Living Abroad: Don’t Freak Out

by Miss Footloose

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.

Java templesBorobudur Temple, Java. Each “bell” contains a Buddha statue.

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:


So one day in Indonesia 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 outside, 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, right 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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[…] van der Zee writes as Miss Footloose in Life In The Expat Lane about “accidental driving” in Indonesia, and check out Part Time Traveler‘s Anne […]

I would have reacted like you! Are you sure they haven’t been taking lessons in logic from the Sicilians?!

About the pinching – HOW I HATE IT! Some people in the country-side here do it, but they pinch your arm. It’s awful. I was pinched, and to this day, I don’t like the people who did that to me.

I will be back later to read the rest of this post 🙂

What a story! I hate those motorcycles (brommertjes, we call them), in Singapore it is not as bad as in Indonesia, but when you drive, they circle all around you… freaks me out. Your story reminds me of what an Indian friend once told me. In her country, as a ‘rich’ person, it is considered very rude if you do not (as many expats don’t) at least employ a cook, driver, maid, nanny, gardener, et cetera, or preferably a few each, even if there is no work for these people to do. Since you are rich, you are supposed to… Read more »

I would have found it difficult to understand as well. Therefore I am very impressed with your husband that he could see their way of thinking.
Great story and I remember the photo of the Borobudur. My brother travelled for a long time when young and went to many of the islands of Indonesia. He loved this country.


Funny indeed…I certainly can imagine this scenario! Once you live overseas, almost nothing surprises you!

Check out my post on the newest sign here in Atyrau, Kazakhstan!

This reminds me of a local orientation course I took in Egypt. One of the most difficult things for me to learn in the Middle East was the art of haggling (I never did perfect it). But what this course helped me understand was that as a westerner I was always going to pay more than a local, just as a rich local would pay more than a poor local. In their view it was only fair that a richer person should pay more and a poorer person should pay less for the same item. As time goes by, the… Read more »

That’s so funny, I had never heard of that logic, but I suppose they would always think the “foreigners” are the wrong doers and the money makers, so why not pay up?

A great story, Karen. Full marks to your husband! Of course you were 100% right, by Western logic. But he was 100% right by the logic of some non-Western cultures. (It’s the same kind of logic by which the Chinese government – allegedly, at least – bills the families of executed criminals for the bullets used in the executions.) You’re such a quick learner, I bet you never made that mistake again!


Enjoy your tale and glad YOU were not hurt. I too have lived all of my adult life out of my home country, the US, and one phrase I often repeat is, Bloom where you are planted.

Jonelle Hilleary

I totally agree with you, Karen! Great story, and too often true, no matter where expats find themselves.

Travel and expat living can be sooo hard for those of ‘us’ who operate on logic and principle. But it takes those like your cool cucumber husb (i.e., the ones who know just when to ‘go along to get along’) to make our world right. Glad you and your prince have each other! 😉

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