In 2009, the economic downturn hit me and my partner Ryan pretty hard. At the time, we were living in downtown Seattle, paying way too much for a gorgeous loft that we rented when we were more financially sound. I was 28, a full-time student, and a social worker. My husband was 26 and a struggling freelance journalist. Newspapers were shutting down left and right. Budgets were getting cut at non-profits all over the country. Banks stopped approving student loans. The future wasn’t looking bright, to say the least.
We watched as brilliant, talented, and educated peers ended up having to move back in with their parents and take jobs at coffee shops because of student loan debt and a shitty job market. We knew it was only a matter of time until our luck ran out and we were bound and determined to come up with another solution. (I love my mother-in-law, but I am NOT going to live in her basement. I’m pretty sure she feels the same way about us.)
At that point, we weren’t married but had been living together for four years. We have many mutual hobbies and interests, but the one that really binds us is our wanderlust. Throughout our relationship, we’d made travel a priority. We’d already traveled all over the world together and had always talked about “someday” teaching and living abroad. “Someday” was always hypothetical and abstract, in the same vein as someday we’ll adopt a kid and someday we’ll have real jobs with real salaries and be able to actually buy our own house or condo. You know, someday.
One day I was at work and I got a text message from Ryan that said something like, “I have the solution! Let’s move to Indonesia and get jobs as teachers!” And I was like, “Riiight, okay, right after we hit the lottery. Nice dreaming, though.” But he insisted that I think about it. So I did. I thought about it all day long and, that night, we discussed it. We talked about all of the things we’d have to do, budgeted how much we’d need to save to make it happen, and made a list of pros and cons. The only thing keeping us from going through with it, it turned out, was fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of making that leap.
We decided that we weren’t going to let fear hold us back and we immediately put the plan into action.
It all happened VERY quickly. We found someone to sublet our loft, we sold off pretty much everything we owned, we resigned from our jobs, and I finished up my last term at school. Thanks to scrimping and saving, the money we made from selling everything off, and a generous gift from my mother-in-law, we were able to pay for our relocation and have a small nest egg left-over to sustain us until our first paycheck. (And when I say small, I mean small. For our first month in Indonesia, we were broke-as-a-joke.)
Right before we moved, we realized that it would probably make sense to be legally married. Not only is it illegal for unwed couples to cohabitate in Indonesia, but we wanted the protection and security that being married offers. And four months later, we were husband and wife and moving to Jakarta.
We never take for granted how lucky we are to live and work here. Our salaries have us ranked firmly lower-middle-class in America. The difference is that the cost of living is so low here, we no longer live paycheck-to-paycheck. Not having to worry about making ends meet is an incredible feeling — and a massive load taken off of a relationship.
Having household help is also incredible.
Initially, it was very hard to get over the liberal-guilt that we felt about having a maid. It’s a complicated issue — in many ways, the domestic service sector is critical to the Indonesian economy. There aren’t jobs in the villages, and for many women, jobs in the informal sector are the only means to survival. Household workers aren’t protected by any labor laws, however, so they are almost always grossly underpaid and exploited.
For our staff, we pay them between two to four times the going local rate. We also provide them with all of the same benefits we want for ourselves — a five-day, 40-hour work week. Paid vacation time. Medical care. An annual bonus.
In addition to their salaries, we pay for their schooling. Our pembantu (maid) decided that she wanted to learn to become a tailor, so she’s going to a trade school. Our handyman wanted to get his Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology, so he’s in university right now.
And we have more free time together, to indulge in our hobbies, to unwind and relax. My husband has taken up Mandarin and has lessons three days a week. We both speak Indonesian now. We read more, write more, and travel more.
We’ve traveled all over Indonesia and visited Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, and India. Every time we get a break from work (we’re teachers, so that means we get plenty of breaks) we travel. There is so much to explore in Indonesia alone that even long weekends provide great opportunities for adventure. (Indonesia’s most famous destination, Bali, isn’t nearly as beautiful as some of the other islands in this gorgeous tropical archipelago. Indonesia is a country ripe for exploration and discovery.)
Of course there are challenges — in fact, I can’t imagine many things more challenging than the act of expatriation. Sure, it’s an adventure and everything is new and exciting — at first. But when the honeymoon wears off, it can be rough. Most expats experience at least a few months of angst, homesickness, and depression as they adjust to life in their new home. The overwhelming culture shock and isolation can turn even the most easy-going and adaptable people into completely insufferable negative-Nancys.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with a tumultuous political history and a present day wrought with corruption and occasional violence and terrorism. Life in Jakarta is like no other place on earth. It’s massive, it’s over-populated, it’s filthy, it’s polluted, it’s hot, it’s smelly… It almost always takes hours just to travel a few miles. Getting anything accomplished is an epic chore, especially as you are forced to battle your way through bureaucracy.
Despite all of that, there’s beauty in the chaos: the call to prayer echoing through the city at dawn, the shouts of “Hello, Mister!” (yes, always “mister”) as you pass by, the smiles and laughter of children as they ride five or six passengers deep on a single motorcycle.
This city can often feel, on first inspection, like nothing more than a writhing mass of humanity. When you live here, though, you can’t help but feel like it’s something bigger than that, something greater. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.