Is it fun to live in Indonesia?
"When there are children at the latest, many expats think about returning home"
Silke Irmscher lives in Indonesia with her Indonesian husband and their two daughters. In the interview she talks about the upbringing of her children in a different cultural environment, the working style of the Indonesians and explains what expats in this part of Southeast Asia can expect.
EXPAT NEWS: You did an internship at the Goethe Institute in Jakarta at the turn of the millennium. How did you come across Indonesia of all places?
Irmscher: At that time I was studying communication psychology in Görlitz and part of the course was also to complete a practical semester. Because my wanderlust was so great, I decided to do an internship abroad. I already had international experience and had backpacked through South America and knew Europe quite well. The internship semester gave me the opportunity to see even more of the world. I wanted to know what it feels like not only to visit a foreign country, but to live there.
An employee at the university had a hot line to the Goethe-Institut and suggested that I apply to one of the worldwide branches. Originally I wanted to go to India, but I also applied for an internship in Indonesia - after all, the Goethe-Institut in Jakarta was faster and so I came to Indonesia. Back then, I was looking for the exotic, so the stay should take place in a cultural area that was as foreign as possible. I was particularly interested in the psyche of other peoples - I knew the psychological view of the Germans to a large extent, but I wanted to find out what constitutes humanity by getting to know something completely different.
EXPAT NEWS:How did you fare after your arrival in Indonesia?
Irmscher: Although I never actually believed that it existed in this form, I initially got a juicy culture shock. I grew up in the countryside, my place of study, Görlitz, is relatively tranquil, and then I came to Jakarta, a metropolis of 12 million people. I took the classic culture shock curve with me: At first everything was great, exciting and fascinating. I took thousands of photos, was constantly on the move and almost overwhelmed by the many exotic impressions. But after a month a lot became too much for me and I realized how exhausting this life actually was.
Fortunately, I really enjoyed my work at the Goethe-Institut - that caught me a little. I decided to move out of my expat accommodation and took a room in a six-person Indonesian student-girl flat-share. During the day, I learned Indonesian in self-study in addition to work with the help of books and in the evening I applied what I had learned in conversation with my roommates.
"Indonesian is not a difficult language"
EXPAT NEWS: And that worked well?
Irmscher:A lot. Within three months I was able to speak in Indonesian. My roommates were enthusiastic and happy to support me in learning Indonesian. This is how real friendships came about. I'm still good friends with one of the girls today. Foreigners are very popular here because Indonesians are very hospitable and interested in other cultures. By the way, Indonesian isn't as difficult as you might think. It is a good entry-level language, especially for the Southeast Asia region. If you master Indonesian, Malay, for example, is not difficult to learn. Indonesian has no cases or complicated conjugations and no singsong either. Unlike Thai, for example, the script is relatively easy to read.
EXPAT NEWS:When did you decide to live in Indonesia?
Irmscher: After the internship I traveled through Southeast Asia for another year, but this did not fulfill me in the long run. The traveler's life is somehow so taskless, I wanted to do something. So I returned to Indonesia and did an internship at a children's culture organization. It was there that I finally met my current husband. After the internship, I continued studying in Germany, so we initially had a long-distance relationship. I returned for my diploma thesis on the perception of time between Indonesian and German culture. After graduating, I worked for the GIZ (Society for International Cooperation) in reconstruction aid after the tsunami disaster in Aceh, Indonesia.
Before and during this time, my husband came to Germany for a few months, got to know the language and culture of my home country. It was important to me that he get to know my roots and experience German culture. That was particularly exciting for him, because up until now he had absolutely no idea of Germany, let alone Europe. So it was a big step for him. The fact that he knows my cultural background certainly contributes to the success of our bi-cultural marriage.
EXPAT NEWS: They have two daughters, aged eight and six. Do the cultural differences between you sometimes make bringing up your children a little complicated?
Irmscher: Not really. Maybe because my knowledge of psychology helps to analyze and understand differences. This in turn makes tolerance possible for the first time. I just have to know where the hell is wrong and then I can handle critical situations well. However, my children have changed the perspective on German culture and my cultural identity. You could almost say that it was through her that I really discovered or got to know my German character.
"I have acquired the know-how of my own culture again"
EXPAT NEWS: In what way?
Irmscher: I am a big fan of Indonesian culture and have always looked at all behaviors in a very relaxed manner. Meanwhile I criticize a lot. Immediately after the birth of my first child, the wish arose that it should not only learn the culture of its father, but more of the German one. Maybe it was the hormones, but even from a distance, there is a lot about the Indonesian style of upbringing that I didn't want for my children under any circumstances. Here children are very spoiled and brought up to be dependent. At the same time, an almost blind obedience to the adults is demanded, which lacks a certain ability to reflect.
So I have, to a certain extent, acquired the know-how of my own culture again and I'm sure to get offended when it comes to upbringing. So my children are allowed to play alone in the dirt from time to time and neither their father nor I constantly run after them as a precaution. Here, the children are often still fed by their parents when they are five years old. A sister-in-law of my husband was downright shocked when she found out that our daughter “had to” eat alone when she was one and a half years old. In fact, I show little willingness to compromise when it comes to upbringing. But my husband accepts and even appreciates it because he sees many advantages.
EXPAT NEWS:Which for example?
Irmscher: He thinks that we eat together as a family very much. Indonesia is a group-oriented culture, but relationships are often rather superficial. In contrast, German family life is often more intense.
EXPAT NEWS: What is typically Indonesian about your spouse, what does he find typically German about you?
Irmscher: I asked my husband one more time. He says that very German about me is my discipline and my ability to organize myself well. He finds it negative, typically German, that I quickly fall into stress. Whereby my friends always think that I am the serenity person. This shows that this is always a question of perspective.
"Facebook was practically invented for Indonesians"
My husband is classically Indonesian in that he exudes serenity in all situations and is a great networker. All Indonesians have the ability to network widely. Facebook was practically created for them. The average number of friends on this social network is 2,000 per person. This certainly also depends on the strong group orientation of the locals. There is hardly any individualism among the Indonesians. You can't be alone either. As expats or exchange students in Germany, they often fall into a deep hole because they suddenly feel so lonely. For Germans, the lack of privacy in Indonesia is again very difficult. If you get sick, for example, the entire environment knows the diagnosis straight away. Our neighbor was recently diagnosed with diabetes - my husband even knows the value of her blood sugar level. Even the most intimate details are gossiped around.
EXPAT NEWS: Are there things from Germany that you sometimes miss in Indonesia? If so, what are they?
Irmscher: Yes, I miss the understanding of nature in this country. We live in Jogjakarta - the most popular tourist destination to Bali - very beautifully located and historically valuable, known for its spirituality and tranquility. And yet the city is now uncomfortably plastered with hotels; Mopeds are now driving around everywhere, pollution is rampant. We Germans may have a romantic view of nature because of our cultural heritage and try to preserve and protect it. In Indonesia rice fields are concreted and there is no government regulation that could prevent or at least contain it. As a result, there are fewer green spaces, there is basically no public space in which to relax - no parks or green zones and, above all, no playgrounds. It's absurd: this country is full of children, but there are no places for them. In Germany, paradoxically, it is the other way around. Cycling or hiking outside with children does not work here. The growing prosperity in the population is simultaneously reducing the quality of life. I have a feeling of being locked in more and more often.
EXPAT NEWS:What is your advice to private individuals who emigrate to Indonesia or who come here as expats?
Irmscher: Among other things, to develop an awareness of what I have just described. You should know that there is hardly any nature, especially in the cities - and most job-related stays will be in Jakarta - with luck, expats and their families will get a villa in a “gated community” - that is, in a fenced-in residential area where there are green spaces. However, this also means a major turning point for families, because the children are suddenly no longer free and cannot easily meet friends after school. Those who work in the city have to factor in traffic jams every day. Due to the high volume of traffic, it often takes a good three hours to travel 20 minutes.
Otherwise, I always advise getting involved in the culture of the host country. You don't have to become Indonesian to do this. Everyone can keep their cultural authenticity and test their own limits first. The other culture shouldn't eat you up, otherwise it won't do you any good. You can't deny your roots. For example, if you don't like this strong group dynamic, you don't have to submit to it. It is also part of communicating this personal limit politely.
"Indonesians are still very obedient to authority"
EXPAT NEWS: How would you describe the Indonesian working style?
Irmscher: For one thing, time is very flexible here. Punctuality is not a priority. However, the older Indonesians in particular are still very obedient to the authorities. But at the moment everything is in a state of upheaval and western leadership styles are also being tried out. Nevertheless, personal responsibility for one's own work is not yet very widespread. You wait for the boss to tell you whether you are doing something right or wrong. This is where most of the conflicts for German expats arise. And saying yes and smiling does not automatically mean approval for Indonesians. Time and again I see expats completely misunderstanding locals' facial expressions. Indonesians often smile to keep their spirits up and to keep their counterparts from losing face. In addition, foreign employees should not defend themselves against talking about private matters in business life. It is a big mistake to keep private matters out of the job. Indonesians want to know what kind of guy you are and, especially as a foreigner, you are constantly questioned.
EXPAT NEWS: Are you planning to return to Germany at some point?
Irmscher: Yes, we will probably return towards the end of our children's elementary school, that is, in about four years. Many foreigners - regardless of their origin - return to their home country because of their children. We have a bit of a stomachache with regard to the local school and education. The system is very different from what we know in the western world. For Indonesians, a good school means that the children there are taught to perform under immense workload. Families spend a lot of money on tutoring. Sometimes the children sit at eight in the evening with the tutoring. The question is, how much childhood do you give children? In Indonesia, the Chinese model of upbringing, which is about strict discipline and success, is the role model. Unfortunately there are no German schools here, so I also teach my children German and local history at home. In addition, I would just like to live in Germany with my family. After almost 15 years abroad, I am increasingly longing for a life at home. Apart from that, we can also imagine leading a, let's say “more global” life for a few years and going to a completely different country. We live in an age where, compared to the past, it is becoming easier and easier to live together in and with foreign cultures and we would like to take advantage of this opportunity. Who knows where we will end up as a multicultural family?
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About Silke Irmscher:
With your company Jogja InterKulturSilke Irmscher brings European and Indonesian cultures together and serves as a point of contact for business people, academics and cultural workers from Europe and Indonesia. In intercultural training and coaching, her team provides an understanding of the world of people from different cultures. Jogja InterKultur also organizes (inter) cultural projects, workshops and events. In doing so, it draws on a network of international institutions from the economic, social and cultural fields.
More on the subject:
Business etiquette in Indonesia: friendship first, then business
Indonesia with a record number of visitors
Interview: "People all over the world have the same desires"
About expat news
Expat News is a German-language service and news portal that provides readers with information on all aspects of living and working abroad.
If you have any questions / suggestions or are interested in writing articles as a guest author, those interested are welcome to contact editor-in-chief Anne-Katrin Schwanitz.
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