Indonesian busker and blue bus

How can hopping on a bus teach you to be present in the world?

Have you ever seen this many people riding a motorcycle? Besides the obvious feat of balance, the families are really on display. It’s not exactly the same as driving down the highway in your car with tinted windows. Now that I’m back in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I am reminded of the physical closeness and all the opportunities here for looking at each other, especially on the road. Spending time on the street is helping me get over not wanting to be noticed and really be present

After spending some time in South Korea, I’m back in Indonesia. Despite having lived here before, I am still going through culture shock. In fact, even when I go to the US, my original place of origin, there is still culture shock to navigate. But back to living in Indonesia. Engaging with strangers is a very important part of the culture here.

Feeling ignored is sometimes nice, sometimes not

In Korea, there is a sense of anonymity that is sometimes refreshing, sometimes maddening. As a non-Korean, it can be even more pronounced. But if I want to walk around and get things done, it feels liberating. No one appears to watch, no one is taking note of your every move. No one cares if you invite your male friend over to your apartment. I noticed this minimal eye contact, for lack of a better term, with the way people crossed the street, and when Koreans rarely looked up as I passed them. Even people I saw every day wouldn’t appear to see me. My apartment manager, by all accounts a very kind woman, didn’t even notice me as I waved my hand about a foot away from her face because she was looking down at her cell phone.

On display, in Java

In Java where I live now, that would never happen. First, as a white woman, I stick out like a sore thumb. There are always men hanging out on street corners and passing the time here. And they miss no opportunity to talk to unaccompanied women as they pass by, especially those who are obviously not Indonesian. Also, it is polite to say hello by using a person’s title as one passes people sitting outside their house on back streets. For example, they would say, “Mr., (Pak) Mrs., (Bu) Grandmother/father (Mbah), etc., to acknowledge that they are passing through their space. The people sitting there will reply, yes or ‘monggo’ in return, to let the passerby know they are welcome.


get over not wanting to be noticed and really be present

‘Watch For Thieves,’ the sign warns on the #2 bus in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. These older privately-run buses are dying out, as city-run AC buses take over.

So how do I feel about sticking out like a sore thumb? Sometimes it feels great to be noticed. And it can make it even easier to ask questions or learn about cultural differences. But freshly back from Korea, it also feels abrasive sometimes. When a man’s jaw drops down and he looks at me like he’s seen a ghost, and then it just keeps happening everywhere I go, it can make me hesitant to leave the house. There seems to be a natural curiosity about other people in Indonesia, but being noticeably different can make the staring way more intense. Many times, I yearn to be treated like a normal human being, and the staring makes me feel ‘othered.’

How to combat that need to retreat?

So, what’s an introvert to do? And how could I get over not wanting to be noticed and really be present?

I decided to ride the wave. For me, being ‘socialized’ proved to be the way to go. I get out in the world, talk to people in my daily interactions, and especially try to search out women to talk to. The more positive interactions I have, the more I feel emboldened to be out in the world. Then, I can retreat home to recharge when I’ve had enough.

I’ve found that riding public transportation is a good way to be ‘out in the world.’ I started noting and recording interactions then shared them in Facebook statuses I called “Tales from the public bus.”

Some of those tales I spoke of

In Phoenix, I rode the bus to work. I met a man half my size who tried to ask me out 5 minutes after beginning our conversation. Another day, I witnessed a woman who let fly her life story of estrangement with her children (verbal diarrhea fashion) upon a man who, very obviously, who did not want to talk to her. Once a drunken man in a Mexican wrestling mask lurched by; he started talking about his failed college dreams because I showed him a little sympathy. There was the man with the trash bag, who would rant and shout at the top of his lungs about people refusing to pick up their trash. In Indonesia, I met a woman dressed conservatively, who within 5 minutes of sitting down, was showing me photos of herself in a bra. Wait a second, are these stories going to make you not want to ride the bus?

get over not wanting to be noticed and really be present

Family enjoys vying with passing motorcycles to drive their play car around the Southern Square in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The fun times

I’ve also had more positive interactions. In Phoenix, I often rode the bus with a middle-aged bus driver who greeted me, “Hello sis.” Another day, a man left his expensive cell phone on the bus. One of the passengers told the bus driver and she returned it. Afterward, it sparked a lively debate. Some people were pro-return, and some talked about what they would do with the money from selling the phone.

In Jeju, Korea, an older man motioned that I should take the seat next to him and saved it for me. Another ride, the bus stopped short, and a woman fell and hit her head. All the passengers showed concern. The paramedics were called, and another lady and I took turns holding the woman’s hand as we waited for the ambulance.

In Bangladesh, my two female friends and I took over the roof of a bus and narrowly missed tree branches by ducking our heads. When men tried to join us, we told them it was a ‘women-only area.’ They retreated. In Padang, Indonesia, my friend and I rode a small bus and realized we were going in the wrong direction. When we got off, the driver, who looked very young was disappointed and said, “But I already love you!”

What I’m saying is, get over not wanting to be noticed and really be present

If you don’t feel comfortable riding a motorcycle (especially with four of your closest friends), why not figure out what types of public transport are available in your neck of the woods? It’s a good way to have interesting interactions, and to meet people you wouldn’t normally get a chance to talk to. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with strangers, you can always observe first. Who is talking to whom? What are they talking about? Next, try having small interactions with the bus driver, or other friendly-looking people.

Any plans to get on the bus?

So, what type of public transport do you plan to start taking? Or maybe you have public transit tales of your own.

get over not wanting to be noticed and really be present


(This is a once a month series about the brave and interesting things people do. Keep reading to learn how you can also add brave things and risk into your life, incrementally.)

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