I moved to Java to escape but expat life was often a bore

Alice Malseed: So I began to write, and my play ‘Jellyfish’ emerged, about what it means to be from ‘Generation Y’

Alice Malseed: ‘Moving to Jakarta was one of the best and worst decisions I have ever made.’

Alice Malseed: ‘Moving to Jakarta was one of the best and worst decisions I have ever made.’

 

In September 2013 I moved to Jakarta, the heart of Java; a sprawling and layered city of 10 million people and the capital of Indonesia, itself a country of over 17,000 islands.

Before this, Indonesia had never crossed my mind. I couldn’t really place it on a map, nor did I know anyone there or who had been. I chose to move there because an email landed in my university inbox one day advertising a job as a drama teacher in a kindergarten there.

The benefits were appealing, but the most attractive prospect was getting the hell out of my normal life.

I had been in London for seven years, having left Belfast at 18, and I loved it. I spent my time between bars, coffee shops, theatres and nightclubs. I partied a lot, I met brilliantly vibrant people from all over the world, learnt how to navigate everything from men heckling me in the street, to the sprawling bus network and how to cycle down Old Kent Road without ending up in St Thomas’s Hospital. I also learned how to argue articulately about issues I cared about, namely capitalism, feminism, and gentrification.

It was glorious.

Being from Ireland - “Northern Ireland, yes, Belfast, no there aren’t bombs everyday; no, not everyone is a terrorist; yes, it was a weird place to grow up; yes, it’s part of the UK; no, we don’t spend the Euro and you don’t need your passport to go there; you know you women still can’t get an abortion there” - was interesting too.

I never really thought about Ireland when I lived there, but in London people were really interested in the relationship between Northern Ireland and the UK, forcing me to think more about the island.

After seven years, though, London started to wear thin.

My friends and I graduated in 2009, with degrees in arts and humanities. We knew Judith Butler and Foucault inside out, but much less than we needed to about the real world.

I had grown up in a sort of blissful suburban bubble, glided over to a liberal-minded arts and social sciences college in one of the best cities in the world, only to fall off the cloud at the other end, with no savings, in Conservative Britain. Europe was in recession. My peer group were affected profoundly by a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, despondency, and a survive-or-die mentality.

Difficulties in work (badly paid) and housing (filthy, draughty, mouse-filled) made for a combination of head-melting, heart-breaking factors which compelled me towards a desire for change… and what better change than a nine-month stint 12,000km away in tropical Jakarta?

Moving there was one of the best and worst decisions I have ever made.

At times it was totally fascinating; the complexities of the city and the societal norms were often bizarre and perplexing. People would often rather tell a small lie than risk embarrassing you; being a white person warrants the utmost respect; everyone knows how to chop a mango with great elegance; apart from those who are domestic staff themselves, everyone has their own team of servants, maids, drivers and gardeners; and peanut, garlic and chilli sauce goes with everything.

I lived in a townhouse with a swimming pool, with a group of Indonesian 20-somethings who loved Jack Daniels, Heineken, Vogue and KFC. We had a chihuahua, and next door a beagle lived in a cage only big enough for a rabbit.

There was an Irish bar at the end of my street and I’d go there for happy hour, inevitably to listen to ubiquitous covers of Katy Perry and “Wonderwall”. I went to the St Patrick’s Society sometimes, and was invited to balls or to play touch rugby, despite my lack of a ball gown, or interest in team sports.

A lot of the time, Jakarta was a bore. There wasn’t a lot to do after work in the $12,000-a-term kindergarten, apart from watching illegally downloaded films.

At home in Belfast or in London, members’ clubs, platinum health spas and high-end restaurants were off limits to me because of invisible but dominating factors like status and class. But in Jakarta, these were a standard part of life for westerners.

I couldn’t walk around because there were no footpaths, it was filthy, and the few times I did I risked getting run over by a moped or rat, or interrupted by one of the many misogynistic men who flashed me on the street.

So, I’d sit in the air-conditioned townhouse, and write.

It was in the swanky townhouse with the swimming pool that I started writing Jellyfish, my most ambitious work to date about ten years of my life between Belfast and London. It is a one-woman show about what it is to live now; it’s about what it is to be in your 20s; it’s about the city; and it’s about that shattering feeling that can happen in even the strongest of minds. It’s as much about parties and raving as it is about theatre; it’s lively, fun, lyrical and confessional.

Jellyfish, written and performed by Alice Malseed and directed by Sarah Baxter, runs as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe in the Project Cube at the Project Arts Centre from September 5th to 11th at 2pm. See fringefest.com/festival/whats-on/jellyfish

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