Becoming friends with Indonesians: a local’s perspective

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Have you ever wondered how the locals perceive you as an Indonesian international student? In this post, Australian Timothy Lam shares with us his story of befriending Indonesians!

There were no Indonesian international students at the high school that I went to. Having grown up in Melbourne, my circle of friends were mostly local Australian students. We spoke with Australian accents, went through an Australian education system and spent most of our childhood in Australia.

But like the proverbial frog in the well, my view of the world was restricted by my own limited interactions and experiences. Going to university has introduced me to a diversity of cultures, perspectives and insights that has both excited and challenged me.

During my Media and Communications degree at the University of Melbourne, I met and became friends with a classmate from Indonesia. He was very friendly and approachable and we both shared a mutual fondness for bad puns. Soon enough, I was introduced to his Indonesian and Singaporean friends, who were also studying our course.

I may not be Indonesian or Singaporean, but they welcomed me like I was one of their own.

Despite growing up in different countries, we shared a thirst for adventure and we embarked on a road trip across the state of Victoria to celebrate our graduation. Armed with a red Mitsubishi, an abundance of snacks and a few packets of Teh Kotak, we visited historical landmarks, sampled different cuisines, soaked in breathtaking views, hopped from one rural town to the next, and enjoyed each other’s company.

Some of my international student friends were surprised that I have never been to many of the towns that we visited along our roadtrip. After all, I have lived in Melbourne for almost 20 years, and a common assumption would be that I would have at least visited some of these places during that time.

But maybe it’s because Melbourne has been my home for so long that has made me take much of what the city has to offer for granted. I didn’t have that same strong urge to explore Melbourne because I was so used to my surroundings. In fact, if I hadn’t met my international student friends, I probably would not have visited many of these tourist destinations.

Becoming friends with someone from another country can therefore add a richness and excitement that may not be present when interacting with a person that shares the same cultural background as you.

With international students, I get to see and hear Melbourne from a different perspective.

Through my Indonesian friends, I have been introduced to the glorious deliciousness of Indomie, assimilated slang like lebay into my vocabulary and began to say ‘Indo’ instead of ‘Indonesia’.

I get to listen to stories about life in Indonesia – from firsthand experiences of the 1998 riots to witnessing the passion and division generated by the recent presidential election.

I am currently studying a postgraduate degree in Development Studies and the vast majority of students are from overseas. Local students such as myself are actually a minority in my course, and there are more Indonesians than Australians in my classes.

And I love it.

I love learning from the experience of my classmates, many of whom have worked in countries that I one day hope to travel to.

I love discovering new perspectives of seeing the world.

Most of all, I love getting to know the people – to go beyond caricatures and embrace the human aspects of culture.

Melbourne is often marketed as one of the multicultural capitals of the world. Precincts like Lygon St and Chinatown offer a glimpse of the cultural landscape of various ethnic communities. But I find that interacting and befriending people from other nationalities can offer a more personal and holistic understanding that goes beyond stereotypical representations of a country.

In a nation of nearly 250 million people, there is tremendous diversity in terms of the ethnic, religious and cultural attitudes of Indonesians. I am fortunate enough to have met some truly generous, friendly and welcoming Indonesians. I no longer categorise my friends into ‘international’ and ‘local’ students. They are lifelong friends who have added much happiness and humour to my life.

A common perception is that local students stick together and that international students prefer to hang out with people from their home country. One can argue that it is natural to gravitate towards people who look and sound familiar.

But from my own experiences, becoming friends with an international student is really not all that different to being friends with a local Australian student. Making new friends, regardless of what country they are from, means stepping outside your comfort zone. But if we see beyond a person’s cultural background or physical appearance, we may find that we have more in common than at first glance.