Can You Go Home Again? Teacher To Tourist

Can You Go Home Again? Teacher To Tourist

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From 2009-2010 I lived in Depok, Indonesia as a United States Fulbright Fellow.  I both loved and struggled with my time abroad, but I made my little corner of Depok a part of me.  Part of my home.  When I left a year later, friends despondently waved from my house gates, and I sobbed my way through my 2-day trip back to the States.

Not ready to go, the situation felt even more desperate by not knowing if and when I would return. Who would I become in relation to this country.  And if I did return, would Indonesia even feel the same?  Would what was once so innate to my daily routine become foreign to me?  Underneath, would Indo feel like déjà vu inspired from a dream–a removed experience, a ghost, something no longer my own? I questioned: Can you go home again, truly? Or once you leave, does that magical feeling leave with you?

When you grow to call a country your second home for a year and then leave, can you ever go back to it again in the same way? #livingabroad #indonesia #teachingabroad Click To Tweet

Can you ever go home again? After teaching English abroad in Indonesia for a year as a United States Fulbright Scholar, I returned 8 years later to answer this question. #Indonesia #livingabroad #teachingESL

Can You Go Home Again?

Returning To Indonesia Eight Years Later.

This past February, after eight years living back in the United States, I decided to make the long return visit to Indo with my husband. I wanted him to see the land that shaped my life, and I longed to see old friends and adopted family members.

The pictures on the left of each collage are from 2009/’10. The pictures on the right are from 2018.  You’ll have to excuse their quality from back in the day.

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Although excited, I had many concerns.  In America, I once again took for granted hot water showers, running electricity, and hygiene.  Food rarely makes me sick, and although traffic on 1-4 is always a bitch, nothing can compare to Indo macet, especially with banjir issues.  More importantly, would my friends still be my friends?  Had everything and everyone drastically changed?  Would I be able to tolerate the heat, and would I once again go through some sort of culture shock?  Although parts of Indonesia look like paradise, when you peel back the skin and get into the country’s heart, there is a lot of dark hidden within those fancy Balinese resorts.

A Stop In Jakarta

We planned the majority of our Indonesia trip as a social visit, but we also decided to spend some downtime in Bali.  Local Indonesian life–Depok, especially–can be hard on the most seasoned traveler.  The cities are huge, polluted, and traffic patterns are something that will never happen. Where in 2009, 20-person motorbike lanes took over the roads of Jakarta, 2018 has more cars mixed with bikes in a mob scene.  Going 7 kilometers during rush hour, trapped on a highway, took us 3 hours.  Pee, you will not.

Although exhausted from the two-day journey over, the first week of our trip flew by with drinks out at my favorite Jakarta haunts, rambutan-filled car rides, late nights with Jakarta-based friends, and visiting my Indo family.  We started strong.  Indonesia and I rekindled like long lost lovers with a testy past.  Yet, Indo felt exactly like home.  I was back.  Sitting on my family’s Indonesian couch 8 years later, my butt fell into place minus the presence of a one beautiful Indonesian grandmother.


A few of my favorite Jakarta expat and local places back from 2009/’10 that still exist in 2018:

  • Loewy –  The crowd is mixed at this little eatery gone social bar. Expats, business Indonesians, and more liberal city hipsters flock here for the social scene.  Interestingly, Loewy’s added a strict dress code to class up the joint, but hey, you can order smoking cocktails.  I swear everything in Jakarta smokes.  Check out their reviews here.
  • Social House – Guys, I am not going to lie.  When you live in the middle of nowhere where it’s 100-degrees all of the time, you head to the mecca of Jakarta malls–Grand Indonesia.  I’m so sorry to break it to you. It is OK if you are disappointed with me.  I had my local Depok cafes, but SoHo is my Jakarta AC haven.  Plus, there is a ton of overpriced wine (illegal in Depok) and a great view of the city. Get the full scoop here.
  • Melly’s – A little indoor-like garden, we would watch futbol games and kick back balonku shots.  Don’t ask because I have no idea what I was drinking either.  All I know:  I loved it.

Balinese….Barfing…

In Bali, one of my best Depok friends met up with us.  Point made: good friends will always be your friends, no matter how much time passes.  We had a whirlwind 2.5 days spying temples and monkeys, attending the Fire Dance, and drinking coconuts at a local cafe.


If you have a few days in Bali, be sure to see:

  • Uluwatu and the Kecak and Fire Dance – Uluwatu is home to scary ass monkeys. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  The Sacred Money Forest in Ubud might toot your horn if you love the rapid little beasts.  I do not.  However, Uluwatu is home to a beautiful temple on the cliffs and the infamous Kecak and Fire Dance.  Watch the story of the Ramayana come alive.  You can read my full post here.
  • Tanah Lot – A temple on the water, be sure to check the tide times or you will only spy this famous beauty from afar.  Like me.  You can read a glimpse of my experience here.
  • Ubud – Although taken over by tourists and expats, Ubud is still a little gem of culture, yoga, writing, and a retreat from the tourist beaches.  Ubud is all Eat, Pray, Love too, and back in 2009, I met the wayan from the novel.  Read all about it here.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, our visit took a devastating blow after Uluwatu.  I blame the monkeys.  Cursed flying rats from hell.

The Art Of Food Poisoning

Having lived in Indonesia for almost a year and constantly battling issues with food and sanitation–even overcoming a parasite–I should have been more cautious.  I blame the beautiful 5-star Westin that commenced our trip.  Every morning we woke up to warm showers, filtered water, and a floor-wide breakfast buffet.  We ate fresh fruits and salads–typically a risk for foreigners–handing over complete faith to the Westin’s practices.  They kept us safe.  That was always my plan.

Living abroad, teaching abroad, and getting sick abroad in Indonesia #Jakarta #travel #teachingESL

When we arrived in Bali, guard down, we made tummy fatal errors.  We brushed our teeth with the tap water. Even though hotels promote filtration–be cautious.  Use the bottled water they provide.  And, we drank fresh juice with breakfast.  I ordered a salad at a reputable cafe and consumed too much fruit that I did not have to peel first.  As a severe ulcerative colitis sufferer married to a Celiac, it’s hard to avoid fresh fruits and veggies.  BUT I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER.  Don’t let those fruit bowl Bali IGers fool you–half of them puke their guts out later.  This isn’t to insult Indo, but your system is not used to the bacteria and different sanitation practices.

Grumble, Grumble, Toil, And TROUBLE…

My stomach flipped upside down on Day 3 in Bali.  I’ll spare you the gore, but I prayed to the sky to just take me from my misery.  Sweating and laying on a concrete floor as mosquitos buzzed around me, I thought the purge would never end.  Like a trooper, though, I managed to peel myself out of bed for dinner that night.  Determined, I would not ruin this trip.  Can you go home again and be stupid?  Yup.  Right here.

Sadly, tag team-style the next day, my husband followed my lead back in Jakarta.  See ya later the remaining 4.5 days of our trip.  I struggled with how much we did not get to see.  We did not make it fully into Depok Timur–my husband never saw my house.  I didn’t see the University where I volunteered or the public school where I taught 10-12th grade.  My students, school, teachers, and village could not hide their disappointment.  I cursed the country and it’s food practices–or lack thereof.  At this moment of reckoning, I questioned yet again: can you go home again?  I temporarily hated everything.  Those smoothies could rot in the fiery pits of hell.

A Moment of Ironic Clarity

As I sat alone at lunch those last days, at a more local South Jakarta hotel and the only one able to eat in our party of two, I answered my own homecoming question.

Can You Go Home Again?  The True Answer:

Walking by reception on my way to that lonely, self-pitying lunch, the hotel staff called me “bule” to my face.  Oh fuck me and unprofessionalism. “White foreigner” designation made me just as crazy in 2009. No hotel staff, even though this place sat on the edge of Depok, should use this term in 2018. I walked by with my fake smile.  The staff members did not mean to be rude.  They also did not realize that I still remembered elementary-level Indonesian when they talked about my white skin.

Sitting at lunch, I stared down at my infected, cut up finger.  The hotel’s less than filtered shower water irritated an old cut.  Angry mosquito bites flared on my foreign skin and a rash crept up my legs.   Feeling completely sorry for my heartbroken self, I couldn’t help but stare as three men in traditional Indonesian batik suddenly exited a car. Secured to their backs, I glimpsed giant, ceremonial krises. At the exact same time, I watched a hotel staff member walk by and flick trash into the bush.

And then it hit me…

I had to just laugh.  Amazing culture and history meets everything that drives me nuts about Indo. And I thought: nope, nothing has changed. Nothing has freaking changed in Indonesia since I lived here eight years ago. I mean, yes, the traffic and pollution have gotten impossible.  They have Gojek now, which is Uber for motorbikes. Depok built this immensely tall, out-of-place hotel.  Margo City upgraded to more foreign stores.  But in the end, Indo is still the country I love fiercely and dislike with just as much vigor.  We all have love-hate relationships with home, or so I like to think.  P.S. Young Indonesian girls are still arm candy for gross old expats. Sigh. Some things you want to change, desperately.

Can you ever go home again? After teaching English abroad in Indonesia for a year as a United States Fulbright Scholar, I returned 8 years later to answer this question. #Indonesia #livingabroad #teachingESL

Indo Home Revisited

Indonesia is hard and dangerous and frustrating and unorganized and not this romanticized version that you see people post about who never leave resorts in Bali except to go to some fake cute cafe.  Those fluffy-quotes-paired-with-handholding-couples-through-the-rice-paddies-where-people-perform-backbreaking-work-Instagrammers make me cringe.

The real Indo, my Indo home, is this heartbreakingly amazing country filled with the kindest souls:

  • It’s where karaoke happens in the middle of the day, and you prepare your ears for offense.  Instead, this random diner busts out a beautiful ballad.
  • Indo is where the entire hotel staff knows that said ‘bule’ personally requested nasi uduk for breakfast and has decided to make it for breakfast on your last day for a hotel of hundreds. Don’t I feel like a crude American bitch now.
  • It’s where best friends work their butts off all day for little pay, travel hours in traffic and heat, and still greet you like a sister, smiles bigger than imagined.
  • Indo is where everyone’s home is your home and strangers want to feed you.
  • It’s where your best friend’s parents give a gift for your parents back in the States. Some people have nothing but truly have everything.
  • Indo is where the girls at the Depok J.Co laugh and run away hysterically from you in the sweetest way, too nervous to get you a donut even after they realize you speak Indonesian. You are one of the first foreigners they have ever seen.
  • It is where your friends tell that your husband he has monkey hair and is fat compared to FB photos. You can imagine how he took that.  I LOVE it.
  • Indo is where everything smokes, including some fancy Jakarta drinks.
  • It’s where you become intimate with the royal throne and figure out what kind of person you want to be. You are Ms. America in Depok still and must represent as such.
  • Indo is where you realize that every action you did 8 years ago remains engraved in the hearts and minds of the people you touched. Your village presence made an impact and left a legacy, good or bad.
  • It’s where the water will kill you (and arak will blind you) but is home to some of the most beautiful places in the world.

You Can Always Go Home Again

Indonesia will always own a piece of my heart and soul.  Even though it took me out hard with half the trip in a hotel room, I wouldn’t change a thing. Ok, maybe I would have said no to the juice and salad. Because this is Indo. It’s amazing and INSANE and filled with people I freaking love. If it was any different, this wouldn’t be the place I call Indo home.

Which brings me back to my point:  I truly believe that you can always go home again.  You must work to sustain relationships and maintain an open heart and mind.  No place is perfect and sometimes we never learn our lesson–like drinking freaking smoothies at breakfast in Bali.  We don’t always understand or agree.  Our infrastructure may not be the same or make any sense.  People grow and change just like places, but deep down, they are the people and places we fell in love with, still.  All of these experiences make us better and make the world our home.


This post is what I hope will be the newer model for TUL “Travel Stories” section.  As I work to cleanup older travel material, please let me know what you think.

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Teaching English abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences. Read about living abroad in Indonesia for a year and returning years later as a tourist. #traveltips #Indonesia #bali #jakarata

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6 Comments

  1. November 10, 2018 / 1:19 pm

    Wow, Christine, you have a way with words and expressing yourself that I immediately get sucked in. I can feel the mix of emotions you have going back home to Indonesia and because you’re so transparent, I have to say, I don’t know if we’ll ever make it to Indonesia haha. Terrible you guys were down for so many days. I hope you get to go back and have a redo in the future.

    • Christine
      Author
      November 11, 2018 / 5:13 pm

      Thank you! Sooooo since our hubbies are kinda similar… Full disclosure: Tom did not like Indo, at all. I am pretty sure he won’t ever go back…ever. Sooooo, I am guessing that your hubby may not love Indo either. BUT, to each his own. I get it too. Indo is insane and frustrating. It breaks my heart and makes it swell. It’s a country of contradictions, but it’s not for everyone. I’ve definitely been to countries that I don’t love, countries I need to give a second chance, or places I just never want to visit.

      I am definitely bummed that my last week got completely destroyed. I could barely stay out because I was so nauseous. I am glad that it wasn’t worse. I had a parasite when I lived there and that was REALLY awful. I am SO grateful for the friends who came to visit our bedridden selves.

  2. November 10, 2018 / 4:34 pm

    Beautiful piece. I often struggle with the idea of ‘going home’ again. I think it becomes more difficult when you’ve had more homes to return to. In some cases, this has been easy (for example, no matter how much it changes, something about Abu Dhabi will always feel like home). But I’ve returned to small towns in America that I lived for years, and felt like I was forcing myself to get on with people who were once very close friends. It’s hard. So I’m glad your return still felt like a homecoming… evening if not everything went quite to plan!

    I had really bad bacteria poisoning when I lived in India. I was out for nearly 2 weeks. And since then, local water hasn’t fazed me. Granted, I don’t like to push my luck and drink cups full of it. But ensuring I don’t dehydrate and brushing my teeth have never been problematic. But I’m definitely the exception to that rule. Still, I like to think that 2 weeks of being unable to do anything but lay in bed and throw up is probably penance enough!

    The whole ‘foreigner’ or ‘white person’ thing can get really irritating. But MOST places, I find it doesn’t bother me. It really depends on the tone and the connotations. In a lot of places, pointing out characteristics is just not seen as problematic. Like in Cambodia, when people CONSTANTLY referred to my size because that was just how they described people and it was all very matter of fact.

    Please keep doing these pieces! I need a travel stories buddy because I’m so over travel itineraries and top 10s! Be bold and different with me! Plus, I truly [want to] believe this is the new face of travel blogging. Eventually no amount of SEO building is going to help distinguish those horrid 2 sentence ‘I clearly didn’t even go here, but this is how Google operates’ lists from the cesspool… I fear I’ve said too much!

    • Christine
      Author
      November 11, 2018 / 5:42 pm

      Yes, going home can also be so hard. We go home to our birth town a few times a year (CT). I will say that over the course of 7+ years things have changed and have also not changed. We are growing apart from a lot of people: relationships die, people change without us, and honestly, sometimes there are just too many sincere inconveniences. People forget about us. We become excluded. The list goes on.

      I am so grateful for the friends and family who I might not talk to all year due to circumstances but then just message, see, and all is AMAZING. Those relationships are easy and the best. Yes, we have grown and changed but not so much that we can’t pick up right where we left off. I love people who are easy to meet up with, don’t cause angst, and are just HAPPY.

      Then, there are others who get petty and bitter when we see certain friends/distant family but not others. I get it. I try. This makes me sad. There is only so much time in a day and in a trip. I fully believe that what you put into a relationship, you get out of it. You cannot expect someone (me) to move mountains to see you when you greet me with salt, never talk to me all year, talk crap to my family behind my back, and then pout like a child. Like why do you even want to see me or want me in your life if you are SO mad at me all of the time? I try to be sincere and apologetic, but if someone is a hypocrite, well…. I also don’t love that people expect us to always be on their schedule and agenda when we come home. Again, I try. I know everyone is very busy, and I respect that too. But no, I don’t want to spend my four days home jumping house to house because that is most convenient to you. A little of that is GREAT! Have a big party so that we can easily see everyone?! Awesome! But others forget that this is our vacation/break, too. We spent the money, took the time, and maybe I want to see and do something fun too… I miss doing certain CT activities.

      I do love that family is family there. They always will be there. For me, that’s what I can always on…although I know not everyone is lucky enough to be in that same situation.

      I feel you on the ‘bule’ idea or white idea. So in my little tiny corner of Depok, I didn’t mind. Many had never left Depok to even go into Jakarta. I was the only white person they had ever seen. I may be the only white, Westerner that they ever see. When you aren’t in a tourist area and are literally living local, you are a pretty damn cool alien to people who just cannot travel and have little experience with anyone outside of their community. I was Miss America–which is a lot of pressure. BUT, my tolerance goes to shit at 4-star hotels in Jakarta where I am overpaying to sleep and eat. I did get a little sad when people would pinch my skin and shout bule at me in the markets. I felt a little unsafe and attacked.

      Many of my teachers and students were also very direct, which is fine: Miss Chris, you look fat today. How much do you make? What is free sex? Do you have free sex? Miss Chris you have extra hair on your eyebrows… Or when I went to Bali and came back tan, they told me I was ugly. I get it–we value what we don’t have. I can respect honesty and directness too.

      But, for example: some of the teachers didn’t want Fulbrighters who weren’t…white. They said they weren’t ‘real’ Americans. I know these schools and teachers didn’t know better, and hopefully they had a learning experience. I had to teach many that the N word was BAD. They saw it on MTV and didn’t know much better. Butttttt…. still…it’s also borderline racism in educated areas where people have access to knowledge, TVs, books, money, etc. It’s a hard, fine line. I don’t think there is a good answer. Empathy and understanding, man. I did try to teach the younger kids to address me differently. We both had a lot to learn from each other. I made huge cultural mistakes on a daily basis–I was thankful for learning and thankful for forgiveness. I was thankful for being given the benefit of the doubt.

      Thank you so much. F’ SEO. Well don’t but try!!! Lets start a movement.

  3. November 10, 2018 / 7:09 pm

    Hysterical! Love this piece!

    • Christine
      Author
      November 11, 2018 / 4:43 pm

      It’s definitely one of those laugh-cry kind of deals. Thanks for reading!

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