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.