Hello from Jakarta, Indonesia!
I tend to under-research the new countries I visit. As in, I often do little to no research before I board the plane. I usually have little to no idea what the shape of the country looks like on a map.
It was no different this time. Now that I’m here, I’m finally getting to know the culture and history of the place.
For instance, I knew Indonesia was majority Muslim, but I had no idea it was the most populous Muslim majority nation in the world!
Now I know. Thanks, Wikipedia.
I’ve been to Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and Indonesia is similar to its Southeast Asian neighbors in many ways. The bright colors and tropical fruits. The warm, balmy air. The spices and many-leveled shopping malls. The bustle of the streets, honks and shouts mixing with the throaty rumble of motorbikes.
But two aspects of the culture have stuck out to me thus far: the Muslim culture and the diversity of the people.
It hit me when I landed that I’ve never been to a majority Muslim country before. All the other countries I’ve visited have been either secular, majority Christian/Catholic, or majority Buddhist.
Being in a Muslim country feels different simply because Islam is slightly more overt in its customs than Christianity or Buddhism. The women’s hijabs make it immediately obvious who is Muslim and who isn’t. You can’t really blend in.
But, at the same time, Indonesia is incredibly diverse, and it seems to be a place that embraces that diversity.
There are many different ethnicities here–the face shapes and skin colors are many-varied–but I haven’t sensed much ethnic tension. Some women wear head coverings, some don’t. Some people look Chinese, some look Southeast Asian, but everyone is used to it. Even when the imam was singing out prayers over the loud speakers today, it just felt like life was going on as usual. There was no tension in the air.
In America, I can often feel the racial tension amongst strangers on the street (though I wish it weren’t there), but here, though I think I subconsciously expected to feel it, I haven’t. People interact with each other comfortably and easily. As a foreigner, I’ve gotten some stares, but far less than I usually get in Korea and other Southeast Asian countries.
I do happen to know that the governor of Jakarta, a Christian, is currently on trial for making statements that were taken to be blasphemous against Islam. In recent months there have been riots and protests in the streets. Things have gotten ugly.
So perhaps more is going on underneath the surface than is readily obvious to a casual observer. (There usually is.)
But while I felt a heaviness in the spiritual atmosphere of the Philippines last summer and I immediately felt on my toes when I entered the airport in Thailand last year – the sign in the customs line forbidding the disrespect of Buddha sent a clear, unequivocal message – I haven’t felt the resistance in the atmosphere I expected to feel here. At least not yet.
I did feel self-conscious walking around with my friend and her mom at the mall today, however, when I realized I was the only woman in the entire building showing my knees. No one was really staring at my clothing, which was certainly modest by American standards, but I felt out of place. Every female was wearing pants.
But then I saw a woman wearing a short skirt. And then I saw a couple more in short shorts. And then I saw some foreigner white girl wearing a backless shirt, and I gasped at her and felt better.
(I bought some baggy Indonesian pants today. Looking forward to sporting those around town..)