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Everyday Life in Southeast Asia

Everyday Life in Southeast Asia

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by Kathleen M. Adams

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This lively survey of the peoples, cultures, and societies of Southeast Asia introduces a region of tremendous geographic, linguistic, historical, and religious diversity. Encompassing both mainland and island countries, these engaging essays describe personhood and identity, family and household organization, nation-states, religion, popular culture and the arts,


This lively survey of the peoples, cultures, and societies of Southeast Asia introduces a region of tremendous geographic, linguistic, historical, and religious diversity. Encompassing both mainland and island countries, these engaging essays describe personhood and identity, family and household organization, nation-states, religion, popular culture and the arts, the legacies of war and recovery, globalization, and the environment. Throughout, the focus is on the daily lives and experiences of ordinary people. Most of the essays are original to this volume, while a few are widely taught classics. All were chosen for their timeliness and interest, and are ideally suited for the classroom.

Editorial Reviews

Robert W. Hefner

"Wonderfully comprehensive yet vividly well-written.... If I were asked to recommend one book that captures the cultural legacies and emergent complexity of today's Southeast Asia, this gracious and dazzling book would be it." —Robert W. Hefner, Boston University

Nancy Eberhardt

"With this volume, introducing students to the study of Southeast Asia has just become easier. Adams and Gillogly have assembled a wide-ranging collection of accessible and engaging articles about the region—all of which promise to work well in the classroom. I look forward to using it!" —Nancy Eberhardt, Knox College


"The pages [of Everyday Life in Southeast Asia] are packed with useful insight that can infuse the travelers [sic] journey (particularly if they explore areas off the beaten track) with an enlightening understanding of deeply rooted traditions still practiced throughout South East Asia.... [I]t is highly readable in both a casual and on-the-go context, and contains facts that will challenge the reader to re-assess their own cultural practices and observe those of others in a new light." —ExpatGoMalaysia.com

From the Publisher
"One of the main contributions of this volume is its ability to unite extremely disparate topics under clearly defined theoretical themes. As such, it makes a wonderful textbook, not just for anthropology students, but also for those taking courses in the sociology, history and politics of South East Asia." —South East Asia Research

"This book offers an exceedingly rich conucopia of stories, themes, and analytical insights into contemporary southeast Asia. Moreover, it is a pleasure to read. Many edited collections in the social sciences aim ar at least claim to appeal to an audience beyond specialists. Everyday Life in Southeast Asia is one of the rare collections compiled and written by academics that should indeed speak to a broad audience as an introduction to the societies and peoples of one of the world's most richly diverse regions. Specialists, too, will take pleasure and find insights in this book." —Sojourn

South East Asia Research

"One of the main contributions of this volume is its ability to unite extremely disparate topics under clearly defined theoretical themes. As such, it makes a wonderful textbook, not just for anthropology students, but also for those taking courses in the sociology, history and politics of South East Asia." —South East Asia Research

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Everyday Life in Southeast Asia

By Kathleen M. Adams, Kathleen A. Gillogly

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35637-6


Living in Indonesia without a Please or Thanks: Cultural Translations of Reciprocity and Respect

Lorraine V. Aragon

"Can I take a sip of your drink, Dad?" I recently heard a seven year-old American girl ask in a public waiting room.

"Yes, but you didn't say 'Please'," her father chided gently.

"Please.... Thanks!" The little girl chanted these two magic words in quick succession as she eagerly reached for her father's can of soda pop.

It is easy to watch these remarkably powerful words being taught to young children in any home or public arena in the United States. Those of us who speak English or other European languages generally take these words for granted. But we know that their deployment brings politeness, persuasion, and permission to what might otherwise be unacceptable requests.

The power of these words also can be made visible by their absence. Try living a day in the company of others without ever saying "please" or "thank you," and see what happens. Social psychology experiments devised in the 1970s tested the boundaries of U.S. social norms through their intentional violation. Those studies, briefly in vogue, were termed ethnomethodology. The experiments were easy to design once the formula of nonchalant rule violation was conceived, but their popularity among psychologists and sociologists was short-lived because of the ill will they produced. Similar discomfort often arises when we travel innocently to distant places where customary rules of politeness differ. Even with our best efforts, our attempts to translate our own polite forms often seem to fall awkwardly flat.

That said, it may seem unimaginable that societies in Indonesia, a region known for its intricate forms of politeness, would lack such basic terms as please and thank you to oil the wheels of harmonious social interaction. As the anthropologists Clifford Geertz (1976) and James Peacock (1987) describe, the language, cosmology, politics, and aesthetics of Indonesia's most populous ethnic group, the Javanese, revolve around a dualism that contrasts the refined (alus, Javanese; halus, Indonesian) with the coarse or crude (kasar, Javanese and Indonesian).

We therefore would expect verbal expressions of gratitude to be prominent among peoples who are anxious about proper speech and social refinement. But, in fact, most of the more than three hundred indigenous languages spoken in the Indonesian archipelago do not include synonyms for terms such as please and thank you. Most languages in Indonesia borrow some "thank you" phrase from European languages or the national language, termed bahasa Indonesia, to cope with contemporary cosmopolitan expectations. When local people speak to one another in their native tongues, by contrast, they can make do without these phrases.

So, the cross-cultural puzzle arises. How does one live smoothly and politely in a society without a generic word like please to make your demanding requests upon others tolerable, and no phrases like thank you to express gratitude for help and kindness? Is gratitude simply assumed in small Southeast Asian communities of equals? Are the messages our European words contain perhaps encoded alternatively in nonverbal gestures?

The answers are more complicated. We must think in unfamiliar ways about what these kinds of words actually do—or, sometimes, cannot do—for us and others. Ward Keeler (1984:xvii) notes that "a critical part of learning a language is to learn not to want or need to say what one says in English, but rather to learn to say what people say in the culture of the language one is learning." In essence, then, studying a region's language in situ is much more about learning to intuit the logic of meaningful local categories and patterns of social expectations than it is about memorizing one-to-one linguistic translations. We are informed not only about technical language usage and conversational routines, but also about widespread Southeast Asian cultural practices of economic exchange and hierarchy. Keeler writes that Java is

full of small talk, and polite conversation draws on a large store of stereotypical remarks. To use them is not thought stultifying, as some Westerners find, but rather gracious, comfortable, indicative of the desire to make every encounter smooth and effortless for all concerned. (Ibid.)

Given these concerns, it has surprised many observers that Indonesians, including the notoriously manners-obsessed Javanese, make little use, or very different use, of the kinds of terms we take as the mainstay of our polite interactions in most European languages. In what follows, I will show that the English term please is a rather diffuse word, one that maps onto many different kinds of requests in Indonesian languages. And, thank you has implications about intimacy and economy in Indonesia that we would never imagine. Before exploring these linguistic alleyways, though, we should consider what the Indonesian language is, and how it came to be the youthful nation's twentieth-century communication highway.


Most languages spoken in Indonesia fall into the Austronesian language family, comprised of more than one thousand languages. The result of maritime migrations starting roughly five thousand years ago, Austronesian languages span a vast reach across the Pacific Ocean from Madagascar in the west to Hawaii in the east. Only twenty-five of those Austronesian languages—Indonesian being one—have more than one million native speakers (Sneddon 2003:25).

The current geopolitical boundaries of Indonesia, like those of many former European colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, essentially were created by colonial conquests between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. What is now Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch as the Netherlands East Indies. The adjacent nation of Malaysia was ruled by the English as the British East Indies. These were boundaries on a political power grid, not natural ethnic divisions.

In 1928, Malay was selected to become the national language of the Dutch East Indies by a youth congress of pro-Independence nationalists. Indonesian is essentially a dialect of Malay. Thus the national languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are, for the most part, mutually intelligible. A quick glance at a map of Southeast Asia shows that the westernmost Indonesian island of Sumatra, especially the Riau area, is separated from the Malay Peninsula by just a narrow strait. Parts of Sumatra are much closer ethnically and linguistically to western Malaysia than they are to many of Indonesia's eastern islands such as Sulawesi, Maluku, Timor, or New Guinea. These latter islands, by contrast, are closer in linguistic, genealogical, and geographical features to the Philippines, or to the Pacific island region called Melanesia.

Although only about 5 percent of the Netherlands East Indies population spoke Malay in the 1920s, it was selected to be Indonesia's national language for political and social reasons (Sneddon 2003). While Dutch was used by the educated elite, it also was the language of the colonial oppressor and did not offer the international advantages of more widely dispersed European languages such as English or Spanish. Javanese was spoken by the largest population of Indies residents, roughly 40 percent, but this seemingly obvious choice was rejected. Nationalists were interested in a language that would unite an ethnically plural nation, and the Javanese were feared to be too dominant. Even most Javanese leaders found their language unsuitable for national status because of its dauntingly hierarchical character. Javanese often is considered the purest example of a language in which the relative status of the speaker and the listener is encoded within the vocabulary of different speech levels. Every word in some sentences must vary according to the relative status of the speakers (Geertz 1976; Wolff and Poedjosoedarmo 1982). Such complexity and feudal leanings were not considered promising for the national language of a modern, twentieth-century nation of equals.

By contrast, Malay had been used as a trade language along island Southeast Asian maritime routes, spread for centuries, first by seafaring merchants and later by the Dutch colonial administration. Thus, Malay's rudimentary conversational forms—greetings, travel or market bargaining, family-life questions, and the like—already served as a basic lingua franca in coastal regions of colonial Southeast Asia. Finally, Malay seemed the best choice for the new nation's governmental and educational purposes because it had been transcribed in the Latin alphabet and increasingly was adopted by popular journalists and literary writers (Anderson 1991).

In much of Indonesia, however, children still grow up speaking regional languages, most of which are significantly different in grammar and vocabulary from Indonesian. Indonesian is thus a second language learned in primary school and through exposure to the mass media. That was the situation in highland Central Sulawesi, where I conducted anthropological fieldwork first from 1986 to 1989. My academic preparation for fieldwork was to study Indonesian, but I needed to learn a very different local language when I settled in Sulawesi.

Another quick glance at a map will show why Sulawesi languages are closer to Philippine languages than they are to Malay. The Central Sulawesi language spoken where I lived is technically known as Uma, named by colonial European missionaries after the word for no, which varies throughout the island. The language also sometimes is called Pipikoro (meaning "banks of the Lariang River") or, more broadly, a Kulawi District language. Uma is an unwritten language spoken by an estimated 17,000–20,000 speakers. The Pipikoro dialect was studied thoroughly by a linguist translating the Bible (Martens 1988), but no study guides existed when I went there. So, after I arrived in the Tobaku highlands, I composed lists of words and sentences, which I initially asked Tobaku people to explain to me in Indonesian. My aim was to use Indonesian as little as possible as quickly as possible.

Numerous Tobaku people told me that the two things they most appreciated about me as a visitor was that I could eat their local food and that I spoke (or tried to speak) their language. For me, partaking of the local cuisine, even at its most challenging, was by far the easier of those two enterprises. Being human, I was frequently hungry. In truth, I was thankful that eating required no special talent or hard-learned skills. By contrast, mastering a mostly unwritten language that differed grammatically from any language I had previously studied was exponentially more daunting.

Most Indonesian government and church mission visitors arriving in the highlands from the provincial capital expected to be fed large portions of specially cooked meats—no pork if they were Muslims, and different, generally less spicy, cuisine if they were Christians. By contrast, I was a grateful and "unfussy" guest with a strong stomach for the highlanders' mounded plates of hill rice with side dishes of hot chilies and seasonal vegetables. While their cuisine and language seem to embarrass Tobaku people, they also serve as points of local pride. Just as U.S. travelers often expect everyone else in the world to learn English, most Indonesians visiting the Sulawesi highlands expect residents to speak Indonesian. In the 1980s, Tobaku people always spoke to each other in Uma, even if they knew Indonesian fluently and their guests did not. Their language was a source of local ethnic identity, a litmus test of responsible membership and moral knowledge that few outsiders could ever pass.

Tobaku people jokingly call their language basa mata', which literally translates as the "green," "unripe," or "raw" language. With this phrase they imply that their language is unrefined (kasar, Indonesian) and not as sophisticated as Javanese or Indonesian languages. But the lack of a "please" or "thank you" in Uma is not the result of its rural speakers' self-conscious coarseness or lack of educational refinement. Nor, as it turns out, is the absence of these words just a local linguistic or cultural phenomenon.


Learning to say please, even in the Indonesian national language, turns out to be much less straightforward than one might imagine. Translating please from English (or other European languages) into Indonesian can only be done indirectly because our one word please, and its other European equivalents such as s'il vous plait ('if you please," French) map onto several Indonesian words that are deployed differentially in specific contexts.

Indonesian please terms can be divided roughly into request or invitation categories. Indonesian speakers use the word tolong, which literally means "help," when making a request, such as "please help by doing X." Thus Indonesians can say, Tolong bawa piring, meaning "Help [the listener or others besides the speaker] by bringing the plate," or Tolong bawakan piring, meaning, "Help [me] by bringing the plate." A somewhat more submissive request or supplication would use the word minta, which means "ask for," or, alternately, mohon, (a very polite synonym for minta, used in more formal contexts). Thus, Minta piring, meaning "Asking for the plate," would be another way to translate the English phrase, "Please bring the plate."

Other Indonesian words that map onto our uses for please include mari, which is an invitation word meaning "please, I invite you to do X," or silakan/silahkan, which is a polite or more formal synonym for mari. A casual Javanese synonym for mari, widely known and used nationally, is ayo. Thus Indonesians can say mari makan, ayo makan, or silahkan makan, all meaning "Please eat," but with the last phrase being the most formal and polite. All these phrases, which express "help me," "I ask for," or "go ahead and do X," usually are matched with appropriate honorific or kinship terms of address such as Bapak ("Father" or "Sir") or Ibu ("Mother" or "Madam") to show additional respect for one's elders.


Excerpted from Everyday Life in Southeast Asia by Kathleen M. Adams, Kathleen A. Gillogly. Copyright © 2011 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kathleen M. Adams is Professor of Anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. She is author of Art as Power: Recrafting Identities, Tourism and Power in Tana Toraja, Indonesia and editor (with Sara Dickey) of Home and Hegemony: Domestic Work and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia.

Kathleen A. Gillogly is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

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