Jakarta is the city I grew up in, and to date still the place I have lived longest in (14 years, compared to 7 in the US overall and 9 in Switzerland, mostly Zürich, overall). I’m at the age now, however, where I have spent more time away from it than I spent in it.
So coming back is… odd. There are a number of things which are familiar, and it feels so good to recognise that familiarity. Being in Malaysia for the past few months has made me treasure how enunciated Indonesian sounds compared to Malay. The food, as ever, has been excellent and it’s nice to have it again. While some areas of Jakarta have changed a lot, some haven’t too much. Even little subtle things, like phrases, body language, and mannerisms just feel good to recognise.
At the same time, I’m also a different person coming back here, and the way I grew up here wasn’t exactly normal. Growing up as an expat kid means that your exposure to the culture around you is mixed and can vary a lot. When I went to the US later, people would sometimes try to figure me out and assume that 14 years should be enough to determine my sense of identity, but I knew very well that I didn’t really qualify. Today, I know that any sense of identity that isn’t a legal nationality is really just up to you, but I can definitely say that while there are ways that Indonesia feels like home, there are also ways it doesn’t.
Regardless, I can’t help wondering how I even got here, because it’s changed a lot in the past few months. A few months ago I was a tour guide in Zürich. I lived in a student WG (shared apartment), would bike around town, do standup comedy every couple of weeks or so, and generally delighted in a busy schedule that was under my control. By that point, I knew Zürich pretty well, had developed a number of contacts which made me feel connected and had a broad variety of friends from the different walks of life I was in.
I spent about three months in Malaysia and spent two of them hostel volunteering, which I have to admit was something I felt pretty comfortable with, pretty quickly. Hotel work is similar wherever you go, and tour guiding gave me lots of practice with people. If anything, I rather thrive on meeting and greeting. Tour guiding left its mark on me, and I really enjoy telling people about the country they’re in and making recommendations on places to go or try. Hostel living is really hectic though, and it can sometimes just be overwhelming.
And now, by contrast, I’m starting one of the most regular jobs I’ve ever worked in terms of hours. It seems like can get hectic during class hours, but outside of that is largely administrative. East Jakarta is mostly outside of the expat circuits, so unless my Indonesian gets a lot better my social life has and will take a dive. From some of the people I talk to, it’s normal to work, then go home and chill.
I have to say, this isn’t something I’m used to yet. And yet, this is also what people tend to pretend adulthood is all about. “I used to go out on Saturdays, but now I prefer just to sit at home and watch Netflix” and I don’t know if I can do that yet. Sometimes, yes, it’s nice to have a break after hyper hostel life, but I’m not a huge fan of the main social contact I have being either work or over the Internet. I’m also generally of the opinion that you can always question what people all assume you should do at whatever age you are. Being over 30 doesn’t mean your behaviour has to be any one specific thing. It’s possible that behaviour would change if I settled down with somebody, but I hardly think it’s mandatory before kids would hypothetically be involved.
Location determines possibilities though, and Jakarta is massive. I could get by with a wide bunch of contacts in Zürich’s 400,000 people. I could handle a microcosm of that at a hostel, where the backpacking community always felt small because most people followed similar routes and would all know each other. But now life is “normal” in a huge city and it’s just uncharted territory for me. Even the kids at the centre I teach at talk casually, even with their teachers, about spending a lot of time gaming on Fortnite. That’s cool in terms of normalising gamer culture, but also possibly indicative that social life might work differently here.
One thing I know for sure, I do like building communities by bringing people together. It’ll be a challenge over here, but you never know.
Still, it’s understandable being a little flummoxed at the moment. It’s been a lot of change, and I’m only contracted for a year as things currently stand. Most likely it’ll feel like no time when that’s up.