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Expats arriving in Indonesia might experience something of a sensory overload. This is especially true for those moving to Jakarta, a big, bustling city with a population of more than 10 million. Poverty and shanty towns are a common sight in Indonesia and are in stark contrast to the more modern buildings that scrape Jakarta's skyline.
Traffic in most major Indonesian cities is a huge problem and the congestion is some of the worst in the world. Cities are not pedestrian friendly, and sidewalks are often uneven or obstructed with roadworks. Another large adjustment for expats moving to Indonesia is the quality of the air in the cities. Pollution is a concern, particularly for those with respiratory problems.
On the plus side, Indonesians are generally friendly people with a good sense of humour. Expats should feel safe and welcome in their neighbourhoods, and making local friends is a great way to feel more at home.
Time in Indonesia
Time can be a flexible concept in Indonesian culture, so much so that the phrase 'jam karet' (rubber time) has become famous in the country. Expats can expect to have meetings cancelled without notice and for business associates and local friends to be late quite often.
Indonesians are generally relaxed about time and would rather spend extra time speaking to someone and building a relationship than being on time for their next meeting.
Language barrier in Indonesia
The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia. English is also spoken and the most widely heard local dialect is Javanese. We recommend expats take the time to learn a few phrases in Bahasa Indonesia as it will make day-to-day tasks, like shopping or directing a taxi driver, much easier.
Meeting and greeting in Indonesia
The most common greeting in Indonesia is a handshake, although this differs in certain circumstances and in the interactions between different genders.
When a man is greeting a man, a handshake with the right hand is the most common. Handshakes are often accompanied by a slight bow of the head. At times both men will put their palm to their heart after shaking hands as a sign of respect. When a woman is greeting another woman, a handshake is common but sometimes just a nod of acknowledgement is used.
When men and women greet each other, handshakes are acceptable, but the man should always wait for the woman to initiate it. If a woman puts her hands in front of her chest in a prayer position it means she would prefer not to shake hands. In this case, the man should return the gesture.
Communication in Indonesia
As in many Asian cultures, it is important for Indonesian people to 'save face'. This means never publicly criticising or reprimanding someone. This custom also often results in Indonesians being quite vague if they have a problem and always telling someone what they want to hear, even if they have no intention of following through.
Face-to-face interactions are highly valued, especially in the business world. Expats are more likely to get attention and results from a face-to-face business meeting than from an email or phone call.
Bureaucracy in Indonesia
Even though Indonesia boasts a powerful economy, bureaucratic red tape is still a problem which hampers economic growth and potential for investment. Besides slowing down day-to-day tasks, this bureaucracy also causes problems for expats trying to get entry visas or work permits for Indonesia.
Religion in Indonesia
Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and while foreigners would do well to dress modestly and respect Muslim customs, the religious differences shouldn't affect their day-to-day lives too much.
►For first-hand accounts from expats living in this vibrant archipelago, see Expat Experiences in Indonesia
"One of the first things I learned when I moved here is that the second you show frustration or raise your voice, you lose. And believe me, you will get frustrated a lot! Is it worth it in the end? I would still say yes. The people, food, geographical location and history is amazing. You just have to learn to live on rubber time." Read more about American expat Jennifer's life in Indonesia.
Are you an expat living in Indonesia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Indonesia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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