A delightful meal or a disturbing moment?

Eating a meal with Indonesians may result in a plethora of differences that a Westerner would encounter. A cascade of these differences result in a cultural shock. All of a sudden, what appeared to be the norm for the foreigner is questioned: the everyday tasks and routine that have been so normalised would be violated.

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This experience starts even before the meal begins, when you are about to sit on the dinner table, very keen to eat the delicious dishes laid out on the table, rich in variety. You sit down, but to your surprise, you hear the younger family members calling out to the elder members, “Silakan, pak!” and “Silakan, Bu!”. It is considered impolite to sit on the dinner table before the elderly do so. You feel ashamed and apologetic, but you start eating anyway. You get glared upon when you use your left hand to eat, and you notice the surprise on people’s faces when you ask for some salt. A person’s left hand is considered unclean, and asking for salt on the dinner table is deemed disrespectful, as it indicates that you are not satisfied with the dish.

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At this point, you are baffled by these minute differences that, if not done correctly, undermine your self-worth. How can having just one meal, something that we usually do not overly ponder upon, have such ramifications? Doing some research beforehand about eating habits in Indonesia and asking a close local friend about it might have helped minimise the shock that you have received.

Interestingly, these cultural shocks are not necessarily encountered by the average tourist. As Petri Hottola emphasises, the tourism industry is tailored to prevent tourists from experiencing these cultural shocks. If you are a tourist, rest assured, you should be safe in your touristic bubble!

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A true experience of a culture or a mere sense of nostalgia?

Indonesia, with its iconic natural sites (beaches and islands) and its unique culture, attracts a large proportion of tourists from all over the world. Those who are invested in culture want to experience and immerse themselves in traditional ways of lives, hoping to ultimately gain a grand experience unlike any other. Tourism is one of the primary industries in Indonesia that contributes to its economic growth and GDP. To meet the demands of the tourists, the tourism industry influences and shapes understandings of cultures and traditions, whilst interfering with the locals’ practices of their traditions.

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Thus, in the process of essentialisation, culture becomes objectified and carved intricately in a manner that would appeal to the tourist. What is lost in this procedure is the true meaning behind certain traditions and practices. Importantly, the maintenance of people’s practice of their traditions is overlooked, as the tourist’s ideal experience is prioritised.

Indonesia comprises a large block of land with a large population; however, tourism is heavily concentrated in Bali and Java. Bali encounters mass tourism that misleads tourists’ perception about Indonesian culture and lifestyles as a whole. Other parts of Indonesia, where the other half of the population resides, are overlooked. Areas outside Bali and Java also encompass less privileged groups of people and generally the lower economic class.

From a large, complex and inter-cultural nation like Indonesia, what remains with the tourist is a nostalgic image of (mostly Balinese) people with momentous, appealing traditions, who are detached from politics and modernism, and who solely invest and engage in these traditions. Perhaps it is the depiction of this detachment from the chaos of modernity that entices the tourist and that is exploited by the tourism industry to misrepresent culture and the Indonesian habits of living.

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Just one of many!

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The Dayak ‘ukir’ form of art is found on the iconic Kahayan Bridge in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. The Dayak ‘ukir’ pattern is portrayed as a form of urbanised street art, despite its cultural and historical significance. The Dayak motif plays a significant role in representing the Indigenous Dayaks’ identity, inhabitants of Borneo Island. In the past, Dayak art utilised visual communication and conveyed particular meanings. Nowadays, whilst the traditional motifs remain acknowledged, its value lies in representation of the cultural identity of the Dayaks.

The subject matter usually involves mythical creatures- in this case, the figure of a hornbill can be outlined in the artwork. According to the belief of the Dayak tribe, Mahatala or Pohotara is the incarnation of the bird commander who came during the war. Therefore, this symbol is the most dominant symbol in the carving and motif of the Dayak tribe.

The Dayak Ukir is applied to building and architecture, daily utensils, traditional costumes, souvenirs and tourist products. Its intricate, unique patterns makes it appealing to tourists.  Thus, by adapting the current trend of street art, the Dayak ‘utik’ has adjusted to modern art trends, whilst maintaining the intended strong cultural identity. Moreover, by entering the modern public and digital sphere and acting as a unique exemplification the Indigenous Dayaks, this piece of artwork plays a significant role in the appreciation and celebration of the culture of the Dayaks. In a country where the Dayak culture is but one of many other cultures and ethnic groups and in the modern globalised world, this small piece of street art is a positive indication at large of the celebration and appreciation of diversity.

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Symbol of Constraint or Liberation?

The Morning Star Flag 

Although a flag appears to be a very mundane and mainstream icon, the West Papuan flag is engulfed with very powerful significance. It is a symbol of both independence and colonisation, a symbol of both freedom and constraint, a symbol of both violence and peace. The flag carries with it memories of a violent past and hopes for a better future.

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Following the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch colonisation in 1949, West Papua sought its own independence during the 1950s and formed a Congress by 1961, where the new flag was raised: the Morning Star. Shortly after, the ‘New York Agreement’ granted the United Nations control over West Papua in 1962, which was passed over to Indonesia. Since then, there had been significant resistance to the Indonesian governance. The “Act of Free Choice” was designed to supposedly grant West Papuans the opportunity to become an independent nation through an election, but the votes were rigged. Two failed re-attempts independence occurred in 1998 and 2011. West Papuans were tortured and killed for resisting the Indonesian rule.

Raising the flag in West Papua became a symbol of defiance against the Indonesian rule. Peaceful protests where the flag is raised have resulted in violence and arrests. Importantly, rather than symbolising the formation of a nation, the flag became demonstrative of a country that never came to be. The red stripe on the flag that is symbolic of earlier political struggles alongside the morning star that represents hope ironically mirror the current struggle that the West Papuans endure. The flag thus remains a strong icon of hope. The question remains as to whether the flag will continue to embody an everlasting struggle, or will it eventually take its intended role of representing the formation of a nation, free from other countries’ intervention and rule?

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