An Indonesian Student in the Middle Kingdom

By Danny Hartono

Indonesia is a very beautiful country located in the south-east part of Asia. Liberated from Dutch and Japan colonialism only 68 years ago (1945-2013), Indonesia is still a traditional country, clinging to its deep-rooted, ancestral values. Being one of its 250 million population, although first I felt “Why, God?”, but after time I feel “Thank God!” I live in a suburb near the capital city of Indonesia but not too close to experience the beyond-annoying traffic jam every day. I just don’t think I can live through that on a daily basis.

During the 3rd grade of Senior High, like every other normal students, the following thought is what used to always cling on my mind: “Should I go abroad just like my older sister for my undergraduate study or should I just go to local university?” It was really devastating when other people had already settled for their undergraduate study and I seemed to be the only one who hadn’t. However, as time moves on and days gone by, here I am, studying in a Chinese university in Suzhou.

First of all, I’m going to be a tell-tale about the long-devastating process of coming here. Well, not that long and devastating. To be frank, coming to China to study was not the first thing on my mind when it comes to where I will do my undergraduate study. I used to think that I will go somewhere else like Australia, Europe, or the USA. However, it seems that ‘money’ had another plan for me. Since China is the fastest growing country in recent years, and learning Chinese is getting more important than ever, plus the 70,000 RMB a year compared to 20,000 USD excluding the living cost (1 USD = 6 RMB, do the math), China is a pretty appealing choice.

After deciding to go to China, it was time to search for a good education agency to slightly ease the process of going there and it also happens to be the perfect answer for the following question people often ask, “How do you know this university?” Fortunately for me, my older sister has done this a year in advance of me so I can just use the same agent. However, there are still some things to be done by myself like taking IELTS/TOEFL test and preparing the required documents like photos, passport, and not one, but two recommendation letters.

I chose to do the IELTS test because it was what my high school English lesson prepared me for and it was the first time for me to take such test. It was one of the tensest moments in my life because I have to obtain at least 6 and bearing the US $195 price tag in mind wasn’t very helpful either. In my case, luckily, my anxiety didn’t impact my performance during the test and I passed the minimum requirement. IELTS is a test to measure a person’s ability in listening, reading, writing, and speaking in English. One piece of advice, exercise and be prepared. It really helps to grow confidence during the test and decrease nervousness.

Right now, I’m one of about 50 Indonesian students in the university and the single one who enroll in Environmental Science major. I selected that major simply because I love the environment and am pretty good in Biology, Chemistry, and Geography which all studied in Environmental Science. With this major as the filter, two universities showed up as my option, Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University and Nottingham University. Some other things to consider were university quality, tuition fee, location, and campus environment. Good quality? Check. Affordable tuition fee? Check. Strategic location (Suzhou) and supporting campus environment (Higher Education Town)? Is that even a question? And finally, here I am, have spent almost 1.5 years studying in Suzhou, enjoying life there (I still love my hometown more, though), and learning something I really love.

It was about fifteen months ago when I arrived here. It was still about 10 days before the term began and while one of my Indonesian senior was showing us around campus, I couldn’t help but wondered; “Why are there some students inside the classroom? Isn’t today still considered as the ‘sacred holiday’?” I was really astonished that day. “It’s still holiday and they’re spending their precious free refreshing time at school?” and what surprised me even more was when that senior told me “Well, some of them are here throughout the whole holiday.” After several weeks of studying with them, I found out that it is just an extreme case. Here’s an analogy for nerds out there who pays attention during math class: if there’s graph of normal distribution with y-axis as the number of students and x-axis as the diligence level, those students will be on the very very right end of the graph.

Another thing I noticed is how much time they spend at school even when there’s no class or lecture. The evidence could be easily found when entering some of the classrooms like pillow and small table lamp on the table, stacked books and hand-outs, food boxes and leftovers, etc. At first I think that those people use all that time at school to study. However, after taking some closer look, that often not true. They sometimes just watch youku, browse on baidu, online shopping on taobao, or play online games together using school’s LAN. Some local friends of mine told me that it is because their dormitory is quite small and it is shared with 3 other people so it can be very crowded and noisy. Therefore, they choose to stay at school most of the time instead of staying in their dormitory. It’s still a good motivation to think that they spend all that time studying, though.

Unlike them, I personally don’t really like studying at school. Tried it once and I felt very sleepy after just reading like 45 minutes. Maybe because it was too quiet and I’m an auditory learner. The latter one seems to come from my family. With 5 family members, 2 helpers, and a dog, my home is never as soundly as school or library. Whereas, at my apartment, I can turn up the music and sing as loud and free as I can when I think it is too quiet and when I get tired or bored, I can just watch some movies and laugh as hard as I can. Unsurprisingly, my learning method is not completely foolproof. Sometimes instead of learning I end up singing for an hour or watching 5 episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. But at least I don’t fall asleep in the library and disturb other people’s study.

In the first year of my study in the foundation year, we were taught about general things leading to our first choice major and prior to the second semester, we can change that if we meet certain criteria. Some of us were pretty confident about what we are going to study while others were stuck in limbo. Applied mathematics or financial mathematics? Information management and information systems or marketing? Accounting or English and communication studies? Those are some real examples from my friends. When they asked me what they should choose, my first answer were always to pick what they like and what they are good at. Why? Because here’s the thing. They will study that for the next three years, if not more. If they loathe it, why bother learning it for 3 whole years? And why bother studying something they’re bad at? The way I put it: It is always easier to sharpen a blunt sword than to make a new one. But who am I to judge, right? The decisions are all theirs to make.

Living in another country and studying in an international university is not only fun, but I also get to meet people from around the world; China, United States, France, etc. Plus, I live with friends instead of my parents and sisters. I think it’s great because I can see many different cultures, characteristics, ways of thinking, and also ways of communication (of course) from people all over the world and also fellow Indonesians.

Right now, I live in a rented apartment near my university with 4 other people (or 5 if my roommate’s girlfriend is included). Three of my roommates are also Indonesian and the other one is from Mauritius (his girlfriend is Chinese). Living with them can be fun sometimes because we usually able to talk freely about everything from school life, food, news, friends, and movies. Sometimes, living with them can be a little bit hard because they are quite dirty and especially because they often just stay in their rooms with closed doors, leaving me alone in the living room where I usually be most of the day. See, I come from a house with 7 people and a dog and being in apartment with 5 people behind the closed doors are not really the same. I’d really really appreciate it if at least one of them is playing their computer outside in the living room with me so I can speak with them anytime I want without having to knock their doors in advance. The good thing is that I’m a pretty positive person so even though it bothers me a little bit, I’m able to rise to the occasion and make myself feel less lonely. (video)

After socializing and making some new friends with other people for some time I realized how different Indonesian culture is from other countries even in everyday life. People from Malaysia, which is our neighboring country, are not even close with our culture. From the way we connect with people, what we eat and drink (or in this case not drink), religion, how we behave when we’re in a relationship, to how we view of s-e-x.

Students from Indonesia, tend to stay together as a group. Much like those swarming fish in the sea. Everyone from Indonesia must know everyone from Indonesia and hang out quite often. Usually, we have dinner together, watch movies together, and go to the mall, yes, together. There’s even an Indonesian students association. People from other countries, on the other hand, though they may know everyone from their places, seldom hang out together. They tend to be more individualistic. Eating alone or just with one friend and study by themselves. The difference is so apparent that there were times when they asked us, “Why do people from Indonesia always stick together?” and my answer was “I don’t know. I think it’s just what we normally do.”

The next one is about eating and drinking food and beverages. For us, there are two things that really make Indonesian food distinctly more delicious; sweet soy sauce and ‘saos sambal’ (or chili paste). Nowhere else in this world where someone can find sweet soy sauce except in Indonesia. It’s a combination of black soy sauce with Javanese sugar. Its good taste and unavailability in China which makes it the must-bring-from-home food products. The next on the must-bring food list is saos sambal. Although China also has chili paste, but for the saos sambal lover Indonesian out there (not me because I cannot eat spicy food), they are not even close in terms of taste. Therefore, it is not weird seeing us bringing two odd looking bottles with ‘unknown’ thing inside to restaurants. As for beverages, people find it shocking that we don’t usually drink alcohol, even in social events. It is because beer and other alcoholic drinks are highly taxed in Indonesia due to religious prohibition which I will talk about later. Another reason in my opinion is that because we live in a tropical country where heat from alcoholic drink is unnecessary. Personally, I think it is okay to just drink beer occasionally when hanging out with friends from different country as long as he/she is not carried away or just do that to please others.

Like what I said earlier, alcohols drinks in Indonesia is highly taxed because it is against the major religious belief in Indonesia which is Muslim. There are five official religions in Indonesia; Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Buddhism, and Hinduism. At first, I thought that most Chinese people are Buddhist. Apparently, I was wrong. Most of them are atheist. They are just as surprised to find out that we have religion as I was to find out that most of them don’t. The truth is most Indonesians have religion, like me for example, which is a Christian and fortunately, here in Suzhou, there are two churches, one Christian and one Catholic, built by the government and some temples for international people to practice their beliefs, don’t worry about that.

It is our religious culture background which also makes us view relationship and sex differently. I was first very surprised to see how often couples here do PDA (Public Display of Affection). It slightly irritate me at first because in Indonesia it is against the public decency norm. However, since they kiss, hug, touch faces, sit on boyfriends’ lap in public so often, I’ve come to the point where I’m no longer feel uncomfortable seeing that. Now here comes the quite sensitive part, s-e-x. Sex before marriage is considered taboo my country. In China, both Chinese and other foreigner seems to think differently. How do I know? Once, my friend’s teacher from the UK opened a free topic Q&A session. One of the questions was “How do I know if a person really love me or just want to have sex with me?” Since me and my friend there were the only international students, I supposed that a Chinese student asked that. Another proof is me and my friends saw a couple kissing in the basement of their and going up to the dormitory a couple of times. God knows what they did after that. Same goes with my roommate and his girlfriend (don’t ask me how I found out). From these three evidence, I decipher that it is kind of normal for them to do so. As for the westerners, I think it is already a common knowledge.

China was not the country I thought I will do my undergraduate study in. However, life seems to have its own way. I have to admit that studying here and the process leading to that are some fun experiences in my life. Applying for agent, taking IELTS test, seeing different study environment and habits, living a life with different people from around the world with diverse culture, who would’ve thought that I will experience all that in just 19 years of my life here on earth?  And of course in China? One tip though, wherever you are from, never forget about the place where you originated and never trade your native culture with these new cultures all around because that’s part of your identity.

 

Author Details:

Name: Danny Hartono

Nationality: Indonesian

University: Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University

CUCAS Says: This essay discusses some interesting things about cultural differences like hanging out as a group or study methods etc, which are quite clear for us to know what an Indonesian student observes and experiences when first comes to China, and for future students also from Indonesia, it could be learnt a lot from this essay.