Even in adulthood, and especially in foreign countries, I continue to utilize the biggest rule of stranger danger: when in doubt, find a woman, especially one with a child.
This has helped me on numerous occasions in Indonesia, even more so than other places as Indonesian women have the ability to put so much energy into their small talk that, to someone outside the relationship, everyone appears to be an old friend.
When slightly lost, or drawing too much unwanted attention, I’m always quick to strike up a conversation with the nearest Ibu, older woman or mother, to me.
Ladies, guaranteed: you make them laugh once, super easy to do, namely when you utilize self-deprecating humor/call yourself a bule, foreigner. Her hand will go to your lap or her head will rest on your shoulder after that first ice-breaking giggle.
Magic — an instant shield against creepy eyes and questions. Up pops a neon sign that says, “I’m with her, I belong, back off.”
The Ibu shield is wonderful while traveling, and a good way to practice for the Ibu protection big leagues: Ibu hospitality.
Being followed by someone making you uncomfortable?
Going for a casual walk, but getting attacked by catcalls?
Get off a bus in the wrong place and are now slightly confused/lost?
Turn on your Ibu radar, spot the nearest one outside of her house, probably hanging laundry or santai di lantai, relaxing on the floor, and approach with your biggest bule smile.
Ten times out of nine, Ibu’s going to act like you’re her long lost child, bring you within the Ibu force field of her home, and probably give you a snack.
It’s the absolute best Indo-hack.
You can get your bearings, ask for directions, make a new, local friend and ally and, most importantly, wait out the creeper making you nervous. At the very least, you prove to him that you are a local and not lost AKA not an easy target.
But how can you guarantee to be initiated into the Ibu hospitality society of protection?
Ibus aren’t naïve, maybe a giant foreigner with spotty Bahasa Indonesia skills will come off as a threat…
Make the first move, play the Indo guest game.
That’s right, there’s a guest script. If you follow, I guarantee, you will no longer be seen as a threat, but rather a confused foreigner who’s been in country a while and could probably use her help.
*This is not an exact science. Rather a guideline based on my experiences this past year. I am a woman and, therefore, have never tested this method as a foreign man. If you are a man, proceed with caution.
- Smile; make slight eye contact as you approach. Don’t stare, that’s weird.
- State “As’salaamu alaikum” and wait for her, probably immediate, response. This is a common greeting of “may peace be upon you” in Islam and shows your cultural knowledge and respect.
- Salim Just do it, this is the key. Usually reserved for children greeting adults, a salim is taking the right hand of someone and bowing your head or cheek against it.
- Begin your explanation slowly and clearly in Bahasa Indonesia. Be sure to highlight that you’re afraid/lost/confused and you would like her help.
*It’s ok to ask to wait with the Ibu if someone is following you. Odds are she’ll go on a war path and tell off the man responsible, because she’ll be offended and appalled by his behavior.
- Use as much local language as possible. For me out west that means throwing Sundanese into the mix wherever possible, “punten, Bu!” “Excuse me, Maam!” is a great way to start.
- If/when she invites you into her home, drink a bit of what she provides and nibble on what she give you to snack on, take the selfies. Remember, if you’re going to enjoy the comforts of the Ibu shield, you need to return the hospitality in any way you can. Be polite.
Bonus! For future protection and friendship, return at a later time when you know where you are or are no longer threatened and bring a thank you snack. You now have officially made friends with an entire village of people who will help you. Word of mouth is wildfire in Indonesia and the stories of the time a foreigner showed up needing help and then came back to become a friend will live on in infamy.