If you’re thinking about becoming an expat, you’ll likely move into an environment that has very different norms and traditions. And you will probably face situations that confuse you with what seem like unusual expectations about your behavior.
Yes, we’re all humans, and we all have similar basic needs. Those aren’t the things that will confuse you. Instead, regardless of the country you’ve chosen as your new home, you may find that -
- all of your dinner guests arrived one hour or more late
- children run around and are followed by someone who tries to stick a spoonful of food into the child’s mouth whenever he stops for a brief moment
- someone asks you the same question over and over – even though you responded the first time, the second time, and every time with the same answer
- you are gifted something that you said you liked in someone’s home
These examples are just a few of the many, many things I encountered when I moved to Indonesia. And even though I’ve been here 35+ years now, I sometimes still face situations that confuse me.
One of My First Confusing Encounters
When I became an American expat in Indonesia, I had a lot to learn in order to understand the subtleties of speech, glances, etc, in my new home. I already knew that what was acceptable or normal in the U.S. didn’t necessarily apply in Indonesia. The problem was that I didn’t know what was normal here.
On the whole, Indonesians forgive foreigners that often seem like the proverbial bull in a China shop. But not Vicky. She was going to provide quite a lesson for me.
Did my previous post A Stranger in Jakarta with Lessons to Learn make you curious about the revenge Vicky would take. It took a few months to be reveal itself, but it had a lasting effect on my life.
Let me fill in some background. It was the early 1980s and I worked at a company in Jakarta that employed both Americans and Indonesians. The two main characters in this story are Jim and Vicky – both employees at the company where I was working.
Jim was an American expat who did the company’s photography work, and Vicky was a local Indonesian woman who had her eyes set on making Jim her boyfriend.
Their nationalities wouldn’t normally be important, but the fact that Vicky was Indonesian demonstrates how my lack of knowing what was normal in Indonesian culture got me into trouble.
Vicky’s of Hollywood
Let me describe Vicky to you so that you’ll have a vivid picture of her as you read my story.
Like most Indonesians, both her hair and eyes were dark brown. Lots of Indonesian women are beautiful. You’ve probably seen photos of beautiful Indonesian women even if you didn’t know they were Indonesian.
The photo at the top depicts two typical beautiful young Indonesian ladies.
Vicky wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous. She looked nice enough, but she wouldn’t win any beauty contests.
There were some things about her, though, that would make her stand out in a crowd. Are you old enough to remember Frederick’s of Hollywood?
They were well known for their sexy lingerie. Well, I never saw any of Vicky’s lingerie, so I can’t say anything about that. But as I recall, their bras back in the 1950’s made ladies’ bosoms extremely pointed. I don’t know how any man got close enough to kiss one of those ladies without getting stabbed.
I did a Google search about Frederick’s of Hollywood as I was writing this article and found some pages from the 1950’s catalog. So this image is for those of you who haven’t gotten the picture yet.
Vicky somehow found bras in Indonesia that turned her breasts into lethal weapons. She didn’t wear revealing clothing like what is shown in this image. But just because her blouses covered her whole chest and upper arms didn’t mean that she couldn’t stab you if you got too close.
She was stuck in the 1950’s in another way. She always wore skirts with multiple crinoline petticoats underneath. I knew what was underneath her skirt because I’d dressed like that in the late 1950’s. The more crinolines you wore, the further your skirt stuck out, and the higher your status as a fashion statement.
But this wasn’t the 1950’s any longer. Vicky somehow thought she was in American high style, but that style had gone out of fashion at least 20 years earlier.
Americans – Guns and Promiscuity
It’s only right that I should include some mention of the strange notions Indonesians often had about Americans in the early 1980’s. Indonesia had largely escaped Westernization up to that point. The only Western fast food chains were Kentucky Fried Chicken and A&W.
Although some Indonesians went to universities in the United States and came home with realistic ideas about Americans, the majority were getting their ideas of American culture from unreliable sources – mainly movies and tv shows.
- Cowboy and gangster movies convinced them that we all carried guns whenever we left the house.
- Television shows like Dallas gave Indonesians the idea that everyone was sleeping with everyone else.
So it wasn’t unreasonable for Indonesians to have strange ideas about the average American. And Vicky’s idea of fashion just hadn’t yet caught up with the changes that had already taken place in American women’s clothing.
Start Learning, Kate!
When you read the following story, you might think that the same thing could have happened in the U.S. And you’d probably be right. But in the U.S., I probably would have been able to read the signs better, and I would have been better able to deal with the situation.
Just to remind you, my earlier post described the adventure I had in getting to Jim’s apartment on my own in a huge city I wasn’t familiar with. It ended up being a very positive experience when Indonesians came to my aid.
I was used to American cities where streets are often laid out on a grid and the numbering system is actually a system. Jakarta’s streets, however, don’t follow any such planning and finding an address in those days was a real challenge.
The image below is an actual black and white image of Jakarta’s streets. And this doesn’t even show the small streets.
That post also mentioned that Vicky had arrived at Jim’s place the next morning only to find out that he’d come home with a blonde female who hadn’t left yet. Neither Jim nor I found out about Vicky’s visit until months later.
The relationship between Jim and me was a total non-starter. Vicky was welcome to him as far as I was concerned. But she didn’t know that. So she set about planning her revenge – trying to get me fired.
As far as I knew at the time, I had no reason to think that my work life would change, so I went on my merry way. And nothing unusual happened for a week or two.
My job was to supervise the 2pm-10pm shift of Indonesians who input text into Radio Shack’s TRS-80 computer – a popular computer model in those days.
Every day the employees on this shift and I input text onto floppy disks and left them for the earlier shift to proofread and pass on to the people in charge of putting all the pieces of text into the format the client wanted.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? And it was. The system worked well until …
Let the Games Begin
One day I came in at 2pm as usual. My boss Jennifer was waiting to talk to me and asked why my floppy disk was full of garble. I was the fastest typist on my shift, so that was a significant amount of work that had been lost.
After examining the disk and trying to figure out what could have happened, I agreed with Jennifer that the disk must have been corrupt. That didn’t sound right to me since that would have been evident when I attempted to save my work.
But what could I say?
The garbled disk problem started happening fairly regularly. Two or three times each week, all the work I’d done on my most recent 8-hour shift was gone.
I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, but I was sure Jennifer thought that I was totally incompetent. She didn’t say that, but what else could she think?
You can imagine how disturbing the situation was to someone like me who had previously been proud of her job performance. Every day was a mental roller coaster ride until I found out whether my previous day’s work was good – or garble.
The Cat Finally Got out of the Bag
My work contract was originally for three months to end on the same ending date as everyone else’s contracts. When the three months ended, negotiations for a future contract were in process but not completed.
Since everyone expected negotiations to be successful, we were all extended a month. During that extra month, work would continue as usual.
But during that month, the s**t hit the fan.
Jennifer had been investigating the mystery of the garbled disks because she wasn’t convinced of my incompetence. She thought there had to be a reasonable explanation.
Without my knowing it, Jennifer had questioned the employees on both shifts several times. Eventually the truth came out.
Here are the details from her investigation –
- Vicky had gotten a job for her friend Diah.
- Diah worked on the early shift.
- In typical Indonesian fashion, Diah had to pay 10% of her salary to Vicky every payday.
- Because Diah was indebted to Vicky, she also had to do whatever Vicky told her to do.
- Vicky told Diah to mess with my floppy disks every few days.
- Diah came in early every few days and garbled up my floppy disks.
- Guilt was eating away at Diah.
Eventually, Diah couldn’t hold her guilt inside any longer. She overcame her feelings of obligation to Vicky and finally confessed everything.
And the Result Was …
I don’t know what happened to Vicky. I’m sure she kept her job. In those days, everything was based on your contacts. And I’d heard that Vicky had important connections.
I, on the other hand, was thrilled that I’d been vindicated. Everyone finally knew that I wasn’t a total incompetent – that I’d been framed.
Didn’t you think that someone getting framed only happened in the movies?
Of all the things that went through my mind during that episode, I never thought that someone had actually been so angry with me that she’d sabotaged my work. And during all this time, Vicky hadn’t shown even the slightest animosity toward me. She wasn’t friendly, but she was polite.
In the end, I was sick of the whole mess. Yes, they’d finally finished negotiations for the new annual contract and asked me to stay. I didn’t want that kind of drama in my life and said no.
You might have thought that this situation would have soured me on Indonesia. But for some reason, it didn’t. It only soured me on working for this company.
What would I do next? I had no idea, but I was young and optimistic. I was sure I could find another job in Jakarta.
How would my life have been different if I’d accepted the offer to continue working at that company?
Would Vicky and I have gotten over our bad blood and become fast friends?
Or would I have always been suspicious of what she might do next?
I’ll never know and really don’t care. What I do know is that I still had more lessons to learn.