Welcome Home: ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ after International Study in NZ

Four years ago, when I left Indonesia with my family to start my PhD in Auckland, I needed to adapt to a new culture, climate, and Western academic system. I learned step-by-step about critical thinking and writing. I felt sad when winter came and my kids got flus, coughs, or fevers. On the other hand, I also learned how a woman can get a great education and great support for our family, such as childcare subsidies, free primary school education, and health services. I learned how many of the basic needs of people in Auckland are subsided by the government, including us because of the benefits associated with my New Zealand Scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

With my supervisors: (L) Dr Sari Andajani at the Auckland Airport, and (R) Associate Professor Sharyn Graham Davies in her office at AUT.

Finally, my PhD journey is almost at an end. I submitted in October 2019, and I await my oral exam in February 2020. I recently returned back to Indonesia, and had to learn again to be an Indonesian. We had returned to Indonesia two times before going home for good, but we (particularly my children) still deal with some challenges. I think of this as ‘reverse culture shock.’

Climate difference

In the first week of our arrival, I could see my children’s faces getting red when we walked in the sunshine. They complained: “It’s very hot Mommy,” or “I am tired.” In Auckland we got used to weather up to 20°C, but the temperature in Indonesia, like other tropical or sub-tropical countries, is often more than 30°C. My kids always asked for water during our first four weeks in Indonesia. They felt so thirsty. We sweat easily, even when we haven’t done much movement or exercise. In Auckland, I would get sweaty only if I ran or walked very fast to pick up my kids from their schools. My family also needs to deal with unclean air due to forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo. Even as our plane was preparing to land in Indonesia, my daughter said: “Mommy, what smell is that?”

Kiwi tummy to Indonesian tummy

We cannot drink tap water in Indonesia directly; we need to boil it first. In addition, not all environments here have good sanitation systems. We can see flies easily and female mosquitos wait to suck your blood. The first week after our arrival, all of my family got diarrhea, starting from my husband, myself, and then my three children. The unluckiest one is my third child. He was born in Auckland and wasn’t used to the food in Indonesia. He ended up dehydrated, and needed to be hospitalized for three days. My kids also suffer from mosquito bites, and needed some lotion to prevent the bites and treat itchiness.

Health insurance and administration

In Auckland, I needed to register for health insurance. I only needed to show my ID card to enrol myself for health services at my university. For my family, I looked for a nearby primary health centre. I needed to bring my family’s passport and Visa and for the New Zealand Scholarship. Most health services were free after our first enrolment.

In my country, health services are not free. I need to register for insurance, and there’s a lot of administration and bureaucracy involved in that. It was also hard to do this before I returned back for good to my beloved country as online systems are very rare in my province. I used social media to ask my friends in Indonesia for help handling some written papers related to our health access. Luckily, we were able to enrol for public health insurance before my son needed to be hospitalized.

Education systems

Education systems in Indonesia and in Auckland are different. In Indonesia, I observed that expectations are much higher for reading, mathematics, and science, and schools have less focus on arts lessons and other soft skills than public schools in Auckland. For me, I did not want to force my kid to enroll in primary school as I did not have time to prepare her Indonesian language writing skills during my study. Some may choose to enroll their kids in schools with international standards. However, not all of us can afford that as it is not cheap. I accompanied my 6 year old daughter to a few schools, both public and private. She chose a kindergarten, saying: “I love playing school Mommy, not learning school,” though she is aware that she needs to move on to primary school soon. We enrolled her in an English course, which she likes most of all.

Rubbish and traffic jams…

Rubbish in the sewers

I couldn’t explain to my daughter when she asked me why people don’t throw their rubbish in rubbish bins. My kids are a little bit shocked to see rubbish on the street, in rivers, and close to our house. My daughter feels like a superhero when she picks up rubbish and throws it in the bin, but she cannot do that in Palembang as the rubbish is just so excessive and widespread. My kids are also unused to traffic jams. “Be patient,” I tell them, “and put your mask on to avoid inhaling pollutants.” We miss being around a lot of big trees and large parks, many playgrounds for kids, and a clean environment.

I’ve noticed people praising the things I’ve brought home: “I love your shoes,” “I like your scarf,” or “I love your clothes.” Some friends read about my PhD Mom journey on Facebook. Old friends comment: “how thin you are now,” “how tired your face now,” and “did you have some challenges for your study?”…

This is my welcome home. It’s time to share the knowledge and experience I gained during my study in Auckland, but I need to deal with some challenges and get used to my own culture again. I can, I just need time…

Home sweet home.

Home in Indonesia with my husband, Kusnan Sayuti, who supported me and our children during my study

About Najmah Usman

Najmah is a lecturer at Sriwijaya University in South Sumatera Indonesia. She is currently a PhD candidate at Auckland University of Technology (with a New Zealand ASEAN scholarship). She is also a writer, blogger, and a feminist. She is an expert in both quantitative and qualitative research and has published four books related to Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Previously she was awarded an Australian Partnership Scholarship and a Netherlands Fellowship Partnership.

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