Culture shocked in Indonesia

Living abroad does strange things to people, like enjoying the plight of a cockroach flipped on its backside. (Catherine Brist/Indonesiaful)

(Catherine Brist/Indonesiaful)

“Culture shock does weird things to people,” said one of our presenters during orientation. Despite having spent a fair amount of time in Indonesia before my Fulbright grant, he was right.  Case in point:

  • Sometimes when I’m lonely, I talk to the geckos.
  • “Killing roaches” sounds like a normal way to spend a Friday night.
  • This week I saw a woman in a tank top at the mall. “Oh my God,” I thought. “What a scandal!” Then I remembered that I’m American and at home there’s nothing scandalous about shoulders.
  • Two weeks ago I discovered that my rice was full of bugs, and I thought for a long time about still eating it. “Bugs are just protein,” I thought. “People in Thailand eat bugs.”
  • Last week at school I found a piece of potato in my hair. Who knows how long it had been there?
  • I sing songs from the Muppets while I do my dishes. Not normal songs, though. Songs like this one.
  • I listen to a lot of This American Life. That’s nothing new; I’ve had a thing for Ira Glass for quite a while. I’ve listened to so much in Indonesia, though, that I’ve finished all the episodes from within the last decade. Now I’m left with old episodes from the early 1990s, about things like Kosovo and Bob Dole and this new thing called the “internet.”
  • I stayed on the treadmill for an extra hour just to watch an episode of Glee – and I don’t even like Glee.
  • I recently spent $7.50 on a box of Cheerios. I ate it all in two days and enjoyed every bite. And yet – and yet! – if someone tries to charge me $3 for a cab ride, instead of the usual $2.50, I am outraged.

I first experienced culture shock in Indonesia while drinking a bowl of es campur. At the time, I was studying in Malang, East Java on a Critical Languages Scholarship. I was four weeks into the program, and I felt tired, cranky, and a little bit sick. My tutor, a young woman I knew from campus, suggested we go out for es campur, a sweet dessert soup, after class. “Of course,” I said.

“You’re going to love it,” she told me. “Es campur is one of the best desserts in Indonesia.”

I beg to differ. I didn’t love es campur. In fact, I hated it. The soup is made with a base of syrup, fruit, and condensed milk; the result is sickeningly sweet. Add in the tomatoes, chunks of bread, and the black fermented rice – the taste of which still makes me think of smelly goats – and you have a perfect storm. Still, with my friend across the table smiling at me, I couldn’t turn it down. She had paid for it, and I hate wasting food. So, against what should have been my better gastro-intestinal judgment, I battled my way through the entire bowl. Each spoonful made me angrier and more irrational. “My God,” I thought, getting to the bottom. “How can they eat this? Who thinks this tastes good? What kind of country is this?!”

I’ve learned a little since that first experience. Now, when offered food that I dislike, I know to politely decline. I also know to spend some time alone when I’m exhausted, and to give myself space to recharge. I’ve even learned to appreciate the taste of es campur, though I hardly consider it a favorite.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to recognize my own absurdity and laugh at it. I’m fully aware that spending almost $8 on cereal is ridiculous. I’m also planning to do it again. That’s the secret gift of culture shock: it forces me to be more self-aware.  It forces me to notice the things I normally do and realize which ones are bizarre. When I go back to the U.S., I’m sure that I’ll be equally shocked by mini-skirts, over-priced sandwiches, and cars on the right side of the road. Culture shock is a two way street. Whether or not it motivates me to change my habits – most of the time I think it doesn’t – it at least leaves me more aware of my own strangeness, and, sometimes, more willing to forgive strangeness in others.

That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. The geckos seem to agree.

About the author: Catherine Brist is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Medan, North Sumatra. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with a degree in English literature. Before joining the Fulbright program, she participated in the Critical Languages Scholarship program in Malang, East Java, during the summer of 2011.

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