Quickly, westerners! What's going on in the picture above?
Before anyone gives me any weird answers, I'll say that it's a picture of an Indonesian girl performing a traditional but still very widespread greeting to an elder: salim. In Indonesian the action is called 'buat salim' or 'making salim'. Google tells me it's also called 'kasih salam', but in Surabaya I always hear it with 'buat' instead of 'kasih'. The meanings are about the same in this phrase.
I'm not sure of the origins of making salim, but a couple of theories are that it was a Muslim practice brought in with Islam in the 13th century, or that it was a practice in the ancient Hindu kingdoms where the forehead contains the third eye. Nowadays it's a simple way of showing respect to elders.
Salim is definitely not contained to one Indonesian culture or group. People from Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and all over the rest of the country have adopted this gesture. It's one more little thing that brings the many ethnic groups of Indonesia together as a whole.
To make salim is very easy. All you have to do is take the salim-ee's right hand with your right hand, bend forward a bit, and touch the back of their hand to your forehead/nose/cheek/lips. Be careful to ONLY use the right hand, though, because as we all remember, the left hand is used for very unclean business.
What's a bit more challenging, at least for me, is knowing who to salam and when. Usually, if I'm with others, I just follow whatever the person closest in age does, but there's a pretty typical formula for who to salam. It goes like this, allowing for variations depending on the people, relationship, and cultural context.
- Children salim their parents when going separate ways from them. IE if the child wants to go to school, they have to 'salim dulu' or make salim before they can head out the door.
- It's the same if parents are leaving and the children are saying goodbye. This is for more permanent goodbyes though; if someone's just running out to the store, then no salim is really necessary.
- When greeting older relatives, always make salim. This is especially important the older the relative is. In some families, younger siblings salim older siblings, but this isn't especially common, at least in the cities.
- Students always make salim to teachers, even if they don't know the teacher. This is always difficult for me, as sometimes I can't tell who's a teacher and who's not.
- Once, I made salim to the school security guard... don't do that.
- Sometimes when greeting a parent's friend, it's appropriate to either make salim, shake hands, or kiss cheeks.
I once heard a rule of thumb which was, 'If they're in your parents' generation or above, make salim'. Just follow that, and you'll be golden.
(This is a blog post I started while in Indonesia and haven't finished until now. I have a bunch of these! Expect to see a bunch of them in the coming days.)