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.

  • Avi

    You know a lot of the middle aged ladies in there only come in to meet and hook up with young trainers… and some of those guys are gigolo’s on the side. this is a generalization of course, not ALL of them are doing this but a vast majority are. i could not make this up if i wanted to. if you go to the clubs in Kota chances are you will see those trainers from KG mall in spandex shorts dancing in cages!

  • I wouldn’t worry about it. There’s not much you can do to break a stereotype.

    Earphones/no smiling is not the exclusive domain of bules at the gym. Look around you. How many non-Indonesians are doing exactly the same thing?

    What I HAVE noticed is that a lot of Indonesian men use their gym time to socialise – much more so than women. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s good – but it means that they are at the gym for several hours at a time. Personally, I like to be in and out within an hour.

    The only thing I do differently to you is smile. I make it a point to make eye contact with people and smile. I also make it a point to take the earphones out when getting water/towels and saying hi to the staff (who tend to get ignored by everyone).

  • Um “…how many Indonesians/non-bules…”

  • Brandon

    Avi – the true question is, my friend, what exactly were YOU doing in the type of clubs that have men dancing in cages? πŸ˜‰


    Actually, last night I was at the gym and was more aware of what you’re talking about; some of the women were blatantly encouraging physical contact with the trainers, flirting, etc. Wonder how many of them are actually married and feel ignored by their husbands?

  • Rob

    A hard core gym where people come to work out and not socialize would be nice. I work out to try and keep a little bit fit and to fight of the ravages of aging πŸ˜€

    I am happy to talk to people in the gym (between sets) and smile and do all the nice things. I do have a bit of a problem though with people who sit on a machine and between sets have 5 or 6 minute conversations on their mobile phones!

    I wear headphones for the same reason as you do. I tend to focus better when listening to my kind of music. I am not much of a house trance fella. I tend to be pounding the tread mill to much more subtle sounds. If people want to talk then all they have to do is tap me on the shoulder and I will whack of the headphones and talk. Simple really!

    I have been here 15 years and I continue to be stereotyped when I am in places where I am much more of an unknown except for the colour of my skin.

    I am guessing that the people that know you and care about you do not consider you to be sombong or lacking of a smile. And for me, that is the important thing and not whether someone thinks I fit a preconceived stereotype. I just do not see the stereotype ever disappearing.

    Nice post. It is fun to read about the experiences of others.


  • I understand with your situation since I am a gym member and trying to avoid making social conversation with other members. Well, I live outside of Indonesia and in this country, no one will bother asking me – as a foreigner – on how I make friends by being so unsocialable at the gym πŸ˜‰

    Now I wonder, will she ask you the same question if you were Indonesian who don’t speak to others and socialising at the gym? I will do the same as you do if I were a gym member in Jakarta. But I think you attract their attention most since you are bule. Just move on with your way and smile if necessary. Besides, as an Indonesian, I know for sure that some Indonesians are viewing friends more in quantity but not in quality (see friendster or facebook of Indonesians for instance), therefore, by not making friends at the gym should not determine you as a person who don’t have any friends.

  • How is it that no indonesian chicks ever randomly approached me in the gym?

  • @tree: cos you’re not a foreigner. And don’t you already have TONS of girls at your beck and call?

    @brandon: If I were you I’d just continue what I have been doing. You are right, the gym is the place to workout. I don’t live in Indonesia, and where I live, I am considered as very exotic looking, so at the gym, tons of white guys want to chat me up. But I do as you do, just work out with my mp3 player and blocking the rest of the world out. When I finish I see them one by one coming up to me but then I just go to the locker room, shower, get changed and go home. I smile politely and say “au revoir” to everyone, though. I’m known as “that shy asian girl”.
    Girls who come up to you at the gym because you didnt come up to them and chat you up are probably bothered because they came to the gym to get picked up. I suggest to just ignore them and the so-called stereotype of expats in indo.
    happy pumping!

  • i’m feeling left out.

  • Casey

    I’m white and if I’m in the gym in Australia I don’t necessarily smile at people unless I’m directly interacting with them…so why should I make an effort to smile for the sake of it in Indonesia or anywhere else? Indonesians, I think, often have this expectation that us whiteys are supposed to be funny, friendly and ever-amusing a la Mr Bean, and that if we’re not we’re full of ourselves. I really don’t like/appreciate the special treatment we tend to get in shops, hospitals,etc, either-Indonesians need to get over both us and their colonial inferiority complex-you don’t see them insisting that Japanese/Korean/Indian/Nigerian expats smile and take notice of them now, do you?

  • Jack

    Why you want to be Hater! Why?

  • jaka

    I am Indonesian and just want to comment on this passage:

    “Unfortunately, there’s an automatic assumption that if a bule (foreigner) is speaking with a young woman, he’s really just trying to get in her pants. … . The eyes of those around us tell a lot.”

    Even as Indonesian I found that this is ridiculous (not the get-in-her-pants part, but the “automatic assuming” part). “Reseh”, to be more precise with indonesian word. That’s (stereo)typical Indonesian, by the way, which I hope I can erase this behavior! Eager to know what other’s doing and give usually a negative comment/thought after all. I think that this behavior becomes the background of the notorious RUU-AP.

  • Gde Yasa

    Hey 350 hundred years of colonial rule…it’s engrained in our DNA…bule = our rich masters…lol

  • theimp98

    lol could be she wanted to talk to you.
    i am much the same in the gym, i am there to work out. and go home.
    Not to talk to people.

  • theimp98

    lol could be she wanted to talk to you.
    i am much the same in the gym, i am there to work out. and go home.
    Not to talk to people.

  • Hue

    I'm Hue, I'm livin in Vietnam. I want to make friend with everyone that like to learn English. So helping me to improve my English. I like to learn English very much. please contact with me. nick yahoo: stilllove_lhd@yahoo.com (or nick skype: phuonghue198).
    I'm very excited to know everybody.

  • Hue

    I'm Hue. I'm living in Vietnam. I want to make friend with everybody so I have chance to talk about English to improve my English. please contact with me. nick yahoo: stilllove_lhd@yahoo.com (or nick skype: phuonghue198)

  • very nice reason. finally known why bule is hard to smile πŸ™‚

  • Liz

    This might not be relevant since you have posted this blog a year ago. I bumped into your blog by doing a google search on photography and found your interesting article.

    Your experience with the Indo lady in gym is no different than any expat/student/visitor living in the any countries in the world, it is just one of those things that could happen to anyone. E.g. An Asian expat living in the USA. Mostly likely everyone in the gym will ignored the Asian expat because he/she look the same with the rest of the minority in the States.

    You got the attention from the locals because of the Asian hospitality and the urge of Asian culture wanted to please their guest in the country, in another work – the foreigners.

    When comes to making friends it usually goes both way. So she has made the first move, it is your turn to introduce yourself. No biggy.

  • nathallia

    I have so many western friends but sometimes we can't understand each other because we had so much differences between our cultures and attitudes. And yes, I thought that western man / bule is stuck-up and they really like to do something to the point…and I don't know why. But I think I understand now….just after I read your story. Thank's to offer your experiences Brandon. πŸ™‚

  • lightweaver2

    Wow, this really hit home with me. After working for a year in the Philippines, too much work and too little time with the real world or for my photography, I am enjoying your Blog and yeah, a lot of what you write hits home. Miss those Islands more then anyplace I've ever been. Enjoy your todays.

  • Wow, this really hit home with me. After working for a year in the Philippines, too much work and too little time with the real world or for my photography, I am enjoying your Blog and yeah, a lot of what you write hits home. Miss those Islands more then anyplace I've ever been. Enjoy your todays.

  • aulia

    I come across your blog because I was searching for low light photography technique [I'm a newbie :)]. After reading partly of your blog (including this), I realize your blog is more than photography. It's nice story to share. This article is somehow contemplating of what I have experienced as Indonesian who lives in Europe….after almost 6 years not many foreign friends that I have, either from the university or social society, but those that I know are real friends. Anyway, as an Indonesian woman, I think most of male “bule” are ok, being direct is not the point and just have a short conversation doesn't mean “bad or bed” intention though πŸ™‚