight?”
Even the foods seem to reflect a sort of culinary contradiction. The durian, an immensely popular fruit in Indonesia was once described by British explorer Lord Wallace as tasting like a mixture of ‘cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine and other incongruous dishes.”
When tasted, this pungent fruit may elicit feelings of intense passion or the utmost revulsion. It is used in many desserts yet is banned from most hotels and buses due to its overpowering smell.
Yet another culinary contrast comes in the form of a sweet, innocent-looking dessert pastry dough stuffed tightly with unexpected fillings such as hot peppers and fish.
I initially tried to avoid these exotic treats, but after some time in Indonesia, I finally dug in and tasted, for myself, the deliciousness of contradiction.
Tulkoff is a member of the class of 2010.