A few months ago we celebrated our “Asia-versary”, marking six years since we packed up our life in Portland, Oregon and moved to Dili, East Timor with our twin toddlers.
In some ways, it feels like yesterday. I can easily recall the very vivid sense of taking a giant leap into the world, equally nervous and excited. But it also feels like a lifetime ago.
After spending nearly two years in East Timor, followed by four years in Indonesia, we now feel like reasonably experienced riders of the expat rollercoaster. When new arrivals ask how long we’ve lived in Jakarta (and that we will likely be here for another four), they react with wide eyes…“Oh, wow!” This long-term status is unusual but I don’t really mind.
Our diaper-clad toddlers are now full-blown big kids who do not remember our pre-Asia life. Recently my daughter said, “I think we’ve lived in Jakarta for long enough now. Can we please move to Africa?” “Well, no. Not right now, anyway,” I replied – amused that such a move seemed entirely plausible to her, but also a little concerned by the normalcy of transience.
Though I sometimes miss the shiny novelty of being a new expat, I also appreciate our settled life in Jakarta.
Here are six things I have learned about making the most of this unique experience.
Choose the positive
Jakarta is not an easy city to love. The daily challenges of mega-city living – traffic, flooding, pollution and lack of green space – can really wear you down. Though we all have our bad days, choosing to have a positive attitude makes a world of difference. Unexpected traffic jam? Extra time to listen to my favorite podcast. There really is a lot to love here. It is a vibrant, friendly and generally safe city where just about anything is possible (and everything can be delivered). When I focus on the good things, more good things come.
Accept the chaos
In Jakarta, things often do not go to plan and the concept of jam karet (“rubber time”) takes some getting used to. However, learning to let go of being in control of everything and practicing a less-hurried approach to life can be valuable lessons. We love visiting Singapore because it feels like a breath of fresh air. Everything works, everyone follows the rules, you can walk everywhere! But after a few days I am always happy to return home. It turns out I like things a little messier and less predictable. It keeps life interesting.
Living in a different country requires you to step out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. It provides countless opportunities to “say yes” to new experiences that may not have been available before. I have seen friends learn to play an instrument, take up a new sport, climb mountains, get dive certified, learn new languages, undertake distance learning and start small businesses. Last year I ran my first 5K and 10K races and performed with a dance group in front of 600 people. These are things I never would have done in my previous life. I am so glad I said yes.
One of the best parts of expat life is the community of friends. We all rely on each other and the bonds often feel familial. Close friends fill in for far away aunties, uncles and cousins. The downside is that most families will eventually leave and the annual exodus can be particularly tough for those left behind. But as sad as it is to say goodbye, it is also wonderful to know people in so many different places. We have been lucky to re-connect with some of our Dili and Jakarta friends during our summer travels, making the world feel both smaller and bigger. I love that paths do cross again.
I sometimes worry that our kids are missing out on a lot by not growing up in our home countries. The fact that they don’t remember our life before we moved to East Timor makes it even more important to stay connected to “home”, which is sometimes an abstract concept for them. Although home is where we live, home is also the US and UK – where we are from and where our families live. Fortunately we are able to visit every summer and have grandparents that can travel to see us in Jakarta. Prioritizing these special relationships helps us to feel rooted and connected.
After living in the same place for a while, it is easy to get caught up in the daily routine and forget to notice the little things that make the experience unique.
The magic might fade but it is still important to keep learning and exploring. For me this can simply mean looking out the car window (instead of at my phone) or walking the nearby alleyways on my lunch break to appreciate glimpses of local life. I try to keep learning and using Bahasa Indonesia. I also keep lists of new things to do and places to go. Though we have plenty of time to tackle these activities, I am also aware that expat life can be precarious and is never guaranteed. I don’t want to take it for granted for a second.
This is an original post by World Mom Shaula Bellour in Indonesia