Cultural Identity: Do we really need it?
“Where are you from?”
This is a simple question that I find hard to answer. Stating one city or country would imply that I associate myself with the local culture and consider that place as home. This is something I struggle to do, especially with Indonesians. Every time I answer “Bandung”, I get a puzzled look because of not having the accent nor fitting the stereotype. I will then say that I’m actually from Padang, since that is my parents hometown. The second reaction is even more puzzled, like “Oh okay” then the person leaves. One or two times someone got it right by asking, “It seems that you were born overseas, right?” Although this is true, I don’t feel comfortable stating this upfront to avoid being treated differently. More importantly, I have not been there in years so I cannot share any recent local wisdom. I believe my true identity is a blend of different cultures. This is not limited to American and Indonesian, but I also try to adapt cultural values that I learned from other countries I’ve been to such as the UK, Japan and Peru. Therefore, I argue the need for a singular cultural identity. We are all citizens from the world that should learn from each other’s culture and have a universal set of values. This can also apply to a national context, as large countries like Indonesia have strong cultural diversity.
So in this post, I would like to share some of these cultural values to support my argument. I’ll also be sharing some examples to depict these values. Please bear in mind that my writings will be only based on the visited cities or regions, which of course cannot represent an entire nation.
Cultures from my upbringing
During my childhood in the midwestern region of the US, I developed the culture of showing respect, being imaginative, freedom of speech. The context of respect can be limitless. One form is respect for equality, being fair to others. I remember how I was reminded to take turns, stay in line, acknowledge others’ spiritual needs and ask permission before using one’s possession (like a pencil). Another is respect for the environment. I was taught to never litter, recycle, and choose to walk for short commutes. There is also respect for others feelings. Mocking someone’s physical condition is of course not acceptable, we learn to take humor on one’s behavior or actions instead. Last to mention is respect for privacy, as there are things we are not comfortable to share with others.
Being imaginative means thinking beyond the current state, creating new ideas and innovations. In second grade, we were rewarded for finishing a chapter book or novel as the absence of pictures spurs our imagination. We were also encouraged to write stories of our wildest fantasies and even publish it for the school library. In art class, we had a different project every month to develop our creativity. This is probably one of the key factors behind America’s continuous innovation.
My definition for freedom of speech is not just the right to express an idea or opinion, but also to speak it out with confidence. In elementary school, we had a “show and tell” session every week. Kids will bring something (or sometimes someone) to class and share how they find it special, followed by a Q & A. This helped us to build communication skills and express ourselves. Our teacher was just like a friend, enabling us to talk without hesitation. We would also have sessions where teachers will gather us around to discuss social issues like racial equality and ask our opinions, which develops our critical thinking. School never felt formal and this made learning fun.
From elaborating these values, I begin to think it means to be American. Since its discovery, the country represents the land of the free, the land of opportunity. It is where people are encouraged to build on their ideas, to challenge the status quo, to work together for a common dream.
In Indonesia, the place I’ve spent most of my life, I learned the value of family and community, respecting the eldery and religious tolerance. My parents were born and raised in West Sumatra from large families, my mom has 7 siblings while my dad has 12. When I first came to Indonesia, I discovered the strong role of extended family. My aunts, uncles and cousins really helped me adapt to the new environment. I remember how my late uncle, Om Heri, would take us all on trips to theme parks. I remember how my cousin Dini sat next to me in class and helped me understand the practice questions before I could speak the language. My mom told me, wherever you go, there should be a relative to make you feel at home. And she was right. I have a second uncle (my mom’s cousin) in Lombok who was a great host during my visit. My cousin Eastman and his wife Olga did more than enough to help me settle in London during grad school. My cousin Hasbi hosted me during my visit to Japan and took me around the prefecture, and he even drove to my volunteering place in Ibaraki. Aunts and uncles are basically your second parents, and your cousins are like your siblings.
There is an Indonesian term called gotong royong. It’s where members of a community cooperate to improve their neighborhood, such as cleaning up the streets or fixing a bridge. The strong sense of community pushes people to help one another, especially in areas without access to public service. The communal values are evident in every street, people sitting together and talking about life. They are like a big family, it’s common in urban and rural villages to leave your front door open for neighbors to walk in and say hi. Privacy can seem like a foreign concept. People value the sense of belonging and enjoy living without boundaries. It’s what builds closeness.
Our elders have gone through similar phases of life as us. Although the world is constantly changing, we still owe them our respect. In Indonesia, we are taught to use a more formal and humble tone when talking to elders. This is even more strict in the Javanese culture, where the local language has a separate vocabulary for speaking to different age groups. It is considered impolite to use first-name-basis for someone older, even if it’s just a year. We acknowledge that there is much to learn, so we should remain grounded and humble when sharing an idea or opinion.
Indonesia is a good example of what I would call religious democracy. People are allowed to practice according to their understanding and interpretation, as long as it brings no harm to others. We understand and accept differences of faith and do not let it affect our relationships. There are indeed many self-righteous preachers, but most people are open, laid-back and tend to avoid discussing religion as it can be a sensitive topic. To them, it’s the positivity in their belief that’s more important.
Now I want to discuss what it means to be Indonesian. It is a super diverse country with thousands of ethnic groups. Local languages are still used today. Almost every province has a culture of their own, people in Sumatra tend to be more outspoken while those in Java are more low-key. The nation used to be divided during the first three centuries of the Dutch colonial rule, until they decided to come together to defeat the common enemy. Our fore founders realized the strength of unity in diversity and decided to include it in our coat of arms. To be Indonesian would then mean being part of a strong diverse community that supports each other regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
From the examples I’ve mentioned, you can see some major differences between the two cultures. Most Americans respect privacy and personal space, while this can be a foreign concept for the Indonesians that value community and togetherness. Americans like to speak out their mind and see each other as equal, while Indonesians need to distinguish the structure of communication for elders. Moreover, some would find it difficult to accept ideas or opinions from a much younger person because of the perceived lack of experience. However, there are similarities when it comes with the value of tolerance. Both cultures acknowledge and respect differences in culture and religion. Despite whatever incidents you’ve seen in the media or weirdos you’ve met, I believe this can be agreed with the overall population.
Cultures learned while studying and volunteering abroad
Spending a year in London was definitely a significant cultural experience. I consider the British as a much more subtle version of Americans: more simple, low-key yet similar ways of thinking. I found the people really polite, warm and friendly. It’s common for a male to call me “mate” or “bro” and it’s totally normal for the opposite sex to call you “dear”, “love”, “babe” or “darling” . It is a common norm to hold a door for the person behind you and thank the one on the other end. Cars would always stop for pedestrians crossing the street. I learned that pubs are an important part of British culture, as it is a place to meet and chat with people.
Another cultural value I observed is humility. People tend to be open to talk and love to learn from each other. At public events, the speakers don’t expect a grand introduction or receive a certificate of appreciation. In networking sessions, people in suits and blazers would simply come up with me and ask about ideas and opinions. They are often interested to learn more about my field of study and Indonesia. My friend Awais once said such conversations are always a great learning opportunity. People don’t see one field superior to another, but that it complements each other and brings a holistic perspective.
The last British value I’d like to discuss is the global mindset, especially in London. I know some may use Brexit as an argument, but I once met a supporter of the referendum that had a different idea. He says that the UK glorifies its diversity and would want to be even more global by strengthening relations with countries like the US and China, instead of giving special treatment to members of the EU. However, the eastern european residents do play an important role there and London is Europe’s main financial center. Therefore I’m interested to see how things turn out under the Brexit deal. Back to cultural talk, I was really amazed to see the integration of world cultures in London. The majority of the population are from third to fourth generation immigrants, so they are practically British. Dishes like chicken tikka masala and Jamaican meat pies are considered British national cuisine. There are celebrations for every cultural event, like diwali, chinese new years and carribean carnivals to respect the close ties with other parts of the world. I believe this mindset is a result of centuries from having a large global presence. Reflecting on the situation in Indonesia, it now feels wrong to use the term Chinese-Indonesian (some people even say just Chinese). They are also Indonesian like the rest of us.
Before London, I spent a month living with local farmers in rural Japan and exploring the main cities to learn about the culture. I’ve always found the people wonderfully unique, a good example of how we can be. The first observation I want to discuss is the Japanese work ethic. People aim for perfection, because the results would be of convenience for the wider public. There are standards of discipline to achieve this level, like what I learned from harvesting eggplants and tomatoes mentioned in my first blog post.
The Japanese people also value privacy and personal space. It takes a while to get personally close with someone. However, they are the most polite, kind and sincere people I’ve ever met. When cycling around the village, car drivers would open the window to smile and thank me for letting them go ahead. I will always remember the time when the public transit worker actually googled “mosque” on his phone when I asked for directions. I love how servers do not accept tips as it is considered disrespectful for their honor. Once on a walking tour, a fellow southeast asian awkwardly tipped the guide and he said that we should keep our money as Japan is super expensive.
Another thing I love about Japanese culture is the genuine expression of high enthusiasm. If you tell locals an interesting fact or story, their response would likely be “Eeeeeeh? Sugoooiii!!” which means “Really? Wow!” When I gave my hosts a traditional Indonesian wooden puppet as a gift, they were so intrigued on how the head could turn and arms move. At a yakiniku dinner, I told them and some friends that a typical Indonesian barbecue would have satay and peanut sauce and their reaction: “Eeeeeh? Pīnattsusōsu? Sugooii!” and one kept saying pīnattsusōsu with great interest. Getting such a response does make things feel more exciting. You can also sense this enthusiastic trait in manga and anime, how the characters react to almost anything.
Cultures learned during travels and research work
This part is purely based on my interactions with locals and observation.
In December 2019, pre-pandemic, I took a trip to China to dwell into the culture. I have actually gained lots of exposure to their culture before, as most of the exchange participants in my AIESEC years and classmates at UCL are from the Mainland. However, these are people that travel so I would learn more by going there myself. I did find a similar sense of humility to the Japanese, I loved how my hostel mates would use their translator app to communicate. Another thing I found is how people stay fit (both physically and mentally), especially the senior people through tai chi and dancing. Watching them exercise just makes you feel at peace. What impressed me the most is the sense of unity. The Chinese people always seem to have a strong bond with each other. The vast majority of tourists in all the sites I’ve visited are actually domestic, showing how locals love to explore their own country. But my most favorite part is their hospitality, they do go all-out when treating guests. My friends from UCL pampered me during this trip. I was treated to a large and delicious lunch in Beijing and was given the ultimate Shanghai experience. This included a hotpot lunch, a Chinese massage, going up the World Financial Center, and ending with a delicious Japanese dinner. I learned that this is a huge part of their culture. I will definitely do the same whenever they come to Jakarta.
The UCL research project in Peru made me learn a lot about the local culture. Like Indonesia, they also have a strong sense of community. Moreover, they are highly expressive in communicating. Peruvians, and most latin americans as I was told, love to talk and always seem so lively doing so. You can feel so much energy when they speak. Another thing I see is the fighting spirit. The project location, Tarapoto, had gone through a rough time dealing with narcoterrorism and currently lacks access to financing and adequate infrastructure. Nevertheless, the people keep on fighting for their livelihood. The entrepreneurs we met work hard to maintain and grow their businesses without relying on government support.
During my year at UCL, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel around Europe and learn the culture during semester breaks. As these trips were on average 3 days and just in a single city, I can only share some brief observations. In Rome, Italy, I learned how everyone just values and enjoys life. The people are laid back, proud of their arts, and know how to refine common things like coffee and ice cream. My favorite term is alora, a saying for “okay then” or “very well”.
In Paris, France, I found the stereotype of rude locals to be inaccurate. They are actually just cool and genuine, not seeing the need to act out of normal. I’ve met several friendly people that offered to help with directions. If you attempt to speak French, no matter the level of fluency, they will show appreciation for the effort and switch to English.
When I continued to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, I found how open-minded, blunt yet friendly the Dutch people can be. Since almost everything is legal, people can use their own judgement on what to consume.
Berlin, Germany, is probably Europe’s most global city after London. There is a large Turkish population and recently several Syrian refugees were welcomed to settle in the capital. The most mind-blowing part is the level of discipline and efficiency. The metro stations do not even have an entrance gate since people will pay for tickets anyway and gates take unnecessary time off your journey. There is a random inspection in the passenger cars to control free riders. Another thing I’ve noticed is the creativity. The impact of the world wars is still visible, but people have decorated the battered walls and old buildings with artistic murals as a symbol of redemption.
In Brussels, Belgium, I found the people to be enjoyably quirky which probably explains their great comics. The culture seems to be a nice mixture between French and Dutch. (I made a mistake of only staying for a night so not much to tell).
Stockholm, Sweden, is one of the most ideal cities in my opinion (aside from the costs). People are super friendly, joyful and they showed similar discipline to the Germans. I enjoyed the fika culture, a daily coffee break just to take a pause from work and have a nice chat with friends. The people do make great conversations, the most memorable for me was on the train to Copenhagen where I talked with a middle-aged woman about the Swedish towns and how one became the birthplace of Ikea. Another interesting thing is the lack of hype towards the monarchy. My couchsurfing host told me that the princess recently married her personal trainer and no one seemed to care.
When I arrived Danish capital, I noticed that people share cultural straits with the Swedes but are just more laid back. There is a location near the city center where laws do not apply like in Amsterdam, which seemed to be an effective concept to avoid chaos in other areas.
During my trip to Barcelona, Spain, I was amazed by how the community bonded within neighbourhoods. The city is well designed to accommodate the local culture. People also seem free spirited, from what I saw at La Barceloneta beach.
My last adventure that year was to Turkey, where I spent time in Istanbul and Cappadocia. The people there are indeed beautiful and welcoming. I had the special moment of being invited to lunch at a madrasah, which I was just checking out. I shared an insightful conversation with a scholar on the development Islam in the country without being preached. I was also fascinated how the religious and non-religious seem to co-exist without mutual judgement. An interesting sight was a young woman wearing a hijab who was making out with her partner by the Bosphorus, something that you won’t see in most muslim countries.
I have also visited the neighboring Southeast Asian countries: Malaysia for transit, Singapore for compensating my cancelled business trip because of passport issues, and Thailand for a work project. The Malaysian culture is pretty much the same as Indonesia. Singaporeans seem busy most of the time but are likely to stop and help you with directions. The most interesting to me was Thailand, the people are open-minded and accepting. My former Thai boss told me that everyone has their own spiritual guardian. For example, someone immature is likely to have a child as their guardian. From my perspective, this can also mean everyone has a different story that we need to understand and accept.
The overall cultural difference between developed and developing countries
Reflecting on my cultural experiences, I would say there is one major difference between developed and developing countries: individuality versus community. The former is valuing an individual’s choice of being while the latter focuses on being a valuable part of a community. A simple example is solo traveling being completely normal for the former and totally absurd for the latter.
Going deeper on this topic, developed economies give people more options to do what they want while those that are still developing need to fight more for the convenience of living. Take a choice of career or college major for example. In developed countries, people would want to know more about your job or field of study before going any further. On the other hand, from my everyday experience, my usual response for this is “why don’t you do (something more favorable according to society)”. Another is on socioeconomic background. While people in the developed world don’t seem to bother about this, a common early question in countries like Indonesia could be “what do your parents do” during school years and “where do you work” (instead of what do you do) in adulthood. There is this need to stand out in your community or being among the elite in order to gain respect and acknowledgement.
This brings childhood memories from the US and Indonesia. I once had a second grade assignment to draw and write about my aspired career, an author (I loved the idea of creating an imaginative universe). Other kids drew astronauts, scientists, and athletes. My teacher applauded all of us for sharing our dreams. After I moved to Indonesia, my fourth grade teacher asked the class “who here wants to be a doctor? Raise your hand!” followed by “who wants to be an engineer?” then “who wants to be a teacher? (so I feel good about my job)” and that was it. Even in the text books, there is a chapter saying about a boy and girl wanting to be an engineer and doctor respectively (yeah, my memory can be that strong). This is probably because the society considers these two professions as the ticket to prosperity. This is still evident until today, as government officials still argue about giving oversea scholarships for social studies like economics and public policy. This can show the need for cultural transformation, being able to acknowledge the value of each field and collaborate with one another.
Taking a different perspective, the fact that people ask such questions on our life choices shows that they seem to care. This is something to appreciate, however as said by Stephen Covey, we must learn to understand before being understood.
The point I’m trying to make is that as we move to or meet people from new places, our cultural identity should evolve. We gain a new perspective on how people act and behave, developing a broader mindset. Having a stronghold on your first culture would limit your horizon. More concerning, you cannot adapt to a new environment once you migrate. This is an issue I’ve seen in many places, people refusing to learn the local culture and bring negative traits which leads to stereotyping and discrimination. There is an informal Indonesian word called udik which is used for a person from a rural area that cannot follow the norms of city life, like queueing. While in London, I’ve seen people from different nationalities that conduct unacceptable behavior like speaking loudly in public transport or grabbing a duck in a pond (that was epic). It can also be the other way around, like a local villager snooping around a tourists rental property or a domestic worker being late for a meeting with an expat. Some people make an excuse that such behavior is acceptable in their local culture. However, this would hinder socio-economic development and potential tensions.
I have seen several cases of people reluctant to interact with different cultures since high school in Bandung. My schoolmates seemed offended if I used Jakartan slang words “gue lo” (me and you), as they are more accustomed to Sundanese. This became more evident when starting college in the same city, where some locals complained about the large portion of students from Jakarta. A number of my high school friends claimed that they cannot connect with them. It’s human nature to bond with people from a similar background, however rejecting to interact with a new culture is an issue. In my junior year, I was involved in a cultural education project from AIESEC. The speaker in the opening event bluntly stated that people with sundanese heritage should never say “gue lo” and stick to the local language. The thing is, Jakartan slang is just that and common Indonesian conversational vocabulary. Jakarta is the most diverse city in Indonesia and locals are just Indonesians. There is no need to use a hierarchy of local languages and every migrant is accepted since people keep coming here for work. I think that this is a reason Greater Jakarta is the most economically advanced region in Indonesia, besides geography and history. It is open and values diversity, which as I mentioned earlier, represents the nation. I’m not saying that every Indonesian city should be like Jakarta, that wouldn’t make sense. Every city should have strong cultural roots and preserve its heritage. But its people should also accept, learn and adjust to new cultures as well.
Another pity I’ve noticed during my year in London are international students that do not try to blend in with locals or other nationalities and seem to not learn from being in the UK. Some seem to just be more comfortable with their own people, but the point of studying abroad is not just the education but also the cultural exposure. I had an eyebrow-raising experience when I joined the Indonesian student community for networking purposes. The committee had us sit in the embassy for an entire saturday to see an hour long presentation from each department on their activity planning, which could have been an email. It had a grand opening ceremony and everything you could find in the typical Indonesian conference. There was a Indonesian student conference where they flew in speakers from Jakarta to Coventry since they would know more about the country. For me, it seemed like a waste of money and opportunity to share ideas with British experts. There was also an Indonesian football community, which I did not join. Instead , I played with my UCL friends from different nationalities: Chile, Canada, Japan, Syria and England to name a few. Playing with the locals was the most memorable. I loved how they were just having fun coordinating attacks, positioning themselves for the long balls like the signature kick & rush style. This something I probably wouldn’t experience elsewhere.
My argument would be, do we really need to identify ourselves with a single culture or can we just consider us all global citizens? I’m not saying we should forget our heritage and follow some other country. Instead, let’s just be true to ourselves and follow what we think is right. We can refine our existing culture, which can take more than a lifetime, or accept that our cultural identity is a product of the places we’ve been and people we’ve met.
For me, it’s totally normal to have nasi padang as your favorite dish and also love anything with peanut butter. We should also remember that our food also originated from exposure to new cultures, like nasi padang probably would not exist if it wasn’t for the Indian and Arab merchants visiting West Sumatera. Therefore, our ancestors before us were also global citizens.
So when asked about identity, my answer would be a blend of different cultures of the world that I hope to continuously enrich throughout the rest of my life. Let’s always keep an open mind, learn, explore and adjust to what feels right. As the famous saying goes: