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Living in A Foreign Country… Is It Always Better? Februari 26, 2008

Posted by finallywoken in Being Expat.

This article was originally posted in Finally Woken on 29 October 2007.

I received an email from my friend the other day. She’s one of the few Indonesians who could hop on the plane and fly to the US when she’s fed up with what she’s encountered. Which means 1) she has money, 2) she has passport, and 3) most importantly, she has her visa ready. Nevertheless, she said that she’s so jealous to find out that I’ve been living outside Indonesia for several months now. She said that I’m so lucky, and is sure that I’m having a good time. That I must be relieved to get out Indonesia, or Jakarta in particular.

This is not the first time I received such comments. Several friends commented the same thing. Some even said I’m not meant to be living in Indonesia, that I’m better off somewhere else. Funnily enough, only my colleagues in L’Oréal reacted differently (when I said Scotland, they looked at me like I was out of my mind and said, “It’s really cold up there!”. Which means they know exactly where Scotland is – a plus point because most of Indonesians don’t). In general, the reactions I’ve received so far is a mixture of amazement and jealousy, that I finally can get out of Indonesia.

Really? Is it true that everything is better outside Indonesia?

Not quite.

Perhaps the perception is built because they think that whatever relates to bule country is better. Perhaps the perception is built during holidays or tours, where they spend 5 minutes in tourist spots and everything looks polished and perfect through a window glass.

But we, Indonesians who already live in foreign countries, know better. That of course, we are so relieved to escape from Jakarta’s endless traffic jam and pollution. That we could reach most of the destination in 10 minutes walking and don’t have to drive for 30 minutes from Gran Melia to Cazbar. That we could trust the health system here without questioning whether the doctor takes advantages of us and we end up paying bills of all examinations that we don’t really need. That we don’t have to stuck in our office until 9.00 PM (due to our own inefficiency) or at least have to wait until 3-in-1 time finish. That we don’t have to be cautious continuously, even in premium shopping centres, of never-ending crimes from thugs to hypnosis. That we don’t need to question whether the chicken is free from bird flu or not. That we don’t need to argue with the laundry service which puts French name on their sign yet still manages to shrink our DKNY skirt and only reimburses Rp 70,000. I think my worst nightmare of living in Indonesia can be read in my old posting, Oh Indonesia, Oh Valet, where I had an unnecessary encounter with security guards in Plaza Abda.

But we (or say I) know that Indonesia has several things which are better than the rest of bule countries. Here are the things that we miss from our beloved country:

As part of the deal with Stuart, when he watches football in the stadium, I get to go to spa and treat myself. But I never find some place which is as good as in Indonesia. Not to mention the price, which if converted, can get me mild heart attacks! Tony&Guy charges me £80, or about 1.6 millions, to get my hair colour done, so up to date I still postpone my appointment. My back, neck, and shoulder massage for 30 minutes at James Dun’s House costs £25, or about Rp 500,000. I got my manicure & pedicure at The House which costs £54 or around one million rupiahs (I knowww, ridiculous! With one million rupiahs I could get 8 manicure & pedicure treatments in Jakarta). One place advertises relexology that costs £35/hour, and with the same amount of money I could get at least 7 treatments in Zen Living Jakarta. It’s not that Indonesia doesn’t have expensive treatments, but they are usually in premium places which target business people or tourists (Four Seasons Hotel charges about 400 thousands for a 90-minutes massage and Kirana Spa in Ubud posts all prices in USD, between USD 150 to USD 950), and we don’t go there in daily basis unless we’re the daughters of Lim Siew Leong. I and most of my friends in Jakarta spend at least twice a week in B+ class saloon and still get good service, good value with good money, something that I couldn’t do here that often. I know, there’s no point of converting here, and people keep telling me that you can’t compare apple to orange. But still, one million for toenails and hand nails??

I don’t have problems with food, since I love trying out everything. I got minor culture shock when I arrived in Scotland at the first time (see my old post: Things That We Thought Are Normal…), but I still manage to find several Indonesian food and spices here, 12,000 km from Indonesia (see My Survival Kits). However I sometimes miss simple Indonesian food like sambal terasi or sayur asam. Lewi, despite only has to move to Singapore, told me that she misses Nasi Padang, and even though there are many places in Singapore serving the dish, it’s still not as good as in Indonesia, as they don’t use the secret ingredients (read: cannabis leaves) that Indonesians usually put. Also it’s so easy and cheap to find good food in Indonesia so I rarely cooked except to impress my partner. There’s no Indonesian restaurant here (there are 5 in London though) so if I have some craving for Indonesian food, I have to cook it myself, and anyone knows how Indonesian recipes need a lot of spices and take a lot of time to prepare. Plus we couldn’t get out everyday unless we’re Richard Branson’s children.

You may laugh, but everything is predictable here. Everything is smooth, like a well-maintained machine. But it gets boring. It’s not like in Jakarta where every single minute can be an excitement. From a sudden traffic jam to a sudden clear traffic 30 minutes later. There’s a funny story during big flood last February. I was in Hong Kong for a conference and Friday was our last day. The ASEAN boss, who’s going back to Singapore, said that he could only stay until 1.30PM because he had to catch a plane at 4.00PM. I asked him if I could share a taxi with him since my flight was at 5.00 PM (means he’d take the bill so I didn’t have to pay, another saving for L’Oréal Indonesia haha!). After lunch time, however, I got a lot of texts from my colleagues, reporting that Jakarta was flooded, that airport was closed, that the main road was closed and even though we tried, the furthest we could go was Sheraton Airport Hotel, and the toll roads were now full of thugs asking money. In 1 hour the reports got worsened, and I was advised to stay in HK, my flight would be delayed anyway, etc. etc. Of course when the French boss was saying goodbye, in front of everyone in the conference room he asked, “Anita, are you going with me?. And when I told him, and everybody, that I had to stay for one more day because Jakarta’s flooded, no one believed me. They thought I was making things up. Some guy from Taiwan said he just watched CNN during lunch time and there was no news about flood in Indonesia. Patiently I told him that there a lot of things can happen during 30 minutes, if you live in Jakarta. Nothing is predictable. I was lucky I was stuck in a comfy hotel HK rather than in Cengkareng Airport! Poor Stuart had just arrived though, and he’s stuck in Eastern Promise, where he and everybody else watched the water rising so fast until GG‘s Subaru was drowned in front of its owner. If this story didn’t shake you, how about when Stuart and his friend got rescued with Bart‘s farmer truck, and they saw 5 people walking on Kemang street holding a….. phyton! One held the head, one held the tail, the other three held the body.

Can you imagine such thing happen in Scotland? They call it traffic jam even though that it’s only 5 minutes macet. Compare to Stuart who had to take 1.5-3 hours back from his office in Karawaci to Kuningan, 5 minutes is nothing. The only excitement I saw so far was when we’re stuck in traffic last Saturday because there’s a car full of smoke and flames coming out of its machine. But within 30 seconds the police came to handle the traffic and make sure no one was close enough to get injured, and within 2 minutes the fire brigade came, and after less than10 minutes we’re allowed to pass because everything’s under control. Boring….!!

I lived in Sydney for two years and even then the only excitement I could think of was when the transit authority officers raided our bus to bust people who were using student ticket while they actually had to pay full price. Mardi Gras and Olympics are prepared events and predictable. No one can beat the phyton story and where else we could rowing a boat on the road?….

If only I’d moved to another tropical country, I wouldn’t have made a lot of fashion blunders like what I’ve done here. My old posting Confusing Weather has mentioned about it, and I still make some mistakes, like last Saturday, when I insisted on wearing mini skirt with nude colour tights. I thought I’d be warm enough, but every time the wind blew, my legs were frozen. Or the other day I wore my jacket with flurry hoodie like some Eskimo girl, and after 2.00 PM the sun shone so bright everyone started walking with tank top around Union Street, while I was left feeling stupid with my knee-high boots! So just to go out of the house takes a lot of preparation. I must make sure that I’m warm enough, not too hot and not too cold. It’s so easy in Indonesia, where I just need to wear jeans and whatever top and we don’t need to work out our brain and watch weather forecast before going out.

However I must admit that there are several things I don’t miss from Indonesia, like:

(“Good”) Customer Service

I sent email to Krisflyer Indonesia the other day, asking them to note my new address and stop sending mails to L’Oréal Indonesia because I’ve already moved to UK. After several days I’ve got the reply like this,

“With regards to your query regarding Krisflyer including updating the krisflyer particular such as address…” (deleted). “As for other option, you may come to our ticketing office and proceed to counter #5 during office hours at …” (deleted).

Didn’t I just state that I’ve moved to UK? Why did they suggest me go to their office in Menara Kadin? D’oh! Only after contacting Singapore office I got more sensible answer.

(“Better”) Preparation

Part of my job as a project manager was to make sure that the construction schedule was obeyed, but it’s difficult in Indonesia because it’s typically like this:

  • The contractor informed that they’re going to supply & install a cabinet on date A.
  • On date A, no one turned up up until lunch time so I had to call to confirm. Usually they said the cabinet was on its way but it’s either stuck in traffic, or the truck was still delivering other items in different place, or the cabinet was already in queue in front of service lift on the basement.
  • The cabinet’s bits and pieces finally arrived, 6 hours late than it’s scheduled, accompanied by its labour, between 4-6 people.
  • The labours put the bits and pieces at the destined spot and just sat down next to it.
  • When asked why didn’t they start assembling, the normal answer were usually 1) they forgot to bring the screwdrivers so they must wait, 2) they forgot to bring bolts so they must wait, 3) the head labour hadn’t come so they must wait

In general, one small simple cabinet can take 1 full day and 6 people to install in Indonesia. When finally it is installed there are always something missing, usually shelves or lockset, so the cabinet was nicely put but we must wait for at least another day to get it done. Ok, let’s compare to my small experience having the bed delivered to our place. The bed we ordered has storages (drawers) underneath so it requires small work of assembly.

  • Two people came, precisely on time. One was acting as the driver too.
  • They make sure that the bed is positioned as I wish, and went out to get toolboxes.
  • I phoned my mom when they started to work.
  • The whole assembly process took 30 minutes. Even before I finished talking to my mom.

I couldn’t even putting a show to them, to let them know that I was a project manager with sharp eyes, because their work was perfect, I couldn’t find a single flaw.

(“Cheap”) Wine and Books
Yes, not everything is expensive here compare to Indonesia. Wine is incredibly cheap. A glass of red wine in Burgundy can buy the whole bottle here. I remember the last time we had dinner in Scusa and Stuart ordered a bottle of Barolo, which I really loved, but hate when saw the price. So it was a nice surprise to find the same type which only costs around Rp 250,000/bottle in here! Books are also very cheap, which is a good solution for me, since I’m a fast reading (I could finish one John Grisham’s novel in 2 hour without interruption), so since July I’ve already bought around ten books. Something that I couldn’t do in Jakarta, partly because the books are overprice, and partly because the selection isn’t that broad.

So do I really love living in a foreign country? Yes and no. There are certain things I’d always miss from Indonesia, there things that I won’t, ever. Either way, I’d always try to get the best out of everything. Everywhere.



1. tere616 - Februari 29, 2008

Anita, it’s interesting. Your story of weather, reminds me of my trip to Finland. According to Finland people, it was summer, but for me, it’s still winter. I brought wrong clothes, and my sarong, I couldn’t wear it 😦

2. Dyden Rinda - Maret 6, 2008

Anita, this is inspiring story. You write in balance and give me some thoughts. And one that makes me jealous is, cheap books!!

3. dinysays - Maret 22, 2008

Writing as a parent, I would say living here in the US is better to raise my children. We live in a small college town, and although the population here is nothing compare to Jakarta (only 50,000 people), I definitely don’t miss the hustle and bustle of it. Non-polluted, low crime rate, and a very good education sytem and health care.
But mainly is because they’re half American; as long as the hatred towards Americans are still very high in Indonesia, I wouldn’t jeopardize my children’s life.

4. Renee - April 15, 2008

Anywhere in the world, there are pros and cons. Those who generalize are probably those who have never been to foreign countries.

5. Wibisono - April 18, 2008

I agree about the excitement part. I used to work in Siberia, and one of the Russian just returned back from Sidney because he said Sidney is too predictable. I thought that man was crazy..but indeed, when I lived in the place that relatively stabile and predictable, I will definetely miss the place that has excitement (desert, Siberia, jungle, which in a way all of those similar with Jakarta..:)).

Oil man

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