In Jakarta it is almost an expectation and belief that expat women shop…a lot…maybe even daily. I would love to dispel that rumor with stories of feeding the poor at soup kitchens, rocking babies, building houses, etc but the truth is that there is a lot of truth to it. Some people say it is an obligation to shop as a way to stimulate the economy but that just sounds to me like an interesting marketing tactic.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of social welfare activities being performed by expats. Some work through the American Women’s Association or other organizations raising money and delivering food, one woman I know teaches English as a second language, some volunteer and run the Jakarta version of the Humane Society, rescuing unwanted and abused pets, and many with school age children volunteer at the schools just like they would in the States and maybe even more since they cannot get work permits here.
But we do shop.
First I must clarify that there is a difference between shopping and buying and not every shopping trip ends up costing money. Some are just walking around looking at items for sale, pricing things you think you want, keeping lists of places that have items you know you want. Scott buys and I shop. When he knows what he wants he makes a bee-line straight for it and before I can look at something sparkly or cute, he has his purchase in hand and is moving towards the door! That is buying and although my son teases me that is my pasttime of choice, I do far more shopping than buying.
So how does one defend the fixation on shopping by expat women that does not sound frivolous, shallow, or a waste of time? The answer is simple: Shopping in Jakarta (or any foreign country) is a learning experience, a scavenger hunt of sorts. We lack the common knowledge that each of us holds in our home countries. If I am looking for something in the States I can easily narrow my search in my mind. Low priced items that are not necessarily the highest quality can be found at Target or Walmart. A step up from that would be Kohl’s, JCPenney, or Sears. Higher yet Macy’s, Dillards, Nordstroms, Lord & Taylor. High end/most expensive might be boutiques or custom made. Yes I know quality and price do not go hand in hand but for most items it is a place to start, a guideline of sorts. Knowledge seeps into your brain whether you know it or not and if you ask someone where to get just about anything they will be able to give a few suggestions. Even men have a sense of where to shop.
It is that exact knowlege that an expat lacks in a foreign country. Add to that the fact that in Jakarta there are more malls than Houston has Starbucks (yes…exaggeration but not by much) full of stores that are new, brands that are new, and prices that are sometimes hard to compare. Now factor in that many of the places you actually WANT to buy from are small shops with no advertisement but a sign outside a small building on a busy cramped street that may or may not give a clue as to what they sell, no internet search to find what you want and an ever-changing inventory of items. Then, just to spice things up throw in the fact that many items are custom made here, not because they are high end or exclusive but because there are many talented artisans that are supported by the local community.
In short, we must spend time to learn where to find what we want, educate ourselves on the history behind Indonesian handicrafts, figure out what a fair price is for things we have never seen, and learn which stores or sellers to trust. We also hunt for some common items that are not so common here.
So, if you hear me talk about shopping several times a week or I am excited because a friend made a recommendation for a new shop I have never been to, do not judge me as shallow or frivolous. I am learning a lot about Indonesia handicrafts, interacting with local people and practicing my bahasa Indonesia, and I am supporting the local economy when I buy something. I figure after a few years here I will need to do less shopping but I hope not, discovering the small shops around Jakarta is always challenging and entertaining.