How Living in Indonesia is Different than Expected

I don’t know about many of you, but I had never lived in an Asian country before I moved to Jakarta this summer. My only exposure to a South East Asian summer was the short stint I spent in Siem Reap, Cambodia with Reach Out Volunteers. I was outside all the time working in rural villages, so that’s pretty different than my experience living primarily in a city like Jakarta. This left me with a lot of different expectations.

When I first thought what it would be like, I couldn’t get past how hot it would be. That was honestly my only thought. I knew close to nothing about the city so I was basically flying blind. I thought it might be fun to share with you guys some of the things that were quite different than what I had expected. Maybe I’m just doing this for fun or maybe to inform you if you ever live in Jakarta…either way, enjoy!

The Heat

I have not particularly been bothered by how hot it is. It was miserably hot while I was in Cambodia and I couldn’t escape it. I had heat rash for like two straight weeks. Naturally I thought living in Jakarta would be a similar experience. However, I liken it to how I felt about living in the Midwest. You can really handle any sort of weather if you’re going to air conditioned house, to air conditioned car, to air conditioned office and back again. I take a taxi to work every morning so I am truly barely outside. We’ll walk to Starbucks which takes about 10 total minutes there and back. We might walk from Grand Indonesia (one of the large malls in the area) back to our apartment, but’s maybe 15 minutes.

The hardest part has been balancing my extreme desire to be as cool as possible in the heat, while also maintaining respect for their culture. As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop on a 96 degree day with 87% humidity in shorts and a tank. Even though my shorts definitely aren’t modest by any means (picture AE high waisted), I have covered my upper half with a scarf. It sort of feels like an easy compromise I can make to ensure that everyone feels some what comfortable with me around.

It’s also been consistently hotter in DC than in Jakarta so…who is the real winner here?

The English

I truthfully don’t know what I expected with the level of English fluency. I think maybe I expected that outside of Jakarta and Bali, it would be next to nothing. In Jakarta, not a day has gone by that I haven’t struggled communicating with someone. This is especially true with the taxi drivers. As with most countries, the people who seem to have the most fluency are the younger folks but I work in an office where I am the youngest by a lot of years (with the exception of my other fellow intern).

I truly can’t figure out a pattern with it either. I would have expected that project leads or department heads in the office, who have a lot of exposure to DC colleagues, would be easy to communicate with. Yet of all the people on my team, the skill level is the same across the board: low. I kick myself every time I think about it because I could be so much more productive if I spoke Indonesian.

The Travel

First of all….I had this glorified image in my head of what Bali would be like. I think I overhyped it. There are beautiful parts to the island without doubt but it is very touristy. Think: Cancun or the Jersey Shore but with a bunch of Australians instead of Americans. Second of all, traveling in and out of Jakarta is the biggest pain ever. For such a large hub you would think the airport would be amazing. You would be wrong. No food options past security. You basically have to go through security 2 times to get to your gate and the free internet is the worst thing in the world. I’ve flown out domestically and internationally from there and I dread it every time.

Travel overall though has been fairly simple. Flights are so cheap (Round trip to Bali was $80…round trip to Singapore was about $90) which was perfect for my ever dwindling budget. Thank you, Traveloka.

The People

I think I assumed everyone would instantly hate me because I’m an American. Especially given our current political situation. I keep waiting for someone to ask me about Trump so I can tell them exactly how I feel. In fact, nobody has assumed I’m an American- even though I have the most boring accent in the world (thanks Illinois!). Once they find out I’m from the States and after they find out I live in Washington, DC, I brace myself for what’s next. And nothing comes! Usually the reaction is something like this: “OHHH America!! Barack Obama!!” To which I happily nod my head and say “yes! I love him too!” (Obama lived in Indonesia for a while when he was a kid so they feel a kinship with him).

In general it is amazingly refreshing and I am loving how much I can disconnect from the US for a while. The local people both in my office and that I encounter on trips, at the mall/grocery store or in my apartment building are some of the nicest people I have ever met. I had coworkers who were fasting for Ramadan encourage me to drink water in meetings or grab lunch because they don’t want me to sacrifice on their behalf.

The only thing that really gets to me is how often I was asked to take a picture with a local. This never happened in Jakarta (I’m just stared at), but it happened every day whenever I was on a trip. One weekend in Jojga, I was physically grabbed by old women to get a picture with me. Not cool.

The Work

This one is probably the most painful to think about. I had really high expectations for my work this summer. I don’t know if it was bound to fail from the beginning or if I put the bar too high. There was very little work for me to do. Yet, I still was in the office. I spent a lot of time sitting around. It was great for blogging, but I could do that in DC. Nothing I have done this summer has been something I could only do in the field and that sucks. That’s why I came. I could have saved thousands of dollars, stayed in DC and had an internship that gave me the same type of work.

Now what?

My summer here is over. I leave tomorrow morning! I’m ready to be home and get back to my normal routine with work, school and everything else. This summer will look great on my resume. That’s all. Maybe in a few months I’ll look back a bit more fondly on my experiences…but for now I am ready to be home.


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