Danielle Harmeling walked into the big, empty school room where she would be teaching in Indonesia and studied the white walls and blackboard. But the headmaster beside her was focused on something else entirely.
“[He] pointed at my sandals and told me that I would have to put on shoes covering the skin,” Harmeling recalled, “and the three-quarter trousers didn’t suit the school style either.”
For the young Belgian who’d just arrived in the primarily Muslim town of Palembang, South Sumatra, the culture shock was only beginning.
Harmeling had just left her job in the insurance industry back in Belgium after realising that it “wasn’t my dream job at all”, she said. She’d agreed to teach English to Indonesian teachers in South Sumatra in partnership with the University of Liege. She wanted to make a big change – she just didn’t realise how big it would be.
First, there were the social norms. Harmeling’s boyfriend joined her on the trip to Indonesia. She feared they could face discrimination because they weren’t married, and sure enough, when the headmaster found out, he advised the couple to live downtown, “far away from the school”. Harmeling and her boyfriend quickly learned they would have to adapt. They found a home with a local Chinese family.
Then there was the weather. Before leaving for Indonesia, Harmeling had anticipated hot and humid days, but she was still surprised by just how muggy it was. “Once outside, it was like finding yourself suddenly covered with sweat and having clothes sticking to your body,” she said. “The immediate thought was, ‘I want to have a shower, now!’”
But the change in climate provided a valuable lesson.
“People were so kind, and the rhythm of life, the climate, the atmosphere brought something that was so nice and peaceful to our lives,” she said. “I tried not to move too quickly, to stay calm, and be patient and accept my own stickiness. Getting used to [the weather] was quite difficult, but as I often say now, we can get used to so many things. With time, I developed strategies.”
Another case in point: When she first arrived in Indonesia, Harmeling was determined to have a structured routine. She systematically tried to be prepared for her classes by spending hours making her lesson plans. When she did take part in recreational activities, she scheduled them in advance. But she had to learn to live in the moment and let things happen naturally.
Her hour-long commute to the small village of Perajin Mariana was down a long and bumpy road. Every day she had to cross a rickety, old bridge to get to school. At first, she was terrified. Over time, she learned to relax. What’s more, the buses that she rode around town never came on time, but it was because they had to fill with people before the driver took off. Harmeling was growing to appreciate the differences.
She was also embracing her new community. She always received rides to school from a couple of her students. The rides gave way to stronger relationships with them.
On Fridays, her students wanted to leave class early. Harmeling had lesson plans that she wanted to complete, but eventually she relented and let them go. She soon learned they wanted to go to their mosque to pray. “It was really nice for me just to be able to let them go earlier and in a way participate in their joy,” she said.
Every day, random people came up to her and her boyfriend wanting to chat. The pair also received dinner invitations. Harmeling was quickly realising that her positive experiences all shared a commonality: the importance of letting go of control.
Before arriving in Indonesia, Harmeling felt as though she had to be in control of every situation. By the time she returned home to Belgium three months later, her outlook had changed completely. She’d learned to live more spontaneously, and to be open to new experiences.
“We were so young, but we already knew that ‘jam karet’ – that time is flexible; time goes by inevitably,” she said. “Enjoy every minute of life. Spending time in Indonesia helped me to put things into perspective. Does it really matter if sometimes we have to postpone what we had planned?”
Apparently, it doesn’t. Harmeling now lives in Chokier, Belgium, and teaches law students. She’s married to that boyfriend who had joined her in Indonesia, and they have now three children together.
She is enjoying life much more than she used to, she said. Now, she is committed to inspiring others to travel and learn more about themselves – whether it’s her children, or her students.
“Now that I have three children, my husband and I often tell them that they have to travel,” Harmeling said. “I wish my parents had told me to travel, but they were so frightened. Now, I often hear people say ‘give your children roots and wings’. I totally agree with that.”
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