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?