Trusting Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always a work in progress, huh?

–   follow me on Instagram @tisamlette   –

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4 thoughts on “Trusting Indonesia”

  1. Gosh, it is so good to read all of the positive affirmations, self-love, HOPE!!! You are amazing, Sam. I am so proud of you, getting teary-eyed!! Courageous, adventurous, brilliant woman!! Sending lots of love!!!

    Like

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