Growing up, I never expected I would become an expatriate. I always assumed that like most people, I would graduate, fall into a job or profession, and then meet someone and settle down to a life if not full of domestic bliss, then at least one of relative contentment.
Yet here I am now, into middle age with far more years behind than in front of me fast approaching the thirtieth anniversary of my move to Indonesia and I am aware that this might very well be it – I might now never permanently return to England’s fine shores.
During my time here I have of course seen many changes to the wonderful country I have been fortunate enough to call “home” all this time. The Indonesia of 2022 is a far different place from the one I first encountered when I came here to live in the spring of 1993 politically, economically, socially and culturally within the main – great strides having been made in all areas.
The rest of the world has, naturally, also moved on in the same period of time, as my trips home to England bear out. Every time I am lucky enough to be able to afford a quick break back in Blighty, I notice yet more changes and differences to the land I grew up in.
As I have gotten older and stayed here longer and longer, not only has my outlook on life in general naturally developed but also my attitude towards the expatriate life has altered. The expatriate existence of the third decade of the new millennium is vastly different to that of the last decade of the previous one, that’s for sure.
In days gone by, a true expatriate really could be described as a renaissance man or woman – someone totally cut off from their previous existence with little or no links connecting them to the past. The same cannot really be said about today and the modern expatriate.
One of the most noticeable changes has been advancements in technology which have been staggering over the past three decades. It is these changes that have contributed most to the ways in which life as an expatriate has also changed.
When I first touched down in sunny Surabaya all those years ago, it was before the advent of the internet of course, and so news, communications and correspondence with one’s homeland were rudimentary, to say the least. The only viable ways to stay in touch with friends and family in those days were through snail mail or the occasional phone call. As the price of even a one-minute call to England back in 1993 was approximately £3 (or around Rp10,000) then, I developed penmanship that had been sadly lacking since the days of my misspent youth.
Many a Saturday evening was spent trying to tune into the BBC World Service in order to follow to some degree the fledging new Premier League back in England. The success rate of satisfactory connection was at best around 50 percent as I recall, leading to levels of undue frustration on a weekly basis.
Other media was scarce in those days too, meaning I was cut off from keeping in touch with the everyday comings and goings of my home country and as a result, soon fell behind in terms of knowing who was famous or popular in modern culture. In the Indonesian media, reporting on world news rather than localised events were rare and when it did occur at all it was mainly with a United States slant with the result that I quickly fell behind on such matters as political and economic events. For example, I remember not being aware that Tony Blair had been elected the leader of the Labour Party until a good six months or so after the event.
In addition, books, magazines and newspapers in English were expensive and not especially easy to come by out in Surabaya back then, with only the Jakarta Post newspaper freely available and even this august publication invariably made its way to East Java a day late.
However, I recall that rather than feeling any great sense of isolation or homesickness, I was invigorated by the changes and diversity I was experiencing. I was trying to learn the language – a battle I am still far from winning all these years later – and was being exposed to other new experiences such as the transportation systems and local food delicacies. I like to think in those days I was reasonably open-minded and so didn’t find the anticipated culture shock much of a problem but there was no denying that there was an underlying current present.
Without generalising too much I hope, I found Indonesians to be rather more approachable and friendly than the sometimes rather staid and conservative brethren of my homeland, and upon reflection, although welcome strangers striking up conversations did take a bit of getting used to.
As the years went by and I became more ingrained in life overseas, the advent of technology developed to such an extent that my life as an expatriate also changed significantly. A message or WhatsApp phone call home now is practically a daily event for most of us, while all the information in the world is a mere couple of clicks away. This means that the world is in effect getting smaller and we are all becoming global citizens to an extent
Now, all these years later and I am still here, and as reasonably content and happy as I am to call Indonesia “home“, there is still an awareness that I am and will always be an outsider to a degree. Although totally accepted by almost everyone I meet and deal with in work, social and other environments, I realise that I am different in some respects and this will always be the case.
Additionally, the longer I stay away from England the more detached I feel from that green and pleasant land too. Each time I return for a holiday or to see friends and relatives, I feel just a little more “off the pace“, in a manner of speaking, and I have long been at the stage when I consider each journey to England as a “holiday” and not “a trip home“.
In summary, although life as an expatriate has had its ups and downs and challenges, it has been a great experience and one that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.