International Educator Interviews: Emily in Jakarta

After a long hiatus, I am back with some great International Educator interviews lined up for you. First up is Emily who has been teaching third grade at Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) in Indonesia for the last year and a half. I really connected with Emily’s story and her strong attachment to her first overseas teaching post.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

My first international post was in Nairobi, Kenya. I thought I’d go on a two-year adventure and then head home. But like many of us, I was hooked. I worked at the International School of Kenya (ISK) for five years prior to moving to Indonesia a year and a half ago.

Ubud Bali

What made you decide to teach internationally?

When I sought my first post, I was simply eager to see more of the world, and I thought Kenya would be a good place to start. Now that I have been abroad for over six years, I am more aware of the many benefits to living and teaching internationally.

(Almost) private beach, Lombok

What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

No matter where in the world you are, teaching at a new school is always a little manic at first because you have to figure out the curriculum, get a pulse on the school ethos, and learn a whole bunch of acronyms. JIS is no exception. It’s a large, high-energy school with hundreds of faculty and a lot going on every day.

When you move to a new country, you are also busy with visas or other paperwork, settling your new home, and making friends. You might find yourself stumbling through the language, figuring out how to get from point A to point B, wondering what exactly this is that you’re eating, finding out what precious products you can or can’t get in-country, wondering why the locals are laughing at you this time, and trying not to fall into a pothole while looking at everything around you. These transition times can be overwhelming, but they are part of the experience we are choosing and I relish them.

Borobudur Temple, Java

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?

The curriculum, professionalism, facilities, and students are all aspects of international teaching that I appreciate. The two international schools that I know well are similar to certain independent schools in the United States. There is freedom that comes with not having to adhere to public school regulations, and I also find there is a “positive pressure” to be the best professional you can be. Many teachers at international schools have made a conscious decision to be there and want to make the most of their time, so I think that translates into minimal complacency or professional stagnation. Both JIS and ISK are well-resourced schools, situated on big campuses with great facilities, and powered by a huge team of support staff. Generally speaking, I have found my students to be very open-minded, adaptable, and worldly – but not pompous. With educated, well-travelled parents, it is no wonder that so many students are inquisitive and motivated learners. What’s more, I think some international students maintain a sense of innocence longer than they might in the States. This was especially apparent in Kenya, where we were less inundated with Western culture. 

Morning hike, Flores

What’s it like living in Jakarta? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there? What is challenging?

On the one hand, Jakarta is hot, hazy, and gritty. So one challenge for me is not having the temperate climate and blue skies of Nairobi. The other side of life in Jakarta, however, is very polished: air-conditioned shopping malls, an endless variety of bars and restaurants, inexpensive spas around every corner, and comfortable housing options. It’s all very easy compared to Kenya, which isn’t to say I felt that it was hard to live there either. Everyone always cites “traffic” as the worst thing about Jakarta – and it is really horrendous – but it sort of just becomes a fact of life and you have to adapt (or spend a whole lot of time being frustrated). Taxis or motorbikes are cheap and easy to hire, making getting around totally possible. If you go the wrong direction at the wrong time of day, however, good luck!

How easy/difficult is it to meet locals and integrate with the local culture?

It hasn’t felt very easy for me to meet locals outside of work. I’ve learned a bit about the culture, but I am certainly not integrated. I need to push myself to go beyond my school community. I hope I’ll have more to say on this subject after being here a bit longer.

Lake Naivasha, Kenya

What is a myth about your adopted country?

This isn’t quite a myth, but many international visitors (especially those who fly directly in and out of Bali) only see a small sliver of what Indonesia has on offer. The vast number of islands, cultures, languages; the contrast between rice paddies, coral reefs, volcanoes, and skyscrapers; the tension between tradition and modernity; the juxtaposition of an omnipresent call to prayer and a debauched nightlife……  In short, there is much more to Indonesia than the Bali of Eat, Pray, Love.

Taj Mahal, India

How do you spend your holidays? How often do you visit home?

I maximize my time off school. I’ve explored seven countries in the last year alone – most recently, India – and might reach my 50th before I leave Asia. When I travel, I like a balance of tourism/culture, relaxation, and the outdoors. I’m less balanced when it comes to food and drink – the more, the better! Sometimes I like to be planned and pampered, but I am usually happy with spontaneous and simple.

“Home” is a complicated word for me these days. I go back to the East Coast of the US most summers for a couple of weeks, and I’m lucky to have family and friends who are happy to visit. I’m not sure what it will mean to “settle down” one day.

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

I have worked at a total of four schools, and each experience has been valuable to me one way or another. Each has also been bigger than the last. Though I’ve enjoyed the opportunities that come with working at a very large school, I also appreciate the intimacy of smaller schools. I thrive when I feel like an integral part of the community with a hand in the school’s vision for the future.


The rare sight of blue sky in Jakarta, taken from a rooftop in my neighborhood. You can see part of the central Jakarta skyline on the far right.

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

This takes time – about two years for me if Kenya is an indication. I have a small, but cozy and modern apartment here in Jakarta. I’ve filled it with some of my favorite photographs and craft pieces from my travels – as well as a very comfortable couch and some beautiful local teak wood furniture. I created the illusion of some outdoor space by covering my small balcony with potted plants and Astroturf (which is surprisingly effective). As comfy as it is, I would consider moving within Jakarta to be closer to a more interesting neighborhood or to have a square of real live grass! As for feeling like a new country is your own, I find this always takes leaving for a while and then returning. I remember returning to Nairobi for my third year after a summer in the US and bursting into tears with relief when I stepped out of the airport because the feel, the smell, and the noises just seemed to say, “Welcome home!”

 Pacu Jawi (Cow Races), Sumatra

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

While the going is still good. I would rather be sad to go than desperate to get out. When I left Kenya, I knew it was time for a change of pace professionally, and I wanted to explore Asia, but I miss it every day. I think this is a good problem to have.

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

Kenya will always have a special place in my heart as my first international post. I loved the school and grew immensely as a teacher during my time there. I fell in love the pace of life and the good vibes of Nairobi. And so much of the country is simply stunning. I went on countless safaris, became quite familiar with the white sands of the coast, and camped at a lake just outside the city at least once a month. The verdict is still out on my next move, but I adore Japan and also hope to explore Latin America one day.


Masai Mara, Kenya

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching?

It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.


Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.

If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

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