A single white female in a foreign land

“It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.

I’m not oppressed. I love being a woman. I like being different. I like being an outsider. I like that I transgress societal expectations for behaviour without even trying (I missed out on the rebellious stage when I was a teenager so I make up for it now). Maybe this makes my current resting place a good place for me. Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia and about every other woman dons a hijab. This is not really anything new for me coming from Canada, a country rich in cultural and ethnic diversity. Many of the woman I attended university with were Muslim and in a large city like Toronto, no one really stands out by way of physical appearance, everyone just kind of blends in. I can’t blend in here unless I also wear a hijab, even then my light skin and eyes would give me away as would my Canadian accent and cut off shorts (no compromise, I love my cut offs). So if I can’t blend in then why not just be myself? But what exactly is that?

Identity is an interesting thing. How do we define ourselves? How would others identify you? There are all the basic categories: sex, gender, race, profession, familial role, etc. But what else? What makes us unique? I think two things contribute to our individual uniqueness, outside of DNA. One is our own combination of the many qualities we share with the rest of the world. It’s almost like we have the same ingredients before us at the salad bar but we select and put them together in different ways throughout life. The other is context. You can be more or less unique depending on where you are in the world. In my old life I lived and attended university in Toronto, Canada. I was married, I owned a house and a car. I was introverted and tread cautiously through life. The only time I went outside socially-imposed boundaries was when I was driving or switching boxes on coffee makers in Wal-Mart (my secret is out!). I might as well have been an ant in an ant farm, I didn’t feel so unique. Things are different now but part of that has to do with living in Indonesia; being here has forced me outside my comfort zone and it’s made me view myself differently than I did before.

How we view ourselves and how others view us informs how we conduct ourselves. In Indonesia people notice me and a good many people who know I’m a SWF pity me, particularly the married-with-children, thirty-something women who reassure me that I’m still young enough to find a man and have a family, but just barely (they also think I need to brush my hair). Others don’t understand why I left behind the ideal life to live in a country that doesn’t have the social benefits my home country affords, and I get their point but Canada is cold. I guess what some people don’t understand is that right now I choose to be a SWF living in Indonesia and next year I will choose a different lifestyle. People ask what I plan to do after my contract ends next year I tell them I’m making it up as I go along – something my friend calls “reckless optimism” – and they look at me like I’m joking. I suppose trading in a full-time job for a more nomadic lifestyle isn’t everyone’s cup of tea? I think this kind of lifestyle is understandably less accepted in the East though. Asian societies tend to be more collectivistic, valuing and catering to the family before the self. However…

When I was travelling through Italy a couple of years ago – the year I turned 35 – a man told me that I was approaching the “age of deterioration”: that age when women start to lose their ability to attract the opposite sex and get ahead in the world based on their physical attributes (and apparently this only applies to women in case you’re wondering). He told me I had only a few good years left of being received positively by people. The same person also stressed that soon I would have to trade in my backpack for a more socially acceptable lifestyle (and maybe a swaddle blanket?) At first I laughed it off; it was one person’s opinion after all and a rather closed-minded one. But then I started to ask around and wouldn’t you know, nearly every guy I asked agreed that cobwebs would soon start to form! I was shocked. It was something I’d thought about in that deep dark if-I-am-to-be-honest-with-myself space but I never considered that this could be the general consensus amongst men in my age group (the young guys just think I’m a “cool backpacker chick”). Seems there are parallels between Eastern and Western perspectives of the SWF but for different reasons: In Indonesia I am running out of time to have children; in Italy I am losing my sex appeal by the second. Either way the clock ticks!

So there you have it: I’m that deteriorating, thirty-something SWF backpacker chick with messy hair and cut off shorts who just wants to be happy. Job security, permanent housing, and babies don’t beckon and neither does a hairbrush to be honest, I quite like my hair. But this is identifying myself through the perspectives and opinions of others and though that does hold some weight it’s not everything. I don’t reject these socially-imposed “truths” about women, I just choose not to accept them for myself. I don’t feel that there is one right way to be a woman or one right way to be a woman of a certain age, or even one right way to be a woman of a certain age living in a society with more conservative values such as Indonesia. Obviously some conformity is necessary just for the sake of respect but sometimes when I’m feeling rebellious and just dying to resist all those societal and cultural impositions I think about walking into a mosque whilst menstruating; a dirty little secret sort of like changing those boxes on coffee makers in Wal-Mart. But I wouldn’t. I’m don’t intend to disrespect any religion. As for Wal-Mart though…

In Indonesia everybody takes my picture. Standing in line at the supermarket young families ask me for my phone number and for a photo and then eventually I’m in five photos with five different family members, always flashing the two fingered peace sign. When I visited Borobudur (9th century Buddhist temple in Central Java) I was asked 20 times in the space of an hour to be in a picture… I totally did it and had them take a photo with my camera too. I am “Miss” everywhere I go. Some locals downright stop and stare at me in the mall and children sometimes call out “bule” (foreigner) whilst pointing their finger. Can you imagine this happening in Canada or some other Western country? It doesn’t really bother me. At first I was a little put off by it but I’d lived in an Asian country before so I was used to that kind of attention. Now I’ve just come to accept it as a normal part of stepping out into my neighbourhood to grab some groceries… strange isn’t it? It almost feels like celebrity status sometimes. I go to Canada and nobody looks twice at me and I think, c’mon, no one wants my picture?!

In Indonesia I’m also constantly questioned about my marital status. “Do you have a boyfriend?” often precedes “what is your name?” because it is obviously the more important question. “You alone? Why you don’t have a man?” I’m asked like I’m one of the unlucky ones. When I moved to Indonesia last year I met a nice young man working reception at my building. He was keen to practice his English and I was looking for some good warungs (roadside restaurants, similar to street-food stalls) so we made an agreement to meet up occasionally for dinner. To boot, he had a motorbike so there was the added benefit of catching a cool evening breeze during a little tour of the neighbourhood on our way for food. I’m a fairly friendly person. I like people and I am kind to people. I make friends easily. I pride myself on this but some people warned me that my friendly disposition might invite unwanted attention. I’ve been told that many Indonesian men will read friendliness as invitation to something else. I didn’t really think much about this until late last year. After all, I’m certainly not going to dilute myself just because someone might misinterpret my friendliness. But on my birthday last year that street food English-learning friend gave me an English-translated copy of the Koran, asked me to come to his island to meet his family, and told me he liked my hair better when worn loose. Oh dear… I guess those people were right after all. I had to set my friend straight and then take a bit of time away from him to make it clear that friendship was all our relationship was ever going to be. But something niggled at me: what’s wrong with the ponytail? And why the preoccupation with my hair anyways?

That has been about the extent of my dating life in Indonesia. The rest of it is fairly unconventional and this is one of the drawbacks of being a traveller. A close friend of mine in Canada asked me once how my dating life is and how I go about meeting people in Surabaya. I had three answers. The short answer is I don’t meet anyone in Surabaya (no I didn’t count the guy who told me I wasn’t prepared to receive the gifts he had to give when I declined going home with him) and therefore I don’t date anyone in Surabaya. The funny answer is that I prefer to meet people on tropical islands or in airports whilst on holiday and then have a week-long date when they come to visit me in Surabaya (that’s certainly not happening again since my recent escape from the dark place I now refer to as “TrevorLand”) . The real answer is that my dating life is actually non-existent. The dating selection here is as limited as the wine selection. Settling for the available wine just gives you heartburn but the good, imported wine comes at too high a cost. (My male friend and colleague who is also foreign actually appreciates his dating situation. He said that in Indonesia he’s like a fine whisky but at home he’s just a stout ale).

I must share a quick but funny anecdote about my girlfriend, a fellow foreigner and SWF in Surabaya, and her most recent male encounter. She visited the local pharmacy looking for treatment for a common feminine issue. The pharmacist did not speak English and my friend does not speak Bahasa Indonesian so she was attempting to mime that she needed an internal medicine (you can imagine what this puppet show looked like) when a young local man, in perfect English, offered to help. He stated his friend was a doctor so he knew exactly what she was looking for. With his help she got what she needed but for the price of complete mortification. The funny bit though is that he used this interaction as a platform to invite her to dinner. He asked her where she was going and she looked down at her product and replied a little bewildered, “ummm, home?” and he said, “come have dinner with me.” This would NEVER happen at home. This is a perfect example of the unconventional dating situation here… getting asked out at the pharmacy when buying vaginal suppositories!

So this time here in Indonesia as a SWF is a good time to get to know myself better. Take myself to movies, dine alone, practice more yoga, write, travel solo (always the best), learn Bahasa as to avoid embarrassing encounters in the pharmacy and just generally have time by myself. And I’ve come to really appreciate these times more than I ever did in the past. Self-imposed loneliness is actually good for me. It’s not that I don’t want to be around people, I love people and I love socializing. I just don’t always want to be around other people for the sake of being around other people because I don’t want to be alone. I want connection and meaning and finding that with myself might be the very best way to find that with another person. As it turns out being a SWF in Indonesia has introduced me to my best friend yet: a pretty cool chick with messy hair who is recklessly optimistic about life and is actually pretty happy being single. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “we must be our own before we can be another’s.”

The difference between the tourist and the traveller


Living abroad can be much like travelling for an extended period of time, especially if you are a serial “liver-abroad” like me. You take a contract for a few months or a few years. Perhaps you settle permanently somewhere along the way, somewhere that has some pull, or not – you continue moving, from one contract to the next; from city to village, from palm trees to penguins. Is this a purely pragmatic approach to diversifying one’s skill set and opening oneself to new experiences? Is it about wanting to live an eclectic life (aka live outside the box)? Or is the desire to keep moving about escaping the “ordinary world” – the one that exists in each of our native countries – because we are simply unsatisfied with what it has to offer?

I have had this conversation with a good friend several times. She has travelled far and wide and each time she settles she, like me, is happy for a while and then feels bored and longs to travel again. It is the traveller’s cross to bear: once you start, needing to stay in one place for work or any reason makes you feel like a spoiled 3-year-old who can’t have her way. Talking to friends and family after periods of travel is no antidote to this either. Hearing about the exciting (yawn) details of mortgages, babies, and home decorating spurs me to action: where to go/what to do next? What sounds really great now? But perhaps what sounds exciting (travel/living abroad) is not and what doesn’t sound exciting (ordinary life) is… kind of? The grass is always greener… and if you’re not living in Bali the grass is really, really green there!

The life-is-what-you-make-it cliché is actually kind of true (clichés are clichés for a reason). Life doesn’t exist “out there”… it is what you create for yourself. Dissatisfaction with life is probably less about location and more about inner restlessness and a need to do something great. Steve Jobs said, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work and the only way to do great work is to love what you do”. So how does one get there? If you’re still looking for it then I will apologize because I don’t have an answer, solution or road map. I will likely only add fuel to the fire that ignites the traveller’s spirit.

I have luckily experienced being a real-life-r, a tourist, a traveller, and a living-abroad-er. Recently I have realized that these experiences can all occur simultaneously. I live abroad, which I see as different from ordinary life but often feels like ordinary life. When I have holiday time I trade in my living abroad status and I become both a tourist and a traveller. I once read something that differentiated them as such: “A tourist sees what he came to see. A traveller sees what he sees.”

Travelling takes practice. I believe we all start out as tourists. We leave to see something different, something special, something that will upset our worldview; therefore, we are looking for something. After a while a change happens. The world becomes a pallet upon which to paint your perspective instead of a pre-existing artwork to be captured in a photograph or judged. And isn’t this life? It is not set out before us, it is not written, it is not drawn or painted or previously created… it is in the making (which of course depends entirely on your metaphysical map).

When you are travelling and you take a picture, what do you see? My late father-in-law always said that taking pictures was a way of looking at the world. When I researched for my thesis one of the most important things I learned was to look at the data rather than for something in the data. When you look for beautiful, for amazing, for different you will surely find it because you are looking through lenses labelled “beautiful”, “amazing”, “different”: the ones you have always worn that help you to classify everything you see as such. But what happens when you look at things for what they are, without judgement or critique or a label… what do you see? Hard to describe, right? This is the feeling part and feelings are not easily translated.

When I start out a holiday I always start out as a tourist and then quickly, because I have had a lot of practice, I become a traveller again and the tourist trap starts to irritate me – the one that calls out “take my picture”, “buy me” – and is immediately chided by the traveller’s voice reminding me to explore and experience. The traveller’s voice tells me to not look at what the vendor is selling, but to look at the person selling, at her eyes and at her hands, to listen to her voice rather than her words. It reminds me not to follow all the signs leading me down the paths well worn by a thousand others. Sure maybe there is something great to see there, something that can be captured for a later framed 4×6 in my living room. Or maybe the less-beaten path offers something else entirely, a totally different experience. I believe that both paths are equally promising depending on how I look at them. On the well-worn path however, seeing beyond that which is expected can be difficult. How does one create a totally original painting over top of one that already exists? Perhaps this is the true art of living?

I always notice the foreigners-living-abroad when I travel. They look so comfortable, they interact easily with the locals, they own the businesses that make all us tourists and travellers hungry for that what-if cracker. I feel it every time I go somewhere new that I love: What would it be like to do such-and-such in a foreign country and then I remember I am doing such-and-such in a foreign country… it just doesn’t seem as exotic or romantic or delicious. It feels unsatisfactory, almost boring. So living abroad gives me the opportunity to explore the unexplored, which I do but the subsequent travelling makes me hungry for more, it unsettles me a little further, it leaves me feeling like I am missing out on something by remaining in one place for too long. It makes me feel like I am chasing something I will never quite reach – the elusive something that makes life satisfying but that prevents me from seeing – and importantly, fully appreciating – things just as they are. I am hoping this is how the dots will connect down the road: travelling = creating.

“Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs