An Expat's Experience Living in Indonesia

An Expat’s Experience in Indonesia

June 23, 2020laurenslighthouse

Last updated on April 21st, 2022

For those of you who have the travel bug, the idea of spending time abroad is exciting! Traveling to new places, experiencing different cultures, and meeting people from other backgrounds is an adventure. But there’s a big difference between visiting a new place and actually living there. That may seem like a ‘Captain Obvious’ statement, but as a privileged American, there are layers and layers of expectations and cultural differences that I had to thoroughly process when I moved to Asia. 

My Hawaiian Background

I was born and raised in Hawaii and come from a multicultural background–Native Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, and European. My diverse ethnic makeup has intrigued many, but it’s common here in Hawaii given our state’s history of immigrants who came long ago to work the sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Growing up in a multicultural family in a melting pot in the Pacific, I felt like I had an ‘advantage’ in understanding and interacting with people of different backgrounds. Ha! Maybe a slight advantage… 

Fuji Waterfall by Keawe Hurst, kayinspired

Admiring Fuji Waterfall in Bali by Keawe Hurst

Kelingking Beach by Keawe Hurst, kayinspired

The marvellous view at Kelingking Beach in Nusa Penida by Keawe Hurst

Bali Terraces by Keawe Hurst, kayinspired

Bali’s gorgeous rice terraces by Keawe Hurst

Contemplating Our Move to Indonesia

When the opportunity was given for my husband and me to serve as counselors in Indonesia, we were filled with so many emotions and questions. And if you’re picturing Bali right now, a tropical island with beaches and lush rainforests, you need to erase that image and instead picture Jakarta (the capital)–a concrete jungle full of extravagant malls, restaurants, and lots and lots of traffic.  

My husband and I spent lots of time in prayer about this move, but I also had a practical ‘lens’ and tried, to the best of my ability, plan things ahead of time (to all the planners and realistic people out there–you know what I’m talking about!). The logistical thinker in me was frustrated that I couldn’t get all the answers to the questions that I had for this move. But as time went by, I began to feel some sense of peace and, at some point, I knew I had to ‘let go and let God.’ And I’m glad that I did. Over this past year, I’ve learned so much about myself and what it truly means to depend on God and appreciate my privileges as an American.   

Grab Transportation Indonesia by Afif Kusuma

Photo by Afif Kusuma

Jakarta Street Traffic by Ikhsan Assidiqie

Photo by Ikhsan Assidiqie

Adjusting to Life in Jakarta

As a Jesus follower, I know that my life is not my own. I’ve been saved by Jesus’ love for me and I have the life-long gift of drawing closer to Jesus in every chapter of my life. Well in this chapter, my spiritual journey had a strong emphasis on patience. Every time my husband and I left the house, our patience ‘muscle’ was put to the test. Catching public transportation via Grab (same concept as Uber) everyday was always an adventure… Despite giving our driver the correct address of our destination, our commute regularly involved our driver getting lost, taking the scenic route (which could extend our drive-time by an hour or more), and in some cases, the driver would ask us to use our own GPS and give him directions to our destination… uhhhh what?? Then throw in the mix of trying to find an English speaker at a store and learning to cross a busy street without having a heart attack and/or getting run over and you got yourself a very strong patience muscle!… Or perhaps a really tired one.   

But one of the most frustrating parts of living in Asia was my health, or perhaps my lack of it. For the majority of my time in Indonesia, I battled with sickness. Jakarta is one of the most polluted cities in the world and my body just never seemed to fully adjust to it, which resulted in a chronic dry cough. Within the first couple months of moving, I also contracted a parasite which led to uncontrollable vomiting and an overnight stay at a local hospital. Thankfully, my body eventually seemed to adjust a bit, but I never felt 100% healthy.  

Jakarta by ekoherwantoro

Photo by Eko Herwantoro

At this point in my post, some of you might be thinking ‘Wow, what a nightmare!’ or ‘I just wanted to read something light and positive about an experience in a tropical location.’  Sorry to burst those bubbles out there. I’m a realist. There’s this stigma on different social platforms that world travelers are having the time of their lives and everything’s perfect. I love to travel, but the challenges of life don’t stop. I was stretched in every way imaginable during this move, but as I was stretched, I learned so much. 

A Look Into the Lives of Indonesians

Earlier, I mentioned the many ‘adventures’ my husband and I had when we took ‘Grab’ for transportation… I’m sure some of you may have been thinking, ‘If the driver doesn’t know how to get to your destination or use GPS, then he shouldn’t be a driver!’  Oh trust me, we had that frustrating, bewildered conversation on multiple occasions. Then we slowly began to learn how incredibly challenging life is for people born on this side of the world.  

Indonesian School by Husniati Salma

Photo by Husniati Salma

The average Indonesian receives limited education, meaning simple skills such as knowing how to read and follow a map is not something these individuals are taught in their lifetime. On top of that, a number of ‘Grab’ drivers are from the poor, rural parts of Indonesia and they come to the capital of Jakarta with hopes that they’ll provide enough money to send back to their families. We often saw pillows crammed in the trunk space of Grab vehicles, which immediately let us know that this vehicle is not just this person’s means of income, it’s their home. So when we found out that these drivers were not only unfamiliar with the city of Jakarta, but were also robbed of basic education and training as a child, our stomachs dropped. Numerous experiences like these opened my eyes to the stark contrast of my life of privilege and the struggle that millions of people go through every day just to survive.  

Despite such disadvantages and struggles, many Indonesians speak multiple languages/dialects and have an understanding and respect for other people groups represented in their communities. Wow, that’s something that we could learn in the United States, huh? As we began to make friends with locals and other expats, one topic that would find its way into our conversations was, ‘So how many languages do you speak?’ Our friends would begin to rattle off with pride all of the languages they spoke fluently and then they would look at me for a response. I’m sure some of you out there have had similar experiences where you reluctantly and embarrassingly said, ‘Uhh just English.’  

Reflecting on My Privileges as an American

And yet again, I realized just how privileged I am. A lot of Americans have taken a foreign language class in school. I did as well! I took Hawaiian, Japanese, and Vietnamese. And like many of us out there, we can hardly remember anything past ‘Hello’ and ‘Can I go to the bathroom.’ Why? Because Americans don’t need to learn a second language. English is spoken globally and, in a lot of cases, a Westerner can get by simply by using broken English with non-English speakers. What an incredible advantage we have! But, ironically, I also see it as a disadvantage. America’s monoculturalism pretty much says, ‘It’s all about us. We’re at the center of the universe, so people should be learning and imitating us.’ Such a mindset fails to value, respect, and form relationships with people who are different from us. I’m incredibly grateful for the blessings and advantages of being an American, but I don’t want to use such advantages to make myself feel superior. I want to use them to help those who have been stripped of such rights. This desire in me would continue to grow as Indonesia faced this global pandemic, COVID-19.  

Experiencing a Pandemic in a Developing Country

When my husband and I agreed to move to Jakarta, we, to some degree, understood the challenges we would face with cultural adjustments, etc. But we never thought that we would face a heartbreaking, worldwide, almost apocalyptic, outbreak. We quickly found out from our trusted friends that receiving medical care at a local hospital in Jakarta could be more dangerous than simply battling a sickness at home with basic remedies. This realization made us feel uneasy even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Once the news about COVID-19 hit, we anxiously watched the news as we heard that country after country in Asia had confirmed cases. We knew it was a matter of time before we heard the virus was now in Indonesia. Week after week, we waited to hear about confirmed cases, but nothing. I felt like the minion in Despicable me--whaaaaat?! How can this be? Every country surrounding Indonesia had COVID, except us. In fact, Indonesia was one of the top 10 destinations for passengers who flew out of Wuhan. Then it became very evident–the government was hiding the truth. 

COVID-19 by Max Bender

Photo by Max Bender

Weeks later after the government admitted there were confirmed COVID cases in Indonesia, the panic began. The idea of traveling back to the US and risk exposure was off the table. So we grabbed extra supplies from the store in case we were stuck at home for an extended amount of time. After seeing the panic and fights in grocery stores in the US, my husband and I went into the store with the mindset that we were in the ‘Walking Dead.’ But to our surprise, there was no panic. In fact, the stores were quiet, completely stocked, and not busy at all. What was going on? 

COVID-19 by Erik Mclean

Photo by Erik Mclean

27 million Indonesias live on less than $0.75 USD/day. It wasn’t a matter of Indonesians not wanting to buy supplies for their families, they simply couldn’t afford it. They barely make enough money to feed their families everyday, let alone stock up on a few weeks of supplies. This situation brought such a mix of emotions–guilt, gratitude, and confusion.   

After WHO pleaded with the president of Indonesia to take the necessary precautions to protect his people, Indonesia went into lockdown like the rest of the world. For several months, my husband and I lived in isolation, worried about our health, our future, and how things would escalate in Indonesia. As we regularly watched the news and saw other major cities take major precautions, it showed us how seriously the pandemic should be taken. Then we looked outside our window and you would never be able to tell that Jakarta was in ‘lockdown’ with all the traffic on the roads still. It made us scared and angry–why isn’t anyone taking this seriously here? Then we realized, they don’t have a choice. For those living in poverty, there is no back-up plan, there is no savings. You tell me what you would do–go to work and provide food for the day or quit your job and starve to death? 

Jakarta Slums by Voicu Horatiu

Photo by Voicu Horatiu

As we used ‘Grab’ regularly, on occasion we would get paired with a driver who lived down the street from us. This man would often talk to us about COVID and his concern for his country. He would ask us about the state of our country and he would then compare the US and Indonesia and how they’re responding differently to the pandemic. And then this man said something that I’ll never forget–the difference between his country and mine is that my country believes in human rights and has a safety net for its people.   

Indonesian Girls by Rohiim Ariful

Photo by Rohiim Ariful

Growing in Gratitude

To be born in a country with such freedoms and opportunities is an incredible gift from God (Yes, the US is not perfect. It still has a long way to go.) But it’s not something that we just keep to ourselves and enjoy. What I’ve experienced in Indonesia this past year is but a fraction of the heartbreaking circumstances that millions of people endure every day. It is our ethical duty to help those who are incapable of helping themselves. Proverbs 3:27, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it’s in YOUR power to help them.” 

Looking over my journey this past year, it’s hard to fully appreciate all that I’ve learned and experienced during my time here in Asia. I’ve been put to the test physically, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. But there’s one truth in life that we all have to accept–growth is always outside our comfort zone. During this time, God has been there for us and guided us in so many ways. Psalm 139:9 comes to mind as I reflect on my adventure this past year–”If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.” What a deep sense of peace and security to know that God is always there with me, no matter my circumstances or location. 

Mount Bromo, Indonesia by Ifan Bima

Photo by Ifan Bima

Keawe’s Travel Tips

As I wrap up on my reflections, a few words of advice for you travelers out there: 

  • Make the absolute most of your time. Make friends, learn and try new things, enjoy it! 
  • Be prepared (Yes, I’m still a realist!). COVID-19 has pretty much confirmed my belief that we should be prepared for life because we never know what’s going to happen: 
    • Know the healthcare options in the country you’re traveling to 
    • Register with the embassy and let them know what dates you’ll be in that country 
    • Make wise decisions with food and drinks 
  • Be authentic 
  • Draw close to Jesus. No experience or adventure will fulfill your deepest longings for love, security, and peace. It will only be found in Jesus!
Jakarta City Night Skyline by Bayu Syaits

Photo by Bayu Syaits


Keawe (KAY-AH-VEH) Hurst and her husband left quiet Missouri for the hustling city of Jakarta, Indonesia in the summer of 2019 when they got positions in counselling. Keawe temporarily left her family, friends and full-time job to live the expat life across the globe, and experienced some ups and downs in the process. Having grown up most of her life in tropical Hawaii, she predicted an easy adjustment in Indonesia, but life had much more in store for her. To continue following her journey or to reach out to her regarding her experience living in Southeast Asia, you can find her at @kayinspired1 on Instagram!

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An Expat Experience in Indonesia - Lauren's Lighthouse
An Expat's Experience in Indonesia - Lauren's Lighthouse

Comments (10)

  • Jamie Andreson

    June 25, 2020 at 1:30 am

    As an expat myself I always enjoy reading other’s expat adventures. We may have ended up in very different places but there are so many similarities in the expat experience!

    1. laurenslighthouse

      June 25, 2020 at 10:57 pm

      No way! I also lived as an expat in Singapore, but as a child, so my experience would be different from yours or Keawe’s. But those few years will be ones I’ll cherish forever! I’m curious to know where you lived as an expat 🙂

  • Khyati

    June 25, 2020 at 2:52 am

    Living in another country is an experience! It teaches you a great many things. Indonesia sounds like a great place to visit, especially after reading your blog. 🙂

    1. laurenslighthouse

      June 25, 2020 at 11:02 pm

      Right?! After reading and putting together Keawe’s piece, I am itching to make my way to Indonesia again! I’ve only been twice as a toddler/kid so I haven’t experienced nearly as much as what Keawe has portrayed. Maybe I’ll see you there, Khyati 🙂

  • Rhonda Albom

    June 25, 2020 at 5:20 pm

    Living in another country is drastically different than being a tourist there (as you pointed out). My best travel is when I spend significant time in a new location and interact with the people. Living in a local community gives you cultural insights that you would not learn or feel by any other method. It also makes you appreciate where you have come from.

    1. laurenslighthouse

      June 25, 2020 at 11:00 pm

      Absolutely! You said it, Rhonda 🙂 I also felt the most in touch with my destination and the people there when I stayed for longer periods. It’s a goal of mine to do more long-term traveling and stay in each spot for multiple days/weeks! Happy travels 🙂

  • Kaisa

    June 25, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing all the interesting tips and facts. Photos are so beautiful,I hope to be able to return to Indonesia one day!

    1. laurenslighthouse

      June 25, 2020 at 10:58 pm

      Yes! Keawe is amazing with her photos! And did a fantastic job selecting the others 🙂 Indonesia is such a beautiful country that the scenery and people are so captivating

  • Cindy

    August 30, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    I’m Indonesian and I currently live in Jakarta. As I grew up in another city, I also experienced health issue due to polluted air for several weeks 🙁
    Nevertheless, I hope you have a really good time in Jakarta 🙂

    1. laurenslighthouse

      October 10, 2020 at 3:54 pm

      Oh man, Cindy, I’m sorry you struggle with the pollution! Hopefully you’re doing well in Jakarta! Keawe definitely loved her time there and Jakarta (and all of Indonesia) will always hold a special place in her heart! I personally cannot wait to visit for myself, I only ever got to see a bit of Indonesia when I was a kid, living in Singapore.

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