“Blow-Up Babies”: Quite possibly the most inappropriate name for a business? [photo]

Throughout Southeast Asia the English language is often misinterpreted, misrepresented, or massaged into new forms of communication through humorous signage. Take this one I captured as an example.

Throughout the Philippines, and Manila especially, English is widespread and I have yet to see many humorous examples as I have so often seen in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Japan.

Until today.

Let me introduce you to a photo studio by the name of “Blow-Up Babies”.


Post about Indonesian women and expat men has reached 221 comments

This post from nearly 5 years ago has certainly received a lot of feedback – currently at 221 comments. And there were many more comments not approved or moderated for various reasons (and I’m very lenient). It appears the nature of relationships between Asian women and foreigners is a hot topic. Unfortunately, the discussion also seems to breed hate, blatant racism, extreme generalizations, and the other crap that comes with the telling of peoples’ personal history.

Each of these delicately composed comments comes streaming (and sometimes shouting) into my inbox, at times more frequently than bathroom breaks. I’m so often tempted to respond, to speak my own mind, and share my experiences having been with an amazing, loving, and caring Indonesian woman for so many years – experiences so very opposite from the majority of those sharp words expressed in the comments. But then again, whose mind am I going to change? If someone has had a horrible experience with love or has witnessed a partner using them only as a means to an end, who am I to say that they’re wrong to lash out?

Despite the fact that this blog is centered around photography, travel, culture, and my own life experiences as an expatriate living in Asia, I’ll continue to allow the comments to flow. I simply ask that before you contribute to the discussion, you ask yourself if you’d say the same thing if you were face-to-face with others, that you consider the flip side to your beliefs and statements, and that you strive to maintain some semblance of respect – especially in terms of religion. Don’t confuse the disparity of wealth and blatant naivety with a particular religion.

Having said that, perhaps it’s time for me to share my own perspectives on this matter from many years of personal experience.

Expat experiences: making new friends, approaching foreigners

The other day at the gym, a Chinese/Indonesian woman I know comes up to me and says, “Why don’t you ever talk to anyone at the gym?”, “And you always wear headphones, so no one can talk to you. And when you workout you don’t smile.”

Those of you reading this from the States or similar countries will agree with me that this isn’t exactly something a gym-friend would normally ask you in America. (gym-friend is a term I coined 10 seconds ago, referring to people you only see/know/talk to at the gym).

My answer to her was, “I guess because when I’m at the gym, I’m here to workout and not socialize. I don’t mean to be ‘sombong’ (stuck-up).” She said, “Then how will you make new friends?” Her question got me thinking.

All too often we expats, living and working in a radius of familiarity, tend to become a bit isolated and stuck in a habit of hanging out with the same people, but to an Indonesian, we may come across as being unfriendly or perhaps even a bit stuck-up. I can only speak for myself, but this isn’t the case at all. I’m always up for meeting new people, practicing my lame Bahasa Indonesia, and think of myself as pretty open to talking with Indonesians as much as possible. And yet, despite this view of myself, I was observed as being otherwise.

It makes you wonder, after 6 years of living and working around here, do others feel the same? Is this a reputation that many expats earn and perhaps deserve?

To quickly address her comments: In regards to the gym atmosphere, I’ll admit, I’m there to get a good workout in, not hang out and talk. However, I’m in the vast minority – most of the members spend about half (or more) of their time socializing and the other half doing some form of exercise. If I don’t smile, it’s because I train pretty hard and am often working my ass off in doing so; weight-lifting and smiling just don’t mesh where I’m from. The headphones are a way of blocking out the R&B-love-song techno thing they have pumping at times, and allows me to focus. Furthermore, how would you feel if some sweaty white guy out of breath walked up and started chatting with you out of the blue?

Expat men already have a bad rep as it is in Asia. If I start conversing with the cute girls at the gym, won’t that simply reinforce everyone’s opinion and get them thinking, “See, I told he was just like the rest…” Unfortunately, there’s often an automatic assumption that if a bule (foreigner) is speaking with a young woman, he’s really just trying to get in her pants. This theory is further reinforced by the wandering eyes I notice whenever the aforementioned skimpy-outfit-wearing gym-friend is talking to me. The eyes of those around us tell a lot.

Should I make more of an effort to get to know those I’ve regularly seen at the gym and the same locations all these years? Probably. Should I make an attempt at smiling more often, and lighten up a bit? Definitely.

But you know what? This goes both ways; it’d be great for all you Indos out there to also take a chance and approach us as well. Most expats that I know are quite friendly and always up for speaking with new people, and making new friends. After all, isn’t that why we’re here, transplanted from our homes? To forge new relationships, be it business, friendship, or love?

{insert predictable words of advice}

Take a chance. You just might learn something new.

Prison Break: Maids

John left this comment regarding my maid posting:

“escape out the roof at midnight to ‘hang out’ with the construction workers”

:) seems like you’re turning into an old fart.

I guess I may as well come out with the full story of this one. It’s Friday and there’s nothing better to talk about at the moment.

My next door neighbor has two maids: one about 17 years old, cute but knows it, and one a couple years older and much less flirtatious. Whenever my neighbor is gone, the younger one (I think her name is “Indah”) tends to hang out on the curb with the construction guys who work down the street. Now since this isn’t my native country, I can’t speak on behalf of Indonesians about what’s appropriate and what’s not. As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing wrong with that scenario assuming three things: she’s done with her work, she’s keeping a very good watch over their two children, and she’s not bringing the men into the house.

I think many people would disagree with me, saying that it’s not proper for her to be hanging out with men in front of the house seeing as she’s ‘only’ 17. (they should see what American teenagers are doing!). I believe she ended up pairing off with one particular guy for the last few months – a construction worker perhaps 10 years older.

The other night, during the Chinese New Year, my neighbor went to the maid’s quarters around midnight to offer a gift for the new year. To her surprise, there was no one there. She searched the house, only to discover that the locked door to the roof was left open. In her fury, she locked the door once again, forcing the girls to come home a couple hours later to a locked door. They had to come back through the front of the house at 2am with their boss waiting downstairs. Apparently my neighbor got the truth out of them; they’d been sneaking out often to meet up with the men from down the street.

My neighbor called them some names I won’t repeat here (don’t need google picking me up for words like wh*res and sl*t). She made them pack their belongings and leave the house right then. I haven’t seen them since.

It has since to come to light that Indah was suspected to be pregnant for a month or so now, and when my neighbor offered to take her to the doctor she firmly disagreed. Now that she’s been fired, we’ll never know.

Here’s the dilemma: In a culture where you have an employee living and working in your home, how much responsibility should you take over their actions? If a girl is only 17 and you know she’s having s*x with a man 10 years older who is most likely just using her, he’s only making $3 a day, and quite likely would abandon her should she fall pregnant, is it your place to intervene? If I sound pessimistic, please understand this is not an uncommon scenario. At times, men will also persuade the maids to let them in the home so that they can scope out the belongings for a theft-session later on.

So, where do you draw the line? Do you take the approach of saying, “It’s her life” and leave it at that? Should you intervene when perhaps it’s not your business? Is it your business if she’s living under your roof?

I personally had an odd experience my first year in Indonesia. My maid had her “husband” living in our house for a couple of months WITH MY TWO ROOMMATES AND I COMPLETELY UNAWARE. (we later found out she was never married) Now, before you laugh and say, “stupid bule!” – realize she had our schedules down perfectly, as we came and went very predictably, she was going to bed at like 7pm (we assumed she needed lots of sleep), and none of us even went into the back area of the house where she stayed. It was only when I came home from work at lunch for the first time all year that I discovered the fourth “roommate”.

Western Men, Indonesian Women.

Thang D. Nguyen has written an interesting post and subsequent discussion in regards to Western men and Indonesian women. I’ll leave my own thoughts out of this one, but would be interested in hearing how Indonesian women feel after reading this.
Here’s an excerpt from his post:

As my friend and I sipped our coffees last Sunday afternoon at Plaza Indonesia, he asked, “Don’t you think that many of the Indonesian women that white foreigners (buleh) go out with or marry are so unattractive?”

“They look like maids, don’t they” he continued.

“Not necessarily so,” I replied.

Beauty, like many things in life, is bound by the rule of relativity. In other words, what one man considers beautiful is ugly in the eyes of another.

Being an Indonesian himself, my friend’s view of a beautiful woman is that of a fair-skinned one, who has the look of a financially independent, educated, and classy lady.

Thus, in his eyes, an Indonesian woman with a dark complexion, buck teeth, and a high forehead typically found among remote mountain villagers in Java, is not beautiful.

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Quarter Life Crisis: Part One (Life as an Expat)

So begins a new phase in my life. My Quarter Life Crisis has officially commenced. I suppose a good way to deal with this is with some introspection, reflection, and a good round of bullsh*ting about whatever spills out of this confused mind. Without further ado, let the rambling begin.

Life as an expat moves through a number of phases. There’s the initial, “Wow, it’s so different and interesting!” first few months of bliss with our newfound relationship with a place. This is the phase when we write home to say how guilty we feel having a maid in our home, washing our boxers and cooking for us while making such a small salary. Or how fascinating the bajaj are, and how much we love sambal and sate. This is when all quirks of the culture are met with an upbeat attitude. This is when it’s so much fun to be infused in a culture where no one speaks your language – where you’re an object of interest. This is when we go jogging around the neighborhood at night and smile and say “malam” to everyone we see, and wonder why we don’t receive a response. “Oh well, it must be their culture!” we tell ourselves. This is when we become a bit condescending without meaning to be.

This flows into a time where we begin missing bits of home, “You know, in America ________ “(fill in with inappropriate comparison, yet say it with a smile). By now we’ve settled into appreciating having a maid, and understand that in many ways she has a pretty decent job in respect to the local economy. We’ve become accustomed to the traffic and are learning to be patient with the realization of Indonesia’s “rubber time”. By now we’ve been hit by numerous stomach bugs and no longer eat from the 50 cent street vendors. We’ve started making friends and maybe have even branched out of our cocoon of hanging out with co-workers and expats only.

Which leads into a minor depression of realizing that those things that were ‘interesting’ now are downright annoying. The abundant stares and comments that were so flattering in the beginning are now irritating. In your mind, you’re silently saying, “What the hell are you looking at?!” but then quickly feel guilty realizing that you do in fact look a bit different and those staring at you are simply passing the time while they duduk dan merokok. You’ve let your temper get the best of you more than occasionally when driving / walking / waiting in line. You’ve grown tired of nasi, nasi, nasi, anything that’s been fried, and even sambal has lost its charm. Perhaps you’ve put on a few pounds from this diet and are wondering, “How do they stay so thin here?” This is make-or-break time. You’ll most likely either decide to leave as the shine of your experience has now worn off, or stay and find that things will indeed get better.

I decided to stay. Much, much, longer.

The next phase of being an expat is like settling into a comfortable relationship with a girl. You’ve made it. You are now allowed to show your true colors. She’s accepted you, and you’ve accepted her, even with that annoying habit of (______). You’ve altered your diet to suit your taste and health. Perhaps you’ve joined a nice fitness club, have a few favorite hangouts, manage not to let work consume your life, and even have a nice group of friends both local and expat. You may even have found a love interest. (the complications / experiences / misunderstandings / quirks / amazement of which would take an entire book to write about)

Your life has become rather complete. You don’t really miss ‘home’, and maybe begin to realize some of the disadvantages of living in a Western culture of consumption, chasing the dollar, and from a distance, realize your home country has a rather superficial pop-culture. You have no idea what a Ti-Vo is or how to use one. You’ve never used Crackberry. You’ve never seen a Hummer 3, a Chrysler Crossfire, or a Pontiac Solstice. You don’t have any idea what the latest blockbuster is. The last you heard about Britney Spears was something about having a baby. You don’t watch Lost – you just buy the DVDs a few months later. You hang out in malls and cafés to relax. You wear jeans outside even though it’s 92 degrees and 99% humidity. The heat that was so overwhelming in the beginning is now biasa saja. You get the latest music from pirated CD shops, not a real CD shop. You’ve stopped complaining about paying $100 to the government every time you leave this country. You know you could pay $60 to the guy in the corner but couldn’t be bothered. You’ve tinted the windows and windshield on your car to Mafia tones. You forgot what a speed limit was. Police have become simply an annoyance, not really any kind of deterrent, knowing that $5 will make most of your troubles vanish. You forgot that the shoulder isn’t really for passing on the highway. You feel that a Kijang is a pretty decent car. You feel it’s normal to expect to take an hour and a half to get 5 miles for dinner. You debate about what to do for the Idul Fitri break and realize you’re actually bored with going to Bali. You no longer care if people stare at you, cause you’ve become immune to it. You can go to the bar and carry on a conversation with a kupu-kupu malam, knowing with 100% reassurance you’d never take her home. The hostess at the local bar invited you to her wedding in Sulawesi. You can sms faster than a 13 year old. You have that handphone with you at all times. You don’t even blink an eye at the fact that 6 year olds have them as well. You call it a “handphone”, not a “cellphone”. You begin to finish emails with “cheers”. You say “university” and not “college”. You simply can’t get into reality shows. You think it’s expensive to pay $30 for a doctor visit – with drugs. You’ve never seen a car with GPS navigation. You feel as if you should go indoors as soon as the call to prayer begins at 6pm. You haven’t seen the sunset more than a handful of times, and never after 6:30pm. You think it’s normal to see the dude spraying DDT on your front lawn every Saturday morning at 6am – without wearing a mask. You think $60 a month for 128kbps broadband at home is reasonable and even exciting. Your Honda Jazz is actually considered cool to some of those you work with. You think a 200cc motorcycle is a big bike. You consider a V6 or anything over 2.0 liters to be a powerhouse. You give about as much thought to an Embassy bombing as you do to bird flu. You laugh at “Bule Gila”. You only find Asian women attractive. You no longer consider, “Halo Mister” annoying. You think $3 for going to the theater is a bit expensive. You’re completely used to subtitles on those movies and having the volume played at full force. Many pieces of your wardrobe have tags that say “Armani, D&G, Bvlgari”, but you know damn well none of them are real, and you couldn’t care less. Rats don’t faze you. Seeing a monkey chained to the security guard’s post is no longer unsettling. Getting your driver’s license has become a yearly tradition. Going to immigration still sucks – bad. You don’t remember snow. It’s no longer weird to go a couple of years without seeing family. Your friends back home haven’t forgotten about you, but still truly have no idea where you’re living. “Isn’t Bali a country?” “Do they have good coffee on ‘Java’?” “Do they have Internet over there?” “I always wanted to see Thailand!” You’ve had an amoeba. At least once – and you’ve resumed eating off the street cause, well, sh*t happens.

And finally you begin to realize that, yes; you could in fact remain here for much, much longer and probably be reasonably content. But the fact of the matter is that you’re becoming so embedded in life here that if you don’t bring about a change soon, you may miss a window of opportunity to once again do something different with your life. You realize that a huge disadvantage of being here is seeing friends come and go. You spend a couple years hanging out with these great people, and then suddenly they’re gone, having returned to the land of McDonalds and Britney. You feel a craving. Perhaps you’ve seen all there is to see. Done all there is to do. Experienced all that your adopted country has to offer at this point in your life. What is it? What is that nagging sensation? Is it time to pack it up? Is it time to move to another country and therefore resume the cycle of expatism? Find that which is shiny and new yet again? Or is it time to head home? To realize that, hey, maybe it’s not so bad there. Maybe you could live somewhere in your home country that is completely new – an entirely new adventure? Would you regret leaving? Would you miss all that you’ve come to love about this place?

These are the questions which keep many expats up at night. These are the questions which I suppose I’ve been dealing with for a few years; coming in as tides and receding when I’ve made the decision to stay. It’s about that time of year when the tide is coming in, and I’m not sure about how this one will play out. This is the most uncertain I’ve been of my future since I was 22 and facing university graduation.

Welcome to my Quarter Life Crisis.

Stalking Leopards

I was contacted by a reporter for the International Herald Tribune last week. She had come across my blog and asked if I’d compose an article for publication. The focus of the article was to convey expat experiences with having guests stay with you, “quirky, extreme, or unexpected stories”. So, for better or worse, here’s one of those stories I wouldn’t usually share!

Jakarta. Famous for political strife, bird flu, and harboring terrorist cells, it’s also the gateway to Indonesia. Most travelers and tourists never leave the airport, much less venture into the heart of this city of 14 million souls. However, as an expat who has called this place ‘home’ for over four years, I tend to attract interesting experiences with those guests who decide to drop by and stay a while.

An expat who opens their door to a variety of visitors will inevitably find that people have many different interests when taking in a new culture. Some pursue the arts, the monuments, perhaps the landscape and natural wonders, while others prefer the more visceral and raw experience; they want to crawl into the under belly of the place so to speak.

One such guest made it a personal mission to experience Jakarta’s lesser known secret: the infamous nightlife that is said to rival Bangkok. Despite Indonesia being a nation with a 90% Muslim population, the bars and nightclubs in Jakarta are stocked with gorgeous girls seeking the company of both expats and their wallets.

Having witnessed the shock of visiting bars and seeing older expats bonding with women a quarter of their age, I strongly attempted to dissuade my friend to follow that route. As his host, I felt a certain responsibility to keep him out of the ‘dark side’ of Jakarta. When hosting out of town guests, the experience they have and the memories forever carved in their minds are a direct reflection of what you choose to show them. After attempting to persuade him otherwise, my friend was determined to see the ‘real Jakarta’, and I was about to find out just what kind of reflection I was about to provide.

Strolling into the five star hotel bar, I had to help my friend (let’s call him Joe) retrieve his jaw from the ground: the women were nothing short of breathtaking. He confidently made his rounds, as happy as a man who’d found utopia. As the night wore on, I noticed Joe was like an eight year old in the cereal aisle: desperate to know what prize was in the box, but unable to choose from the copious selection. The more time passed, the darker it seemed to get in the club. Toward the end of the night, I found Joe in one such dim corner practicing his 20 word Indonesian vocabulary with a slim woman in a leopard print dress. He had found his prey.

Drained and ready to leave I pulled Joe from his shady corner and into a cab. Climbing into the front seat, ready to close my eyes in preparation for the 30-minute ride home, I heard not one, but two doors slam shut behind me. Joe was not alone. Joe had captured a leopard. Knowing that Joe was a responsible adult, I decided to keep both my judgments and my mouth shut. To each his own, I told myself.

Two minutes into the ride home, I was pulled into Joe’s conversation with the Leopard. Apparently the Leopard didn’t speak English. I turned around to help Joe translate with his new friend. A nauseating feeling began to well up in me. Something was definitely wrong with the situation but I couldn’t put my finger on it. What was it? Was morality rearing its ugly head? Was it the fact that I should I tell Joe just how wrong it was to take home a woman whose English vocabulary stopped at “hi” and “beer”? As the fast moving car passed under the street lamps, it created a strobe light array that reflected off the Leopard’s face at rapid intervals. And then it hit me: my subconscious had noticed something my (and Joe’s) eyes hadn’t seen. The Leopard had a 5 o’clock shadow arriving 8 hours late. The Leopard was a man!

I couldn’t help but blurt it out to Joe.

“Oh my God she’s a he!”

“What are you talking about?” replied Joe with a drunken slur.

“Your chick has stubble!”

“No way, I’d never be tricked into that.”

“Dude, wait till we get under a street light.”

The discernable horror that stretched across Joe’s face will forever be etched in my mind.

“Pull over!” he screamed.

“C’mon, you can’t just drop her, I mean him, errr it, here!”

“If you don’t pull the cab over, I’m gonna puke all over the driver!”

The Leopard apparently knew the drill, as s/he wasn’t noticeably surprised or shocked in the least. S/he simply held their hand out waiting for cab fare to hitch a ride back to the same club. Ten dollars lighter, yet stocked with a lifetime’s treasure of humiliation, Joe made me swear never to tell the story again. Well, at least until a few years had passed.

The mortification we both experienced that night leapt through a range of emotions: the most immediate being fear of what could have been, followed by vodka induced laughter as we replayed the script in our heads, and finally into a dead silence of shame; his from the shock of it all, and mine from allowing myself to get him into that situation in the first place. As a host familiar with the trappings of Jakarta’s nightlife, it was my duty to steer him towards safer venues, like bookstores or shopping centers. Places where the sex of a customer was not a discussion point.

Joe didn’t seem keen to hit Jakarta’s nightlife after that, and for some reason we drifted apart after his departure. The last I heard he was stalking prey in North America, in well-lit venues where Leopards simply cannot hide.