Sunday, April 11, 2010

Don’t Expect “Little Indonesia” in Britain

Jakarta Post, Sunday 27th March 2010
Last week I got a phone call from a woman who claimed to be from the Indonesian Embassy in London. She asked me a bizarre question about Indonesian population in Bangor (Wales) which is 100 miles away from where I live – and yes, she said she is from the embassy! Though I said clearly that I have never been there, she pushed on demanding, ‘I need information about accommodation and study environment in Bangor.’ I told her the Embassy should have an accurate data on Indonesian population – as we have to report to the Embassy as soon as we arrived in the UK – and that Google might answer her questions better than me. She insisted, ‘No! No! I want to know the feeling of being Indonesian in Wales.’ Again, I explained that I have never been a student in Wales hence I cannot help her. She hung up without saying the basic please and thank you.

What do you expect when you pack up a suitcase to study in a country ten thousand miles away? A degree? An experience? Whatever it is, I hope you are not expecting to have “Little Indonesia” overseas.

I came back to formal education as a mature student. After six years working without completing my education – I left university when I got my dream job as an aviation journalist – I decided to go back. At 31, with a scholarship in hand, I packed up my life and my then 8-year-old son’s to the UK. Destination: University of Salford.

My goal was to gain a practical education for my future career – the Master’s Degree was a bonus. My second but not less important dream was for my son Jacques to experience education outside Indonesia, to broaden his horizon. I achieved the second, but still pending the first. I chose Greater Manchester because of the specific course that I needed, and because it is not in fancy expensive London.

Our transition was smooth. But I guess it could be a problem if you want to study overseas but expect to have “Little Indonesia” like my caller. The Indonesian Student Society (Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia, http://www.ppiuk.org/) offers chances to meet fellow Indonesians. Though I enjoy their gatherings, I limit my involvement as I preferred to take in all the cultural differences in my own way. As anthropologists do, what better than living among “the natives”?

Our weekends were spent visiting museums, parks and parades – Remembrance Day, St George’s Day, International Festivals. We even met the Queen! (We were part of the crowd waving on the road during her visit to Manchester Cathedral) Jacques’ favourite was Museum of Science and Industry’s Experiment Hall, where there are “games” like those in Jakarta’s many shopping malls. The difference is that they are all scientific experiments and more important: FREE!
Living far from the comfort of my parents’ house and domestic helper means that we have to share the house chores. Jacques who was pampered back in Jakarta is now an expert of cooking chocolate mousse, washing up dishes, and ironing his own school uniform. He even volunteers to clean the whole flat every so often.

My only culture-shock was that UK is not the “western society” that I had imagined from watching Hollywood movies. Unlike Americans with their “American Dreams” that celebrates achievements “from zero to hero”, Britons are more like Indonesians. The saying “getting above your station” is their way of sneering at people who are (too) ambitious (for the British society). Hence, like Indonesians, high achiever Britons would try to present themselves as humble as possible with sentences like, “Oh, it was just sheer luck,” or, “Ah, it’s nothing really.” This reflects in their movies – while Disney films have inspiring happy endings, most British films have realistic (and sad) endings.

Getting part time work (non-EU students are allowed up to 20 hours a week) was tricky for me, as it is illegal for children under the age of 13 to stay home alone. Eventually, I did get a job as a bartender and worked in venues like Manchester United, The Grand National horse races, and special events like Christmas parties. Here I gained a deeper sight of the British interesting drinking habit (really, it is “interesting”!).

All things considered, being a foreign student in the UK was the perfect choice not just for me, but also for Jacques – now in Year Eight and inspired to study Particle Physics in the future. Unless you wanted to live in your own “Little Indonesia” like the woman who phoned me last week, leaving your comfort homeland to study might give you the experience of your life. Ask Jacques in five years time.

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