100 Things I Find Maddening about Indonesia

These kids are feisty. Lives lived in a feverish frenzy, all bursting hearts. Don’t like being let down. Hungry for a challenge. These kids don’t want their hands held. They know that tough love is one of the best loves, and they run heart-first into the thick of it.

This post is going to be about what revolts, disgusts, enrages, embitters, and disappoints me about experiencing, studying, and living Indonesia, as myself in all my bias and positionality. So, some caveats are necessary.

There are plenty of amazing things about Indonesia that keep me inspired and mystified; Java is a magical place, and I greatly enjoy living here. My curiosity and confusion–as much about my own experiences as the country and culture, land and people–lures me back, lures me out into the Java-world, lures me away from my home and into a liminal space of contradictions and strange syntheses: emotions, realities, ideas, beliefs, and actions that make little sense but seem to be the way “here” functions.

As someone whose current career trajectory and personal history position me not as a wayfarer just passing through Indonesia on the way to an elsewhere, other-time future, I feel both responsible and justified, in an ethical sense, to explore the elements of Indonesian society and culture that leave something to be desired. Of course, these are all merely my (mere) perceptions. And it’s tough love. I wish I heard more Indonesians constructively criticizing their world or at least doing so in conversation with me, but I’m happy to share my feelings and thoughts on these matters if there’s any remote possibility that I could in any way help the efforts of the activists, social critics, and political dissidents in Indonesia trying to get the ball of change and revolution rolling. If this post it in any way validates what they’re doing, seeing, and feeling, then perhaps its ultimately a shot at solidarity? Unity of opinion? We have to agree on what’s wrong before we can work together for change. Too much empty rhetoric? Too narrow of an audience, surely. But here I am.

There are plenty (plenty) of elements of American society and culture that I find beyond revolting, and sharing thoughts and feelings about these subjects does not make me remorseful in the slightest. I feel the same about my criticisms of “Indonesia”–my second home country, for all intents and purposes. We should all be invested in improving our world. Being honest and certain about the flaws of ourselves and our countries is one step towards holding responsible the people, politicians, institutions, and/or socio-political/cultural/religious systems that cause pain in our lives and, quite often, wreak havoc on people and the planet.

Many of the items on the list are problems in my country and other countries around the world; that I’m pointing these out doesn’t mean I love this world, my country, or Indonesia any less. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m quite sure that sharing like this is all too American, but there we are; no matter how many of my Javanese friends insist that I’m turning, I’m not actually Javanese. The only thing I’m sure I am is imperfect.

So, in absolutely no particular order, here’s my list:

  1. Littering / pollution culture and the fact that parents don’t teach their children to throw garbage in the trash despite knowing about global warming and the consequences of pollution to the environment (see #97)
  2. A long history of repression of political dissent on the part of the Indonesian government
  3. Colonial hangover / cultural PTSD: Indonesians, especially the Javanese, were mentally traumatized during the colonial period and developed extreme inferiority complexes. Deference to the superiority of the Dutch was ingrained into the cultural subconscious. Today, this history is written in the interactions that westerners, especially light-skinned ones, have in Indonesia. Granted, Indonesians are often very polite, warm, and welcoming to foreigners and in general with one another, but the extremity of obeisance to light-skinned westerners, is disturbing. My office friends and I call this, with tongues in cheeks, “bule (foreigner) power.” Foreigners are often granted special privileges and treated with extreme respect, and–as you probably expected–there are plenty of westerners who abuse this power dynamic. So, the anger here for me is directed at the Dutch colonial regime and the contemporary foreigners who abuse their positions, with annoyance at this element of culture in general because it reproduces itself through generations.
  4. Lack of a standardized system of education for people with exceptional needs (and, frankly, human rights abuses involving people with exceptional needs)
  5. The extreme wealth gap
  6. Skin-whitening “beauty” products
  7. Getting the third degree from skeevy dudes about who I am, where I’m from, what I’m doing here…it’s just chit-chat, but for some reason I have a hard time being rude (so I suppose this is a personal problem…but it’s also about how frustrating it can be my body language and signals of disinterest don’t “work” here)
  8. Fucking flies, ants, and cockroaches everywhere all the time
  9. Racism towards dark-skinned people, such as people of African and Melanesian descent
  10. The questionable treatment of Indigenous Peoples here, especially regarding land rights and government concessions to multinational extractive industry giants
  11. People who have conversations on their two motorcycles while driving slowly in front of me
  12. That moment when you realize the food you just put in your mouth has already spoiled (because it has been sitting out all day)
  13. MSG in everything (I’ve talked plenty about this before, I know, but it had to make the list)
  14. No being able to get water in any container but plastic; not trusting that boiling tap water will be enough to sanitize and therefore being effectively forced to drink every drop of water I consume from plastic
  15. Young people who don’t look before crossing the street (no magic hand, no checking left-right, just strolling into the middle of the road like they’re the only ones in the world, backs to traffic and no backwards glance)
  16. Watching people I love and care about eat so much sugar and rice all the time, knowing it’s just awful for their health, and not being able to do much about it at all
  17. Lack of infrastructure, especially decent, well-moving highways
  18. The cultural pressure on women and young girls to marry early, ideally well before age twenty-five, and the fact that getting pregnant after 1-2 months of marriage is generally viewed as a great thing. Actually, there are all sorts of things about marriage I disagree with, both in Indonesia and in general, but I think the issue feels particularly acute to me since the pressure on young people to marry is so pervasive here. I would call it bullying and abuse. Chalk it up to lack of understanding or unwillingness to understand, but these are my thoughts. I’ve talked to too many Indonesian women and girls who see this situation similarly to accept that I’m just imposing my own cultural expectations and beliefs on the situation.
  19. Motorcycling men who grab pedestrian women’s breasts and speed away (this didn’t happen to me, but it has happened to more than one woman I know)
  20. Motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets. I especially hate seeing families of two helmeted parents and one or two helmetless kids on one motorcycle, or helmetless kids propped up in the front of the bike on the lap of a helmeted adult driver. If you can afford a motorcycle, gas, motorcycle maintenance fees, taxes and registration fees, and to buy whatever you’re going to buy when you end up wherever you’re going, then you can afford to protect the head of your child.
  21. LGBT human rights abuses and lack of healthcare/sex ed and disease prevention ed for this population
  22. Lack of sex ed for all students. Generally, if a girl gets pregnant, she is no longer permitted to attend school, and her family pressures her to marry the father of the child as soon as possible. The boy is not always kicked out of school and could deny his actions and probably get off the hook; the negative consequences of the lack of sex ed fall disproportionately on young girls
  23. Lack of basic dental care for the majority of citizens, probably due to affordability and the pervasiveness of non-professional/non-medically-trained dentists in rural and semi-rural areas
  24. Guys who tease one another about being feminine and being womanly/girly/un-masculine without realizing the sexism inherent in this teasing (happens in the US all the time, of course, about being girly/gay/ghetto/etc.)
  25. The severity of legal and social repercussions for those wishing to express freely their religious beliefs; there are six legally permitted religious options in Indonesia, and atheism is effectively illegal
  26. Internet and media censorship on the part of the government
  27. Pervasive anti-Semitism (I once met a man who, upon first meeting and after asking me my name and religion, interrogated me about whether I’d ever consider marrying a Jewish person)
  28. No wide-scale recycling initiatives or community recycling programs to make recycling easy and commonplace
  29. Human trafficking and sex trafficking
  30. Rampant fat shaming (this is not just my construction of what is really harmless teasing as “fat shaming;” it is actually fat shaming. I have spoken to several Indonesian women about the negative effects of body shaming for their mental and physical well-being; beauty standard issues are just as problematic for women’s lives here as in the west)
  31. Despite rampant fat shaming, women in rural and semi-rural areas (and many urban areas) have very few opportunities to engage in fitness activities due to standards of modesty and the inappropriateness of too much female exertion
  32. Indonesian stereotypes about foreigners: girls are easy, foreigners just want to party in Bali, every foreigner is wealthy, etc. Of course, there’s a basis for these stereotypes in reality (and Hollywood has to shoulder some of the blame), but no matter where you are in the world or who you are, being stereotyped is shitty (and can also be very dangerous)
  33. Chemical pesticides that kill farmers are necessary to sustain the massive rice production so necessary to the people here and for the Indonesian GDP
  34. Kids in the lowest socioeconomic stratum can be roped into gangs of street children forced to beg in the streets and report back to their gang bosses to give over all profits. Children are threatened with physical violence to make sure they don’t try to escape or go back to their families
  35. There’s a lot of rotting garbage on the sides of roads and in most waterways
  36. People drink and consume so much sugar here, it’s just crazy; kids’ teeth rot out black from their heads, and parents aren’t empowered with the knowledge to prevent bad habits and poor health in their children. If they are aware, then they consciously choose to ignore promoting good habits in their children, which is almost more insidious and disturbing
  37. In my experience, Indonesians can’t and won’t queue. They are ruthless
  38. Some Indonesian Muslims are often disgusted by and wary of pork-eaters; for me, it’s fine to do what you want for yourself, but it’s not fine to harbor negative feelings for others based on dietary choices, no matter what your religion says
  39. It’s incredibly easy for men to hire prostitutes and the hidden economy of this industry is enormous
  40. Nepotism is strong, even where civil servant / government positions are concerned
  41. Some people feel that making jokes at my expense because of the way I look, behave, and dress is acceptable, and they automatically assume that I don’t understand what they’re saying just because they are speaking Javanese
  42. To do my research, I had to get research clearance in order to get my temporary visa in order to get my permanent visa upon arrival after visiting federal, regional, and local authorities and police stations. I was also given letters to pass out to three authorities in every county in the regency I am conducting research in. This amounted to over one hundred letters. In one word: bureaucracy.
  43. Most local emblems are phallic monuments a la the Washington monument, and this greatly displeases me
  44. Fried food is everywhere, and it’s often when visiting people’s homes that I am effectively forced to partake of oily, fried carbohydrates that make me feel just terrible about my life
  45. The governments, federal/regional/local, don’t try hard enough to reform and/or ensure public transportation safety regulations to ensure the well-being of the general public
  46. Indomaret–effectively Indonesian Wal-Mart or CVS, if you will–while convenient, is driving out small, independent businesses left and right (I’m guilty of contributing)
  47. By my standards, which are of course totally and absolutely biased, more people than not have questionable table manners; Indonesia has forced me to the painful but ultimately beneficial realization that no matter how accepting and open-minded I fashion myself to be, there are some things that I just can’t stand and can’t accept, which means there are culturally engendered aspects to my personhood that are outside of my ability to control. Of course, I’d prefer to be a blissed-out, all-loving buddha-type, but it’s actually not achievable for me (at least presently), and this process of awakening to the reality of myself has been painful
  48. Police shakedowns and other forms of financial corruption are pervasive here, and even though they can be considered a cultural norm (and therefore off-limits to criticism by an outsider??), they still create a system of economic oppression where the poorest people (i.e. those who can’t afford to pay people off or pay people under the table to get things done faster) are barred from upward mobility
  49. Traffic
  50. Not many people enjoy reading as a hobby. Sometimes people try to get me to stop reading so much because they think I’ll get sick or dizzy from reading
  51. People often use gasoline as a cleaning product, and it smells awful and it just isn’t safe or healthy in any way
  52. Ice never stays ice as long as I’d like it to
  53. Salty fish on my plate
  54. I’m pretty sure there’s formaldehyde and borax in most meatball vendors’ meatball recipes (meatballs are as popular here as burgers and fries are in the US; that’s a lot of chemical consumption)
  55. Towels are outrageously expensive here
  56. Lots of people think that if they’re in the village or near home, it’s okay to ride their motorcycle without a helmet; protection is only deemed necessary on major roads and/or in the city
  57. There are very few social or welfare programs for “crazy people,” as the homeless and/or mentally ill people who roam the streets are deemed. They are almost universally reviled and ignored, even though the professed religious beliefs of the majority of people would suggest that charity and beneficence are important responsibilities and moral obligations (of course, hypocrites exist in every corner of human culture)
  58. It takes a very long time to go not-very-far distances; generally, it takes 4-5 hours to cover the same distance that it’d take 1-2 hours to cover in the US. This is primarily due to poor roads and poor infrastructure
  59. There are way too many plastic bags in circulation here and no system for reducing the use of plastics in development for the foreseeable future. I try to recycle the bags I use, but ultimately recycling within the home can only go so far. This is of course a global problem, but the gravity of it is particularly salient here since one can easily spot plastic waste in every waterway (sometimes even when snorkeling/scubaing in natural parks or preserves)
  60. The indirect communication style of the Javanese make it difficult for me to work through conflicts when they arise (of course, I’m sure that my direct style often creates difficulties for Javanese people; sometimes, cross-cultural communication is exceedingly challenging, as much as I’d like to believe I’m special and it should always be a cakewalk for me)
  61. Transgender and other trans* people are often reviled and shunned by general society and their individual families (as can be the case in the west)
  62. Indonesia is very far away from the US and very costly to get to; why can’t it be cheaper and closer? ::sly eye:: Doesn’t the world revolve around me?
  63. Sometimes, foreigners are abused for publicity purposes, and the experience can be dehumanizing
  64. Indonesia runs on jam karet or “rubber time”–basically, what we normally call “island time”–and sometimes it’s hard for me to remember, so I show up early or freak out unnecessarily about being on time
  65. Jam karet means that teachers are often late to class, but jam karet doesn’t mean that class periods get extended past their scheduled finish time, even if the teachers arrive late
  66. Some Indonesian guys grow their pinkie fingernails to excessive lengths and I find it quite repulsive; again, something makes me confront the fact that there are certain negative aspects of myself that I can’t change. I’ll never be as chill and accepting as I’d like to imagine I am (I can just imagine Scott and Lauren rolling their eyes and telling me I don’t have to accept everything and shouldn’t accept everything and/or telling me I’m a loon)
  67. Indonesian Facebook culture (I’m not going to clarify here…it’s too trivial…but it annoys me, to say the least. Did you ever realize or think about the fact that there’d be different social media cultures in different cultures? It is so obvious now, but it was so unexpected. And Indonesian FB culture can be very annoying; tags on advertisements and hundreds of outstanding friend requests from people I don’t know, to say the least)
  68. Inter-religious violence and terrorism is all too common here
  69. Bali has been effectively prostituted to the West and Australia/NZ for the sake of the national economy and tourism, and it’s depressing to go there (especially to Kuta) and witness the foreigners’ debauchery and the debasement of Bali. I am guilty of participation. I think as Bali developed as a tourist destination, it began responding to the demands of the visitors…and that’s why I started this item in the passive voice, since I don’t think that Indonesia would consciously sacrifice an entire island for the sake of tourism and economic gain, but I do think that Bali has been sacrificed in some ways
  70. It’s very difficult to find “plus-sized” clothing here, even though there are plenty of plus-sized girls. I often see fuller-figured ladies wearing clothes that are way too tight for them and obviously uncomfortable, especially bras. It’s also hard to find large-sized women’s shoes
  71. Another item related to being bigger in Indonesia: pervasive plastic stools are often the only seating option. These stools are made for tiny, light people, so for me there’s always a constant fear that the stool will collapse and everyone will laugh and I will be horribly embarrassed. I assume other larger people (Indonesians included) feel the same
  72. Standards for child-rearing and disciplining are very different here, and some Indonesian children’s behavior makes me feel uncomfortable and angry. I want to discipline them, but I know I can’t without causing upset on the part of the parent, so I have to stifle my urges and find a way to trust that the children will turn out fine (even if it seems to me like they are allowed to be complete monsters and demand that their every whim be catered to! Although as I re-read this, it sounds just like some American kids and parents I’ve known…not you, my dear readers with children)
  73. Double standards: foreigners often get special privileges and treatment over natives for no simple reason other than their foreignness (see #3)
  74. Because of the aforementioned indirect communication style here, bullying is much more subtle than in the US, so it’s hard to catch and correct. Imagine if there was only cyber-bullying in the US…that’s pretty much how it is here, based on my experiences teaching
  75. Mold grows freely and with alarming rapidity wherever it damn well pleases, including on walls, floors, and clean/stored clothing–especially during the rainy season
  76. As an outsider, I find Indonesian politics quite tricky to get a decent grasp on because there are so many political parties that are united into various coalitions (and for a variety of other factors as well); there doesn’t seem much to do besides try to get a grasp by keeping up to date with current events, and I haven’t been able to find many resources to help me understand the basics. I suppose trying to learn the details of a political situation/system so foreign to me is what I’m getting at, so perhaps this isn’t really specific to Indonesia, but there you are
  77. On a very light and ridiculous, self-serving note, I can’t access free Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, etc. ::galau::
  78. The Pemuda Pancasila (and I don’t even care if they read this list)
  79. Speaking of free speech, this past August, a university student in Jogjakarta twittered some negative commentaries about her campus administration and Jogjakarta in general, made national news, and was punished by relevant authorities for her comments. If I’m remembering correctly, she was suspended from classes for the remainder of the semester and not refunded her school fees
  80. Recent Indonesian history (I’m thinking especially since World War II) is generally outside the realm of socially acceptable topics of discussion, especially the issue of mass murder of “communists” and other leftists in the mid-1960s.* There has still been no form of reparations or apology to the general public on behalf of the government or any citizens’ groups, and many of the perpetrators of murder during this time period still roam free (you may have heard of or seen The Act of Killing)
  81. Women have no access to a sufficiently wide variety of menstrual hygiene products; the only widely available menstrual hygiene product is the menstrual pad. Tampons are not widely accessible because they are inserted into the vagina and can damage the hymen, leading to the common belief that tampons ruin a girl’s virginity (which is still highly prized and necessary for a girl to be of marriageable quality). There are no menstrual cups available of any kind, as far as I can tell. Let’s not even talk about access to contraceptives or the social acceptability of a woman purchasing condoms at a store, especially in rural areas
  82. Kartini Day is supposed to honor Princess Kartini for her feminist writings and positions as well as her efforts to improve girls’ access to education, but in many areas Kartini Day seems to be reduced to a chance for girls to dress up and get made up in the old-fashioned style of Kartini’s era without critical reflection on the state of women’s rights in contemporary Indonesian society
  83. Have I mentioned the mosquitoes?
  84. Men here, as in much of the west, are taught to hide the more “feminine” of their feelings and emotions; crying is a sign of weakness. There are rigorous cultural standards of masculinity here and plenty of damaging repercussions for men who don’t or can’t conform
  85. Indonesia is the third-highest producer of rice in the world (behind China and India), yet still imports rice. The new administration seeks rice self-sufficiency, but at this point it’s still importing due to inefficient production techniques and extremely high per capita rice consumption
  86. Flip-flops, one of the most common forms of footwear in and for Indonesia, are gawked and laughed at if worn in public. They are viewed as bathroom shoes and poor-people shoes, so wearing them in public is very distasteful despite the insane practicality of flip-flops for this climate/environment
  87. The most common form of trash disposal is burning (obviously, landfills aren’t better and we as humans don’t have an efficient system for trash disposal…but burning is particularly disgusting to me)
  88. In rural areas, based on my experience, it’s not very acceptable for unmarried girls and young women to go outside of the house unaccompanied after dusk
  89. Mangoes, when picked unripe, are like pears: you wait and wait for them to ripen, and when they’re finally ripe it’s for about five minutes, and you are inevitably asleep or out of the house and thus do not to enjoy the mango you waited so long for
  90. It’s very hard to find wine here (at least in East Java, in my experience) and, if you do happen to find it, it’s quite expensive. During PC, we used to buy $30 bottles at an Italian restaurant in Surabaya…and that was all we ever found
  91. Indonesian TV commercials…I have a love/hate relationship with Indonesian commercials. Good for language learning but terribly annoying and grating at times
  92. Second-hand smoke; it’s still culturally acceptable to smoke in most offices and buildings, so avoiding second-hand smoke is very difficult
  93. Indonesia is a land of immense natural beauty, and much of it is being slowly destroyed (e.g., waterways and pollution, land/forest degradation and extractive industries, coral reef destruction and natural habitat loss…again, these problems are not limited to Indonesia but are global in scope)
  94. A4 paper. What’s with that. It doesn’t fit in my bag, people.
  95. Certificates and attendance of conferences, trainings, workshops, etc., are often viewed as more valuable than whatever new skills or knowledge could have been gleaned from active participation
  96. Social norms of hierarchy make it pretty much always acceptable to be interrupted by someone who views him/herself as the socially superior person in the conversation (lack of egalitarianism in social interactions; to me, this is a challenge…and I think some of my Indonesian friends have also been frustrated by this before)
  97. Large crowds more often and in more places than I’m used to (you all know I can’t stand a crowd!)
  98. This one’s from my friend: if there’s no rule or clear direction for what to do, people are paralyzed. However, if there are clear rules and people know them, they decide not to follow/obey
  99. The fact that I have to think twice about publishing this because there could, theoretically, be social/political repercussions for me, even though I view myself as simply sharing my opinions, thoughts, and feelings. There are standards for what’s allowed to be shared and criticized here and what’s not. This is probably not a super-safe set of topics to write about, and blatant criticism is very un-Indonesian (read: outside the cultural norm)
  100. Actually, I like Indonesia so much that I didn’t want to finish this list. At about #59, I started to wonder whether or not to continue. I find it maddening that despite all of these problems, I still love Indonesia, which is exactly how I feel about the States. I find it maddening that I can’t just magically fix everything. I find my own optimism maddening at times. I find it maddening that my loved ones have to live in such an imperfect world. But, maddeningly, we need all of the imperfection, ugliness, hate, and filth to give substance to our potential, beauty, magic, and love. I believe in the in-betweens, but I believe as well in the truth of certain binary oppositions; the reason we feel passionate about changing the world is because we are full to bursting with both love and hate.

Interestingly, this list took me two days to create; its friend, 100 Things I Love about Indonesia (Redux), took about two hours to write. It’s much harder to explore the negatives. This was a heavy entry for me! I blame this list-or, the act of producing this list–for my sour mood yesterday…

If you’d like to learn more or explore some other writings about any of these topics, feel free to leave a comment and I will share resources. Or, you can always Google stuff. I thought about linking to external resources throughout, but it’s easier for me if you just request what you want (if anything). I’d very much like to hear responses/criticisms from anyone who might be reading this with experience in Indonesia.

And so, that’s all from me.

*The US effectively sanctioned these killings because, well, the Cold War.

100 Things I Love about Indonesia (Redux)

In no particular order:

  1. Friends (what else can I say? heartstrings.)
  2. Call to prayer
  3. Fried tempeh and spicy sambal
  4. Cute, trendy fashionistas
  5. Snack boxes and meal boxes with tasty sweets and juicy meats
  6. Electronic tennis rackets for killing mosquitoes
  7. Green, green, green all around
  8. Great meals for under a dollar
  9. Cloudy, rainy morning peacefulness during the monsoon season
  10. Laundry service on every corner for lazy people
  11. Fruit stalls on the side of the road year-round
  12. Being able to go home from work when sick/tired/headachey and not feeling guilty or being shamed by coworkers/supervisors
  13. Crazy linguistic environment for non-stop left brain hemisphere stimulation
  14. Karaoke, Indo-style
  15. Really juicy pens
  16. Friendly neighbors who’ll always make you a cup of tea
  17. Rice paddies in the sunset
  18. Learning never to neglect appreciating the value of a cool, passing breeze
  19. Cheap fresh ginger, garlic, chilis, spices, fruits, coffee…
  20. The meatball man’s wooden block call (tok tok tok-tok tok-tok tok-tok-tok-tok-tok)
  21. Students’ endless, organic artistic creativity
  22. Batik and tailors
  23. The fact that there has been a female president of this country
  24. The dudes who help guide traffic, freelance-style, in crazy intersections
  25. My current very supportive work environment
  26. Traffic light count-down displays
  27. Interesting people to pester and demand stories from
  28. Traditional medicinals (jamu)
  29. Javanese baby cheeks, free for the pinching
  30. Dudes who transport menageries on their motorcycles
  31. Dangdut music blasting from loudspeakers (as long as I can get away from it eventually)
  32. Caked-on, over-the-top makeup
  33. Shops with rows and rows of headscarves (jilbab) for sale in every color and with every type of rhinestone and sequin in every pattern imaginable
  34. Traditional massage and modern reflexology massage
  35. Funny socks with a separated big toe so wearers can use flip-flops with socks
  36. Futsal fun
  37. Perfume stands where you can get cheap knock-off perfume mixed while you wait
  38. Easy and convenient (if not always safe) public transportation system
  39. Daily greeting-handshakes with coworkers (which used to annoy me, but now I love it)
  40. No carpets = no need for a vacuum
  41. Cheek-kisses, European-style, which are quite popular and just so sweet
  42. Fascinating history to study and learn about
  43. Janky-ass museums that are, at the same time, super amazing
  44. The fact that “ketchup” means soy sauce and ketchup is known as “tomato sauce”
  45. Domestic brews that always hit the spot, even though really they are watery and terrible
  46. Increasingly flexible hip joints that feel so good (thank you, squatty potties)
  47. The daily Jakarta Post (basically the Indo NYT) English-language version, published everyday
  48. Sparkly Qur’anic verses in golden thread on black velvet canvases
  49. Ritual meal-sharing (slametan) for special occasions
  50. Old women who specialize in infant care, doula-esque stuff, and baby massage
  51. Fabrics that don’t stretch out after repeated hand-washings (unlike those of most of the clothes I bring from the US)
  52. The crazy memories get stirred when I catch a whiff of clove cigarette smoke or rotting garbage/sewage or a certain brand of mosquito repellent or unrefrigerated meat or jasmine tea…and a variety of other Indo-scents
  53. Bright blue butterflies and other pretty flying things
  54. Indonesian toddlers who are just young enough not to realize I’m that different
  55. Indonesian toddlers who burst into tears at the sight of my pasty face
  56. Indonesian toddlers who call me auntie at their mothers’ prodding
  57. Indonesian toddlers
  58. How I learn to laugh at what would normally be extremely frustrating, because if I don’t laugh I’d surely go insane
  59. Paradise sunsets
  60. Old ladies who don’t realize I can’t understand their Javanese and just keep talking at me and stroking my arm as if I understand them perfectly
  61. School and office uniforms
  62. STMJ: susu (milk), telur (egg), madu (honey), jahe (ginger); an amazingly delicious cold-killing drink served warm and made to order (imagine hot chocolate for consistency/mouthfeel but sweet creamy ginger goodness instead of chocolate for taste)
  63. How various regions have their own styles and motifs of batik cloth
  64. The scent of fresh jasmine flowers
  65. Live gamelan performances
  66. Live wayang kulit performances
  67. Eating with one’s fingers (which, by the way, actually does make food taste better)
  68. Greasy, dirty, MSG-filled spicy fried rice with egg, chilies, and green onions
  69. Indonesian TV commercials, which are great for language-learning
  70. Boiled veggies with galangal
  71. Ladies-only gyms
  72. Food cooked in fresh banana leaf packets
  73. Super-talented buskers and street performers
  74. Of course, amazing scenery: waterfalls, mountains, rice paddies, fields of sugar cane, volcanoes, palm and banana and coconut trees…
  75. Meatball stands with steamed tofu for sale
  76. Babies in headscarves (which we PCVs have affectionately dubbed “jilbabies”)
  77. Old ladies in old-fashioned Javanese sarongs, walking around with their boobs all out, totally carefree and chill, or wearing unbuttoned old-timey shirts
  78. Hordes of giggling teens obviously interested in asking for a photo but way too shy to go through with who burst into convulsive fits of amusement when approached
  79. Singing the Indonesian national anthem (I don’t know why, it’s just great fun)
  80. Craftsmanship industries, such as carving/woodwork, which are still going strong
  81. Side-of-the-road restaurants and Indo-style food trucks (which are basically souped-up wheelbarrows complete with mini-kitchens and display windows)
  82. The funny Indonesian obsession with (gross) shredded cheese as an ingredient for classy pastries and desserts
  83. The booming “herbals” industry, which makes it relatively easy (or at least possible) to get natural/clean products like soaps and lotions without too many chemical additives
  84. Seemingly random Indonesian-Chinese Buddhist shrines, always bright red and gold, seeping fragrant incense into the streets
  85. Durian
  86. Riding on the back of motorcycles
  87. Driving motorcycles
  88. Infinite variation of accessories and clothing items available for purchase since home industries and local businesses haven’t quite yet been taken over by mass industry chains like we see in the US; on average, I see more variation here
  89. Karaoke machines on buses
  90. Emotional and over-the-top Indonesian soap operas, known as cinetron
  91. Indonesian rappers and hip hop artists
  92. Free range Javanese roosters and chickens, which are tall, slender, multi-colored, and gorgeous
  93. Velveteen peci hats for men
  94. Peanut sauce over veggies, grilled chicken skewers, boiled spinach, rice medallions…over anything, really
  95. Teasing/affection culture (my Raycraft style fits right in)
  96. Hand-painted signs and advertisements
  97. Endless and fascinating seeming-contradictions that make Javanese culture ‘work’
  98. Fresh young coconut drink (es degan)
  99. Magic and mysticism, traditional healing, the pervasive belief in ghosts and place-spirits, spooky stories, and getting the shivers about all of these things
  100. Being able to learn something new (and probably weird) each day by simply starting a conversation

To follow: 100 Things I Find Maddening about Indonesia

real smiles

The English language workshop crew at the end of the day last Monday. I love this picture. Every single lovely person is giving a real, real smile, and it warms my heart! Even little Kiki in the corner there is thrilled. From L to R, clockwise: me, Grace (ETA), Nahal (PCV), Ferry (AmCor), Camille (PCV), Sarah (ETA), Heru (AmCor), Obbie (photographer & AmCor student staff), and Kiki, there in the corner (AmCor student staff). Still feelin’ warm and fuzzy when I remember this fab collab. Great work, friends!!

little nerdy updates

Hello, beloveds!

It is Thanksgiving day, and I am enjoying some coffee and Childish Gambino, trying to catch up on tasks, emails, chats, posts… it has been a hectic week or two, and my hard-earned few hours’ of morning work time (and last night’s sleep) is helping me re-center. This is a good thing, since my research project, whose activities and time commitments ebb and flow, is about to demand another dedicated stretch of time and effort from me.

I suppose I will start with research updates. The best and biggest news is that thanks to the help of my darling friend Miss L of the UMM International Language Forum, I have a crack team of over-achieving English and International Relations undergraduate students transcribing and translating my recorded interview files! This is a huge help to me and actually a necessity, since I can’t spell Javanese words and often can’t even distinguish individual words in Javanese; most of the older participants responded to my interview questions in Javanese, evenly split between high and low forms of the language (which are distinct languages and mutually unintelligible, i.e. if a younger person knows only the low form, they generally can’t understand the high form. Funny side story – slash – example, the son of the owner of my gym didn’t know how to respond when I asked him a question in high Javanese! Yes indeed, he’s Javanese, but he only speaks the low form of the language). Once I get the transcripts, I can review the translations and begin preparing questions for a second round of interviews. I think the second round needs to be completed before the end of December if I’m to maintain a reasonable timeline for writing, and I should probably start writing up at least my methods section this month, if not a decent part of a literature review section. Nerdy!

Last week, my colleague and friend Mbak K and I attended an international graduate student and scholars conference in Jogjakarta, home of the famous Borobodur and Prambanan temples and the city of the strongest remaining sultanate in Indonesia. I had been there a couple of times during Peace Corps service, and my parents also visited during their stay. It’s a popular tourist destination due to the temples, and it’s a large city because of the sultanate, its bursting arts and culture scene, and the many, many universities located there.

The conference, at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), was on spirituality, local wisdom, science, and global issues in Indonesia and other countries around Southeast Asia and, in fact, the globe. The primary focus was environmental issues, indigenous peoples, and the relationships between government, land, indigenous knowledge, and religious/spiritual conflict and how such conflict impacts policymaking and lawmaking in Indonesia, and there were some very interesting and relevant panels and plenary sessions that I found personally useful for my current project. Delegates (graduate students, professors, lecturers, NGO leaders, and policymakers) from around the world were in attendance: Thailand, Iraq, the Netherlands, the USA, Australia, all over Indonesia (of course), Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Germany, Guyana, Australia…and more, I’m sure.

We had a great time and learned a lot, plus we got some good food, found some great souvenirs, and took twice-daily advantage of the lovely high-pressure showers in the hotel. What was arguably the biggest excitement of the week was visiting Martha, a fellow Fulbright student researcher currently completing a language course in Jogja. I hadn’t seen her since September, and it was so nice to hang out and chat (over beer and Mediterranean food!). I also met another Fulbright researcher from UC Boulder working on a very interesting project about the relationship between chronic communicable illness, economic immobility, and sustainable resource extraction. Overall, the conference and trip resulted in lots of provocative chats with interesting and intelligent people dedicated to Southeast Asian studies, including many novice Indonesianists like myself. (Yup, I’m taking on that label. It’s official.)

A secondary purpose of the visit was to meet some of the folks at the cross-cultural and religious studies center at UGM, whose faculty once included Dr. Mark Woodward, a scholar I’ve been interested in due to the parallels between his work and my current project. One interesting thing about doing research on Indonesia as a Western scholar is the inaccessibility of large bodies of literature that for whatever reason either haven’t been digitized or translated from Javanese or Indonesian or Dutch into English; the people at the center have a vast library of materials that can’t be accessed anywhere else or through any other means but in-person. In addition to being able to collect primary data directly, another advantage of the Fulbright program is being able to access this literature by being here in person to make trips to library collections like these. So I visited the center after networking like a boss at the conference, meeting several people who work there, including the director (who also chaired the steering committee for the conference). I wasn’t presenting anything about my project since I’m just not ready, so my primary purpose there was to network and visit the center; mission accomplished. I am going to try and go back to UGM next month to peruse the library at the center, and they invited me to give a talk at their weekly Wednesday speaker series sometime next semester. It was such an amazing place; in addition to the great library and experienced faculty, both visiting and home-grown, they are very progressive and have close ties with the social, political, and environmental activist communities in Indonesia. I dug it, bigtime. If I come back to Indonesia in the next few years for dissertation research, I may try to base myself at UGM. I definitely felt a strong attraction, and one has to trust one’s nerdy intuition on these things!

…Why does Devendra Banhart have to be so great? He’s so pretentious sometimes, but seriously, that voice. I’ve switched music now and my second cuppa is nearly finished; I need to finish this blog up and head to the office soon! But I really need to share some exciting news from earlier this week. In my crazed little mind, a historic and inspiring event transpired on Monday in the American Corner of UMM. The event had been relatively long-awaited and thoroughly planned; snack boxes were prepared, as were certificates. Travels plans were arranged and powerpoint presentations were prepared. Rooms had been reserved and microphones were ready to go. What was this amazing event? A day-long collaborative English teacher training workshop sponsored by the American Corner at UMM and featuring two Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, Sarah and Grace, and two currently service Peace Corps Volunteers, Camille and Nahal! Plus me, Fulbright researcher (read: not ETA; another level of collaboration between programs) and RPCV! As far as I know, although Peace Corps has been up and running for almost five years (!) in Indonesia and the Fulbright ETA program has been running for longer than that, there hasn’t yet been a formal collaboration between the two organizations. The American Corners program is funded by the US Dept of State, so it was great to have AmCor UMM facilitating and sponsoring the event as well as coordinating all of the logistics and technical details. It was a glorious trifecta!!

I delivered a talk on the communicative method of language teaching and learning, ultimately choosing at the last minute to deliver half in Indonesian. The talk went well; I felt confident and comfortable, and I really think that speaking on the fly in Indonesian in public (with a microphone!) is really helping me in my constant, unending struggle to overcome my anxiety about public speaking, for which there is really no reason whatsoever. The ETAs delivered a talk on tech integration in the classroom, and the PC ladies discussed interactive classrooms and demonstrated some games and activities. I think we’re going to host a similar workshop next month for high school teachers, and there’s definitely room for improvement; we lectured all morning and only really involved people in the afternoon sessions, which is balanced, but I think we all felt that more engaging activities throughout the entirety of the workshop would be better, especially since there are language barriers despite the fact that the participants were all English teachers. So, we’ve got some goals for next time and plenty of time to work on achieving them. All in all, we felt great, and the participants seemed to enjoy themselves. I love being able to maintain my volunteerism, and I can’t stress enough how tickled I was, and still am, by the collaboration!

So, that’s it from me for now; I just wanted to share a little bit about what’s been keeping me busy over the past week or so. I’m excited to get my transcripts this evening and take myself out for a little self-care pedicure (thanks, Kate!). I’m sure in another week or so I’ll have something to share about the research project, and perhaps even a cycling trip I’m trying to join next weekend with Camille (Blitar to Malang!!). Gotta find a cycle and perhaps some padded-booty shorts.

Be well, enjoy the holiday, and take some time for self-care!

*For those with more experience in Indonesia: the Jombang MGMP for MTsN and SMP requested a workshop from AmCor only secondarily as an excuse for a guru-guru study tour to Batu, so we of course said please come along. Half of them dropped out and we invited some Malang teachers to take their places. My CP from PC days attended too, and it was the first time since May, 2012 that I got to see her. We had a sweet little reunion, plus she really enjoyed the conference; I am planning to go back to Magetan and MAN Panekan next month.

Play for fun

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It has been quite some time since I’ve written anything, and the plain and simple reason is that I’ve been very busy enjoying! About every single day has been jam-packed with something or other–research, volunteering, enjoying life here to the greatest extent possible (i.e. goofing off and enjoying friendships).

As it turns out, the international relations office (IRO) family spends multiple nights a week together after-hours being together and getting up to all sorts of silly and fun activities. Wednesday night is futsal (soccer on a small, indoor field), Friday afternoon is badminton, and we’ve been doing an awful lot of Asian-style karaoke (in individual rooms like in Lost in Translation, not the same as the regular, mortifying karaoke we unfortunate Americans are accustomed to). The part-time IRO staff members, mostly undergrads, also like going out in the evenings to find tasty food and/or go shopping. There have also been some exciting campus events, most notably a Confucius Institute talent show that was really stupendously amazing and surreal in its fantasticality. We’ve had a birthday party and a housewarming celebration, too. So, I’ve been swept up by reading and studying during the day and doing something exciting with friends basically every evening.

I went to the first futsal practice under the horribly misguided impression that at least some of the office girls would at least be there so I that could coax them into playing with me. Indonesian ladies are notoriously uninterested in playing futsal, probably because it is indeed quite rough and there just aren’t opportunities for them to build their interest in it like there are for young men (it’s a combination of structurally unequal opportunity and cultural disinterest in over-exertion and running around in athletic gear with a bunch of men). At the first practice, I was the only lady. I was honestly afraid of getting hurt, so I sat the first practice out, watching from the sidelines. I hadn’t ever played soccer before except once in my neighbor’s front yard up at the lake where my grandparents used to live, and it was nerve-wracking to think about jumping right in.

However, at the second practice, I knew what I was getting into and had time to mentally prepare myself to be the only girl on the pitch (and the worst player by far!!). The guys all knew it was my first time playing; luckily, they only play for fun. They don’t even keep score. Unfortunately, despite bucking up and representing the female sex on the pitch, it wasn’t a great day for breaking down gender-based stereotypes, ‘cuz I was a total wimp out there. I tried my best and at least worked up a sweat running up and down the sidelines, and I did get walloped by the ball pretty good on my arm by a tough and amazing South Korean kid (wah, the bruise lingers yet). I went into momentary shock when the ball hit me, but my Argentinean neighbor/buddy was right next to me and smartly asked me if I wanted to take a break. I think he sensed that I was stunned! Looking back, getting hurt right from the outset was an okay experience; I’m more prepared to keep trying and I know what to expect. It’s not so dire. Futsal is super fun, and everyone I play with is really goofy and laughs a lot the whole time. It’s a great workout, too, of course. It’s so nice to be physically active here in Indonesia, and a welcomed change from Peace Corps rural-village-lady life (I just didn’t get enough exercise back then and I think it contributed to heightened levels of near-depression).

Also very silly at the outset was family karaoke. It’s done here in little rooms that have a display screen, a couple of microphones, and a digital display that let’s participants select songs. Plus snacks. And sweet tea served in “Bintang” beer mugs (Mas M and Mas T just love joking around about drinking beer while karaoke-ing). Everyone sings with reckless abandon, even if their voice is awful by conventional standards. Songs are in Javanese, English, Indonesian—anything you please. Popular hits from the US/Europe include emotional love ballads and emo pop-punk; I sang some Abba songs, a couple of Celine songs, even a Metallica song. Luckily, most of these were duets. I sang the “Cups” song from whatever musical that is during the first visit to family karaoke, and then, the second time, I was requested to sing first and sing that song! I can’t be doing so bad. There’s a lot of silliness, dancing, and hooting and hollering at family karaoke time. Like futsal, it’s completely done for fun, and nobody cares if your voice is abysmal. I never thought I would like karaoke so much, or sing it so energetically. I have done karaoke twice, exactly twice (two songs) in the US, and I hated it. But when you’re in a little room goofing around with your pals, it’s pretty sweet and satisfying. I’ve already been four times or so since I last wrote. Almost weekly!

Another exciting and new regular activity in my life is weekly badminton practice. Who would ever have imagined that my regular activities would be soccer, karaoke, and badminton? As you can probably guess, it doesn’t matter if you are terrible at badminton. It’s better if you’re good (at all of these things), but it’s totally great anyways if you are just purely terrible. The first time I went, I played along, and my right forearm hurt for two days. Did you know that Indonesians are really good at badminton? It’s very easy to over-extend oneself playing badminton with Indonesians. Think of whatever stereotype you have about Chinese ping pong skills; that’s roughly the skill level of Indonesians with badminton. Apparently, they are one of the top two best countries in the world at badminton, although I forget what the other one is at the moment. Anyways, badminton is great, and the ladies do enjoy playing this less intensive, less running-y sport. Mas M’s wife is a stunner and apparently played in college; she beats me every time. The boys are so silly and vicious and often fall down on the floor in fits of contagious laughter when something silly or amazing happens. I’m slowly getting better, too. Last week, the 4th or 5th week attending, the team I was on actually won!! Not really important, but hey. First time for everything.

Oh, last week I scored my first goal at futsal. Actually the first goal in my life! I made four attempts and made one. Mas T was goalkeeping and swears he didn’t let me get away with anything. Also I ended up with two additional bruises, one on my calf and one on my thigh…thankfully, as of now, I have no bruises from badminton or karaoke.

This week, a lovely Puerto Rican lady whose studying Indonesian at UMM (yes, there are technically two Americans on this campus!) introduced me to a ladies-only fitness spot in Malang, which is great news as I had been snooping around for a gym with Mas M, with displeasing results. In keeping with the theme of light fitness for ladies, most gyms are oriented towards male clients, i.e. totally grungy and full of testosterone. Sorry, males. I visited one of these horrid places just to look at it and got quite stared at and felt great discomfort. However, the ladies-only gym has fulfilled all my wildest gym fantasies and more!! They have several classes a day, and I’ve so far been going to the hip hop classes. They are very challenging. There’s no AC or fans, and the classroom is on the second floor. We get really soaking wet with sweat and I look quite silly trying to do hip hop. BUT, who cares, it’s fun! I’m going to attend a yoga class tonight and see how that goes. They’ve also got various other aerobic classes, like zumba and pilates. There is enough exercise equipment (weights, cardio machines) to satisfy me, too. Best part? It’s $9 per month! Love you, Sanggar Senam Inda.

Many evenings, the part-timers will invite me out to find food or coffee around Malang, often to the big enormous mega-malls where things cost a pretty penny (relatively speaking) but are a welcomed escape from regular coffee made at home and rice plus tempe and veggies. We’ve been hopping around from café to café, sometimes working on homework, sometimes doing a little shopping, almost always taking selfies. The part-timers are so sweet, and I get the sense that they don’t enjoy much time with other international people (even though they seem eager to hang with me and so possibly feel interested in developing friendships with other internationals?). The part-timers seem very happy to spend time with me, and I reciprocate for sure. There are always many foreigners coming in and out of IRO, and my sense is that the part-timers rarely make social connections with them, probably or most likely because of language barriers. The international student coordinator is trying to organize a big trip for the foreigners and office staff together in order to build stronger relationships among office staff, and hopefully this can happen! I also hope I get to go to Bromo and/or the beach with the part-timers in the near future, as they’ve suggested we do together.

There are also some part-timers in the American Corner on campus that love goofing off, too. We had a silly Halloween party, which maybe you saw pictures of, and the students made me up as an Indonesian zombie. I had a lot of fun and actually scared a few people. I’m sure I could only ever scare young Indonesians. I’ve never been scary on Halloween in my whole life. Success!

Another item of business that has been keeping me busy lately was my participation in an international seminar on campus this week. It was based on the theme of institutionalizing Indonesian language as an international and academic/scientific language, and there were presenters and guest speakers from all over Indonesia. Although there were some slightly unnerving presentations with undertones deriding local languages and cultures in favor of unification through shared (dominant) language and national identity/culture, I enjoyed participating… what can you do? I posed a few questions to those speakers suggesting, however subtly, that local languages should be slowly colonized by Indonesian and Indonesian should be all citizen’s first language, trying to get someone to articulate the relationship between language loss and devaluation of local cultures…I don’t think my point came across as I had intended, so all I can do is try to be an example by studying the local language here and valuing the culture as well. For better or for worse, a foreigner showing interest and appreciation for local language and culture can go a long way in terms of demonstrating that these things shouldn’t be allowed to disappear or to be subsumed in the name of nationalism. I don’t think local languages and cultures should disappear. I don’t think all Indonesians want this, either…although it is a fact that people from rural areas where local languages are spoken will have a hard time if they go to the city to look for a job and have sub-par Indonesian language skills. I’m getting off track; this seems like a good discussion for a future post.

Anyways, I gave a little talk at the conference about my experiences learning Indonesian as a second language, since I was asked to participate two nights before I needed to make a submission and didn’t have enough time to prepare anything more substantial. I decided after listening to the opening ceremony of the conference that I should deliver my talk in Indonesian to the best of my abilities, even though the facilitators said I could use English if I wanted. But why would I, if the topic is all about building up Indonesian as an international language? I also decided not to prepare my talk beforehand and have an Indonesian friend correct it, because I wanted to demonstrate to the listeners what my real skills were by speaking as naturally and spontaneously as possible, flaws and all. I ended up giving the talk in about 85-90% Indonesian and the rest in English (except 0.5% in Javanese, just to get a few laughs). The lady who presented after me was a master’s degree holding professor of Indonesian who gave a talk about how people should really work hard to speak proper and correct Indonesian in order to fulfill their patriotic and civic duty, and she told me repeatedly that my Indonesian was very good (and she’d probably harass an Indonesian who spoke Indonesian at my ability level). So, I count this as a victory, even though I’m sure I made some mistakes and my face was as red as a tomato the whole time.

Let’s see… the last thing I want to update about is my research. I have been reading a lot a lot a lot, mostly working to wrap my head as much as possible around what I’ve been hearing. I have had a couple more interviews since I last blogged, as well, and these have been just as interesting as the previous set. I still need at least two more proper participants and then I will be ready to start preparing for whatever follow-up interviews need to happen. I’ve started looking for transcribers and translators for the next phase of the project, but have had minimal success with the initial candidates. I’m going to consult with the “International Language Fellows” group on campus, which is made up of about 700 well-rounded, academically talented undergraduate students; one of my new pals, Lia, is the treasurer of this group, so she is going to help me recruit people who are interested in transcribing and translating the interviews for me. Delegate, delegate! I simply cannot do the transcriptions, since more than half of the material is in Javanese, which I cannot spell (and I can’t always decipher the individual words, anyways). I really hope the ILF group comes through!!

Other news: I’m happy to share that I’ll be presenting on my project in late March in Macau, which is a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of China. The conference is run by Danish scholars and the theme is, roughly, folklore and the supernatural in island nations. I’m super excited and looking forward to travelling around Macau, which, if you don’t know anything about, you should explore. The Anthony Bourdain episode on Macau is a good place to start (it’s on YouTube). I had no idea how weird and unique Macau is, and I find it fitting that I’ll be ending up in such a strange and quirky place for my first presentation about this strange and quirky research project.

I think that’s about it for now; I promise to update more regularly from now on! I have been letting myself get lost in the activities of daily life here, and I think it’s wise to step back and process a little more thoroughly (lest I “go native,” which I sometimes feel I’ve already done based on what some of the newcomer foreigners have said to me about myself, my behavior, etc). I’ve got more to share: I’ve been doing some guest lecturing at middle schools and at the university, visiting Tlekung and having fun times with the host family, and planning my trips to Magetan and Jogjakarta in a couple of weeks. I’ve also been scaring myself with ghost stories and killing mosquitoes like that’s what my Fulbright is really all about. Also, I have a little ‘potted’ plant garden, two new roommates, some stories of visiting friends’ homes, and some negativity (yes, it exists) I want to get off my chest… alas, fodder for another day, my loves.

Best, biggest cinta forever,

PS: I officially expressed my intention to Indiana University to pursue doctorate studies there next fall, pending funding/assistantship, of course. If I am funded, Lauren and I will be giving it a try in Bloomington next August!

— follow me on Instagram @tisamlette —

Sam's Adventures in Indonesia


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