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Entries in Expat (12)


My Blueprint for Taxi Drivers Makes Me Unhappy And Other Tales of Expat Woe.




Yesterday was one of those days. Call them China days, or Indo days, expat days, or HULKSMASH EVERYDAMNTHIGN days, whatever. It was one. And tt started, as these days often do, in the back of a taxi. 


I was taking Stella to school. I gave the driver the street name and neighbourhood, and asked him if he knew it. I took his noncommittal silence as an affirmation, that yes, he did indeed know know the place and would guide us there directly. But it wasn't long before I resized, by way of a series of turns in random directions, that he had know idea where our destination was in relation to where we were, but didn't feel like it would be appropriate to, you know, ask me if he should turn left or right at the next intersection.


ARRGGGG! SO ANNOYING! Why wouldn't he TELL me if he didn't know the place? Why wouldn't he ask me where to turn? Why did he just turn left there???? Geeze! Taxi drivers are the worst!  So leotarded!!!! 


Not long after, we hit traffic. Because of course we did. A tiny crossing had the whole road tied up in knots, and we were stuck for twenty minutes. As the stoplight flashed red, drivers raced forward, hopping to make it across the three lanes of poorly designed intersection before traffic started flowing in the other direction. The result? Traffic locked down. Cars facing each of the four compass points jammed in the middle of an intersection and no one able to move anywhere. 


COME ON, you guys. This is basic. Even someone who bought their licence knows red means stop and green means go. If you'd just follow THE RULES, this wouldn't happen. Only jerks stop their cars in the middle of an intersection. You're making me late for all important outside time at preschool , I'm missing mom chat time, and this is obviously a super important, really critical, total big deal problem.


So yea. Two internal tantrums even before nine o'clock in the morning.  


Tony Robbins has this concept about blueprints. Your blueprint is your worldview. It's your understanding of how you, should be, how others should act, and how the world should function. If you think people should hold doors open for you, that's part of your blueprint. If you think that the work day should start at 9 AM and finish at 5 PM, that's part of your blueprint.

When you encounter situations that contradict your blueprint, you feel negative emotions: frustrationation, anger, annoyance, unhappiness.  


My blueprint about the flow of vehicles in an intersection is based entirely upon my North American understudying of traffic. And guess what? That blueprint is totally invalid in Indonesia. (...Duh...)


I can't change the way traffic flows in this country (although don't think for a moment I haven't considered jumping out of the taxi and directing cars at that particular intersection, with extra special vitriol saved for those GD motorcycles, who are like TOTALLY THE WORST at following traffic rules. Because I have. Obviously. A lot. I even have ideas about what I should wear, and where I might find a traffic directing wand.)


The only thing I can change is my idea about how traffic flows. (Hint: IT DOESNT!!!!!) I can only change my blueprint.


But that's kind of a hard thing to do. Like, uhhhhhh, where do I start?


Do any of you have stories about blueprints contradicting reality, be they expat-related or otherwise? Have any of you successfully changed your blueprint? Tips? Ideas? Suggestions? Rants? Let me have them!


Further Proof that Disney Really Is Magic

So, yesterday Mr. Chef got to meet actual real-life totally legit Mickey Mouse.


No big deal. Just another day in the life of a chef. 




Apparently The Mouse was in town for some super high-profile mouse-like business. And The Mouse happened to run into Mr. Chef, so  A + B = Mr. Chef is now, like, totally besties with Mickey Mouse. 


And because Disney magic etc, Mickey Mouse offered make time to meet Stella personally. Which was totally amazing, but also extremely unwise given that our child is terrified of most everything that is not solidly human. (Remember that time that she was screaming in utter horror at the sight of a pigeon? And the time that she was terrified of my 13 pound dog, a dog which she's seen approximately 20 times in her life? And then there was a time wherein she saw a shoddy Mouse impostor at a birthday party and had then refused to be put down for the duration of the event.)


Still, because there's nothing that Disney can't turn to magic, Mickey kindly gave four (four!!!) stuffed animals to Mr. Chef to deliver to Stella.


Mr. Chef snuck them into the apartment while we were out playing and then sent me a picture.


I showed Stella the picture on my phone. She reacted predictably. (Read: with utter terror.) "No, I no wike! I no want! Mickey not come to mine house!!!"


When we finally got home, and saw the toys waiting for her in the living room, she refused to cross the threshold of our apartment until I touched each one prove that they weren't alive. Then they had to spend a quarantine period in the closet. After maybe half an hour of clinging to me and refusing to go near the toys, she got up the nerve to give one a poke.


And then? She was in love.


So, obviously she spent the next half-hour watching Mickey Mouse Club House together with "the guys."  





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"You're So Brave" That's Not A Compliment.

This post is brought to you by the good and kind people at Aetna International. Thanks, Aetna, for supporting my blog and allowing me to write honestly about a topic that is so close to my heart.

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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.



Phew! What a week! (Or rahter five days? Was it really only five days? I was just cursing through my photos {which, PS, turned out to be all rather meh, as landscape photography with a 50 mm lens is basically highly sub-optimal} and I was like, wait how can that have been only yesterday, it feels like half a lifetime ago???)

Here we are, three traveling bandits, discovering the great joy that comes from combining a two-year-old with an unguarded historical ruin and a camera remote. Seriously. Does it get any better than this???

So we're back, and we ticked most of the adventure boxes: last minute plans and a mad rush to the train station; a madcap ride through the jungle on a bus that can only be classified as extraordinarily sketchy, piloted by a driver whose perception of risk caused me, on more than one occasion, to contemplate the end of my life; geckos and dinosaur bugs aplenty; street food that made me offer devotions to the diarrhea gods, but was also kind of sublime; green green green vistas that would not let me close my eyes, note even for a moment for fear I miss a heard of sheep or the span of a bridge or the arc of a bundle of rice seedlings as it sails through the air; random (good natured) kidnappings of my child; sleepless nights; kindness and joy, the likes of which I'll not soon forget.

Anyway, we're back. We're exhausted. But also (at least I speak for my self here) reinvigorated, energized, and totally charmed by this amazing country. I'm already dreaming up our next trip. Really. I've had a taste of adventure, and now, please look away while I gorge myself on wanderlust, and also stand by for roughly a billion (poor quality) images of our trip and tales of roaming hither and tither through Central Java with a two-year-old in tow. 



Merry Tropical Christmas

Oh, Christmas. What can I say about you that hasn't been said before. 

Not much, probably. 

So maybe I'll just show you some pictures.

Lame. Lazy blogger cop out.

Okay, a charming preamble first, perhaps? Fine.

And we're off.

Christmas this year was wonderful, but with a touch of melancholy. My whole family was back in my home town for Christmas. Like everyone. All of them. This is something that NEVER happens any more.

As is tradition, they all gathered at my Auntie's farm house, just like like so many Christmases past. There was a 32 pound turkey, (if you're metric, that's basically gigantic), tractor sleigh rides of questionable safety, a house full of children, and three very empty (figurative) seats.

I really wanted to be back there, feeling the shock of cold in my lungs, and the warmth of family around the huge farmhouse table.

But I also wanted to be here, in my new home, with my husband.


Expat dichotomy.

The only solution to this situation? Do the hell out of Christmas.

See. Doing the hell out of Christmas. I mean, COME ON!, I even made my own crackers. To balance my (imagined) domestic goddessness, please note that there are toddler finger holes in the pie, and none of my glassware matched. That's Real life.

I decided to host Christmas Eve dinner. I have never hosted Christmas dinner. Nor cooked a turkey. (Thank goodness for Mr. Chef.) The last time I was home for Christmas at my Aunt's farmhouse, I was seated at the children's table. This time I was the host. Believe me, the irony was not lost.

I filled our little apartment with lovely new friends, and little babies (which thrilled Stella to no end). We watched a children's choir sing Christmas carols in the hotel lobby (Stella danced her little heart out). We ate our faces off. And the kids tore around the house until they all passed out somewhere around 11 pm. 




Sadly Mr. Chef was working on Christmas Eve (such is the life of chefery), but he did come up to our apartment to cook the turkey, supervise the carving (not a single person in the room knew how to put knife to bird), and then, I'm embarrassed to admit, did the dishes for a meal that he did not even eat while I went to bed. 

The next morning we opened stockings socks (sadly our stockings did not make it in the move, a fact which I discovered only at midnight Christmas Eve. I considered {briefly} sewing some tropical festive batik present sacks, and then thought about my soft pillow.)

In addition to our very non-traditional fishmas stockings, it should also be noted that my child wore this "pwincess" dress for two days straight. I tried to take it off while she slept, but she shot awake and abruptly reprimanded me. 

There was room service breakfast (what a treat!!). Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate. Diabetic coma. More presents. And then naps all around. We rounded out the day with chocolate milkshakes, aannnnnnnd salads for dinner.


Waffles. Pastries. Tropical fruits, that like, COME FROM THE TROPICS!! I have yet to stop counting my lucky stars. 

  Stella made out like a bandit in the art supply department. 

Not that I really condone weaponry as a preferred category of toy, but this bubble gun is about the coolest thing ever. Okay. Fine. Whatever. I also want a nurf gun. For me. Santa did not deliver. Jerk.

 Nine out of ten presents are for Miss Stella Bella.

On Christmas all of the usual restrictions go out the window: chocolate for breakfast; party dress pajamas; iPad viewing in the stroller in the living room. Because. I have no idea.

A lazy Christmas afternoon brought to you by a tropical rainstorm.

Testing out her new poster paints. On wrapping paper. Because. 


So there you have it. Our little Christmas. We missed our family, but made the most of this amazing tropical life. New friends. Good food. Christmas carols. Poster paint. What more could one ask for?



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320 / 366 {play cook}

Oh, look! Another image of my child playing, taking from floor level, which suggests that despite my confession that sometimes I'd rather scrub toilets than play babies, I do engage in imaginative play with my kid. 

One of Stella's favourite games is to "play cook", and she prefers to do this not on the living room floor, but rather, she loads up her mini grocery cart, and pushes it out into the hotel and down the hallway where there's a big window overlooking the main traffic circle in Jakarta. So that way she can "see cars" while she "play cook!".

The only trouble with this set up is when she thinks that it's totally rad to do this at 7:10 in the morning. Naked. Oy.

PS, that's a thing that actually happened. 


I've been kind of lax in promoting my blog on Top Baby Blogs, but if you have a second I'd love it if you could offer a vote. I am activly trying to grow my audience and ever time we get a bump in the TBB listings, we see an increase in traffic. So. Terima Kasih!!

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You have a cute son who is actually a daughter. #NaBloPoMo

My girl and I got into a taxi this morning on the way to pre-school. She went through her usual routine, saying "Good-bye new one house! See you way-ter new one house!" before breaking into a rousing rendition of the Wheels On the Bus, and the taxi driver looked back in the mirror and asked me, "How old is your son?"


Boy outfit.

After so many years in Asia, gender mix-ups no longer catch me off guard. Many languages do not have gendered pronouns like in English, and so learning to differentiate between him and her, his and hers, he and she is not that simple a task. But this driver had a great grasp of English, and he said "son." The driver obviously thought that my "she" was a "he."


Which I mean, is totally ridiculous, right? She was wearing a dress! Albeit a white and blue dress, but a dress nonetheless. 


Again with the boy outfits!

I've had a fair few conversations with Stella's nanny about this. Nanny laughs at me, and my strange, semi-feminist, 'progressive', anti-pink ways. I don't think Nanny appreciates my disdain for ruffles and pink. I suspect that for her, it's just part of the weird foreigner package, along with not eating rice, or being a wee sacredy kitten who can not handle fiery burning spice. 


You see, here in Asia, notions of gender are much more codified than they are in the West. Girls wear pink, boys wear blue. NBD. Oh, and PS, seven-year-old girls also wear high heals. 


Before you go telling me about systemised gender stereotypes and inequalities, let me just state that I've seen this girls = pink boys = blue pattern equally in places like China where women hold a good deal of power as in places like Japan where women are sidelined almost completely.  



Now, let's be clear. I do adore a tasteful hair bow, and a pair of sparely shoes as much as the next person. And I fully intend to enrol my girl in ballet solely for the purpose of getting her into a tutu. I just believe in moderation. Balance. A bit of blue for every bit of pink. It's not that I ban ruffles and dolls outright, but I am mindful of hoisting artificial notions about gender expectations on tiny, innocent child, who has yet to form her own ideas about what she wants out of life, and the possibilities that are open to her.


So, in this vein, she wears a lot of blue and green, and not a lot of pink. 


This, coupled with her tendency for wild hair, refusal to bow down to a clip or a barrette, and instance on wearing boy shoes, is apparently the source of the problem. 


Nanny, unfortunately bears the brunt of inquiring comments, fielding off remarks of "cute boy!" When it is relived that Nanny's charge is actually a girl, she's judged for her inability to dress her take-care-kid in appropriately pink and sparkly attire. People outright ask Nanny why she doesn't put a clip in her hair? Why she dresses her kid in shorts?


Ummm, okay. This is sufficiently girl.

So, not wanting to reveal the fact that neither one of us can hold this baby down and clip a little tiny bow on her head (because let's face it, for all my posturing, that is the real reason behind wild hair it's lack of adornments) she blames me, and my strange, feminist, foreign ways.