Jakarta / Indonesia Day 10: A different type of data gathering exercise and a new ‘hidden’ nuance

Day 10 was spent in the field and appraising my research approach for countries where I may have landed in the wrong spot and/or am especially time-limited. My schedule gave me just one day for Indonesia and that meant travel to rural locations from my entry point was difficult/limited in the time-space allocated. Much betel chewing (whilst once ubiquitous across Indonesia) is now located in specific rural regions of the country. Spitting however doesn’t just disappear in an area (Jakarta) even if one the main reasons for doing it does and as late as 2007 the City of Jakarta (a huge, modernising skyscraper city) felt the need to ban public spitting on public transport probably indicating that a specific and significant problem was present (and it is perhaps safe to assume that if people were spitting on public transport that spitting in the street was common and relatively accepted as the ban did not extend to this).

Unfortunately for the research however, the day allocated for field-work was also May Day / Labour Day and this meant that a normally bustling city was depleted considerably, and with it the opportunities for observing every-day casual public spitting which may have been challenging in the ever modernising cityscape anyway. Undeterred, I set off with my three guides, Jody, Taris and Bram (all 20 year old undergraduates of International Relations at President University here in Jakarta) for various locations they had suggested around Jakarta: Tebet, a market area in the suburbs of Jakarta, Bukit Duri – a relatively poor area where we were advised to inform the local administrators (each area has an office) of what we were doing (but they were out); Sedia Budi an area with food vendors opposite a low open fenced grassy area where lots of working people were lunching; Blok M square, a mall with an outside area with pedestrian traffic and nearby the Blok M Bus Terminal. The latter in particular was sparsely populated whereas normally it would have been humming.


From a research point of view however the time spent with Jody, Taris and Bram on the streets was far from wasted. The hours that we spent together, with them enthusiastically trying to help me locate spitting in Jakarta, meant that (similar to my time spent with Liew in KL) we built up a good rapport and as the day went on they understood better the ways in which I was looking at the issue.

Hidden spitting into the ‘moat’ of public swimming pools

An indication of how our rapport developed and how they felt comfortable in relaying personal information to me about spitting became evident whilst chatting to Jody about the fact that some spitting in the otherwise (relatively) spit clean Hong Kong occurred at public swimming pools where it was apparently common for people to spit into the water channel that normally goes around the outside of the pool. This chat took place whilst undertaking observations outside of the Mall area (where I did see a hock and a spit but that was it). Jody took a moment and said ‘I have done that’ and slowly went on to reveal more details about when he has spat in public without previously realising that he had. In fact it later emerged that each of them did this, that it was (as far as they could relate, from where they had grown up in their respectively different regions) ‘normal’ in Indonesia, and most importantly, that they had never seen it as spitting and yet they acknowledged that that is exactly what it is. This was a nice little breakthrough so we decided to hold a mini-focus group to work out what they knew from their respective regions and backgrounds.

Jody came from Celebes Island in the province of Java; Taris is from Sumatra and Bram is from Borneo. Despite the differences in region they concurred on all aspects of the following discussion about spitting:

Rurality and towns

It was generally agreed that spitting was very common and ‘every-day’ out of the city and in rural areas and farmlands and especially at markets and wet markets. This was for woman as well as men and for young and old, wealthy and poor. As Taris remarked ‘everybody is spitting’. It seems that spitting in the city has been moderated but elsewhere remains normal (and as mentioned above, in certain areas this is combined with betel chewing and spitting too).


They each agreed that the boys they grew up with in their towns, from middle-school, all spat – along with smoking – as symbolic of growing up. For Taris (relatively poor area) and Jody this was just typical behaviour. The boys they knew all still spit as men but they now do so with less bravado and in more socially responsible ways (their words but conceptualised that way from having spoken with me during the day about more/less managed spitting practices). Each said it is relatively common (even in the city) for people to spit into the open sewer (at the side of the road in the city, rather than there being a drain cover, the sewer is visible and accessible through a hole without a cover). One of them even reported having twice spat into the corner of the classroom (when caught short with a cold and without a handkerchief to spit into), once in high-school and once at university.

Spitting out of cars/from motorcycles

It was agreed that this was a common sight but not something you saw all of the time in both Jakarta and beyond. A little haggling with their guestimate of prevalence honed it down to an agreed ‘sometimes but not rare’. Bus drivers and car drivers were mentioned specifically.


Bram pointed out (as a Muslim) that during fasting periods Muslims have to spit out water they have rinsed their mouths with. This will happen numerous times a day. Vivek back in Mumbai also raised this as one reason why some people continue to spit as it aids in the practice becoming habit ‘you get used to spitting’.


They all agreed that smoking was ubiquitous in Indonesia and that it was common and almost normal for 10-12 year olds to be smoking and that tobacco stalls were commonly present outside of schools. They remarked that seeing 5-7 year olds smoking was not unusual.


As far as I know there are no other reports on spitting looked at as a practice in Indonesia (beyond blog references of personal observations relaying disgust, cultural difference etc.) that try to assess the prevalence and practices more closely. Having been somewhat limited in my time for appraisal I have none-the-less been able to garner some meaningful indicative data that hopefully will be bolstered further by data from the survey. Public spitting, is common in Indonesia but is moderated in Jakarta and perhaps some of the others major cities. Even here however, public spitting in (around the edge of) swimming pools is common but to some extent ‘hidden’ because it is considered to be almost not spitting at all and may be ubiquitous in this context. This, like hocking and spitting in public toilets in Malaysia (KL at least), appears to be an accepted way of life in the unnoticed sense. It is done but not noticed. Outside of Jakarta, particularly in rural areas spitting, it appears,is ‘every-day’, co mmon and practiced by most.


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