Re-entry, Round Two: Run, Run, American Runners

Look at that poor orangutan that can’t get along well with its orangutan friends anymore! This post is going to be about reverse culture shock and what has been stressing me out lately, “lately” being since July 9th, when I arrived in the US from Indoland.

It has been nearly three weeks since I left Indonesia; I had been in-country for 10 months, with no trips back to the US and but one brief trip out of country. I’ll be home in the US for the next two months or so–visiting friends and family, enjoying the Midwestern summer, partaking of various gourmet cheeses (alcoholic beverages, oven-baked breads, spinach salads, pasta dinners…) while waiting for my sister’s wedding in September. Two days after that, it’s back to Java for me!

The first time I “came back” after a significant amount of time out of the States was when I returned from Peace Corps service in mid-2012. I had been out of country for twenty-seven months by that time, and I figured that the “reverse culture shock”–the culture shock and eventual (re)adaptation process one experiences when returning to one’s own culture from time in another–would be substantial. Butt wasn’t! I had heard of people returning to the USA from Peace Corps service standing in places like Wal-Mart and bursting into tears because of the wealth of options and the opulence of American consumer capitalism, and I had heard too of people being traumatized by leaving behind their friends and families in their host countries and not being able to fit in with their old friend groups at all because nobody could relate to one anothers’ experiences. I didn’t go through much of this type of thing, and it’s probably because I made the (questionable) choice to sit on my mom’s couch drinking beer all summer after getting back from Java after service ended.

For me, the reverse culture shock at that time came in a form I didn’t really expect–just seeing how much everyone had changed, especially my younger sister and my two closest friends. My sister had gone from 19 to 21 and had experienced a lot of big challenges in her life that I hadn’t been there to help her through, and my two dear friends had had a first and second child each. Of course, I went with the flow, but it was hard to realize that what I had dreamed of coming back to–the life that I left behind–wasn’t something I’d be able to actually find. Of course, I had changed, too, and I knew that the USA wasn’t just waiting for me to get back. But that knowledge didn’t change the fact that I had to face the emotional realities of not being able to come home to lots of what I had been homesick for. So, I had to work on my relationships and focus on what I could do to move forward together with my friends and family in light of everyone’s big changes and developments. And that’s what I did, and by and large it was fine–I lost a few friends by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer because sometimes you just can’t keep your bonds as strong and moving great distances apart changes things, but the people who stuck by me during my tough times in Peace Corps were easy for me to stick by with in the States, and putting the “work” in was an easy thing.

[Astonished aside: Sometimes I’m amazed by just how radically Peace Corps service has affected my life. I’m still processing everything that I experienced, not only in terms of in-country adventures but also in terms of what moving abroad in your early 20’s for a relatively long period of time does for your social and personal life, both at the time and in the wake of it.]

So, what has me thinking about all of this again now is my present experience coming home from Indonesia after ten months as a Fulbright student. Having been through re-entry once before, I knew a little more about what to expect. The second time ’round was bound to be easier; I knew that people would have changed, I knew what my feelings would be, and I knew I wouldn’t be “coming home” to what I left behind me last summer.

Because I felt ready to deal with the challenges re-entry would inevitably pose to my family life and other relationships, what ended up striking me during my first couple of days and weeks in the States this time seems to be more on the cultural rather than interpersonal level. I had big-time culture shock when I came back from my first trip overseas to Europe at age sixteen, and my current reaction to coming back home feels more similar to that than when I returned from Peace Corps service.

The first things I noticed are connected, I think, because of what they illustrate to me about some basic elements of the everyday American cultural reality, whatever ‘everyday American’ may mean. I’m referring to the general sociocultural feeling of being in America–not necessarily even being an American–if a “sociocultural feeling” can be considered a thing. I really don’t want to use this language, feeling, but I think what I’m tuning in to is indeed the energy of being here, which presents itself to me as a feeling. And it’s worth noting that much of what I’m feeling is coming from people rather than the land itself.

I can hear my grad advisor groaning as he reads, but I think that “vibration” might be the best term to describe what I’m getting at. Cultural, political, and religious differences influence one’s experiences in various places, that much is clear, and I think the cultural, political, religious, social (etc etc) realities of a place/people/culture are what people are getting at when they talk about a “vibration”; Java and Midwestern American have different vibes, and Americans and Javanese have different vibes. It’s all sociocultural–all related to worldview and language, religion and spirituality, ways of knowing and ways of relating to others, concepts of self and friend and family in individualistic and collectivistic cultures, etc. etc.–and taken together these form the sensory atmosphere in which we experience the “feeling” of a culture as well as the “feeling” of culture or of culture shock / reverse culture shock.*

I can’t even consider myself to be an independent variable in this whole situation. I’m different when I’m in the US and when I’m in Indonesia; what’s interesting to me is the way that my perceptions and senses have apparently changed after spending time overseas, outside of my ‘native’ culture. So, a few generalized but from my perspective fair statements, with the usual caveat that these statements reflect my own specific experiences in certain physical locations and within specific sub-cultures of the US and Indonesia: Javanese culture is outwardly more sensitive and empathetic than American culture, emotional sensitivity and emotional intelligence (especially the ability to empathize and sympathize with others) tend to be more highly valued as positive and dare I say essential character attributes, and inability to empathize leads to social problems. It seems that in some ways in the US, empathy is the worst trait one can have! I’m thinking specifically in terms of money-lust, capitalism, business/office/boardroom culture, etc etc. I think I’ve always been a sensitive person and perhaps by American standards slightly above-average on the sensitivity/empathy scale, and it’s been something that for some time has made me feel bad about myself: it’s weakness. That’s not very fair, is it? But our culture prefers and rewards the alpha male type personality, and empathy is not part of his mental framework or at least isn’t what he displays openly to those around him. So, living in Indonesia allowed me to feel valued for the characteristics due to which I’ve often been made to feel inferior in the States, and this means I’ve been able not only to reconsider my feelings towards these characteristics but also to cultivate them even more deeply as positive behavioral traits that reap social (and economic) rewards. And when I’m in the States, I mentally displace myself even further because I feel less “in place.” When I’m in the Javanese cultural environment, I feel a little more socially at ease. I’m not the first person to ever experience a better “fit” in a different culture than that in which they were raised, but still I like to tease out why precisely for me I am so attracted to the deeper elements of the culture (i.e. not “just” well, I like the food, I like the dress, I like the music…). And of course I wonder what my Javanese friends would say about whether I “fit” or not, but the number of times I’ve been called an American Javanese is an indicator that by and large they are surprised by how well I jive with what’s going on over there–how well I respond to or reflect the vibe. Of course, I’ll always be an American and certain things about my cultural personality (especially social values) will never change–if I can say “cultural personality” is a thing–and I’m actually an American, but the point remains: cultural code switching is a thing, and aspects of each persona can be affected as the other develops or withers in various ways. Plus, there are things about being an American that I like and things about “being” Javanese that I don’t like so much. Basically, the point of this paragraph is to say that I’m not a neutral instrument which can measure the “vibe” of a certain place, and I don’t even want to start to talk about something as wishy-washy-woo-woo as a “vibe” without pondering the instrument that’s receiving or reading the environment, i.e me.

Maybe it’s just the essence of culture shock: we start at point A, experience something new and move to point B, and then point A isn’t a thing anymore but it’s rather something new–point C–and this is because our worldview has changed, our personality has changed, and much of what we’ve come to realize is that nothing is ever as it seems (or at least we can never get full understanding of the world) and that what we gained and lost while at point B will influence what we see, experience, and reflect about regarding both points A and C. Sometimes I think I spend a lot of the time stating the obvious for myself in these blogs, but I gotta say I like working through stuff on my own, even if all of this isn’t news to anyone else. Blog = therapy these days.

What has been shocking me lately, anyways? Eighteen hundred words into this post and I haven’t even started discussing it yet. The two things that hit me–I think I mentioned two things being the focus earlier in the post–were the TSA people in the Detroit airport and every single runner I saw in Charlotte during the week I was at my folks’ place.

Perhaps the Detroit airport TSA staff thing doesn’t need much explaining, but I gotta work through it: these people were stressed. Everyone was stressed–irritated, frowny, rushed. They were talking to one another in that weird American way that people do: I’m telling you something nicely and I’m using nice words, but what I’m really saying is “you’re an idiot, and I’m right.” Have you felt what I’m getting at? Condescension! Americans are the best at it. That’s because they don’t know how to empathize and they generally think they’re right! Not listening to others and having be and/or make yourself right all the time? It’s no wonder people are stressed. In individualistic cultures like “ours,” people are held personally accountable for their mistakes and rewarded on the individual level for setting themselves apart from the pack–everything is basically do or die, life or death! That sends the individual into a frenzy of nervousness, and I’m pretty sure that’s because life’s not meant to be like that. It’s nice that individuals are generally responsible because of this–I feel safer with TSA employees than I do with Indonesian security personnel, although that may not be because of strictly cultural reasons but probably has a lot to do with training and preparedness (even though TSA employees apparently are terrible at their jobs)–but it means that each individual “unit” of the culture is more stressed and strained, and collectively what we get is the general feeling or “vibe” of heightened stress. Detroit was my first transit point in the US and my first moment of “re-entry” into Americaland, and boy I felt my blood pressure rise immediately upon exposure to these poor TSA people. I could see others from my flight–especially the crown of Japanese people getting to Detroit from Tokyo, from whence we had departed–stressing out, too. And what’s the use, man?? We’ll all get through our lines. Why can’t you throw me a smile? … because you’re stressed out of your mind, that’s why.

The second thing that’s been stressing me out, as I said, are the damn runners. Fuck those runners! I’ve been getting into a really great exercise routine in Java, and I am gonna go ahead and call bullshit on all the people who say they love running so much and it feels so good and they get high from it! Maybe there are some people that do, but there are surely lots more who do the running and talk about loving it because they really hate it and hate themselves and want to keep up appearances. I used to run, and it was victorious, but it wasn’t anywhere near what I’d call a “fun” activity. I know we all have different goals and values and exercise routines are really personal, but hip hop and belly dance are objectively more fun as exercise than running. Okay, I have to call bullshit on myself because there’s probably not any such thing as objectively anything, but there you have it. My thoughts on the matter. I rarely see Indonesians running for exercise. Much more common are group activities–again, individualistic vs. collectivistic!–such as badminton (which I also happen to play weekly with my Indonesian pals and some other expats/foreigners we know), soccer/futsal, and group fitness/aerobics things kind of along the Jazzercise lines. Exercise is way more fun and relaxed in Indonesia, and people generally seem to do it more for health than for physical appearance, even though it’s my own hater-prejudice towards Americans pushing me to say that we’re primarily doing it for the good looks rather than any other bullshit thing we say we want to achieve (by and large, of course). I got irritated at the runners because they looked so pissed at life. They looked irritated, they looked stressed, and they didn’t look like they were having any fun. (And people don’t generally look like they’re having a blast at the gym when they’re working out by themselves either, but that’s a side note.) People running around angrily make me feel stressed and sad for them as individuals. Seeing them makes me feel stressed about being back in my own culture and facing it’s beauty standards–in Indonesia, I can usually ignore beauty standards because I pretty much fit the model of being light-skinned, pointy-nosed, tall, and basically well-proportioned. (There are issues of power and privilege at play here, of course, but for better or for worse it’s nice to live in a place where I’m not constantly made to feel horrible about myself thanks to the media and other insane people.) I just want people to engage in activities that bring them more joy, and I know that joyful exercise is possible! I just get the vibe that Americans torture themselves so much, and it doesn’t have to be this way! There is another way! To each his own, but damn, ya’ll make me stressed. I worry about your knees, too, and your grumpy faces.

I assume those two examples are enough and that you can probably get what I’m getting at. I could do a comparative analysis of road culture and road rage in these two countries to illustrate further, but I bet you can gather what the gist of that would be.

So I feel like I have this trend going lately of burning myself out on these blogs and not being able to fully explain my thoughts and feelings and wanting to come back to it in the future but not really actually intending to. That’s okay. I think I said what I needed to say, and I think you get what the basic feeling here is. Overall, America stresses people out. If you’re American and you don’t realize that America is one of the major sources of your stress, then let this be enlightening for you! Leaving America didn’t by any stretch alleviate my stress in life, but I feel worse when I’m stressed in the States than when I’m stressed in Java, and most of the stress is from society/culture in the States and just me dealing with my personal stuff and/or homesickness when I’m in Java–not really related to society/culture. I’m sure there’s also a part of this connected to not taking so much so personally because at the end of the day it’s not my culture, and that needs to be acknowledged, too; it’s easier to let things slide and not get stressed when it’s not “yours.” But stress is a fact of life, and for me I feel spiritually-mentally-emotionally better dealing with it when it’s mine rather than mine-by-proxy because I get stressed from my culture or because of its vibes.

What do you think?
That’s all I got for now.
Sam

*Shock is an interesting term in and of itself because there are two manifestations, physical and mental/emotional, and my body reacts strongly to the shift in environment: atmosphere, barometric pressure, humidity, allergens, smells, sounds, AC systems…

Mental/Emotional Blocks: Stress, Fear, the Undead, etc.

Make it through the mess that is the first half of this post and there’ll be a reward in the second half, I promise: pearls of wisdom from a survivor of the zombie apocalypse (ahem, me).

Here we go. For those of you who were born yesterday, allow me to start with a fun fact: I’m an expert at stressing myself out. I’m a professional, in fact. I work myself into fits by thinking about things obsessively, worrying about aspects of the future that aren’t really that pressing (even when they become the present), and failing miserably to find time and mental space for relaxation. Admittedly, this is unhealthy and neither necessary nor productive, which is unfortunate considering how good I am at it.

Over the past few months, this anxiety has been nearly crippling, and for the first time in my life it has actually done more harm than good; it’s been hard to channel the stress and pressure into productivity as I do in my usual routine. Normally, if the stress ends up making me do my work, I don’t conceptualize it as a problem. Now, the stress is preventing me from working, so I have started to beat myself up and make it worse—now, the stress is a problem. But that doesn’t actually make sense, does it?

It should be that I try to do something about unnecessary and unhealthy levels of stress regardless of whether I can logic them away by saying, oh, well at least I got my tasks done. It shouldn’t be the case that our culture or my own brain values the outcome or the product of my work to such an extent that the process by which it was achieved is basically irrelevant or of no concern. This is because it’s in those processes that our daily realities are experienced; life is lived from moment to moment, not from product to product or outcome to outcome.

Time and again my shortcomings prove to me how immature I am and probably always will be; no matter how many times I tell myself the simple facts of life—especially that it’s about the journey, not the destination (cheesy, I know, but we both know it’s true)—or recognize myself treating my friends with much better love, care, and compassion than I do my own self, I can’t seem to get any of it through my own thick head.

It’s conventional wisdom that failure brings us closer to full self-knowledge: of our limits, our emotional resilience, our mental fortitude. This post is going to be about failure, although I don’t think I’ve failed at anything, really. Maybe I have. I suppose at the present don’t feel like a failure, but I don’t feel like a success. I feel like I’ve made some important choices and that I’m going through a transition in my life, and I have an inkling that I’m going to be stronger when I come out on the other side. I feel like I do a lot of harmful things to myself in my own head, and perhaps I’m starting to go through the (painful) process of stopping some of these negative behaviors; perhaps I’m starting to change, perhaps I need to take a few steps backward to go forward.

But we’re never not broken; I’m not fooling myself that something called “progress” is going to lead to an outcome (of perfect health, a “new” self, spiritual and intellectual perfection or perfection of any kind…), because I’m not a product I need to produce. Maybe it’s cheesy again, but I think it’s better to conceptualize myself as a project and try to enjoy “working” on it for its own sake, not for the sake of the outcome or some future self that can never be.

I think my primary failure in life so far has been focusing too heavily on outcomes, products, scores, results, and the indulgent pleasure of holding out for that climactic moment of outward success and external validation.

It seems cheesy (again) to me, too, to consider the work I’ve been doing over the past two years with healers in Indiana and East Java as part of a process of my own journey towards healing. But I need to ask myself why do I find it so cheesy? Perhaps because I’m supposed to be a serious academic and approach the work as objectively as possible. I’m not supposed to be emotional, overly sensitive, weepy, feminine, weak, wrong, hurt. I should be doing the research because it’s objectively interesting—the justification of my studies isn’t supposed to be well, I subconsciously need my own healing and won’t let myself have it, so I’m doing this project to get myself closer to what I need so that maybe one day I’ll wake up and realize what’s really going on. I’m not supposed to need healing of any kind at all (per my own standards; it’s others who need that).

I’ve spent so much time investing in the tangible outcomes of the work I do in my outer life rather than on my own inner life that any spiritual/emotional work that I may need to do or try to do is irrelevant; the focus of life has been outcomes and measurable successes, not inner peace, which can’t be put on display to be given external validation. So…why all this?

It seems I can’t accept my own praise for anything. It’s not good enough if it’s only me who thinks it’s good. And what does that say about how I value myself? How I value my own opinion and trust myself? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

So, admitting we’re flawed and wounded and need help isn’t easy. I’ve never been one to deny that I’m flawed, but I’ve made it my prerogative to admit stuff without really admitting anything. For example, yeah, I make myself stressed and work myself into fits of anxiety for no reason. I need to work on it. I’m doing X, Y, and Z to help—knitting more, paying attention to self-care and giving myself indulgences, making time to do things outdoors. But…it’s just part of the game!! Showing other people that I’m so self-aware, so good at taking care of myself, so in tune with what’s up with me and what I need to do to cope with it if not make it all better. This means I can avoid doing the real work I probably need to do. All I do now is work hard to convince myself that I’m working hard and to convince myself that validation outside of me is going to be enough.

I think I need to learn to be truthful and stop being so unforgiving with myself; just because I think that other people have it more together than me doesn’t mean I’m the failure I think I am. And hey, having it together isn’t a thing anyways, is it? It’s okay to not be okay. Again, conventional wisdom, right? But I don’t allow myself the luxury of letting these simple things be true for me and my own life. The standards I have for myself (which of course I can never reach, because there’s never actually nor will there ever be an end point) don’t allow it. Again, why?

There are a lot of things I want to keep thinking and writing about related to all of these issues, but I don’t think I have time to explore them here and now, so let me get on with the important stuff.

Have you ever heard of the computer game “Plants vs. Zombies”? I played for the first time with Miss V the other night. Well, last night, actually, after I almost had a stupid breakdown about people looking out for me and trying to prevent me from having my wallet stolen (I interpreted their admonitions as overly controlling and invasive rather than loving and caring) and lost all motivation to do my hip hop class, promptly sending myself into a stressed-out-grumpy-funk. I went to the coffee shop with V to calm down and asked her if we could play some computer games. I played Minesweeper, Hearts, Mahjong—all these old classic Windows games. It felt great. I just love Minesweeper. But V finally got bored (she’s a gamer and has more refined game tastes than yours truly) and suggested we play Plants vs. Zombies to liven things up. Apparently the game is a hip thing; she was surprised I hadn’t ever heard of it since all the American Peace Corps trainees she worked with had.

We started to play. The purpose of the game is to ward off the zombies that are trying to attack your house. You do this by planting killer plants throughout the front yard to defend your homestead from the onslaught. You can choose sunflowers that grow money in the form of sunbeams, green flowers that shoot deadly peas, potatoes that explode, cherries that also explode, mushrooms that poof out deadly spores, and blue flowers that spit iceballs to slow down the zombies via partial freezing. You have to collect sunpower to “buy” these plants, and each plant that you get needs to be placed strategically in the yard so that it most effectively contributes to the pea-iceball-deadly-spore-exploding-potato-cherry zombie defensive. As she demonstrated for me how the game worked, Miss V was very diligent in placing her plants in a lovely order. Her garden-cum-yard was highly aesthetically pleasing to her—“indah,” she said. “Beautiful.” It was my turn next.

Admittedly, it was my first time, and I got excited. I was zealous. The zombies kept coming, and I hurriedly bought as many plants as possible, putting them down any which way and hoping for the best, sticking them in the dirt as fast as I could so I could get more. Of course, slapping killer plants all over every inch of the yard is effective, and the zombies were annihilated. But my garden lacked an aesthetic element.

“You’ve been so stressed lately. You’re stressed out even playing this game. Why can’t you make it beautiful?” Miss V was not pleased at my performance. I played a couple more times, continuing stubbornly to do what I wanted: just make it effective enough to pass the level. Didn’t matter about the process or how the garden looked.

The funny thing is that planting things nicely and planting things crappily take the same amount of time and ultimately result in the same efficiency re: zombie destruction, especially in the earlier stages of the game. So why wouldn’t I just take the time to plant the garden nicely? Why couldn’t I enjoy the process of choosing where to put the plants, what patterns to create, and putting a little effort into the beauty of the yard?

All of a sudden I felt very embarrassed at my behavior. I felt really wrong and really immature—and not for the reasons one would expect to feel immature when playing a plants vs. zombies computer game.

Finally, I decided to plant the garden nicely. At first—and I think now that this was wrong—it was to get praise from Miss V for following her advice. I like to make her happy and show her that I listen to and trust her. After I started and got a few “Good jobs, that’s the way to do it, that looks nice,” from Miss V, I felt better. I thought, well, now she knows I can do it. I thought, hey, she’s an expert in the game, and it’s good of me to take her advice…even though it doesn’t make a difference.

After a couple of rounds, I started to get pleasure from organizing the garden with aesthetic value in mind. I wasn’t focused on the zombies anymore like I was before—I wasn’t really worried about them at all. I was focusing instead on the patterns in the plants, the balance and symmetry of various rows and columns, and the patterns in the flying iceballs, peas, and poofs of spores I could create on the screen by strategically placing the deadly plants. Oddly enough, it became a meditation.*

I had to reflect on the change in my own mental state after I started planting with beauty in mind: I was significantly more relaxed—inwardly and outwardly—as soon as I started paying more attention to how I was doing what I was doing (rather than why I was doing it, i.e. for zombie killin’). Planting frantically and grabbing whatever I could and sticking it wherever in the yard I saw the first free spot made me feel like the zombies were coming faster, though that definitely wasn’t true. The strategy I was choosing to use created more stress for myself and didn’t change the outcome in the slightest; we still won the round, but we didn’t have the satisfaction of a beautiful lawn or a leisurely landscaping process. We won the rounds even if I planted crappily, but we felt frantic during the process (I was freaking out about getting things in place, and Miss V was going nuts at my haphazardness and carelessness). It wasn’t as much of a win as when we achieved the same outcome using a more thoughtful process with a more enjoyable approach.

So, I didn’t fail at the zombie game. And not failing meant paying attention to the journey, not the destination.

Isn’t it always just stupid shit that illuminates essential truths about life? And yet I still can’t get it sometimes. But that’s okay.

I wanted this post to be about failures, and I don’t feel I’ve yet expressed all I want to express. I also wanted to talk more about fear. But there’s more time later; this post is long enough. For now, badminton practice. Conventional wisdom strikes again: make a hobby of something you suck at to gain humility and perspective.

Sincerely,
Sam

*Maybe this is a stretch, but now as I write I’m reminded of zen gardening (karesansui).

Parting Ways…in the best way

As I mentioned before, the Malang ETAs Sarah and Grace have recently left, and Ale went to Thailand and won’t be back until after I’m in the US (and then she’s leaving before I come back in September). Grace is coming back for a second Fulbright year in the fall, but she’ll be in Bima, Sumbawa, Nusa Tenggara Timur, rather than Malang, and that’s a whole string of islands away from Java. Thankfully, however, none of my other friends (except ONE really important one) are leaving, and so I get to continue spending time with them–totally selfish sentiment, but gosh, I can’t stand any more goodbyes!

The crew (minus Grace) got to spend a few happy days travelling together in celebration of the ladies’ departures, and these are some of the photos.

Sorry for the lateness of uploading these. You probably didn’t even notice, but it took forever. The universe was against me on this one; everywhere I went, the upload speed was dead slow. So annoying! Magically, though, and without explanation, the situation corrected itself (that’s how it goes here), and now the pics are uploaded. Fun fun fun!!! I’ve just included stories in the captions mostly, so I’m sorry if it’s messy and confusing. I’m sure you’ll pick up what I’m puttin’ down.

First set: Tea plantation. We visited the Kebun Teh, a little up the road from Malang towards Surabaya. It was a beautiful place, and we had some delicious breakfast there (rice with veggies, tempeh, and peanut sauce…it really never gets old) and took an obscene amount of pictures. Especially selfies. And a lot of pictures of people jumping around. We were lucky that Sarah’s little sister Grace (not ETA Grace) was visiting Malang and could join us on this trip!

Second set: Selecta Park. This is a touristy destination that’s part garden, part amusement part, part park, and part water park. Whew, that’s a mouthful. It’s in Batu up in the mountains where the air is clear and free of motorcycle exhaust. Now that we’re out of the rainy season, we’ve finally got our blue skies back, and this was just THE perfect day, weather-wise, to visit a naturey place!

Third set: Balekambang Beach, site of the beautiful Ismoyo temple, perched on a rocky batu karang out in the ocean. Another popular tourist destination for Malangers, it’s a place I hadn’t been to but had wanted to visit all year (now that I’m a Malanger, kinda!). There are several really wonderful beaches on the south coast, as you may recall, and this one is particularly wondrous because of the temple and the crowds it draws. Luckily, we went on a Wednesday, and it was pretty much deserted. Ate a great meal, took excessive amounts of pictures (Lisa, get me?), and stayed bundled up in my jacket to brace myself against the blustery south seas winds!

Fourth set: Driving around Batu. Just some additional photos from the driving we did to get places. I think most of these were taken the day we went to Selecta.

Final set: Random fun with friends! A few more pics.

I hope that was enjoyable, even if it wasn’t as informative as I’d like it to be! I apologize for not providing enough information– please leave any questions in the comments section and I will reply. BUSY life these last couple weeks, and it’s only getting worse as my departure date looms nearer!!

ENJOY ENJOY ENJOY
More intellectually substantive posts forthcoming :)
Sam

One month left & too many thoughts to organize

(June 2, 2015)

The newest group of Peace Corps Indonesia trainees are swearing in tomorrow, marking their first day as Volunteers and the start of their leave-taking as they transition from Batu-Malang to their individual permanent sites. My grant period ends in a little over a month, and my fellow Fulbrighters (Sarah and Grace, both English Teaching Assistants) have departed now that their grant periods are over. Maria is heading overseas to travel a bit since she graduated from her Darmasiswa language training program. Other friends here are moving on to new jobs, getting ready to graduate, getting ready to move to new cities, finishing up their work contracts, having babies, accepting positions in new countries, getting ready to take the necessary exams to start studying abroad…family and friends in the US are having babies, getting married, graduating, accepting new jobs, finishing dissertations, transitioning to new work situations, etc etc. It’s a time of transition, as all moments actually tend to be, even the ones that seem still (like the moments one finds oneself at home alone on a federal holiday, no plans, no adventures, no running around town).

Thinking about going back for the summer before starting a new chapter here in Indonesia has prompted reflection, of course, and I think the fires of it have been stoked by connecting with the Peace Corps trainees. Life in Malang this year has been incredibly different from my life as a PCV in Magetan. When I got my assignment to serve in Indonesia in early 2010 and finished service in 2012, I had no idea I would come back here so quickly or decide to stay longer and try to make the expat/immigrant life work for myself here. Honestly, I thought I’d be closing the door on full-time life in Indonesia, perhaps studying Indonesia a little bit in graduate school to see if it ‘fit’ as a research interest (since I had already invested so much time and energy learning the language and a little bit of the culture and history of this place), promoting Third Goal activities Stateside, maybe connecting with Indonesians in the US every now and then (and definitely reconnecting with my fellow ID4/5 Volunteers). I applied for the Fulbright thinking I had a chance but probably wouldn’t get it; doing another Fulbright application would be good professional experience, I figured. I accepted the Fulbright with doubts about my ability to return and be emotionally/mentally healthy, avoid depression and anxiety, not develop another pattern of disordered eating (and constantly fluctuating weight and self-esteem), and find positive strategies for self-care and relaxation that didn’t make me feel guilty about avoiding engagement with the community and “wasting” time abroad.

There are a few things about life in Malang that make living in East Java immeasurably easier now, as a city/campus-based Fulbrighter, than village-style living. It was blatantly obvious to me that living alone (or at least with same-aged peers in a housemate-type situation) rather than with a full-time host family would make a huge difference, as would being able to take and use motorcycles. Living with constant access to Wifi, indulging in my first smartphone, and making my own schedule also help, as do my current “work” situation (research and writing on my own schedule vs. teaching high school) and being surrounded more or less by same-aged peers with similar interests and experiences rather than high schoolers, little kids, and adults/grandparents (in my village, people my age were either busy raising their children or off in a bigger city studying rather than hanging around the village, and so I had…well, no friends my age in my village who could just hang out).

I suppose the major point of reflection on this line of thought is the inadequacy of blanket/zero-tolerance Peace Corps policies for nurturing Volunteers to be the best they can be. There are two major benefits to motorcycling, for me: (1) engaging with the community is much easier when transportation options aren’t limited, meaning cross-cultural communication/interaction is boosted, one can attend and participate in more cultural events, and it’s not a burden to community members to organize special transportation, and (2) I’m in control of myself, and I can remove myself from uncomfortable situations very easily when I control my own transportation, i.e. didn’t ride in someone’s car to an event. Plus–obviously–there’s greater independence, meaning I can do things like shopping and going to the gym without having to waste time doing public transit, even though the downside of that is there’s less engagement with people on public transit. But honestly… that was always really trying on my patience, anyway.

In terms of housing, I realized once I was able to step away from Peace Corps life after finishing service that I had been putting excessive amounts of pressure on myself to engage with people, especially my host family, because I felt like shutting myself in my room–even though it was the only way I could get private, personal, re-charge-the-batteries time at site–was a bad thing to do. Imagine berating yourself for two years straight about taking me-time. I think the mentality of PC being a 24/7 job is really detrimental, and constant pressure–even if it comes from oneself–to engage and be active and “on” can be totally damaging to one’s ability to serve and be the best PCV possible. For me, “best” here means healthy, mentally and emotionally resilient, well-rested, positive and outgoing and open-hearted, and loving. I need to note here that the 24/7 job thing is actually part of the swearing in oath that PCVs take when they start their service. Why do we think that’s an okay thing to agree to?

I wasn’t my best self when I was a PCV, and I think it would have been totally different for me if I had my own place and my own transportation in my village. The reason we do host families here is because it fits cultural norms and provides a great community support system for Volunteers’ safety and security, and the reason we don’t do motorcycles is because of the liability issues and difficulties of getting injured Volunteers to hospitals with Western standards (PCVs in Indonesia with serious injuries must be medically evacuated to Bangkok, Thailand) on top of the expenses and risks of transporting seriously injured Volunteers. I know I signed up for Peace Corps and all its rules and regulations, but I think it’s a shame that the program can’t be more attentive to nurturing Volunteers rather than helping them survive (emotionally, mentally, and literally, i.e. health-wise). I think Volunteers develop the habit of blaming themselves for their adjustment issues, although in some cases a few simple environmental, i.e. external, tweaks could work wonders for the PCV and their communities.

That’s all for now– some fun and pic-filled posts coming soon! The gang and I have been doing a lot of adventuring as we try to make use of our last precious days together, so I want to share about that… next time. I also want to write some more posts of substance, and I think that having more time this summer will allow for that. Who ever dreamed I’d still have summers “off” at nearly 30 years old? Score.

And in closing, I need to say: so sorry for the scatterbrained posts lately! I feel like there’s not enough time to organize my blogging as much as I’d like, but I’d rather share something than nothing, even if it’s pic-less and messy. Hopefully you can get something, and at the very least I like to get my thoughts out, though there’s hardly time to reflect on my own reflections. That’s lame! Life just never slows down… and that’s sublime, in its way.

Thanks for reading, as always!
Sam

Fulbright Conference: Jogjakarta

Every year, AMINEF, the organization that administers Fulbright in Indonesia, hosts a conference for current Fulbrighters in Indonesia (and Indonesian Fulbrighters and Fulbright alumni heading to or already returned from the US). This year, the conference was held in the lovely and familiar Jogjakarta, Central Java…which is lucky for me, since AMINEF is based in Jakarta, and only crazy people like taking a few days’ trip to that mega-mess.*

The three-day conference was organized into two segments: the American and Indonesian grantees were split into two groups on the first day for program-specific sessions, and the second and third days were a formal seminar on society, environment, and education in Indonesia. Most of the presenters in the seminar were senior scholars from Indonesia and the US, and a few of the grantees from my cohort also presented. The majority of the fourteen of us–about ten people, including myself–presented in a less formal setting on Tuesday. It was a little disappointing that we all didn’t get to present in the larger seminar (which was open to the public), but I assume it’s because our topics were only tangentially related to the seminar theme if they were related at all rather than we didn’t make the cut or have an interesting enough project or the right qualifications or whatever. Ha! I didn’t get the explanation (or if we did get it, I can’t remember), but it has something to do with the new AMINEF director wanting to change the conference format…

Overall, I felt by far that the Tuesday portion of the event was the most engaging and exciting. I was so excited to hear what others in my cohort are/were researching; we were all in touch over email in the beginning of the fall semester, but never having met in person made it feel quite distant. I can’t speak for everyone, but there is only one person I’m somewhat close with, and it’s because we happened to arrive in Jakarta at the same time for our orientation and the start of our grants. There are some others who knew one another from language training in Jogjakarta (if you apply for a Fulbright in a critical language country, you can get extra funding to study language before starting your grant. I applied for this but didn’t get it because I speak too much Indonesian…), but I think for most of us it was our first time meeting in person. All of the presentations on Tuesday were incredibly interesting, and I felt really wowed and inspired–also kept thinking, damn, I’m a part of this group??

Just to give a sense of some of the things people are researching: I heard talks on civet coffee production, the relationship between ancient kingdoms in Indonesia and contemporary/independence era nationalism, alternative education, evolutionary diversity in cone snails (or something along those lines–it was complex and I’m not a science person!), captivity/rehabilitation and post-captivity orangutans and their stress levels (measured through urinary and fecal samples), women’s role(s) in organic/sustainable farming initiatives in matrilineal tribes, neuroscience programs and science education in general in Indonesian higher ed., heritage building restoration/preservation, and a few more. One lady is researching/tracking Sumatran tigers and plans to catch and collar five of them. Others are doing environmental research and looking at land degradation, palm plantations, and resources exploitation. All of the projects are fascinating and so different from one another. Lots of fields and disciplines are represented in the cohort, and it’s great!

The only bad thing about Tuesday was listening to the horror stories some people were telling about their research permit, data collection, and instrument/equipment struggles. Many of the student researchers are scientists and need to take samples of biological material back to the US for analysis in labs over there since adequate facilities aren’t available here and/or it will take a longer amount of time to do the project than what the grant allows. Most of the researchers doing scientific research have to spend tons of money on buying specialized equipment or paying extra baggage fees to get it from the US to here when they come over, though their grant monies are just the same as mine (and all I need is a computer and a cell phone / digital voice recorder). Certain researchers are having a hell of a time getting their permits in order to even get an adequate number of samples to validate their results, and others are having trouble getting permission to take samples out of the country. One lady was held back five months in getting her permits. This sucks on many levels, particularly because everyone in the cohort but me and my friend from orientation is enrolled in a doctoral program (or doing post-doc) and are actually–unlike me–on an academic timeline for completing their dissertation. It’s a shame that they’re experiencing difficulties.

I’m know there’s a long history of foreign researchers coming and abusing the country and stealing material, samples, etc etc from Indonesia and heard recently that foreign firms sometimes hire students as interns and use them to illegally transport materials out of the country, but giving problems to student researchers with Fulbrights isn’t the solution to these problems. We do actually care about Indonesia and want to teach other people about it through our work and engage with Indonesian academics…goes without saying perhaps that we’re not in the business of stealing from the country for our own professional gain. All of the student and senior scholars I met at the conference were incredibly passionate about Indonesia–preserving its natural resources, documenting the lives of people here, protecting and helping animals and conservation efforts, seeking understanding of the complex eco- and cultural systems, etc. It’s just a shame that history makes the present so difficult for some of us…and even though I do think that post-colonial countries have to be particularly vigilant about foreign interest, it seems that Indonesia would do better to look at the hundreds of multinational corporations–especially in the extraction industries–abusing this country and make things more difficult for them rather than wasting manpower and economic resources giving researchers the runaround. But it’s easier to make money off business than academia, and I think that’s why so much else slides; I can see how if there’s no tangible ($$) benefit from the research it’d be easier to focus on the drawback…as in, you’re gonna use this to get famous or published in your country and leave us with nothing, so why should we let you do that? I totally see the logic, but…from an academic perspective, it’s rubbish. It reminds me of when I arrived in country and the AMINEF director at that time wanted me to shift the focus of my project to researching the increasing commercialization of traditional medicines and their entry into consumer markets; there’s something to be said about knowledge for its own sake, and when other interests get thrown into the mix, other parties put themselves in the precarious position of devaluing knowledge for its own sake.

I do think there should be a stronger push from within Fulbright and AMINEF to encourage greater collaboration with host country academics to boost the benefit for Indonesia and host institutions and to make sure that knowledge about Indonesia in Western academia is more frequently co-produced by Indonesian scholars. This was one topic of discussion during the Thursday session at the conference, and it was nice to reflect on and discuss together. Indonesian academic and other non-Western academic publications in general don’t get as much “air time” as publications by Western scholars in Western publications, even internationally-focused ones…this is wrong, of course, but it’s reality right now, and one way to change it is through collaboration and co-creation of new projects and knowledge. But back to the problem of hassling student researchers; I don’t think that targeting student researchers and making executing their research projects (for which they already gained approval from the Indonesian government) difficult is going to foster mutual collaboration and growth between academics across cultures. All it’s going to do is dissuade young academics with passion for Indonesia away from coming here to conduct research…and for crying out loud the US government is paying for us to do this anyway.

The Indonesian government makes money off of Fulbright anyway because of our permit and visa fees (which aren’t minuscule, especially if you think about how many people are coming through each year in addition to the ETAs and senior scholars; I have spent about $400-500 on permits and visa fees so far for the grant, if not more…so multiply that by about 75 people per year maybe? And the fees the Indonesian Fulbrighters need to pay to get their passports in order to leave to the US? Maybe it’s a small amount, but I’m sure there’s more revenue from taxes or other fees AMINEF needs to pay…blah blah blah. We’re not giving nothing to the government, at the very least, and it’s a reliable annual free funds generator. Right?). And we help the Indonesian economy by bringing our dollars here to spend. I’m sure I sound entitled–Indonesia shouldn’t make troubles for us!–but really, we love Indonesia, we love our work, and we want to do good. Uh, and we’re students. We’re not very wealthy and we do have to make professional progress for our own livelihoods. I get that there are power dynamics at play and research can be exploitative and the government has to look out for its natural resources and its population, but…but. But. But. Can’t everyone just look out for each other? Can’t the government look out for promising young scholars of whatever nationality with deep love and interest in Indonesia, because ultimately the more people doing important work here (hopefully with Indonesian counterparts), the better? More interest, more research, more international funding, more support for college students and scientists here, more education, more engagement, more international attention and respect, more Indonesian scholars travelling abroad and representing their country.

Ranty rant! One of the student researchers said that the government is keeping track of all of our blogs. I hope that’s the case, because if someone is reading this, then I can feel a little better about the lack of response to my legally obligatory quarterly reports that I sent to the research ministry. At least someone somewhere is hearing what I have to say, maybe! I just feel bad; I haven’t had any issues with my permits or anything. I had to modify my research plan once I realized the bureaucratic hoops I’d need to jump through to do research in more than one regency, but it wasn’t a major complication and ended up helping the logistics of my project re: grad “assistants”…but I don’t have anyone telling me I can’t take my interview recordings or transcripts out of the country or anything like that. That would be terrible. From what I heard this past week at the conference, it seems like it’s hit or miss–some people have troubles based on their topic of research and what they want to take out of the country, sure, but also what time of day they call or visit the requisite offices and with whom they end up speaking. No consistency, and it’s the grantees who suffer (alongside Indonesia). Why?

The content of the Wednesday-Thursday sessions was interesting, too, although I wish the conference topic had been more germane to my field. It’s hard to sit through sessions and maintain active attention for hours and hours on end, even with knitting in hand, if it’s not pertinent or at least tangentially pertinent. Sadly, I spent a lot of time forcing myself to be interested and engaged, and that’s not a fun feeling. I think it was a lot of stimulation and socialization, and you know that can be overwhelming to me. Anyway, it was nice to meet senior lecturers from both the US and Indonesia whose regional research interest(s) overlap with my own, and the side-chats I had over those two days with people over lunch and between sessions were great. I don’t yet feel super connected to the tiny part of the academic world that focuses on Indonesian studies, and that was remedied somewhat. I know that if I continue graduate school and study with an Indonesianist this feeling will change, of course, but it was refreshing to feel stimulated and energized about my project and the region of interest (not that I’m not energized or stimulated by Indonesia; I’m speaking of Indonesian studies in the formal sense, and since I still feel I’m on the periphery since I hadn’t had formal exposure to Indonesian studies prior to this, it feels hard to get a grasp on, at least on my own).

I think this is all I want to say right now; I’m going to write another post about my research and my research presentation as well as what I’ve been up to recently. I think this post is long enough and photoless enough to just post and get it over with!

Thanks for listening! I’ll let you know if I have anything else to say!
xox
Sam

gallery visit – fauna by amrizal

Satrio, Ale, Vriz and I went to a local art show recently. The exhibition was “Fauna” by Sumatran artist Amrizal (pictured above). His work is currently on tour, and we were lucky enough to have him in Batu for a week. The gallery, Pondok Seni – Galeri Raos Batu, was intimate and warm; I hadn’t ever been there before, and I’m beyond happy that Satrio brought us there. The gallery has different exhibits from week to week; I’m sure we’ll go back soon so that I can share more. This was my first time seeing any artwork outside of museums and batik studios–my first glance at contemporary Indonesian art. It was wonderful.

The theme of the exhibition was “fauna” or animals, and each image had a black and white representation of humans and/or animals plus handwritten text in a variety of languages (predominately Indonesian). The text was primarily political and social commentary–the progressive and liberal type that resonates with me personally–but much of it was hard to read. There was some poetry thrown in as well. It was sometimes in accessible because as far as I could tell a lot of it was stream-of-consciousness scribbling, so the artist was writing fast n furious making the letters hard to discern at times. Plus, reading Indonesian is harder than speaking, and I struggled with the language barrier. But, I could understand that there was commentary about economics, capitalism, war (the text below the large eagle was almost exclusively anti-war commentary), education and poverty, history, geopolitics… It was stunning work and invigorating to see and experience. There’s a lively and active punk/anti-capitalist/anarchist/underground scene here, so I wasn’t totally surprised by the nature of the exhibition or its content, but it was a little bit of a surprise to find it in Batu, a tourist town with a focus on agriculture and eco-tourism. A pleasant surprise, for sure.

So, I didn’t take a billion pictures, and unfortunately we didn’t get to meet the artist in person. But you can get a quick idea from these pics about what the gallery looked like, what the basic concept of the exhibition was, and some grasp of the general/overall feeling. Next time we go to an exhibition, I will take more notes so I can provide additional (more thorough) commentary; I snapped a bunch of pics this time with the intention of posting them here so you could see what the gallery was like. The artwork was so beautiful and the space was so perfect. I had a wonderful time and felt–as I said–invigorated, like…okay, back to “normal,” ha! This was a really comfortable space for me, and I was so pleased to enjoy it with close friends. I love seeing my own political and cultural beliefs reflected to me across the medium of culture; finding connections with people (artists, friends, colleagues, whomever) at the basic or fundamental levels of worldview or political outlook despite hugely different religious and cultural backgrounds is sublime, in the sense of actual sublimity, not cheesiness. Shared subculture, solidarity. No matter where one comes from or what one’s life looks like, we can find common ground in recognizing and speaking out against common enemies (greed, corruption, consumer capitalism gone wrong, free market economics gone worse, the destruction of war, etc etc). The rest is often just details.

Thanks again to Satrio. Really looking forward to the next visit to pondok seni.
That’s all for now,
Sammy

On Baltimore, Global White Image, and Being a Non-White American in Indonesia

Originally posted on it's still raining here:

on a day where I was tol

I lately find myself at the verge of a crossroads. April prepares to roll into May. I’m 25-and-a-half months into a 27-month long Peace Corps volunteer service in East Java, Indonesia. I’m preparing to return to Chicago, the American city I call home. Half my mind remains on all of the much-missed food I’m going to eat when I touch base. Maybe more than half. The weather here has been fickle. Not far from the equator, Indonesia’s heat and humidity are typically suffocative and unrelenting, but the past few weeks I’ve been waking up to a keening call to prayer (normal) and a thick, cool fog weaving its way out from the vast cane fields (less so). It is a precipitous time in my professional and personal life, my emotional state, and, with the death of yet another black American at the hands of the police, also in my home…

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Sam's Adventures in Indonesia

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