Indonesia – a country so close to home but not like home at all. I had the privilege to spend six weeks teaching, and learning with, some very bright children in orphanages around Malang, Indonesia. It felt as if I lived a lifetime there, with the most loving host family and 12 other amazing exchange participants from seven different countries. My AIESEC Global Volunteer exchange experience was crazy, but one of the best experiences that has taught me more than I could have imagined. Here are five things I learnt:
1. An action that you might think is small can mean everything to someone else. As exchange participants, were spent a couple of hours each day teaching English and sharing our culture and everyday stories. Initially, this didn’t feel like much to me but I quickly realised how important it was for the children, who didn’t have much exposure to the rest of the world. It was surprising for me to hear that some of the children had never met a “foreigner” before and what we did actually left a real impact. I even got asked for an autograph one time (which I was extremely puzzled by)!
2. A lot of the things I thought were important aren’t actually. I’ll admit that my laptop or phone would probably be one of the first things I would grab in a fire. Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, hot water, a laundry machine, kitchen appliances and a toilet that is not a hole in the ground were some of the things I thought were necessities in life. Being stripped of all these luxuries, being home sick was an understatement. But I adapted and realised that the locals didn’t need all these things to be happy. They were one of the happiest and most positive people I’ve met. I was able to see what was truly important (family, friends, experiences) and came back feeling so appreciative for everything that we are so privileged to have here living in Australia.
3. You don’t need to speak the same language as others to connect with them. Naïve me thought I was going to a place where most people I met would know English (because Wikipedia told me English was taught in high schools and university). What I didn’t know was that only a minority of Indonesians go to university and a lot of the people I met did not speak fluent English. However, I still created strong bonds with the people I met because there are things that transcend cultural borders. Take my host mother for example, she spoke no English but she immediately welcomed me into her home and treated me like a daughter with the unconditional love mothers have. We still keep in touch today (mostly with photos and the help of Google Translate).
4. Different is just different. Indonesia’s culture is rich and complex, which meant the culture shock was quick strong. With their strong Eastern culture and majority Islam population, I had a lot to learn. I saw how different people’s behaviours, attitudes and values were to me and my family and friends back home. For example, Australians tend to be very candid and direct but Indonesians tend to be more passive and indirect, which I initially found a bit frustrating. I was told that it was hard for them to outright say “no” because they really cared about what others were thinking and feeling. I learnt that there is no right or wrong because different is just different. When immersing yourself in a different culture, you need to be curious, open-minded and respectful. Accepting that there will be things that won’t make sense to me but it is okay allowed me to learn so much about Indonesia, which really began to feel like a second home.
5. There’s no better way to learn about the world than to see it. Growing up in the comfort zone of Sydney, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the world. This experience opened my eyes to so many things and honestly taught me more about the world than all my years of living and education prior to my trip. I didn’t only learn about Indonesia through living like a local but I also was able to learn and break stereotypes about other countries such as Taiwan, Egypt, Japan and Netherlands through the other exchange participants. Another bonus is that now I have friends all around the globe that I know will welcome me whenever I am in their cities.
As cheesy as it sounds, this experience actually changed my life and left me feeling liberated. It changed my whole world-view and the way I looked at things. It left me with a hunger to continually learn about the rest of our world, and feeling so grateful for everything I have at home.