On being kept at arms’ length

I suppose there’s a reason I started this blog here, in Indonesia, rather than when I lived in the UK or the Netherlands. I found out this week it’s likely because this is the first place that I’ve truly felt like a foreigner.

I can’t say that this realization came to me organically . It was the hypothesis of an Argentinian guy I spoke with recently. He’s lived here for seven years and said that, of all the places he’s lived, this was where he could never truly feel a part of the Indonesian society, let alone Balinese. And in my more limited experience, I have to agree with him.

Of the expats I know that have lived here for many years, even those who are married to or work with Indonesians and speak the language fluently, all still run in expat social circles. This is not to say integrated foreigner don’t exist, I have stories of a couple and perhaps I have too small a sample size to declare this definitively, but the integration of foreigners or immigrants into Indonesian society is relatively minimal.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the extremely rich cultural heritage of Indonesia and, again, Bali in particular. Unless one converts to Balinese Hinduism and joins a Banjar, one is seen as an outsider. This has more to do with the strength of society than of any social barriers that are constructed

Another factor that influences this is the strong nationalism that runs through Indonesia. This is not a nationalism that was fueled by an immigrant narrative like the US (current Presidential candidates notwithstanding) or a kind of secular civic nationalism like in France, but a vibrant post-colonial nationalism that places the Archipelago’s fight for independence against European colonialism at its center.

This is not to say that I’ve had negative experiences or see this a social defect. Indonesians are culturally the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve come across, almost to the point of over politeness. But there is a distance, possibly even a society-wide wariness, that is hard to ignore.

And in some ways this is reflected in government policy. I’ve complained about the immigration process before, but it goes even further. Foreign citizens are not allowed to own real estate in Indonesia (with a minor and recent exclusion of high-rise apartments in Jakarta) and must have an Indonesian business partner to own a company (I think that’s how it works, at least). Both of these are disincentives for expats to make a permanent life here. Naturally many still want to and find ways around the regulation (for example 99 year leases), but the point remains.

But I don’t think Indonesia is alone in this. Any country with a strong ethnic base (I could go in depth here into why I called Indonesian nationalism post-colonial and not ethnic but I’ll save you the IR talk and just point you to the Types of Nationalism Wikipedia page) would have some incarnation of it.

And for what it’s worth, it makes for some entertaining and controversially worded conversations at expat bars.

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