Etiquette in Central Java Part Six: Foreigner Attention

Technically, according to Javanese etiquette as I have been told by Javanese people, staring is rude. However, as an obvious foreigner, you’re considered an exception to this particular social rule. This means that you’ll get some foreigner attention when you’re out and about. Becak (rickshaw) drivers will call out if you’re walking, offering you a ride. Also if you’re on foot, people will call out “jalan-jalan” which means “walking” or “pottering around”, because walking around is seen as something tourists do (Javanese often go by motorbike for even the shortest distances). People will also call out “hello mister” whether you’re male or female, “mau ke mana?” which means “where are you going?”, “bule” and “londo” which are both words for white foreigners.

While Javanese people do talk to strangers more than English people would, this is certainly foreigner-specific attention. The degree to which you experience this depends a lot on where you are – you’ll get more comments in touristy areas, and if you’re obviously white and on foot. You’ll get more wide-eyed stares in places where foreigners are less often seen. If you cover your arms and legs, go by motorbike with your visor shut, and hang out in areas where foreigners live long-term you may escape much of this attention.

It’s up to you if/how to react to these comments. Some people say hello back, often imitating the Javanese accent, some people correct the bad English (such as using “mister” for a woman), some people get bothered by it, some enjoy the feeling of celebrity, others manage to ignore it all.


Etiquette in Central Java Part Five: Miscellaneous

Javanese people don’t blow their noses very. If a Javanese person really needs to use a tissue, he/she will throw it away after one use. Putting a dirty tissue into one’s pocket is considered disgusting.

When you ride on the back of someone’s motorbike, do not hold on to them, unless it’s your partner, a close relative, or a close friend of the same gender, who is driving. If you feel you need to hold on, use the handle behind you.

Javanese people tend to avoid flashing their money around. If paying for something they quickly have money ready, and don’t count it all out in front of everyone.

Etiquette in Central Java Part Four: Eating and Drinking

Often you’ll find yourself with just a spoon, so that obviously goes in your right hand and you eat, that’s easy. If you have a spoon and a fork, the spoon goes in your right hand, the fork in your left. The fork is used to push food onto the spoon, which is used for eating. The spoon is also used a bit like a knife, but with more of a spearing/pulling/tearing action between the fork and the spoon.

Despite the theory that Javanese people don’t eat with their left hand, people often hold a krupuk (rice cracker), and sometimes pieces of food like tahu (tofu) or tempe, in their left hand and eat it.

Traditionally Javanese people don’t use cutlery at all, and you may find yourself in a situation where you need to eat with your hands. You will be given a finger bowl to wash your right hand before and after eating. Use your right hand only. Using three fingers and your thumb pick up rice in ball-like shapes. For chicken or duck, use your right hand to pull off small pieces instead of picking the whole thing up. When you’ve nearly finished you can pick it up and gnaw/suck the bones. You can usually ask for cutlery anyway, and many people wouldn’t expect a foreigner to eat with their hands.

At home people have one drink (usually tea) that they drink slowly over several hours or more, rather than a drink with each meal. There is no pressure to finish your drink at someone’s house.

I’ve heard people say that it’s polite to leave some food on your plate, but from what I’ve seen here, I don’t think that’s true.

As a guest in someone’s house you are often expected to serve yourself first (then each person serves him/herself), so you can’t watch others and copy them. Take rice first, then vegetables/stew, then meat (one piece), tofu or tempe, then krupuk. It’s more polite to take too little food than too much. You don’t always need to take every type of food, and you can often take additional pieces of tofu or tempe and krupuk during the meal.

When you have finished eating, the polite way to leave your cutlery is face down in the bowl/plate, with the spoon crossed over the fork, or if just using a spoon, leave it face down.

Javanese people tend to eat first, and then drink, instead of drinking sips between mouthfuls of food. Some people say this is more polite. The concept of a long meal with lots of conversation does not exist in Javanese culture. Although there may be some chatting during a meal, the focus is usually on eating.

No one drinks tap water here – Javanese people boil water to purify it or use bottled water. When buying bottled water, ask for aqua. The word for drinking (boiled) water is air putih and that’s what you would ask for in someone’s house. Plenty of people drink tea more than water here – Javanese tea, not English tea. Ask for teh, then panas is hot, es is ice – teh panas and es teh. People drink their tea very sweet (manis) – if you would prefer it without sugar, ask for teh tawar. Javanese tea never has milk.

Javanese people rarely take their own food and drink (snacks, bottled drinks) anywhere. There are places to buy food and drinks everywhere so it is rarely necessary. It is considered impolite to drink your own drink or eat your own food in someone else’s house, unless you have given it to your hosts as a gift, or you are sharing it with everyone. It is better to eat and drink what you are given.

Etiquette in Central Java Part Three: Meeting and Visiting People

Javanese people usually greet each other by shaking hands lightly (sometimes touching more than shaking) and then touching their chest (heart) with their right hand. When meeting for the first time it is customary to say your name as you shake the other person’s hand.

When you go into someone’s house take your shoes off. Often you’ll see a pile of shoes near the doorway and then you know where to take them off. If in doubt it’s better to be over-polite and take them off early. Occasionally you may go to someone’s house where you are meant to keep your shoes on. If in doubt watch what other people do.

If a group of people are sitting on the floor and you want to get to the other side of them, it’s polite to walk round the group instead of straight through. When walking amongst a group of seated people (for example, the audience at a performance, participants at a gamelan rehearsal), it’s polite to stoop slightly, and even more polite to let your right arm stretch downwards so your fingers point at the floor. Basically the aim is not to disturb the people you’re passing or upset the atmosphere.

It is rude to point the soles of your feet at other people, so in order to avoid doing this when sitting on the floor, it is better to sit with your legs crossed, or folded under you.

Showing the base of your back or the top of your knickers, because your top is too short or your trousers are too low, is not good. Since you are likely to sit on the floor a fair bit, it may be worth ensuring that you have some tops which are long enough to go down to the top of your trousers/skirt when seated in order to avoid embarrassment.

Touching the head of an older person is considered impolite.

Etiquette in Central Java Part Two: Traditional Bathrooms

Going to the toilet: holding the dipper in your right hand, use water to wash yourself with your left hand.

Having a shower (mandi): stand next to the water container and use the dipper to pour water over your body. Don’t get soap in the water container and don’t climb into it – it is not a bath.

The stereotypical Javanese person showers twice daily: once in the morning when they get up and once at sore (about 4 – 6pm). So if you’re at someone’s house at either of those times, they might ask if you want to mandi. In reality many people do not shower strictly at those times.

Many foreigners use bottled or boiled water to clean their teeth, and you may wish to do the same.

Etiquette in Central Java Part One: General Etiquette

As with manners everywhere, not all of these social rules are followed by everyone all the time, but it’s good to be aware of them. If in doubt, watch others and do as they do.

This weekly series is based on a document given to friends and family who visited me in Java, and will run for six weeks.

General Etiquette

Use your right hand to give and take things (money when paying for something, taking anything from another person, touching food). You will understand why your right and not your left hand should be used in Part Two: Traditional Bathrooms, which will be published next week.

Pointing with your index finger to indicate direction or point to something is considered impolite. You should use either your thumb or your whole hand, your right hand of course.

All the usual Asian etiquette rules regarding feet apply here too. Don’t point the soles of your feet at other people.