Indonesians are a touchy people. Not in the easily-offended sense--there might be some of that, although given the generally non-confrontational nature of Javanese culture, I'd never know about it--but more in the sense of "keep your hands to yourself, lady, or I'll show you the meaning of easily offended!" Touch happens between same-sex friends--in a conservative Muslim culture, public displays of affection between the sexes are right out--and it's all very casual and natural. While conversing, Indonesian friends stand close and occasionally pat one another on the arm, or, if sitting, tap the knee for emphasis. In my classrooms, "go back to your seats" has taken on the meaning of "sit down in the same chair as your best friend," and I've even seen a group of three boys in one chair, arms casually slung across each other's shoulders or around each other's waist, nonchalantly chatting.
Having recently grown much more friendly with the other teachers, due to greatly improved Indonesian skills, I am not exempt from this behavior. The other teachers think nothing of greeting me every morning with hugs and hearty kisses on both cheeks, and when we're just sitting around talking, I usually have someone leaning on me or reaching across me or just holding on to my arm, as if for comfort. The school bus I ride across the city every morning and afternoon also does a lot to inure me to this feature of the culture: as the bus gets more and more crowded, I end my ride every morning with one of the chemistry teachers sitting, quite literally, on my lap.
Those of you who know me should know my feelings about this. I was a baby who leaned away from the person holding me, and a BYU student who absolutely never touched a boy's elbow in trying to flirt. I'm the sort of person who used to flinch when anyone tried to hug her; having since been broken of that habit by an irate mother, I am still the sort of person who tenses up at any unexpected physical contact. I've been trying my best to hide my consternation at all this touching, and have managed to control my flinching reflex, since, I must concede, it is rather rude, but today I was found out.
After school, I caught a ride to a school event on the back of the motorcycle of one of the other teachers. When we arrived, everyone instantly started teasing me for the strange way I ride a motorcycle: leaning back ever so slightly, holding on to the handles in back, instead of conforming to the proper Indonesian style by putting my arms around the waist of the driver and snuggling up.
I tried to explain to them that rules of touch are different in America: people stand further apart, and they touch less. Even very close friends tend not to sit with their legs crossed over each other. Oh, and that whole "hands on the hips of the motorcycle driver" thing? Or the way the sociology teacher held my hand during our conversation about the recent elections yesterday? That's boyfriend behavior, thank you very much, and so you'd better be ready to commit.
They all stared at me blankly. The teacher sitting next to me turned, and, placing her hand more than halfway up my thigh, said, "Really? That's very interesting! What other sorts of touch would you restrict to a boyfriend?"
That's when I gave up. Go ahead, touchy-feely people, bring it on. I can take it. Be warned, though, all my dear readers: if I come back next summer and automatically put my arm around your waist before talking to you, try not to flinch. It's rude.