It’s amazing what can happen in a years time. This is my experience of going back to Makassar, the first city of our Asian adventure:
[Moving here was hard; Living here was hard. It was just as hard as I allowed it to be, and boy was it. When I moved to Makassar, my anxiety was out of control. I had always experienced anxiety growing up, but for the first time, everything came to a screeching halt and I was left to come to terms with this overwhelming feeling. Moving countries, giving up my work and adjusting to culture shock I hadn’t comprehended. Unlike the expat experience in France, this was perplexing and frustrating for my otherwise adaptable self to handle. Makassar was a transitive experience for me in that I realized I needed to find myself in a city I didn’t know and hardly loved.]
I wake up with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my stomach this time. Over a year ago when we moved here, my mood was staggeringly different. This time the day is mine, and I’m here to explore my old stomping grounds. Laurens will go to work and I know exactly how to get around and I even have plans. I descend from the same hotel that housed us when we arrived fresh off the plane. This hotel is like a calm quiet oasis above the bustling city streets, except this time I know exactly how to conquer the place, I know exactly how to maneuver. I earned my stripes, I paid my dues and that feeling of relief lets me know I’ve come full circle. I dust off my Bahasa and speak it with confidence; I’m not overwhelmed and constantly flustered like last time. This time I hit the ground running with open eyes and a more understanding perspective. I’m back in Makassar, and I’m excited to be back. I’m able to side step all the stares and attention, all the “eyyymiiisters” with the ease of a pro. I don’t even really mind them this time. Makassar is the kind of city that bombards your senses, and there’s never a dull day out. As it’s the first Asian city we ever lived in, I have an inevitable soft spot for this place. I’ve changed almost as much as this city has, and for that I’m grateful.
I want to visit my old haunts and feel a striking culture again. I want to indulge in cheap life-changing massages and authentic Indonesian cuisine I can’t find in Malaysia. I’m willing to be bombarded by sounds, smells and stares, because in Johor Bahru bombardment rarely happens; it’s more or less a predictable place to live.
What struck me most different was how cozy Makassar is compared to the spread out, bland feel of where we live now: Johor Bahru. Sure, Makassar is growing by the day, but the feel is that of a village in most parts of the city and there’s only so many spots where expats really meet up for a night out. Chances are if you’re new in town, people will know you, and you’ll get to know them. There’s something comforting in that. Things are pretty central. People are so kind, and I definitely missed that most.
In my short five days there, I had lunch with a complete stranger, was drawn by another, took hundreds of photos of smiling and willing strangers, and visited my old students. I felt home again.
As I walked around the city, my bad shoulder hurt. My muscles ached and throbbed to the core like every other time I carry around too much. It’s what I always do when I’m out and about exploring a new city. The sun seared my exposed arms like only South East Asian sun can. I forgot how strong it is there, and I regretted not bringing sunscreen, but most of all I regretted wearing jeans on a sizzling day like this. I trudged my white sneakers through the dusty side streets of souvenir main street and decided to take a left on a narrow road full of graffiti. A little girl with no shoes and disheveled hair approached me, eying my vintage camera in hand, and motioned for a photo with her little index finger. After that, a very pregnant woman came up to me and pointed to my nose and approached me to rub it, as a compliment of sorts.
These poor neighborhoods are a stark contrast to what most foreigners experience while living here, and to our experience while there. We were fortunate to have a three-story house, and a pembantu (housekeeper) to help us every day. These families I photographed that day had metal sheets for roofs and walls and not much else. With as little as they had they were so kind and happy. Development and construction buzzes around these poor neighborhoods and one man even tried to tell me about their problems with this. He pointed to this sign:
I didn’t quite know what the sign meant, but he kept repeating “masala miss, masala”. I came to find out that the sign is about the development and demolition that will surely affect locals living there.
For sure Makassar is a place of juxtaposition. There’s extremely wealthy people who live in huge houses with all the excess of any other place, and yet there’s extreme poverty too right next door; corruption runs rampant yet immigration laws are some of the strictest; there’s becaks chugging along side fancy vans that cost more than a sports car in the US; there’s open-minded people fascinated by Westerners, yet a new more conservative move towards strict laws like the one forbidding beer in supermarkets or restaurants. It’s a lot to keep up with.
I was nervous to come back for several reasons. Makassar was such a pivotal experience for me, but I didn’t realize that until I returned. I had a love-hate relationship with this town as I detailed in my previous post. When I returned this year, it was as if it all clicked. I love visiting and exploring cities like this, but decided I’m not cut out for that version of being an expat, at least not yet. Of course, once I got to know the place and people, I realized how special the year was for Laurens and I. Makassar was our foundational Asian experience, informing all our next homes. We’ll always look back on the time here no matter where we end up. In this unpredictable expat life, it’s not always clear where you’ll end up, but Makassar taught me heaps about handling cities that are less than ideal to live in.
One of my most viewed blogs detailed my time living in Makassar and the culture shock that…shocked me. It’s received an overwhelming response from readers who are in the same boat or are happy to find anything about Makassar at all. These people that have reached out might be moving and don’t know what to expect; they want to know someone else has gone before them and how they’ve done it. There was even an American girl who moved there and taught for six months after finding my blog. We Skyped before she moved over and I felt so connected to her situation and the experience she was about to embark on. (Her experience is detailed here.) It’s amazing to see how small the world really is, and when I went back to Makasser I met her in a coffee shop to catch up. It was surreal.
So yes, there’s more information now about Makassar online than before I moved there, but I’ve been happy to hear from people from all over the world who need some insight, and someone to talk to. This is a really helpful resource that I wish would’ve been around when I lived there. I get lots of emails from expats who are contemplating moving there, and they often ask: Should I do it? Should we move from where we are to Makassar? Usually, it’s young families who reach out.
It’s a huge question to answer, but I’ll try to sum it up:
It comes down to previous expat experience, I think. As a family, if it’s the first overseas move you’re making, definitely visit first. It might be an overwhelming move to make if you’re coming from the US or Europe and are expecting a smooth transition, especially with kids. I think people who move to Makassar are (or need to be) adventurous and adaptable. You’ll never experience anything else like it, and it that way it’s a worthwhile move. It’s a vibrant, fascinating culture and if you go into it with an open mind, it could be a great time. I think I could’ve done 2 years there. The good thing is that there’s so much more than before, and definitely it will only become more developed and easy in the coming years. Life is cheap, there’s beauty all around, and people – both expats and locals – are extremely kind. Makassar is on the verge of a huge transformation and offers a very comfortable expat life for westerners in terms of luxuries that would be too expensive to have back home.