Before I left for Indonesia, I threw together some essential facts about Indonesia. Now, after starting to settle down in Tangerang, I have pieced together a few of my observations so far.

Josh and I arrived in the country exactly two weeks ago, and we have been busy ever since! We spent last week training and co-teaching to prepare us for the real thing, and now we have both finished our first full week of teaching.

It has been hard work, as neither of us have any prior experience either in teaching, or in Indonesia, but we are loving everything. We live in a really nice neighborhood that is much more upscale than what you will find in other parts of the country; this is very nice for us in terms of day-to-day living, but that does mean that our experience with “Indonesia” is mostly limited to interactions with Indonesian co-workers and students. (Never fear, we have plenty of time to get into the jungles, volcanoes, and islands of this stunning nation!)

In any case, here are some of the things that I have noticed in my first few weeks.

Jakarta

1. Class

Indonesia has a reputation for being very poor. While that may be the case for many (or even most) Indonesians, the people Josh and I come into contact with generally have a fair amount of wealth. The fact that our students can afford to live in this nice suburban area and pay for English classes at our language center means that we have not yet seen the part of Indonesia that constitutes its classification as a third-world country.

Some of my three-year-old students talk to each other about their iPads, at least a few of my other students come from families who have drivers and/or maids, and many of my adult students have very nice, new cars. The standard of living for the people I teach is nicer than anything I could have imagined back in America.

Can you picture growing up in a family with a maid, a driver, an expensive car, and parents who pay not only for private school but also for expensive language classes? (Coming from a middle-class village that had nothing but a public school, I personally find it unimaginable.) As one of my housemates said last week, the only culture shock she has experienced since moving to Indonesia from England is the fact that we have a maid in our house who tidies our rooms daily and has dinner waiting for us when we get home from work each night!

Infinity Pool

2. Similarities

And in reality, there really hasn’t been any culture shock for me and Josh, probably because the higher levels of wealth in this area have led to more westernization and modern facilities (such as the gym and infinity pool just across the street from our house). It isn’t too difficult to find somebody who knows a little English, and my young learners speak English almost as well as they speak Bahasa. In fact, my three-year-old students speak English just as well as my four-year-old brother does! When it comes to things like shopping, we rarely have any difficulties, since the labels contain English instructions or ingredients alongside Bahasa.

The similarities between here and home extend beyond language and into cultural norms, an example being that most of my students watch the same TV shows and movies as my siblings; all of the girls I teach love talking about Disney princesses (they even agree that I look like Belle from Beauty and the Beast–my favorite princess!), and the boys are just as superhero-obsessed as my own little brothers. The video games, movies, shows, and music that are popular in America and England are well-known and often referenced by my Indonesian coworkers and students.

Josh and I have yet to hit a language or cultural barrier, though I’m sure we will encounter it once we start to move away from the city and into the hinterland.

Rock

3. Religion

This is something that many of our friends and family back home anticipated being a difficulty for us. Indonesia is 88% Muslim, which I suppose can sound like a very threatening statistic to people in America, where a lot of the Muslims we hear about on the news are violent fundamentalists. However, Islam is a peaceful religion and there are varying degrees of devotion among individuals, much like the scale of Christianity in the US.

There are many daily reminders of Islam’s prominence. Several times a day, the call to prayer echoes through our neighborhood, and I’m sure our school is not the only public place that has a prayer room. Many–though not all–Muslim women wear hijabs (head coverings), but it will often be paired with western clothing, such as a nice blouse with skinny jeans or even leggings. One of my Indonesian coworkers told me that it is rare to see a woman wearing a burqa (full-body covering) in this country–she said that is for countries in the Middle East or India, where women are not as free as they are here in Indonesia.

Despite being surrounded by Islam, there are few ways in which Josh and I are personally affected by it. For me, it means not showing off my shoulders, and wearing skirts that are approximately knee-length or longer, which is what I normally wear anyway. (Longer shorts and pants are both fine, too, but I don’t typically wear either.) For both of us, it means not using our left hands in certain settings, as the left hand is supposed to be used to wipe oneself in the bathroom and it’s rude to use it for eating, picking things up, or touching people. There hasn’t been a single instance that we have felt threatened or inconvenienced by the importance of Islam in Indonesian life.

It is quite noticeable that we are foreigners here, but that has never been held against us. Schoolgirls call out to us on our walk to work so that they can practice their English, the security guards often call out “Hello!” to us as we enter or leave our neighborhood, and the warmness we’ve been shown here by every Indonesian we’ve encountered rivals that of even the Midwest of my own country: On my second day at school, one of my coworkers told me that if my family comes to visit me, they are welcome to stay in her home! There are small gestures, too, that display the overwhelming generosity of the people in this country, like the fact that no students eat a snack without sharing it with all of their classmates and the teacher. While Josh and I are certainly minorities in this country, we have never felt like outsiders. 

In fact, the only worries we’ve had so far in Indonesia are traffic and pollution, but those are stories for another time!

Love, Elizabeth

*All photos on this page were taken by Josh.