Life:: Live and Work in Indonesia

Riau Islands, Bintan. Local medicin practitioner in Tanjung Pinang. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

Riau Islands, Bintan. Local medicin practitioner in Tanjung Pinang. Strange customs is a part of daily life in Indonesia. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

To fully enjoy living in a country like Indonesia you need the ability to quickly adapt. Many people will on their first visit to Asia experience a cultural shock, absolutely everything is different. A cultural shock is not just a way of speech, it can be quite real for most of us moving to a new country. It will not appear right after the move as many may believe, for the first 1-2 months everything will look new, exciting and charming.

In the next phase all that used to be charming may turn into a source of irritation. You may hit an absolute low after 4-5 months, when stress, frustration and irritation may create a big problem. Fortunately this will in most cases improve when you learn to know the local conditions, language and culture, and you will most likely adapt a more realistic and harmonic relation to your new surroundings after a year. By learning about the language, culture and society in advance you can shorten the duration of this period considerably, or even eliminate it altogether.

In Indonesia you will often meet a different logic and sense of time, the Indonesians themselves have an expression called “jam karet”, which can be translated to “rubber time”. An agreed time for an appointment or delivery can be stretched like a rubber string. On the other hand this doesn’t mean that people don’t care, the job will be done, it’s just a matter of time and patience.

Religion plays a major part in this country, about 90 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim and take their prayers and religious ceremonies seriously, you can forget to make an appointment between 11 and 13 o’clock on a Friday! Whatever religious belief a person has you just don’t make jokes about religion here.

Even if the large majority of the population are Muslim there is full freedom of religion, a good thing which in practical life means a lot of religious holidays. Compared to many Arabic countries this is a liberal Muslim state. Alcohol, at least beer, can easily be found in shops and cafe’s, but to see a drunken Indonesian is very rare. Women are active outside the home, both at work and in organizations, some also in politics.

To learn at least a minimum of the Indonesian language will make life dramatically simpler. Even if some understand a little bit of English most don’t. Some may give the impression that they understand you and say “yes” to your questions, even if they don’t have a clue what you are talking about. This can be very confusing until you learn how to ask simple questions in order to control the persons knowledge of foreign languages.

The Javanese culture doesn’t like confrontations, and the word “no” is almost totally absent from their language. Supposedly there are 21 ways to say “no” in Javanese, 19 of them are “yes”. In a country with hundreds of different languages almost all Indonesians can speak Bahasa Indonesia in public or with people from other regions. For daily use many speak their local language. Bahasa Indonesia is not so difficult, the vocabulary is quite different but the grammatical is relatively easy. One example is plural which is almost absent, the word is simply repeated twice, one child is called “anak”, many children are called “anak anak”.

Kalimantan, Tanjung Datu. Small village close to the Malaysian border. Children playing on the beach. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

Kalimantan, Tanjung Datu. Small village close to the Malaysian border. Children playing on the beach. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

As a foreigner you have to get used to a lot of attention, usually this is only fun, but sometimes very annoying. At first some will get angry or even scared, but the attention shown by the locals is almost always friendly. You cannot walk far before you hear “where are you going mister?” or “hello boss”, just reply with a “hello” and you will have a friend. Remember to be polite, especially on Java where politeness is an important part of the language and culture. On Java you address adult men with “Pak” and women with “Ibu”, if somebody calls you “Pak” (or “Ibu”) it is a sign of respect. The Indonesians are at the same time very open and direct, if they call you skinny or fat it is not meant as an offense here.

It is important to meet with and talk to the locals in daily life, if you only meet with other expatriates you can quickly adapt a negative view of the local conditions, the influence will be only one sided. A good relationship with other foreigners is on the other hand also useful, you will learn from the experiences of other people in the same situation as yourself.

To travel to Indonesia as a tourist will for most western nationalities require a visa, then you can stay there for one month at a time. Some nationalities may obtain the visa on arrival, while others have to apply before they travel. If you intend to work here you will need a Business Visa, later you will have to apply for a stay permit and work permit, the stay permit will normally last for a year at a time. Each time you leave the country you will then need an entry/re-entry permit and pay a fiscal fee, if you are employed here this will in most cases be arranged by your company.

You will need some vaccinations before you travel, it is best to do this in your home country. Malaria is not a problem on Java or Bali, but in more remote areas of the country you should take malaria tablets. If you use common sense there is minimal risk of getting any tropical diseases, the most common problem is diarrhea. Only eat food that is properly cooked or fried or fresh fruit, don’t drink tap water, to be safe you shouldn’t even brush your teeth in tap water. The papaya fruit is a good remedy against stomach problems, it is also very tasty. Fruit of all kinds grow in abundance here, don’t be afraid to try, most of them are very good (even durian).

Above all, enjoy your time here, the success of your stay is mostly up to yourself!

  • Living in Indonesia Interesting and useful site with experiences of expats who have stayed in Indonesia, many links

Life:: Moving abroad – The spouse situation

Indonesia, Java, Jakarta. Blok M Plaza and Pasaraya Grande are main shopping centers in Blok M. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

Indonesia, Java, Jakarta. The spouse is normally the one who goes to the supermarket or the market to do the shopping. Blok M Plaza and Pasaraya Grande are main shopping centers in Blok M. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

This article is basically written for expatriates moving to Indonesia for a shorter or longer period, the article’s main focus is on the wife who decides to follow her husband abroad, as this is still the most common case when a family moves to a developing nation. Every move abroad starts with a decision (still) most often made by the husband, or more correctly, by his employers, and by the time the spouse hears about it she sometimes feel there is little left to discuss.

First step: the decision to move abroad

The wife does not want to be discouraging and she does not want to get in the way of her husband’s career. Chances are that she will go along with the decision without feeling like she has either a choice or a full understanding of what the move involves. This situation is now fortunately changing as there is today not the same obvious expectation that the wife will follow her husband.

The wife often has her own career that needs to be considered. However, the husband’s career is still in many cases considered more important and the wife tends to go along with her husband’s desires. The point here is not that the wife should refuse to give up her job to follow her husband to a foreign country. The point is that there needs to be a thorough discussion of the issue and the wife needs to be included in all parts of the decision making process.

Added difficulties for the spouse

There is no doubt that the move abroad and the following culture shock can be difficult for the whole family. The experience is however more intense for the non-working wife because she has little else to focus on. The husband, while submerging himself in a new culture, is also very busy at work where he is often surrounded by other expatriates, or at least by people who have an international background and who are used to dealing with people from different cultures. The children usually have school or pre-school to focus on. This may be at an international school where they meet children from all over the world and from their own country as well. We do not suggest that starting at a new school in an environment where everything is strange and different and where you might not even speak the language is an easy and pleasant experience, but children have an amazing ability to adapt, and once they are adjusted school becomes the focus in their lives.

The wife, who has probably left a job behind, has no work, initially has no friends or extended family around, and no organizations to belong to. In many developing nations, including Indonesia, there are servants who take care of the household duties such as washing and cooking and looking after the smaller children, so these activities are taken away from her as well.

The wife is also in closest contact with the locals around her. She is the one who goes to the supermarket or the market to do the shopping and she is the one who tries to communicate with the servants. The culture shock can therefore hit her harder and faster. The problems may be highlighted by her husband’s work when it involves a lot of traveling and she feels he is never there when she needs him.

Creating a meaningful life

The point is not to paint a picture of how horrible moving to a foreign country might be for the spouse. It is rather to indicate that the problems she faces could have repercussions on everyone, and it is therefore in the best interest of everyone involved to make sure that she adjusts and that she is happy. The wife should, therefore, be included in any pre-departure orientations. The more information she gets to prepare herself, the easier it will be for her to adjust. The happiness of the wife is not solely the responsibility of those surrounding her, however. It is very much up to herself. If she has made a conscious and informed decision that she wants her and her family to move to a different country so that her husband can be involved in an international project, knowing she leaves friends and family behind and usually opportunity to work, then it is up to her to make the best of it.

We will recommend that any wife takes the opportunity to live abroad for a period if she feels it fits into her own goals. Living in a foreign culture, although at times very frustrating, can be a very enriching experience. It is a chance to be a part of something very different from what you are used to, and not been able to if you had not moved. It may also be a very good opportunity to develop yourself. Although the wife is an important support system for the rest of her family she also has a lot of time for herself. Not having to work or to do household chores means she can focus on other things.

It is not adequate to say, however, “this is great, I’m going to have two years vacation”. You have to make a conscious effort to figure out what you will do with your spare time, you need to create a meaningful life for yourself. Creating a meaningful life abroad remains the most neglected aspect of the spouse’s experience in a foreign country. People talk about the initial culture shock, learning a foreign language, and adjusting to the new culture. But adjustment is only half of the challenge, it brings a potentially negative situation to neutral, not to positive. Adjustment only brings the wife to the point where the foreign environment no longer constantly frustrates her, it does not provide motivation, direction and a meaning to daily life. The spouse will need to decide what she finds fulfilling, and what she would like to accomplish during her stay abroad.

There are no right or wrong answers. Each person will have a different response. Some examples are: developing one’s artistic side, teaching the mother language and history to compatriot children who have spent a long time abroad, volunteer work, taking the opportunity to have babies, using her education and professional experience to pursue something on a volunteer basis (an architect can design an efficient playground for needy children), learning in depth about the history, culture and language of the host country, learning a new sport (tennis, golf etc.). The important thing is not what she decides to do, but that she decides to do something that is meaningful to her. If her husband moves from one foreign country to another, it is important that this meaningful activity is portable.

As mentioned earlier, this move can be a very interesting and exciting experience for the whole family, but you can not be passive and expect things to happen. You have to make the effort to meet the people you want to meet and do the things you want to do. The expatriate community can be a real strength both socially and in terms of getting helpful information on what to do. It is important to make an effort and to keep a positive attitude whenever possible. Another obvious support system is everyone else who are about to go through the same experience. Help each other so that you can stop focusing on the frustrating aspects of living in Indonesia and start enjoying everything this beautiful country has to offer.

  • Living in Indonesia Interesting and useful site with experiences of expats who have stayed in Indonesia, many links