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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

From Olives to Sambal: Understanding Spice

A few weeks ago, I decided to make Greek salad at my homestay. While I was preparing it, ibu, bapak, and a neighbor gathered around me, curiously inspecting the ingredients. Their attention was particularly drawn to the olives, which they did not recognize as such even after I had referred to the Indonesian word for them. With a look of suspicion on their faces and after some hesitation, they each tried one. Within seconds, the olives lay injured and contorted on the ground, and I was bombarded with remarks of disgust and disapproval. I felt my face flush with frustration. I felt uncomfortable, attacked, and disrespected, like I did not belong here -surrounded by people to whom something so ordinary to me was so foreign, and who did not seem to be making any effort to show appreciation for my background. Having experienced these feelings before, I knew it was best to hold them in and process my thoughts first.

I reminded myself of the challenges I had faced with food when first arriving. I had disliked tastes here as well, so I was more bothered by the bluntness of the gesture than by the actual distaste. We had felt similar aversion, but I was expecting my host family to externalize it in a way that I consider appropriate, based on my background. In Anthropology, the term “display rules” is used to describe what we might refer to in the West as manners. Perhaps here there are different display rules. Perhaps display rules are similar, but less emphasis is placed on upholding them. Perhaps ibu and bapak felt comfortable enough around me to respond in an honest and impulsive way. In any case, my family members were unaware that olives have been an indispensable part of Greek culture since antiquity, and they were definitely not willfully hurting my feelings. By attributing part of their response to culture, I was gradually able to better interpret it and feel comfortable.

Later on, I found myself wondering how it was possible for the tense bundle of all my accumulated emotions to have disintegrated and dissolved in the face of cultural relativism. I realized that by silencing my expectations, I had been able to examine the intent behind their response. By releasing judgment, my  expectations had vanished and renewed understanding brought clarity to my thoughts. Bitter feelings were dispelled. I felt relief.

I was then prompted to think a bit further about the way actions are processed and classified, and the fine line between impoliteness and disrespect. An action is impolite when it is not in accordance with our own set of manners. An action is disrespectful when, knowing the boundaries of our comfort, someone chooses to violate them. When in the same community with someone, we assume that they know what is appropriate behavior and what is not, so impolite and disrespectful actions often coincide and the two concepts blend together in our minds. However, when removed from a familiar context, distinguishing between the two becomes crucial if one does not want to feel under attack. And this can only be done by examining the intent behind people’s actions. By our own standards, yes, an action could be impolite. But if the other person is in ignorance of what is acceptable for us, how could they be disrespecting our boundaries?

I was no more tolerant of spice when I first came to Indonesia than my family was tolerant of olives, so this incident reminded me how far I have come. From not eating any spice and being limited to a handful of dishes, to gradually being able to handle more sambal pedas and finally to adding spice to my food even when unnecessary (ever heard of spicy oatmeal?) Yet, this incident also reminded me that I have become more tolerant in other ways. I am more willing to question my own assumptions before placing judgment on others and more able to see the intent at the core of peoples’ actions. In 7 years from now all my taste buds will have been replaced and unless I continue consuming spice, my tolerance for it will fade. Nonetheless, I hope that this tolerance I have developed internally will remain.