How to say hello in southeast Asia

One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.

Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.

In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand.  A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.

If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”

In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.

It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.

It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.

It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.

Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.

As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.

Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.

Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!”  If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk  a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk  driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.

There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of  Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.

If Walt Whitman  was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.

I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.








What Driving Tells Us About People

So when Clifford Geertz tumbled into the Balinese villager’s backyard, he was running from the State. (See my previous post on Bali if you don’t know what I’m talking about here.) And when the villager and his wife welcomed Geertz and his wife, and served them tea and snacks (rather than, say, turning them over to the police) he ran into Balinese hospitality and graciousness.

In the five days we spent in Bali, I witnessed, on many occasions, the kind of graciousness Geertz fell into and, here, I’m going to focus on the culture of driving in Bali as a way to illustrate that point.

It seems to me that you can tell a great deal about a people based on how they drive. Increased cases of road rage in the States for instance can be read as our cumulative national anger at . . . what? Politicians? Traffic? Government ‘take overs’ of health care and education? Crumbling roads and bridges? The Kiwis and the Aussie drive fast, but they are careful and alert. I saw very few people driving and playing with their handheld devices. When we were driving on the narrow, two-lane highway from Uluru to Alice Springs, for instance, drivers I’d pass would always slow down, rather than speed up, which is what most American drivers do. We logged a lot of self-drive miles in New Zealand and Australia, so I feel like I have a pretty good sense of driving culture there.

Driving in Bali, though, is a very different skill and, what I’m going to argue here is that the the way the Balinese drive is very similar to who they are as a people.

Let’s begin with the roads themselves. Once you get outside of the major metropolitan area of Denpasar, the roads narrow to about a meter wider than a single lane in the States. That means you have two-way traffic on a very narrow asphalt surface, so the roads are tight and this is compounded by the fact that most of the roads do not have a shoulder—the asphalt, on either side, just ends and becomes part of the jungle, or a sidewalk if you are in a larger village or city. The roads outside the major cities wind through villages, pass by modern and ancient Hindu temples, rice fields and terraces and artisan shops of all orders. These are not roads built and designed by bureaucrats in Jakarta. They wind and meander through the countryside.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect these roads are probably just ancient pathways that the Balinese have been using for centuries. At one point they were probably narrow pathways connecting one village to another. Later, they widened out to accommodate animals and carts. Now, they just happen to have a coating of asphalt over the top.

There’s really not a good way to convey this visually, but here’s a photo I took that shows you how narrow the roads are. Also, that’s a dude on a scotter carrying all those bags of rice ahead of us:


The roads themselves are actually in pretty good shape and I suspect that is because (I learned this is Pisani’s book), Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers of asphalt. I did not know, until I read it in Pisani, that asphalt was extracted out of the ground as it is. I thought it was made through a process of mixing stones and petroleum and other stuff.

Now, let’s put some cars, motorbikes, scooters and, hell, we’ll throw in some pedestrians as well. The complicating factor, as least for me, was the scooters. They are everywhere and when the cars get held up by traffic patterns, the scooters just go right around them, on the left or the right. It’s kind of disorienting to sit in a car because you’ll be riding along and then all of a sudden a scooter will pass you on the right or left. You will see entire families on one scooter. It wasn’t uncommon, for instance to see a man driving with a toddler standing between his legs and peering over the handlebars, a woman sitting side saddle behind the man with an elementary-aged child on her lap.

Cars will also pass slower-moving scooters. The real fun happens when two cars going in opposite directions meet. As I said earlier, the roads are narrow so when two cars come up on each other one simply has to slow down, give way and pull over as far to the side as possible. This ends up as a kind of dance between the oncoming cars, and in the five days we were in Bali, I never once saw a near accident.

You might be thinking that this combination of narrow roads, high volumes of diverse kinds of traffic would drive people mad and they’d be shaking fists and cursing out their windows. That would certainly be the case in the States, but in Bali I never saw a driver of a car or a scooter demonstrate the least bit of frustration or anger. Part of this is because the Balinese seem to have developed a rather intricate system of lightly honking their horns as they are passing a scooter or a car, or even a pedestrian walking on the road. In the States, when we honk our horns, what we are really doing is saying, “Oh my god, you are such a phucking idiot! Get off the road and stay off!” In Bali, a honk seems to suggest, “Excuse me, I am going to pass you and I just want you to know where I am so we can all be safe.” This is just my perception and it’s relative to my experience driving in the States. I shared this with a few Balinese and they just laughed at my naivete; that is, they thought their fellow Balinese drivers were just as crazy as I think drivers in the States are.

On our third day in Bali, Putu the owner of the hotel where we were staying took us for a drive through the countryside.

Us, with our friend, Putu

We visited rice terraces, temples, restaurants, cafes, wood and textile artisans, a village cremation and a waterfall where all manner of tourists were taking a break from the heat and humidity. Along the way, Putu informed us how the Balinese plant and harvest rice, gave us insider information on the Hindu ceremonies at the temples we visited, introduced us to artisans and shared stories with us about his life and family in Ubud. Spending the day with Putu was, by far, the best thing we have done on our adventure up to this point. He, like all of the other Balinese we met, was engaging, kind, informed and energetic. When we hugged goodbye Putu and his lovely wife Kadek this morning, we were all a little sad.

I hope that we see them again sometime, and if you ever go to Bali, you should stay at their place, Inang Village in Ubud. It is a spectacularly beautiful place that backs up against a rice paddie and is very close to Ubud village. Plus, Putu and Kadek will treat you like family.

With our friend, Kadek, outside the beautiful Ingang Villas, Ubud, Bali




Roosters, Civets and Temples: Bali, Part 1

I’m coiled up in a tight seat on yet another international flight—our fourth so far in this journey—and I’m thinking about Clifford Geertz.

In “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight,” the eminent anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes a scene that transpired during a Balinese cock fight that he attended with his wife in the late 1950s. At that time, cock fighting was illegal in Bali and, despite its brutality to the western eye, it’s a long-standing tradition in this culture so, of course, people did it anyway. The cock fight that Geertz was attending was broken up by the police so Geertz and his wife followed the locals and ran like hell. They realized that they couldn’t outrun the cops. A villager just ahead of them jumped a low-slung wall, so they decided to follow him and hope for the best. Geertz delightfully describes tumbling into the patio with his wife and the villager and how the villager’s wife, who, according to Geertz, was obviously used to this sort of thing and hurriedly made a table of tea and snacks and unhesitatingly invited the two strangers to join them. A few moments later, a policeman walked into the patio, sniffed around and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, rushed off in hot pursuit of the cock fight participants.

I read “Deep Play” for the first time many years ago when I was in graduate school. Then, I was learning about symbolic anthropology and, at that time, the cockfighting and Balinese culture were secondary to my reading. Now, after spending some time in Bali, Geertz’ essay has come back to me, this time, though, to help me consider two things: first, the kindness and graciousness of the Balinese people and second, the question of the relationship between the people of Bali and Indonesia, the country to which Bali is attached.

First, though, a bit of context.

Bali is one of the 13,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.


The Dutch colonized many of these islands in the early seventeenth century. They came, and stayed, because they found spices that flavored their meals–ginger, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon and turmeric (to name a few), and coffee and tea to drink. The Dutch held on to most of modern Indonesia until it was invaded by the Japanese during World War II and, just like that, cast off centuries of Dutch rule. You can still see, though, traces and flavor of Dutch influence. I noticed it, for instance in the architecture, especially the political and official buildings. The Japanese were not here long though—with their defeat there was some question of who would rule this band of islands that looks like a cummerbund across the equator. There was some talk of giving it back to the Dutch, but even the Allies were not too keen on that, so a strong independence movement won out and on 17 July 1945, the founding fathers of modern Indonesia wrote their declaration of independence. It reads, in its entirety:

“We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”

A far cry from the lofty, neoclassical language of our own Declaration!

I read this to Sujata and she said you could very easily turn the entire Declaration into a series of emojis, like this: 👭 😠 💩 💪 👐🏾 🖕🏿

About 7,00 of the 13,000 islands that make up post-independence, modern Indonesia are inhabited, and the people that inhabit those islands represent close to 400 different ethnic groups. So, if you think it’s a challenge for the United States for develop a unified, integrated culture, think about what they have to through here.

In Indonesia, Etc., Pisani quotes a western entrepreneur who calls Indonesia ‘the most invisible country in the world.’ This made sense to me after I spent just a few days in Bali. It’s an energetic, ‘can-do’ kind of place. People hustle, but they still have time for family and free time. It’s home to 240 million people, making it the fourth largest nation in the world. Jakarta is the Washington, DC of the nation, but, as I noted above, given the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country as well as the the country is made up primarily of island, rather than contiguous states, it’s got to be a challenge to govern.

This brings me back to cockfighting, the Indonesian state and Balinese identity.

Since the time that Clifford Geertz and his wife tumbled over the wall and onto that villagers back patio, the government in Jakarta and the villagers of Bali have made a series of uneasy truces and cock fighting is just one of them: cock fighting is not illegal anymore, but it’s frowned upon by the Feds and the Balinese have made a tacit agreement to only practice cockfighting in association with religious ceremonies. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect there’s a lot of cockfighting going on outside the purview of the religious ceremonies.

My evidence for this assertion? The first night we stayed in Ubud, I was woken up at four am by what sounded like hordes of angry roosters. I went outside and tried to count the number of roosters I heard and to place them in space, but it was difficult because they surrounded the house, so I had to walk around the entire perimeter of the house just to get a sense of where it was all coming from. It was still almost impossible to count because they are in the near, middle and far distance. So you can clearly hear the 10-12 roosters that are in your immediate vicinity but then going into the middle and far aural distance, that number is multiplied and the sounds of those roosters in the far distance come at you in waves as opposed to the solitary cackles of those in the near vicinity. What you hear from that longer range is a kind of upsurge of rooster calls that seem to rise up and then fall together in a frenetic rooster yawp. I don’t know how far the human ear can hear a rooster’s crow—maybe 800 meters? If that’s so, then I’m guessing I was hearing 200 or so roosters. Here’s what they look like up close:


If you are wondering why Jakarta once banned and now frowns upon cockfighting, it’s simply one of the long-standing, ancient cultural practice that Jakarta has been trying to mitigate from from official Indonesian culture.  This is a long, complicated story that goes back to the founding of the nation in 1945 and the series of strong-arm dictators who both brought a good deal of prosperity to the archipelago as well as a fair amount of the kind of brutality that is typical of south east Asian dictators. But, in short, Jakarta sees practices like cock fighting as backward, parochial and anti-modern and since the Indonesian state came into being in 1945 it’s been engaged in an uneasy dance between the forces of modernization and the ancient cultural traditions that make up this diverse archipelago.

It doesn’t help, either, that Bali has maintained its Hindu traditions while nearly all of the rest of Indonesia has turned to Islam. Before the Dutch arrive in 1602, it was mostly Indian and Chinese traders wandering around looking for precious things to ship back home. Hindu scholars started roaming around beside the merchants and traders and sometime after the seventh century, Hinduism took hold and was practiced on many of the islands. So, when Marco Polo was wandering around here in the thirteenth century and Vasco de Gama and Sir Francis Drake in the fifteenth, they were mostly walking through a Hindu land.

In modern Indonesia, Bali is the only of the 7,000 inhabited islands on which a majority of the people follow Hinduism. Given our family background and our interest in Hinduism, then, it was really wonderful to be in a country filled with Hindu temples. We visited a few temples and we even got to witness a cremation but, alas, we did not get to see one of the ritualized cock fights.

Here are some photos from the temples:

An offering at the Spring Water Temple outside Ubud
Purifying pool where people wash before they enter the temple to pray, Spring Water Temple
A demon guarding the gates at the Spring Water Temple
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of Knowlledge
An offering made of pork fat
Ancient  caves outside the Gunug Kawi temple, an 11th century temple outside of Ubud
A broom outside the temple caves

One final story to before I close this post:  have you ever heard of civet coffee? It’s coffee beans that have been ingested by civet cats, pooped out, purified, roasted and flavored and then sold as coffee beans for human consumption. I had heard of civet coffee before we came to Bali, but I did not know that it was actually the native Balinese who discovered how to make it. It seems that the Dutch were not very generous with the coffee that the extracted and then exported from Indonesia—they didn’t allow the natives to drink it and just shipped it all back to Europe and, eventually America and other places. The natives, though, caught a taste for coffee, noticed the civets would eat and then poop out the undigested beans. They, then, were the ones who figured out the process of turning civet poop into coffee beans. The Dutch, though, soon caught on, recognized the delicious taste and then stole that, too.

We stopped at a civet coffee shop on our tour with Puto. The coffee was fine, although, I can’t really understand why people in the States would pay so much for it. I prefer a New Zealand flat white, that doesn’t have anything to do with caged animals and feces, as far as I know.  Here are some photos from a stop we made at a place that made civet coffee:

Caged civet
Daughter, expressing some disgust with the civet poop