What beer in a tea cup says about Jakartans’ multiple identities
- “While sort of fond of the beer in a teacup, I also couldn’t help but judge it as somewhat dishonest, a pretense of piety of sorts.”
This is a photo of Bintang lager, served in a chilled tea cup during Ramadan in central Jakarta, from which several deductions can be made.
The first is that it’s okay but not ideal to drink alcohol in Muslim majority central Jakarta during Ramadan. It can be indulged in but not conspicuously so. Effort should be made to veil it. The second is that the Indonesian proprietors of this Italian restaurant and bar for young professionals voluntarily conceal the beer. There is no legislation prohibiting the sale, purchase or consumption of alcohol during Ramadan in Indonesia. And the third is that it’s not done begrudgingly – the teacup is chilled, and the waiter doesn’t hesitate upon hearing the order. Effort has been made to not only serve the beer, but to ensure it’s an optimal beer experience.
So what’s going on here?
Objectively, beer in a teacup is a small compromise made to avoid tension or conflict and promote social harmony. My initial reaction was to be charmed, then to judge it as a slightly absurd charade. But it makes sense in Indonesia where there is a hypersensitivity to the appropriateness of behaviour according to context. Whether it’s first jobbers who go clubbing year round before fasting for the month of Ramadan, or career women who are free to go on holiday with their girlfriends, away from their family, so long as they play the doting wife and mother at the formal family event when they come back, one is expected to dissociate their behaviour in fairly extreme ways depending on the situation they find themselves in. Indeed, a group of lads once told us plainly that their ideal wife would be one who could adapt and act differently in different situations.
While it’s fair to say that moderating behaviour or masking private values for the benefit of social harmony is not a unique phenomenon, values and behaviours do seem to be more strictly confined to those contexts where they are deemed to be appropriate in Indonesia. That’s to say that it’s probably best that the career woman who soaked up the Bali sun and a few cocktails with her girlfriends doesn’t refer to that trip at her cousin’s wedding, and while the parents of the first jobbers well know they go out and drink alcohol on the weekend, it’s not referred to or discussed in the house. Like the beer in the teacup, people may be aware (and actually okay with) more liberal or progressive tendencies, but the respectable thing to do is to mask some of these values and behaviours in certain situations. And herein lies the difference between Indonesia and the West: the discrepancy between private values and public behaviour is often larger in Indonesia.
After several weeks, I thought again about why it was that while sort of fond of the beer in a teacup, I also couldn’t help but judge it as somewhat dishonest, a pretense of piety of sorts. I think it’s a view other outsiders might have come to initially, too, perhaps because it’s in such direct contrast to the ‘be yourself’ narrative promoted across many Western societies. But if we do accept that, to varying degrees, compromises against private values are vital for a society that wants its people to get along with one another, it does beg the question of who’s being delusional here? Is it those who accept that different contexts require different values, attitudes and behaviours and act accordingly without question or angst? Or is it those who subscribe to an ideology that probably can’t ever be fully realised – to express private values no matter the situation?
I can’t answer that question, but I can say that if you arrive in Indonesia with the intention of understanding how people act and why they do as they do, you should be aware of a hypersensitivity to what is or is not appropriate depending on the context. People don’t define themselves strictly to the binary codes that you might find in the US or Western Europe: it’s not about being liberal or conservative and trying to implement those values across a multitude of situations, but about knowing when to be liberal and when to be conservative. Going to mosque doesn’t make a young man any less liberal, and playing the traditional role of the mother in the right situations doesn’t make the career woman any less of a feminist role model. It’s more fluid here, and people are okay with that.
- Article by Max Roche