My story of working with Indonesian staff
By the end of the second month of 2011, having just finished a six-month teaching post in Tripoli, Libya, I had worked with people from many walks of life including South African, British, Sudanese-Libyan. Through this teaching experience, I encountered attitudes and outlooks on life, such as learning about the tribal scars on Sudanese men and their religious upbringing, that were altogether different from mine. I took this as valuable learning in my cross-cultural understanding that would serve me greater when encountering new customs and other ways of thinking. Little did I know that a few months after finishing this job, I would be boarding a flight across the seas to Balikpapan, Indonesia.
My first meeting with one of my Indonesian colleagues I would never forget. I was collecting my luggage when I saw my boss and alongside her, a kind-faced gentleman in his fifties. I introduced myself to both and discovered that he was officially my boss’s driver. Mr. Supraman, or ‘Superman,’ as he liked to joke. He, to this day, remains one of the people I remember the most. How could I forget someone who went with me to the airport to pick up a friend come to visit, and ended up waiting out in the dark and rain until 1 am for someone that would never arrive? Supraman really had a way of going beyond what his job entailed. It wasn’t that he was trying to constantly secure his position while so many in that city appeared to live on so little: he wanted to help, and he would go out of his way to help me and my other staff, including the Indonesians. I mention him specifically also because he was a great teacher to me of the Bahasa, the local language, and where I could go safely and of course some handy dos and don’ts.
A couple of things Supraman taught me that served me well in my professional role at the international school I worked with may seem so small, but to anyone who goes to Indonesia as a foreigner like myself or for business, would be prudent to take heed:
– Be polite Mr Jess, he would tell me. It was so simple and yet so many people who came into that country, including my boss, acted without sensitivity. I recall one of my colleagues, the front office lady, confiding in me that sometimes a foreign staff member would be short and curt and order her around like she was a small child.
– People do not speak up. Rude, Mr. Jess. Supraman explained to me one day when I wanted to know why, when the Indonesian and foreign staff gathered for meetings, many were quiet and loath to say anything. They are very respectful of business hierarchy and as one woman told me, they come and listen to the boss. Many, despite being encouraged, did not want to speak up as it was part of cultural etiquette not to question the authority in charge of the business. This, however, is not a perfect rule, and other Indonesian staff would speak and contribute on important school matters.