What’s that they say about stuff being sweeter the second time around? That’s the perfect way to describe my Jakarta expatriation experience. Round 2 was twice the fun.
I have been living in Jakarta for more than a year now. Fourteen months, to be exact. This is not my first time to be an expat here. I lived in Jakarta for 2 years from 2010 until 2012, but decided to come back to Manila when my “mother company” asked me to return for a digital role. Coincidentally, the Philippines back then showed economic promise, so I packed my bags and headed home.
Fast forward to 2015: I had to move back to Jakarta because Arshad had this career opportunity that we felt we can’t let pass. I called my headhunters, contacts and friends to check for potential job leads. A headhunter also wanted my husband badly enough to say, “Find the wife a job here (in Jakarta) and make sure they move.”
In the end, I chose to go back to my former company in Jakarta because it’s a telco, and telco runs through my blood.
The rest is history.
So here I am, living my Chapter 2: a saner, happier and more fulfilling episode. I wanted to share why and how things got better, because being an expat is not always happiness and sunshine.
Here is my top 5 list of what made Jakarta so much better the second time around:
1. A better grasp of the language. At the very least, learn the basics: how to count, how to greet people, ask for directions, order food and reserve restaurants. I first learned how to count and ask for discount by shopping in Ambassador Mall. None of the sellers know how to speak English so the only way is to either know how to count numbers or arm yourself with calculator and bargain by punching the numbers in. You have higher chances of getting more diskon (discount), though, if you know the language. Locals find it amusing and they are very appreciative if foreigners make an effort to speak Bahasa.
As for me, I can no longer be sold. I can survive basic conversations and I can understand conversations (even technical meetings!) in Bahasa.
I highly recommend getting some basic classes, but based on feedback and experience, group classes with fellow expats are better. It also helps to try to speak the language, albeit broken, in day-to-day conversations and to watch local TV.
For expats with drivers and maids, try to speak to them more. Turo-turo works. Point the objects to them and they’d tell you for sure what they are in the local language. My driver used to translate everything to me. While driving in the rain, he would tell me random things like “hujan” for rain, “hujan terus” as literal translation of “keep raining” and “banjir” for flood. Try it – it works!
2. Attraction to the country’s food and culture.
I don’t think anyone can last in a country if he doesn’t like the local food. International cuisines can only get you so far. Food is a basic need – it needs to be available and accessible everywhere, most of the time.
Indonesian food is almost always spicy. It’s definitely spicier than Filipino food, so people with low tolerance with spice might have some difficulty adjusting to it. Lucky me, I love spicy food and I literally carry a Tabasco sauce in my bag when I travel, which made me fall in love with Indonesian food all the more.
I’m a pesco-vegetarian and I also observed that a lot of the restaurants in Jakarta are vegetarian-friendly. There are also vegan restaurants and caterers who can deliver vegetarian or vegan-friendly packed meals for a week.
What makes a country interesting is the local culture. Admittedly, I have great admiration for Indonesia’s batik. Indonesians are very proud of their batik heritage and it’s been integrated to their modern fashion, bags and accessories.
Every Monday, we are required to wear batik outfits in the office and I made this as my excuse to pack a third of my closet space with batik dresses and jackets.
Did I mention that Indonesia has very good teakwood furniture? Indonesia is also known for teakwood and refurbished antique furniture and while in Indonesia, you can start collecting or overhauling your home’s interior. Wherever I go, I try to buy pieces of furniture here and there.
In Jakarta, Kemang will have furniture shops for teakwood sofa, beds and cabinets. Jalan Surabaya in Menteng is an entire street of antique and refurbished antique flea market. Careful while shopping, because there are a lot of knock-offs, too.
3. Appreciation of the people.
It comes with the territory. You cannot live in a place for a long time if you do not like their people. Every culture, every nationality will have nuances – good ones and bad. If you are an expat, you have to either embrace it or accept it. You are the visitor. Whether you like it or not, you adjust to them, instead of wanting them to adjust to you.
Indonesians are very respectful and polite. I honestly think they are more courteous and polite than us, Pinoys. However, there are pros and cons to it because politeness also means they can be ambiguous, which requires “reading between the lines,” when you communicate. This is very much reflected on the Indonesian and Javanese language, which have a lot of euphemisms.
The Indonesian society is also very hierarchical in nature. They respect power distance and most of the time, they try to avoid conflict, which can explain why some of them resort to passive- aggressive forms of communication and conflict management. They also value face and avoid social shame, so it’s a NO-NO to embarrass someone or reprimand a staff in public. These do not apply to everyone, but even in socio-cultural studies, these values are dominant in Indonesians.
Knowing these social and cultural values will save you the shame of making a fool of yourself, or worse, being treated like a social pariah. Admittedly, in my first year, I struggled with this because I’m generally direct when I communicate. I don’t mince words and being brutally frank in this context may mean being rude or aggressive towards them. As time went by and as I got to know more Indonesians, I learned how to adjust and deal with the nuances, without losing myself and my flexibility in relating to different kinds of people.
4. Making friends and building your social network.
I kept a very small circle when I was starting out. I was single back then and although I had a circle of expat friends and Pinoys I regularly hang out with, I kept my social engagements to a minimum. It backfired because I’m naturally an extrovert who likes a lot of interaction and social activities.
This time around, I didn’t hesitate to join social activities and organizations when they reached out. Coming from UP, my university has an alumni association chapter in Jakarta (I believe it’s the only university with an alumni chapter here) which I joined and where I’m very active in. I joined UPAA-Indonesia’s activities and meetings. I now even show up for the Philippine Embassy’s events which I shunned in the past and I’ve made more friends through these engagements.
Local friends are a great help to explore Indonesia. They will know the nice hipster coffee shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving the best local food, speak-easy bars, pop-up stores and flea markets.
Never isolate yourself when you’re in a different country. Make friends and if you are socially outgoing, make more friends!
5. Travel, travel, travel!
I use my expatriation as the best and numero uno excuse to travel. There are roughly around 17,500-18,000 islands that comprise Indonesia, with 13 major cities. The country also boasts of beaches and cultural destinations.
Whenever I need to do market visits and when I teach weekend classes as part of my company’s corporate social responsibility, I take advantage of this by extending for a day to get to know the city’s food, culture and must-go to places. It helps that local flights are accessible on a daily basis.
Aside from the very popular Bali, there are other interesting places in Indonesia that are bucket-list worthy: the Gili Islands of Lombok, Belitung, Rajah Ampat, Yogyakarta and Komodo Island, to name a few.
When you are an expat, use any and all excuse to pack your bags and travel. It’s the best way to make the most of being an expat.
All these things point out to a high cultural quotient or CQ. CQ is better understood as a person’s adaptability and capability “to relate and work effectively across cultures.” A person with high CQ has a better survival rate being an expat than someone who is less adaptive to change.
To me, it became simple: the more you are flexible to change and to your environment without losing yourself and your core values, the better the chances you have of not just surviving, but having fun and making the most out of being an expat.
Thrive, not just survive, is a very good mantra that I will impart to the beginner expats and to expat-wannabes. It’s an experience worth putting in your bucket list.