When You Live in a Fishbowl But the Water is Actually Vodka


Julianne O’Connell, right, enjoying Austrian libations in Vienna, where she taught English for two years before coming to Indonesia.

–By Julianne O’Connell–

When I got accepted as a Fulbright ETA to Indonesia I was living in Vienna, Austria as a United States Teaching Assistant under the auspice of Fulbright Austria. In addition to my work as a teaching assistant I spent my time enjoying Viennese culture: reading in parks, writing in world-class cafe houses, waltzing at balls, and, of course, imbibing. From midday champagne in the teachers lounge to the imperative post-dinner schnapps, ceremonial and recreational drinking was a large part of my Austrian experience.

When I decided to pursue a Fulbright grant in Indonesia, I was hoping for an entirely different experience and thus I applied to a country that was, what I thought, the cultural and geographical inverse of Austria: Indonesia. In the months leading up to the start of my grant I tried to imagine the aspects of my new life but only in the shallowest of ways. I imagined myself living in a Muslim community, dressing hyper-conservatively, and keeping a Halal diet. Forget nights drinking with friends — my year in Indonesia would be a year of reading, reflection and meditation…sure.

Fast forward to 2017 and I find myself living in Kupang, the capital city of the Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) province. Located on West Timor island, my new home is a regency of a half a million people with approximately 315,000 living in the city itself. Kupang, like many of the cities in NTT, has a predominantly Christian population. Among other things, this means I have looser restrictions on what I can wear and roast pork is the local delicacy. Even though Kupang doesn’t have the same conservatism as other Indonesian cities, as far as big cities go it seems to be lacking in other areas. I have found fewer than 5 cafes boasting free wifi, the public transportation stops running at 8pm (no Gojek or Uber to supplement it), and heck, there isn’t even a McDonald’s! (A sad standard by which ex-pats judge the legitimacy of any city, anywhere).

Despite all this I have found plenty of ways to fill my time. There are night markets serving fresh and delicious grilled fish, several beaches where you can swim (if you are willing to risk encountering a crocodile) and a handful of restaurants with live music and beer. Yes, beer. Remember that year of detox I was anticipating in the months leading up to my grant? It fell by the wayside during my first week in town when a new friend and I shared some cold brews while watching the sunset.

Since that night, social drinking has remained a part of my social life in Kupang. This is something I never expected coming into my Indonesian grant. What I also didn’t expect was how difficult it could be to navigate the Indonesian drinking culture as a foreigner.


October 2016 was the first true month of my grant. After arriving in Indonesia and spending 3 weeks at orientation in Bandung I was back at site, finding my stride in teaching and finally starting to make friends. Some new friends told me and my site mate, Christal, that a Russian DJ was coming to spin at a lounge in Kupang. Despite my initial reservations about “going out” in Kupang (because what would that even look like?), I was excited to check out the scene and agreed to go. The night of the event was also the same night of a fellow teacher’s wedding, so I decided I would go to that before meeting up with my friends.

The wedding was lovely; I enjoyed conversing with my co-teachers outside of school and I think I surprised them with my affinity for dancing. I ate good food, sang some Indonesian songs and had what would have been, by anyone’s standards, a fun night. When it came time for my counterpart to drop me off, she seemed alarmed when I asked her to drop me off at a beachside restaurant and bar. But she obliged, telling me to be careful as I got out of the car.

 What followed was a night typical to anyone I would have had while living in Austria: pre-drinks with my site mate and our friends at the bar, heading back to someone’s house to get changed and drink another beer, and then finally heading to the venue – a poolside lounge on the ground floor of a hotel. The lounge was full of people when we arrived. The tables were already taken so we took the free beers that came with our cover fee and headed to the dance floor. Despite the small size of the parquet, I had plenty of space to dance; whether that was because fellow dancers stood back to get a better look at the bule* dancing or because I physically demanded it with the breadth of my dance moves, I can’t be sure. My time spent dancing – sometimes with my site mate, more often alone, and occasionally with a brave Indonesian – was frequently interrupted by breaks to refill my beer or meet new friends at the bar. Unsurprisingly, my Bahasa Indonesia improved tenfold when filtered through three Bintangs.


As it got later the drinks flowed faster, the music pulsed louder, the dancing felt headier and I fell headlong into the night. I allowed my new friends to buy me beers and shots because it’s rude to refuse a gift in this culture, right? After a half-hour dance break in a bathroom stall spent loudly gossiping with my site mate, our friends and I decided to leave. It was around 4 am when we stopped at a 24 hour Padang* place.  As I ate rendang* and rice with my hands, sleepy and spent from the evening’s events, I couldn’t help but smile. All in all it was a great night, one of the first since coming to Indonesia where I felt really comfortable, where I felt like maybe my life in Austria wasn’t as far away as I had imagined.

The next morning, excuse me…afternoon, with the remnants of the previous night’s events strewn across my bed and floor, I awoke, my mind racing. Memories of the night before rushed into my head as I tallied my drink total, losing count (or choosing not to go on) after seven. I remembered dancing with a few Indonesian guys whose ages I couldn’t discern. I recalled being confused that the tequila shot I was handed came with sugar and a lemon wedge. I thought back to the selfies I took with the friends I made in line for the bathroom. I took stock of the night and felt…conflicted. My immediate thought was, “dang what a fun night!” followed by, “I need an aspirin and some water, STAT.” I chuckled to myself about some of the things I said and did and then went to text my site mate to ask how she was feeling. When I looked at my phone, amidst Snapchat ghosts and Instagram icons, I saw a text from my co-teacher. Without pausing to read it I put my phone back down and immediately felt a wave of guilt rush over me – what had I been thinking?!

The city of Kupang is big, but it’s not that big. How did it not cross my mind that I could have run into someone I knew at the bar? I scanned my memories and didn’t recall running into anyone familiar, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, especially given the fact that my reputation proceeds me as one of a handful of bule teachers in Kupang (heck, one of only a handful of bules period). Sure, the likelihood that one of my co-teachers would have been at a lounge to see a Russian DJ was pretty slim, especially after coming from the same wedding that we had been at together. But beyond my coworkers, what about other people in the community? Relatives of my students, people from my kost*, the university professors who have asked me to lecture in their classes, all the people I’ve exchanged numbers with and who probably follow me on Instagram — they all could have been there, watching me closely, and I had no way of knowing.

It was during this train of thought that I stopped to ask myself if my guilt was warranted; hadn’t I gotten just as drunk and acted in the same way a handful of times in Vienna as well? My answer to the latter was a definitive yes and to the former a sheepish probably. The truth was I felt no remorse for my actions, at least not by my American standards. I danced as enthusiastically as I usually do but not in a way that many would consider obscene; I gossiped loudly in the bathroom with my friend but said nothing that I wouldn’t have said at a dinner conversation with similar company. And I yes, I drank a lot, but I wasn’t acting belligerent by any means. I am a liberated, educated twenty-something woman who should be able to let loose when and in the manner I choose… shouldn’t I?!

My conscience, fuzzy from guilt and possibly the lingering effects of alcohol, teetered back and forth as if to say, “eh, probably not.”

Here’s the thing you probably already know: American standards hold no weight in my Indonesian community. My dancing, already not innocent to begin with, was probably downright licentious to the Indonesians watching. While my gossip wasn’t offensive, it wasn’t something I would’ve wanted recorded and played to a room full of my co-teachers, either. And belligerent or not, drunk is drunk and no amount of composure can cover a red face, frizzy hair, crossed eyes and slurred speech. It’s not what actually happened that night that made me feel shame, it’s what could have happened: the relationships I could have ruined simply by “letting loose.”

I could have disappointed my school community, a community which has been so welcoming and gracious toward me. Hadn’t I met countless new people that night and told all of them where I worked? Had they questioned the integrity of my school for employing a teacher who behaved so…un-teacher-like? I could have hurt my fellow teachers, teachers who rely on me to uphold the good name of SMAN 3 Kupang, teachers who, only hours before at the wedding, were telling me how well I had integrated and how happy they were to know me. I could have jeopardized my relationship with the parents of my neighborhood kids, causing them to think twice about the person who they let their children play with nearly every day after school. And who is to say I didn’t? Who knows who might have seen me over the course of the night and who might be wrestling with their own feelings on how to process what they saw of me. This was the worst part: not knowing the extent and effect of my behavior.

Despite having the same job with the same program in both Indonesia and in Austria, the stakes feel so much higher this time around. I took my role as a teacher and culture ambassador seriously in Vienna, but I was never nervous that my past-times would somehow jeopardize that role. With drinking and alcohol as cornerstones of festivities in their culture and the majority of my students legally partaking in it as well, meant that I didn’t have to hide that part of myself. If I had happened to see a student at a bar (a nonoccurrence in a city of 1.9 million) I would have felt more annoyance than embarrassment. In Indonesia I feel like this is something that could compromise my whole experience by leading people to question my position in a leadership role. Not many people understand what the Fulbright Program is or why I am here, but I am guessing if they did know about my responsibility as a cultural ambassador they would, as I have done myself, doubt my effectiveness in that role. The last thing I want to be is another bule acting inappropriately in a conservative country. The last thing I want to do is to reinforce the ideas about American women that Indonesians hold: that we are mostly loose, morally bankrupt Kim Kardashian wannabes (this is my simplified interpretation of that stereotype). The last thing I want is for someone to wonder why the American government would fund my year in Indonesia or call into question my desire to live, serve and learn in a community here. I want to make my school and my students and my community members proud. I want to make my family and the Fulbright Program and the American taxpayers proud (just kidding, this last one is impossible). Mostly, I want to make myself proud.

Am I proud of the way I acted that night? No…but I am not disappointed in myself either. I am a human being living my best life in a country that is weird and hot and full of contradictions. I consider myself lucky that I was able to think critically about something I did and about the deeper effect it could have had. I consider myself even luckier that none of those effects came to pass (at least not that I know of). Though I spent most of that Sunday in bed, wallowing in my guilt and nursing my hangover, by Wednesday of that week my thoughts and feelings had evened out. No one in my immediate circle of acquaintances made any mention of my night out, and as far as I know the repercussions of my actions did not extend beyond my own personal reflection. But all is not forgotten. I recall that night and those associated feelings often, almost every time I go out, letting it serve as my own small reminder of the responsibility I have to myself and to my community.  

Being a leader is like living in a fishbowl; the choices you make are on display for all to see. It can be a challenge at times but it has taught me the importance of living above the reproach of others. Never again do I want to be in a situation where I am left wondering what I did or who I hurt and scrambling to make excuses for both. I want to live my life – or at least the remainder of my time in Indonesia – in such a way that no one, not students or random ojek drivers, can scrutinize anything about me beyond how many pisang goreng* I eat a week. (Oh, and if you were wondering about the text from my counterpart…she was just writing to tell me I left my party favor from the wedding in her car.)

So to my fellow Fulbrighters out there in the world, struggling with leadership and authenticity and transparency and burgeoning adulthood in a foreign country, take heart: our Fulbright grants allow for some fumbling. Senator J. William told me so himself, over drinks. He’s a gin man.


Julianne O’Connell is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMA Negeri 3 Kupang in Kupang, Nusa Tenggara Timor. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2013 with degrees in German and Linguistics and spent the last two years teaching at a university in Vienna, Austria. When she is not teaching at school she can be found making pancakes with her neighborhood kids or practicing melodica with her Indo folk-duo The PeaceSong Gorengs.  

*bule – what foreigners are usually called in Bahasa Indonesia

*padang – cuisine from Padang, Sumatra that is sold all over Indonesian. Padang food, which is notoriously spicy and eaten with rice, is always displayed in glass cases for customers to take buffet-style.

*rendang – a Padang dish of slow-cooked spicy beef.

*kost – a small rented room, usually with a bathroom and sometimes with a kitchen attached.

*pisang goreng – fried bananas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s