After four years as an expat here in Indonesia, with permanent residence status and no idea of turning back, I might be able to say a few things about this extraordinary country, a country made up of seventeen thousand islands stretching three thousand miles. It is the biggest Muslim country in the world.
Seven years ago, during a long-distance call, I said yes to a school director in Surabaya, and, within three weeks, packed up my house, found some tenants, sent a parcel ahead with books and art supplies, and got on the plane. I think I had just enough time to look at my atlas to see that, yes, Indonesia did exist, and, yes, it was “over there,” wherever that was, in Asia.
It is worth mentioning that this happened in the afflicted year of 2009. Like so many other people, I was affected by the greedy worshipers of Mammon having stolen everything in sight by selling junk bonds, phony mortgages, and things of that nature at the expense of the helpless citizenry. My job as a part-time college administrator was eliminated so “Indonesia here I come.”
I wrote extensively about my initial year here in my first book, Pakuwon City, Letters from the East. I only stayed a year at that time due to many things including homesickness, tenants in my house deciding not to pay, things like that. But the fine woman I had met in Surabaya followed me several months later and that autumn, on a crisp October day, we were married in Vermont, in a field belonging to the justice of the peace. After a year in the snow and two more teaching in Trinidad, we came back to Indonesia, first to Bali for two years, and then to Surabaya, my wife’s home town.
Now I have a Chinese Indonesian wife, an extended family, two language teachers who teach me twice a week, a teaching job twice a week and full life in all ways. I am on the East side of Surabaya, the old side, and not the side where one might find other foreigners. I go months without seeing another bule, (pale face), which is fine with me. I speak Indonesian and have an Indonesian driver’s license and a Kitap Visa, permanent residence status. This is not so easy to obtain since they, perhaps wisely, and perhaps as a reaction to three hundred and fifty years of colonial life under the Dutch and three under the Japanese, don’t want foreigners involved here too much. Makes sense to me.
That being said, there are plenty of foreigners if you look for them, mostly in Jakarta or in Bali, and they pay their visa fees and enjoy a fine life. All this is a very brief introduction to what I want to say, that Indonesia may be the best place in the world to live at this time, perhaps at any time. And that is not because of the cost of living or the excellent cuisine. It is because of a culture of non-aggression, non-confrontation, a culture “sopan dan rama” which means polite and friendly. The subtlety of this goes down levels deeper than I can venture yet. Even the beginners’ depths are astoundingly different from what I am used to as a product of a violent, competitive culture, America.
Indonesian people go to great lengths to avoid any direct confrontation, any unpleasantness. As I learned from my teacher, Djoni, today via Skype, they, the Javanese, always put the other person higher than themselves. Djoni, by the way, is Javanese and Muslim like most of the Javanese. We are on the island of Java, (coffee to us in the west), and Jakarta is the biggest city and capital and Surabaya is the second biggest city, a business city where things are made, where money is made.
Here is an example he gave. If some Javanese people come to my house and I ask them if they would like some coffee, or tea, or some water they will say no even if they want some. Why, because to say yes would mean the host would have to go to some trouble to prepare it. Wow. So, if you want to take care of them that way you just bring it out and they will not have had the shame of creating that chore for you.
The directness we know in the west does not exist here. Very little is direct; even bad news or rejection is done with smiles, jokes, and laughter. I had an art show of my paintings, (a rather important event for me), at The Surabaya Museum. Because I am a rarity, a westerner and also a painter, I received huge publicity including a television spot and large articles in the important newspapers. And yet, very few of my colleagues from school showed up. I told this to Djoni and told him that what we would do “back home” is to say something like, “It’s great you had that show and all that publicity. Sorry I couldn’t be there and so forth, make some excuse.” And I would say, “Thanks and sorry you couldn’t be there.” And that would be that. But, my teacher told me that for them to say they were busy or give an excuse would be ‘impolite’ so they don’t say anything at all which, for me, seemed very weird.
There is a lot to say about life here and I want to do it a little at a time because it is complicated and easier to process is small doses. My intention is not travel writing. I am motivated because I think we westerners can learn important things, necessary things, from this ancient and complex culture. There is a condition of connection with other people here, of relationship and belonging, of an end to the kind of loneliness I felt for much of my life in the United States, a loneliness that pushed me onto the peripatetic road of my restless life and got me, finally, to this special country.