One month in

— follow me on Instagram @tisamlette —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


10 thoughts on “One month in”

    1. hmm, thanks kate!! i always feel energized to publish something– keeps me moving forward and thinking, for sure. it’s a good feeling to be able to share, and writing helps me process what i’m experiencing, of course! as far as singing and dancing goes, the six ‘healers’ i’ve met so far don’t use singing and dancing, but mostly prayer and massage (and/or water+prayers). rhythmic chanting of islamic verses is popular here, due to the influence of persian sufism here, and i’ve seen people meditating/reaching states of ecstasy through chanting the tahlila, roughly “la ilaha illallah,” which means “there is no god but god.” i haven’t seen the tahlila used in healing (although one could argue that striving to reach an ecstatic state is a form of self-healing), but i suspect there are some islamic healers who use it in this way. you ask a complicated question! i hesitate to say there’s even a thing called “indonesian healing,” and i bet somewhere in the archipelago, people who perform curative rites and ceremonies use singing and dancing in various ways. there are hundreds of ethnic groups in this country, and each has a unique history and culture!

      later this week i’m going to banyuwangi on the eastern coast to see a “seblang” ritual in an osing village (osing is another ethnic group here in east java; i’m working primarily with ethnic javanese for my project). the “seblang” ritual is part of “cleaning the village” (“bersih desa”), an annual rite to rid the village of negative spirits and energy; it features a young girl who is possessed by a specific spirit, and the spirit dances through the girl’s body to music and song performed by community members. it’s a form of ‘healing’ for the whole village through spiritual cleansing, and song and dance as a vehicle for contact with the spirit realm. however, it’s not an individual healer working with a specific sick or unwell individual…

      i will keep song and dance in mind and share more with you in the future! i’m sure i’ll come across more! xo


  1. Best of luck with your project! I feel the same way about my experience in Colombia in some ways. I *thought* I knew quite a bit about the cultural context here, but I’m quickly learning that there’s a lot I don’t know.


  2. It’s really inspiring that you’re pushing yourself to stay open and flexible! I think that is a big sign of growth and maturity and I really admire you for it, Sam!! Also know you have the strength to tell someone if you are seeking something other than what is inferred! We all support and love you, we’re behind you 100%!!! Sending lots of light and love and hugs!!!


    1. Thanks SK!! I know there are some questions you emailed that I haven’t answered yet, but I hope to do so soon. I am so profoundly grateful for your love and support! You are a pillar of strength and love and light for so many people! xo


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