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Surviving Jakarta: An expat’s account of culture shock in Indonesia

Updated 17 Apr 2012

Before leaving London to start our new life in Jakarta, I tried to prepare myself for the culture shock as much as possible by reading anything I could find on the Internet to give me some idea of what to expect once we finally arrived in Indonesia.

I’d never been to Asia before, and although I was very excited to have this opportunity of living and working in this incredible part of the world, I was under no misapprehension as to the huge changes I would face once I started living in Indonesia. Everyone has different concerns when they relocate abroad, and I suspect that mine were no different from the hundreds of other Western women who, at some time, have upped sticks and moved to this part of the world. For me, in particular, it was a bit daunting moving to a predominantly Muslim country.

The fashion police

I knew that things that I had previously enjoyed and taken for granted in London would not be accepted in the same way here. This in no way put me off the idea of moving to Indonesia, but instead made me think carefully about what things I might have to change once I was here; my wardrobe, for example, meant no more mini skirts and thigh-high boots for me. These days, my attire is somewhat more modest, and I try to keep the top of my arms covered. For practical reasons, because of the heat and humidity, it’s actually very lovely just wearing floaty, cool cotton clothes, and although they’re not my usual garb, they work well, and importantly, I also know that I am not offending by my wearing them.

I met a woman recently who had made the mistake of turning up to the Visa and Immigration Office wearing shorts and a strappy vest top. She was stopped by security and prohibited from entering the building. When she asked why, they told her that it was because she had flouted the rules on the dress code and that if she wished to get a visa, she would need to come back the next day with her arms covered and wearing suitable clothing.

Being an expat woman in Indonesia

Something I wasn’t expecting was how my status as a wife and as a woman in general would change so dramatically. It became apparent early on that I had suddenly grown entirely invisible whenever I was out with my husband. Interestingly, his status seems to have soared, whilst mine has virtually disappeared. It grated me somewhat when we were opening up a joint bank account that the bank manager refused to acknowledge my existence for the entire duration of our appointment. Even though I was putting my hard-earned cash into the pot too, it was as if my presence there was superfluous. I’ve seen the respect that my husband is given both from men and from women, and I sometimes wish that this went for me too! In the grand scheme of things, these are all small matters, but they were part of my particular culture shock in Indonesia in the first weeks of living here.

Everyday life in Jakarta

However much reading and research one might do, nothing can properly prepare you for the massive attack on one’s senses when first moving to Jakarta. This great, grey megalopolis has a population of over 12 million people. Many of these people are living in extreme poverty and shanties, and slums are as much a part of the city’s architecture as the grand modern offices and tower blocks that mark the city skyline. The roads are constantly congested with heavy traffic and the lack of adequate pavements, coupled with the fumes and pollution, make walking difficult and unpleasant. Crossing a road here could almost be classified as an extreme sport.

Another culture shock that took a little while to recover from was the ladies’ toilets. I soon discovered that it’s a rich and rare treat to find toilet paper in the cubicles, as traditionally, women wash themselves afterwards with a sort of hose-like apparatus. I also wondered why I encountered black footmarks so often on the lavatory seat. At first I thought it might be the previous occupant getting up to peer over into the cubicle next door in a hunt for some paper, but then I realised that that wasn’t quite the case after I spotted some interesting stickers on the toilet doors with a picture showing how to sit properly on the toilet and a big X through an image of a squatting woman on the toilet seat itself. It seems that modern sit-down toilets are not to everyone’s taste and that traditional squatting toilets are still preferred by some.

Final thoughts...

It’s clear to me now, having been here for several months, that it’s very often the little things that are the ones with the biggest culture shock aspect. I really enjoy my new life in Jakarta, and aside from wishing that I could wave a magic wand and stop the poverty, homelessness and corruption, I feel very settled and happy here. Indonesians are very friendly, good fun, and they have a great sense of humour. I am always greeted with big smiles and hellos when I am out shopping or walking around my neighbourhood, and I’ve never felt threatened or in danger. As each day goes by, I feel more and more at home.

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