Cue brain explosion

Since the first pilot interview a couple of weeks ago, I have conducted– or rather, participated in– six additional interviews, three with male ‘healers’ and three with female ‘healers.’ My ideal number of women participants is nine; the data collection is progressing more quickly than I anticipated, and I think that as a result, I am going to narrow the geographical boundaries of the study. I’ve decided this also in part because the more I talk to people, the more I realize that even within East Java, culture can vary enough to warrant individual attention to specific regions/regencies.

I knew this from before, but what I didn’t realize is that even within East Java there are distinct ethnic (sub-ethnic) groups. For a prime example, in Banyuwangi, where most research about Javanese dukun has been conducted, the people are ethnically Osing. Since my project is about ethnic Javanese, I won’t be collecting data on Osing dukun. The Osing people have a different cultural history and even a different language than ethnic Javanese. Banyuwangi is the most popular region for dukun in East Java, and lots of people around Malang suggest I visit the town to conduct research. My objective, however, is to meet dukun who are ethnically Javanese; it seems that I’m exploring a topic  that hasn’t been written about as frequently (although there are plenty of people, both Westerners and non-Westerners, who study these topics; relatively speaking, East Javanese non-Banyuwangi-centric dukun seem underrepresented in what I’ve been reading so far).

I could go into the basic differences between Osing and Javanese culture based on the literature I’ve read so far, but suffice it to say that they were basically the last ethnic group in Java to resist Islamicization in roughly the 13th and 14th centuries and have strong historical/cultural ties to Blambangan, at that time a powerful eastern Hindu empire diametrically opposed to the contemporaneous Mataram Islamic empire to its west. Besides ethnic Osing, there are also Tengger and Madurese people in East Java, and these groups are ethnically distinct from the Javanese. I think some of the groups, like Osing and Tenggerese, are considered to be sub-ethnic groups of Javanese, but for simplicity’s sake and for the clarity and cohesion of the project, I’m going to restrict my research to people who identify as strictly ethnically Javanese.

Hm… How did I get on this tangent? Well, it’s important because I’m going to Banyuwangi this weekend to meet some people and see an important ritual, although I won’t be doing data collection per se. I hope (and think) this trip will help me learn more about the differences between Osing and Javanese people, which will in turn help me understand more about what I’m seeing, learning, and hearing here in Malang. A lot to expect for four days, but I know I’ll be able to meet some people who can speak on the subject, since Pak H is also coming with me and has seemingly infinite social and professional connections.

Ah, now I’ve circled back to what I really wanted to blog about: the interviews I’ve been collecting! I’ve been interviewing with the direct help of two dear friends and colleagues, without whom I’d honestly be completely lost. Some of the participants don’t speak much Indonesian, especially the older ones, so language help / translation has been vital, and I’ve also needed help with gaining informed consent. I wrote a consent letter and translated it myself into Indonesian, and one of my former Indonesian teachers helped me correct it. But, the guys are able to explain it in Javanese to participants, and to introduce me and explain what I’m doing in the culturally correct (i.e., polite or halus) way. I think having a polite, Javanese, UMM-affiliated (male) person accompany me helps participants perceive me as more legitimate than if just came as myself, a young, foreign researcher with imperfect Indonesian and decidedly just basic Javanese. They are certainly more at ease knowing there’s someone who can translate for me as needed, and I am, too.

I think the best way to tell you about each of these really amazing interviews is to dedicate a paragraph or two as appropriate to each person. I won’t go into too much depth, but I’d like to give you a sense of the types of people I’ve been encountering. Honestly, the content of the interview—the stories of the participants—have been really fascinating and provocative. I haven’t had to do much; the stories can stand on their own without much interpretation or explanation (but feel free to leave a question if you have one).

So, I met two people last Friday with Mas T near his home village, about an hour’s car ride from here. The first one we met was a man, about whom Mas had told me earlier in the week. Apparently, this healer helped Mas T when he (Mas T) was a child. If Mas T had a stomachache, the healer would press the soft tissue between his knuckles seemingly very gently, but pain would shoot up Mas T’s arm until he screamed. Now, as an adult, Mas T tells the healer he’s healthy whenever he sees him (the healer) so as to avoid further treatment.

Mas T said it would be useful for me to meet this person, and it really was! The healer told me his power comes from his spirit and heart, and with this power he is able to help people with a variety of physical and mental ailments. Generally, he massages or uses a technique similar to reflexology, or he bathes people while praying. He said that generally, ten scoops of water dumped on a person while he (the healer) is praying are enough to make the person yell out in pain and beg for relief. He tends to treat people whose ailments have been effectively incurable by medical doctors, and he took me to the home of a young patient suffering from what I gathered to be epilepsy and partial paralysis due to stroke (from seizures) whose condition had been greatly improved since his intervention. The healer was called once the family grew tired of effectively feeding their child medications. The family expressed an appreciation for the the benefits of medical science and saw improvements when their child was at the hospital, but they find the healer’s therapy highly effective as well.

This healer, it turns out, is also a little bit psychic or at least can “read” someone very accurately upon first meeting (or even seeing a photograph), and he astutely described several aspects of my personality and life to me: you’re the second and first child (which is true, I’m second out of my siblings and stepsiblings and the first child in my biological family); if you’re mad, you’re usually quiet and don’t say anything, even if you’re mad for weeks at a time (true); you often get headaches and these are related to being too active and busy to remember to eat and drink enough (true); you’re possessive (probably true)…

The crux of his healing practice, he says, is hati (heart). His desire to practice comes from his heart—he just feels compelled to do this work—and his power comes from his heart (and faith). And for patients, their recovery time also depends on their hearts; those who are more open-hearted will become healthier more quickly. He’s not in the healing business to seek wealth, and everyone pays according to their means, and he doesn’t want to be called a dukun because of the negative connotations of black sorcery the word can raise in people’s minds.

The second person we met that day was a woman who also disliked the term dukun and preferred to be called a helper. Her specialty is helping people find spouses, with childrearing, and preparing special poultices with traditional herbs that treat physical injuries. She also uses kartu lintrik (kartu ceki), which I’ve yet to find an English translation for, to predict the future and giving clients information about their present (such as where their straying husband currently is, what he’s doing, and with whom). These are little black, white, and red cards from China with various symbols that can be read by the trained eye, depending on how the card is drawn, in what position, facing up or down, etc. (similar to the way that the position of a tarot card during a reading changes the way its appearance and symbolism is interpreted). They can also be used as a game. In addition to cards, she also uses prayer, personal items (e.g., soiled clothing of the person who comes for help or their picture), dirt that has been prayed over, as well as herbs and flowers. Sometimes, she throws items, especially clothes that have been blessed and infused with the desires of those who brought them, into the river, which symbolizes cleansing. Her practice is kejawen Islam.*

With the help of Mas M, I’ve met three additional people: one man and two women. We visited the first woman and the man during a trip to Gunung Kawi on Saturday. Kawi is a nearby mountain and the resting place of two significant Islamic spiritual teachers. The first person we met that day was an older man who “practices” kebatinan, which is, as far as I grasp so far, a mystical path to achieving inner strength and power (from within). I went to his house with Mas M, his wife, her friend, and her friend’s father. The healer told us how he went through a 15-year long tirakat, or period of fasting, in order to build his inner strength. In three year segments, he underwent five forms of aesthetic meditation and spiritual/mystical strengthening, such as puasa mutih, or fasting on small portions of white rice and nothing else except water from pure sources, i.e. natural springs and rivers, drunk only with his hands or a leaf. For another three years, he retreated into a cave and didn’t eat or drink anything, merely surviving on his spiritual strength—not sleeping, not speaking to anyone. His healing practice involves massage, and he also imbues spiritual energy into jamu that he produces and sells (drinkable traditional medicines). He also magically inserts pieces of metal into clients’ the skin to produce super-strength or increase beauty, as requested (this is a widespread magical practice, I gleaned). Like the others, he prefers to be called a helper—specifically, someone who helps people with difficulties in life—rather than dukun.

Interestingly, even though he was speaking Indonesian most of the time, I found it very challenging to keep up with what he was trying to say. As it turns out, so did my friends; they said he had only a rudimentary grasp of the language and suggested that it may have been clearer if he was speaking in Javanese only (but he was clearly trying to speak Indonesian for my benefit). Mas M says he believes the man really performed the tirakat because back in the mid-20th century, many Javanese people who undertook these types of aesthetic practices; it was common and Mas M has heard of it happening before, so he believes it is true.

The second person we met that day was a woman healer who practices general healing of ailments and disease as well as traditional midwifery. Her story was interesting too; she grew up a sickly child, diagnosed with severe health problems as a teenager, and had a near-death experience in her mid-20s. When she was dead, she received special instructions from god about what method to use in healing. Now, this is her primary method, and people come from all over the archipelago to receive treatment. She treats upwards of twenty people weekly, and people pay according to their means.

Finally, a week later (just yesterday night, in fact), I met Grandmother S. Two days ago, Mas M took me to a traditional nursery to get some flowers from some acquaintances, and we asked for their help identifying a local dukun who might be interested in participating in the project. They said they knew someone who is possessed by a spirit to do healing work and instructed us to come back tomorrow (yesterday) evening, after prayers. We did, of course, and the older lady we met turned out to be the family matriarch. She spoke only Javanese, so Mas M did most of the work during the interview. To make a long and very interesting story much too short than it deserves to be, for nearly 30 years she has had the spirit of a deceased Madurese woman borrow her body in order to conduct healing work and make a little money for Grandmother S. The healing performed is massage, jamu production and selling, and helping people find lost belongings. Grandmother S. told us that she doesn’t have any awareness of when the spirit overtakes her. She also described her own sicknesses and experiences with near-death experiences that lasted for two weeks on end, wherein she died and came back to life two to three times daily.

At the end of the interview, she grabbed what appeared to be a little black eggshell and a white seashell, cupped them towards her face as she said a prayer, and set them down on a little nightstand. She gave a shudder, the rock and shell spun around twice of their own volition (I saw this with my own eyes!), “came to,” and shook my hand, greeting me as if we hadn’t been talking for the past hour. The tone of her voice and the delivery of her speech had changed, and she had no idea that an interview was happening. She started talking to Mas M in Javanese, explaining at his asking a little bit about why she chose Grandmother S. to help. During the interview, Grandmother S.’s son was present, and he seemed unfazed; he later told me that the spirit visits as needed, sometimes daily. Luckily, the spirit is benevolent. Grandmother S. firmly believes that she has no healing skills or power of any kind; it is completely the spirit who does the healing work. In order for Grandmother S. to come back, she must sleep. Mas M and I are going back next week to see if we can properly interview the spirit. On a strange practical note, I still need to get the spirit to sign my consent form. I think I’ll also have to make an exception in this case regarding including only ethnically Javanese people (after all, the spirit is Madurese… but the vessel is Javanese. Who on earth has ever had to deal with this methodological concern before?!).

Mas M and I were both spooked; he said he hadn’t ever seen anything like this. We kept glancing at one another in wonder during the interview and as the spirit continued her story, pretty much completely confounded by the whole thing. He assures me he’s brave enough to go back next week, and a good thing; I’ve got a lot of questions to ask.

Whew, that’s all for now. My brain is swirling and last night I had such a rush heading home… I’m really enjoying myself, and I think the people involved with this project here, especially Mas M and Mas T, are having a good time too (and experiencing new things!). That makes me happy.

Like I said, this weekend, I’m heading to the coast with Pak H to see some Osing rituals near Banyuwangi. I’ll have some stories to share next week, I’m sure, if you’re interested!

While I’m away, please feel free to leave a comment if you have a question you’d like to ask. I can try to answer it. Plus, it’d be nice for me to hear what you’re take on these stories is, as it might help me open my mind in new ways! It might also help me “see” the gaps in what I’m describing. That will help me down the road as I try to write something more formal about this project. Sorry if anything was factually incorrect or not explained clearly enough; please let me know. And thanks for reading!

Be well,
Sammy

*Maybe in the next entry I’ll take on the daunting task of trying to explain the various religious, cultural, and spiritual belief systems I’ve had to get a basic grasp on over the past few weeks and what role they have played in the research so far.

One month in


— follow me on Instagram @tisamlette —


As it turns out, this research project is off to an incredibly easy and incredibly difficult start, both at the same time.

Choosing to research a topic I had very little concrete knowledge about was quite wise, in retrospect (I’m not exactly sure how my proposal was successful; after a few weeks, I can see for myself that I was misguided in my understandings of things I suggested to be true my proposal! I didn’t realize just how little I knew!). Since I have so much to learn, I can learn a lot quickly, which feels great. Generally, asking a few questions to one or a few people yields a great deal of information and many new ideas for topics, events, or cultural/religious phenomena to research. As a result, I’ve learned a huge amount in a short time, and most of it seems to be quite essential to grasping what’s “going on” with participants and/or healing culture here.

It’s just the same as the language learning curve; in the beginning, there are lots of basics to learn, like survival verbs (eat, sleep, drink, want) and phrases (thank you, please help me, where’s the bathroom, I don’t speak your language). As time progresses, one’s knowledge and understanding of the language becomes increasingly nuanced, and this can often be when language learning begins to get more difficult, such as in expressing abstract concepts or feelings or discussing politics or religion. Since I’m still building my foundational knowledge about the concepts related to this research project, gratification comes quickly; there are lots of basics to learn, and basics are generally easy to grasp. I’m certain that as time goes by and discussions and concepts become increasingly nuanced and esoteric, I’ll encounter more serious difficulties. This understanding is keeping me in check; this last nine months aren’t going to be a walk in the park, even if all I technically need to do is talk to people, read, and write!

Of course, few difficulties have arisen so far. Many of these challenges stem from the language barrier. My Indonesian has quickly returned, even though for the first few days I stuttered and sputtered to get out words and sentences that used to come easy to me. The real (and welcomed) challenge now is Javanese. Pak H and Mas M are doing their best to work on my Javanese with me, and the part-time undergrads in the office of international relations—where I set up shop each day—are all aware that I’m trying to learn, so they are more than happy to “take me along” for a chat in Javanese. As you may already know, there are many levels of Javanese, and the two most common are high and low Javanese (or halus, smooth, and kasar, rough). It’s difficult to try to learn them both at once, but I’m trying my best. All of my friends in the office tell people I can already speak Javanese, which puts me on the spot to practice… that’s is good, really, even if I start making a fool of myself in front of people I’ve just met. Folks seem to really appreciate that I try and often succumb to fits of giggles not because they are making fun of me but because it’s quite rare that a foreigner speaks even a little Javanese. I like the feeling of closeness it brings, and I like showing people that someone foreign can be interested in learning and trying the bahasa daerah, the language of the land.

Another language difficulty: some of the participants I’ve worked with so far use a lot of religious (Arabic) terms that are not in my vocabulary set. Since the terms are religious/spiritual in nature and contextually dependent on the religious framework from which they arose and to which they refer, learning the translation alone is often not sufficient for understanding. The translation simply doesn’t translate, so there’s another layer of knowledge I need to build (i.e., Islam and folk/local forms of Islam in Indonesia) before I can fully grasp what participants are saying. Even once this knowledge base has been built up somewhat, there’s a whole ‘nother layer of “translating” what people are saying in terms of the Javanese way of communication/expression, quite different than what I’m accustomed to in the United States (and not dependent on religious identification; it’s cultural).

Similar to the difficulties that graduate students sometimes experience in the States depending on the interests and objectives of their advising professors, I am somewhat at risk of my project being hijacked, for lack of a more polite term. It’s another challenge I’m facing. Everyone is very eager to help me, and one person in particular is very enthusiastic, but I’m not sure my project goals are completely clear at times to everyone who wants to help.

Of course, I choose to accept help in whatever form, mostly for reasons related to another challenge: finding women ‘healers’ here is difficult, and I need all the help I can get. I’ve decided to remain open to meeting with male ‘healers,’ however, since traditional, alternative, and spiritual/religious healing and curing in Javanese culture are complex topics about which, as I mentioned, I know all too little.* Obviously, I can learn about them from just about anyone without formally collecting interviews for use in the final project, and talking to male healers is useful in this stage of the project. I think it would be wise for me to seek out multiple gatekeepers throughout the next few months so that I can meet with a diverse group of people, not restricting myself to the contacts of one gatekeeper.

So there you are, just a little update about some of the practical aspects of executing the project after a few weeks’ time “in the field.” I will share some descriptions of fieldwork and interactions with healers in the next entry.

xo
Sammy


*’Healers’ is a term that doesn’t really translate into this cultural context in my experience so far. There are many different types of people in East Java who: perform curing with various methods and personal/individual styles; give spiritual, psychological, relationship, and life advice and guidance; support families in solving problems and support women in finding partners and/or conceiving and/or giving birth; perform magic to help people become wealthier or more successful; cast spells and do ‘black magic’; fight ‘black magic’ with ‘white magic’; provide traditional medicines, herbs, and supplements; provide various types of massage for various purposes; use prayer and ‘soul power’ to heal physical and mental disorders; help ‘crazy people’ regain their souls, also known as healing sick souls; help people recover quickly from illness or injury; and more, honestly. I have met with six different types of ‘healers’ so far, and each of them has a unique practice based on varying beliefs, religious and spiritual practices, and life experiences. I can’t even feel comfortable using the term dukun anymore, since five of the six of these—excluding one old woman—didn’t want to be called dukun due to the generally negative connotations of the term.

Trusting Indonesia

I have been thinking a lot this week about how much I trust and indeed need to trust in order to integrate into this new setting and context to begin tackling the project I’ve set up for myself here. Life in Malang is, in fact, quite new and different compared to life in East Java as a Peace Corps Volunteer, most obviously because I am living in a trendy college town and relying primarily on myself to meet my own basic needs. The differences between the PCV life and the Fulbrighter/Malang life are many: I haven’t got a lovely host mom cooking for me, I don’t have a safety and security officer or Western-standard general physician a phone call away, and I’m no longer part of a 20-person strong, tightly-knit family of Americans experiencing basically the same thing as I am. However, the newness of this life is teaching me a great deal already.

Friends. First and foremost, I trust and rely on my friends no matter where I am in the world, and I’m learning to appreciate and value my Indonesian friends in new ways. My longtime friends here have already become substantially more involved in my life than they were during Peace Corps, most likely because I have been pestering them for assistance, advice, and companionship much more ardently than I was four years ago. I am lucky to have an established network here, and the feeling of being accepted and welcomed back into the fold is really incredible.

In my experience here, friendship is highly regarded, thus friends are highly reliable and friendship is true, by my own standards. I don’t get the impression that me being a Westerner or an American makes too much of a difference on Indonesians’ ability to befriend and care for me, even if it does make a difference in initial attraction. People here seem to value their friends and friendships to a very high degree, often willing to drop anything and everything if a friend is in need or wants to spontaneously meet up or drop by. I have many other non-Javanese/non-Indonesian friends who behave similarly, and perhaps it is so striking to me now because I feel like the rate at which friendship here ascends from acquaintanceship to something much closer is steeper than I’ve experienced with American friends.

Maybe this is merely my perception and maybe my foreigner status has a stronger influence than I perceive (or am willing to perceive). Maybe this is because cross-cultural friendships can often be more challenging and therefore more intense—as problems/conflicts are met and worked out together—than friendships between friends of similar culture. It could be that I’m in an emotionally and mentally intense place and am therefore experiencing things more intensely (although I don’t think this is the case). Maybe they feel less close to me than I do to them and I’m culturally mistranslating, but the serious content of some of our conversations indicate to me that this may not be the case. Whatever the reason I have been so quickly assimilated into a network of Indonesian buddies, I am grateful.

Being able to trust a good number of people so quickly is a gift. I’m sure my dear professor in the States would remind me that no gift is ever free: there’s always something to be reciprocated. In this case, I hope that’s friendship, too, as well as cross-cultural engagement and sharing. That’s what I’m interested in, really, from all friends—even those who come from a similar background, since culture varies on all levels, right down to the personal (intimate) and spiritual. Every friendship has its own little culture, and can’t personality and values be interpreted as individual culture?

Here, I have to trust my own attitudes and suppositions towards my friendships as well as the instincts and open-heartedness of my non-American friends to be able to bridge communication and cultural barriers and be willing to face any challenges that may arise. I feel that I can trust my friends—and myself—not to run away or bury negative feelings if problems do arise or cultural missteps occur. Through my friends I have a little web of emotional safety, and I trust that it won’t dissipate and that it will help me sustain my energy and spirit while I’m here. I also trust that I can provide strong and positive friendship to others, even if I make some mistakes along the way.

In Peace Corps days, my emotional network was primarily other American Volunteers. But having the cultural knowledge and linguistic skill—and open-heartedness—to shift from an American support network to an Indonesian support network is a good thing. This week, I have been thinking a lot about what “crutches” I used while I was a PCV here. Without a doubt, I watched too much American/Western TV and movies on my computer, even though at the time I felt this was necessary to get into beta-mode in order to reenergize for the next day. Here and now, I have much more reenergizing private time and space, but I am also trying consciously to find energy in Indonesian friends. When I need to zone out, I try books and other reading material rather than TV/movies. I don’t want to denigrate others’ choices—I want to speak for myself: for me, drawing energy from and sharing my energy with Indonesian friends is a big achievement. I have my smartphone and internet connection as an outlet and can text my American friends at any moment, but I can’t deny how please I feel with being able to hang out with Indonesian friends without wishing to just go home and be alone in my room with my TV or go to Surabaya to hang with the other PCVs and eat/drink out feelings. I know it’s a totally different life now and I might not need the same sort of reenergizing as I did before—I am generally less exhausted and stressed now than when I was a PCV—but I have to give credit where credit is due and be honest about how proud I am that I have found a way to “make it work” better: I am a better self for the work I need to do here, and I wish I had had the ability and fortitude to achieve my present attitude when I was completing my service… but it’s all the same journey, really.

I could go on and on about the reasons I think this present mental state is possible—many of my Indonesian friends in Malang are more cosmopolitan and comfortable interacting with and building friendships with foreign people than my friends in rural western East Java, I am more in control about when, how, and with whom I react on a daily basis, and I have a greater amount of cross-cultural friendship experience than I did two years ago, to posit a few theories—but for now I’ll just leave it at this: I can trust that if I feel burnt out, even culturally, the friendships and family I have in my life at the present moment transcend. I have been able recharge with Indonesian friends and believe I can continue to rely on them even in the event of cultural burn-out. In my present mental framework, this is radically different from my PC reality. It’s refreshing and actually quite revolutionary.

Colleagues. I have an Indonesian advisor—as I mentioned in a previous entry—and I am learning to trust my own ignorance of my subject matter and put my ‘faith’ in his knowledge. Pak H is somewhere between advisor and gatekeeper, as he is an herbal medicine practitioner himself and well-connected to the healing community in his home regency in the east as well as here in Malang. I need to suspend my recently realized Western academic superiority complex (I figure it as academic racism) and understand that the academic work being done here, while differently rigorous, is absolutely, positively worth paying attention to and learning from. I think I can learn more from Pak H than I can by reading articles from Western journals that I locate and pore over independently. I never suspected there would be a professor here like him; I remember four years ago thinking he was over-the-top and too intense. But I am humbled here, once again, even more so than by the chicken foot I finally broke down and ate the other week: Pak H is genial, intelligent, articulate, and really much more of an expert than I ever knew to give him credit for.

With Pak H, I am re-learning how to say yes. Yes, I’ll come with you to see a potential participant even if I’m not quite sure where we’re going or what type of person I’m going to meet. Yes, I will receive traditional treatments that I don’t understand and don’t necessarily believe, if you think I should try it. Yes, I will travel with you to your home regency next month and have my fortune told by a “white witch” (for lack of a better translation) and see an old spinster do a sacred dance to cleanse the village of evil spirits. Yes, please crowdsource potential recruits for me through your Facecbook page and spread my research proposal far and wide. Yes, please teach me high Javanese, and yes, I’ll read these Indonesian-language books if you think they’ll do me good. Re: Eep!—Yes, I will get on your motorcycle and go somewhere to see someone who is going to do something magical/mystical to me so I can have some firsthand experience of Islamic faith healing.

I trust Pak H, and I realize the need to defer to his better judgment since I have realized, in a couple short weeks and a few short conversations with various friends and colleagues, the complete and utter lack of nuance to my meager understanding of Javanese spiritual and religious culture (and generic culture, which tends to be viewed as separate from religion here, as far as I can surmise, and both are again separate from tradition and modernity…even though they all coalesce and I’d be hard-pressed to find someone Javanese who viewed these various aspects of their lives and identities as discreet from the next). I trust in my trust of him, too; I know that if I stick with him, I’ll learn much more than if I had stubbornly and stupidly tried to do this project without him.

Strangers. I have been learning to motorcycle, which has proven both extremely easy and extremely challenging, probably for obvious reasons. It is easier to do than riding a bike and takes only two or three days to get the hang of. However, the traffic here is as close to embodied anarchy as anything I have ever seen firsthand (except perhaps the town center Amritsar in Punjab, India, in front of the Golden Temple). The person who taught me to motor said I should faithfully rely on the drivers behind me, as they are looking forward and paying attention to the movements of the motors ahead of them. She stressed the fact that Indonesian drivers are very aware of their surroundings, good at judging distance and spatial relation (depth perception here is particularly important), and conscientious and patient on the roads. I need to pay attention to what’s going on in front of me, therefore, and trusting that others behind me are doing the same thing is a big step. I still check my blind spots and side/rearview mirrors obsessively, but I’m learning to relax and go with the flow of traffic. I stay to the side, puttering along slowly, also trusting that the other drivers’ recognition of my foreignness gives them a little forgiveness in their hearts for my grandmotherly style.

I also, of course, need to trust my own judgment that checking blind spots and mirrors is still a necessity even if those behind me are paying attention to what I’m doing. I also listen to my body and tell it to relax and trust itself: loosen the shoulders and neck, don’t grip so tightly—being aware and present doesn’t mean being tense and anxious. I feel safer on the road on a motorbike than on my feet and decidedly less frantic than when I am on a standard bicycle, and deciding to learn was undoubtedly a good choice. There isn’t much traffic around campus, and I am learning to go on the main roads little by little. It’s scary, but only because it’s unfamiliar. Luckily I’m scared shitless: I think this will help me stay safe on the road (as it has in the United States). Knock on wood, wear my talisman.

Self. I am growing to trust my ability and skills more and more as each week passes. I trust that I can do this project and achieve a good outcome that will be useful and interesting to others. I am also growing ever more confident in my language skills, even my high Javanese or at least my willingness to practice and keep trying. I trust that I am brave enough to try to do or learn something, even if it ends in failure, because trying and failing isn’t a failure.

I have to trust myself, in fact, or I won’t get anything done. Like I said above, although arguably I relied too heavily on support from American friends during Peace Corps—this may have been a barrier to crossing the threshold of real immersion into sustaining, real friendships and relationships with Indonesians—I miss having them here terribly, because I could trust the group so much (and therefore needed less trust in myself, which fed into my confidence issues perfectly). They were always able to keep me in check in terms of maintaining civility and respect in times of dire frustrating, anger, and anxiety. They always supported me if I made a final decision about my living situation or needed to take a break from site and drink an entire bottle of wine. They proved a sounding board for ideas and approaches to meeting goals and helping students. They encouraged me to push myself harder while doing what I needed to do to stay somewhat sane. We often moved from place to place in a group, meaning that more often than not I could rely on someone else to figure out logistics, answer strangers’ questions, call a taxi, hail a public transport van, re-orient us if we were lost, or choose a new restaurant to try. Now, I’m relying nearly 100% on myself, which is a new and empowering situation.

So, small victories mean a lot and boost my confidence and self-trust: yesterday I motored myself to the shopping center with directions from a friend in the office and assistance from my phone’s GPS system; if I had gotten lost, I would have been responsible for finding someone and asking for directions. I would have had to spend the metal energy trying to understand and trying to find my way back to the path. I can’t defer to the luxury of others’ initiative-taking—as I used to do on occasion since the group meant that individuals could rotate and take turns being the leader—since I’m just me. But the advantage to this is realize that I can do it all myself, when necessary. I knew in my heart that I could, but having the experience firsthand is affirming. Maybe SK was right: now that I received the award and am doing this, there’s no excuse for a lack of self-confidence.

Hopefully, I grow to trust even more in my intellectual abilities as I do this project and work towards creating something in the end that is satisfying to myself. I have a lot of trust for Indonesia, and it’d be nice to come out at the end with even more trust for and in myself.

Always a work in progress, huh?

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eep

Well, riding on the back of a run-down, rickety, manual transmission motorcycle that keeps overheating, stalling, and exuding malodorous aromas of burning rubber and oil, driven by a 67-year old man in flip flops up a poorly paved mountain road: “Oops, we’ve got a problem,” “Dead again,” “This usually happens,” “It’s just too hot,” “Dead again!” “No problem, let’s go…let’s go, Sam!” “Hmm… maybe you should walk up this hill.”–all for the sake of meeting a potential participant–is just as nerve-wracking as it sounds.

Under the spell!

I conducted a pilot interview this weekend!! It was with a dukun bayi or children’s healer (and massage/bathing specialist) in my village, and I think it went as well as could be expected for a trial run! I was lucky enough to have my host mother accompany me as language guru; the interviewee spoke about as much Indonesian as I do, and, of course, my Javanese is only so-so. But the interview was very successful, in my opinion, although I definitely have questions to re-work (and add). I measured the success by the total confusion and amazement I felt at the end; I’ve got a lot to learn, and it’s going to be fascinating. Without going into too much detail, the most interesting part of her story, for me, was that she had no formal training. None! She realized later in life and through a premonitory dream that she had the ability to heal children’s illness, and the whole venture into healing started with her own grandchild, whom she healed with intuitive massage after the doctors tried and failed to help him. A devout Muslim, she believes that her ability is a gift from Allah and that she should use it to help any and all children in need of care.

This story contrasts sharply with the interviews I conducted in the US, and since I’m thinking that this project will end up being a comparative analysis of the two types of healers’ experiences (i.e., Javanese and Anglo-American), the potential seems great already for some interesting and provocative results! Plus, on a personal level, I feel humbled and even more open to the learning process inherent in doing this type of cross-cultural “fieldwork.” I am a lucky lady.

Serendipitously, I have connected with an anthropologist here at UMM whose research interests overlap quite harmoniously with mine. He is Pak H, and I think I mentioned him in my previous entry. He’s someone I know from my Peace Corps days and was a Fulbrighter, too (University of Michigan, late 1980’s). We had lunch together yesterday; he seems quite excited about my project and very interested in helping me travel around to certain places to explore the world of traditional healing here. He’ll be sharing resources, too, and I plan to pick up a couple of books from him later today. We’ve already got two trips scheduled for October to a regency in East Java that’s famous for dukun, and apparently Pak H is already very well-connected to the healing community there since it’s also, !!!, where he’s from. He’s already mentioned my project to several of his connections, who have expressed interest in being interviewed. I could tell from just walking around campus with him that he is very well-connected and respected around here. Pak H says that ten months is more than enough time to accomplish the goals I’ve set out in my research proposal and that with his help, finding interesting and available participants will not be an obstacle. I suppose this makes him, at this point, my primary gatekeeper. How fortunate that he is also an expert in the field.

I can’t believe how things are falling into place! Again, I know there will be challenges, but so far… I’m not sure what I was worrying about all summer when I was making myself frantic with nerves and anxiety about whether I could do this. My friends and colleagues here are so aware of what kind of help I need, and they are more than gracious in extending their assistance wherever possible. I hope I can find a way to do my part for them; I am picking up on the concept of gotong royong (mutual cooperation), a very fundamental aspect of traditional Javanese culture that still thrives today, even in bigger, “modern” cities like Malang. I will have to take care to reciprocate all of the assistance I’ve been granted.

Overall, I’ve been very lucky so far in finding just the perfect people to help me adjust to being back in East Java. Several people, expats and locals alike, have been very gracious and open to assisting me, every bit as much as enthusiastically as Pak H. With the help of a lovely lady from Poland and Mas T, I’ve gotten hooked up with some good transportation and know-how. Thanks to my host family in the village, I feel secure and safe (host dad checked out my homestay and always provides advice on travel, social interaction, and financial issues). The Peace Corps safety and security officer in Surabaya has offered to help me hand-deliver some documents next week to the provincial authorities about my research, per instructions from the federal office to which I report. My new housemate has been so gracious in sharing her delicious foodstuffs, all of which she makes up off the top of her head like a true chef! And, of course, my new and old Indonesian friends have been so open to hanging out, making me feel right at home. My delightful new/old friend, Mas M, is being very diligent in helping/forcing me to practice my Javanese daily, and I love him for it! (He jokes that the reason I like him so much is because I ate an orange that he had had bewitched by a dukun with the express purpose of getting me to like him. But I just think he’s charming; anybody would like him. But then again I do feel I am under some kind of spell here…)

And, importantly, I finally connected with the American Corner here on campus, and reunited with Mas H, whom I last saw in DC a couple of months ago. Later in the semester, we’re going to collaborate on some projects for UMM students. Excitingly, I’ve been granted access to his wide library of English-language reading materials. (No more worrying about forcing Mom, Caitlin, and Lauren to send pleasure reading! Although by all means, please send anything you think I’d be interested in. Ha!) I checked out a Steinbeck novel yesterday, and it feels so good.

That’s all from me for now!
xo
Sammy

*

Please follow me on Instagram @tisamlette if you are interested in seeing photos! I will post some here from time to time, I’m sure, but so far I have been posting mainly to Instagram…

A few more updates…

A few exciting updates! I have moved into my cute new (albeit ant-filled) abode; my housemate, M, made a lovely pumpkin and potato dish for me as a little welcome-to-the-house dinner. She is totally wonderful! We have both experienced living in Javanese villages before and both have experience teaching English here, so we have a lot in common already, even though we are from two very different countries/cultures. I love being able to share a space with someone also experiencing expat life in Malang. I feel completely comfortable and at ease; I could get used to this…especially to the fact that I don’t have to do any cleaning besides my own dishes. Thank you, housecleaning boys! What a fortuitous outcome of the house-hunting (which lasted approximately one hour)! AND, we got wifi in the house today!!!

There is a rather extensive expat network here in Malang, and they have been so far quite welcoming. I like the fact that I will spend some time in my village each weekend (or most weekends, anyway) so I don’t feel like I’m getting too sucked in to the expat world. It’s not a bad place—decidedly not—but I do want to maintain my connections with my host family and the ‘real world.’ So far, my new friend J, from Poland, has been most supportive and helpful. She has given me a few tips about Malang already, which are handy since I haven’t actually lived here before: good shops for Western-style bread and cheese, a top-notch fitness center (where she, as a lady, feels comfortable working out), and ideas about transportation. We had a lovely time at the café today chatting it up and getting to know one another. There’s a gathering on Friday that I think I’ll attend so I can meet the rest of her crew.

The visa process is slowly but surely coming along. I should be able to pick up the documents on Friday, which means I can officially start collecting data. Our trip to the immigration office was something else; Mas T picked me up with Mbak R, a Thai student also applying for a visa, at 9:30 instead of 9 since he was waiting on the car to arrive, and the car wouldn’t start when we got in to leave. Someone walked over from campus to help fix it, and after we stopped at the ATM to get money for the visa fee, the car broke down again. Another friend came to help, and we made it to immigration, finally. On the way back to drop said friend off at his job, the car broke down again. A bunch of guys worked on it for a while, and Mas T drove Mbak R back to campus on a borrowed motorcycle, since she had to teach a class (but she didn’t make it; her students had already left by the time she got back to campus). Finally it started, and Mas T and I headed back, stopping for some really excellent nasi pecel on the way back. Got back to the office at 1:30 or so, and, perfectly, the internet on campus was down. Thus, I went ended up at the café with J, as mentioned. Too much!! But I do just love Mas T for all the hard work he does around campus. He is a great friend, too. (Actually, everyone I’ve met/re-met in the office is completely wonderful. Mbak E is just a goofball and a total pleasure to be around, Mas M works hard to get me to practice my Javanese, and Mbaks O and K seem like really nice ladies who will hopefully become my good friends.)

On the research front, there have also been some interesting developments. By way of the professor who sponsored me, Pak P, I have been connected with a couple of professors at my university who specialize, in one way or another, in a field of study related to my project. One of them, Pak H, was a fellow who helped out my training village in Peace Corps… he’s a hoot and a half, and then some other stuff on top of that. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, he is an anthropology professor and a former Fulbrighter who studied at University of Michigan. He also, apparently, knows just about everyone in East Java and has lots of friends who practice traditional medicine, shamanism, and various other healing techniques. I guess he practices something himself, too, plus he’s head of the American Corner here on campus (more on that in the future). He’s in Jakarta until later this month, and I’m eager to re-meet him and see what’s up. There’s also another professor, Pak HS, who’s an expert in philosophy (or so I gather) who may also be able to help me.

I’m plodding along developing my research questions and beginning to consider how to approach recruiting and interviewing someone… I think I may stick close to Malang for the first couple weeks’ worth of fieldwork (perhaps pilot interviews), so I can rely on the networks I’ve established ‘round these parts to get my feet wet. Mas T seems really interested in helping me in the field, and I can tell already that I made the right choice in choosing to come back to Malang. I couldn’t imagine starting afresh at another university considering I only have ten months, and I wouldn’t even want to start over fresh anywhere else!

I finished my first book the other day, which I started for pleasure during my first few days here so that I could have a little mental break: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It’s a non-fiction account of a family of Hmong refugees whose second-youngest member has epilepsy, which in Hmong culture predisposes her to becoming a shaman(ess). The book explores her family’s relationships with the American doctors who treat her and in doing so illuminates quite a bit about Hmong culture, history, language, medicine, and religion, as well as the author’s experiences working with the family and medical workers involved in the ‘case.’ I highly recommend it; I hope I forget enough about what happened so I can read it again before I go home. I haven’t read something so captivating in quite some time. I’ve since moved on to a practical book about ethnographic fieldnotes that is far less entertaining.

On returning to Malang

13 September 2014

Of course, shenanigans ensued immediately upon arrival in Malang. I was picked up at the airport by my friend, who helped Peace Corps as a language and culture facilitator and also presently works at the international relations office at my affiliate university. He texted me to let me know he was at the airport: I’m standing right behind you. And he was! Had a nice lunch and chatted before heading to campus to stop by the office; ran into the host sister of a fellow now-RPCV and hitched a ride to her village, near mine, to see her extended family and meet her new baby (whose new nickname is now Baggage since his name is one letter shy of that word in Indonesian). The baby liked me! Normally, Indo babies get fairly spooked by my pale face, but Baggage and I goofed around for quite some time before heading to my village. So far, everyone that I’ve met up with that I knew from before has been super gracious and excited to see me. This definitely feels like a homecoming, in a great way!

I didn’t even recognize my host parents’ place when we pulled up. The whole house has changed, and a new, blue, two-story house has been built right behind the old house (which is now being rented out). Bapak and Sinta were home, and again it barely felt like I had been gone at all. The major change in the family besides the new house is that Sinta is two years older, now 20, and that much more confident, ebullient, and, well, grown up. Ibu was at a selametan for the one-year anniversary of Bapak’s kakak’s passing, and she didn’t come home until quite late. She received a good long squeeze upon arrival.

So far, chatting with Bapak and Ibu about my upcoming project has been quite titillating. They are both so intelligent and well-spoken; Ibu in particular has a way of making things really clear for me (because, after all, my language skills aren’t as great as I’d like them to be). The best part of the conversation was when I asked Bapak, an architect and contractor, whether he had ever been to see a dukun (shaman) and he said no, but I’m a shaman myself. I said, oh? Really? He said yep— a dukun pembangunan, a building-shaman. He also informed me that he’s been to a female shaman— Ibu, ‘cuz she takes care of everything. Earlier today, Ibu and I were discussing shamanism around Indonesia, and she had an interesting story about magic on Kalimantan: Javanese men who go to work on Kalimantan often get hypnotized by women there, and when they come back to Java, their privates disappear (and thus cannot be used in the marital bed). When they go back to Kalimantan, poof! They reappear, and the man is lured into marriage on Kalimantan, leaving his Javanese wife behind. Who’d want to return to Java, wife or no, under that sort of spell?

I can start searching for participants as soon as my KITAS comes through, which should be next Thursday. My friend from the international relations office helped with that process, too, and also helped me start searching for a place to live. It was suggested to him that I live in a house owned by the university, and luckily there is a spare room. Even luckier, I can live there rent-free, at least for this semester. Apparently the university owns a couple of guest houses—one for males and one for females—that international/visiting lecturers can use during their time here. I don’t count as a visiting lecturer, so I don’t have priority, but enough of the lecturers here this semester have found alternative housing for themselves.

Admittedly, the facilities are lacking slightly: no A/C (though it’s cool enough that I think a fan will be enough), no real sink for washing dishes (though apparently most housing around here doesn’t have complete kitchens as food on the street is so cheap and plentiful), Western-style toilets instead of squatties (which would be ideal except that in Indonesia, Western-style toilets are often wet all over due to splashing from manual flushing), and three twin-beds in my room (since the house is really a 10-person house, though the 4 rooms and status as international housing means it functions as a 4-person house). However, can’t beat the price, and I think I’ll just tilt the extra beds up against the wall, get a blender and an electric kettle for coffee and smoothies in the morning, wash dishes in the tiny little hand-washing sink, and cope with the toilets. The positives: hot water for showering, a nice living room with a big coffee table for studying/working, an interesting and nice housemate, a couple young guys who come daily to sweep and tidy up, an Indomart convenience store and laundry toko just around the corner, and just a five minute walk to campus. I will be sharing with a nice Uzbekistani lady who’s teaching English this semester. She’s part of a little expat group of lecturers from all over the world: Libya, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Venezuela, France, etc. etc.! I haven’t met them all yet, but they warmly welcomed me yesterday into their little circle.

My plan at this time is to stay in the guest house Monday through Friday and go home with my host sister on (most) weekends to Bapak and Ibu’s house. She’s studying for her bachelor’s at the university and commutes daily, so I’ll be able to see her now and then during the week, perhaps for lunch or coffee!! (Went back to the much-beloved coffee joint in front of campus and had a delicious $0.75 iced espresso yesterday.) Not to my great surprise, Bapak and Ibu were very gracious and offered that I stay with them instead of paying for a place on my own in Malang, which is noisy and dirty, they say. I think a good compromise is splitting up the time. I love staying with them, and frankly I still have a lot to learn about Javanese language and culture; they have always been some of my best teachers. Lately, great conversations have been about: dukun, as mentioned; the recent Indonesian presidential election; cross-cultural co-habitation and its many challenges; family updates, including a couple of untimely deaths of middle-aged relatives on their end and updates about my family (that photo album was much enjoyed by all, Lauren!) and storytelling about my grandmother’s recent passing; village gossip, changes, and news; and what we’ve all been up to, in general, over the past two years, including Sinta’s somewhat negative experiences as a university student (she’s finding it hard to make friends since she is the only person in her cohort who commutes daily).

I think that’s all from me for now; the rest of the weekend, I’ll mampir to the other host families to catch up and say hello, head to the shopping center to get a few things for my new place, and hang with the family some more. I’m especially enjoying Sinta’s newfound enthusiasm for practicing her English, sitting in the kitchen in the morning with Ibu sipping coffee while she cooks and chats, and Bapak’s clear excitement that I’m visiting again. I also feel especially relaxed and enthused because of my smartphone and data plan; keeping in touch with important folks in the States is much easier this time around. Actually, since I knew what to expect this time around, everything so far as been much easier. I’m sure I’m still honeymooning, but I can’t imagine the coming weeks will be any less exciting since I get to start my research project. From my current vantage point, it seems that the most difficult thing about the Fulbright year so far is getting over my anxiety about the big shift back into this Indo life, and now that I’m here, I can finally relax about it all. I don’t doubt there will be big challenges in the future, but I know I’ve got a great support network (here and at home), a great internet connection, and a great deal more language, cultural, and self knowledge than I did four and a half years ago.

Sam's Adventures in Indonesia

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