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Egbert and Nonie

Cross-Cultural Couples: Nonie and Egbert

By: Emma Kwee

Our family of mixed couples is growing bigger and bigger. The Latitudes Cross-Cultural Couples series is a testament to the intermingling of cultures that makes this world a more interesting and colorful place. Are you a mixed couple and would you like to be featured on Latitudes? Do you have an extraordinary tale of love that surpasses cultural boundaries and geographical borders? Then e-mail us at!

Indonesian Nonie and Dutch Egbert Wits met on Egbert’s birthday party. It was only after the festivities that they realized there was something more…slowly but steadily the couple inched closer and closer, until they decided to share their lives together and threw a wedding party that is still talked about.

Egbert and Nonie

Egbert and Nonie

Please introduce yourselves, what are your names, where are you from and where do you live?

Nonie: My name is Nonie, but actually my real name is Retno Wachyuni. The name Nonie came from my grandmother, who started calling me Nonie. It’s a name once used for young girls who act or look like European girls, especially during the period Indonesia was still colonized by the Dutch. I am originally from Slawi, a little town in the north of Central Java.

Egbert: My name is Egbert, I was born in Amsterdam, but raised in Mijdrecht, a little sleepy village just outside Amsterdam. After studying and living in Amsterdam for about 10 years I moved to Indonesia. I started out in Malang (1 year) and from there moved to Yogyakarta (3 months), Tegal (1.5 year), Jakarta (1 year), Bandung (1.5 years) and now finally we’re living in Yogyakarta. We both hope this will be our end station in Indonesia, although given our nomadic history, you never know.

How did you meet and where?

Egbert: We first met in Salatiga in 2002. We were both active at Satya Wacana Christian University. I was doing a research for my Masters degree in cultural organizational management and Nonie was studying Personnel Management.

Nonie: A friend in my boarding house invited me to go to a birthday party. Turned out the birthday boy was Egbert:

At the time there wasn’t an immediate falling in love at first sight. But I really enjoyed the party and everyone’s company there. It was my first interaction with bule (foreigners).”

Egbert: I remember liking Nonie directly, but at the time I had an Indonesian girlfriend already. I think we really started it off when we were both invited to come to Gedung Songo near Bandungan. Both of us, without knowing it from each other, were invited by our professor at university. There we walked through the hills together and while we enjoyed the beautiful landscape and old temples, we really started to get to know each other better.

Nonie: Just before Egbert went back to Amsterdam to finish his studies we made a trip to Dieng plateau together, just the two of us. There we got to know each other even better, but we were still very young and both not into steady relationships.

Egbert and Nonie striking a pose

Egbert and Nonie striking a pose

How did your relationship evolve?

Nonie: I didn’t know that much about the internet back then, and it was pretty difficult for me to access internet at that time. The only reason I happened to have an email address was because there was a class in university about the internet.

So when Egbert left to finish his studies in The Netherlands it took me a very long time before I finally send him an email. When he would send me a reply it would usually take me two months to reply. This went on for about four years, until I got an email from Egbert saying that he was coming to Indonesia to become a volunteer for street-children in Malang. When Egbert was in Malang we started sms-ing and calling. Finally we decided to meet again in Salatiga to have some kind of reunion. After this meeting we continued to see each other, sometimes in Jogja, but also in Malang and in Surabaya. It was in Surabaya that I first met Egbert’s parents, who were on holiday in Indonesia at the time.

Egbert: I remember keeping in touch with Nonie was fun. We would only write once every few months and usually just talk about university stuff or tell each other about our adventures. It was never about love or relationships, just very casual and I would always laugh when she would finally reply one of my emails three months after I send it to her.

Once I got back to Indonesia and we decided to meet again in Salatiga things went really fast. It turned out almost 5 years later we were even more into each other than before. After this first meeting we really tried meeting again and again. It became really serious when I decided to ask her to come to Surabaya to spend 2 days there with me and my parents.

Egbert and Nonie at their Javanese wedding

Egbert and Nonie at their Javanese wedding

Nonie: My parents are very traditional. They would never agree with me having any serious relationship with someone they don’t know. Egbert was even worse. He wasn’t just someone they didn’t know, he was a bule, which made things more complicated. My parents had romantic ideals of me marrying a cute Indonesian guy, and living close by them for the rest of my life. I guess that never happened.

Egbert: I slowly became aware that Nonie’s parents would never agree to our relationship, unless I would show and convince them myself, that it could work. So together with Nonie we decided I would come and move to Tegal, a city located about 30 minutes by motorbike from Nonie’s parents house. From there I regularly started meeting her mother and sister who were living with her at the time. After about six months Nonie’s parents agreed to our relationship, four months later, we got married.

Nonie: We had a beautiful wedding. My whole village showed up. We had rented the meeting space of an old Dutch sugar-factory near my home, and also made use of the old steam locomotive, which drove us around the village. Everyone was standing along the tracks waving at us. A wedding like this was never seen before, people still talk about it now, almost 4 years after it happened.

Egbert: We organized the entire wedding ourselves, only making use of what Nonie’s village had to offer. So we were transported with becaks and delmans (horse & carriage), used a local calung marching band, got married in the mosque near the house where Nonie was born, and all the decorations and food were all locally prepared. Even our wedding clothes were made by a girlfriend of Nonie who lived in Slawi as well. Friends of mine formed a one-time band and played Western and Indonesian tunes at the party after the wedding. It was amazing. We still love watching the video.

What does it mean to your relationship to be of two different cultures?

Nonie: If you look at the bigger picture, there aren’t any problems that we cannot resolve. I would classify myself as a woman that is not entirely modern yet. Meaning that I still care very much about safeguarding the harmony with my neighbors and the people living around me. So when we decided to live amidst society, and not in a gated community, we decided it would be best to live according to the local culture. So we join neighborhood meetings, visit our neighbors regularly and take part in the social life that surrounds us.

The way we raise our children now, also reflects this. We let them interact and play with the children surrounding our house. These children come from very different backgrounds and social classes, but we believe these differences make it interesting.

Egbert and Nonie's children do support the Dutch soccer team!

Egbert and Nonie's children do support the Dutch soccer team!

Egbert: The biggest difficulty is communication. I am very direct with my emotions and never hide them. So when I am angry I scream once, or make a clear statement about how I feel and then it’s off my chest. This was very difficult for Nonie to accept and understand. For her being angry just means being quiet. Especially in the beginning when there were problems she would just shut down and stay quiet. I would always be trying to get her to talk, because for me solving a problem means facing it head on and finding a solution. Javanese people prefer to swallow the problems and try and digest them themselves. They believe that if you just ignore the problem long enough, it will slowly disappear. I guess that after 4 years we have found our own way of dealing with problems. We better understand each other’s reactions now and have grown towards each other. So Nonie isn’t shocked anymore when I shout or curse angrily.

Has it ever caused any problems or miscommunication?

Nonie: I was raised in a very simple family. Knowing the limitations of our family, I hardly ever spoke about things I really wanted or about the dreams I would like to achieve. Life basically just passed by, we lived the way life was treating us, without having much choice.

Honestly, in the beginning I was shocked about the openness with which Egbert spoke about basically everything that was on his mind. It really amazed me. This was something completely new for me. Slowly I also started to speak up more and dared to express my thoughts and feelings without being afraid that Egbert would judge me if I had the wrong idea about something. Now I really enjoy talking with Egbert, because he values my opinion and is always encouraging me to develop my ideas. He tries to let me see things from a different perspective, or within a bigger picture.

Egbert: Yes there has been a lot of miscommunication, and there still is, although not as much as in the beginning. Often it’s the things you don’t say, because you assume they are clear, that turn out not to be clear. I, for instance, don’t care too much about what others think about me, but this is very different from Nonie. She is always extremely aware of the others around her, their opinions and what they might think about us. So when we are in a restaurant and just before ordering something I tell her not to do it, because I think it will be a bad dish, she can get really angry at me: “What do you think the waiter is going to say now to his colleagues?” The openness I am used to in all my communication just doesn’t apply in Indonesia. Here people keep things quiet out of respect and not everything needs to be discussed.

How did your surroundings react to your mixed relationship?

Nonie: In the beginning we lived in Tegal, a small town in Central Java. Actually mixed marriages are not something completely strange to the people there. The fact that we were a young couple of the same age, that decided to live in a city like Tegal made it unique. So many people pretended to know us, or were overly eager trying to be around us. Once we were stopped by a policeman, but because he remembered seeing us together drinking susu jahe (a traditional drink) at the Alun-Alun of Slawi, he started asking us about this. After some chit-chat we were allowed to go, without having to pay the fine for not having a license.

Nonie and Egbert take a becak ride at their wedding

Nonie and Egbert take a becak ride at their wedding

After a lot of moving around, now we finally live in Yogyakarta. Society here is very open and welcome to mixed marriage couples. Also there are many other mixed couples living in Yogyakarta.

Egbert: It didn’t come as a surprise to my friends and family that I winded up marrying a girl from far away. I always loved to travel outside of Europe, ever-since my teenage years, and was always fascinated by cultures completely different from my own. My parents have always been supportive of our marriage and love spending the European winters in Indonesia. So we still meet my parents quite often, especially now that we have two kids. Indonesia is a paradise for little children and they also see that. It’s an endless summer here and Indonesians are unanimously loving and warm towards children.

A bad aspect is that walking in the streets together with Nonie still has an annoying celebrity feel to it. So many people stare at us, or start asking us all sorts of questions. But we have kind of learned to live with it. It’s basically the same annoyances any bule living in Indonesia will have experienced.

What are the biggest challenges you had to overcome?
Nonie: Well….moving around from one town to another the first few years was hard. Each time we had to adapt again to new surroundings and living conditions. But the toughest for me has been not working. With two very small children that need a lot of attention I have learned to become more patient. Also I realize finding a good job in Indonesia isn’t easy. So we have decided to start our own business, which I will run. We want to begin after the kids have grown up a little and can be left alone better. But this will take another two years of being patient.

Egbert: The biggest challenge has been finding a place to settle. A place where the two of us felt at ease and comfortable. Mixed couples are not allowed to own any land or a house, so you usually wind up renting a place. Also getting the right working permits and visa arrangements is a pain in the ass. We have moved to Yogyakarta this March (2012), truly with the hope that it will be our last stop. I am trying hard to get a job now and luckily the immigration laws have become a bit more relaxed. Since 2011 foreigners married to Indonesians for more than two years are allowed to work. At least that’s what the law states, the ministry of manpower hasn’t officially reacted to this new law, even though they are the ministry assigned to deal with these issues.

The constant legal uncertainties and the very bad public services offered by the Indonesian government are the biggest challenges. Come to think of it, this is actually funny, because both of these things relate to things outside of our marriage. But they are big challenges any mixed marriage couple faces in Indonesia. The endless bureaucracy with all the extra fees, for instance with getting double citizenships for our children. Or the system’s inability to fit you in, filling in a Dutch tax-form, or getting a social security number for our children, whom are officially Dutch citizens, is almost impossible to do; these things can really annoy us and ruin our mood. The money and time we spend on stamps, legalizing documents, embassy fees, visa’s, trips up and down to government institutions, it’s ridiculous.

What are the best things that this relationship brings you?

Nonie: My parents are traditional, to say the least. They sometimes forget that I am married to a foreigner who’s open minded about a lot of things. My parents love subtly reminding me I should stay put inside the house and take care of our children. Especially now, when our children are still small. So when I go to the cinema, or go out with friends, they truly believe this is something not fitting to a young mother like me. Especially if I do these things with my friends and not with my husband or family.  I am lucky Egbert never gets tired explaining to my parents that he has absolutely no problem with this and supports the fact that I get out of the house and do things on my own. I feel blessed, because his presence has really opened up a new perspective on life within my family. Slowly, as a family, we also start to discuss things more openly. Before it would just be my parents deciding on what would happen and we as children listening, but now we can share and compare arguments about what is best.

Egbert: We celebrate our differences. I love how Nonie can be generous in ways I could never be. Or how she opens up all kinds of products in the supermarket to smell them. Her faith and trust in Allah and how her religion makes her such a strong person is also admirable. There are still  many more examples of things Nonie does and believes that I truly admire, even though they are different from the things I do and believe. Basically our differences are the best thing our relationship brings. Our children will hopefully benefit from this even more. They will be gifted with a childhood that offers them so much different opportunities to learn and explore.

What language do you speak with one another?

Nonie : We speak Bahasa Indonesia and sometimes English but with the children we speak Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch very good yet, but speaking Dutch with our little sons seems like learning by doing for me.

Egbert: I speak exclusively Dutch with our children. With Nonie it’s 70% Bahasa Indonesia and 30% Dutch and English.

Are religious differences an issue between you and your partner? How did you solve these?

Nonie: I am not a fanatic muslim, but I have convinced myself to follow the path that Islam teaches me. I always try to pray five times a day, join the fasting month, etc. etc. In the future it’s no problem for Egbert that our children are raised according to the principles of Islam. Once they are old and wise they will able to define for themselves what’s best.

Egbert: I became a muslim before we got married. For me personally all religions teach us to do good and love one another irrevocably. Nonie sometimes has troubles with me not praying regularly, but I enjoy going to the mosque every friday and I have pretty much adjusted my lifestyle to Islam. Although I still have my recalcitrant moments every now and then, but never when I am together with Nonie.

The happy family

The happy family

What are your future plans?

Nonie: I would love to start working soon. We want to open our own guesthouse here in Jogja. I will hopefully be a good manager enjoying my work. I also still dream of going on a holiday to New Zealand one day, or Japan, or Tibet and Mongolia.

Egbert: Have a healthy and interesting life in Yogyakarta, both professionally as well as with the family. Hopefully we are able to send our children to good schools and continue to enjoy each other’s presence in the family. There’s also so much more of Indonesia I’d love to see: Manado, Bunaken, Lake Toba, Wakatobi and Ternate are all high on the agenda…

Do you have any tips for other mixed couples?

Nonie: Alon-Alon asal Klakon. This Javanese proverb for me means: be patient with what you want to achieve and convinced about what you believe.

Egbert: Learn to appreciate and love each other’s differences.

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