A Guide to Being an Expat Student in Indonesia

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There is more to National Plus schools in Indonesia than meets the eye. Of course, there are the things they tell you on their websites: the fees, the curriculum, the subjects they teach. And while these things are useful, there are many other considerations for expat students attending these schools. Most people don’t talk about these things, but they are important and they do exist – at least in the schools that I’ve attended. And I’ve been to three throughout my student life here, so I think have a fairly good idea.

The first and arguably the most difficult thing I have experienced in National Plus schools in Indonesia is the feeling (and eventually, the realisation) that I am never going to fully fit in. At least not in the way that the Indonesian kids fit in with each other. There’s always the joke that I “don’t understand”, or a slang word I’ve never heard before. It bothered me for a long time, and I’ve been going to school here for 12 years. But I’ve learned that the way I feel is not their fault. I was just raised in a different environment to the Indonesian kids, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. It’s not that they don’t like me or are trying to single me out on purpose – they just see me differently, subconsciously, because I’m the bule (the white person), and I look different. It happens everywhere, all the time, and it doesn’t mean anything. So if it happens to you don’t worry. It isn’t happening because of something you did or something your fellow students think. It’s happening simply because we’re all different, and that isn’t a bad thing.

The second thing is the constant switching between English and Indonesian. From what I’ve experienced, the two languages get thrown around and mixed together all the time, by teachers and students alike, with no one sticking to just one language. If you have a fairly good grasp of the Indonesian language then it shouldn’t be too much of a problem – but if you are anything like I used to be, then it might make school a little bit more difficult.

In my family, we all speak English because that is our native language. Because of this, whenever we speak Indonesian we have what the locals like to call a typical bule accent. The Indonesian kids used to tease me about this a lot, especially during conversations or after I did presentations in full Indonesian. This made me extremely self-conscious whenever I spoke the language, even getting to the point where I tried to avoid speaking it as much as possible. But, as one might assume, that just made my bule accent even stronger. So, if you aren’t too good at the language, try practicing it with close friends or other locals. Don’t be afraid of sounding weird or making grammatical mistakes – the vast majority of Indonesians are lovely people, and while they may laugh at first, they are not being mean and they will do what they can to help you. My friends and teachers have helped me so much that nowadays people comment on how I sound like an Indonesian whenever I speak the language.

The third thing is the language classes. In each school I’ve attended, there are at least three languages taught: English, Indonesian, and another language of the school’s choice. Sometimes that third language is mandatory, sometimes it isn’t – it all depends on the school’s curriculum. In one school I went to it was mandatory to learn Mandarin, whereas in another, I took an optional French class. If you decide, or if you are required, to learn a third language, be prepared and take the classes seriously. You’ll really regret it if you don’t. I learned Mandarin for eight years and, because I didn’t particularly pay attention in that class or practice the language outside of school, my proficiency completely disappeared once I left eighth grade. Now I only remember basic phrases and how to count – which is a shame considering how long I spent learning it, and how impressive it would have been on my college application.

All in all, life as an expat student in an Indonesian environment isn’t easy to deal with. The feeling of not fitting in, the language barrier, the constant teasing you have to experience just because you’re different. It’s challenging, yes, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to go through. Most Indonesians mean well – a lot of the time they see your struggles as a topic of conversation, or even as a way to talk to you. Try not to take their words to heart and try to accept that you’re different, because once you do, being an expat student here gets a thousand times easier and can be a lot of fun. It took me a long time, but I got there eventually – and there is no doubt in my mind that you can do it too.

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Indonesia Expat is Indonesia's largest expatriate readership (formerly known as Jakarta Expat and Bali Expat)