Kue Lapis, Shortbread, and Donuts: The Story of Three Cultures

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Different cultural background -- all muggles. Facebook Harry Potter themed summer party, July 2018. (Photo by Author)

Living abroad means that you’re exposed to various cultures that are different to your own. Read our contributor’s, Debbie Widjaja, story on her multicultural experience while studying and working in an American company called Facebook in London: the fun ones and the shocking ones!

It was almost the end of the month and my bank account’s balance was merely £50. One more week until stipend day, I thought, while carefully calculating how much money I could spend on daily meals. It felt like a summer breeze when a classmate of mine invited me to her birthday dinner. I wasn’t that close to her – to be frank, I didn’t even like her – but hey, free dinner, why not?

If you’ve lived abroad, you might have guessed the plot twist of this story: she wasn’t paying for the dinner. Turned out the culture of paying-for-everyone on one’s birthday is not a global culture. I remembered paying £26, went home and cried over every penny I spent that night.

That was my first culture shock story when I moved to the UK.

Now as an Indonesian living in the UK and working at an American company, I encounter culture clash almost every single day. I’m sharing here my observation and experience, and by no means this applies to or can be generalised to everyone.

Front facade of Facebook office in London. Photo by Shuttestock
Front facade of Facebook office in London. Photo by Shutterstock

American companies are generally fast-paced and open to new, groundbreaking ideas. “Young, scrappy, and hungry” was the motto of American founding fathers in Hamilton the musical, and I find those values to be true especially in American tech companies. They also hire ambitious people and manage promotions/rewards based on merit rather than tenure or relationship. This is great if you can keep up with the pace, but it also means you can be crushed if you slow down a little bit – which leads to FOMO (“fear of missing out”) i.e. you can’t switch off properly during weekends and holidays, which then leads to burnout and well-being issues, but that’s another topic.

British culture is polite and full of pleasantries (aka basa-basi). British people, a bit similar to Indonesians, tend to be indirect in communicating disagreements. The difference is British people talk in a sarcastic way, while Indonesians talk behind the other person’s back. A YouGov survey revealed that the phrase “With the greatest respect…” means “I think you’re an idiot” in UK, while Americans thought it means “I am listening to you.” Another trait is British people, like most Europeans, value work-life balance more than Americans.

Indonesians’ traits? This is an over-generalisation considering Indonesia has 264 million people, but fairly speaking, Indonesians who managed to nail scholarships/jobs abroad must share some common traits: ambi(tious), hardworking and passionate. The willingness to work hard(er than most Europeans) makes us stand out.

Celebrating my 1st "Faceversary", September 2017. (Photo by Author)
Celebrating my 1st “Faceversary”, September 2017. (Photo by Author)

You can already see that we have some alignment between American companies and Indonesian individuals: We value ambition, hard work, and passion. We also have some alignment with British culture: being polite even when the other person is dumb or annoying us. What about the culture clashes?

Education in Indonesia is mostly one-way teaching: teachers telling students some “facts”, students memorise them and during exams, they’ll just test the memory. This method of teaching leads us to be less critical and less comfortable to argue, debate, or pushback especially towards a figure of power like our teacher, or our manager.

Whether you like it or not, it’s imperative to master this if you want to climb up the ladder. Challenging status quo, saying no to people, debating during meetings, criticising and accepting criticism… All of these are outside my comfort zone and I’m still learning everyday in my job at Facebook.

Another thing that’s hard for me to swallow, and probably is relevant for you as well,  is my own pride. I was a big fish in a small pond (the small pond being Indonesia, even though it’s 8x bigger than UK in the literal sense). Now I’m just a medium-sized fish in a much bigger pond. When I present my ideas, people don’t awe at them, they criticise them. Being able to accept the feedback gracefully and move on is another skill to learn.

What about the clash between Indonesian and British culture? Honestly, I find it hard to build deep friendships with British people. British people are the best in superficial interactions but not the most open when it comes to real relationships. They’re also more reserved about their personal lives – we can’t just ask them whether they have a partner, a kid(s), etc. Took me six months until I could call my colleague who sat right next to me as my friend.

Warning: there also things that are considered common in Indonesia, but can get you reported to HR or even fired in UK companies. Unwanted attention and touches can lead to harassment reports. (In an automotive company in Jakarta, I remembered witnessing a perverted guy from HR commented on my friend, “Hey, can you please stop playing with your hair? It makes me horny.” If this happens in UK, the guy will be shown the door immediately.)

You might think, Okay, I’m decent, I’m not gonna talk like that guy. But the sensitivity towards harassment and discrimination here is sky-high. In Indonesia it’s very common during interviews to ask (mostly during introduction/icebreaking) about whether you’re married or with kids. It’s a big no here – if you reject a candidate, they might think it’s because they are married/unmarried/with kids/with no kids/certain ethnicity/certain gender etc, and it can lead to legal implications.

We’ve talked about the alignment and clashes between Indonesian, American, and British culture. To close this ramble I’d like to bring to attention one Indonesian mindset, probably implanted in your brain by parents, that needs to be taken with a grain of salt: “You’re lucky to be there.”  I’m all for being grateful and stuff, but this mindset, if taken too literally, can lead you to suffer in a competitive working environment. When somebody is promoted instead of you, “Oh, it’s okay, I’m already lucky to be here.” When somebody stomps on your idea unjustly, “Probably his idea is better anyway, I’m only lucky to be here.” When you realise you don’t like your job and you dread going to work every morning and you’re thinking to quit, “But I’m so lucky to be here, I shouldn’t go anywhere.”

How’s your experience working for a foreign company in a foreign land? Which part do you relate with, and which part don’t you agree with?