Having lived in Balikpapan, Kalimantan for nearly two years now, Sam and I have racked up some interesting experiences as foreigners/corporate expats in Indonesia. This, despite the fact that, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t feel as if I can really say we’ve fully “lived” in Indonesia.
Perhaps my perspective is due to the fact that I grew up here as a child, where my family actually lived in the community (albeit in a nicer house than most of our neighbors, and with at least one helper, at that), my parents drove their own car/motorcycle, and we corresponded with everyone outside our immediate family primarily in the local language, Bahasa Indonesia. My first childhood friends were Indonesians, most of whom had never interacted with a foreigner before, and although there were a smattering of other foreigners located here and there, they lived a good thirty or more minutes’ drive from our house, and quite frankly, I only remember one family with whom we ever visited.
When we called family members back in the U.S., it was a big deal. We didn’t have a phone for the first few years, so we had to go to the local post office at ungodly hours due to the time difference, then talk as quickly as we could to cram in a conversation in five or ten minutes. It was too expensive to speak longer than that, so our fall-back was to make tape recordings of our funny conversations, then send them off via post to our loved ones in the states … assuming the tapes would get there.
At night, the electricity frequently cut out, so my mom and I would read and cross-stitch by kerosene lanterns. And first thing in the morning, my neighborhood pals would line our front porch, eager to kick off the morning with a game or dolls or munching down the stalks of sugar cane that grew in our backyard.
Our days were filled with climbing trees and playing “pasar” (market), where we’d pick a variant of poinsettia leaves from our yard’s bushes and wrap them up in cut banana leaves (also acquired from our yard), then line them in neat little rows while pretending to sell them to passers-by. Turns out there were never many passers-by, so we’d end up haggling over the price of said packaged matter amongst ourselves, until one of us proved victorious by managing to bargain it down by fifty-percent. It could get pretty intense. It also taught me how to speak Bahasa.
I remember being made fun of because my hair was cut short—more or less a bowl cut—and since I did not have pierced ears to boot, all of my friends decided that I looked like a boy. And my skin and hair were almost always a source of constant wonder too, where my arms and cheeks were lightly pinched and my hair grabbed—not out of maliciousness, but rather out of curiosity as to how it felt. It took me a little while to understand that, and all in all, I don’t think I minded that much.
I remember once sneaking out of the house to follow our helper, Bit, to the pasar—and being so excited at my intrepid adventure that I didn’t bother donning shoes. Poor Bit discovered me a kilometer or so down the road because the asphalt grew so hot I was hopping from one tree shadow to the next as best I could but making a tremendous commotion in the process. I more or less forced him to let me come along, barefoot and all, because he didn’t know what else to do, and I kindly pointed out to him that at this point, it would look just as bad to bring me back to the house as it would if he simply let me tag along and claimed he didn’t know I was there. “Of course I know you are here!” an exasperated Bit replied, but in the end my argument must have prevailed because I recall that the pasar was disgustingly muddy that day, and my feet sank several inches into oozing brown matter with each step while a red-faced Bit furrowed his brows and bought our produce as quickly as possible, all the while being scolded by women vendors for bringing a child there without sandals!
I also remember taking worm medication ….
I remember so many things that feel worlds and centuries away, and often, when I look around at our air-conditioned, wifi-connected, water-purified, cable-TV, fridge-with-automatic-ice-machine, washer-and-dryer-inclusive house on a gated camp surrounded by English-speaking locals and expats, with a gym, landscaped grounds, community center and Olympic-size swimming pool, I find it hard to believe that two hours up the road and decades ago, a five-year-old me lived here.
That makes me sound a lot like a grandpa regaling stories of how, “When I was a youngster, I had to walk five miles everyday through the snow to reach our school barn …,” but you know what? I’m starting to relate with Grandpa!
My summary of current living conditions makes the life Sam and I share here sound incredibly posh and spoiled (and in the terms described, it definitely is), but I bring this up because, based upon my observations at least, the idea of being a foreigner or expat seems to be perceived by others as a relatively equilateral experience, both in terms of time and relativity.
What I mean by the former is, the experience of living in Borneo as a child is light years away from living here as an adult, partly because I was here as a child and thus, had childhood experiences that largely excluded the day-to-day encounters and responsibilities an adult would face.
But I think the larger difference is due to technology and the usual progress of time. Of course, the same could be said by any adult returning to their hometown after years and years away. This experience of time warp and unique culture shock is something anyone who has moved away from a place and then returned at some point down the road faces to one degree or another.
The more interesting or confusing experience, however, is that of relativity. What I mean is, once a person steps out of “normal” life and into the big-bad-world beyond one’s national boundaries, I have noticed a widely-held assumption that the experience of living overseas is more or less the same for one individual as it is for another.
For instance, if one person lives in the Philippines for five years and another lives in Thailand for the same amount of time, chances are, assumptions are held that both individuals have more shared experiences in terms of living abroad than not, and if a person acquainted with the Thailand-dweller met the Philippine-dweller on a trip somewhere, there would be a high probability said person would say something along the lines of, “You remind me of my friend who lives in Thailand!” This, despite the fact that the Philippine-dweller may be living in a thatched hut on a remote island studying the mating rituals of sand flies, while the Thailand-dweller lives in a swanky apartment in Bangkok with surgically enhanced body parts, shops at Prada and doesn’t “do” gluten.
Or to take this concept to present state:
When Sam and I leave our current location in the very near future, and if, during a conversation, I say something along the lines of, “When I lived two years in Borneo …” there are certain images and expectations conjured by that declaration, and they probably do not involve a gated community, private drivers, Amazon Prime downloads, Friday night socials and occasional outings with the Ladies Who Lunch.
Don’t get me wrong, living in an expat-centric community definitely has its advantages (convenience being foremost)—and we’ve made some good friends along the way—but, to us, it also feels like fake living, kind of like that strange, automated suburbia described in A Wrinkle in Time.
Here on our little corporate camp bubble, we are removed from everyday life; quite literally as we are located on the top of a hill. Everything is maintained and orderly and topographically insulated from the bustle of Balikpapan below.
But that also begs the question, What is “ordinary life”? For those who live and work here, I suppose living and working on a camp is ordinary–for both the foreigners and the Indonesians. Some people here have been doing this for so long, I am sure they could not imagine an alternative way to live. But since Sam and I are living here as contractors (and thus, outsiders), we no doubt see things very differently.
I’ve touched before on our concept of Livable Travel, and when I read our little manifesto on that, I have to admit that our experience here feels incongruent with that philosophy. In fact, I feel a bit hypocritical when I read it, because unlike Germany or China or even, to a lesser extent, Tonga, I am not having to figure out how to pay my utility and internet bills, decode the German or Chinese public transit system, dispose of my own trash, grasp the nuances of foreign rental contracts, find an apartment, obtain a drivers license, order my drinking water in Mandarin, commute via bicycle for daily necessities, struggle to learn a foreign language, distinguish between blood sausage and the stuff I actually want to eat, decode kitchen appliances written with foreign symbols, or even discern how to substitute local ingredients for seemingly staple cookbook items that, turns out, are not a staple in my host country.
Here, I have a driver that takes me anywhere I need to go—one who insists on speaking English, no less—and who zooms out of camp at my bidding to replenish my phone and data credit, pick up my water bottles, and complete any number of errands that do not technically require my presence. Of course, I’m paying him to do this, but still…
And while there is a local pasar here that I frequent on a weekly basis, if I don’t want to deal with the hassle, I don’t have to. The grocery stores stock all of these things as well—if perhaps less fresh variants—but they also stock feta and mozzarella, Coke Zero, whole wheat flour, sliced ham and even Haagen Dazs. Granted, the stores here remain a far cry from the selection you might expect in your home country, but for me at least, I sometimes walk through the shiny-floored supermarket and wonder what on earth my mother would think if she could see what East Kalimantan looks like now. I don’t think she’d recognize it.
At the same time, I feel both Sam and I have stretched ourselves by living in this unique environment. While it has not been the cross-cultural experience we’d hoped for, we have definitely had a cultural experience … just a different type of one.
Before we arrived in Balikpapan, we had no idea what to expect in terms of living and working on a corporate camp. We had no idea what it would be like to know that, even though there are thousands of islands just waiting to be explored all around us, we’d spend most of two years only traveling within a 10-mile vicinity of our camp home, mostly because Sam’s job requires him to be on call 24-7, with the exception of one weekend off a month. Thank goodness for our glorious, weekend bike rides!
We didn’t realize that the combination of having your dwelling attached to the medical clinic building, combined with living on a camp with its own fire department, equates to having a red truck and multiple hoses pull up to your house every time your ultra-sensitive kitchen smoke detector goes off from chicken fat hitting the burner. Or have cheery men in jumpsuits stop by at random points in the week to inspect this or that item in your household. We’d no way to gauge how we’d handle the lack of independence and anonymity; how it would feel to always be reliant upon another person to drive you anywhere and everywhere you might want to go [company rules], and how the only place you could have a private conversation would be within the walls of your own home. And we certainly did not anticipate how articulating any of these things will only make you sound like a spoiled, whiny ingrate because … who in their right mind would complain about having their own driver?!
In short, it is one thing to project your present self into a future scenario when contemplating the possibility of living in a new environment*, but another thing altogether to actually experience it.
I once overheard a mother speaking to her son outside of an ice cream shop along the Erie Canal in upstate New York, informing him that the ability to enjoy any experience at hand is all about one’s attitude. It struck me at the time as rather weighty advice for a six-year-old boy eating ice cream, but her philosophy stuck with me. Then, a few years later, we sat beside a fellow on a flight to Indonesia, where we were discussing certain travel destinations, when he made the comment that any destination could be a rewarding experience, and that the trick was simply “managing one’s expectations.”
Since then, Sam and I have not infrequently found our conversations trailing back to these two nuggets of wisdom, and it seems they pair together quite nicely. I am still working on mastering these things, and often find myself falling short, both on the right attitude, and with managing my expectations. But I’m trying.
This post is a long way to ultimately express the thought that living in Borneo … or anywhere else … is often nothing what it might seem. My tidy, managed life on a corporate camp is worlds away from the botanist studying plant extracts in the rain forest or the Peace Corps volunteer in Surabaya or the missionary family in Pontianak. We may all be in Indonesia, but the lives we live as expats are realities apart. Upon reflection, life is like that everywhere, of course, but I think it is the specific idea of living overseas as an expat that I’ve been grappling with.
At the end of the day, even though our time in Borneo has not been what we initially hoped and expected, we have still grown rich with memories. We might not feel as feet-on-the-ground as we did in Germany, Tonga or China, but we’ve still had our little taste of Indonesia and our share of adventure.
Our bi-weekly “ridge walks” through the kampungs here where the friendliest children on earth run out to great you with high-fives. The Hash House Harriers community. My pro-bono English classes and the unexpected, bizarre experiences such as being drafted to model Indonesian fashion for a Kartini Day festival. All the kind co-workers Sam works with, all of them too polite to ever tell us we’re butchering Bahasa when we give it a go or unwittingly make some culturally inappropriate gesture with our hands. On the domestic side of things, I’ve learned to scrub my fruits and veggies with alacrity, bleach my lettuce, boil my chicken meat off the bones without setting off the smoke detector every time, and iron articles-of-clothing-that-I-never-before-thought-should-be-ironed (socks? really?) like the best of ’em. I’ve even brushed up on my Bahasa, though I am not nearly as conversational as I’d hoped.
Because of this strange, unique and perhaps somewhat disillusioning experience, we’ve learned a lot about what we can adapt to, what we can’t, and what we’d like more control over in the future. And while our lives here have been comparatively posh and sterile, we’ve still grown in ways that we wouldn’t have had we not come here.
And that’s what livable travel is ultimately all about, right?
*One of my favorite contemporary books on cognitive psychology, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, touches on that interesting topic, but that is another tangent altogether.