3 lessons after one year in Indonesia

MACAN Museum


Indonesia has this societal normality of “Jam Karet” or "rubber time”. As a Vietnamese-American, punctuality and a sense of urgency has been engrained since birth. I spent a total of about 4 months of waiting around for bureaucracy red tape, gojek drivers, research counterparts, and everyone in between. I quickly got over this and adopted a “C'est la vie”. Otherwise, I would be one miserable human.

Also….I met a boy. 😊 He’s Javanese-Indonesian meaning: he’s super polite, passive aggressive, and has one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever met. He knows 7 different languages. His first language is Javanese, which has at least 3 hierarchical levels using different vocabulary given to social context, Indonesian, Japanese, Arabic, and English. English was his weakest, so we had a hard time communicating the first month we met. Luckily, Fulbright - Critical Language Enhancement Award granted me 3 months of language studies. One of the best ways to learn a language is to get a boyfriend/girlfriend. This took a lot of patience between us because language, norms, and personalities were coming from vastly different upbringings.

After the 10 month mark in Indonesia, he mentioned, “You are so much more patient than when I first met you”. *LIGHTBLUB* I am more patient because I’ve learned to let go of things I cannot control. I’ve become more aware of my energy and decided to focus it more inward rather than upon others.



Learning a new language means, asking questions that might make you feel embarrassed. I was so nervous when trying out my Indonesian for the first time. Here’s the lesson of patience with a dose of bravery.

For the first two weeks of my language course I ate at the same place every single day for nearly every meal.

My language program had a serious rule of no use of English after the introduction day. Since I couldn’t talk to anyone at the learning center, I went directly home without talking to anyone. However, that forced me out to meet others on my own. I ended up meeting with one of the janitors at the canteen on campus. He knew some English and his wife made the best mie ayam in the canteen. He noticed I was lost and just told me to eat noodles, so I hung out with him and his wife for lunch everyday for 2 weeks. As I get older, I feel like I am becoming more introverted. But when it comes to language, I learned to just try, even if I end up looking silly. Indonesians I’ve met chuckle, but in the most heart warming way that it didn’t feel ashamed for making a mistake.

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Setting boundaries & Respecting myself

After living with other people for the sake of trying to stretch my grant money, I realized that investing in my own space is vital to my mental health. If you ever decide to live abroad: be sure you have a space to recharge your energy. Not having a place where I didn’t control what I wore, what I ate, or how I acted created a lot of tension for everyone around me. I began to feel depressed and oppressed.

When your basic needs are not being taken care of, it was hard to focus on anything else and research was not as productive as it could have been. Thus, I set boundaries for myself in regards to how others operate. For example, if I know this particular person tends to not be focused on only one task and gets easily distracted, I bring a book because I know I’ll be waiting for that person to finish their task.

Being polite to you, meant disrespecting myself. I was so worried about other people’s feelings and cultural politeness that my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health drastically degraded. There’s a fine line between the two. I am constantly worried about being a proper guest in this country.

FINALLY, I found the win-win solution. Invest in a sanctuary space where I can recharge and be myself. Only then I realized once I stepped outside, I can be grounded with an appreciative awareness in how Indonesia moves and operates.