Teaching English in Indonesia: They Call Me Guru, Part 2: Culture Shock

When most people think of culture shock, food and hygiene typically come to mind. While I certainly miss green chili and deep dish pizza at the moment, I have greater struggles.

I have been a teacher for 7 years, and half of my tenure has been in the United States. Working in America is something I’m comfortable with. I know how to use Outlook, make requests of my employees, and politely disagree with my boss. However, working in other cultures has proven difficult for me.

Let me paint two opposing pictures.

My first experience abroad was in Germany. For those who are completely in the dark, Germans strive for perfection and nothing is ever perfect. If a German finds a flaw in your work, they will not hesitate to tell you. Their culture is very low context. I lost my first patch of hair after moving there, likely from the stress I put on myself to please everyone. The hours killed me as well. I left my apartment at 6am and got home at 9pm most days. On the other hand, I learned how to organize myself, how to schedule, how to use a binder, and how to be a round-the-clock professional.

Indonesia is nothing like Germany (I hope this isn’t a major revelation). Here the words perfection and organization might as well be taboo. No one in my office uses Outlook; in fact I’m shocked when they use email. Meetings are scheduled five minutes in advance which means no agenda and no minutes. Half of the staff are fairly diligent; I couldn’t tell you what the other half are meant to do. In sum, I’m having trouble.

I can’t stand to lose any more hair, so I have to adapt. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Some people prefer to talk face-to-face over email.

  • If everyone does their work last minute, it’s strange not to do the same.

  • The job is important, but sometimes the relationships with your peers are more so.

  • If you show a willingness to compromise, perhaps your colleagues will too.

  • Remember that it will get easier, and you will look back one day and say proudly that you did it.


Interested in challenging yourself in a new culture? It’s time you enrolled for your TEFL Certification.