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?

Social Media and the Expat

Many moons ago, I packed a suitcase and headed for the UK, A place close to Manchester to be precise.  This was back in the early 2000s when social media was slightly more than emails – no Facebook or Skype – where staying touch with loved ones back home was reliant upon well timed phone calls and letters. 

Social media has transformed into a wonderful place where we can chat to loved ones face to face online, simply send a text message or instantly update others on where we are and what we are up to.  Further to this expats find that the world of technology offers much in the way of support before even leaving home.  We can now research and network our new home at the click of a button.  Amazing! 

For me, I researched all things “Jakarta” and “Indonesia” as soon as we knew we were relocating.  Womens organisations, expat Facebook groups, things to do, recommendations for cafes, language apps, the list goes on!  The unknown became less of an unknown and this in turn allowed me some control of the situation.  Surfing the web from the comfort of home was ‘safe’.  I didn’t need to know the language to commence researching and I was able to dip my toe into the culture and  investigate what the city had to offer before we had even left home. 

Social media supported me to connect with expats and expat groups already on the ground; experts who provided guidance and encouragement when needed and who offered to be my guide when I arrived.  Small gestures make a huge difference to newcomers.  These Women’s groups host many expat events, post relevant information on their Facebook pages and facilitate networking opportunities for members. Further to this, social media allows one to connect with expats around the globe; a very supportive bunch of people who truly understand the joys and challenges of that present as a result of this lifestyle.  These people who have selflessly shared their own personal experiences and advice with me, a perfect stranger, have proven invaluable to during my time abroad – here is my opportunity to say ‘thank you’. 

Many expat spouses take to blogging in an effort to document their thoughts, feelings and experiences abroad.  A vehicle for good mental health and wellbeing perhaps?  At times these may seem quite dark and at others quite uplifting and surprising.  My blog was created as a means to work through issues about finding myself and finding my way as a former career gal grappling with suddenly not working and not being so busy.  Using this platform has shown me that my experiences are commonplace amongst expat spouses and I realise that I’m not alone if I reach out to others.  Blogging has been quite cathartic and feedback from readers has been very positive and affirming – give it a try!

@aubergine_jelly

Game Faces On – We’re Nearly Home

Almost home now and trying to follow my advice from previous pre-emptive posts. What I am most anxious about now is how I will received by friends who have also been shaped by life, who may have forgotten about me or may not wish to reconnect.  This is followed by commencing work at a new workplace and the typical ‘have I got what it takes to do this?’ thinking and  thirdly managing the culture shock that has already started to jolt me as I move about doing ordinary tasks such as driving, grocery shopping and so on.

My coping strategies for transitioning to a new normal:

Expect and except change within yourself. You have had new experiences which have shaped your world view and transformed your beliefs and values.  These may be challenged upon your return ‘home’.

Be prepared for isolation or feelings of lonliness. Family and friends have become used to your absence and may not give a thought to calling around for a cuppa or inviting you to a social gathering. Nthing personal, they’ve just become used to you not being around.

Be prepared for apathy. You know the look of eyes glazing over when you have visited family and friends at home and you launch into sharing an anecdote from your new home? Well expect that upon your return; basically noone cares after 5 minutes.

Establish routine. Exercise and work will assist with this to an extent and can help with your transition in addition to supporting mental health.

Keep in touch with other repat friends still overseas or at home. Friends who have repatriated already can be a real support as they understand the process of grieving the life you have just left behind, culture shock and stressors of settling into life at home.  These guys have a shared history with you and will happily indulge in moments of nostalgia.

Seek professional help.  Many government employees have access to psychologists who can assist with preparing for repatriation, settling into life at home, relationship counselling and so on.  Use these services should you need them.

Prepare for reverse culture shock. Just like when you moved to post as an expat, you will experience the highs and lows as I discussed in my post ‘The Stages of Cultural Adjustment’.  Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.  Reverse culture shock can be pretty intense for repats as it’s impact is unexpected – you’re moving home after all, should be an easy transition.   This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride and may last more than 6 months, as you will remember!

Be kind to yourself. Be patient and at times administer a bit of tough love when required. You know you’re resilient as you’ve managed this process before.  Allow time to settle back into your new normal.

What other effective coping strategies do you use?

@aubergine_jelly

Home is only days away..

As this post goes live, we will be merely days away from returning ‘home’.  Prior to our move and shortly after we arrived, we were prepared by our organisation for the initial challenges of change and cultural adjustment.  Repatriating, we have found a gaping hole. There is very little support in preparing us for the transition ‘home’.

Repatriation is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it. Many people perceive returning expats (repats) as being overly nostalgic, affected, resentful and difficult to relate to at times.  I mean, repats are returning ‘home’, so what’s so hard about it?   Well, for us ‘home’ is where we have lived for the past few years.  We have carved out lives here, we work here, have friends here and here is where our normal and familiar is.

wpid-wp-1421211122475.jpegResearching repatriation, I have discovered that the process of returning is extremely challenging for most. Most repats experience depression, anxiety, grief, isolation and reverse culture shock that may last for up to 12 months.  Friends and family just wish you’d stop talking about your old life and get back to normal, back to reality. But what you really need will be their support, patience and understanding.

Friends and family have changed since we moved away due to life experiences, as have we. I am acutely aware that some friendships won’t last the test of reconnecting and that has to be ok.  That’s life.  Another stressor however, is how this next phase will affect and test our relationship as we move from being a single income family with pressures of life abroad to a double income family with the additional pressures of the everyday plus transitioning back to a Western culture.  Relationship breakdowns are common within repat communities.

Having worked for only a short while during our posting, additional anxiety is emerging for me about returning to work. Have I lost my knowledge and skills and have I still ‘got it’?  Will I cope with the long hours and a job that is mentally and emotionally demanding? How will I establish a work/life balance and not burn out? Will colleagues understand if I have a mini meltdown due to stress or anxiety about settling back into Australia (reverse culture shock)?

So.  with all of this in mind, we cross our fingers and hope for a relatively smooth transition into our previous lives.  I’ll keep you posted..

@aubergine_jelly

 

Jam karet (rubber time)

In many ways the Indonesian perspective of jam karet is a small reminder that we a living in a country with many different customs, habits, norms and values than those of home. It sho20161020_101341.jpguld be noted that there is no real normal when discussing Indonesian culture due to the vast number of cultures within Indonesian society itself!

Time is flexible in Indonesia This cultural norm of life and time being flexible has been something I have grappled with during our time in Indonesia.  In the western world, being late to appointments or even simple catch ups with friends or family is considered tardy or rude – not so here.  Many times, people are late for appointments or do not show up at all (other times they may show up early) and the reasons given can be quite amusing – tired, hungry, traffic, rain, flat tyre, whatever.  These excuses are deemed acceptable and it is rude to take issue with the person who is ‘late’ which is difficult for expats to deal with.

To cope, we have taken the approach that we wait for an hour or so for repairmen or deliveries and if we need to head out, we do.  Arrangements will be made for besok (tomorrow or thereafter) and the job will get done – eventually.  Fortunately employing a pembantu helps greatly, as she can liaise with these people should they show up in our absence.  No stress, no problem (tidak apa apa).

Jam karet is also about building and maintaining relationships.  Life’s hiccups allow people to stop and connect with others.  If it’s raining why not stop and share a story over coffee with a stranger?  Most homes and shopfronts have chairs out front where people sit and chat to pass the time. Time and patience are a way of life and there’s a beauty to the mindset that we are all connected.  Not such a familiar concept in the West these days.

The idea of time being elastic brings with it a lovely approach in many ways to dealing with life in general.  Why not just go with the flow and make life easy?  Let it go and let it be.  Whilst I will continue to be punctual, my take away from this experience is to not sweat the small stuff and that has to be a valuable life lesson.

@aubergine_jelly

The Posted Expat Officer

Mental health is something I care about deeply.  Depression and/or anxiety touch most families these days and is of significance for expats and their families.

Sometimes I believe that expat spouses have it easier than the posted officers.  We’re invited to attend formal and informal spouse functions, coffee mornings, general language classes, community group events (e.g., ANZA, AWA, BWA) gym classes.. whatever comes our way.  These social events provide opportunities to network and meet new people but also to make new friends. These friends eventually become our support network who give us a boost when we need it and a kick in the pants when needed too!

The officers not so much.

Often due to visa requirements the posted officer is the bread winner for the household. We rely on that one salary to support our lifestyle here and fulfil financial commitments back home.  Talk about pressure!  Many work extended hours and are on call 24/7.  There is no downtime.  They travel for weeks or months at a time which adds the stress of leaving family behind in the adopted country and leaving family responsibilities to the spouse.

Between the work day and evening work commitments, officers find limited opportunities to socialise outside of work.  These functions can be an additional stressor as the officer must remain “on” throughout the work day and again during the function leaving little time to recharge before backing it all up for tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

Self-care is a key ingredient for mental health and wellbeing.  For my spouse there is limited opportunity to blow off steam.  The capacity to exercise outside is thwarted by traffic, poorly maintained roads and footpaths, insane traffic and pollution. If you’re not a gym junkie what do you do?

For me, I try to find activities and experiences that fill our buckets.  Netflix has been a godsend, hosting dinners for friends within our home, weekend trips away, open and honest communication with each other, cooking interesting meals, cultural experiences within the city and monthly dinners with trusted friends to debrief with have all been of some support.

How do you support your spouse?

 

Sh*t’s Getting Real!

A sudden pang hit me in the very pit of my stomach just now as a few boxes were delivered to our apartment in the anticipation that we may wish to pack a few belongings ourselves.  Reality is sinking in.. we are leaving.  And soon.  Well, we are leaving in ear14917034_10154617429418433_9134804190214221941_oly January after a little holiday but our uplift (i.e., when all of our belongings are removed) is in 3 weeks!

The first pang arose during the property survey conducted by Allied Pickford a few weeks back.  The rep walked in created an inventory and provided dates for the uplift.

The second pang hit when we gave our domestic staff notice, provided references and advertised their services widely within the expat and Embassy communities.  That was difficult because we know that if they do not secure employment there is no Government assistance in this country and that has implications as both are the breadwinners for their families.

The third happened just now and was accompanied by mixed emotions – sadness, excitement, anxiety, happiness all delivered with these boxes!

The next pang will surely emerge during uplift.. and again when we head off on our holiday.. and for the last time when we return to Indonesia, our current home, before we board our final flight to return to… Now what do I call it when it’s not “home”?

Generally speaking, no one likes change.  Change is challenging.  It’s a process of upheaval of all that is known and familiar and hurls us into the unknown with lashings of anxiety and trepidation.  Some worries that I have include no longer connecting with old friends; experiencing difficulty settling back into my old life easily, or not at all; concerns about work and changes to relationship dynamics with my spouse.

The repatriation process is thought to be more stressful and difficult to navigate than the initial move interestingly.  Many people believe that returning to your country of origin from your new home will be a smooth transition as you are returning to your old life.  But I have changed and evolved as a result of this experience and these new found beliefs are returning with me.  My world view is now different – not better just different.  The stages of adjustment are claimed to bite harder with repatriation and repats require a lot of support, patience and understanding from loved ones and work colleagues for up to a year after their return.

 

So, as the title suggests, reality is setting in and fast!

@aubergine_jelly