The culture of respect ?

“Ibu, aku terlambat , pesawat belum datang.” I heard a part of what my colleague was saying on phone. We were in Lombok, on an assignment and stuck at the airport. The plane taking us back to Jakarta had gotten delayed by 4 hours.  I had already called up my husband to inform and was waiting for my colleague to finish his call, before we went back to work related discussion again. “Ibu, nanti aku telepon ketika pesawat mendarat”. …

I was sort of surprised + impressed that he still calls his Ibu (Mum) first, even in his mid thirties. Indonesians are very close to their family – mostly like Indians, I had heard, but this was little out of ordinary for me.  I wouldn’t call my parents immediately under such circumstances, they need not know that I’m getting delayed and then worry about me. Maybe, he lives in a joint family. ‘The analyst’ started making her assumptions. Anyhow, after he hung up, I asked him how came he called his mother because she might worry unnecessarily. Indonesians do tend to ask even more personal questions and even to casual acquaintances or even strangers. Though I knew he wouldn’t have minded – he’s a friend.  Anyway, he did a double take – “Mother??, no, I called my wife”.  Then it was my turn to do a double take – “you  address your wife with ‘Ibu’?”. Till then, to me, Ibu meant only following things:

  1. Ibu is your own mother
  2. In formal situations, it is a title of respect – similar to ‘Madam’ – for someone senior in age / designation – mostly aged 30s and above.

So I was even more impressed with this colleague, who was addressing his wife ‘Madam’. Not jokingly, I could tell from his expressions. He added, “Of course, that’s what I always call her”.Having returned home, I mentioned this to a local friend and he set me correct. “We always call our spouses with the relevant title”. This was a shock and relief to me. After hearing the Bahasa Indonesia word for the word ‘husband’ – Suami, which has been derived from Sanskrit ‘Swami’ (master), I had been flabbergasted. So this new information was a happy shock.

 This means, husbands will call their wives – ‘Ibu’ (Madam) or Mbak (Miss) while addressing and wives will call their husbands  – Bapak/Pak (Sir), Mas (young sir I guess?) while addressing them. This to me initially seemed too formal, until I recollected that in many parts of India there still is culture of addressing significant other ‘aap’ (respect) irrespective of gender. Even kids . India always has culture of addressing husband as ‘aap’ – being the patriarchal society that it is. But in some areas even the wives are addressed in kind. In Maharashtrian culture too probably till last century I guess, the culture of calling significant other “tumhi” (respect) existed. However, I don’t think adding a title for those considered ‘junior’ was ever a part of our culture. Fortunately, today we have again gravitated to an era where genders are on equal footing when it comes to addressing each other (genders to come on equal footing in India in real sense will take probably couple of centuries more… but that is besides the point).

So, coming to the point, so far in my interactions, I haven’t come across anybody in this country, irrespective of his/her age, situation,  social status, profession etc, being addressed without title. Titles – Pak/Bapak, Mas, Mbak, Ibu, Nona (for young miss) etc are used in formal as well as casual situations. I guess, in situations with extreme familiarity, sometimes, you could be addressed only with your first name, parents calling their children etc.  I call some of my friends on first name basis, but I think their acceptance of it could be more to do with the fact that they understand differences in cultures.

To me it is amusing how the use of titles does not really impact the level of intimacy in this culture. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Indonesians are very genial? – that they always have given respect to anyone irrespective of their status / situation by addressing them with titles?  I can only make guesses.

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Shoes that don’t fit (in my drawing room)

Why do some people wear their shoes indoors?

Or let me rephrase it – why do some people continue to wear the shoes that they wore outside, indoors as well? -in  their friend’s, or even their own house?

Till recently, I never really had to think about this question and likewise, I never really thought that I would one day explore in detail about its causes etc. I have been brought up in ‘No shoes at home’ manner –  and believed that this was Indian custom. A possibility that there existed any other way to behave  – than leaving shoes at the door when entering own/another’s house, didn’t even enter my mind for a long long time. However, times have changed and brought me into contact with people who wear shoes into the house.

Our Indonesian acquaintances have never done this. So no question of this being attributable to the diverse culture. They have always removed their shoes. The people who wore shoes indoors were in fact Indians. Belonging to a particular part of India. I do not want to pinpoint it – So let me leave it at that.

There have been instances, of people from this particular part of India walking in, either alone /in a group and walking in with their shoes, noticing that the hosts (us) are barefoot and yet continuing to move about the house wearing their shoes / chappals/ sandals. When they came in as a part of a group, they still kept their shoes on while the others removed their footwear. As hosts, so far we have said nothing, but I was shocked to see this repeatedly ever since I moved here. And only by people from one specific part of India.

To me, shoes worn outside are dirty and unhygienic. They must be carrying not only dirt and dust but who knows , even bacteria/fungi and what not from various public places that they’ve been worn to. Removing them means avoiding infesting the host’s house with that dirt. I guess, this is how I was brought up. Both India and Indonesia are countries where hygiene at public places can be an issue and people staying in either of these countries should be mindful of this. Further, noticing that the hosts (As well as other guests when they remove shoes,) are barefoot, and still continuing to wear shoes despite of that, is sort of arrogant and disrespectful.

I try and request those who are friends, and they do listen. However, this doesn’t guarantee that they’d remember next time. The job of reminding is quite embarrassing then. That apart, usually as a host it is a dilemma whether requesting the guests to remove shoes will give offence, some of them being my husband’s business associates. I guess, I never really imagined that Indians would do this. Most of the non – Indians ASK you – if they need to remove the shoes. They are very mindful about differences in the culture. Desi guests however neither ask nor are they expected to be unaware. Following rules at the host’s place is not culture specific I think. It is universal.

Anyway, after one more such experience yesterday, when some of my husband’s Indian associates came over for dinner and a couple of them promptly ignored that both the hosts and some of their colleagues had removed footwear, I was forced to think about the possible reasons for this practice of wearing shoes indoors. I came up with –

  1. Weather – People from this community in India belong to a region which can get too hot or too cold. Maybe the floor heats up or gets stark cold and you need to protect the feet. In this case well – this is Jakarta. Perennially stuck at 32 degrees celsius and definitely neither too hot nor too cold.
  2. Some people have ‘house slippers’ or house footwear.  – Basically they constantly wear something in their feet till they go to sleep. Yes, many people in my family too do this. However, the house footwear is not same as outdoor footwear and if they go to someone’s place for couple of hours, they probably can survive without footwear. Some families I know keep spare house footwear for guests. I haven’t done it so far and I don’t think it is practical especially when you are hosting a number of people at the same time.
  3. Some people have health issues or some injury – in which case it is understandable. However I guess this would be exception and even the hygiene-OCD affected people will accommodate such guests.

I could not think about a ‘culture’ specific reason  – none of the above is specific to that culture. Many people live in areas in India which have extreme climates. Not just this particular part of India. Anyway, I found a thread on metafilter discussing exactly this – but in the western countries. This was new to me. I had imagined that US and UK have colder climes and hence probably they must be wearing shoes inside the house. But I had no idea that in many parts, its the same pair of shoes that is worn outside the house. I find it amusing (because its not in my own house of course 😉  ) that some even wear shoes on their beds. But this thread gave many reasons why a person might be wearing same pair of shoes inside the house, what they wore outside.

Anyhoo, my rant is done. Time to sign off. In case anyone knows any cultural reasons why some INDIANS might be wearing their outdoor shoes indoors, please let me know.