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.

  • good post.

    the bottom line is if you really don’t like it here, and you don’t think you’ll like it in the future, then it’s probably best to go back to the US.

    But the risk then though is that you discover that you don’t like the US and want to come back to Indonesia!

    good luck anyway!

  • This is a really interesting post, one that raises a lot of questions maybe expats don’t say out loud. While I never expatriated myself to a country with a lower level of economic prosperity, some of the questions remain the same. Sounds like you’re feeling pulled in both directions.

  • Brandon

    Indcoup (I always type your name as “indocoup” by accident) – Thanks.

    The problem is that I love many things about living here. No matter what I’ll always have a connection to Indonesia. I’m fearful that if/when I leave, I’ll lose my primary photographic subject – Indonesia. I haven’t spent time elsewhere while focusing on photography, so have no idea how much interest I’d have if living in the States and pursuing that route.

    In the future? Well, I’ve obviously settled into a routine. A happy, pleasant routine, but a routine nonetheless. Being under 30, I’m not sure if I want that at this time. I know you’ve been here for quite sometime and must, for the most part, love it as well.

    You raise the point that I’m having the most trouble with: is the grass greener?

  • Brandon

    Gail – definitely being pulled. I’ve been pulled in both directions in many ways since arriving (which I’m sure every expat struggles with), but never to this extent.

  • Soi Oz

    Brandon you are experiencing exactly the same things I was going through in Thailand, almost to a ‘T’. After 4 1/2 years there I was feeling stale, and really believing the expat line: “Thailand is a great place to live as an expat as long as you have no ambition”. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with that, there was a powerful urge to ‘re-invent’ myself, re-locate myself, in short, anything to get the ‘feeling’ back. My advice? Take a decent vacation in the west. Go home, not to Bali. Make sure the break is long enough for the glow of being home to wear off. Then re-assess. Culture shock has many different phases that spread themselves out over many years, and at the end of the day that is probably all it is. Besides, how could you leave your favourite photographic subject behind? 😉

  • The key is to differentiate between different feelings such as homesickness, job dissatisfaction, and relationship problems etc.

    When some expats are down it is not cos they are fed up with Indonesia as such, but perhaps cos there are other reasons.

    Make sure you have really pinpointed the issues.

    And the grass is always greener on the other side: that is the inevitable curse on the expat.

  • Brandon

    Actually, Indcoup, I’m not ‘down’ at all – simply wondering if I should begin a plan of moving on to something else, if nothing else than the curiosity of what else is out there. Hope this post didn’t come across as being down on Indonesia or my life here, as it’s been some of the most life-changing of my 29. I’ll never regret being here.

    I’m not the least bit homesick – never really have been. I’ll post more on this later – that’s why I titled this “Part One”.

    Job is fine but maybe not as fitting for me. I’ll elaborate more on that subject later on – that does come into play but it’s not a primary factor. Relationship? Not any problems in that area. Very good actually. 😉

    If anything, it’s a feeling of wanderlust – the need to re-experience something again I guess, but as Soi Oz said, perhaps a nice vacation out of the country could help to satisfy this craving. It wasn’t very smart of me to head to Bali in July for a month when I could have traveled somewhere else.

    Thanks again for your advice; it’s always welcome.

  • Brandon

    Soi Oz – Maybe I should take your advice and head back to the States in the middle of winter, freeze my ass off and realize I’m being retarded. 😉

  • John

    Well, if you have wanderlust go wandering!

    Lots of people have the same feeling, and not just expats!

    Of course you’ll have to weigh up the possible gains and losses, but that happens with every decision.

    I’ve just come back from a holiday in RI – really liked your post!

  • francis

    very good post. I share a lot of what you have written down.

    Maybe you still need that discovery feeling that comes with settling into a new place all over again (after all, you’re still young). How about a new country, or continent? You can start exploring… It’ll add to your experience of the World, and the good side about having left home once already is knowing that you can always go back (wether home is the US, or Indonesia)…

    But as other users pointed out, a holiday outside of Indonesia would be a good start, wether to the US or elsewhere.

  • Great post! As an expat who’s been living in China for 3 years, your story definetly hit a nerve. I wake up and fall asleep pondering those same questions on a daily basis. I think Soi Oz is right, get out of the country for a bit but go somewhere not in Asia. I make the same mistake as you and consistently find myself spending all my vacation time on the beach in Thailand sipping Tigers. An actual change of scenery, rather than just a variation might be the answer.

  • Being expat is really really interesting part of my life.
    I’ve been in Singapore during 2001 – 2003,
    even though it has no big difference in cultural life
    because we’re still asians.

    But one is for sure,
    that ‘culture shock’ does not always mean
    retarding your consciousness back in time.
    Because the more you stay in the local problems,
    the more you are local-civilized.
    Thus, broaden your point of view
    and deepen your emphaty about what is going on ‘mad’ there.
    That which does not kill us, makes us stronger, right?

    Yeah of course, things that should not let it be :Þ
    So make yourself at home.
    Welcome to Indonesia,
    where you can find larger freedoms than your country’s.

  • Soi Oz

    Add another one to your list. “You no longer look on with incredulation (is that a word?) at 100 people lining up to buy Krispy Kreme donuts…. ” Why? They’re donuts for heaven’s sake. Maybe they were giving them away?

    Anyway, get thee to the West for a break. Preferrably go home, but if that’s too much of a stretch head to Perth. It’s only a 4 hour flight and probably the quickest way of immersing yourself in Western culture again for a while. If nothing else you will get a little perspective. It’s also my home town so I can give you a few tips 🙂

  • Soi Oz

    Oh, and you won’t freeze your ass off 🙂

  • hi Brandon, excellent post. although it goes the other way around for me (someone from Indonesia who lived in the States for around 10 years), the post hits too close to home… after trying to live in two other countries after the States, the grass is still greener on the other side of the fence. once in a while the urge of trying a new place or move back home shows up.

    i realize that moving from one country to another has become my addiction. there is a need to “gain more experience” and fear of “being too comfortable”. we’ve come to a realization that there is no such thing as “the perfect country” for us. or for anyone for that matter.

    there is also another major factor in the equation: the moment. for example, say you move back to the States. after a few years, you realize that you like Indonesia better. then you move back to Indonesia. things there may have changed at that point as well. different people, different culture… a different Indonesia than you the one you knew.

    my in-laws told us to have kids. they said that it would help us make up our minds and settle 😉

    (lho, kok jadi numpang curhat?)

  • Brandon

    Francis – I agree that I may need that experience of starting all over again – even with all the potential perils of doing so.

    Regarding a holiday – the more I think about that, the more I realize this may not be one of those times I need ‘a break’ but rather a complete life change. A holiday may not be a sufficient solution that after all.

    Brett – I checked out your site – great stuff! Looks like you’re having a good time soakin up the culture over there as well. Glad to hear you can relate.

    Nikk – Very interesting way to phrase things. I think at this point I’d have more trouble dealing with ‘reverse-culture-shock’ if I returned to the States.Soi Oz – I have no idea what the attraction to donuts is in this city. When I walk by J Co. here in Kelapa Gading, there are lines out the door and wrapped around the side. People will walk out of there with a dozen donuts, sit down on the nearest horizontal surface, and down the whole box faster than a State Police. Dunkin’ just adds fuel to the fire.

    I actually made a reference to this in the article I wrote last month in Kabar Magazine. 😉

    Never been to Perth but have heard great things about it.

    Thalia – Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m sure there isn’t any ‘ideal’ country for any of us, but it’s the experience of seeking out what you have yet to know in your life. I completely agree – once you leave a place, the situation, culture, and people all go through changes during your absence and upon returning may not be the same place that you called ‘home’.

  • nice, very nice.

    i’m still not sure about those amoeba thingies… it’s your bad luck i guess 😀

    go home for a bit man, we all need to from time to time.

  • Rarely have I seen the emotional evolution of the expatriate life captured so effectively.

    It’s an evolution I can only imagine; I’ve been to many places – including Indonesia – but have never lived outside of the States. Not sure I’d want to do it at this stage in my life, but it’s something to dream about.

    Maybe what you need to do is take a few months and travel outside of Asia for a while. Check out Australia, South America, Maritime Canada…something different. You may very well find yourself longing for some nasi goreng and a pizza with a side of sambal late one night.

  • Holy shit, that was a long rant, a good one though.. one that I can relate to, strangely enough, because I haven’t lived abroad for very long.

  • Hey Brandon,
    I can relate except I am experiencing my midlife crisis rather than quarter life crisis here in Indo. I have considered celebrating by getting one of those cool 200 cc motorbikes or maybe a sportscar that I could top out at 60 mph on the highway before I hit traffic.
    Nice rant. Ian

  • hey brandon,
    i found this blog very interesting, btw saya orang indonesia lho.. salam kenal saja!

    i’m amazed how you can stand to the way things work in indonesia .. (the government, police n everything).. anyway i’m wondering why is it so hard for you to come back to your country.. maybe a special indonesian lady is holding you back?

  • Lukim

    Your thoughts and comments seem relevant to me right at the moment.

    I have had 20 years as an expat in a couple of different countries, in Jakarta for the last 6 years and am now beginning to think the time is near to move on.

    Funny thing is I sort of want to return to Australia – but also sort of not. Maybe I am just Jakarta fatigued at present and it will wear off.

    I became an expat because I wanted a change from what I was doing in Australia, I have moved around because I wanted change – maybe I just need another change.

    Time will tell.

  • km

    As 20 something year old expat in Jakarta (a minority here, I believe), I’m glad you actually admitted this. Don’t risk being a big fish in a small pond and let these opportunities slip by – or you will regret it too late. Look around, its really to easy to get sucked into the expat trap.

  • bluenet

    Nice writing!..I’m Indonesian who lives in th US and I definitely with your writing.. it’s sooooooo true 🙂

  • bluenet

    Nice writing!..I’m Indonesian who lives in th US and I definitely agree with your writing.. it’s sooooooo true 🙂

  • bebop

    Hi there-
    loved your thoughts- we are currently going through the same scenario..we have been living in New Zealand for 12 years now and have been wanting a new adventure for about the last two. We are contemplating going back to the states, too but can’t come up with a good plan yet. All of our family members are still there and we have missed out on a lot being so far away. We have two kids now and feel extended family was a luxury that we took for granted- It may be time to go back so the kids can be a part of everyone’s lives. We have also been coming to terms with the fact that we are adventure seekers-love the newness of things and all that comes with it. This can be so frustrating sometimes- why can’t we just be content?……Anyway, just glad that there are other people out there feeling the same things- that we are not completely crazy.

  • Pris

    Wow, that made me teary. Excellent insight on what it’s like to be an expat.
    Don’t worry I live in the US and I can already see the ridiculousness of living here compared to other countries.

    I can see how my indonesian husband feels now living here in America. I know he misses Indonesia a lot.

    Indonesia seems like quite an experience I can’t wait..

    Take Care


  • I enjoyed reading this! It reminded me a bit of my experience, growing up as a diplomat’s daughter, moving from one country to the next…and now, finally settling in my hometown (Jakarta). The anxiety comes from the fact that you have a choice to stay or leave … while I’m (happily) stuck here…

  • brilliant piece of writing and can relate after years in japan and china

  • heru_w

    you seems so lonely? why don't you make your bahasa indonesia more perfect , then you can get hang out with indonesian folks. our try to get a trip on country side, to see a landscape. well, i do felt like that too, when i used to worked at japan for 3 years.

    • Brandon

      Heru – While I appreciate your comment, please realize a few things. I was not lonely at all – had a lot of friends in Indonesia, not to mention Novita. Also, I wrote this post 3 years ago. I now live in Manila, Philippines. 🙂 Thanks for sharing though.

  • heru_w

    just like what i felt, when i used to worked at japan.