How to be a good guest in Java

A 17 point guide

Angharad Lodwick

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

17 March 2014

Angharad ‘Hari’ Lodwick’s essential guide to Javanese culture.

This is a guide for all those who ever visit Indonesia over Lebaran and find themselves invited to stay with a Javanese family. Lebaran, also known locally as Idul Fitri, is the Indonesian incarnation of Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan – the month of fasting. If you have never been a guest in a Javanese home, there are some things that might take you, and your hosts, by surprise – especially during this particular celebration. The Javanese are renowned for being very hospitable, friendly people and their reputation as hosts during Lebaran is no exception. While staying in a Javanese household, be mindful that you’ll be treated with utmost care and respect, and be given the best on offer in terms of food and bedding. However, sometimes the ways in which Javanese people perceive being a good host may differ a little from what you’re used to. So, here is a little guide, based on my own experiences, to help the novice Javanese guest avoid a few awkward situations. I’ll be using “Javanese” rather than Indonesian, because I haven’t been a guest in homes anywhere other than Java, and etiquette might differ in other places. I have written 17 points on Javanese culture which, as a guest, you might not expect, or may not know how to handle when they arise.

The Welcome

1. Shoes

Take off your shoes before you enter the house. Sometimes your guest might say don’t bother, but unless they explicitly say that, always take off your shoes. It is a good idea to follow suit and put your shoes with everyone else’s.

2. Shaking Hands

This one is a little tricky, because the Javanese use a mixture of different hand-shaking techniques. Sometimes you will be able to shake hands with your hosts in a Western way, which people will often follow with touching their heart with their right hand. Sometimes you will find your hand being clasped between both of theirs, with the expectation that you clasp their hand as well. Kind of like a four-hand sandwich. Sometimes you’ll see your friend or a younger person take the hand the hand of someone older and press it to their forehead. This one is a mark of respect for elders, and people will often be amused and pleased if you do this, but confused and uncomfortable if you do this to someone younger than you. Very rarely you’ll find that as a female, a male will refuse to shake your hand, and vice-versa. Don’t be offended if this happens. Some Muslims believe that you should not touch anyone of the opposite sex that is neither your spouse nor your family. Just retract your hand and smile, nod your head and offer a verbal greeting instead. While this all sounds quite complex, the best advice I can give in regards to how to shake hands is to go last and follow whatever your friend, or any other people being greeted, do.

3. Gifts

While it is definitely not expected to bring gifts when you are visiting a family, it is highly recommended to bring some souvenirs from your home country. If you find yourself invited somewhere and you were not able to pre-organise any gifts, some oleh-oleh (souvenir-type snacks) from the city you’ve come from will do just fine. Try to bring a large number of small things that you can hand out to the numerous people you are bound to meet. If you are staying with a friend, it is also a good idea to ask what his/her parents (or heads of the household) like in advance and bring some of that. A good time to give these is immediately upon arrival, or immediately before departure.

4. Initial Conversation

Once you have arrived, and have met everyone in the house (and probably some of the neighbours) you will very likely be ushered into a sitting room and given drinks and snacks. It is polite to drink and eat these. You will probably be quizzed mercilessly on almost every detail of your life, beginning with where you come from and what you study, to whether you have a partner, and regardless of the answer, why you do not have an Indonesian partner. Do not expect to be able to turn the conversation around and likewise quiz your hosts, and don’t be surprised at the often personal nature of some of the questions.

Sleeping Arrangements

5. Going to Sleep and Waking Up

While you are staying with your Javanese hosts, do not expect to get what some would consider a good night’s sleep. You will probably be kept very up late talking with your friend and the family. Furthermore, as the Javanese tend to wake up at very early hours such as 4am for breakfast and prayer, don’t be surprised if you only get 4 hours sleep a night. If you really need to sleep, try your hardest to excuse yourself early in the night saying that you are very tired or sleepy.

6. The Bed

Often when staying with Javanese hosts, you might find yourself sleeping in a very nice bed while the person whose room it is has been turfed out onto a mattress in the living area or into someone else’s room. Try if you like to protest or offer to sleep on the mattress, but more often than not you will not win and will end up in the nicest bed at someone else’s expense.

7. The Bed Cover

Many Javanese beds simply have a bottom sheet, and a few pillows. Beds rarely have a second sheet on top, and only sometimes will there be a cover. Although every house is different, just to be sure you have something to cover yourself with at night, particularly if it is cool or there are mosquitoes. It is always a good idea to bring a sarong or small blanket of your own.


8. Towels

Bring your own towel. Several times I have stayed at someone’s house, and asked to borrow a towel, and have been met with strange looks. In fact, after staying at a house in Bandung with no towel, my friends felt so sorry for me after I asked to borrow one, that they went out and bought me one of my very own. While it might be normal back home to be given a towel to use by your hosts, this probably will not happen here in Java. So, to save yourself an awkward situation, bring your own towel.

9. The Mandi

Most people who’ve been in Indonesia for a while should be familiar with the mandi bathing system. Only the very rich here have showers, let alone hot showers. Just in case though, a bak mandi is a cubic segment built into the wall of your average Javanese bathroom, which is filled with water. You use a gayung – a plastic scoop – to douse yourself with water. In case anyone is confused, you don’t put anything, including yourself, into the bak mandi. A word of warning:bak mandi are usually filled with cold water. Finally, it is general practice to wear a pair of thongs when bathing, or going to the toilet. Do not be alarmed if a pair of your thongs goes missing only to turn up very soon afterwards. Javanese people often borrow each others’ thongs to wear to the bathroom.

10. Frequency

Many Indonesians, Javanese included, have a preconception that bule(white people) don’t bathe enough. Comparatively, there is probably a lot of truth in this. Particularly for people who come from Australia, where we have grown up with things like droughts and water restrictions, one shower or bath a day is generally considered sufficient; particularly if you haven’t played sport or actually gotten dirty. In Indonesia however, where you can work up a sweat just by standing still, people bathe at least twice a day. Those more religious people will wash their hands, feet and face every time before prayer. So, again based on experience, if you want to avoid someone saying with surprise “aren’t you going to bathe??”, have a mandi in the morning and in the evening – and after the greetings and obligatory snack and drink when you arrive after travelling. Even if it is just a cursory wash.

11. The Toilet

Most Javanese households are equipped with a squat toilet. Again, only the very rich here will have a Western toilet. In terms of logistics, well, that is something you will have to get the hang of yourself. I will advise, however, that you bring your own toilet paper or tissues because otherwise you’ll be stuck with just a hose or a mandi bucket. Try not to flush these because the sewage systems in Java are not well equipped for them, but put them into a rubbish bin in the vicinity of the toilet. Flushing squat toilets is done by ladling water from the bak mandi (or a bucket of water provided) into the toilet until everything is gone. Do not be shocked if the bathroom appears sopping wet or dirty by your standards. Wet tends to mean clean in Java, if not


12. Eating at Home

If your hosts have prepared you a meal, it is polite to eat it all. Not eating your meal will make your hosts think that you don’t like it. If you do not like it, you should try your best to eat it gratefully because often your hosts will have gone out of their way to put together their best fare for you – even if their own resources are not that ample. Of course, if you are allergic to something they have made you, then you should explain and avoid that dish. Although there is not much gluten or milk in Javanese cooking, sometimes you’ll find peanuts or peanut oil and seafood. Also, most Javanese will be very understanding if you cannot handle too much chili, and probably will laugh at you cheerfully if you find things too spicy. Much of Javanese food is oily, sugary and spicy – and on occasion you may find yourself served with parts of an animal you would rather not eat. Just do your best. Be warned though, your host may continue to pile your plate up again and again and make comments about how they do not want you to go home to your family thin. If you are too full to possibly eat any more, intersperse polite protest with genuine complements.

13. Eating Out

Sometimes your Javanese host will take you out for dinner rather than eat with you at home. If this is the case, don’t expect to be allowed to pay for your meal. Offer as much as you like, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be allowed. Javanese like to treat their guests like royalty, and this extends to outside the house.


14. Visiting Neighbours and Relatives

The biggest part of the Lebaran festivities are visiting friends and family on the day. You will be expected to accompany your friends and hosts to visit household after household and say “mohon maaf lahir dan batin” (forgive my sins) or “Selamat Idul Fitri” (Happy Idul Fitri). Every household you visit will essentially be a repeat of points 1 and 2. This is a great opportunity to hand out some of the oleh-oleh I was talking about earlier. You will be fed all kinds of local snacks and drinks, and asked all kinds of questions about yourself and after an indeterminate time will be whisked to repeat the process again at the next house. Try to eat a tiny bit at each house to be polite, but not too much because you will be absolutely stuffed by the end, just in time for:

15. The Feast

Much like point 12, the Lebaran feast will be the absolute best fare your host has to offer. Your hosts will most likely have been cooking and preparing local specialities for days, and you will be expected to try some of everything. As always, try to eat as much as you can and complement all the dishes, and be appreciative of the fact that your hosts will have gone to a lot of effort to make a great feast for you and their family.

16. Going Sightseeing.

If you are staying for a few days, expect to be taken out to see some of the local tourist attractions, especially if you are in a different city or village. Be warned, some of these will take all day to get to and from, and many Javanese tourist attractions are full of Javanese tourists who may not necessarily have had much exposure to foreigners. This means that it is very possible that you might inadvertently become the main attraction, with many people staring and taking your photo. Although, if you are with a big group of Javanese, this is more unlikely than if you were with a group of bule. If you do end up going out to see something, expect to leave early in the morning, spend most of the time travelling or stopping for food, spending only long enough at the destination to take photos, and to come back late in the evening. Here is a good opportunity also to offer to chip in for petrol.

17. Spare Time

You won’t have any spare time, unless you make some when you could be sleeping. Javanese culture is such that people do everything with at least one friend, and usually in groups. People will think they are doing you a disservice if they are leaving you alone to your own devices. Javanese people often find Western independence, particularly in girls, baffling, and most figure, why would you do something on your own if you could do it with friends. If you find yourself needing some alone time, particularly after long bouts of questioning, or travelling in a car, try to excuse yourself early to bed saying you’re tired, or take a long mandi,or take a personal day after you get back from your visit.

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