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East Java Friends and How to Cope with a Go-Along-To-Get-Along Society

East Java Friends and How to Cope with a Go-Along-To-Get-Along Society
East Java Friends and How to Cope with a Go-Along-To-Get-Along Society

Joe Kirk does not use the words “foreigner” or “bule”’; the latter is the slang term in Java for Caucasians. Some consider it racist because centuries ago, it meant an albino buffalo.

“I prefer ‘international citizen’ — that covers everyone,” the founder of East Java Friends said in his Malang home where he runs a network of 330 people from 22 separate nations. The top three nationalities are the US, Australia, and the Netherlands. Some are retirees, others work for international companies. Many are married to Indonesians.

Newcomers of East Java Friends would raise their needs, queries, and concerns. Top of the list is not security or health, but traffic and space — or rather, its absence. This bothers people raised in the Australian outback or American prairies.

I tell them straight — this is how things are,” said Kirk. “The locals aren’t going to change, so you need to adjust. OK, the road rules are different and not always followed as in the West. Don’t complain; adapt and enjoy.”

Kirk continued, “We’re outsiders, privileged to be in this extraordinary country. There’s so much to see and learn, including the language and lifestyle. If that’s not what you want, head home.”

Apart from Malang‘s famous boulevard, Jalan Ijen, and the central street, Jalan Basuki Rachmat, 78 years ago, the citizens of the second biggest metropolis in East Java inherited some splendid buildings, particularly churches and government offices. However, these standouts are surrounded by a spaghetti of narrow alleys left by the departing Dutch colonialists. It was not because of bad planning; instead, it was due to constraints by the deep gullies and twisting tributaries of the Brantas River and the encircling hills and mountains.

It is these geographical features that make this cool hilltown, 444 metres above sea level, the place where Kirk loves to live and expects to die, though that is not planned for anytime soon as there is too much to do — and it is all his own making. He reckons being busy is a virtue.

When Kirk spoke to Indonesia Expat, the one-time soldier, accountant, company manager, and businessman was preparing for the East Java Friends’ annual carnival — the first since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. The idea is to “meet your community neighbours” by sharing food and games played on the grounds of an international school. Together with his Indonesian wife, Ratih, he gathered flags and posters and assembled a schedule of events to keep the show moving and ensure much intermingling. This takes some organising — a skill Kirk has in abundance largely because of his rich background.

Kirk grew up on a cotton farm in Mississippi, the United States, and put himself through a four-year university course by working four jobs. He eventually joined the army. Out of uniform, he scored a job with an international tobacco company. He does not smoke but learned how to test for taste and quality. He did so well that the directors sent him to Jakarta, a city he had never heard about.

Kirk arrived in mid-May 1998, glanced out of a Jakarta high-rise at the streets below, saw the demonstrators as the country’s second president, Soeharto, quit office, and told his colleagues to leave — and do it quickly.

Hearing of the disorder from the safety of the United States should have been enough to convince Kirk that there were better places to employ his talents. However, his company wanted him to manage a run-down tobacco factory in Malang. He took the job on his terms, expanded output, and turned the business into profit. He did this not by buying costly new machines from overseas which would have displaced operators and distressed many, but by responding to the needs of the 600 staff. That included an early-opening canteen to encourage on-time starts, hygienic toilets, and worker-friendly schedules. These were approaches that he had garnered over the years from being a hands-on manager and student of human behaviour.

At that time as well, a German couple was publishing a quarterly newsletter in English. When they returned to Europe, Kirk took over, dumped the magazine, and expanded the organisation. He found small groups of expats “living in bubbles of work or religion, not mixing”.

“I didn’t like that,” said Kirk. “We need to mix with the locals, support each other in adjusting to Indonesian laws and culture, and solve everyday problems. Some involve dealing with government agencies, like the Immigration Office where the staff have always been very helpful.

Kirk continued, “This is a go-along-to-get-along society. People are tolerant and accepting and usually interested in who we are. But we must always be respectful.”

East Java Friends
East Java Friends

So, what is it that East Java Friends do?

“We meet weekly for lunch and have monthly family gatherings and special occasions,” Kirk explained. “I put out a news bulletin every afternoon and I forward security alerts from the US consulate-general in Surabaya. We’ve assembled a directory of recommended services, like clinics and repair shops. Members share their experiences and offer advice. Whenever I see an international citizen whom I don’t know, in the street or shopping malls, I invite them to join East Java Friends. There’s no fee. We have to encounter newcomers, and make them welcome.”

Ultimately, what matters is how his fellow expats can build a happy life for themselves.

Whatever their background, I want people to feel they are part of Malang and be happy here,” Kirk concluded.

Contact Joe Kirk at [email protected]

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