My Social Life, Such That It Is

A friend of my senior fellow’s along with another girl recently came to visit. We all went out to dinner one night, at a place just a block away from my house that serves delicious tempe. Every evening, this food place sets up on the side of the road–erecting tables and chairs and a canopy to protect from the rain. They serve food all evening and close after I’ve gone to bed.

I am a regular customer. So much so, in fact, that when our food came I was the only one to be given a fork and spoon. The woman who runs the food stand knows by now that I always request them.

We got everyone else utensils and then settled down to eat. As we chatted, I was overcome by a strong feeling of unfamiliarity. Or, rather, the kind of feeling you get when you encounter something once familiar that was then forgotten.

I spent several minutes feeling unsettled, but then I figured it out: it’s been a long time since I’ve spent more than a few minutes in the presence of more than one Westerner. All my friends from language school have moved to other cities in Indonesia or back to their home countries. I do, of course, spend a good deal of time with my senior fellow, but rarely in a group. My social life (as much as I have a social life) revolves mainly around chatting with my teachers at language school and going to dance class. If I talk to anyone, it’s in a painful mix of English and Indonesian (usually heavily slanted towards the Indonesian). A conversation about anything even approaching the complex leaves both me and the person I’m talking to exhausted. No matter how you shake out the group, I’m the only native English speaker in it. Frequently, my social interactions are reduced to sitting with people while they talk to each other, eating with people while they talk to each other, and smiling when people say my name in greeting.

All this means that I never really express myself. Even on the rare occasions when I manage to have an extended conversation with someone–either in English if they understand enough or in Indonesian if they’re patient enough–I don’t say everything I’m thinking. I don’t know enough about social norms to be able to tell what would be saying too much, what might cause offense. Even with my one language teacher, who frequently asks how I’m adjusting and what, so far, has surprised or confused me about Indonesian culture; who recently answered all my questions about how mosques work and all my questions about wearing a jilbab; even with her I don’t feel comfortable enough to say everything.

But suddenly, in the presence of more Westerners than just my senior fellow, I had a whole group of people with whom I shared a common understanding. I could say anything and we’d all interpret it in much the same way. It was refreshing. It was also strange.


3 thoughts on “My Social Life, Such That It Is

  1. Hi Zoë!

    I really appreciate this reflection, which resonated with me for two reasons. When I studied abroad in China, I took a language pledge and was similarly frustrated at not being able to express my natural thoughts (let alone anything approaching philosophical). It sounds like you’ve made a bona fide effort to immerse yourself in the Indonesian language and culture, and I’m sure you will reach a higher level of communication soon. But it’s worth remembering that language can never prevent us from sharing a moment with another human being. A smile or wave or touch – these are universal expressions that transcend language and yet can be equally profound.

    Like you, I also found myself reassessing my Western identity in response to the communication problem. In fact, I never felt prouder to be an American and to represent those values which I held most dear than when I was in the remotest parts of China (or Indonesia, for that matter). At those times, it was always refreshing to encounter another Western specimen or point of reference; for me it was also a fine balancing act between reaffirming my roots and asserting a kind of cultural superiority. I’d be curious to know what the current sentiment toward American nationals is like in Indonesia?

    Overall, I’ve really enjoyed the thoughtful reflection and playful writing style in both of your blogs. Please keep up the good work!


    • Thanks for the well-thought-out comment! I can definitely understand the experiences you’re talking about, and so far it’s been really interesting to see how I view my identity here and how that constantly changes from day-to-day.

      As for your question: right now it’s hard for me to get a good read on that. Before coming to Indonesia, there was talk more than once about how the general sentiment towards the US is negative but on a personal level people are friendly, so I’ll fall back on that, though I’m not sure how true it is. Besides the “You don’t look American” comments that I always get when someone first learns I’m from the US I haven’t really had a lot of other conversations about it (except for questions about what season it is and what the temperature is like). In the few conversations I have had, I’ve been asked if before coming to Indonesia I was afraid of Muslim people/thought all Muslims were terrorists and also what Jewish people are like. …So I guess people are curious about what the US is really like? Haha, I think this is another of those things that I will learn with time.

  2. Your blog is so wonderfully thought provoking! I remember meeting a women I’d been corresponding with for quite a while from Germany. When I actually met her in person, I was so overjoyed that I gave her a hug. The minute I did that, I knew it was not appropriate. A formal handshake would have been much better.

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