Category Archives: Research

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.

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One month in


— follow me on Instagram @tisamlette —


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

xo
Sammy


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

eep

Well, riding on the back of a run-down, rickety, manual transmission motorcycle that keeps overheating, stalling, and exuding malodorous aromas of burning rubber and oil, driven by a 67-year old man in flip flops up a poorly paved mountain road: “Oops, we’ve got a problem,” “Dead again,” “This usually happens,” “It’s just too hot,” “Dead again!” “No problem, let’s go…let’s go, Sam!” “Hmm… maybe you should walk up this hill.”–all for the sake of meeting a potential participant–is just as nerve-wracking as it sounds.

Under the spell!

I conducted a pilot interview this weekend!! It was with a dukun bayi or children’s healer (and massage/bathing specialist) in my village, and I think it went as well as could be expected for a trial run! I was lucky enough to have my host mother accompany me as language guru; the interviewee spoke about as much Indonesian as I do, and, of course, my Javanese is only so-so. But the interview was very successful, in my opinion, although I definitely have questions to re-work (and add). I measured the success by the total confusion and amazement I felt at the end; I’ve got a lot to learn, and it’s going to be fascinating. Without going into too much detail, the most interesting part of her story, for me, was that she had no formal training. None! She realized later in life and through a premonitory dream that she had the ability to heal children’s illness, and the whole venture into healing started with her own grandchild, whom she healed with intuitive massage after the doctors tried and failed to help him. A devout Muslim, she believes that her ability is a gift from Allah and that she should use it to help any and all children in need of care.

This story contrasts sharply with the interviews I conducted in the US, and since I’m thinking that this project will end up being a comparative analysis of the two types of healers’ experiences (i.e., Javanese and Anglo-American), the potential seems great already for some interesting and provocative results! Plus, on a personal level, I feel humbled and even more open to the learning process inherent in doing this type of cross-cultural “fieldwork.” I am a lucky lady.

Serendipitously, I have connected with an anthropologist here at UMM whose research interests overlap quite harmoniously with mine. He is Pak H, and I think I mentioned him in my previous entry. He’s someone I know from my Peace Corps days and was a Fulbrighter, too (University of Michigan, late 1980’s). We had lunch together yesterday; he seems quite excited about my project and very interested in helping me travel around to certain places to explore the world of traditional healing here. He’ll be sharing resources, too, and I plan to pick up a couple of books from him later today. We’ve already got two trips scheduled for October to a regency in East Java that’s famous for dukun, and apparently Pak H is already very well-connected to the healing community there since it’s also, !!!, where he’s from. He’s already mentioned my project to several of his connections, who have expressed interest in being interviewed. I could tell from just walking around campus with him that he is very well-connected and respected around here. Pak H says that ten months is more than enough time to accomplish the goals I’ve set out in my research proposal and that with his help, finding interesting and available participants will not be an obstacle. I suppose this makes him, at this point, my primary gatekeeper. How fortunate that he is also an expert in the field.

I can’t believe how things are falling into place! Again, I know there will be challenges, but so far… I’m not sure what I was worrying about all summer when I was making myself frantic with nerves and anxiety about whether I could do this. My friends and colleagues here are so aware of what kind of help I need, and they are more than gracious in extending their assistance wherever possible. I hope I can find a way to do my part for them; I am picking up on the concept of gotong royong (mutual cooperation), a very fundamental aspect of traditional Javanese culture that still thrives today, even in bigger, “modern” cities like Malang. I will have to take care to reciprocate all of the assistance I’ve been granted.

Overall, I’ve been very lucky so far in finding just the perfect people to help me adjust to being back in East Java. Several people, expats and locals alike, have been very gracious and open to assisting me, every bit as much as enthusiastically as Pak H. With the help of a lovely lady from Poland and Mas T, I’ve gotten hooked up with some good transportation and know-how. Thanks to my host family in the village, I feel secure and safe (host dad checked out my homestay and always provides advice on travel, social interaction, and financial issues). The Peace Corps safety and security officer in Surabaya has offered to help me hand-deliver some documents next week to the provincial authorities about my research, per instructions from the federal office to which I report. My new housemate has been so gracious in sharing her delicious foodstuffs, all of which she makes up off the top of her head like a true chef! And, of course, my new and old Indonesian friends have been so open to hanging out, making me feel right at home. My delightful new/old friend, Mas M, is being very diligent in helping/forcing me to practice my Javanese daily, and I love him for it! (He jokes that the reason I like him so much is because I ate an orange that he had had bewitched by a dukun with the express purpose of getting me to like him. But I just think he’s charming; anybody would like him. But then again I do feel I am under some kind of spell here…)

And, importantly, I finally connected with the American Corner here on campus, and reunited with Mas H, whom I last saw in DC a couple of months ago. Later in the semester, we’re going to collaborate on some projects for UMM students. Excitingly, I’ve been granted access to his wide library of English-language reading materials. (No more worrying about forcing Mom, Caitlin, and Lauren to send pleasure reading! Although by all means, please send anything you think I’d be interested in. Ha!) I checked out a Steinbeck novel yesterday, and it feels so good.

That’s all from me for now!
xo
Sammy

*

Please follow me on Instagram @tisamlette if you are interested in seeing photos! I will post some here from time to time, I’m sure, but so far I have been posting mainly to Instagram…

A few more updates…

A few exciting updates! I have moved into my cute new (albeit ant-filled) abode; my housemate, M, made a lovely pumpkin and potato dish for me as a little welcome-to-the-house dinner. She is totally wonderful! We have both experienced living in Javanese villages before and both have experience teaching English here, so we have a lot in common already, even though we are from two very different countries/cultures. I love being able to share a space with someone also experiencing expat life in Malang. I feel completely comfortable and at ease; I could get used to this…especially to the fact that I don’t have to do any cleaning besides my own dishes. Thank you, housecleaning boys! What a fortuitous outcome of the house-hunting (which lasted approximately one hour)! AND, we got wifi in the house today!!!

There is a rather extensive expat network here in Malang, and they have been so far quite welcoming. I like the fact that I will spend some time in my village each weekend (or most weekends, anyway) so I don’t feel like I’m getting too sucked in to the expat world. It’s not a bad place—decidedly not—but I do want to maintain my connections with my host family and the ‘real world.’ So far, my new friend J, from Poland, has been most supportive and helpful. She has given me a few tips about Malang already, which are handy since I haven’t actually lived here before: good shops for Western-style bread and cheese, a top-notch fitness center (where she, as a lady, feels comfortable working out), and ideas about transportation. We had a lovely time at the café today chatting it up and getting to know one another. There’s a gathering on Friday that I think I’ll attend so I can meet the rest of her crew.

The visa process is slowly but surely coming along. I should be able to pick up the documents on Friday, which means I can officially start collecting data. Our trip to the immigration office was something else; Mas T picked me up with Mbak R, a Thai student also applying for a visa, at 9:30 instead of 9 since he was waiting on the car to arrive, and the car wouldn’t start when we got in to leave. Someone walked over from campus to help fix it, and after we stopped at the ATM to get money for the visa fee, the car broke down again. Another friend came to help, and we made it to immigration, finally. On the way back to drop said friend off at his job, the car broke down again. A bunch of guys worked on it for a while, and Mas T drove Mbak R back to campus on a borrowed motorcycle, since she had to teach a class (but she didn’t make it; her students had already left by the time she got back to campus). Finally it started, and Mas T and I headed back, stopping for some really excellent nasi pecel on the way back. Got back to the office at 1:30 or so, and, perfectly, the internet on campus was down. Thus, I went ended up at the café with J, as mentioned. Too much!! But I do just love Mas T for all the hard work he does around campus. He is a great friend, too. (Actually, everyone I’ve met/re-met in the office is completely wonderful. Mbak E is just a goofball and a total pleasure to be around, Mas M works hard to get me to practice my Javanese, and Mbaks O and K seem like really nice ladies who will hopefully become my good friends.)

On the research front, there have also been some interesting developments. By way of the professor who sponsored me, Pak P, I have been connected with a couple of professors at my university who specialize, in one way or another, in a field of study related to my project. One of them, Pak H, was a fellow who helped out my training village in Peace Corps… he’s a hoot and a half, and then some other stuff on top of that. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, he is an anthropology professor and a former Fulbrighter who studied at University of Michigan. He also, apparently, knows just about everyone in East Java and has lots of friends who practice traditional medicine, shamanism, and various other healing techniques. I guess he practices something himself, too, plus he’s head of the American Corner here on campus (more on that in the future). He’s in Jakarta until later this month, and I’m eager to re-meet him and see what’s up. There’s also another professor, Pak HS, who’s an expert in philosophy (or so I gather) who may also be able to help me.

I’m plodding along developing my research questions and beginning to consider how to approach recruiting and interviewing someone… I think I may stick close to Malang for the first couple weeks’ worth of fieldwork (perhaps pilot interviews), so I can rely on the networks I’ve established ‘round these parts to get my feet wet. Mas T seems really interested in helping me in the field, and I can tell already that I made the right choice in choosing to come back to Malang. I couldn’t imagine starting afresh at another university considering I only have ten months, and I wouldn’t even want to start over fresh anywhere else!

I finished my first book the other day, which I started for pleasure during my first few days here so that I could have a little mental break: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It’s a non-fiction account of a family of Hmong refugees whose second-youngest member has epilepsy, which in Hmong culture predisposes her to becoming a shaman(ess). The book explores her family’s relationships with the American doctors who treat her and in doing so illuminates quite a bit about Hmong culture, history, language, medicine, and religion, as well as the author’s experiences working with the family and medical workers involved in the ‘case.’ I highly recommend it; I hope I forget enough about what happened so I can read it again before I go home. I haven’t read something so captivating in quite some time. I’ve since moved on to a practical book about ethnographic fieldnotes that is far less entertaining.