Expats are a strange lot. I guess I pictured a bunch of people like in Casablanca or Indiana Jones movies hanging out and discussing life adventures and the intricacies of the culture. You know, inviting each other to dinner and drinking fine port and stuff. Not so. An expat in Indonesia is generally one with a whole bunch of survival experience, drinks a lot of sensibly priced alcohol, and is minimally helpful – usually in very different ways than you might be used to. They will tell you what you need to do, but often leave out the much-needed details of how to accomplish said task. Or they are simply just late in getting the details to you.
It has taken Sarah and I about six weeks to get the whole cell phone thing sorted out. We got one phone that was pick-pocketed at a mall by a group of Muslim women wearing those traditional head dressings. (Who knows if they were really religious or if this was just a guise.) They squeezed in on us on the escalator and got their hands in Sarah’s purse. That phone lasted, literally, about two hours. A week and a half later, we got a new one and purchased 50,000 units. (There are no “plans” here, just buy minutes as you go.) Those particular units were all taken up in sorting out plane tickets. Special note: If you call within Asia, Cathay Airlines does not have anyone who speaks English to help you – you might need to find someone who speaks Indonesian to help you out… as Sarah had to do. A little later we found a place to buy more units. They jacked up the price, acted like they couldn’t speak English and then (probably purposely) gave us the wrong type of units for our phone. We were out Rp. 58,000 (not even $6 USD) because of this.
When we related these anecdotes and our fellow teachers and expats, they said, “Welcome to Indonesia,” each time. After the units fiasco, they said, “That’s just the way it’s done here. It happens to everyone. You have to make sure they put the units in your phone while you stand there. Don’t do it yourself.” Um. OK. That would’ve been good to know beforehand… but thanks.
Sarah once told one of our crustier co-workers who’s never bothered to get his missing front tooth fixed, “Well, we just don’t have the experience you have yet.” He responded, “Well, maybe you should get it.”
That statement kind of still blows my mind. Not because it is a completely new level of insensitivity unknown to me until recently, but because it has all the non-sense, bassackward hooey of a Bush administration press conference answer. What does that mean exactly? And how does one answer to that? “Uh. Well, I am. I guess. So… exactly why are talking down to me again? Because I haven’t been cheated by a cell phone dealer before?” Yeah. Not much you can say really.
Added to all this, is the problem of the gossipy nature of expats. You must be very careful what you reveal to them, because it will be all over the teacher’s room the next day. Really. So far Sarah and I have kept clean… we think. But we have heard some pretty venomous words about others. Lots of expats get bored and just drink and talk. Thank God for good books, DVDs and blog writing.
That kind of sums up the expat “camaraderie.” Like all humans, some are more helpful than others of course. A few have been very helpful and selfless, in fact – our Aussie neighbor and co-worker Bill and our landlady Silvia and her boyfriend and fellow teacher Steve the Scotsman. I have to say most of them, however, have the answers when you don’t really need them anymore. A day late and a dollar short, as Dad used to say.
Sure. It gets frustrating. But each time this happens, I learn a bit more about human nature and how to get along with people. And that’s what this experience is all about, I suppose.