A Love Letter to Jakarta

Well Jakarta. It’s time to say goodbye. Seems like only yesterday that I was reading the Lonely Planet when deciding whether or not to take a job in this city. The Guide said, “Stay away from this city unless you like bad air, rubbish and endless traffic that never moves”.

That was 12 years ago, and I have to say the guide got it wrong. Here is what it didn’t tell me.

  1. Jakarta is made for lazy people like me. If I sat out the front of my house and waited, everything would come to me. Endless street food rolling past my gate; nasi goreng, gado gado, ketupat sayur. Fried bananas and tempeh and anything else that can be covered in batter and dropped in old oil. An Indonesian friend told me that Jakarta people like their food with pollution, and I believe it. I never learned the different sounds that each food vendor makes so people know they are coming (apart from the bread man), but every other Indonesian here knows. They know when the fruit and veggie lady is out the front and call out to each other. There’s also the sewing machine man, the guy who sells brooms and buckets, another one who collects your oil, iced drinks, bananas, goldfish in a bag. Whatever you want, and don’t want, will certainly come rolling past at some time or another.
  1. Gojeks have made the city EVEN BETTER for people like me. Pre-Covid times, Gojek would not only deliver food for any restaurant or buy stuff for you from any shop in the city, they also had a cleaning service, a massage service, a make-up service, a ticket buying service; every service was available at the press of a button. As I reflect I am starting to understand further why total lockdown didn’t impact my home life much at all.
  1. Jakarta is, unsurprisingly, made up of Indonesians from all across the archipelago and Indonesians are cool. I don’t want to generalise about a country of 240 million plus people, but I am going to anyway. Coming from a western country which promotes the individual first, it can be quite jarring to arrive in a city that is all about community. Yes, the government is corrupt, yes shit is falling apart, but from the grassroots up, people look after their community. Life isn’t easy in this city for so many of its inhabitants, but I have seen people living in their village homes, spoon feeding their elderly grandparents, taking in other people’s children, praying together for the health of everyone, sharing out bags of food on so many occasions; caring for each other. 
  1. People here love babies and children so your kids can run amok and scream the place down, and while you try and shrink in shame, Indonesians will smile at your children as though they are just happy that they exist in the world. Any time I get on a plane with the kids, I pray I sit next to an Indonesian, as they will tolerate anything that comes from children. The other day, when I was going for a leisurely walk with my baby in the pram, at midday (no Indonesian would ever be so foolish as to do this in the midday heat), she decided that she didn’t want to be in that pram anymore and screamed like she was in lava until I took her out and dragged the pram unskillfully and sweated my way stumbling down the street. The local elderly motorbike taxi man saw my struggle and told me he would drive me home. He forgot he had stored his shoe in the spokes of his motorbike (as you do) so as we cruised off, the chain fell off his bike, a crowd emerged to help him and one of them loaned them his bike, and off we went again, me just shaking my head at the funny adventures that happen here each day and the willingness of people to help out, especially when there is a child involved.
  1. Sometimes, in the west, mothers get the message that a successful woman does it all; goes to work full-time while raising the kids and packing special Pinterest lunches with personalised sandwiches without breaking into a sweat which would destroy the carefully applied make-up. Of course this is an illusion and one that has led to much despair from women who try and meet these standards and feel like shit from the effort. Many times when I got home from work, tired from the day, and went to play with the kids, there would be an Indonesian woman there who would be telling me to go and take a rest and they would look after the kids. At times I thought, “Do they think that I am a shit mum and can’t look after my own children?” and then I realised, oh, this is what it is like to raise kids in a culture which values community first. There really is a village raising my children. This has been a great blessing.
  1. I learnt here that stereotypes are bullshit and that people are just people. When I came to Jakarta, I was warned about the danger of living in a Muslim country and I had taken on the often unconscious racist ideas that came from growing up in the “lucky country” in which my parents had grown up in the era of the White Australia policy. I imagined it might be scary, that people might hate me for my freedom. Ha! Seems hilarious now. Firstly, I realised I was never free. I had body shame, even about my own menstrual cycle, until I hung out with Muslim women who were willing to share everything about what came out of their bodies, who told me that I should show more cleavage when I went out, who, on my second week working at a school, had a copy of a sex tape from a local pop star and were all watching it in the staffroom and commenting on his skills. A million examples of times that I was shocked out of my white privilege system and cast onto the pile of “banal white person”.
  1. Indonesians are so cool that when white people are fighting in meetings, they open up a bag of snacks like they are at the movies and settle in for the show.
  1. Speaking of food, life is so much about talking about food and sharing food. Any roadtrip is filled with food stops at least every 20 minutes to sample the local food and everyone seems to know where each dish originates.
  1. I have had conversations in Australia of people being shocked that a certain person has been living in Australia for 10 years and still hasn’t made the effort to speak English. I am sure that Rupert Murdoch media must have a news report on the dangers of migrants, particularly the ones who DON’T ASSIMILATE, as a general article each month. Well, it is certainly related to white privilege that no Indonesian ever told me off for having the Indonesian language skills of a 4 year old after 12 years here. We all know the racism embedded in many cultures from the fact that when I came here, I got to be something called an “expat” which is another way to refer to a white migrant. White migrants get tons of privileges that brown migrants don’t get, aside from the label. We don’t have to make any effort at all to be accepted into the country. No need to learn the language, or stay sober and quiet and not make a fuss; which is the message that BIPOC people get when they travel. It’s dangerous in many places to be BIPOC and have an opinion. Once when I visited a school here to do a volunteer English class, I was greeted like I was Britney Spears in the 90s. Hundreds of teenagers hung from their classrooms screaming out hello and waving and taking photos. There was a welcome dance involving an umbrella being held over my head. All of the big men of the village came to share a meal and to greet me. It was scary in the intensity of the celebration of white skin and totally undeserved.
  1. What I will miss most of all, is my Indonesian family. The Betawi women who have been raising my children. Who come and stay and spend all of their time in the kitchen cooking for everyone. Who take the kids for sleepovers where they never sleep. Who teach my girls that women are strong when they are together. Who laugh out loud constantly and enjoy every moment. Who support each other selflessly through joy and pain.

Thank you Jakarta for all of the sweet memories. For luring my sister over and giving us precious years together which ended up with us both married to Indonesian men, and her, ever the adventurous one, dragging me out of my bubble to go and explore the city in all of its wonders. Thanks Jakarta for teaching me to not take anything for granted, even a footpath. For feeding me delicious food, for giving me a near death experience every day, for showing me how to cross a busy road just by putting my hand out and jiggling it around, for the sound of the mosque on every corner which let me know it was time for the kids to come inside and time for the ghosts to take over. For great friends, for big laughs, for teaching me the horrors of toilet paper as well as wearing shoes inside. For showing my girls that people are good in their core. 

To the men who work here and swept the concrete every morning at 6am while my youngest screamed hello at you a thousand times, thanks for always crouching down to her level and saying hello a thousand times back.

This has been a grand adventure and I am grateful for every moment. Thanks universe for getting me here. Someone please update the Lonely Planet page for me.

See you soon Jakarta, will be back for sure.

One of the women who lights up the world

Published by lostinthealleywayscom

I am a feminist, mother of two, Australian, married to an Indonesian, lover of all things Jakarta (well apart from the pollution and rubbish and corruption and...well you get the picture). I want to share my stories of exploring Jakarta and raising my two daughters in the big city.

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