Category Archives: Fulbright

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

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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

Macau travels and other tidbits!

It has been far too long since my most recent post, and a lot has happened since then. I am gonna write it all and not proofread, cuz that’s what I have time for!

First off, I got a new laptop! The battery on my old laptop crapped out, and I couldn’t find a cheap replacement. Didn’t want to spend $200 on getting a new one shipped here from Japan, so I spent $500 instead and got a new one altogether. Considering my old one was purchased in 2008, I’ve made a huge step up and remained quite thrifty about all of it; the old one definitely had a great run. The new one is about 1/3 of the weight, red instead of black, and its running Windows 8 (which I haven’t really mastered yet, but hey it sure is slick). Managed to find a laptop brand with a global guarantee and repair centers in the US. Felt a little nervous about getting one here, but my smart undergrad friend from the IT department helped me out. It took us both about two weeks to make a decision; I was nervous about spending that much money, and he was nervous about advising me and me eventually being dissatisfied. After many hours in the tech mall downtown (and two or three separate trips), I made my choice, and I’ve been very pleased with what I ended up with. I still need to sell my old laptop if possible. The one and only drawback is that if I bring this one to the US, I need to use an adaptor, but whatever, seriously. I’ve had to use one here with my old laptop for most of the past five years and it hasn’t been a major issue. Big whup! New sexy fast laptop that doesn’t burn my hands or weight a billion pounds! Rejoice!

I’m going to tell you a few things about what’s been going on lately, but I’m not going to do it in any particular order. I’ve reached that uncomfortable place where it’s just been too long to think too hard about what to write and in what order since I just need to post something!! I know I’ve got some special people out there reading (you), and I like to keep them happy. Honestly, I’ve been doing a lot more Instagramming than blogging, and if you don’t follow me already and you’re interested, I’m @tisamlette. You can also see my pictures at www.instagram.com/tisamlette if you don’t have a smartphone or an Instagram account. Thank you for paying attention to me and for loving me.

The most exciting thing of late has been my trip to Macau! Like a royally stinky turd, I didn’t blog about it immediately, even though I desperately wanted to. Sometimes, my own laziness (and my self-absorption) gets the best of me. Instead of blogging, I came back to Indonesia and just continued on with my life. I’ve reached the point where blogging isn’t necessary for me as it was in the beginning (I had a similar experience during Peace Corps service), and unfortunately it gets pushed to the backburner. I can process my life and experiences and emotions without having to write about them, which means I blog less. But I’m going to try and stop doing that…especially since I’m trying to, ahem, explore options re: continuing this journey. More on that in a few weeks.

So, I attended a folklore conference on the supernatural in Macau in late March. It was through an organization called Island Dynamics. They hold and organize the conference and facilitate tours of conference locations that are tailored to the topics in the conference. For example, last year’s Island Dynamics was in Shetland and was about religion (if I remember correctly), so the presenters all got to do a few days’ touring around and seeing important historical sites, churches, cultural stuff, etc. I think this is much better than just arriving in an exotic locale for a few days for a conference, or even arriving for a few days to the conference and spending an extra day or two trying to see things on one’s own. First of all, the tour is tailored to the topic of the conference. Second, you get to develop stronger relationships with fellow conference participants. I met so many amazing people in Macau, some of whom I hope to keep in touch with on both personal and professional levels. It was great!

Macau is a “special administrative region” or SAR of China, which is basically the same relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, just for a frame of reference. I can’t say much about the precise nature of either of these two situations, but from my basic understanding, they are similar enough to warrant the comparison. I thought that China had three SARs—Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan—but it turns out the status of Taiwan is complicated and incomprehensible to my feeble brain, and it’s not actually an SAR. Macau, a quick ferry ride from Hong Kong, was under the colonial rule of the Portuguese until 1999, when control was transferred to China. 1999!! Naturally, with so many hundreds of years of Portuguese influence, there’s an incredible hybrid culture there. It’s a blend of Cantonese and Portuguese, Buddhist/Chinese and Christian/Catholic, European and Asian, East and West, etc etc!! And it’s really amazing. I’ve never been anywhere like it, and I never really knew there was somewhere like that in this world! Even something so simple as seeing bilingual street signs in Chinese characters and Portuguese was captivating. It makes sense, but it seems so random, and proves again how much I don’t know about Asia (or how much I didn’t learn in public school in the US about the outside world).

Our tour primarily consisted of visiting cultural sites, museums, temples and churches, and eating delicious foods. We also visited several large casino complexes, as Macau is the gambling mecca of the world. It generates about seven times the profits of Las Vegas on an annual basis. Incredible! Who knew? Not me!! I mean, that’s not entirely true since I had watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Limits episode on Macau after registering for the conference (which I found on Conference Alerts), but still. Anyways, if you watch the video, you’ll get a great idea of what Macau is like. I really wanted to do the bungee jump, but it was just too expensive.

So, regarding Macau, I posted a lot of pics to Instagram and gave detailed captions about everything I saw as I was experiencing it. Please check out the pics and forgive me for making you work for it rather than simply reposting them here. Actually it takes a while to repost them, and I’ve still got so much more to say. I am totally inspired to go to China after visiting Macau. I think I’d even go back to Macau someday, if not to see it again but to visit the supremely lovely lady I couchsurfed with. So much generosity, so much pleasant chatting, so many good drinks and nice dance moves, and so many amazing, stupefying, spine-tingling, love-inspiring, lustworthy hot showers (and drool-inducing water pressure!!!!!!).

The conference took two of the six days I spent in Macau, and it was a great experience. It was my first time presenting about my current research project and my first time presenting at a conference not at BGSU (where I did my master’s). I was incredibly nervous and not fully prepared; I should have cut out some of the information and slimmed things down. I feel so passionate about my project and I tried to say too much, I think. However, I learned some great lessons about public speaking. Plus, I decided not to prepare a script or use notes (as I normally do) in favor of attempting to speak both eloquently and naturally about a topic I obviously know a ton about because it’s what I’ve been working on for the past two years, and I think that was a success. Despite talking too fast near the end because I crammed too much in, I feel comfortable with what I did considering it was so new to me. Decided right off the bat not to be too hard on myself, because that’s not productive. Just gotta take what I can from the experience. That’s the entire purpose of the trip; I struggle with public speaking, and I set a goal during grad school to try and do at least one public speaking event per semester. Met my goal and learned a lot. I think I can get better. I know I can! There’s no point in not!

So, the highlights of Macau for me were: the delicious spicy Portuguese-Cantonese duck rice I had with a Portuguese beer alongside; seeing the crazy lights at night crossing the bridge between Macau and Taipa where I was couchsufing; enjoying living with a few cats again for a short period of time; warm cognac with lemon-ginger-honey blended in; seeing the big Portuguese churches and admiring the architecture; smelling the incense constantly burning at the countless temples; taking in the flashing street signs all in Chinese characters and loving not understanding a word of it; the immaculate and so easy public transit system; the live cover band I danced to with my couchsurfing hosts when nobody else in the place was even out of their chairs; Portuguese egg tarts everywhere all the time, and good Chinese food (which I had to learn how to eat properly; never knew about the tiny bowl system! You pull the food into a tiny bowl about the size of a teacup and eat from there, not the plate, with your chopsicks. Discarded items—bones, etc—are placed directly on the tablecloth. This system made it very hard for me to monitor my portions, but I didn’t care because all of the Chinese food I had was so. damn. good. and all I cared about was stuffing more into my face); meeting some incredible people at the conference, including an Iranian woman and her husband, both of whom completely stole my heart and took me in like their little pet, and a Malay-American-British lady about my age currently working on her PhD who inspired me completely with her eloquence and confidence; and the fact that I missed Indonesia so very much. There was a charming Indonesian graduate student there who’s completing his master’s in Thailand, and it was lovely having a connection with him, speaking Indonesian, and discussing living and studying abroad…and he made me miss my friends and family here. I loved my trip and definitely felt sad to leave, but I was pleased to be home again, back in my zone at the end of it.

The week before I left for Macau, something exciting happened in Malang, and I got right back into the excitement when I came home. The newest batch of Peace Corps trainees (soon to be Volunteers) arrived from the States!! I creeped in on their campus arrival before leaving town for Macau and got to meet a few of them. Peace Corps uses UMM for its training hub, and many of my friends from IRO work for Peace Corps when the trainees come through every spring. One of the new girls had found me on Instagram through Travis, I believe (as with everyone connected to Peace Corps who finds me or knows who I am when they met me), and brought me and Maria some Butterfingers, which was a real highlight of their arrival. I tried to portion it out so I could share it with my friends but scarfed it down after the first bite. Anyways.

When they arrived, I had a huge rush of emotions and adrenaline, just seeing their faces and remembering my first experiences here. It was so nice to see them finally arrive and feel their energy. The Peace Corps is re-using my training village as a cluster site, as well, and they’ve placed a trainee, Natalie, with my host family, which is just great! I was in Macau when she arrived, but we have connected a couple times for family outings, and it’s been lovely. She’s so young and gentle. I really like her and I think she’s going to be a wonderful, caring Volunteer. She’s doing well with her bahasa too! It’s so interesting to see her and Sinta interacting in ways Sinta and I never did when I was a trainee, since Sinta was about 16 at that time. Now, like I’ve told you, Sinta is all grown up. She’s interacting a lot with Natalie—even speaking English and helping Natalie with her bahasa—and it warms my old heart. Love those girls so much!!

Since there’s a new batch of trainees, the cycle of the senior Volunteers is about to end. There are always two or three groups in country at any given time, since the stint is for two years and the trainees arrive a few months before the seniors leave. So, the people who arrived two years ago are about to finish up their service. I didn’t know any of them personally, but I knew their friends who were in country when they arrived as trainees, since those were the groups directly following my group and the groups I knew. Basically, I was in the first group (since the 60s), and the group that just arrived is the 6th. So, I knew the 2nd and 3rd groups, and the 4th group, which is just about to finish, also knew the 2nd and 3rd groups, but not mine directly. It’s weird. It really is a big family, and there are connections everywhere. Many, many people know Travis, since he networks so well and is now recruiting in Chicago. He also makes a great effort to see people when they connect to PC Indonesia on FB and before they leave to start their training. That guy!!

So, Peace Corps invited me to speak on a panel earlier this week as part of the 4th group’s close of service conference. I got to speak as an RPCV with two other senior RPCVs, both of whom served in Africa and both of whom are completely magical, well-spoken, and inspiring. One now works for Peace Corps Indonesia in Surabaya and the other has been working with USAID and the US Foreign Service for over a dozen years. We got to share about cultural readjustment, job opportunities and grad school fellowship opportunities, how to represent Indonesia and complete Peace Corps “third goal” activities (teaching US citizens about Indonesia), what to expect when leaving site and separating from really close friends and family here, what to expect upon return to the US, and a few other things. The PCVs were so sweet and nice. I had had the chance to meet them a couple of nights earlier as a party-crasher at their prom (an annual event thrown by the junior group in honor of the group that’s leaving; it was started when the 2nd group threw my group a prom in 2012 right before we finished our service) in downtown Malang. They’re a lovely and sweet group of people, and I wish I had gotten the chance to know them better…and bust even more dance moves together. I’m sure they’ll be great no matter what they do in the future. Being able to participate in their COS conference was such an honor; I liked speaking about my experience, sharing tips and tricks, and, of course, getting some tasty free lunch at the beautiful mountainside resort where the COS conferences (including mine) are held. Hooray!

Did I mention that Peace Corps came and sort of kicked me out of my house? Well, that’s not entirely true, but they do have priority over the housing I was using last semester, and now that it’s training time for PC, my old house is the local PC office. Ha! I moved in early February to a new place. It’s a boarding house in front of campus, and it’s just perfect. There are a couple of ladies from my office living in other rooms in the house (of which there are seven). I have a balcony all to myself, which is the crowning glory of the whole thing! I downgraded to cold mandi (bucket bath) status instead of hot shower status, but honestly the balcony makes it worth it. Plus, it’s more secluded, and I can really get some downtime. No real shared or really frequented common spaces, and so I feel I have more privacy. The room is pink. The walls are pink, the curtains are pink, and my blanket just so happens to be pink. But honestly I’m starting to like pink. I got a pedicure two days ago and chose pink. The pink haven is influencing me!!! Anyways, I love having a balcony (did you get that?), and the place isn’t very much. My old place was free, and this one is costing me about $35 per month, so it’s really not that bad at all. My motorcycle is more than that. Totally happy with the move, feeling content, feeling happy about it, enjoying the pink haven and my balcony. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s an even closer walk to campus than before. At least, it’s not on as busy of a road. Househunting success, thanks to my friends Nana, Bie, and Nita!

I’m going to do another post soon about some volunteer guest speaking I’ve been doing around Malang as well as a project update, but this is all for now (lest I post nothing).

Let’s all think of SK and her family as they prepare to welcome a new baby man into the fold!

Sending love from Java,
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.

 

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!!

Cue brain explosion

Since the first pilot interview a couple of weeks ago, I have conducted– or rather, participated in– six additional interviews, three with male ‘healers’ and three with female ‘healers.’ My ideal number of women participants is nine; the data collection is progressing more quickly than I anticipated, and I think that as a result, I am going to narrow the geographical boundaries of the study. I’ve decided this also in part because the more I talk to people, the more I realize that even within East Java, culture can vary enough to warrant individual attention to specific regions/regencies.

I knew this from before, but what I didn’t realize is that even within East Java there are distinct ethnic (sub-ethnic) groups. For a prime example, in Banyuwangi, where most research about Javanese dukun has been conducted, the people are ethnically Osing. Since my project is about ethnic Javanese, I won’t be collecting data on Osing dukun. The Osing people have a different cultural history and even a different language than ethnic Javanese. Banyuwangi is the most popular region for dukun in East Java, and lots of people around Malang suggest I visit the town to conduct research. My objective, however, is to meet dukun who are ethnically Javanese; it seems that I’m exploring a topic  that hasn’t been written about as frequently (although there are plenty of people, both Westerners and non-Westerners, who study these topics; relatively speaking, East Javanese non-Banyuwangi-centric dukun seem underrepresented in what I’ve been reading so far).

I could go into the basic differences between Osing and Javanese culture based on the literature I’ve read so far, but suffice it to say that they were basically the last ethnic group in Java to resist Islamicization in roughly the 13th and 14th centuries and have strong historical/cultural ties to Blambangan, at that time a powerful eastern Hindu empire diametrically opposed to the contemporaneous Mataram Islamic empire to its west. Besides ethnic Osing, there are also Tengger and Madurese people in East Java, and these groups are ethnically distinct from the Javanese. I think some of the groups, like Osing and Tenggerese, are considered to be sub-ethnic groups of Javanese, but for simplicity’s sake and for the clarity and cohesion of the project, I’m going to restrict my research to people who identify as strictly ethnically Javanese.

Hm… How did I get on this tangent? Well, it’s important because I’m going to Banyuwangi this weekend to meet some people and see an important ritual, although I won’t be doing data collection per se. I hope (and think) this trip will help me learn more about the differences between Osing and Javanese people, which will in turn help me understand more about what I’m seeing, learning, and hearing here in Malang. A lot to expect for four days, but I know I’ll be able to meet some people who can speak on the subject, since Pak H is also coming with me and has seemingly infinite social and professional connections.

Ah, now I’ve circled back to what I really wanted to blog about: the interviews I’ve been collecting! I’ve been interviewing with the direct help of two dear friends and colleagues, without whom I’d honestly be completely lost. Some of the participants don’t speak much Indonesian, especially the older ones, so language help / translation has been vital, and I’ve also needed help with gaining informed consent. I wrote a consent letter and translated it myself into Indonesian, and one of my former Indonesian teachers helped me correct it. But, the guys are able to explain it in Javanese to participants, and to introduce me and explain what I’m doing in the culturally correct (i.e., polite or halus) way. I think having a polite, Javanese, UMM-affiliated (male) person accompany me helps participants perceive me as more legitimate than if just came as myself, a young, foreign researcher with imperfect Indonesian and decidedly just basic Javanese. They are certainly more at ease knowing there’s someone who can translate for me as needed, and I am, too.

I think the best way to tell you about each of these really amazing interviews is to dedicate a paragraph or two as appropriate to each person. I won’t go into too much depth, but I’d like to give you a sense of the types of people I’ve been encountering. Honestly, the content of the interview—the stories of the participants—have been really fascinating and provocative. I haven’t had to do much; the stories can stand on their own without much interpretation or explanation (but feel free to leave a question if you have one).

So, I met two people last Friday with Mas T near his home village, about an hour’s car ride from here. The first one we met was a man, about whom Mas had told me earlier in the week. Apparently, this healer helped Mas T when he (Mas T) was a child. If Mas T had a stomachache, the healer would press the soft tissue between his knuckles seemingly very gently, but pain would shoot up Mas T’s arm until he screamed. Now, as an adult, Mas T tells the healer he’s healthy whenever he sees him (the healer) so as to avoid further treatment.

Mas T said it would be useful for me to meet this person, and it really was! The healer told me his power comes from his spirit and heart, and with this power he is able to help people with a variety of physical and mental ailments. Generally, he massages or uses a technique similar to reflexology, or he bathes people while praying. He said that generally, ten scoops of water dumped on a person while he (the healer) is praying are enough to make the person yell out in pain and beg for relief. He tends to treat people whose ailments have been effectively incurable by medical doctors, and he took me to the home of a young patient suffering from what I gathered to be epilepsy and partial paralysis due to stroke (from seizures) whose condition had been greatly improved since his intervention. The healer was called once the family grew tired of effectively feeding their child medications. The family expressed an appreciation for the the benefits of medical science and saw improvements when their child was at the hospital, but they find the healer’s therapy highly effective as well.

This healer, it turns out, is also a little bit psychic or at least can “read” someone very accurately upon first meeting (or even seeing a photograph), and he astutely described several aspects of my personality and life to me: you’re the second and first child (which is true, I’m second out of my siblings and stepsiblings and the first child in my biological family); if you’re mad, you’re usually quiet and don’t say anything, even if you’re mad for weeks at a time (true); you often get headaches and these are related to being too active and busy to remember to eat and drink enough (true); you’re possessive (probably true)…

The crux of his healing practice, he says, is hati (heart). His desire to practice comes from his heart—he just feels compelled to do this work—and his power comes from his heart (and faith). And for patients, their recovery time also depends on their hearts; those who are more open-hearted will become healthier more quickly. He’s not in the healing business to seek wealth, and everyone pays according to their means, and he doesn’t want to be called a dukun because of the negative connotations of black sorcery the word can raise in people’s minds.

The second person we met that day was a woman who also disliked the term dukun and preferred to be called a helper. Her specialty is helping people find spouses, with childrearing, and preparing special poultices with traditional herbs that treat physical injuries. She also uses kartu lintrik (kartu ceki), which I’ve yet to find an English translation for, to predict the future and giving clients information about their present (such as where their straying husband currently is, what he’s doing, and with whom). These are little black, white, and red cards from China with various symbols that can be read by the trained eye, depending on how the card is drawn, in what position, facing up or down, etc. (similar to the way that the position of a tarot card during a reading changes the way its appearance and symbolism is interpreted). They can also be used as a game. In addition to cards, she also uses prayer, personal items (e.g., soiled clothing of the person who comes for help or their picture), dirt that has been prayed over, as well as herbs and flowers. Sometimes, she throws items, especially clothes that have been blessed and infused with the desires of those who brought them, into the river, which symbolizes cleansing. Her practice is kejawen Islam.*

With the help of Mas M, I’ve met three additional people: one man and two women. We visited the first woman and the man during a trip to Gunung Kawi on Saturday. Kawi is a nearby mountain and the resting place of two significant Islamic spiritual teachers. The first person we met that day was an older man who “practices” kebatinan, which is, as far as I grasp so far, a mystical path to achieving inner strength and power (from within). I went to his house with Mas M, his wife, her friend, and her friend’s father. The healer told us how he went through a 15-year long tirakat, or period of fasting, in order to build his inner strength. In three year segments, he underwent five forms of aesthetic meditation and spiritual/mystical strengthening, such as puasa mutih, or fasting on small portions of white rice and nothing else except water from pure sources, i.e. natural springs and rivers, drunk only with his hands or a leaf. For another three years, he retreated into a cave and didn’t eat or drink anything, merely surviving on his spiritual strength—not sleeping, not speaking to anyone. His healing practice involves massage, and he also imbues spiritual energy into jamu that he produces and sells (drinkable traditional medicines). He also magically inserts pieces of metal into clients’ the skin to produce super-strength or increase beauty, as requested (this is a widespread magical practice, I gleaned). Like the others, he prefers to be called a helper—specifically, someone who helps people with difficulties in life—rather than dukun.

Interestingly, even though he was speaking Indonesian most of the time, I found it very challenging to keep up with what he was trying to say. As it turns out, so did my friends; they said he had only a rudimentary grasp of the language and suggested that it may have been clearer if he was speaking in Javanese only (but he was clearly trying to speak Indonesian for my benefit). Mas M says he believes the man really performed the tirakat because back in the mid-20th century, many Javanese people who undertook these types of aesthetic practices; it was common and Mas M has heard of it happening before, so he believes it is true.

The second person we met that day was a woman healer who practices general healing of ailments and disease as well as traditional midwifery. Her story was interesting too; she grew up a sickly child, diagnosed with severe health problems as a teenager, and had a near-death experience in her mid-20s. When she was dead, she received special instructions from god about what method to use in healing. Now, this is her primary method, and people come from all over the archipelago to receive treatment. She treats upwards of twenty people weekly, and people pay according to their means.

Finally, a week later (just yesterday night, in fact), I met Grandmother S. Two days ago, Mas M took me to a traditional nursery to get some flowers from some acquaintances, and we asked for their help identifying a local dukun who might be interested in participating in the project. They said they knew someone who is possessed by a spirit to do healing work and instructed us to come back tomorrow (yesterday) evening, after prayers. We did, of course, and the older lady we met turned out to be the family matriarch. She spoke only Javanese, so Mas M did most of the work during the interview. To make a long and very interesting story much too short than it deserves to be, for nearly 30 years she has had the spirit of a deceased Madurese woman borrow her body in order to conduct healing work and make a little money for Grandmother S. The healing performed is massage, jamu production and selling, and helping people find lost belongings. Grandmother S. told us that she doesn’t have any awareness of when the spirit overtakes her. She also described her own sicknesses and experiences with near-death experiences that lasted for two weeks on end, wherein she died and came back to life two to three times daily.

At the end of the interview, she grabbed what appeared to be a little black eggshell and a white seashell, cupped them towards her face as she said a prayer, and set them down on a little nightstand. She gave a shudder, the rock and shell spun around twice of their own volition (I saw this with my own eyes!), “came to,” and shook my hand, greeting me as if we hadn’t been talking for the past hour. The tone of her voice and the delivery of her speech had changed, and she had no idea that an interview was happening. She started talking to Mas M in Javanese, explaining at his asking a little bit about why she chose Grandmother S. to help. During the interview, Grandmother S.’s son was present, and he seemed unfazed; he later told me that the spirit visits as needed, sometimes daily. Luckily, the spirit is benevolent. Grandmother S. firmly believes that she has no healing skills or power of any kind; it is completely the spirit who does the healing work. In order for Grandmother S. to come back, she must sleep. Mas M and I are going back next week to see if we can properly interview the spirit. On a strange practical note, I still need to get the spirit to sign my consent form. I think I’ll also have to make an exception in this case regarding including only ethnically Javanese people (after all, the spirit is Madurese… but the vessel is Javanese. Who on earth has ever had to deal with this methodological concern before?!).

Mas M and I were both spooked; he said he hadn’t ever seen anything like this. We kept glancing at one another in wonder during the interview and as the spirit continued her story, pretty much completely confounded by the whole thing. He assures me he’s brave enough to go back next week, and a good thing; I’ve got a lot of questions to ask.

Whew, that’s all for now. My brain is swirling and last night I had such a rush heading home… I’m really enjoying myself, and I think the people involved with this project here, especially Mas M and Mas T, are having a good time too (and experiencing new things!). That makes me happy.

Like I said, this weekend, I’m heading to the coast with Pak H to see some Osing rituals near Banyuwangi. I’ll have some stories to share next week, I’m sure, if you’re interested!

While I’m away, please feel free to leave a comment if you have a question you’d like to ask. I can try to answer it. Plus, it’d be nice for me to hear what you’re take on these stories is, as it might help me open my mind in new ways! It might also help me “see” the gaps in what I’m describing. That will help me down the road as I try to write something more formal about this project. Sorry if anything was factually incorrect or not explained clearly enough; please let me know. And thanks for reading!

Be well,
Sammy

*Maybe in the next entry I’ll take on the daunting task of trying to explain the various religious, cultural, and spiritual belief systems I’ve had to get a basic grasp on over the past few weeks and what role they have played in the research so far.

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?

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