Anecdotes from Indonesia: 9 Lessons Learned by Americans Abroad

Living and working overseas is a life-changing experience no matter where you are from and where you go. Cultural faux pas are inevitable, language mistakes can be both hilarious and embarassing, and friends can be found in the most unexpected places. Through the moments that make up our lives, we learn many lessons. Below are nine stories of lessons learned by some of the 2015-2016 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs)* during their nine months of living and learning in Indonesia.


“Okay. Deep breaths. You can do it.

I’d come to watch a traditional Javanese wayang kulit performance. But the friend I went with casually informed me I’d be making a ten-minute speech.

When intermission of the 8-hour shadow puppet performance came, I fought the urge to make a run for it and slowly moved to the front of the stage.

I stood next to the dalang, the sole puppeteer responsible for breathing life into dozens of puppets. One of the four female singers up front who, along with the gamelan musicians underscores the performance, handed me a microphone.

The dalang began a little Q&A with me. I floundered answering his questions because they were in Indonesian and Javanese and I was in front of lots of people and crazy nervous.

Indonesiaful_20160305_205819Then he asked me what the female singers up front were called.

The warm glow of confidence filled my body.

Singkong,” I said, my chest puffed out in pride and a triumphant grin spread across my face. Finally, a question I knew the answer to.

Then the entire audience broke out into raucous laughter. All confidence evaporated, my chest deflated, and the smile crash landed near my feet.

Sinden,” the dalang corrected.

Face palm.

Singkong means “cassava.” Cassava. I just called four bedazzled, sparkly, fabulous Javanese women singing their faces off cassavas. Cassavas are tubers oh my God I CALLED THEM TUBERS.

And now, forever burned into my memory is singkong and its definition. I will never forget.”

— Bryan Howard, Wonosari, Yogyakarta


“In Indonesia, time is an altogether strange beast that moves slowly but somewhat unpredictably.

I have learned to wait without impatience (and to ALWAYS bring my Kindle) because yes they SAID it would start at one, but really they meant that they would start getting ready at one, pick you up at two, and the event actually won’t start until three-thirty even if the official invitation said noon. I have learned to wait to see if my teachers show up and to wait to see if it’s a surprise short day at school or not.

I have learned to slow down. Slow down my speech, slow down my walk to and from school, slow down my breathing under the hot and humid air. I have learned to istirahat dulu, take a rest first. I’ve learned that sometimes you might be going somewhere but instead you should take a moment and stop to chat with the people you’re passing or dance the Macarena with the kids in the neighborhood.

I have learned to santai saja, just relax and enjoy, on the beaches of this crazy island nation. The macet [traffic] will hold you up and the hours of waiting at imigrasi [immigration] will drive you crazy, so just take a moment to santai saja and appreciate where you are.

I have learned to appreciate so much in Indonesia. I’ve learned to appreciate my students’ energy and humor even if a lesson doesn’t go as planned. I’ve learned to appreciate all the ibus and bapaks** who push food onto me as if I look like a starving waif (I assure you, I do not) because they do it out of love. I’ve learned to appreciate simple pleasures like hot perkedel jagung [corn fritters] or stepping off the street into an air-conditioned Indomaret.

I’ve learned that this country has so much more to offer than just Bali and Jakarta. That the finest treasures are sometimes hidden among the neighborhood children or on a motorcycle taxi ride through the highland villages. That this is not a nation to be taken at a glance–you need to immerse yourself, submerse yourself, and dive in. This country is not here to change you but it will anyway.”

— Shalina, Manado, North Sulawesi


IMG_5169-1“Prior to living in Indonesia, my interactions with children were pretty much limited to disdainful commentary when I heard crying babies on planes and gleefully watching Jimmy Kimmel’s I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy in my college dormroom. But my unsympathetic attitude towards the children was quickly challenged when I arrived in Indonesia, where kids are present everywhere and doted upon by everyone.

Since Day One in Indonesia, the kids in my neighborhood were my fastest and first friends. Most of them are in elementary school and the fact that neither I nor my other American friend, Caitlin Jordan, spoke Bahasa Indonesia in the beginning didn’t deter them from befriending us. These kids have been among the most patient (and persistent!) people I have ever met, and because of them I count kids as friends for the first time in my life. Now, whenever I see kids in airports or out on the street, I don’t groan in contempt. Instead I smile and think of the kids in Pangkal Pinang, whose smiles and laughter made me feel at home across the world.”

— Kelly Fitzgerald, Pangkal Pinang, Bangka-Belitung


“I have learned to be comfortable with the uncomfortable in Indonesia. This lesson hit me hardest in an Economy class seat 1B of a train, when there were a mere 6 inches between my 2-person bench and the one directly across from me. There was not enough space for both my and the man across from me to put our feet on the ground, so naturally the man went into full squat mode with his feet on the seat. Despite my insisting he spread out since I could take the criss-cross-apple-sauce method, he was perfectly fine staying perched on his seat. It was stuffy, sweltering hot, smelt of pee from the nearby bathroom, and yet this man remained in a stoic squat, the picture of grace and patience. Perhaps his squat pose led him into some sort of meditative trance where he was able to ignore all of the unpleasant senses surrounding him. Or perhaps it was just that he has mastered being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

If I had a quarter for every time that I heard, “Sabar (patience), Miss” or “Santai (calm), Miss,” I wouldn’t even need my grant money. But what I learned in Indonesia is not how to be more relaxed. Rather I learned that certain things we consider unlivable, unthinkable, unimaginable in the U.S. are quite biasa, or every day, in Indonesia—and that realization was shockingly easy to get used to once I removed my prejudice. Life isn’t meant to just serve me, and one should never walk around thinking the world owes them a smooth ride and I’ve loved seeing that this sense of entitlement is not a part of Indonesian culture. Being uncomfortable is part of life. We experience countless uncomfortable moments here and it never ceases to amaze me to see the calmness in Indonesian people in a situation that’s making me incredibly uneasy. To this day I applaud my fellow teachers for remaining unfazed when a bus driver needs to maneuver down a mountain backwards after getting to the top and realizing it could not continue forward. We even stopped the backward moving bus to have afternoon prayer. It was epic, nerve-racking yes, but mostly epic.

Learning to enjoy, or at least be comfortable with, the uncomfortable has certainly helped me develop a love Indonesia and Indonesian culture I really was not expecting to leave with. And I say all of this as I sit in a lobby complete with exposed live wires, the sounds of leaking water from the ceiling splashing into buckets, and the occasional gentle slap of skin as the security Bapak slaps his exposed belly when the inevitable mosquito lands on his perfectly round and telly-tubbyesque abdomen. And it all makes me so content.”

— Kendra Reiser, Yogyakarta


Sean1“If Indonesia has taught me anything it’s the interconnectivity of lives. Everyone is yearning for the same abstract happiness and stability. However, our desires are often constructed as zero-sum choices against those of another person. In Borneo, that is most evident in the environment, where our consumptive habits can easily undermine the success, health, and stability of others. Unknowingly, what we choose off a shelf can disproportionately affect an entire region and way of life.”

— Sean Driscoll, Pontianak, West Kalimantan


“I have learned so much throughout my time as an ETA, but if I had to choose just one, it is that I have learned to be patient. When jam karet [rubber time] interferes with my ability to plan more than a few hours in advance (and sometimes even makes that nearly impossible), I have learned to take a deep breath and go with the flow. When the extreme weather that I am still not completely accustomed to, temperate-climate gal that I am, seems to control every element of my life–rain flooding my kitchen and forcing me to motorbike home on roads turned into rivers during musim hujan [rainy season], and drought filling my lungs with dust and making vegetables scarce when musim kemarau [dry season] begins earlier than it should–I have learned to look for the silver lining on every cloud, or lack thereof. When my school unexpectedly cancels classes, for a week straight, I try my best not to complain, and I have learned to seek out my co-teachers so that we can change our plans, again, knowing from experience that it will all somehow work out in the end. When the shouts of “Mister!” and “Bule!”*** become almost too much to bear, I have learned to open my eyes a little wider, to take in the smiles that are also being thrown my way, and to remember that people are mostly composed of kindness, and I can but return that same kindness. And as I make mistake after mistake–misinterpreting words and culture at every turn–I have learned to recognize that I am only human, treat myself not with loathing, but with love.”

— Grace Wivell, Gorontalo, Gorontalo (Northern Sulawesi)


“The day Kelly told me about this article we were hanging up newly washed clothes on the drying rack in our house. “So what do you think you’ve learned here?” she asked me, as we both shook out shirts, socks and pants. It took me a while to come up with answers and in a way I’m not sure I’ll have answers that will satisfy me until I have spent time elsewhere and had time to process how this place, its people, and the journey have affected me.

I can say for the moment though that a couple of ideas do come to mind. The first is that I actually enjoy teaching! As this was the central question that made me apply, I am glad it got answered. It is hard and sometimes frustrating work, but also satisfying in so many other ways. With this experience under my belt, I can truly see myself becoming a teacher in the future.

Second, and perhaps a bit more somber, is that living here has made the distinction between what is Islam – true Islam – and what is not that much clearer. I believed this before I moved to Indonesia, but having lived here and become a teacher, friend, adopted daughter, sister, neighbor, and part of a number of big families (“keluarga besar” in Indonesian) to so many, the distinction has become even more pronounced.

The Indonesian people, with their big hearts and open arms, who welcome anyone into their homes and their families are just that – people. Even though for many Indonesians their faith is vastly important and structures everything about their lives, they are not their ideology. They care more about when they’ll get paid next, that their family is healthy, what to cook for tomorrow’s meal, when their favorite football team is playing on TV next, or when they will need to harvest the pepper plants in their garden plots. And contrary to popular belief, most Indonesian women have lives that are barely different from women in the United States.

This lesson in particular was one that I was not expecting to be reminded of. However, I am thankful for it because it is important, especially in a world where of late there has been so much anti-Muslim rhetoric. I plan to speak loudly and often about the fact that Muslims should not be grouped by their faith alone for the rest of my life. They, like anyone else on this earth, are first and foremost, human beings; and as shown by the love and care I’ve received my nine months here – some of the best in the world. It is an honor and a privilege to call them my friends, my neighbors, my students, my keluarga besar.”

— Caitlin Jordan, Pangkal Pinang, Bangka-Belitung


gecko-1236523_960_720“August 23, 2015. Arrival to Indonesia.

Week 1: (Shrieks) !*@#^&$. Lizards on my ceiling. Why are they making that croaking noise? Send help.

Week 2: You, lizards, scare the shit out of me with your swift movements that I catch from the corner of my eye. But…you eat the bugs. You’re kind of cute. Make yourselves comfortable. But remember, I am big and scary. Keep your distance.

Week 3: Hears story about daddy lizard consuming baby lizard. No longer cute. Reminds self they eat bugs.

Week 4 – Month 5: (Walks into bedroom and sees lizards) “‘Sup roomies?”

Month 5: Why is there lizard feces on my floor? They hang out on the walls. Weird.

Month 5, Week 2: Why is there lizard feces on my faucet? Impressive.

Month 5, Week 3: WHY is there lizard feces on my bed? I do not think I’m comfortable with that.

Month 5, Week 4: That is a lizard scurrying across my headboard. Envisions lizards crawling down esophagus mid-sleep. Send help.

Month 6 – Present: Lizards, please stay off my bed and I will stop having conversations with you. Deal?

The Lesson: It’s not about how comfortable you become with the lizards, it’s about how comfortable they become with you.”

— Savannah Trifiro, Magelang, Central Java


Indonesiaful_WILI1“In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets one of the most memorable sentences is uttered by Dobby the house-elf, who upon meeting Harry professes that ‘Dobby has heard of your [Harry’s] greatness, sir, but of your goodness, Dobby never knew.’ Well, you can call me Chris Linnan the house-elf because my experiences in Indonesia have mirrored Dobby’s first meeting with Harry. Of course, I had heard about Indonesia before coming here and even spent time here as a small child, but I had no idea what an incredible country Indonesia is. The people are generous and always willing to chat, the food is fantastic, and if you are looking for an unforgettable experience you can visit the beaches in Bali, go to Borobudur, or take a river cruise in Central Kalimantan. I could write whole books about my experiences here, but for the sake of brevity let me just say that Indonesia truly is a remarkable country.”

— Chris Linnan, Medan, North Sumatra


* Every year, the U.S. Department of State sends hundreds of young Americans overseas to teach English. This experience is made possible under the auspice of the Fulbright Program, which funds international exchange of scholars and teachers around the world. The Indonesian government is a long-time partner with Fulbright, and each year hundreds of Americans and Indonesians cross the Pacific to contribute toward Fulbright’s mission of promoting mutual understanding between Americans and the people of other countries.

Of these hundreds of people flowing between the United States and Indonesia, nearly three dozen are recent college graduates who are part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program. As ETAs, these Americans spend nine months co-teaching English in Indonesian high schools across the country. This website,, was founded and is maintained by ETAs in Indonesia each year.

** Ibu and Bapak mean mother and father, respectively, but they are also used as a polite form of address for any adult woman or man. These titles can also be placed before names in the same way we use Mrs./Ms. and Mr. in English.

*** Bule is an Indonesian word that technically means albino, though it is commonly used to refer to any foreigner, especially a white–skinned foreigner.

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