Final Thoughts On Indonesia, Sumatra and the Batak People

Parapat BazaarAs I await my return to Malaysia tomorrow I’ve spent some time pondering the differences between Sumatra in particular and Indonesia in general versus the rest of South-East Asia. Indonesia is not of East Asia, not by a long shot. If anything it resembles an odd cross between India and Polynesia. Indeed, I believe Indonesia is often referred to as a part of Melanesia. It’s certainly not of the West, either, having its own rhythms and its own unique way of doing things. But does it have much, if anything at all in common with the rest of South-East Asia? No.

For starters it is dominated by Islam (Aceh, Sumatra, and Java) with large pockets of Christianity (Bataks and the Nusa Tenggara island chain), Hinduism (in Bali) and tribal animism (Papua and other far out islands). There is no Buddhism here, nor is there any real Confucian influence, outside of the small Overseas Chinese communities, which make up about 3% of the population of Indonesia.

(The entire archive of Indonesia photos can be found here.)

Second, the peoples: they are extremely diverse. Some of them have the pan-East Asia look, but most do not, looking more like a cross between Arab, Hindu and Polynesian, with some even resembling the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. They are built differently. The women have wider hips and larger breasts than those in East Asia. The men are taller have broader chests and their hair, men and women alike is much more varied than the straight, coarse black hair so common across East Asia.

Jo-jo and Uncle Prepare the Feast!Third, the language: Bahasa Indonesia and the assorted languages of the islands are not tonal in any way. The grammatical structures are vastly different than those of East Asia. There are some superficial commonalities, like no past, present of future in the verbs, but they have a rich system of prefixes to determine tense and aspect. Word order is important, but not that important. Pronunciation is pretty easy. If you can roll your ‘Rs’ then you can speak Indonesian. They also use the Latin alphabet and there are many Dutch loan words.

Fourth, the foods they eat: Sure, they eat a lot of rice and noodles, but so do we. They fry everything, especially chicken and it is yummy. Corn is a substantial crop as are potatoes (which leads to a lot of obesity). They eat very fatty foods and drown their veggies in curries and sauces much as the Indians do. In this they are very unlike the other South East and East Asians who eat lots of lean foods with fresh vegetables.Batak Family

As for the family structure? I would say they have larger families, on average, than many of the South East Asian and East Asian cultures. Larger in the sense that cousins, uncles, sisters, and the whole lot are always included in just about everything. They also seem to have what I would call a ‘tribal’ mentality in their family structures as well. Let me explain. Tribes are very fluid, at least historically speaking, in a sense allowing anyone to join so long as they contribute. And in this sense people unrelated to the family at large become a part of the family. I saw this a lot at the guest house I stayed in. One young man and one older woman basically lived at the guest house by dint of the fact that they were friends and just participated in the life going on around the place. I found this very fascinating from an anthropological point of view and would hope to go back some day and get more involved in Batak society.

Palm Wine/BeerGranted, I only saw a small sliver of Sumatran society, much less that of Indonesia as a whole. The country stretches for three time zones and the infrastructure and immigration rules are such that long term travel in Indonesia just wasn’t feasible. But I will come back to Indonesia. Of that I have no doubt.

One Response to “Final Thoughts On Indonesia, Sumatra and the Batak People”

  1. anung97

    Hi Sean,

    Did you travel to Eastern Indonesia? Or just Sumatra?

    My observation is only Sumatran food is highly influenced by Indian food hence the prevalence of coconut milk/curry in their food. Other parts of Indonesia don’t cook/eat as much curry or coconut milk.

    I am a Western Indonesian and I have never eaten Easterner’s food but they certainly look VERY different from Sumatran food. It is clearly not influenced by Indian or Chinese food.

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