In Indonesian, makan means “to eat.”
During my first month in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last spring, with Goshen College’s Study Service Term (SST), I often heard that word – usually at the beginning of meals, but also when there was no food in front of me.
In those cases, people around me would have plates to themselves. Sitting cross-legged on woven straw mats, my hosts would say “makan, Sophia.”
Not wanting to be rude, I would typically reach toward their plates and take a bite of tempeh, nasi goreng, ayam geprek or whatever else they were eating.
As it turns out, this use of makan was merely a common courtesy, an acknowledgment that they were eating. It was not an invitation for me to eat as well.
For at least four weeks, I was helping myself to my hosts’ food without being offered it.
I didn’t realize my faux pas until well into my time in Indonesia, in large part, because of how gracious my hosts were. They would smile as I ate their food, and offer me more once I had finished chewing.
My hosts’ gentleness with me came from a place of authentic goodness. But it’s also true that they were patient mostly because I was a foreigner – if I would have been Indonesian, the story would have been different.
When we interact with people from different countries, we give them grace. We expect difference and social blunders, so we’re intentional about assuming the best in others.
Why don’t we approach people from our home cultures with the same degree of patience?
While abroad, my interactions often felt muddled. Barriers in both verbal and body language meant that I constantly missed social cues.
But my hosts looked past my American oddities. They welcomed me into their homes despite my strange habits, including my relatively infrequent bathing, at least compared with the three times daily bucket shower that is typical on humid Java. Indonesians were patient as I struggled for words and understanding with my mispronunciations.
My hosts were patient because they knew I was trying. They could sense my good intentions.
I chose to focus on theirs, as well.
Some of Indonesian hospitality was, to be honest, off-putting. For example, close and nearly constant physical proximity represents the value of togetherness for Indonesian people. To demonstrate her care, my host mom had a strong grip on my upper arm every time we crossed the street and laid a gentle hand on my rear whenever we were standing in a group.
To an American like me, her hand crossed a line of privacy, but in Indonesian, her touch said, “I’m here for you.”
On SST I knew that I was studying another culture, and my hosts knew that I was a foreigner. My job was to assimilate. Their job was to accept difference and help me adjust to Indonesia.
We could use some of that patience at home, where “call-out” and “cancelled” culture abound.
Often, when I am confronted with difference in the US, my first instinct is judgement, followed closely by frustration and a desire to change the other.
These feelings are based on an assumption that I understand other Americans well enough – if we come from the same place and speak the same language, of course they should think, live and act as I do.
Too often in the States, in an obsession with political correctness, I focus on words over meaning. I police language, and sometimes become angry when others say things that I deem offensive, regardless of their intentions.
In Indonesia, if I didn’t understand someone, I would assume that they had said something kind or helpful to me.
My hosts did the same: they regularly disregarded what I had said and focused instead on what they assumed I had meant.
Although in some ways it is fair to assume that we understand people from our home cultures, in truth, we often know very little about those who we interact with.
As human beings we all carry with us a breadth of experiences that influence our behaviors – overlap in language and country of origin should not distract us from those peculiarities.
Let’s approach difference at home as if we were abroad, with patience and an eagerness to understand, rather than judge, the other.