From Jakarta to Cologne: An Expat Story

From Jakarta to Cologne: An Expat Story

Indonesia and Germany are, in every way possible, worlds apart. So what tempts an Indonesian to move to Germany? Jakarta-born Putri Traps, is gearing up for her sixth winter in Germany, all the while missing the sun, warmth, and beaches of her home country. This is the story of how she came to live in Cologne.
by Liv Hambrett

As a child, Putri dreamt of living in Europe. Choosing Germany was partly spontaneous and partly because she had studied the language both in school and at university while obtaining her bachelor’s degree.

“I have actually had a dream of living in Europe in general since I was a kid. My first encounter with Germany was during high school, where I chose German as my second foreign language instead of French. Then I studied a year of German for my bachelor’s degree before changing my major to International Relations. I met my best friend when I studied German, and she always talked about moving to Germany as an au pair. After I finished my study, I worked for a while, then I suddenly felt the urge to take an unusual life-path, not like other Indonesians who study, work, and get married.”

Putri moved to Germany in the spring of 2010. She arrived with few expectations, “just a year of traveling and erholung,” She told Young Germany. “But I did think about a world-class education and a better quality of life. A life experience that I could tell my children or grand-children about.”

As with many well-laid plans, things turned out a little differently. Now Putri looks at arriving in Germany as a happy accident and a blessing in disguise. “In the beginning, my plan was to take a break for a year and see the world (Europe in particular), so I decided to apply as an au pair in Germany, because I had learned the language already. During my au pair period, I started to fall for Germany, so I decided to continue on and do my master’s degree. My plan was only for a year, but now I’m in my fifth year.”

In those five years, Putri has lived in Duisburg, Flensburg, Bonn, and Cologne, and each city has helped deepen her understanding of the German way of life. She has found a lot to love in her adopted home.

“In general, what I like about Germany are the rules. I mean the Germans have a clear rule for every single thing. I also like the fresh air (which I hardly get in big cities in Indonesia), their lack of small talk, their social system, their direct attitude, their love to bike, and nature.”

Like most foreigners who have made Germany a home, there are some things she misses. “Definitely food. Food. Food. Food. And food. Also warm weather and beaches and sea. The general good mood of laid-back, warm people. Indonesian cigarettes. Shops open on Sunday. And family.”

Discovering Cultural Differences

Living in a different country isn't just about enjoying the new and missing the familiar. It is also about coming to understand, and reconcile, the fundamental differences between your home country and your adopted home country. Differences abound between Indonesia and Germany. Some are quirky, and some make life difficult in the beginning.

Putri noticed several typically German things right at the beginning: the famous German directness, their initial social reserve with people they don’t know, and their love of a good plan.

“From a socio-cultural perspective, I notice the people here are very disciplined and somehow rigid, very different to the Indonesians who are very laid back. The Germans also like to calculate everything—everything has to go to plan—while Indonesians are like to go with the flow. It is also little bit difficult to be friends with Germans, and I find they’re somehow reserved. They have different words to describe social relationships, such as Freunde, Bekannte, Kollegen, Komillitone, Kumpel etc, while we only have one word: friend. Germans are also very direct, while Indonesians, like typical Asians, have difficulty voicing our opinion and mostly say yes to everything even though we don’t really agree with something. So we find that Germans directness is pretty offensive and I struggled in the very beginning of living here.”

Most people who move to Germany don’t take too long to notice other key parts of the German culture: punctuality and paperwork. “Germans love papers and appointments, while in Indonesia we have the so-called Gummi-Zeit similar to, say, the Spanish culture with the idea of mañana. I also notice that Germans really respect their law, and the sad thing in Indonesia is that law-enforcement is not very strict; you could make your own law, so to say. Their work ethic and punctuality is also strict, which is very different to us.”

A cornerstone of any culture is food, from how it is prepared, to how it is shared. Of the way Indonesians enjoy food, Putri says, “We like to eat and celebrate a lot! We always find any reason to invite people and to eat together. And if we have an important ceremony, like a wedding or a birthday, we invite all people we know, even if we have just seen them once in a while and barely know them, just to share our happiness. The guests don’t need to give notification beforehand; it’s difficult to do it here in Germany.”

How else does Indonesia’s cultural treatment of food and festivities differ to the way Germany does things? “I would also say that we know how to have fun and laugh out loud without alcohol, because alcohol isn’t really our culture, while in Germany it seems impossible to do that because every party or festivity always includes alcohol.”

Of course, we haven’t touched on the most obvious difference between Germany and Indonesia—the latter is in the other hemisphere, where the temperatures are very warm. “The sun shines during almost the whole year, with no winter (which I guess can explain our laid-back and warm behavior) while here people get very depressed once the cold season comes. They suddenly like to wear dark, sad colors—that’s  the reason I choose to wear colorful clothes even in winter, just to compensate for the lack of sun.”

Tropical countries also mean an abundance of delicious foods, not readily available in this hemisphere. “I miss cheap various veggies and fruits, while here I can only get veggies and fruits based on season. And I notice Germans love to eat meats, while we tend to eat more veggies and fruits.”

Defining Home: An Expat Dilemma

But differences, and some sorely missed things aside, Putri has made Germany a home. Her favorite things to do in Cologne are to hang out in the park, cycle around the city, visit museums, party, and attend poetry slams. I ask her the most difficult question: will she ever go home?

“I just finished studying and am looking for a job at the moment, and if I could get one, I’d love to stay and live here at least until my retirement. The last time I was home (last year) I didn’t really see my life in Indonesia anymore. The city I grew up in, Jakarta, has changed a lot, and I felt I don’t recognize the city anymore. I am also slowly losing contact with my friends there because our lives are simply different, and we do not really have a lot in common to talk about.”

Of course, the push doesn’t exist without the pull. “I also somehow know that Germany isn’t really my home, because I have this feeling that people will always see me as a foreigner (because of my physical look), even though I speak the language. It is the kind of dilemma you find yourself in when you live too long abroad and you don’t know where you belong or where your home is.”

But after five years, Germany is a home for Putri, who speaks the language fluently and hopes to find work and remain here after her studies. The ticks and quirks of the Germans have become familiar, from the silence on public transport, to the FKK culture, love of board games, and German couples’ penchant for public displays of affection. Life in Cologne is punctuated by hanging out in the park, cycling around the city, visiting museums, partying, and attending poetry slams. What was a happy accident—a decision born of wanderlust and a sense of adventure—has become a country that rivals Putri’s own for where her heart belongs.

by Liv Hambrett