One of the first things that struck me when walking around the residential areas of Yogyakarta was how many front doors were open. Sleepy streets with potted plants dotted around outside and food carts tock-tocking along and all the doors open wide for all to see inside.
This struck me for two reasons – the first being how trusting everyone must be to leave your house in such a vulnerable state; the second, how open the community is to be happy to show so much of the inside of their homes. I’d never seen so many living rooms before. This lead to a nice simultaneous picking apart of my own concept of home from the UK and this new, multi-coloured open-doored home of Jogja.
In many places in Jogja the boundary between home and street is blurred. In the winding kampungs next to the river, sofas and toys sit in the streets where families sit chatting, preparing food and occasionally washing clothes. Again, the front door is open so you can look right in at the wedding photos, certificates, plastic boxes of snacks and ornamental tissue boxes that are invariably found in the front room. This openness to me highlighted the power of community – for good and bad – in the roles of the individual families and inhabitants of an area.
In the UK, space is utilised differently. Gardens are placed at the back of the house so if you want to be outside, you can do so in privacy, and the popularity of blinds which allow a certain amount of light in but ‘blind’ the outside to the inside. Neighbourhoods and communities in the UK are optional. You can decide whether you want to be involved in the local soup kitchen, attend the village hall elections, or contribute to the local clean-up days. Or you can decide not to be involved at all. For most communities in Jogja, there is no choice. Cities are comprised of ‘kampungs’, a village within the city, in which you have responsibilities and requirements. When you first sign up for a house, you must visit the Head of the village for their permission. If you’re a lone woman or man living in the city, the neighbours can get involved if you are visited in the night by the opposite sex. At night, a group of local men will patrol the streets to make sure everyone is safe and nothing untoward is happening. Privacy and the concepts of public and private are quite different and it’s so eloquently displayed in how each country sets up the home.
Flash forward to a year later and Obi is having his first exhibition and the theme is home street home. The concept is bringing his very public graffiti into the private space of the home by applying his style ceramic work and furnishings – and then making it public again by placing the fully formed room in the space of the gallery. One day, when thinking about his description of his exhibition, he asked me what the ‘ruang tamu’ was in English. Directly translated, ruang tamu means ‘guest room’, however this is a very different definition to that of the UK which means a spare bedroom for when guests come to stay. In my eyes, his exhibition which featured a sofa, TV, artwork and shelving looked like a living room to me, but in the context of Java, the guest room is the first room coming into the house in which guests visit. The rest of the house may be glimpsed through an open door or the nudge of a curtain, but that space is one not technically open to those visiting.
That glimpse into houses I’d seen, all the photos, sofas and coffee tables then, became part of the house allocated to me as a guest. The guest room is liminal, it is in the home but it is also in the community. It is a place of connection but also a soft boundary. Within the house lies the ruang keluarga or ruang tengah – the family room or central room. In this room there can be mess, space to rest, places for women to remove their hijab without the outer community seeing if they wish to. The front of the house is a place reserved for community, a sort of performative space blending public and private.
In the UK doors are closed, but if welcomed inside, the spaces you can occupy are more flexible, guests can be invited into the living room or the kitchen for a drink. They may move to the dining room to eat or perhaps they eat in the kitchen. In the past, there would have been the ‘drawing room’ in which guests would retire after eating to talk and smoke however this has long been seen as old fashioned and has all but removed itself from modern vocabulary.
Of course, the choice of where you put your guests, in what room and in what place, also has a lot to do with wealth and the size of your house. If you live in a small kampung in Jogja, limited space may mean that your ruang tamu and ruang keluarga may only be separated by the position of a sofa or separator rather than being in a separate room – or just happen out on the street. If you have a large porch or pendopo like in traditional wealthy Javanese houses, your ruang tamu might be at the front where the evenings can be spent relaxing in the open air on a rattan chair, never venturing inside the house. Here local community events and talks can take place, much like an unofficial village hall. Communities can practise the gamelan, hold local elections or, as in the past, watch TV together. A community may have a shared village space, similar to the village/town hall in the UK, but more often than not village meetings will take place in someone’s ruang tamu.
In England, a larger household may indeed have their own separate room dedicated to guests. Parties may be held at the house or in the garden, but often more community-based events such as polls or fetes will take place away from the home and in the designated area of the village/town hall.
All of this has been an interesting exploration in the role of the home and the ways in which just the shape and structure can highlight how a community operates. For me being here, experiencing how communities come together has been both a lure and at times a discomfort. Walking around the streets in the evening and seeing neighbours sitting together, doing handiwork together, or planning for an event makes my heart swell. Saying hello when walking past or having someone stop to give detailed directions and concern to make sure you get there okay is warming. It is an immensely comforting sight and one that I think growing up and growing old with is wholesome – but equally I notice in myself how I’m glad my place is a little off the road hidden from view and we aren’t asked to get involved in the night patrols. At the same time, the force of the community can have negative impacts for groups such as the LGBT community, or minorities who can feel vulnerable in the face of such shared information and extended family where communities can kick you out of your home if rumours spread.
As society shifts, both in terms of rural to urban, rising development, and cultural values, this communal living is shifting. In the large housing complexes that are becoming more common across Jogja, this communal notion of sitting outside and sharing experiences with neighbours is loosening. Rather than night patrols, a guard sits at the front monitoring who enters and who leaves. As air conditioning becomes more common, homes are sealed and doors are closed to keep the cool air in. A recent trend has been exclusive religious housing complexes which remove the plurality so often found in villages. As for young people, many of my friends talk about how they’d like to have a space of their own without the prying of the kampung, to be able to leave late at night without someone asking where they’re going, but these same friends equally lament the loss of traditional ‘Jogja friendliness’.
In the UK, many of our cities see a loss of community and togetherness which has led to people feeling isolated, particularly to the older generation. Some studies have suggested that up to 1 in 4 adults suffer from loneliness and for children between 10-15 living in cities, 20% have said they ‘often’ feel lonely. Uber is launching an option on the app to let your driver know you don’t want to talk during the journey, reflecting a growing everyday need to have the option of no communication. The closed door follows you out the house and into the taxi.
I think the structure of the home in the UK and the ways in which guests can be placed into any room offers a different sense of openness than that in Java – once you’re in you’re really in. Once you are welcomed and trusted, all is laid bare. The outside space can be made communal, but with hesitancy, whether that be because of overwork, exhaustion, or a fear of others. I think the country is looking for a return to a sense of community and to be connected with those who are close. You can see that with the rise of communal gardens, public run homeless shelters and food banks – but there’s still a long way to go to beat the rise of loneliness.
I don’t think either community is perfect and obviously everything written has been my own personal narrow experience of community both here and at home, but I’d like to think we can strike some balance of supportive, open community without the distrust of outsiders or the pressure to conform to a certain ideal. Home tells us so much about different people and their relationship with the world and it’s perhaps now more than ever we should reflect on community when there is such as divisive narrative around the world and across the rapidly developing online society.