A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia

A wonderful friend of mine, whom I met during my first grant as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malang and later lived with when I made the move to Jakarta, kept a blog, much like my own, during her time in Indonesia.  She first found herself in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it was then she wrote a post that was essentially a list entitled: “100 Things I Love About Indonesia.”  Later, when she was a Fulbright Student Researcher in Indonesia, she revisited this idea and wrote a similar list, but this time called “100 Things I Find Maddening About Indonesia.”

I loved the idea, and thought it would offer a great way to reflect on my time in Indonesia.  (Yes, this meant I was essentially shamelessly stealing her idea—I promise I got permission!)  I have thought about writing similar posts several times during my own stint in Indonesia, but the timing never seemed quite right, as the list was constantly shifting as my relationship with Indonesia grew and changed.

But now I have returned to the United States for the foreseeable future, and this post will be—if you can believe it—the 100th post I have written about my time in Indonesia[1].  It seemed the time had come.  This wasn’t an easy list to compile, as limiting myself to only 100 things that I love about the amazing country where I have spent the last three years was a nearly impossible task, and needing to be so critical as to come up with 100 (really 99) things that I strongly disliked hurt my heart a little bit.  But it did offer me a chance to revisit so many different aspects of my experience, and I am very glad that I did it.

Just a note before I begin: the nature of this list means that I do generalize quite a bit in this post, and allow myself a bit of hyperbole in some places, something I usually try to avoid in my writing about Indonesia.  Take what I say with a grain of salt, and know that it all ultimately comes from a place of love, as by this point I consider Indonesia home just as much as I do the U.S.  Also, if some of the points in this post seem petty or self-centered, it’s because I allowed myself to me.  Ultimately, this was my experience, and sometimes I am petty and self-centered.  I didn’t want to hide that here.

So, without further ado, here are “100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia!”  (To make things a little easier to keep track of, I made the positive points one color and the negative points a different color.  But, if the color doesn’t show up on your device, or if you struggle with colors, just know that the first point is always the positive one, and the second is the negative.)

1. The way it smells after the rain.  This is a smell I love everywhere, but it is extra special in Indonesia.

1. Flooding.  Wading through two feet of water to get to class.  Almost missing flights because half the roads in your neighborhood can’t be driven on.  Yeah.  Not a fan. 

2. Hospitality.  I was with one of my site mates once, and we had just finished hiking a mountain.  It looked like it was going to rain, and some Ibu-Ibu (Ibu = mother or woman) living in houses near the base of the mountain insisted we come inside and drink tea to wait out the storm.  They were ready to make us stay overnight if they deemed it not safe enough for us.  The thing is, this isn’t out of the ordinary.  This is just how things go in Indonesia.  It is a whole different level of hospitality. 

2. Passive aggressiveness. If an Indonesian takes issue with something, they are unlikely to tell you straight up, but will most likely dance around the problem, insisting nothing is wrong, until you somehow magically figure out what is wrong.  (Or you don’t, and then the problem just continues to build until someone eventually explodes.)  As a blunt American farm girl who was raised to be open about issues so that a solution could be met, I hated dealing with the constant passive aggressiveness present in so many of my professional and personal relationships. 

3. Wedang.  Wedang literally means “drink” in Javanese, and the word applies to a whole array of usually hot, spiced drinks that are simply heaven on earth.  On my last night in Indonesia, I went to my favorite restaurant with a few friends, and ordered four of these drinks. 

3. That Indonesian SMS is impossible to understand.  “Gpp” means “Gapapa,” which is short for “Tidak apa apa.”  “S7” means “setujuh.”  And those are the easy ones. 

4. The many shades of green.  The green in Indonesia is simply blinding.  It defines fresh.  If defines alive.  I can’t describe it. 

4. Air pollution.  Many of the cities in Indonesia have horrible air quality.  I spent a year in Jakarta wearing masks to try to save my lungs.  I still got sick.  Frequently. 

 

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On my first motorbike in Malang, a real game-changer for the second half of my grant.

5. Traveling by motorbike.  There is nothing more liberating that hopping on your sepeda motor (or the back of your friend’s), and knowing that you can go anywhere.  I loved riding slowly.  I loved racing down empty roads.  I loved riding in the rain.  Some days, I even enjoyed the challenge of navigating ­macet (traffic).

 

5. Pot holes. You may think you know what pot holes are.  Indonesia will show you that you have no idea what a pot hole can be.  Beware the jalan rusak (broken road): it is not for the faint of heart. 

6. Fresh fruit.  Rambutan.  Manggis.  Sirsak.  Nanas.  All available on the side of the road, for you to just pick up on your ride home. 

6. That I couldn’t eat salad.  It usually isn’t safe to eat vegetables without cooking them, which means that all of my vegetables were generally boiled or stir fired (and sometimes just plain fried).  My cravings for salad were uncontrollable sometimes.  I’ll admit that once or twice I took the risk and made a salad anyway.  Somehow, I lived to tell the tale. 

7. Street food.  So greasy.  So bad for you.  So. Bloody. Good.  I’m convinced that because the sellers use the same wok for so long, the spices build and compound, and that’s how you get that distinctive mouth-watering taste that you just can’t recreate in your own kitchen. 

7. The horrible things they sometimes put in street food.  Some sellers will put plastic in their gorengan (fried foods) to make them crispier.  If your soup is a shade of yellow that seems almost chemical, it might actually be chemical.  

8. Local languages.  There are over 300 languages spoken in Indonesia, by some counts.  They are all vastly different from one another.  They are all beautiful.  This is what inspired The Bahasa Project, one of my favorite projects as an ETA. 

8. How unaware Jakarta’s elite is of the rest of the country.  Jakarta runs the country.  And it has no idea what life is like outside of its city’s borders.  Frankly, they don’t understand what life is like in their own city.  I know this is an issue around the world, but it still frustrates me. 

 

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One of my favorite mosques, the floating mosque in Makassar.

9. Call to prayer.  Five times a day there is a call to pause, to reflect, to pray.  Though I am not Muslim, I came to define time by the call to prayer, and to appreciate the reminder to take a moment to stop working and appreciate everything I had going for me.

 

9. Cat calls.  I hate cat calls no matter where I am, and what language is used to communicate men’s disgusting views towards women.  Indonesia(n) was no exception. 

10. Rice paddies.  Endless rice paddies broken up by the occasional row of palm trees.  Tiered rice paddies that seem more like paintings than fields.  They are all beautiful, and always in that special shade of rice paddy green that sooths the soul. 

10. How hot it always is.  If you are going to spend any significant time in Indonesia, you are just going to have to accept sweaty as a state of being.  And that’s that.

 

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Just one reason to love the ocean.

11. Ocean.  I grew up only infrequently visiting the ocean, and to be honest, it scared me a bit when I first moved to Indonesia.  Though I still have a great respect for the power of the laut, I have also come to love her, from the way she smells to the way it feels to jump off a boat into her depths.

 

11. Litter.  On the side of the road.  On the beach.  Outside my classrooms.  In the rivers.  Litter is everywhere, and very few people seem truly concerned about its presence.  It’s maddening. 

12. Fishing boats.  They are painted in every color of the rainbow, surprisingly stable, and usually manned by the friendliest Bapak-Bapak (Bapak = father or man) that you’ll meet. 

12. Fish bombing. There are few things sadder than snorkeling through a gorgeous coral reef, only to have the coral suddenly end and give way to barren sand and stone, because someone decided easy fishing was more important than caring for the Earth.  I understand that the issue is more complex than that: that it is terribly difficult for fishermen to eek a living out of the sea, that education is sorely lacking, but nonetheless, it breaks my heart to see such destruction. 

13. My students.  I know I’ve mentioned this before in several blogs, but it is worth mentioning again.  The amazing people that I was privileged to meet were most definitely the best part of my experience in Indonesia.  Of all of those wonderful humans, my students remain my favorite.  Whether making music videos together, watching them perform an original play in English, or just helping them to navigate English verbs, I loved every moment that I spent with them. 

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Just a few of my incredible students.  

13. That students have to take seventeen classes at the same time.  Students take pretty much all of their classes at once, rather than working on a semester or block schedule.  This means that they only meet for most subjects one to three times a week, making it incredibly difficult for them to actually retain material. 

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Some of the fabulous Ibu-Ibu who were a part of my experience.

14. Helpful Ibu-Ibu I cannot count the number of times an Ibu has saved me.  Ibu-Ibu are simply magical in the way they can make the impossible happen, and I feel so thankful to have had some truly mind-boggling women on my team over the years. 

14. Rampant patriarchy.  I am a woman.  I have dealt with the patriarchy my entire life.  But nowhere have I felt more powerless because of my gender than in Indonesia.  I understand that my position was always further complicated by my being not just a woman, but a foreign woman, but observing the treatment of my female colleagues allowed me to see just how much of this was simply based on my gender.  And it drove me insane. 

15. Inspiring teachers.  I have met so many incredible educators during my time in Indonesia.  Some I was lucky enough to co-teach with.  Some I met at ETA trainings, as they were the co-teachers of my peers.  And some teachers weren’t even teaching in my discipline, but they still taught me amazing things about managing classrooms and differentiation.  I am a better teacher today for having had the opportunity to meet them and work with them.  

15. Teacher absenteeism. On the flip side, there are those teachers who rarely even showed up to class.  And because there is not a substitute teacher system in Indonesia (at least not one that resembles what my American friends might be accustomed to), this meant that students were left without any instruction for that period: an hour or two of wasted educational opportunity. 

16. Brightly-colored houses.  Houses in Indonesia come in every color of the rainbow.  I challenge you not to smile walking down the street. 

16. Lack of public spaces.  Few parks, fewer park benches.  Some governors and other town officials are seeking to change this in their cities, so I hold out hope that this will improve. 

17. How everyone is always serving you tea.  It is difficult to enter a home in Indonesia without being served something, and that something is usually teas.  If you’re not a tea fan, this could be a bummer.  I couldn’t get enough of it. 

17. Excessive plastic use.  There is a reason so much of the ubiquitous litter is plastic.

18. Coffee.  For folks who might be wondering Kopi Luwak (made from beans digested and excreted by civets) is actually great.  But so is everyday coffee.  And the instant coffee.  Basically, you can’t go wrong with your coffee here. 

18. Trash fires.  Just stop.  

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Making batik in Solo.

19. Batik. Whether traditional patterns or more modern patterns were being used, and whether it was being made into clothing or being made into an art piece, batik always found a way to steal my heart.  And batik was the focus of my favorite museum in Indonesia, the batik museum in Solo. 

19. Harga bule.  (Foreigner price.)  This is the inflated price quoted to foreigners, sometimes double the local price.  My bargaining skills did improve during my time in Indonesia, but I never did feel that I was getting a fair price. 

20. The sinks that are in the middle of restaurants.  Because why should you add to the inevitable line in the ladies’ room if all you want to do is wash the grease from your amazing meal off your hands?  Brilliant.  The same can be said for all the wuduh stations that were set up outside of bathrooms, rather than inside them.  Someone knows how to design. 

20. Using thin tissue as napkins.  They fall apart and make more of a mess than clean anything.  We need a new plan. 

21. Basa-basi.  Most prevalent in Javanese culture, basa-basi in some form seems to exist in every community across the archipelago.  It is usually translated to “chit-chat,” but it is so much more than that.  It is talking about children and weather before a business meeting, yes, but it is also offering your food when really you only have enough for yourself, and would rather not share.  It is a system of politeness that can be difficult to learn the code of (I’m not sure I ever did), but there are parts of it that I came to love.  Basa-basi played a role in why people seemed to stop and actually get to know a person they would be working with, at least on a service level, rather than just talking about the work.  And I loved that. 

21. Basa-basi.  I was raised on American time management, and I was taught that sometimes there is time for chit-chat, and sometimes you need to get down to business and get work done.  There seemed to be no such division in Indonesia, and there were times during the busy planning of an event wherein basa-basi just made me want to scream.  There was also the element of basa-basi which meant that sometimes people would say “Yes” when they meant “No,” or vice versa, and that is not a game I like to play: I was raised in Northeastern rural America, where sometimes honesty is valued even over kindness.  This was probably the one cultural element that drove me the most insane because of how much it clashed with my own culture.  Once, a colleague laughed at me for the umpteenth time, telling me that I was frustrated by the basa-basi only because Americans “did not understand politeness,” and I confess that I snapped back at her: “You call saying what you don’t mean polite.  Where I’m from, we call it lying, and it is the most impolite thing you can do.” 

22. Singkatan.  (Portmanteaus.)  Warung (food stall or shop) and internet become warnet.  Switch out internet for kopi (coffee) and you have warkop.  Indonesia is full of these words, and I loved them. 

22. That there is essentially no special needs education.  I had a few students with various special needs during my time in Indonesia (which was lucky enough, as most children with special needs do not attend school in Indonesia), and I was essentially told not to try to teach them, and to let them just sit in the back of the class.  That was one of those times I did not listen to my co-teachers’ advice. 

23. That it really takes a village to raise a child.  Everyone plays a role in raising the neighborhood kids.  You don’t even have to be related to help out with caretaking.  I loved kids popping in and out of my front yard (even if they sometimes did get into things they shouldn’t have), and loved the idea of there being so few official childcare facilities, because they were made unnecessary by neighborhood culture.  This is not impossible to find in the United States, but it is certainly much less common. 

23. Hierarchy.  Nowhere did the old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” ring truer for me than in Indonesia.  I cannot count the number of times I gritted my teeth and endured the company of someone I so very much disliked because I knew that if I did not befriend them, it would be impossible for me to create beneficial programming for my students.  And I mean impossible, not just difficult.  You had to play the game of hierarchy if you wanted anything good for your kids. 

24. Student responsibility.  Students independently ran club, organized cleaning schedules for their classrooms, and just generally took on much more responsibility for the day-to-day functions of the school than I generally see in American high schools.  They took pride in their classrooms and in their leadership duties, and I loved the lessons they learned through these roles. 

24. Low graduation rate.  Indonesia consistently ranks very low amongst Southeast Asian countries for graduation rates, percentages of student age children who even attend school.  To be sure, the Indonesian education system has may flaws, but perhaps it’s greatest is the sheer number of students it fails to reach, and to retain. 

25. Snowman whiteboard markers.  They are the perfect size, they write amazingly, and they are refillable.  I 100% should have brought some home with me when I left. 

25. Whiteout.  Students are taught to strive for perfection, and this meant that even their notes had to be perfect.  It was almost impossible for me to convince students to just cross out mistakes and move on, so that time could be used in other ways.

26. Their pride in being Indonesian.  Indonesians across the archipelago generally seem so, so proud to be Indonesian, and it is truly an amazing thing to see.  Despite everything, they love their country with every ounce of their being, and hope feverishly for a bright future. 

26. Nationalism.  Pride in your country can sometimes turn to nationalism, and nationalism is a slippery slope that too often seems to lead to prejudice.  There is no denying that much of the pride I saw in Indonesia was nationalistic, and sometimes it scared me. 

27. Kerawang.  It is rarely anyone’s favorite fabric from across the Indonesian archipelago, but I admired its resilience, and how proud the people of Gorontalo were to wear it, rather than a more popular kain

27. The narrative students are taught about their own country.  Once, I tentatively tried to talk to a group of students about the various genocides that had occurred in Indonesia’s fairly recent history.  None of them had heard of a single one.  Students are spoon-fed a specific narrative about their country, and that is so dangerous.  I know that the United States does much of the same, but that doesn’t make it right.

28. The universal love of singing.  Almost everyone sings, and even if someone doesn’t sing, they love listening to their friends sing.  And a vast majority of Indonesians have amazing voices. 

28. The lack of a reading culture.  Reading is not a common pastime in Indonesia, and as someone who has lived the power of literature, and who goes nowhere without a book, this was terribly sad to me.

29. Cheesy love songs.  Like Ran’s “Dekat di Hati.” I have a weak spot for them anyway.  But there is no denying that Indonesia does them best. 

29. Lack of libraries.  School libraries are often only filled with textbooks, and public libraries are small, or nonexistent. 

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Tiny adorable dancers from Bandar Lampung.

30. Dancing (traditional or otherwise).  Whenever my students had a dance competition of any sort, I made sure to go.  The traditional dances were always incredible (and the costumes exquisite), and I am convinced that any of my students could be a member of a K-pop band, with the way they could bust a move. 

30. Poor journalism.  There are some very good journalists in Indonesia.  And then there are so many more terrible ones. 

31. Constant laughter.  And the smiles.  Indonesians seem predisposed to be happy, and I think there are lessons that many of us could take from that.  (I don’t mean to imply that Indonesians don’t feel a full array of emotions as strongly as anyone else, but there is an optimism that seems particularly powerful across Indonesia.)

31. Gossip.  I thought the folks of my home town were bad.  I had no idea. 

32. Having access to mother nature from my classroom.  Feel inclined to have class outside?  It takes all of 20 seconds to get there. 

32. Terrible textbooks.  How students are supposed to learn when their textbooks are incorrect, I have no idea. 

33. Home remedies (that work!).  Have a cough? Try kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), with some lime.  You’ll never buy cough syrup again.

33. The lack of quality medical care.  Hospitals are downright terrifying, if there even is a hospital nearby.  Things are improving, but slowly. 

34. That everyone is an artist.  The worst of my students’ doodles are far superior to anything that I could pull off. 

34. Homophobia.  I once walked past a classroom and heard my students learning anti-LGBT chants as part of their sociology class.  It breaks my heart. 

35. Songket.  I have only one piece made from this Sumatran fabric, but it makes me feel like a queen. 

35. Lack of sex education.  It just isn’t there, and kids are left to glean incorrect information from their friends and the internet.  (Seriously, the things I have heard students say are petrifying.)

36. That family is a priority.  The value placed on family in Indonesia is incredible.  Generations live together, care for one another, and learn from one another.  It is truly a privilege to witness it. 

36. The hatred of dark skin.  Sometimes even teachers teased students for having dark skin.  It’s horrible.  It is partly due to internalized racism (which I will get to later in this list), but some of it was just plain racism. 

37. Cute rubber flats.  Did you know that Crocs can be cute?  And did you know they are the best teaching shoes you will ever find?

37. Tropical diseases.  I could have lived without contracting typhoid, honestly.  More seriously, the number of people lost to these diseases each year is heartbreaking. 

38. Good drivers.  A good driver, be they for car, taxi, or ojek (motorbike taxi), can be a wealth of local information, and be ever so comforting in an unfamiliar city. 

38. Macet. (Traffic.)  Want to go crazy?  Try Southeast Asian traffic.  Money back guarantee. 

39. An abundance of transportation applications.  In a larger city, I can get anywhere via car or ojek with just the push of a few buttons.  Amazing. 

39. Poor infrastructure.   Roads too narrow for the trucks carting goods on them.  Scary bridges.  Slow trains.  It’s doable, it’s true, but it sure ain’t pleasant. 

40. How friendly everyone is.  Indonesians are truly famous for being ramah (friendly), and they absolutely deserve the reputation.  Never have I met a more generally friendly people, and I feel so blessed to have lived in their presence for so long. 

40. That sometimes this friendliness is fake.  It took me a while to be able to tell exactly when Indonesian friendliness was genuine, and when it wasn’t, but I did eventually figure it out.  This is part of the basa-basi element of Indonesian culture, with which I probably have the strongest of love-hate relationships. 

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Just one beautiful vista, from Sumba.

41. Beautiful vistas.  Beaches.  Mountains.  Fields.  If you have never in your life felt inclined to stand in awe of the beauty of mother nature, I promise you Indonesia will change that. 

41. The destruction of these beautiful vistas.  Huge swaths of forests are cleared each year for farming and mining.  Pollution has destroyed so many places.  If we want our children to see the same sights we have come to admire, we need to do something, fast. 

42. That people believe in sick days.  When you are sick, you stay home and rest.  You don’t force yourself to go to work.  And guess what?  Then you heal faster.  America, take notes. 

42. Blatant corruption.  I don’t think using both hands would be enough to count how many times I was asked for bribes from government officials. 

43. Animals in the street.  They walk along with the vehicle and foot traffic and no one questions it.  I get especially excited when there is a cow. 

43. Lack of sidewalks.  There is a reason Indonesians don’t walk anywhere. 

44. Colorful curbs.  The curb sides are usually painted in bright colors, and like the colorful houses, this always brought me great joy.

44. Lack of respect for sidewalks that do exist.  You spot a sidewalk.  You pump your fists in the air in triumph.  Then you have to dodge out of the way of the motorbike whose driver has decided this sidewalk is a shortcut for him, not a place for pedestrians.  Triumph, short-lived. 

45. “Santai aja.”  (“Just relax.”)  Indonesians are generally extremely chill people.  Which can make them great in a crisis.  I might be freaking out, but they are calmly taking it all in, and moving forward, slowly but surely.  They are also incredibly understanding of traffic causing delays in meetings, or poor internet postponing projects. 

45. Jam karet.  (Rubber Time.)  Time is flexible in Indonesia, which means that events, big and small, rarely occur when they are said to.  Have a plan with a friend?  They might pick you up two hours after they said they would.  Or two hours before.  You never know. 

46. Bak mandi.  (The tubs you put your water in for showering.)  I fell in love with bucket showers.  When I moved to Jakarta and no longer had a bak mandi, I was so sad. 

46. Imigrasi.  (Immigration.)  I have been asked for bribes.  I have been given the wrong Visa.  I have been yelled at by immigration officers.  At this point, I hear the words kantor imigrasi (immigration office), and I visibly become tense and afraid. 

47. Toilet jongkok.  (Squatting toilet.)  I never lived with one in my house, and they did take me a moment to figure out, I’ll admit.  But once I did, I really came to find them more comfortable than toilet duduk (sitting toilets). 

47. The singular long fingernail that so many men grow.  Gross.  Just gross. 

48. The plethora of cultures.  Travel just two hours away from where you are, and it is likely that the people there might speak a different dialect, or possibly a different language altogether.  They will probably have different customs, and different traditional dress.  I was always learning about new cultures in Indonesia, and I had barely scratched the surface by the time I left. 

48. Lack of understanding of other cultures.  Far too many Indonesians only understand their own specific culture, and this leads to misunderstandings that can sometimes lead to truly horrible conflicts. 

49. The mortar and pestle for making sambal in every household.  I have yet to acquire one, but I need one. 

49. The rarity of ovens.  I love baking, and while I did have a toaster oven two out of my three years in Indonesia, nothing beats the real thing. 

50. Cooking in a wok.  It’s so much fun, and so sensible too.  I just recently bought my first wok, and I am so excited to start using it regularly. 

50. Cigarette smoke.  People smoke everywhere, even in restaurants, and so you are constantly breathing in cigarette smoke.  My lungs hated it. 

51. Krupuk (of the garlic variety).  Krupuk is a kind of cracker served with many dishes.  It adds a great crunch to your food, and the garlic-flavored one is really tasty. 

51. Krupuk (of the shrimp variety).  That shrimp-flavored krupuk, on the other hand… keep it away from me. 

52. Everyone is so tech savvy.  Which is especially great for folks like, me, who suffer from what Indonesians call gap tech. 

52. Everyone is always on their cell phones.  This is an issue in the States as well, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s worse in Indonesia, I feel. 

53. Good tailors.  My wardrobe is now full of amazing clothes made exactly to my measurements, due to the talents of some truly incredible men and women. 

53. Tailors that don’t realize I have boobs.  But not all tailors are created equal, and I have sadly lost some beautiful fabrics because they have made my dress for a woman half the size I am in the upper region (even after taking my measurements: I don’t get it).  

54. Jamu.  Traditional medicine that comes in all different flavors for all different purposes.  The jahe (ginger) kind is especially yummy. 

54. Unrefrigerated milk in cartons.  Having been raised on a dairy farm, I don’t like store-bought milk to begin with.  But the stuff in cartons… especially nasty. 

55. Badminton.  I have always loved badminton, and used to look forward to its unit in gym class every year.  Badminton is much more popular in Asia than it is in the U.S., and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it much more frequently during my time there. 

55. That girls so often cannot play sports.  I played futsal (indoor soccer) once with some of my male students, and afterwards a group of senior teachers pulled me to the side to inform me that it wasn’t decent for me, as a woman, to be doing so.  Every atom of my being rejected this statement, but I knew I had to play part of the game if I wanted to be able to accomplish certain goals for my students.  So, I kept my skirt on and my sneakers off for the rest of my time as an ETA. 

56. Enthusiastic tour guides.  If you every have the opportunity to be led around a cultural site or museum by a free guide who is there from a local university to practice their English (or other language), do it.  And insist upon paying them something at the end: they’re worth it. 

56. Underdeveloped museums.  So many of the museums in Indonesia are the same: filled with fascinating artifacts, but labeled poorly and barely protected.  I hope that as Indonesia develops it invests more into its museums, for the sake of the education of the next generation. 

57. Komodo Dragons.  They’re real, and they are terrible and wonderful and I cannot believe I got to see them up close.  (But not too close.)

57. Mosquitos.  The only good thing about mosquitos is that they inspired this quote, which I find quite amusing and accurate: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”  (Anita Roddick)

58. Tropical fish.   They come in more colors than I knew existed on the planet, and seeking them out helped me to get over my fear of the ocean. 

58. Cockroaches.  I know they have the ability to survive the apocalypse, and that’s cool and all, but they need to stay out of my kitchen. 

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A baby orangutan, from my visit to Borneo.

59. Orangutans.  Watching an orangutan swing through the trees with complete grace is one of the most amazing sites you will ever see in your life. 

59. Rats.  Disease-ridden and the size of cats (I’m not exaggerating), I like to keep these at a distance, even if I am also secretly impressed by them. 

60. “Tidak apa-apa.  Literally “No what-what,” this is the Indonesian equivalent of “Don’t worry about it,” or “No problem.”  Not only is it a fun phrase to say, really striving to use it in the same way that Indonesians do has taught me how to not sweat the small stuff, something I think will serve me well going further. 

60. “Tidak apa-apa.”  But when someone says “Tidak apa apa” about something I feel is an injustice, which they sometimes do, it grates on me like nothing else does. 

61. Eating with your hands. It really does make your food taste better, I swear. 

61. Drinking hot tea out of glass cups without handles.  I very much prefer a good mug.  Then I don’t burn my fingers. 

62. The national anthem.  The national anthem, “Indonesia Raya,” is just so… joyful.  I challenge you not to sing along. 

62. Javanese superiority.  I sometimes joke that the Javanese are the white people of Indonesia.  It’s not that simple, of course—because, if we’re honest, white people are still the white people of Indonesia—but the idea that the Javanese are somehow superior to the other cultures across Indonesia is strong among the Javanese, and has been internalized by many outside of Java as well. 

63. A crew of little kids following people down the street.  Their smiles and laughers are addicting, and even in the laughter is at my expense, and even if stopping to answer their incessant questions slows down my journey, I will never turn them away.  And though I do get quite a bit of attention because I am foreign, anyone carrying anything through the neighborhood is sure to be followed and peppered with questions in the same way. 

63. That people so rarely wear helmets.  Entire families will be crammed onto a motorbike, and not a one will be wearing a helmet.  It makes be terribly nervous, considering how unsafe Indonesian roads are. 

64. Laundry fresh from the cleaners.  It comes folded and pressed (eliminating the need to iron), and it smells amazing. 

64. Harassment.  This bothered me so much that I wrote an entire blog about it. 

65. Hand-washing my undergarments.  It might sound crazy, but I found this terribly therapeutic.  Even if I felt I wasn’t doing anything else right at the time, this was something I could do, and this small triumph each week is sometimes what got me through. 

65. Victim blaming.  This is probably part harassment and part patriarchy, but I felt it deserved its own spot.  The victim blaming was so strong it almost had me convinced sometimes that it was all my fault that I was harassed to the extent that I was, even though I knew better. 

66. Putri malu.  (Shy princess.)  This plant’s leaves droop when touched, which is so much fun to watch.  I kept my eye peeled for it every time I went walking. 

66. Lack of soft grass.  A different climate and terrain means different flora, and I missed having hills with soft grass to roll down. 

67. Garuda.  The best airline in Indonesia, and arguably the world.  Any time I got to fly on a Garuda plane, it was a real treat. 

67. Scary budget airlines.  I saw my life flash before my eyes several times during landings.

68. Tropical birds.  I hate seeing them caged, but when they are flitting about in the wild where they belong, they are the loveliest of sights. 

68. The focus on appearances.  Your weight, your hair, your skin color, your acne… everything will be scrutinized, all the time.  I started wearing makeup consistently for the first time in Indonesia, because I was tired of having the same conversations about my acne (which, by the way, doesn’t improve when people touch it all the time, the way people in Indonesia always insist upon doing) and my unpainted lips every. single. day. 

69. Animals in your classroom.  Cats and butterflies and everything between.  It was always an adventure. 

69. Poor internet.  I am very thankful to have spent my time abroad during an era that had any access to internet, but there is no denying that the lack of reliable internet was a constant source of professional and personal stress. 

70. Fresh coconut.  There is nothing more rejuvenating than drinking water from a fresh coconut and scooping out its flesh after a day at the beach or on a mountain. 

70. Inability to queue.  It is push-your-way-to-the-front-or-die in Indonesia. 

71. Student creativity.  I loved giving my students project in Indonesia, because I knew that, no matter how high I let myself set my standards, they would blow me away with their creativity. 

71. Terrible English curriculum.  Like most curricula, the Indonesian English curriculum is usually far above where the students are, and leaves little room for flexibility so that the teacher can meet the students’ real needs. 

72. The wealth of adorable notebooks.  I don’t think I saw a monochrome notebook the entire time I was Indonesia.  I was especially fond of those with batik patterns, or with cartoon characters giving words of encouragement. 

72. Bathroom shoes.  I know they serve a purpose, but the stack of flip flops that always seemed to get in the way of the door drove me mad. 

73. Print and copy shops.  The folks there are usually some of the friendliest people in town, and if you need anything for your classroom, from colored paper to ink for your Snowman markers, they probably have it.

73. Inaccessibility of clean water.  This is another issue that I wrote an entire blog about, and while it is improving, it isn’t where in needs to be at all. 

74. “Semangat!”  Meaning something along the lines of “Keep spirit!” this encouraging word is my favorite word that I have ever learned in any language.  I have yet to come across anything that quite comes close to the same spirit of semangat, and it is one of those words I teach my American friends so that I don’t have to give up my ability to use it. 

74. “Habiskan!”  This means something along the lines of “Finish it,” or “Empty it,” and it is said when someone wants you to empty your plate.  I have been forced to eat far more than is comfortable many times in Indonesia (because to do otherwise would be impolite), and now the word “Habiskan” produces a visceral, negative reaction. 

75. Souped-up bentors (becak motor, or motorcycle-run rickshaws).  They play the same song at full blast for months on end, are lit up like a house party, and have the most ridiculous paint jobs.  If I had to rely on them for transportation I would probably hate them, but passing them on my motorbike, I found them amusing. 

75. Mud everywhere after the rain.  It gets on everything. 

76. Tulus.  Tulus is a pop/jazz singer, and he is probably my favorite artist of all time.  I was even lucky enough to see him in concert once, which was amazing.  My favorite song of his is “Manusia Kuat,” because I am a sucker for inspirational songs.

76. Modern dangdut This is a type of music fairly unique to Indonesia, and I’ll leave you to look it up for yourself.  The older stuff actually isn’t half bad.  But listen to the song “Sakitnya Tuh Disini.”  And know that I have heard this song thousands of times, usually really loudly, during my time in Indonesia. 

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Making ikat.

77. Ikat.  The weaving most commonly found in N.T.T., this is probably my favorite fabric in all of Indonesia.   And yes, I am obsessed with pretty much all of the fabrics from Indonesia.

77. No understanding of a personal bubble.  My personal bubble isn’t even that large, and mine was popped within moments of landing in Indonesia, and really never had a chance to recover. 

78. Gamelon.  A traditional Javanese instrument usually played to accompany shadow puppetry or traditional theatre, my students at my first school used to practice right after school, and the clanging but somehow beautiful sounds would echo through the teacher’s room while I was planning the next week’s lessons or grading students’ projects.  You can actually watch listen to my students perform Gamelon as part of a larger performance here

78. That people only learn about their own religion.  I’ve actually written about this before, but for a country where religion has such a strong presence, and where at least a student’s own religion becomes a part of their curriculum even in public schools, I was always shocked at how little people knew of other religions.

79. Angklun.  This is an instrument from west Java, and while it is not to everyone’s taste, I always found it really enjoyable to listen to, and was really excited every year when at least one student at the WORDS Competition would play the angklun as part of their talent. 

79. Public toilets.  There are signs telling you not to stand on the sitting toilets.  With pictures.  People clearly don’t read them. 

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Getting to meet with some of my first students again.

80. How excited people get to see you again.  The enthusiasm Indonesians have for meeting acquaintances a second time is absolutely heartwarming, and a practice I have come to adopt myself and fully plan on maintaining while back in the States. 

80. How far Indonesia is from the U.S.  I was definitely homesick a few times while in Indonesia, and I love that I am back in the U.S. now.  But at the same time, I absolutely love the country and all the people I met there (because, if we are honest, the number one thing I love about Indonesia are the friends I made there, but it seemed almost petty to put them on a list, as they are a part of all of my positive experiences in the country), and I wish that I could have both Indonesia and America in my life all the time.  This might be possible if Indonesia were in another part of the world, but the fact is that it is on the opposite side of the globe from the U.S., and that makes have the best of both of these homes a bit tricky. 

81. Giant spoons.  There is something just so satisfying about shoveling huge quantities of delicious food into mouth. 

81. Lack of knives.  Sometimes, I just want to be able to cut my food.  But knives are usually nowhere to be found at the local warung (food stall). 

82. Tinituan. (Also called Bubur Manado, or Manadonese porridge.)  This is hands down my favorite Indonesian food.  It is a kind of pumpkin stew-esque dish, and it is what heaven tastes like. 

82. Poor cheese selection.  I grew up on a dairy farm.  I have an appreciation for keju.  But, sadly, there is usually a small selection in Indonesia.

83. Classroom decorating competitions.  These happened multiple times a year at each of my schools, and I loved that this gave my students an opportunity to demonstrate their collaborative creativity, and I loved that the decorations would stay up for months afterwards, adding color and fun to the classrooms. 

83. Limited global understanding.  I had students who couldn’t find their own country on the map, and students who thought that the United States was the same as the Americas, and therefore covered what was actually two continents and thirty-five counties.  When I got an American-style classroom at my second school, the first thing I put up was a world map. 

84. Food served on banana leaves.  It’s beautiful, and eco-friendly, and I miss it. 

84. Plastic chairs.  I was always terrified that I would break one of these.  (Funnily enough, the only chair I actually broke while in Indonesia was a wooden one, and at a fancier restaurant.)

85. Yellow rice.  It’s served for breakfast on Sulawesi, but on special occasions on Java, but it is always great.  (Side note: props to Indonesia and my friends there for turning me into a full-fledged foodie, something I certainly wasn’t before.) 

85. Plastic water cups.  Mama Earth says stop.  As do I. 

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From Museum Wayang.

86. Wayang Kulit.  (Shadow Puppets.)  Though I really wanted to, I never got to see a professional wayang kulit performance while I was in Indonesia.  But I saw students perform it several times, and also visited the wayang museum as part of my museum tour of Jakarta

86. The butt cup.  This plagued so many female ETAs.  You stand in line for a photo, and suddenly the woman next to you is just causally cupping your butt.  Some ETAs came to find this comforting.  I could never get into it. 

87. Stray cats.  Some were terrified of humans, but some were personable, almost as if they were the pet of the entire neighborhood.  I even adopted a few while I was in Gorontalo. 

87. Too many social media options.  “Miss, do you have Line?”  “Miss, do you have Path?”  “Miss, do you have BBM?”  “No, I have Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Email.  That’s enough, thank you.” 

88. Hardy native plants.  So many of the houses had plants outside of them, including my own in Gorontalo, and as they were usually native plants, they were so easy to take care of, which I loved. 

88. The Ibu crawl.  This is the name several ETAs gave to the slow walk that Ibu-Ibu are famous for.  In reality, it is actually more sensible than walking quickly, because of how hot it is.  But I grew up following men with longer legs than my little girl self, and am known for walking quickly in the States; I could never slow down enough for the Ibu crawl. 

89. Karaoke nights.  I’ll admit, I hated karaoke when I first got to Indonesia.  But the fun everyone else is having is contagious, and it became one of my favorite things. 

89. Whitening products.  The obsession with pale skin means that there is no lack of whitening products (it can actually be a challenge to find a lotion that is not whitening), and so going shopping for any kind of skin or hair-care product was always really upsetting. 

90. Fresh spices.  Giant sticks of cinnamon.  Nutmeg that actually looks like a nut.  There is a reason they were called the “Spice Islands” during the colonial era. 

90. Internalized racism.  Having your students continuously call themselves ugly because they are not as light as you, or being told to stay out of the sun, not for your health, but because “you will turn black!” is something you have to constantly battle if you are a light-skinned ETA.  So much of this stems from colonialism, and part of it is caused by the media… the reasons for it existing are complicated, but no matter the reasons, it is just so sad.  I wish my students would recognize just how beautiful they really are. 

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A sunset at Pantai Merah in East Java.

91. Sunsets (and sunrises!) on the water.  They are just magical. 

91. Bule privilege.  Partly due to the color of my skin, and partly due to Indonesia’s complicated relationship with foreigners, I was often treated as an honored guest when there was really no reason for me to be, or allowed certain privileged that Indonesians were not.  I’ll admit that I would sometimes use this if I could do so to the advantage of my students or my friends (sometimes I could connect to people simply because I was a foreigner, and that person might be perfect of a program with my students or for a friend who was in the same field), but I tried as hard as I could not to benefit from it myself.  But I inevitably did. 

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Sunset over Danau Toba.

92. Sunsets (and sunrises!) anywhere.  So magical. 

92. Treatment of foreigners of color.  I send readers again to this article as well as this one.  I cannot actually speak to experiencing this, but I witnessed it, and I want desperately for it to change. 

93. Being called sister.  So many of my friends called me this, and it really made me feel like we were family, and in many ways, we were. 

93. Being called “Mister.”  I. am. not. a. boy.

94. Being called “Miss.”  I always wanted some kind of short name for my students to call me, and so when most of my students called me “Miss,” I was oh so very pleased. 

94. That I will always be foreign.  It doesn’t matter how long I live in Indonesia.  I will always be an outsider, and never really truly fit in.  I am sure this is how many immigrants and people of color feel in America as well.  World, we need to do something about this. 

95. Cheese and chocolate.   Brownies often come with shredded cheese sprinkled on top.  I know it sounds gross.  I was weirdly into it. 

95. How much fried food I am expected to consume.  It is often delicious, yes.  But I usually feel terrible later. 

96. Es. Es is a sort of dessert-drink, always with ice and sweet syrup, and sometimes with fresh fruit and/or these little jelly things.  This was another thing I hated when I first came to Indonesia, but by the end I loved it.  (Some people told me that meant I had spent too much time in Indonesia, but I am convinced there is no such thing.) 

96. Bintang.  This is Indonesia’s main beer.  Some foreigners love it.  I am convinced it is poison. 

97. Neighborly neighbors.  I grew up in small farming communities, and I thought I had encountered the epitome of neighborly.  I was wrong. 

97. The constant requests for photos.  There were days when I felt more like an exhibit than a human.   I always tried to be patient, to smile and to take the chance to potentially engage people in conversation.  But sometimes I would growl at people to leave me alone.

98. Ibu-Ibu angkat.  (This would roughly translate to adoptive mothers.)  The way people bring you into their families is truly wonderful.  I will forever be grateful for all of the Ibu Angkat I have across the archipelago. 

98. Menus that are only written in English.  Having the English can be nice, but where is the Indonesian?  We’re in Indonesia, damnit! 

99. That I did not live in Indonesia forever.  There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that my time in Indonesia had an end date, and that I would eventually escape. 

99. That I did not live in Indonesia forever.  There was always something new to learn, somewhere new to visit, someone amazing to meet and befriend.  I was in Indonesia for three years, something very few Americans have the opportunity to do, but even then, I barely scratched the surface.  I don’t regret deciding to return to the States after my third year, but there is no denying that I would love more time in Indonesia, and hope that I can return for another stint someday. 

100. How much I have grew in my time there.  I have changed since going to Indonesia, in small ways and big ways, but I am convinced only in positive ways.  (I hope I am right!)  Indonesia wasn’t always kind about how it made me grow (I might have made that my 100th negative point, except in the end I know there is more to love about Indonesia than to be frustrated by, and I wanted my list to represent that), but grow I did, and I am ever so grateful for all that I have learned and experienced. 

It is impossible to sum up how I feel in Indonesia in a list, even one as long as this.  It takes up a huge portion of my heart, and sometimes that portion is warm and fuzzy, and sometimes it hurts.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
[1] This doesn’t count any blogs I wrote about other countries that I have been fortunate enough to visit during my time in Indonesia.

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2 thoughts on “A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia

  1. Thank you for writing this 🙂 I bumped into this post on my WordPress feed suggestions and it made my Sunday morning! I laughed, smiled and felt the frustration reading all of these… it’s very honest and heartwarming at the same time, as someone who grew up in Jakarta I identify with every single one of the points you’ve made. I’m going to make my Kiwi husband read this, especially point 95 (as he looked at me with absolute horror when I made him sponge cake with sprinkled cheese on top and called it ‘cheesecake’ — he still does).

    Cheers
    Mariska

    Like

    • Hi Mariska! I’m so glad that you enjoyed this blog post! It’s so good to hear from people who have shared this experience and feel similarly. I hope your husband also enjoys it! -Grace

      Like

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