Embracing Chaos in Jakarta, Indonesia


It was a familiar sensation – the stroke of humidity, the potent smell of car engines and sights of families sitting on the floor, talking and laughing with one another. Arriving at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport always engenders two contrasting feelings – a sense of belonging to and detachment from the culture that is my roots.

My incurable case of curiosity has led me to various experiences in different corners of the world, from teaching English at schools in Poland’s busiest seaport to physically observing the “Occupy” movement in various towns across Southern California. I have experienced many moments of gratitude in these instances, but none so strong as the moments of gratitude I feel visiting the place where I spent the first few years of my childhood, Jakarta.

My parents have often told me that Jakarta is a place you love or hate – there is no middle ground.  I myself have a love/hate relationship with the place. The strict cultural expectations that I feel governs my thoughts and behaviour sometimes leaves me feeling constrained and lost in my own identity. Yet the insignificance of this confusion becomes apparent against the backdrop of raw, constant struggle that I see everyday. From the domestic worker who arises daily at the crack of dawn and attends to her boss’ morning routine, to the little boys selling bottled water in the middle of polluted highways during Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams. It’s not only seeing what they have to endure every day that puts things in perspective, it is also seeing their gratitude of receiving simple acts of kindness and their willingness to enjoy life with the circumstances that they have been presented with. I remembered an encounter with a taxi driver who has to move away from his wife and children in order to earn more money and support them. This required him to forgo paying rent, leaving him to sleep on his brother’s floor and for most days, eating nothing but rice and red kidney beans soup. To many of us, this conjures a life of discomfort. Yet to this taxi driver, the cheery laugh that accompanied his life story shows a man who feels like he wakes up every day with a stroke of good luck.

I am used to being in control, of scheduling every minute of my day with to-dos and appointments in my never-ending quest for success and efficiency. Having spent the greater portion of my life at an environment where this is the norm, an unexpected delay or failure in achieving a goal can send me into momentary lapses of depression and hopelessness. I take for granted what many of these people in Jakarta – such as having constant access to clean water and being able to be on time for appointments 99% of the time – would consider luxuries. I dramatize the impact that a harsh feedback given by my boss would have on my life, all while the domestic worker at the house next door to my auntie’s is probably counting the pennies that she needs to save for her child to remain at school.

After a few days, I have found that the only way to enjoy being in this crazy city is to embrace the chaos that comes with it, and expect that nothing will go according to plan. Only then do I realize the triviality of things that I consider “problems” faced on a daily basis. At the beginning of my trip, I would curse at the amount of time we spend in traffic, and sigh when an excursion to find something prove to be unsuccessful. I would get offended when an encounter with a distant relative turns to lectures on how I should be living my life, or unwanted comments about my physical appearance. Day by day, however, all of this simply becomes part of my life here. And when good things came my way – the pleasant surprise that I felt allowed me to appreciate it just that little bit more.

I always leave Jakarta with a sense of excitement for my next undertaking, whatever that may be, and an overwhelming gratitude of what I already have in my life. The confusion regarding my identity remains, but the realization of what I can do with this unique perspective sets in, and I leave feeling grateful, strong, and eager to carry out the next steps I have set for myself.

Coming out of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, I step into a taxi and recite the address of my parents’ Jakarta home, preparing myself to embrace the chaotic week that I know will follow. I know that at the end of it – I will leave with a fondness only reserved for this place that introduced me to the world.

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