Expat Life: Can You Believe This?

by missfootloose on November 7, 2014 · 10 comments

in Culture and Customs, foreign places, Indonesia, living abroad

The Far East is full of mysteries. I’m sure you’ve heard. For expats and travelers this can be fun, fascinating, frustrating, or infuriating as I discovered myself. For two years I sojourned on the tropical island of Java, Indonesia, with the man of my dreams and our two blond daughters.

Borobudur Temple, Java. Each “bell” contains a Buddha statue. See volcanoes in the distance.

I did not attempt to unveil the mysteries of religion, mysticism, spiritualism and other high-minded affairs, since my mind only lives on the lower plains of existence, just so you know. Even so, in daily life, I found some mysteries to deal with. Such as that people on Java like to pinch the cheeks of cute little kids hard, as our girls painfully discovered. And when you’re in a car accident, logic as you know it does not apply. Let me tell you a scary tale:

Culture Crash

So one day I am in traffic, in my little car. I’m on my way home from shopping at Pasar Johar, the open market in Semarang, the town where we live. I buy my vegetables and fruit there, and fish and meat as well (and no, we’ve never been sick).

I have to make one more stop at a small store along the street, so I slow down and signal my turn. Behind me a cool kid on a motorcycle decides to pass me at the same time. On the wrong side, the curbside, illegally. Either he does not see my turn signal or he just ignores it because he is sixteen and therefore immortal.

As you will understand, disaster strikes as I turn my steering wheel. With a horrifying bang he crashes right into the side of my car, behind where I sit in the driver’s seat. Then he bounces over the top, bike and all, and ends up lying in the street on the other side. My heart rate is off the charts.

People stop. Traffic stops. The daredevil cyclist clambers to his feet, apparently unscathed except for an injured elbow, praise be to Allah. His motorcycle is a mangled mess.

Long story short: The hara-kiri biker and I end up at the police station, where a report is drawn up. Witnesses to the scene have confirmed that the motorcyclist was at fault, passing me on the wrong side, and that my signal was turned on. Why did he pass me when I had my turn signal on? He shrugs and says he didn’t believe I was going to turn.

Oh, really?

The officer in charge of our case now suggests to me that I should pay the young man some money so he can go fix his bike, if this is even possible. I am not sure I hear him right.

“It was not my fault!” I say. “Why should I pay?”

The officer assures me the accident was not my fault, and that it says so in the report, so why don’t I give the boy some money so the case can be closed and I can go home?

The full shock has finally hit me and I am trembling. The kid could have been dead, and guilty or not, I would have carried the image of his bloody corpse with me for the rest of my life. I am enraged he did such a stupid thing and now I have to give him money? No way!

The officer looks confused. The kid looks confused. Why don’t I fork over some rupiahs and be done with it?

I tell them I will not pay money. Not even a token little bit. Absolutely definitely not. I did not cause the accident and I will not pay!

“But the young man is poor,” the officer says. “He needs money to help with fixing his bike.”

My husband and his colleague Jim arrive at the police station to give me aid and succor. I pour out my story, while the hara-kiri kid watches us as he nurses his painful elbow. More talk with the various officers who have gathered to watch the drama. I stand aside. I’ve had enough. I’m hot and sweaty. I’m mad and tired. I want to go home, have a shower and a stiff drink or two.

A while later my husband takes my arm and leads me out of the station.

“They’re letting us go? What did you do?”

“I gave the kid some money,” my man says, cool as a cucumber.

I’m sizzling like a chili in hot oil. “Why?” I wail. “It wasn’t my fault! Why should we pay him even a single rupiah!”

“It’s not a matter of who is at fault,” Jim-the-colleague tells me. “It’s a matter of who has money. That’s how it’s done here. You have the money, so you pay. That’s fair.” He grins his American smile at me.

You’ve got to be kidding.

“And,” my husband adds, “the other logic goes that since you’re a foreigner, the accident wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t been here.”

Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

* * *

All over the world people have different ways of thinking, of making sense of things. I’d love to hear what you’ve come across that surprised, angered or amused you. I’m waiting!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Judy November 7, 2014 at 11:51 pm

I had this explained to me when we lived in Egypt. I agree, it takes some getting your head around, and yet in time I came to see the justice in it. It’s the same for pricing – the foreigner pays more than the rich Egyptian, the rich Egyptian pays more than the middle-class Egyptian, who in turn pays more than the poor Egyptian. In a society without a social safety net, it’s an alternative form of social justice. That’s why being an expat is so valuable, it exposes you to other world views.
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missfootloose November 27, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Yes, and it is important to learn about other cultural and moral views. It opens our mind more. It’s too easy to just criticize and pass judgment.

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Sami Veloso November 8, 2014 at 4:36 am

I suppose to our Western way of thinking that is unreasonable, but having more money we are seen as the saviour with the power to fix all the problems of the poor. Glad the silly boy was alright though, you would probably have to pay for the funeral and other family expenses if it had gone wrong…
I remember when we visited Thailand every time we went shopping we were asked where we came from, and later I realized that each nationality had their price rating – Americans paid more, us being Portuguese paid a little less, and I presume the Thai people would probably pay 1/10th of the price asked of the Americans…
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missfootloose November 27, 2014 at 11:58 am

I’m not sure poor people think of us as saviors, but I can understand them thinking we may have more money. I’ve often asked myself what I would do if I were in their shoes (flip flops, bare feet) and I’m not sure I’d be any different. This is what I just wrote to another commenter above: I don’t mind paying higher prices (getting seriously ripped off is another thing). In the final analysis, we are privileged by chance of birth. Living in poor foreign countries has given me a profound sense of gratitude to have been born in a “rich” country (Holland) where I grew up having good housing, plenty of food, freedom, education, health care, etc. (Okay, and really good parents, too 😉 On many occasions, I’ve thought, and think: “there but for the grace of God go I.”

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Jane Diment November 8, 2014 at 9:58 am

Exactly the same here in Turkey…….and so annoying even though I can see the odd logic of it all. Will it be the same where you are in France I wonder? Hopefully you won’t have to find out!

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missfootloose November 27, 2014 at 11:53 am

No, it’s not like that in France 😉

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Rachel November 8, 2014 at 5:20 pm

It took me a while to get my head around this when we lived in Kenya, but it does have a strange balance. Someone pointed out to me that paying the higher prices for goods and services is potentially a better way of supporting the local economy than passive donations. You still bartered, but with the knowledge that the end price would be higher than locals paid, and for good reason.

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missfootloose November 27, 2014 at 11:51 am

Yes, I agree. And I don’t mind paying higher prices. In the final analysis, we are privileged by chance of birth. Living in poor foreign countries has given me a profound sense of gratitude to have been born in a “rich” country (Holland) where I grew up having good housing, plenty of food, freedom, education, health care, etc. (Okay, and really good parents, too 😉 On many occasions, I’ve thought, and think: “there but for the grace of God go I.” PS: I was married in Kenya, in Nyeri, where my dh was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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Louie November 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Oh yes, something similar happened to us
In Haiti. A middle aged man crossed the street
has my husband was coming full speed in a no
crossing zone. Needless to say that he was hit,
We stopped and checked him though he was hurt it could
have been worst. The police came and made a
Report etc, we had to transport him to a near
by clinic, he got a tetanus shot, buy him his blood pressure
Medications which by the way has nothing to do with
the accident and gave him some cash. Like you,
I was also furious but my very understanding unlike me
Of course, said that it was the right thing to do.
Sometimes, I think these people do that on purpose
So people like my husband and yours can give them
cash, for the man had no business crossing where he
Did.
I guess that’s the price we pay for sharing
their beautiful part of the world.

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missfootloose November 27, 2014 at 11:41 am

In the end it is about understanding the local culture. Not always easy. In your case, I’d be surprised if the man did what he did on purpose. Getting yourself killed is quite a risk to take!

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