Intercultural communication has become an important topic to study and practice in today’s increasingly globalised world. Of course, when people come together from different cultures there are bound to be challenges in intercultural situations. Our experience of living as expats in Jakarta is no exception.
Today Silke Irmscher, dynamic Yogyakarta-based Intercultural Trainer and Coach shares her story with us on this very topic. Silke has become one of our ‘go-to’ people for insights about culture, cultural differences and life in Indonesia. Silke is able to empathize with anyone who faces the challenge of learning another culture and her rich background, and professional expertise make her uniquely qualified to be an excellent culture ambassador.
Read on as Silke shares her story, and some helpful advice for living a full life abroad:
* Kenalkan : Silke Irmscher
Please tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Germany, to be exact in the former socialist German Democratic Republic, the Eastern part of the country. I´m from a village close to Chemnitz (former Karl-Marx-Stadt) in the state of Saxony. At this point it is important to say that culture already became a life topic for me in my early teenage days as my socialist environment transformed into a country with a more or less free market – with everything that comes with that. This was similar to a culture shock and to be honest, it took me years (and sometimes I still need time to) digest this loss of my home culture. I´m far to praise the former socialist political system, but what happened to many East Germans back then was that we somehow lost our culture for the sake of living in a free country… I often think that my interest in intercultural sciences was stimulated during that time. I wanted to find answers to all those questions that arose all of a sudden.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
First, I wanted to be a teacher because I liked my first grade teacher. Then, after I had my first flight experience (to Moscow in 1986) I wanted to be a flight attendant. Then later, I wanted to be a sports trainer. I did gymnastics and loved it and could hardly imagine doing something different as an adult.
What brought you to Indonesia, and how long have you lived here?
Well, that´s a long story (as it always is), but to cut it short: I always wanted to see the world and to find out how human life is in other countries and cultures. I applied for an intern at the Goethe-Institute Jakarta and worked there for 6 months in the year 2000. I quickly fell in love with the country, learned the language and lived with Indonesians. I even moved to a girls Kos in Cikini to really live like locals and – most important for me back then – to be away from the Expat world. It was one of the best times, some of these girls are my friends till today. Later I travelled through Indonesia and South East Asia and came to Jogja, where I met my husband. Now, it has been almost 18 years that I´ve been here.
What were the biggest challenges for you settling into this new environment?
In the beginning it was not challenging at all. For me it was a big adventure! And I wanted to feel it no matter how extreme this adventure turned out to be. Well, I was in my early 20s… But well, Jakarta indeed was quite challenging. I come from a village and have seen few metropolitan cities before. Jakarta was and is just … big and crowded and chaotic. I was overwhelmed by this size and the masses of people moving there, and the pollution. But on the other hand I always found it exciting to live and “survive” in such a city…
Some years later, after I got married my husband and I settled in his home village in the suburbs of Jogja. Although I knew the culture very well, could speak Bahasa Indonesia and even a little Boso Jowo, the first years in that village were pretty tough for me. At that time I just had given birth to my first daughter, had stopped working and struggled to adjust to my new environment and to the fact of being a full-time mum.
During that time I discovered that the reality the people there lived in was so much different from mine. Especially when it comes to child education: how do you treat a baby, what do you think about nutrition, communicating with a child, being a mother and being a family. I realized that my neighbours lived on a different planet. Till today. This was the time I realized that deep inside me there are some German shaped values that I´m not willing to negotiate or even worse, to let go. That there is a point where you say “Until here I´m happy to adjust, but one step further and I would betray my own beliefs”. I reached that point very often during that time and I felt often left alone in my “world” that I only could share with international friends and or people in Germany.
When you ask me what the biggest challenge was I´d say, it was to become clear about my own cultural values and my ability to adjust in certain situations or to certain foreign values.
Describe your current role?
I´m the wife of a Javanese artist, mum of 2 adorable, beautiful Javanese-German princesses and I´m an intercultural trainer & coach and pro-diversity & inclusion activist 😉
What inspired you to be an intercultural trainer and coach?
First, I´ve always been fascinated by different cultures and people that come from a completely different background than me. Second, I experienced how hard it can be to deal with cultural differences or let´s say: differences in normality, on a daily basis. I gained a wealth of knowledge and experiences throughout the years in Indonesia (in that I also had quite a few ups and downs), studied cultural sciences and psychology at the University and always was searching for the “Why” that lies behind any phenomenon. At one point, 6 years ago I felt that I needed to share all this knowledge and insights to help others to create a better cross-cultural life – no matter if in private or business.
Can you share with us your belief in the importance of ‘being connected’ and how moving abroad can often leave people feeling a loss of connection?
I think that connection is the most important condition in life. With that I mean connection in 3 ways: Connection to our inner voice, to others and to our environment or nature. When we move abroad we often lose 1, 2 or even all 3 of these connections. First, we are far away from friends and family. Then, we´ll find ourselves in a completely different environment that works different than ours back home or the place where we´ve been before. And 3rd (and worst of all in that change and mess), we even might not hear our inner voice anymore. We experience feelings that we´ve never had before. We don´t know what´s wrong with us, lose orientation etc… We really feel disconnected: to us, to others and even to nature or our surroundings.
What are some strategies you can suggest to expats who might be struggling to adapt to a new environment including homesickness?
First, it is absolutely ok to be homesick. If you feel a big loss, then it is important to grieve for some while. Allow these unhappy feelings, they are important, too. But be aware that this sad phase doesn´t take too long. After some days you should start exploring.
‘Replace sadness or the fear of the unknown with curiosity. Turn yourself into a little adventurer and start exploring the things around you. Do this without judging’
Don´t compare i.e. Jakarta with Melbourne. It´s not fair and it´s not realistic, too. Go out and observe, be mindful with that what you sense. A whole new world will open up to you and this is exciting.
‘And don´t expect that everyday in expat life is a sunny day. Just like everywhere else there are bad days and good days. Accepting the “unfortunate” things is wiser than complaining about them’
For example, everybody (including me) is bothered by the macet but why complaining about it all the time? It is like it is, we cannot change it but we can find our way through it somehow. Find your way to deal with it. But keep a positive mind.
In Your blog article last month you wrote about the ‘misconception of common sense in intercultural relations’ can you share your insights on this with us?
Ha ha ha… this is what I experience every single day in my environment in business and private.
‘Since I deal with people from different countries all the time, very often I have these moments when I realise that I assumed something about the situation that the others did not assume’
No matter if my American friend, my Javanese husband or my British client, all of them (including me) live in an individual normality out of that we automatically assume certain conditions or behaviour. The “art of intercultural cooperation” (and actually interpersonal cooperation in general) is to always be aware about the fact that the normality of the people around you is not necessarily the same like yours. Over the years I´ve developed skills in preventing those surprising (or shocking) moments when you suddenly realize that you and the others talked out of completely different realities. But still, there are situations when it hits me again.
You also write about how moving abroad brings a big change to your life. You make the point that ‘often, the biggest change does not necessarily happen around you but rather inside you’ Can you share what you mean by this.
Yes, the change happens also inside you. Because, YOU change.
‘By setting your foot on the ground of a new country you already start learning new things. And these things will change you. You gain new insights about life and the people, develop new survival skills, ideally learn a new language, learn to adjust to a completely different environment and also face some mental challenges that you would hardly face back home. All this gives you a new horizon and makes you a new person’
Often expats feel this when they fly home for the first time. It is even stronger than when they relocated to their home country. Experts say, that the reverse culture shock, the one when you settle back into your home country, is even stronger than the culture shock when settling into a foreign country. Countless expats have reported what sounds like this, “I realized that´s not my home and my friends have changed, I´m the one who has changed so much”.
What advice would you give to people preparing to move abroad, particularly families with children and (dare we say it a trailing spouse)
Learn as much as possible about the new country. Read books, explore some blogs and watch videos, the Internet is full with those. Try to gain a picture as clear as possible of the country you´re moving to and get an idea of how your life will be there. Talk to friends that are living there or that have lived there. If the relocating company sponsors a “Look and See Trip”, this is best. Also, talk to your children and find out how their life will look like. How school will be like? How and where to find friends and how to keep up with them? How to continue or find new hobbies?
By the way, often I hear stories from expats that are having a hard time in Jakarta because they cannot continue doing their hobbies. Be aware that you might not be able to go running 3 times a week but find something realistic to substitute this.
In general, I´d give the advice:
‘Be open as much as you can, and see your expatriation as an adventure that won´t take forever. Then, it´s easier to cope with the tough days in expat life’
What kind of programs do you offer? and who are they for?
Most of my programs I offer to people in business but I also work with families that relocate to Indonesia. For example, I offer family welcome trainings in that I prepare the working spouse, the partner as well as the kids for settling in Indonesia. Besides that, I conduct business related intercultural trainings for expats that work in Indonesia. But since intercultural communication is always a bilateral (or multilateral) thing, I also train Indonesians who work with expats in terms of intercultural awareness and help them to develop skills of working on an international level.
We would also like to know …
What are your interests outside your work at Culture Energy?
I´m a hobby photographer, writer and passionate Yogi. I love to spoil my senses with spending time in nature, good food, dance or good music. I have a soft spot for natural and energy healing and practice Kinesiology since quite some years. By the way, this is a skill that I needed to develop in Indonesia while facing hair-raising medical approaches.
What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?
Hard to say, but recently friends were surprised as they got to know that as a Synaesthetican I have very colourful mind and indeed see the world with different eyes. I can see sounds and tastes and every number or letter has a shape and a colour in my mind.
What gives you energy?
My family, deep talks to good friends and a strong connection to the energies of nature
What delights you?
Good, deep stories, no matter if told in books, movies or in reality
What annoys you?
Speaking of media and entertainment: Anything that causes human stupidity and shrinking minds.
I try to reduce screen time as much as I can but I use the Calm Meditation App as well as Calm Radio App almost daily. And my running app Run Tracker.
What are your regular print and digital reads?
Anything that comes in through my network and newsletters. However, I appreciate to get an Indonesia news update through Kompas or Jakarta post. I have a subscription for my German art & culture journal “Das Magazin” and the “Happinez” Journal. And I love Coconuts refreshing articles about life in Indonesia.
About Yogyakarta and Indonesia
3 words to describe your Yogyakarta?
Santai , Friendly, Welcoming
Yogyakarta’s best kept secret?
…you will discover far away from Jl.Malioboro but off the beaten path 😉 …
Favourite Indonesian Movie?
Hard to decide: “Laskar Pelangi” or “Perempuan berkalung sorban” or “Berbagi suami”
If you could have dinner with 2 famous people who would you choose?
I´m not that into idolizing famous people, but meeting The Dalai Lama for dinner would be an impressing experience
Favourite place to eat in Yogyakarta?
Bakmie Condong Raos, Jl. Bantul, Yogyakarta, seriously, I go there twice a week, at least!
Tea, Coffee or Juice? And where?
Jamu 😉 at my Jamu Ibu in Dongkelan, Yogyakarta or at the Bar Jamu at Komunitas Salihara, Jakarta
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
Cooking while listening to 90´s Rock and singing all along the way or having a girls night out with lots of dance and cocktails 😉
Every visitor to Yogyakarta should eat, visit, experience?
Eat: Forget Gudeg ;), eat Bakmie Godog or a real Nasi Goreng Magelangan but please, only from the warung, never from restaurants!
Visit: The jungle waterfalls in Kulon Progo
Experience: One of the spiritual Kejawen events
Your favourite place to visit in Indonesia? Or place you would like to visit?
OMG, there are so many. Well, I´m dreaming of visiting Raja Ampat. It must be heaven on earth, everybody is saying that.
Connect with Silke and her work via LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. Please make sure to also check out her website, where she provides valuable information on how to master life and work in Indonesia
* Kenalkan – let me introduce
Words : Silke Irmscher and Liz McClean Photography : Silke Irmscher and a journey bespoke
Liked this post? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:
Moving to Jakarta : A one month diary of a newly arrived expat
Expat Parenting : Raising little children in Jakarta
Making the most of Expat life in Jakarta with Daleen Fourie
ajb’s Expat Guide on How to Thrive in Jakarta
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