Eight Things I Learned in Indonesia

A little over a year ago I spent four months in Indonesia. I didn’t really travel across the country, at least not in the way you would expect during that much time abroad. Instead I had the great privilege to live in Indonesia, and see it from the inside. It’s hard to put to words all that I learned, and impossible to do justice to the people I met and the experiences I had. Here is my attempt to share are a few things I learned while I was travelling.

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1) Hospitality

The first notable quality of almost every Indonesian I encountered, and especially of my host family, was their hospitality. Within 12 hours of arriving my concept of generosity and hospitality had been put to shame. My hosts not only shared their home, they shared their family, lives, and friends with me. I was adopted into their social circle, taken for day- or week-long trips by their friends while I was there. I was honoured to be one of the first people to greet the family’s first grandson alongside the immediate family.

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2) Hijabs aren’t scary

This is a fairly potent topic these days so I won’t comment too much. Over half the women on Java wear hijabs, a head covering worn by Muslim women. When I asked why they wore them, all the women I asked answered with “I wear it because I choose to.” I began to recognize beauty and comfort in these headdresses, as well as freedom of expression. These women were neither ashamed nor pious in their religion, it was simply a part of their life.

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3) Breakfast isn’t breakfast

Indonesians eat frequently and enthusiastically. I believe there are nuances as to what foods can be eaten when, but I was (and remain) too unaware to pick up on them. It seemed any food is appropriate, at any time of day. Spaghetti or chicken soup for breakfast? No problem.  As long as you have rice to go with it, anything is fair game to start your day.

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4) Tinggi means “tall.”

At 5’8” I stand taller than ninety percent of the Indonesian population.  This was pointed out to me, often.

5) How to sleep with the light on

I am an in-bed-before-11, up-around-8 kind of girl. In bed, under covers, lights out. Generally in my own room. In Indonesia, when it comes to sleeping, almost anything goes. I stayed in two households that didn’t shut off the lights at night. I shared rooms with 4-year-old boys and beds with 60-year-old women. Sunday morning markets begin at 6 AM, but midnight is too early for bed. Naps are a necessity. A true Indonesian can nap in any environment: car, karaoke lounge, or on the street. It’s a gift I have yet to acquire and often find myself in need of.

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6) Kids:  They’re Spoiled in some ways, yet WAY AHEAD of ours in others  

The hopeless child who, at age 4, cannot dress himself, feed himself, and still wears pull-ups also knows his entire alphabet in English, can do basic arithmetic, and has fine motor skills to rival mine. I also admired the cultural attitudes towards raising children.  

First, the entire family raises the children, though mostly the women. The saying “it takes a village” is pertinent. Most striking, however, is that the parents lives don’t revolve around their children. The family schedule isn’t crammed with kindercamp, lessons, sports, and playdates. My spoiled, 4-year old math genius can occupy himself for hours in the corner of a restaurant while mom enjoys a meal out. The whole family’s needs and activities are more balanced than the child-centered (obsessed?) North American lifestyle, without loving the children any less.

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7) Everything my mother taught me about polite eating was gone in a day.

Eat with your hands. On the floor. Any kind of food, any time of day. Deep fry everything. Forks, when used, are for scooping the food onto your spoon, which you actually eat off of. Knives are only for cooking.

8) How to make a left (right) turn.

Indonesia is a right-hand driving country, but I’ll describe their right- hand turn as our left-hand turn so you can fully appreciate the process.

First, signal left. Many traffic rules are optional, signaling is not. Stop at an appropriate place to make turn, blocking traffic behind you. When an adequate gap in traffic presents itself (about 1.5 seconds between cars), edge out into the first lane of oncoming cars. Now that traffic is blocked both behind and in front of you, crawl forward into the second lane of oncoming traffic. While cars are forced to stop to avoid collisions, the motorcycles are not and continue whizzing by at alarming speeds. Continue crawling forward at a steady pace. Stopping at this point will cause one of these bee-like motorcycles to smash into your stationary bumper. When you have successfully crossed to your new road, you may continue with ease.


As I said, these are only a few of the things I learned while living abroad. I know I’m not aware of all the things that affected me, nor of the person I have grown into because of my experiences. Books do a lot to share the world with us, and the internet goes even further, but nothing compares to the real, joyful, raw and difficult days of living in the unknown. If you haven’t bought yourself a plane ticket recently, or even said “yes!” to something foreign that’s closer to home, be inspired. There is much to learn!


BETH holds a B.A. in Psychology and has a passion for encouraging and enabling youth. Beth spends a lot of her time teaching teenagers to sail around the Southern Gulf Islands on a tall ship. When she is back on land her life is filled with good people, good books, hiking trails, and the occasional climbing wall.

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