Life in Indonesia can come as a culture shock to someone born abroad. Navigating Indonesian culture and traditions can be tricky for a foreigner. Being aware of some of the key differences between British and Indonesian cultures can help you prepare for your move in advance and settle in quicker. In this guide, we cover 10 key things expats need to know about culture in Indonesia. We also share some expert tips on how to prepare and understand Indonesian culture.
From social aspect and religious differences to traditional Indonesian food and Indonesian customs, here’s everything you need to know to about Indonesian culture and habits help you embrace life in Indonesia as an expat. You can rely on us because at William Russell, we have 30 years’ experience helping expatriates settle into their new lives overseas by providing world-class international health insurance.
Indonesian culture: what you need to know as an expat
We need to make a disclaimer here: ‘Indonesia’ is a singular term that names a particular nation, but there are at least 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia. Each ethnic group has their our traditions and cultural habits. They are very diverse. Of course, Bali can be considered very differently from the remainder of Indonesia. Although there is still strong etiquette to be followed, if you are planning on only visiting the tourist towns and lounging on the beaches, this won’t be of much concern to you. However, if you are planning to relocating to Indonesia, here are some handy tips for you:
- Avoid using your left hand
- Be patient
- Always be polite, perhaps overly polite
- Cover up
- Don’t show the soles of your feet
- Finish your whole plate of food
- Respect elders and people in high positions.
So, what are the key things about Indonesian culture expats living or thinking about moving to Indonesia need to know to help them settle in and embrace their new life? Read on so you are ready for your move, and don’t forget to take a look at the end of this guide for some hands-on tips before you move.
1/ In Indonesian culture family comes first
Family is hugely important in Indonesian culture. It doesn’t matter how old they get, children will tend to maintain tight relationships with their parents and siblings throughout their lives, usually only leaving home when they are married.
Many households will even have extended family – grandparents, uncles and cousins – all living together under the same roof or in the same neighbourhood.
2/ Public affection is considered indecent in Indonesian culture
Public displays of affection such as kissing, hugging or even holding hands might get you some funny looks in Indonesia.
While there’s no law against public affection, it is a cultural Islamic tradition that expats in Indonesia should try to respect as much as possible.
3/ Living with a partner (outside of marriage) is frowned upon in Indonesian culture
Couples coming to live in Indonesia may experience some disapproval when it comes to living arrangements. Being a primarily Islamic country, Indonesian culture can be very strict around romantic relations between couples outside of marriage, and living together tends to cross that line.
4/ Religion is a way of life in Indonesian culture
No matter what religion they practice, expats in Indonesia will quickly notice that Indonesian people are very spiritual and take their religious commitments very seriously. You’ll see this reflected in their daily rituals, where work and other activities will often be organised around times of prayer.
5/ The landscape tells a story in Indonesia
Religious beliefs aren’t the only belief systems held by Indonesians. Expats in Indonesia will also become familiar with local legends about the natural landscape. Mountains, hills, rivers and even trees may hold spiritual significance to the local community. Ask around your neighbourhood to uncover the secrets of the land.
6/ Dogs are not for pets in Indonesia
British expats in Indonesia should be aware that in Muslim culture, dogs are considered unclean and are not kept as pets. While many Indonesians will be accepting of dogs, they may not be allowed everywhere and pet-friendly facilities such as dog parks will be hard to come by.
7/ Traditionalist gender roles in Indonesian culture
Indonesian culture can be very old fashioned when it comes to gender roles. Women are generally expected to stay at home and take care of the house, while men are expected to work. Abortion is also illegal in Indonesia.
8/ LGBTQ+ identities are not recognised in Indonesia
While some areas are more welcoming than others, expats moving to Indonesia should know that the LGBTQ community is widely subjected to discrimination and violence.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in two provinces of Indonesia and gender expression from trans people is also a criminal offence.
9/ Smoking in public is normal in Indonesian culture
Laws around public smoking are very relaxed in Indonesia. While smoking is banned on public transport, hospitals, schools and places of worship, expats in Indonesia can expect smoking to be common in all other public spaces, including cafes and restaurants.
10/ Eat with your hands
Expats in Indonesia will quickly find that using cutlery is not the norm. In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable, if not expected, to eat with your hands – specifically the right hand.
That’s because the left hand is supposed to be for wiping after using the toilet. Indonesian expats should also be aware that as a largely Muslim country, drinking alcohol may be forbidden in many public spaces.
Other popular questions about Indonesian culture:
The Indonesian nation is composed of more than 300 ethnic groups, of which the Javanese is the largest ethnic group with about 40%, followed by the Sudanese with 15%.
86.1% of Indonesians are Muslims and the rest are Christian, Hindu or Buddhist.
Probably the most well-known culture of Indonesia is the Balinese culture. The Balinese culture is graced with a beautiful island that has attracted millions of international tourists yearly. But it’s the fascinating, well-preserved culture that keeps tourists coming back for more. The Balinese population are mostly Hindu. They follow different customs and traditions, have an alternate religious calendar and are divergent from other ethnic populations in Indonesia.
Conservative conduct is the norm, as people don’t want to stand out and/or risk losing face by doing something inappropriate.
Harmony is also a guiding philosophy in Indonesia. It affects many features of society, particularly those of family and business. Working in harmony is viewed as the crucial element for productivity; thus the Indonesians have a predisposition to be indirect, gentle and courteous – even if they disagree with what you are saying.
Today the most widely recognised Indonesian national costumes include batik and kebaya, although originally those costumes mainly belong within the island of Java and Bali, most prominently within Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese culture.
Indonesian societies have a long history during which local and wider cultures were formed. About 200 C.E., small states that were deeply influenced by Indian civilization began to develop in Southeast Asia, primarily at estuaries of major rivers.
British culture is heavily influenced by Christian traditions and by British interactions with other European cultures, giving birth to music, cinema, art and architecture that is recognisably, and comfortably ‘western’. Indonesia, however, has a very different history and its culture has been shaped by entirely different influences.
Indonesia recognizes six different religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Of these, Islam is the most widely practiced, with 86.7% of people in Indonesia following Muslim traditions. Indonesia is also home to around 300 native languages, while the UK has only 14.
But it’s not just religion and language that set the Indonesian culture apart – it’s also the landscape. Lying along the equator with 17,508 islands over 8 million square km, Indonesia’s natural landscape and climate is vastly different from anything we experience in the UK. Indonesia’s climate is tropical, with vast rainforests and seasonal monsoons.
There is a wet season and a dry season, with many parts of the country experiencing only slight differences in temperature between summer and winter. Expats living in Indonesia may also experience natural hazards such as tsunamis, volcanic activity, earthquakes and cyclones.
Many people don’t realise quite how much their home country’s culture and customs help them navigate day-to-day life. From not being able to read the road signs, to strange new dining etiquette. There’s no denying that you’ll feel the change moving to Indonesia.
Whether you’re relocating for an adventure, a new job or just to be closer to loved ones, adjusting to expat life in Indonesia can take time, so it’s important to go with an open mind and be patient with yourself while you settle in.
You should also remember that culture shock is completely normal. Being mindful of your mental health, and staying connected with friends and family are two of the best ways to support yourself through the transition.
However, it’s also important have fun. Don’t lock yourself away when you reach Indonesia. Try to embrace Indonesian culture as much as possible to help you settle in faster and begin to feel more at home.
- Research Indonesian customs and culture – Understanding the key differences between life in the UK and the culture of Indonesia before you go will help you feel less out of place. Take time to read up on the cultural etiquette, standards of behaviour and public norms, and you’re sure to find the transition from tourist to local far easier.
- Learn some key phrases – You don’t have to be fluent in Indonesian by the time you move, but being comfortable with key phrases such and “hello”, “thank you” and having the ability to ask for directions could prove an invaluable starting point to help you navigate your new home.
- Reach out to other expats – There are around 350,000 expats living in Indonesia, giving you a built-in support network. You can reach out to other expats in Indonesia through online forums or Facebook groups, and start building connections even before you travel.
- Be friendly with the locals – Indonesian people are very warm and friendly, and would be more than happy to help immerse you into the culture of Indonesia. Chatting with your neighbours or joining a local volunteer group are great ways to start integrating with your community.
- Don’t forget about your friends and family back home – While it’s important to throw yourself into your new expat life in Indonesia, it’s also important to stay connected with your loved ones back home. Keeping a network of old friends to lean on will help you feel more grounded, and ensure you have someone to reach out to if culture shock sets in.
Are you ready to embrace the culture of Indonesia?
At William Russell, we have nearly 30 years’ experience helping expatriates settle into their new lives overseas by providing world-class international health insurance.
William Russell covers everything from minor injuries to long hospital stays, and we can even offer medical evacuations to patients who require treatment in other countries, giving you total peace of mind that you’ll be supported in times of need.