Foreign Correspondents: Expat Tales

Jakarta is a difficult city to crack but, once you get under the surface, it’s alive, crazy, always busy and not what you expect.

Ben Davis

From Sydney, living in Jakarta.

Work brought me to Jakarta but I always wanted to travel to Indonesia because I studied its history, culture and language at school and uni back in Sydney. I work in international development in an office with lots of Indonesians and Westerners. We have a really relaxed and fun team, which creates a good work culture, and everyone is driven to help this country navigate through these changing times. 

The thing I love about my new city is its people. Indonesians are so nice. I also love being part of the change that is happening. Indonesia is at a really exciting and interesting place right now. It’s a relatively young democracy and it’s fascinating to watch the struggle between rapid economic growth, new ideas and traditional values. Indonesia challenges a lot of stereotypes, too: faith, gender roles and family values, to name a few.

There are lots of differences between my new home and Australia. If you’re not punctual you’ll fit in very well; being late is accepted and is often called rubber time. Indonesian people don’t like to disappoint so they’ll just say yes to most things to keep you happy, even if they can’t give you what you need. “Am I walking the right way to get to the shop?”  “Is there a toilet here?” Many people will just say yes, smile and feel they’ve helped because they’ve told you what you want to hear. It’s also customary to apologise for any shortcomings at the end of a meeting, so on top of saying thanks and nice to see you, you say sorry if I have offended you or put you out.

I dress differently for business meetings here. Traditional Indonesian material called batik is considered formal and Indonesian people say you can wear it at every occasion: a barbecue, a friend’s birthday or even if you meet the president. I can wear short-sleeved shirts in the office; I don’t have to wear suits and ties. I would never do that in Australia. I can’t, however, wear shorts. Only primary-school kids in rural areas wear shorts. So if I kick around in knee-length shorts people don’t take me seriously. They think of me as a man-child.

One of the things that really makes me laugh is when English words have been lost in translation. I’ve eaten ice cream from Poo’s Cafe; have been on a boat with a sign that said “live vest under your seat”; and walked past a salon that offered “hair breeding”. While this is all good fun, what I don’t like is getting sick. My wife and I have contracted a number of parasites since calling this place home: skin worms, tummy bugs and weird-looking rashes. You name it, we’ve had it. Still, these kinds of things are reminders of how lucky we are in Australia. 

Michael Meyer

From Minneapolis, living in Hong Kong and rural north-east china.

I am from Minneapolis in the Midwestern US state of Minnesota, but now spend my time between Hong Kong and north-east China (former Manchuria).

These days I’m a writer and journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong but I originally came to China via the Peace Corps in 1995. I was a fluent Spanish speaker so hoped to be sent to Latin America. Instead, the Peace Corps offered Turkmenistan, Kiribati, Mongolia, Malawi and Sri Lanka. The offerings kept getting further from the Spanish-speaking diaspora. I refused, and was told, “You don’t get to choose. It’s not Club Med, it’s the Peace Corps.” My final offer was China.

If I was to describe the cities I live in I would say Hong Kong is vertical and the farm village up north is horizontal, architecturally and socially. Hong Kong is efficient and convenient; the countryside is neither. Each has its merits.

In Hong Kong the work culture is long days on the job and long hours unwinding from the job. It’s a frenetic pace that can’t be kept up. You see as many AA meetings going on in the city as you see bars filled with people washingdown the day’s work. In the countryside, of course, it’s also long days on the job but there are tranquil nights. The loudest sound is that of croaking frogs.

Living in the countryside, alleyes are on me all of the time. People know more about my life than I do. In Hong Kong, life is more anonymous, which is liberating but also lonely. Once when I returned to the countryside, having been away for a few weeks, I was walking down the one main street when I noticed the local shopkeeper staring at me. While away I had grown a beard. The next morning I shaved off the beard. That afternoon, I went to buy a beer and the shopkeeper said: “Yesterday, there was another foreigner here.” I said that is next to impossible; I had never seen another foreigner in the village. “It was a foreigner,” she swore. “He had a big beard. Maybe he was a Libyan.” I laughed. “Auntie, that was me. I grew a beard while I was away but I shaved it this morning. You saw me yesterday.” She thought about that and concluded: “No, it was definitely someone else. He was much better looking than you.”

In Hong Kong, transitory residence is part of the city’s fabric. Half the population holds another nation’s passport. I could bus to the airport, swipe a card and be on my way, never to return. Rural China is different; in the countryside, most of the people cannot leave.

There are differences between doing business here and back home. In Hong Kong, people carry cardigans like Londoners carry umbrellas since the transition from the steamy streets to hyper-air-conditioned indoors is so jarring. In the countryside, I take people gifts: chocolates and pens for the kids; liquor and cigarettes for the adults.

Louise Rowlingson

From Brisbane, living in Paris. 

Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” He really could have been talking about Paris as it’s almost impossible to get bored in this city.

I live in Paris, France, but I grewup in Brisbane. While visiting my sister in London, I heard about a job going at the Moulin Rouge so I took the train over, auditioned and was successful. One year later I moved to Paris and remained there as a dancer for 10 years. These days, I work for Cartier as a sales associate.

Paris is the most beautiful city. It’s a big city with a small-town feel and, even after 12 years, walking by the Louvre, crossing the Pont Neuf, sitting on a terrace looking over Paris rooftops, or just watching the lights twinkle on the Eiffel Tower takes my breath away. Paris is a city of beauty and magic. Each area — or arrondissement — is like a small village. I know all the people working on my street. I buy food daily for what I’m cooking that evening instead of doing a weekly shop.

People in Paris are quite set in their ways, which I love but also hate. Sometimes you can think of a better way to do things but it’s not possible because that’s the way they have always done it. I also hate the morning kissing. At work every morning you must do the rounds and say hello to everyone by kissing both cheeks. If you don’t, it’s considered rude. Sometimes it just takes too much time  — and you don’t want to kiss the colleague with a cold. In France, people take their one-hour lunch break very seriously. There is no sitting in front of your computer eating a sandwich. Everyone goes out, has a hot lunch or a hearty salad accompanied by a glass of wine. A colleague once asked if I was punishing myself because I had a ham and cheese baguette for lunch, not a proper meal. Although, I now know it is not ‘correct’ to say bon appétit. One should not speak of one’s appetite.

Here the work culture is quite relaxed. I get five weeks of paid holiday and I’m only supposed to work a 35-hour week. Vacations are extremely important to the French. Working through summer with no holidays is unheard of. What’s wonderful is that I live in Europe, so small trips to the south of France, Italy or Spain are very common, easy and not too expensive. I love the history and culture of France. I also like the importance of food; the way people take pride in their appearance and the clothes they wear. I love that I now speak a second language, that Paris is so multicultural and that I meet people from all over the world. After 12 years, the sights of Paris still make me wonder and smile.

David Brown

From Sydney, living in Dubai.

I live in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, having accepted a transfer in 2009 to work for Frasers Hospitality, a Singaporean-owned serviced-residence company.

Dubai is modern and fast-paced with a proud sense of its Arabic culture. It’s a melting pot of nationalities where more than 80 per cent of the population is expatriate. As everyone more or less is from somewhere else, and we are all here for work, there is a strong work ethic. Listening to and observing others is a management prerequisite here, especially as I am the only Westerner in our multicultural team.

There are many customs and sensitivities. Emirati men will shake hands. However, some Emirati women do not — it’s best to wait until the hand is extended and, if it isn’t, a polite acknowledgment is perfectly fine. Meetings frequently start with conversation about all manner of things: regional and global issues, the economy and social affairs, before getting down to business. Agendas do not necessarily govern the meeting. Be prepared for people to enter the room to discuss other matters. Initially, I thought this was incredibly disrespectful but I soon came to realise it was just part of the ‘fluid’ nature of meetings. Also, there’s no putting the phone on silent here; a call will always be answered.

When negotiating, patience has its own rewards. There is no point-scoring. You must be prepared to share your point of view in a constructive way, even if you feel you are in the right and the other person is at fault. It is always polite to defer to your guest, allowing them to enter the room first, and from the right. Always serve coffee from the right hand and never make rude hand gestures, no matter how frustrated you might be. Enough has been written about some Westerners misbehaving in Dubai. The fact is that in most countries you can be arrested for bad behaviour, so one should not be too judgmental. It is important to be sensitive to the Arabic culture and Muslim values that define the locals. This includes dressing respectfully when in public and not behaving in a way that attracts unnecessary attention. It’s quite simple.

You quickly learn that not all things work the same way they do at home. For example, when dealing with authorities it’s commonplace to go back several times with each new — previously unrequested — required document. On one such occasion, after becoming increasingly frustrated, I complained over the phone only to have the gentleman service agent refer to me as ‘my dear’. At the time, I was unaware this is a common form of address for both genders. I love the weather (apart from the intense heat of summer), the travel opportunities, driving on the other side of the road, the Arabic culture and meeting people and making new friends. No tax is also a big plus.

Words by Sarah Norris - Published in Voyeur June 2015
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