Category Archives: after peace corps

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…

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

Foreigner Privilege: The Nasty Realities of “Bule Power”

I don’t like to stir up unnecessary controversy,* which is why I want to open this post clarifying that I’m not writing this to cause harm. Rather, quite benignly, I hope to provoke reflection, something I see as a constant necessity.

There are certain realities about living as foreigners, or “bule,” in Indonesia that we need think about. I believe that host country friends should start reflecting openly on these realities, too, even though that’s not necessarily within the bounds of Javanese cultural propriety to have open critical discussion.

I’ve talked to a few people who harbor resentments and shame because of the way “bule power” operates in their lives, and unfortunately we have to make compromises in favor of open communication in cross-cultural dialogues, even if it means stepping outside of our comfort zones. Am I being hegemonic in saying that? Possibly. Do I think open communication between humans is ultimately one of the best strategies for solving problems? Yes…so, I’m in favor of the hegemony of open communication, by my own definition of it. We’re all in favor of some sort of hegemony, so don’t feel that bad about myself. Now, back to the topic at hand.

I’m going to talk about bule power and the privileged life I lead here.

It’s kinda fun to feel like a celebrity, which, as a bule, I often feel like here in Indonesia. It’s fun to get my picture in the paper without really having to do much, it’s fun to see how excited hoards of students get when I walk by or better yet walk into their classroom, and it’s fun to have people ready to help me at the drop of a hat because I’m a (Western)** foreign guest and Javanese cultural norms dictate that I be treated with the utmost respect. It’s relieving to know that I could find a lucrative job here because of my American degrees, my foreignness, and, what’s more, my native-speaker status. It’s amusing to think that I could probably become a real celebrity in the Indonesian pop culture if I put a little effort into it; I could probably become a talk show host or a model, and I could definitely be in a commercial, on a game show, or one of the bule interest shows (which do actually exist; let’s watch this bule experience x, y, and z aspects of Indonesia!).

(Most) Americans do not treat their foreigners the same way that (most) Indonesians do. There’s a stark difference when it’s people from the “developing world” coming into the “developed” world to live and work Our collective sense of American exceptionalism and superiority doesn’t afford Europeans much special treatment either. In local instances, international guests are well-received and exoticized–as I am here–but I’ve never seen the same level of fervor over foreigners in the US as I see here in Java. Usually, it’s quite the opposite feeling: resentment, confusion, and sometimes hatred of the other. Here, it’s decadent glorification.

But I’m not going to talk about whether this is right or wrong, even though I’m confident that the present-day relationship between Indonesians*** and foreigners (especially white ones) can find its roots in colonial history, replete with abusive and degrading power dynamics between the colonizers (mostly white) and the colonized (mostly brown), physical violence towards those viewed by colonizers as inferior on all levels, and various other forms of oppression and control. Obviously, the post-colonial hangover is not a positive phenomenon, at least when it manifests itself in lending privilege to others based on skin color, nationality, shape and pointiness of the nose, and brightness of the hair.

I’m not going to talk about what elements of Javanese/Indonesian culture may or may not be setting people up for abuse, because that’s victim-blaming. This kind of attitude gives foreigners a simple method for exculpating themselves from any guilt or responsibility for abusing local people and the structures of power that allow them to breeze through life here without a self-reflexive thought of any kind.

I’m not going to suggest that foreigners bear all responsibility for ensuring that power dynamics aren’t abused in the relationships in which they are in the position of power, because that would just perpetuate the imbalances; as long as one person or group is in sole control in a relationship, there can be no real equality–only a semblance of it. Separate but equal isn’t a thing, as we know.

What I am going to talk about is the abuse of this power dynamic as I have witnessed firsthand. I’m going to try and show how and why this pisses me off to the utmost.

For a sense of what it looks like in lived reality, here are a sampling things I’ve seen and heard firsthand that I think you shouldn’t say or do if you don’t want to come off as a privileged jerk bule:

  • Work in the same place for several months and not know many of the Indonesian workers’ names, but know most or all of the foreigners’
  • “Oh, you know, some people just can’t make friends with Indonesians. It’s not possible.”
  • Expecting low prices for services and getting pissed off when things aren’t cheap enough (but actually still cost just a couple of dollars…I admit, I’ve had to check myself on this one; I won’t claim to be innocent here. I still get cheesed when people won’t come down to the local price–when I know the local price–even though the difference is at most a couple bucks)
  • “I’ve lived here for seven years, and I don’t speak a word of Indonesian.”
  • Expect other foreigners (i.e. me) to give a shit about you because you’re foreign (good for you!) and therefore deserve a shit to be given about you. I try to care about people from a humanistic standpoint, so here what I’m getting at is entitlement–entitled to be cared about not as a human but as a foreigner/Westerner, necessarily exceptional for that fact
  • Expect other foreigners (i.e. me) to be interested in being friends with you or being a part of your social circle because we’re all foreign and therefore we need to stick together; this suggests that in your mind any support network of Indonesian friends someone could build on their own would be insufficient, apparently because special foreigners special needs that only other special foreigners can meet
  • Letting your ass hang out of your shorts on the street in front of campus because hey, you’re technically not on campus and cultural sensitivity is a choice
  • “These people…(blah, blah, blah)”
  • Become indignant when people treat you like a foreigner, i.e., objectify you, instead of treating you like a person–this means that you only decry your objectification, which is actually pretty much constant, when it bothers, rather than benefits you****

Have I taken advantage of my own power and privilege here? Yes, absolutely. I have pretended on a few unimportant and at least one very important occasion that I don’t speak Indonesian in order to avoid negative consequences that a normal Indonesian person would definitely have to endure. I’m given special foreigner status at the gym where I work out and can attend any class at any time while my Indonesian friends have to choose and then stick to a weekly schedule each month. I can use my almighty foreign dollar to get things done faster when I want them done faster and not actually endure much financial hardship.

Have I used my power and privilege here for good? Yes. I have helped my friends out in various ways using my foreigner status to boost their cred, coolness, and legitimacy in various important and less important contexts; I’ve used my foreigner power to help my friends get benefits they wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, I’ve given people letters of recommendation even though I’m not as qualified as their professors or bosses because having a foreigner reference you can be more advantageous.

Of course, using bule power for good is also problematic. Why? Because it makes me complicit in perpetuating the imbalanced power structure; all of the other locals who don’t have foreigner friends don’t have access to the benefits I’ve been able to help my friends access, and me using my privilege reinforces to the Indonesians and foreigners witnessing it that giving foreigners privilege is acceptable, good, and correct. In my complicity, I endorse. The only way I could achieve otherwise would be to reject completely any benefits my privilege lends me and to do so vocally.

Are Indonesian people completely innocent bystanders, powerless to make change and step up to confront this? No. Remember, we’re in Indonesia. Home turf, people! You have the right to say what you think! You kind of need to! It’s not a perfect world and we can’t just kum-bay-ya and solve these issues by “working together” (oh how I despise that ambiguous and gumdrops-and-lollipops phrase that’s so easy to drop to sound legit), but both sides do have to step up and make some decisions about how to react and counteract these systems of power. For me, I’m starting with this post and trying to be an example of someone trying to engage, on a critical level, with what’s going on.

If that makes me a bule jerk, then that’s cool. Having critics means I’m doing something right, because ultimately if people are thinking enough about something I say to the point that they get pissed, then they’re thinking, and that’s good. And hey, I live in Indonesia, so I’ve got enough of a fan base that I don’t need to care much about winning people over; I don’t want to stir up controversy, but I don’t actually give so many fucks about it.

Thanks for reading.
Sammy

*Or do I?

**I can confidently say that different people have different experiences; black Americans and Asian Americans have different experiences than white Americans; male and female foreigners have different experiences; native-speaker Westerners and non-native-speaker Westerners have different experiences; non-Western foreigners have different experiences than Western foreigners; hell, brunettes and blondes have different experiences. Not claiming any truths so much as discussing generalities and personal experiences.

***Most of my experiences in Indonesia have been in East Java and in the Javanese culture. So I use the term “Indonesians,” but it’s entirely possible that these phenomena wouldn’t occur in other ethnic populations in Indonesia, such as the Dani or Batak people of Papua and North Sumatra, respectively; there are hundreds of ethnic groups in this country, and cultures and relationships to outsiders have the potential to vary widely.

 

Reclaiming the Future

First of all, Lisa and I have started a new blogging project, and I’m very excited about it. It’s about knitting, travel, and the intellectual life. It’s called Graduate Knits. We aim to update once or twice per week, posting knitting-related content that’s relatable to everyone, knitters and non-knitters alike (yes, the world can be divided into these two types of humans).

Oddly enough, we started Graduate Knits during the very same week I decided not to pursue a doctoral program this fall. After several months of contemplation and much pestering of friends and loved ones for advice, my mini quarter-life crisis has come to an end, and the major development is that I’m going to move to DC to find work rather than move back to Indiana to continue school.

The basic truth is that I’m more likely to finish the program if I feel confident about starting it, and I just don’t; it’d be better to wait a few years and enroll if I feel more dedicated to the idea than waste money trying it out now only to quit in a year (and be less likely to ever start again). I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot here, and I don’t particularly want to spend money on something I don’t feel so hot about. At its core, the choice is not about finances, but finances do play a role in the decision; I don’t feel the level of passion I know I should be feeling, so I’m not going to force myself. I know I’m capable of feeling passionate, and grad school isn’t doing it for me anymore–at least not for the right reasons.

I have lots of issues about academia and, perhaps despite outward appearances, had to push myself pretty hard to survive my master’s program. Lots of my friends and family members think I’m just the perfect type to be an academic, but in reality I had a difficult time in graduate school (as everyone generally does). It wasn’t the best fit for me. I’m very hard on myself, and I don’t want to spend my life being hard on myself when I can never be satisfied; I need to learn to relax and being loving and caring towards myself, and part of this is consciously choosing the best type of environment for my personality type. At this time, I’m just not interested in subjecting myself to the stress, pressure, criticism, exhaustion, and tumult of a doctoral program; I don’t feel passionate enough about the program I was considering, and I don’t feel clear-minded about the direction or purpose that was motivating me to consider enrollment. I’m tired of pushing myself to be something I’m not because outside forces and influences are telling me I should. Overcoming the compulsion to set unreachable goals for myself and putting myself under insane amounts of pressure won’t happen overnight–I’ll carry this issue into the workplace with me and it haunts my personal life, too–but I know for a fact that academia is an enabler; it’s just not a healthy environment for me. I refuse to be responsible for putting myself back into an environment that is detrimental to my mental health. The rewards just aren’t great enough.

Really, I’m not so sure why I was taking the decision so seriously. I’m only 28, and there’s plenty of time to do a doctoral program in the future if I have a change of heart or magically become healthier. But life is short, and I’ve never been a careerist. I don’t need a doctoral degree to find job satisfaction, so I’m not going to push myself to endure the pain and tribulations to earn one. I don’t care about the title or prestige, and there’s not even job security at the end. I don’t want to be at the whim of that job market, possibly ending up in the middle of nowhere working as an adjunct. I feel too young to be doing something so intense right now, and I already feel burnt out from my master’s program and my research. A major highlight–if not the major highlight–of my master’s program was working on the exchange and cultural programs I was working on, and the major draw about starting school in the fall was the chance to work on the exchange and cultural programs at the school of education at Indiana. So, why shouldn’t I just try to find work like that?

Of course, there are tons of benefits to pursuing higher education which I don’t need to elaborate about here, and I’m clearly not making a life or death higher education choice here. And, of course, being on the job market in DC isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but looking at the job listings gets me all excited and pumped up about the new possibilities for my future. So, really it’s just simple: I’ve realized the difference between what I think I should do and what I want to do, and what I want to do is not enroll in a graduate program. I think stepping away from the insanity of US work/academia culture has helped me grately, and I’m so glad that I’ve been able to spend three years of my mid-twenties outside of the US. It’s been a formative time, and I’ve gained new perspectives about myself and my idea of the “good life,” however vague and/or hackneyed that may sound. I applaud anyone who’s committed to pursuing formal education, but at the moment, that’s no longer my path. And I feel empowered by that fact!

Here are some interesting articles and resources exploring change, personality, and decision-making that I’ve come across over the past few weeks. Some of them are specifically about doctoral studies, and I really like this one about the general virtues of quittingThis TED Talk from Dr. Ruth Chang is great, and she also did an opinion piece about the same subject, “on a par” decisions, for the NYT. I’m happy to share these with you and would love for you to share additional resources with me in the comments.

I need to express my most sincere thanks to Caitlin, Liane, Kate, Sarah Kate, Lisa, Mom, and Maria for helping me with this decision. I’m also deeply grateful to Lauren for her wisdom and support. I’m the type of person who really hates change and decision making, so it’s always heavier for me than it should be; I can’t say how much I appreciate your kindness, love, compassion, and brilliance. You women!!!

Finally, I acknowledge that having different options for what direction I take my life and being able to make choices about it are huge luxuries. And I acknowledge that all of my friends, mentors, and family members just want what’s best for me and will love me no matter what I do–it’s time for me to feel the same way!

Thanks for reading, xoxo
Sammy

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!
Love,
Sammy

*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.