Someone Else’s Country: Living in Suharto’s Indonesia by Shirley Fenton Huie

It’s never easy living in someone else’s country, but the trials of adapting to a new climate, an alien culture and an unfamiliar language are usually outweighed by the camaraderie of expatriate life and the rich rewards of experiencing another culture first-hand.
Australian Shirley Fenton Huie spent most of her marriage to helicopter pilot Ed Fenton following him from one foreign country to another while raising four children and coping with the unexpected challenges and hazards of living in remote areas.
In 1972, Shirley and two of her children joined Ed in the wild frontier town of Balikpapan on the east coast of Indonesian Borneo and spent the next decade living in the rapidly developing country of Indonesia under the autocratic rule of President Suharto.
In this biographical account of that time, Shirley recalls her experiences of the best and worst this extraordinary country had to offer. In Balikpapan, she learned to cope with the extreme heat and isolation, wild animals, ghosts and curious local customs while building a house nestled between the beach and the untamed jungle.
“ I knew nothing about nothing. Nothing..” the author recalled in a September 2003 interview by Jan Barrie in ANU’s   Quarterly Bulletin. “And that was my ignorance of the Indonesian people. I thought that they would all speak Indonesian, but they didn’t. Indonesia was really like Europe, that’s what I discovered. It was like a collection of countries that had come together because of colonial power.”
“ But of course I’m talking 20, 25 years ago. Back then they were different peoples, they all wore different clothing, ate different foods, they had different customs, different dancing, everything. And that’s Indonesia’s problem today and that’s why the Acehnese want to be independent because they are different. They’re Acehnese.”
A move to the Chinese businessmen’s town of Semarang in Central Java brought the relative comforts of civilization and a lifelong friendship with the renowned Affandi family of artists in Yogyakarta – as well as encounters with an often-corrupt bureaucracy and the brutal reality of life under a military dictatorship.
Shirley’s final years in Indonesia were spent on the holiday island of Bali, but the triumph of establishing a thriving pub business and building her dream house in this island paradise were threatened by betrayal and black magic. “Balinese Hindu is a very strong religion,” she says. “Religion is a part of their whole life in a way it’s not in our life at all.”
The bad experiences feature strongly in her total Indonesian experiences and, in part, led to the tragic events that cut short her business activities and forced her to leave the island and the country for good.
But the negative experiences were always outweighed by the positive and Huie remains  passionate about the country she came to love perhaps more than any other she lived in. To this day, she would still like to make the country her home, though this is not possible.
Through it all, Shirley conveys her love for the Indonesian people and her enthusiasm for their culture, as well as the strength and sense of humor that helped her survive in this turbulent period of Indonesian history.
Someone Else’s Country: Living in Suharto’s Indonesia by Shirely Fenton Huie, Pandanus Books 2003, paperback, 249 pages, ISBN 1 74076 037 9.
Available in Indonesia for US$28 from Amazon Australia or from East-West Export Books, University of Hawaii Press, tel. 1-808-956-8830, email:, website:
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