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You sure are brave!
I get that a lot. From Indonesians, from foreigners, from strangers and from friends. This utterance usually follows tales of journeys great and small that I’ve embarked upon with my kid. Be it a short jaunt across town on the bus, or a several-days-long journey around Central Java via train, bus, and donkey cart, the response is almost always the same: a raised eyebrow, slight shock and a “Wow. You’re so brave!”
You’d think that I’d take it as a compliment. But that phrase, “you’re so brave”? Well, it gets my goat.
Implicit in that statement is the suggestion that experiencing this country as the vast majority of its residents do, as well as being in close proximity to its people, is somehow dangerous. You’re so brave! This phrase insinuates that experiencing real life puts me at great personal risk. That the choices I make to see this country, to get to know its people somehow brings my parental judgment into question. To which, I declare, CHICKEN SCRATCH!
Hi. We're in Beijing.
Many expats (and let’s be honest, many middle and upper-class Indonesians) take great pains to avoid contact with all but their own. As I've written before, walking is not a thing in Jakarta. If you have more than two coins to rub together, you drive. Or, better yet, you hire someone to drive you around. Buses, trains and bajaj are all reserved for those who are down at the heel: the other, the lower, the dangerous. What a terrible, menacing risk to have to stand next to a stranger on the bus! In the middle of the day! Or sit in a train car full of other people! Who might jump out at any second to cut your throat! Or something.
If I never traveled by train, I'd never see a vista this lovely.
To fear that which we don't know is a natural response. Fear of out-groups, of cultures different and indecipherable kept our ancestors alive while we were all hunched on the savannah. This fear is still lodged somewhere deep in our reptile brain. And that’s cool. I get it. But to live an expat life governed by this fear of difference, well, that kind of defeats the entire purpose of moving abroad, don't you think?
It took me a while to get to this realization; I'll admit to plenty of fear and revulsion at otherness, plus an outright refusal to ride buses in Shanghai. And I regret that. But after many years of practice I've gotten better at quelling this fear. And that’s made all the difference.
Travel by becak turned out to be my preferred method of short-distance transport. Ever see a city from the front of a bike taxi while the sun set pink and the call to prayer drifted through the evening? Then, my friends, you haven't lived.
When I was new to the expat game, fresh off of a disastrous Indian posting, Mr. Chef and I arrived in China. After a short period of "whoa! This place is big and awesome and look: I'm eating street food!" I started acting like the proverbial expat jerk. I turned my nose up at women washing pork tripe in a plastic basin by the side of the street. I fumed at the sound of nail clippers in the subway, at the parents of rosy bottomed children in traditional split-crotch pants, at the week-long fireworks onslaught that was Chinese New Year. I couldn't see the beauty of it all, because I was so transfixed by the otherness, the potential danger (of nail clippings? I dunno.)
I traveled back to China after my kid was born. I think she gave me bravery muscles, or something. With her, we went from Beijing to Shanghai by train. Solo. And it was NBD. Also, she got manhandled by strangers a lot. And didn't mind a bit.
As a result, I barely got to know my adopted country. I didn’t travel. I made few Chinese friends, sampled only but a handful of dishes in the Chinese culinary cannon, and spent a lot of my time being unnecessarily annoyed.
I'm not doing that this time around.
And you know what? This time I'm a much happier expat.
Some evenings I ride home on the back of an ojek. Real life is all around me; men in flip-flops pulling handcarts laden with rambutan; women by the side of the street carrying babies in slings while offering small spoons of rice porridge to their wee ones; boys barefoot and bold darting in and out of traffic; the sun so low that it makes everything golden. On the back of an ojek I can orientate myself to this city, its and its rhythm. I see things I'd miss from inside a leather-seated taxi. “Wow, you're so brave,” people say when the see me disembarking from a motorcycle. Not really. The vast majority of Indonesians travel this way. I bought a helmet. We don't travel very fast. NBD.
Similarly, getting out of Jakarta lifts me up. I'm reminded that there's real life outside of shopping malls and luxury hotels. People smile at me. We sit on the train and make friends with a grandmother and her little grandson. A woman hears my girl crying and makes her way down the carriage with a handful of mandarins. I can see through these small acts of kindness that people, mostly, are good. A man passes by, stops for a moment, then taps my girl's cheek and ask her name. Hardly the picture of danger.
This image of a toddler climbing over ancient and forgotten ruins is brought to you by level-headed adventure, not bravery.
Certainly we do come across hotel rooms that we must share with geckos or train toilets of dubious sanitation. We’re occasionally over-charged for a taxi ride, and perhaps I look at a plate of nasi goring and wonder if it will send me to a days-long holiday in the WC. But usually, I put on my big girl pants, think about how geckos eat bugs, cross my fingers and dig into my fried rice.
All of which is to say that while I step out of my comfort zone, I don’t take traveling with my two-year-old lightly. There are risks. I recognize that pick-pocketing can happen, so I carry small amounts of cash, and hide my cards in the deepest reaches of my pack. I always bring a first-aid kit, basic medicine and a thermometer. I use sunscreen and mosquito repellant. We don't go anywhere without expat health insurance.
You know, there are also risks to living. I might get my heart broken or I might break my leg. Something unspeakable could happen, regardless of whether I'm on an economy class train on the way to Yogyakarta or holed up in a five-star hotel.
There's just too much wonder out there, too much beauty, too many smiles to deny these experiences to myself or my child. So we travel, I let her eat street food, and we'll ride trains and busses together. We'll talk to strangers. We'll use sound judgement, and we'll see all the good that there is to see.