All About the Oleh-Oleh

Several years ago, I took a test to determine my “love language”. It’s not as weird as it sounds. It’s the idea that we all have specific, and sometimes different ways, we best give and receive love. My personal love language is receiving gifts. Now, I know that makes me sound like a materialistic, gold-digging floozy, but hold up. This is how the test website summarizes this particular gifting of mine, “Don’t mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of gifts thrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift. If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for … Gifts are visual representations of love and are treasured greatly.” It’s like they read my brain. As a result of my love of receiving gifts, I also love giving gifts. Whether it’s a tiny token or something extravagant, I really enjoy finding the right gift for the right person. And I’m a huge believer in souvenirs. I blame my parents for encouraging this one. I’m always accumulating them, thinking of friends to buy for, and giving them away. So imagine my surprise when I learned about the gift-giving expectation of Indonesian culture called oleh-oleh [pronounced oh-lay oh-lay, or exactly like the Spanish soccer chant Olé, Olé, Olé].

Several months ago, some Indonesian friends of mine went out of town for a weeks, and another says, “Don’t forget my oleh-oleh!” Still early in language learning I ask, “What’s oleh-oleh?”And my friend explained it’s the gift that the traveler brings home for all their friends. Before I could think of my friend as incredibly presumptuous in asking for a souvenir from the traveler, she went on to explain that it’s an expected part of Indonesian culture. There are stores in practically every city you visit in Indonesia to buy your oleh-oleh before you go home. Usually it’s a local snack food, but sometimes it’s a trinket or item of significance to the place. You can barely get out of the airport without running into it. Sure enough, when our traveling friend returned a few weeks later, we all had snacks from another island to enjoy. While munching, I amusedly ask myself, “So I now live in a culture that expects me to bring home gifts when I travel?! I love it!”

When we went to Australia, we brought home koala keychains and Australian flag pens for our neighbors, landlords and other close friends. But when we got back from Java in Indonesian, we opted for the snack version of the oleh-oleh. We brought home ting-ting [yeah, the Indonesian language is really this repetitive], which is a sweet peanut brittle-like snack. It was a hit! I loved sharing stories and a bit of our travels with my friends that enjoyed the snack.

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As someone who LOVES gifts, giving and receiving, I thoroughly enjoy this part of our new culture. I love that it creates community with the people around you through a shared experience. I love that I can blame my penchant for souvenir buying on a cultural norm. Here’s to celebrating a new friends in new cultures!

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