The Expat Experience in Indonesia

The moment I stepped out into the distinctive night air, that is Jakarta, eyes followed me everywhere as I made my way through the bustling stream of people.  As did a gentlemen who rightly detected that I was a tad lost and trying to locate my spouse who was to meet my at the exit and which me back to our new apartment, in this new city, in our new country.  Where the bloody hell is he?  I kept asking myself as I realised that I had no phone coverage to call him.  My new ‘friend’ suggested that I use his phone to call or perhaps follow him to his taxi and he would help me.  As he moved to take my suitcase an assertive and loud ‘no’ did the trick and I was soon left to my own devices.  Just then the crowd parted and my knight finally appeared.  This was my first experience as an expat with all eyes watching me and a situation unfold around me.  It was not to be my last.

Many Western expats, particularly those who look like me with pale skin and blonde hair, will share experiences of being stared at, leered at and having people look into your shopping trolley as they go about their business.  For women, it is especially unnerving.  Here there are no personal boundaries, cultural norms are very different and there is no such thing as keeping a respectful distance.  Men drive this society and for Western women this is a hard pill to swallow and not something I have accepted even after all of these years.  So from a local perspective we look different and behave usually which is definitely worth gawking at. We must look a funny lot as we attempt to assimilate and understand this new normal when we first arrive to Indonesia.  We need to remember that we should try to adapt to our new normal, rather than try to mould the culture and people around us.

The expat experience gets more interesting though – you have suddenly become a VIP in your adopted country.  Treated like royalty almost and its something that I cannot (will not/) become accustomed to.  Raised in a social minded family, my world view is that we should treat others with respect and courtesy regardless of social standing, religious views, sexual orientation, gender and so on.  Not always the reality in a country based on patriarchal and class based society.  Here, we are waved through vehicle security checkpoints due to our diplomatic plates, offered the best tables in restaurants, extended invitations to slight after events and generally extended preferential treatment all round. 

Some expats move in powerful circles and network with important people and soon find that they have drunk the cool aid so to speak.  They start to believe this fairytale existence and buy into this newfound self importance. Some expats grow to love this celebrity and rand become increasingly demanding and entitled which is not a good look, lets be honest.  Perhaps a reality check is needed at this point in time?  That or these expats are setting themselves up for an almighty fall when they return home and they are treated as regular people. 

How do you keep yourself grounded in the expat bubble?


2 thoughts on “The Expat Experience in Indonesia

  1. I don’t have many Kenyan friends, but not for lack of trying. Expats are tolerated here. We’re not excluded, but we’re not welcome either. Unless you have an “in” like a spouse who is Kenyan, it can be difficult to make local friends.

    I try to break by the bubble by at least having Kenyan acquaintances. For example, I’m friendly with local shop keepers, I stop in and chat with my travel agent even if I’m not booking anything just to say hello, my hairdresser (the best I’ve ever had) is Kenyan. Also, while I’m part of the diplomatic community, many of my friends are not. So it’s not all diplomatic plates and fancy events.

    I try to keep it mixed up as much as possible. It helps. I don’t feel integrated. But I don’t feel trapped in the bubble either.


  2. Joanna says:

    For me I stayed grounded through my friends. My friends back home and the few I made here. I’m not drawn to the power driven people, and so my like minded friends made it easy to remember who I really am.

    I found being surrounded by real people kept me real.

    And on the being watched – I have one story I will share. I remember 18 months in when my gorgeous daughter came to visit. We celebrated our birthdays together (her 20th, my “much older”) and then I took her to the airport. After I saw her off I walked out of departures and went to pieces. I was a white woman, a larger size, bright red hair, sobbing uncontollably. I found myself surrounded by about 30 Indonesians – I mean right up in my face. Mostly women. Staring and pointing. Calling over their friends to look. The crowd growing. I had become Monday morning entertainment. While I admit I hated every one of them, their country and all of their fellow citizens at that moment, it certainly reminded me that I was only “special” here because I was an anomoly. Perhaps it’s an experience more expats who drink the kool aid could benefit from.

    Liked by 1 person

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