“Everyone is good at the honeymoon.” Have you ever heard of that? Recently some friends in the states moved to San Miguel Allende in Mexico, of course.
They were retiring and had heard a lot about the wonderful life there for expats. “Wow! Great! Cool,” we all said on Facebook and other places. Do you know how many people I have known who have “retired” to San Miguel Allende? Many. They stayed for a couple of years and came back home with their collective tails between their legs. It is not that San Miguel is not a cool place but how’s your Spanish? What about the debilitating bacteria so hard to avoid? How about your small circle of friends there that gets fewer with time, not larger? I don’t know all the issues there despite my knowledge of Mexico and Spanish. What I do know is that everyone is good on the honeymoon. It is after that that things get real.
Actually, I came to Indonesia fourteen years ago but bounced back into the international teaching scene for a few more years before settling permanently ten years ago. I met my wife in Surabaya. She is a Suraboyo, born and raised here. After a few years of trying to adjust to so many things that are so different, I asked a teaching colleague who had lived here for many more years than I, “Pat, how many years before you stop complaining?” “About seven,” he said. Guess what? He was right. After about seven years I stopped complaining, accepted everything, almost, and basically fell in love with my new country.
Let me give you a few examples of my struggle. For six years, earplugs were survival equipment for me. I have a lifetime supply but don’t use them anymore. For someone who likes quiet, peace, and nature, Indonesia is very noisy and urban. If there is a sound system available, Indonesian people will always feel they have to turn it up to full volume, often to the point where it is probably damaging hearing. They like it like that.
Then there was the trash. Indonesia is a dirty country outside of the malls or one’s house. They haven’t figured out what to do with the trash. That was one of the most difficult things and still is to some extent. But now I don’t go out in the morning with a bag and pick it up. My wife warned me about that. “They will think there is something wrong with you,” she warned. So, I stopped doing that, also because it made no difference to anyone but me.
Malls and driving endless traffic to go here and there were also very difficult for me. I had to learn to appreciate a good mall, and Surabaya is famous for them. I came to Indonesia after 30 years in Vermont where nature is close and beautiful. I think most of my fine friends there have never been to a mall. Now I not only enjoy the great malls but also driving in traffic, especially at night (we have a driver). There are no museums in Surabaya but everywhere you look there is something very interesting, creative, and beautiful: the becaks, the kaki limas, the fascinating houses and house designs, and the way colour is used everywhere with experimental abandon. I am not kidding. That’s how far I have come.
But the heart of my experience here is something much different. It has to do with the connection between people. The world I was raised in, New York City and New England, is competitive and cold – dingin. Of course, there are great people everywhere, but in the bule world, independence and self-reliance are the cornerstones of the culture. When I moved from New York up to the north country, an old timer told me, “If you are looking for a helping hand, you will find it at the end of your own arm.” What a concept! But that is the culture. And now, of course, it is even rougher, more violent, and even dangerous.
In Surabaya, I never feel worried about my safety. People are sopan dan ramah, polite and friendly. If it is superficial, as it might be sometimes, who cares? It still works and is better than ugly confrontations. We are with hundreds, even thousands of people sometimes, and I never hear shouting or angry words. In traffic, where we spend a lot of time, a small beep of the horn suffices. Nobody has to pull over, get out of the car, and want to kill you. That is not an exaggeration. Road rage is a reality in the western world.
We live on the east side of Surabaya, the old side, and there are almost no foreigners here. I go months without seeing another Caucasian and when I do, we generally avoid each other, because we would rather be with Indonesian people than with each other. I speak Indonesian and continue studying it seriously as I have for over six years. My teacher is in Bali and we talk via Zoom. Our driver also helps me, and my wife, naturally. Our driver Pak Rom has learned English faster than I have learned Indonesian so he is a great resource for expressions, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
The insulting things we westerners say, even for purposes of humour, are not in the Indonesian language itself or are impossible to say from the perspective of politeness. In some ways, the instruction of my Indonesian teacher is therapy in one sense. My sarcastic jokes, black humour, and exaggerations fall flat. My teacher restates them for me, washing them clean of any meanness or disrespect. Although I am deprived of what I possibly do best, outrageous hyperbole, I feel I am being made into a better person.
The way the culture is here, the friendliness, the politeness, creates a sense of belonging, There is a connection, mysterious, but real. Despite not having friends here (people are busy with their families) I never feel lonely, not like I did in Vermont where I had many. How is that possible? It is mysterious. In Indonesia, one has a sense here that we are sharing life together, all of us doing whatever we do, on whatever level, with a sense of respect all around.