The upside downside to living abroad

Once you’ve seen the other side of something and it’s good, returning to the familiar can be difficult, even when it feels like a relief. Peeking over the fence or flying across the pond in search of something to rattle your bones and shake your worldview might actually do yourself a disservice, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I’ve lived in Indonesia for nearly two years and soon I will be back on the road again, travelling aimlessly.

Recently I took a trip to Australia and that brief re-acquaintance with the developed world shook me up a bit and made me notice again how much greener the grass grows in a different place. It also made me realise that living in a developing Asian country has irreversibly altered my worldview. Certain cultural practices that frightened and confused me when I first arrived have become commonplace and the things which were long held expectations when I lived in the developed world, have dipped below the surface to become, surprisingly, not always welcome luxuries. My perspective is still a shallow one though, as to become fully acquainted with a new culture can take years. But the following are trademarks of my individual experience in Indonesia but that likely pertain to anyone living in a foreign country. They threaten to become familiar if you stay in one place long enough.

Rubber Rules

I love this one but once I head back to the First World to live full time (if that actually happens) I will be smacked down by reality. Rule-bending is normalised behaviour here, at least for the foreigner who grew up with a different set of rules. Some rules are so flexible they’re more like options, like the notional red traffic light, driving on the shoulder of the highway, and the airline check-in charade… I’ll explain.

Recently, I decided on a whim that I would go to Sulawesi for a long weekend. I woke early to book my flight for that afternoon but was too late to book online. So I went to the airport but the ticket counter was closed. I inquired with security at the entrance and they informed me that I could not go through security to book my flight with an agent inside (you require a valid ticket just to get to the desk). So a guard gathered the information and presented it to me, I chose the flight I wanted, gave him my passport and cash and he got the ticket for me whilst I waited outside. As nice and helpful as he was the situation was strangely informal. With said ticket in hand I entered the secure area and approached the check-in counter. I gave them the ticket and they informed me that I was already checked in. All this happened without one airline representative seeing my face. Not only that but I travelled with my knife and a full bottle of water in my carry-on bag.

Another time when a friend and I were flying Surabaya to Bali with a subsequent flight to Canada I realised I’d forgotten my passport at home (it’s not required for domestic flights). I had 1.5 hours before departure and my round trip airport to home typically takes about an hour and 15 minutes by motorbike. I panicked but we tore through the airport and jumped in a taxi. We made it back to the airport with just 15 minutes left. I approached the check-in desk wearing a pained expression:

“Check in, ya?” I asked

“Sorry miss, finished,” replied one of the five clerks, a smile spread ear to ear. Delivering all news with a Cheshire cat grin is customary in these parts… “Sorry miss, we are closed” (SMILE!) “So sorry that your puppy was run over by a motorbike” (SMILE!!)

I turned it on. “Bulan madu, bulan madu!” I pleaded. (Bulan madu means honeymoon).

“Ohhhhhhhh, bulan madu! Ya miss, no problem! No, don’t check your 6 oversized bags, just go, carry on!” (Even bigger SMILE!!!)

So how do rubber rules do a disservice? You think you are used to driving on the shoulder of the road because there is space, or driving without a licence since you clearly know how to drive, or stopping for traffic lights because there is no one close? Just try it when you return to the First World where everything makes sense but nothing actually makes sense anymore. All of a sudden I must adhere to rules that, although sensible, I now often perceive as unnecessary. All of a sudden I’m threatened with consequences for actions that are tolerated or openly encouraged in a foreign land. I enjoy grey areas when it comes to rules, particularly when they benefit me, but I worry about my self-discipline to adhere to rules that actually are black and white. The more comfortable I become with such flexible rules, the more I wish to bend them further and expect that they should be the case everywhere. And I must admit that I do worry about rules being so flexible in airports. Where is the line drawn?!

Celebrity Status

I hated this preferential treatment I received as a SWF when I first arrived. It felt elitist and unfair (same thing?) I sit in a position of privilege in this country based on how I look, where I come from, and my respected role as a teacher. My work contract includes free transportation, free lunches, and a higher salary than I can earn in my home country. It’s easy to become comfortable with and blind to your privilege and even come to expect that you deserve to be in a certain position in society when you are automatically placed there. I’m given priority service at my bank on a regular basis. I find myself refusing the lunches I receive for free that the local teachers have to pay for. All of a sudden I find myself expecting things that I’ve done nothing to deserve other than being here. I expect what I should be appreciating as perks. It is an easy trap to fall into and the next thing I know I am occupying a much larger space in this world than is morally comfortable, than is my right as a single human being.


Here my prolific travel is seen as a privilege, a benefit of being part of the upper status of society. At home my nomadic ways, though envied, are considered irresponsible because travelling replaces the social role I would otherwise be expected to fulfill. Living here helps me escape those First World expectations and perhaps my own ingrained expectations of myself. Here I am not expected to conform to a traditional female role because it is not my culture. Transgressing social conventions just happens naturally by virtue of where I come from so I care less about not fitting in and it would be nearly impossible anyway. Then I think about the race I’d pressure myself to join if I decided to set my life back up at home and I feel queasy. Escapism is okay temporarily but just plain smacks of immaturity as a lifestyle choice.

Resurgent Colonialism

There is an under-riding colonial mindset here that I have a hard time digesting when I see it for what it is. For the cost of a couple bottles of Jack Daniel’s (approximately $200 here), you can hire a pembantu (maid) for an entire month, full time. She (most certainly a she) will clean your house, make your meals, do your shopping, wash your clothes and just generally tidy up after you. The same goes for hiring a full-time driver. Drivers are on-call to their employers 24/7, and most of them have families. How that disrupts family life and general health I can only imagine. What’s worse about this though is that people refer to the people they’ve hired as “my pembantu” or “my driver”, implying ownership of a person. I realise it is a cultural arrangement and that hiring someone to work for you means a local person, who otherwise might be unemployed, has a job. But then there are the nannies who have to wear uniforms that look like pyjamas, complete with their role stitched into the breast pocket as “so-and-so’s nanny”, rather than their actual names. Talk about elitist.

Lowered Standards

I recently went to see a dentist about having some cosmetic (necessary, right?) work done. I braced myself for a tricky conversation and had my Google translate app ready in hand. It’s always scary relying on this form of communication when it comes to such things as wire transfers and health, dental or otherwise, regardless of how accustomed to it I’ve become. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the dentist spoke English like a pro. My reaction? Immediate trust that he was a good dentist. Isn’t that terrible? An advanced level of spoken English does not translate to an advanced level of anything else, with the exception, perhaps, of Bullshit. But this is what has happened. I’ve assigned a higher value to such things that reflect my culture, conveniently. I’ve become ethnocentric, but selectively so. And I thought living in a foreign country long enough would have just the opposite effect. Or maybe I’ve lived here long enough to just be happy with the fact that that dentist spoke English. Perhaps skill in orthodontics was less an assumption and more the icing on the English-speaking cake.

The Exotic Becomes Commonplace

When I first arrived in Indonesia I felt like I was in a foreign place, in a touristy kind of way of course. Palm trees where ubiquitous, street signs were nonsense, and I saw a long stretch of uncountable days in front of me. I entered my new home as I would a resort. A large pool with a lazy moat lay central between two apartment towers and the sun shone reminders of my geographical location in the world–right on the equator. And then time shot novelty down. Hot, dry, perfect season turned into a suffocating humidity at the start of rainy season. I noticed the less-friendly people more, roaring allergies took the place of a tan, and social inequities became brazenly evident. I’d taken off my rose-coloured glasses and forgotten where I’d put them. I’ve been to Bali for the weekend more times than I can count and each time the traffic, noise, and influx of drunk Australian tourists drives me to the same level of irritation I experience in a Walmart on a Sunday afternoon near Christmas. Seriously, how spoiled have I allowed myself to become?! The lesson in this is to look everyday for those little things that provide constant reminders that I live in a beautiful, tropical country. Notice the exotic flora, speak some of the language (and maybe don’t learn it in entirety so as to keep it foreign), and–I hate to say it–compare it to home, appreciate it because it is different.

I am going to miss living here. Simultaneously, I am relieved to be moving on. My greatest fear is to become accustomed to things that contradict my ideals, trapped in a lifestyle I don’t want, that is unfamiliar to me when I revert to my 30-year-old self and step back to take a good look at the big picture. Will I see the ineffectiveness of my moral compass and then realise that it has always been my choice? There are some things I would prefer remain unfamiliar, even if that means staying locked in the tight grip of ignorance, flexible rules in airports included!

Photo: Happily swinging away post swim. The upside down side to living abroad: never having to properly grow up.

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