Tag Archives: cross-cultural

And now… more words!

A few things I didn’t get to say about the Idul Adha festivities yesterday…

I was texting about witnessing animal sacrifice with a few different people–Kate and Sarah Kate and one of the new Fulbright English Teaching Assistants.^ I find it strange that after over a decade of vegetarianism and pretty intense concern for animal welfare that I’m obsessed with going to witness the slaughter every year when Idul Adha comes around. I can’t not go see it, and I always take a bunch of pictures and get real up close and personal with the “gore”… without even flinching. I guess it just surprises me that it doesn’t shock me more?

There’s something beautiful about watching people watch what happens on Idul Adha. It’s not like all Javanese people are always respectful* of the animals all the time, by any means–I’ve seen people playing around with decapitated animal heads and making what I experience as inappropriate jokes considering a life was just taken–but it’s easy to respect the fact that they’re fully aware of and willing to witness what happens to animals when they become human food. I think being up close to it on a regular basis desensitizes people in some ways, and even though keeping an extreme distance from it as most Americans do ultimately serves the same purpose it seems somehow more ethical to face reality rather than avoid it. It’s nice to watch people be willing to at least recognize and acknowledge what happens.

I used to make myself feel guilty for being kind of obsessed with documenting and witnessing animal slaughter, like wow, that’s so gruesome and violent–why are you so into this? What sort of dark side of yourself is coming out here? I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that what attracts me to it is the ritual of it all and something more, well, what I called “basic instinct” when chatting with Kate and SK. It’s fascinating not because it’s violent but because it’s just… natural. Killing is just as much a part of life as dying and death are; as part of a complex system of predators and prey, the concepts of killing / being killed are ingrained somewhere deep within us and always were since before we could know of them. And I don’t think I can understand what pulls me to witness only by examining the thoughts that run through my head. It’s not (only) a gruesome fascination or an expression of the human proclivity for violence but must also be something more biological and instinctual; my body wants to know. Visceral: relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.

I can’t decide if I’m stating the obvious or actually getting onto something good. Maybe it’s time to rest for tonight… maybe more in the future on this topic.

Sam

^There are two in Malang! Hope to meet them soon!
*Of course, the process for and concept of showing respect varies from culture to culture… I think Americans tend to respect animals because they anthropomorphize them (and this habit can be traced to our affinity for keeping housepets), which is different from showing respect by using the whole body of the animal (if not “treating it right” as an American might think an animal corpse should be treated).

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Campur-campur (All Mixed Up)

So many emotions today!

First off, I got into the house I’ll be renting for the next year. It is still quite disheveled and empty; this week is going to be hectic as I start working and try to organize things. It’s making me feel a little nuts, but there’s already a light at the end of the tunnel. We worked out water and locks today and bought some shelves. Just a little ways to go: buy a stove top and bed, clean things up, and then I must unpack. I have lovely neighbors. Really cute ladies with even cuter kids and husbands who fix the pipes of my house. Ha!

Second, culture shock! It always happens. Lost my cool at about 5:30 pm today. A lot goes on: switching back to bahasa for most of the day (mental exhaustion), readjusting physically to foods/heat, being back in center-of-attention land, not yet being able to be independent (housing and transportation not yet settled), etc.

Third, gratitude. I’m so excited to see friends and to be starting my jobs. I’m glad I’ve got a good support network at home and here to help me. So glad I made the choice to push myself out of my comfort zone and try this on my own. Glad for connections old and new, devoted love and caring, kind attention, and technology that lets me get in touch with everyone in a heartbeat.

Feeling super groggy and exhausted; tomorrow’s a house-organizing and workday (lesson planning and tutoring). Still feeling pretty good about a daily post. A photo of me and my favorite new neighbor ladies!

Love,
Sam

PS: Meaty thought of the day: code-switching for cross-cultural integration/harmony (assimilation? adaptation?) purposes is an act of giving, which means there’s nothing wrong with taking time out for self-care, rebooting the system, re-charging the battery, whatever. We make the choice to be responsive and reflective, reactive and attentive, patient and respectful, open-minded and open-eyed. It takes energy, and it can take a lot out of us. What it gives us in return helps make it worth it.

Difficulty at the beginning works supreme success. –I Ching (Book of Changes) 

Re-entry, Round Two: Run, Run, American Runners

Look at that poor orangutan that can’t get along well with its orangutan friends anymore! This post is going to be about reverse culture shock and what has been stressing me out lately, “lately” being since July 9th, when I arrived in the US from Indoland.

It has been nearly three weeks since I left Indonesia; I had been in-country for 10 months, with no trips back to the US and but one brief trip out of country. I’ll be home in the US for the next two months or so–visiting friends and family, enjoying the Midwestern summer, partaking of various gourmet cheeses (alcoholic beverages, oven-baked breads, spinach salads, pasta dinners…) while waiting for my sister’s wedding in September. Two days after that, it’s back to Java for me!

The first time I “came back” after a significant amount of time out of the States was when I returned from Peace Corps service in mid-2012. I had been out of country for twenty-seven months by that time, and I figured that the “reverse culture shock”–the culture shock and eventual (re)adaptation process one experiences when returning to one’s own culture from time in another–would be substantial. Butt wasn’t! I had heard of people returning to the USA from Peace Corps service standing in places like Wal-Mart and bursting into tears because of the wealth of options and the opulence of American consumer capitalism, and I had heard too of people being traumatized by leaving behind their friends and families in their host countries and not being able to fit in with their old friend groups at all because nobody could relate to one anothers’ experiences. I didn’t go through much of this type of thing, and it’s probably because I made the (questionable) choice to sit on my mom’s couch drinking beer all summer after getting back from Java after service ended.

For me, the reverse culture shock at that time came in a form I didn’t really expect–just seeing how much everyone had changed, especially my younger sister and my two closest friends. My sister had gone from 19 to 21 and had experienced a lot of big challenges in her life that I hadn’t been there to help her through, and my two dear friends had had a first and second child each. Of course, I went with the flow, but it was hard to realize that what I had dreamed of coming back to–the life that I left behind–wasn’t something I’d be able to actually find. Of course, I had changed, too, and I knew that the USA wasn’t just waiting for me to get back. But that knowledge didn’t change the fact that I had to face the emotional realities of not being able to come home to lots of what I had been homesick for. So, I had to work on my relationships and focus on what I could do to move forward together with my friends and family in light of everyone’s big changes and developments. And that’s what I did, and by and large it was fine–I lost a few friends by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer because sometimes you just can’t keep your bonds as strong and moving great distances apart changes things, but the people who stuck by me during my tough times in Peace Corps were easy for me to stick by with in the States, and putting the “work” in was an easy thing.

[Astonished aside: Sometimes I’m amazed by just how radically Peace Corps service has affected my life. I’m still processing everything that I experienced, not only in terms of in-country adventures but also in terms of what moving abroad in your early 20’s for a relatively long period of time does for your social and personal life, both at the time and in the wake of it.]

So, what has me thinking about all of this again now is my present experience coming home from Indonesia after ten months as a Fulbright student. Having been through re-entry once before, I knew a little more about what to expect. The second time ’round was bound to be easier; I knew that people would have changed, I knew what my feelings would be, and I knew I wouldn’t be “coming home” to what I left behind me last summer.

Because I felt ready to deal with the challenges re-entry would inevitably pose to my family life and other relationships, what ended up striking me during my first couple of days and weeks in the States this time seems to be more on the cultural rather than interpersonal level. I had big-time culture shock when I came back from my first trip overseas to Europe at age sixteen, and my current reaction to coming back home feels more similar to that than when I returned from Peace Corps service.

The first things I noticed are connected, I think, because of what they illustrate to me about some basic elements of the everyday American cultural reality, whatever ‘everyday American’ may mean. I’m referring to the general sociocultural feeling of being in America–not necessarily even being an American–if a “sociocultural feeling” can be considered a thing. I really don’t want to use this language, feeling, but I think what I’m tuning in to is indeed the energy of being here, which presents itself to me as a feeling. And it’s worth noting that much of what I’m feeling is coming from people rather than the land itself.

I can hear my grad advisor groaning as he reads, but I think that “vibration” might be the best term to describe what I’m getting at. Cultural, political, and religious differences influence one’s experiences in various places, that much is clear, and I think the cultural, political, religious, social (etc etc) realities of a place/people/culture are what people are getting at when they talk about a “vibration”; Java and Midwestern American have different vibes, and Americans and Javanese have different vibes. It’s all sociocultural–all related to worldview and language, religion and spirituality, ways of knowing and ways of relating to others, concepts of self and friend and family in individualistic and collectivistic cultures, etc. etc.–and taken together these form the sensory atmosphere in which we experience the “feeling” of a culture as well as the “feeling” of culture or of culture shock / reverse culture shock.*

I can’t even consider myself to be an independent variable in this whole situation. I’m different when I’m in the US and when I’m in Indonesia; what’s interesting to me is the way that my perceptions and senses have apparently changed after spending time overseas, outside of my ‘native’ culture. So, a few generalized but from my perspective fair statements, with the usual caveat that these statements reflect my own specific experiences in certain physical locations and within specific sub-cultures of the US and Indonesia: Javanese culture is outwardly more sensitive and empathetic than American culture, emotional sensitivity and emotional intelligence (especially the ability to empathize and sympathize with others) tend to be more highly valued as positive and dare I say essential character attributes, and inability to empathize leads to social problems. It seems that in some ways in the US, empathy is the worst trait one can have! I’m thinking specifically in terms of money-lust, capitalism, business/office/boardroom culture, etc etc. I think I’ve always been a sensitive person and perhaps by American standards slightly above-average on the sensitivity/empathy scale, and it’s been something that for some time has made me feel bad about myself: it’s weakness. That’s not very fair, is it? But our culture prefers and rewards the alpha male type personality, and empathy is not part of his mental framework or at least isn’t what he displays openly to those around him. So, living in Indonesia allowed me to feel valued for the characteristics due to which I’ve often been made to feel inferior in the States, and this means I’ve been able not only to reconsider my feelings towards these characteristics but also to cultivate them even more deeply as positive behavioral traits that reap social (and economic) rewards. And when I’m in the States, I mentally displace myself even further because I feel less “in place.” When I’m in the Javanese cultural environment, I feel a little more socially at ease. I’m not the first person to ever experience a better “fit” in a different culture than that in which they were raised, but still I like to tease out why precisely for me I am so attracted to the deeper elements of the culture (i.e. not “just” well, I like the food, I like the dress, I like the music…). And of course I wonder what my Javanese friends would say about whether I “fit” or not, but the number of times I’ve been called an American Javanese is an indicator that by and large they are surprised by how well I jive with what’s going on over there–how well I respond to or reflect the vibe. Of course, I’ll always be an American and certain things about my cultural personality (especially social values) will never change–if I can say “cultural personality” is a thing–and I’m actually an American, but the point remains: cultural code switching is a thing, and aspects of each persona can be affected as the other develops or withers in various ways. Plus, there are things about being an American that I like and things about “being” Javanese that I don’t like so much. Basically, the point of this paragraph is to say that I’m not a neutral instrument which can measure the “vibe” of a certain place, and I don’t even want to start to talk about something as wishy-washy-woo-woo as a “vibe” without pondering the instrument that’s receiving or reading the environment, i.e me.

Maybe it’s just the essence of culture shock: we start at point A, experience something new and move to point B, and then point A isn’t a thing anymore but it’s rather something new–point C–and this is because our worldview has changed, our personality has changed, and much of what we’ve come to realize is that nothing is ever as it seems (or at least we can never get full understanding of the world) and that what we gained and lost while at point B will influence what we see, experience, and reflect about regarding both points A and C. Sometimes I think I spend a lot of the time stating the obvious for myself in these blogs, but I gotta say I like working through stuff on my own, even if all of this isn’t news to anyone else. Blog = therapy these days.

What has been shocking me lately, anyways? Eighteen hundred words into this post and I haven’t even started discussing it yet. The two things that hit me–I think I mentioned two things being the focus earlier in the post–were the TSA people in the Detroit airport and every single runner I saw in Charlotte during the week I was at my folks’ place.

Perhaps the Detroit airport TSA staff thing doesn’t need much explaining, but I gotta work through it: these people were stressed. Everyone was stressed–irritated, frowny, rushed. They were talking to one another in that weird American way that people do: I’m telling you something nicely and I’m using nice words, but what I’m really saying is “you’re an idiot, and I’m right.” Have you felt what I’m getting at? Condescension! Americans are the best at it. That’s because they don’t know how to empathize and they generally think they’re right! Not listening to others and having be and/or make yourself right all the time? It’s no wonder people are stressed. In individualistic cultures like “ours,” people are held personally accountable for their mistakes and rewarded on the individual level for setting themselves apart from the pack–everything is basically do or die, life or death! That sends the individual into a frenzy of nervousness, and I’m pretty sure that’s because life’s not meant to be like that. It’s nice that individuals are generally responsible because of this–I feel safer with TSA employees than I do with Indonesian security personnel, although that may not be because of strictly cultural reasons but probably has a lot to do with training and preparedness (even though TSA employees apparently are terrible at their jobs)–but it means that each individual “unit” of the culture is more stressed and strained, and collectively what we get is the general feeling or “vibe” of heightened stress. Detroit was my first transit point in the US and my first moment of “re-entry” into Americaland, and boy I felt my blood pressure rise immediately upon exposure to these poor TSA people. I could see others from my flight–especially the crown of Japanese people getting to Detroit from Tokyo, from whence we had departed–stressing out, too. And what’s the use, man?? We’ll all get through our lines. Why can’t you throw me a smile? … because you’re stressed out of your mind, that’s why.

The second thing that’s been stressing me out, as I said, are the damn runners. Fuck those runners! I’ve been getting into a really great exercise routine in Java, and I am gonna go ahead and call bullshit on all the people who say they love running so much and it feels so good and they get high from it! Maybe there are some people that do, but there are surely lots more who do the running and talk about loving it because they really hate it and hate themselves and want to keep up appearances. I used to run, and it was victorious, but it wasn’t anywhere near what I’d call a “fun” activity. I know we all have different goals and values and exercise routines are really personal, but hip hop and belly dance are objectively more fun as exercise than running. Okay, I have to call bullshit on myself because there’s probably not any such thing as objectively anything, but there you have it. My thoughts on the matter. I rarely see Indonesians running for exercise. Much more common are group activities–again, individualistic vs. collectivistic!–such as badminton (which I also happen to play weekly with my Indonesian pals and some other expats/foreigners we know), soccer/futsal, and group fitness/aerobics things kind of along the Jazzercise lines. Exercise is way more fun and relaxed in Indonesia, and people generally seem to do it more for health than for physical appearance, even though it’s my own hater-prejudice towards Americans pushing me to say that we’re primarily doing it for the good looks rather than any other bullshit thing we say we want to achieve (by and large, of course). I got irritated at the runners because they looked so pissed at life. They looked irritated, they looked stressed, and they didn’t look like they were having any fun. (And people don’t generally look like they’re having a blast at the gym when they’re working out by themselves either, but that’s a side note.) People running around angrily make me feel stressed and sad for them as individuals. Seeing them makes me feel stressed about being back in my own culture and facing it’s beauty standards–in Indonesia, I can usually ignore beauty standards because I pretty much fit the model of being light-skinned, pointy-nosed, tall, and basically well-proportioned. (There are issues of power and privilege at play here, of course, but for better or for worse it’s nice to live in a place where I’m not constantly made to feel horrible about myself thanks to the media and other insane people.) I just want people to engage in activities that bring them more joy, and I know that joyful exercise is possible! I just get the vibe that Americans torture themselves so much, and it doesn’t have to be this way! There is another way! To each his own, but damn, ya’ll make me stressed. I worry about your knees, too, and your grumpy faces.

I assume those two examples are enough and that you can probably get what I’m getting at. I could do a comparative analysis of road culture and road rage in these two countries to illustrate further, but I bet you can gather what the gist of that would be.

So I feel like I have this trend going lately of burning myself out on these blogs and not being able to fully explain my thoughts and feelings and wanting to come back to it in the future but not really actually intending to. That’s okay. I think I said what I needed to say, and I think you get what the basic feeling here is. Overall, America stresses people out. If you’re American and you don’t realize that America is one of the major sources of your stress, then let this be enlightening for you! Leaving America didn’t by any stretch alleviate my stress in life, but I feel worse when I’m stressed in the States than when I’m stressed in Java, and most of the stress is from society/culture in the States and just me dealing with my personal stuff and/or homesickness when I’m in Java–not really related to society/culture. I’m sure there’s also a part of this connected to not taking so much so personally because at the end of the day it’s not my culture, and that needs to be acknowledged, too; it’s easier to let things slide and not get stressed when it’s not “yours.” But stress is a fact of life, and for me I feel spiritually-mentally-emotionally better dealing with it when it’s mine rather than mine-by-proxy because I get stressed from my culture or because of its vibes.

What do you think?
That’s all I got for now.
Sam

*Shock is an interesting term in and of itself because there are two manifestations, physical and mental/emotional, and my body reacts strongly to the shift in environment: atmosphere, barometric pressure, humidity, allergens, smells, sounds, AC systems…

One month left & too many thoughts to organize

(June 2, 2015)

The newest group of Peace Corps Indonesia trainees are swearing in tomorrow, marking their first day as Volunteers and the start of their leave-taking as they transition from Batu-Malang to their individual permanent sites. My grant period ends in a little over a month, and my fellow Fulbrighters (Sarah and Grace, both English Teaching Assistants) have departed now that their grant periods are over. Maria is heading overseas to travel a bit since she graduated from her Darmasiswa language training program. Other friends here are moving on to new jobs, getting ready to graduate, getting ready to move to new cities, finishing up their work contracts, having babies, accepting positions in new countries, getting ready to take the necessary exams to start studying abroad…family and friends in the US are having babies, getting married, graduating, accepting new jobs, finishing dissertations, transitioning to new work situations, etc etc. It’s a time of transition, as all moments actually tend to be, even the ones that seem still (like the moments one finds oneself at home alone on a federal holiday, no plans, no adventures, no running around town).

Thinking about going back for the summer before starting a new chapter here in Indonesia has prompted reflection, of course, and I think the fires of it have been stoked by connecting with the Peace Corps trainees. Life in Malang this year has been incredibly different from my life as a PCV in Magetan. When I got my assignment to serve in Indonesia in early 2010 and finished service in 2012, I had no idea I would come back here so quickly or decide to stay longer and try to make the expat/immigrant life work for myself here. Honestly, I thought I’d be closing the door on full-time life in Indonesia, perhaps studying Indonesia a little bit in graduate school to see if it ‘fit’ as a research interest (since I had already invested so much time and energy learning the language and a little bit of the culture and history of this place), promoting Third Goal activities Stateside, maybe connecting with Indonesians in the US every now and then (and definitely reconnecting with my fellow ID4/5 Volunteers). I applied for the Fulbright thinking I had a chance but probably wouldn’t get it; doing another Fulbright application would be good professional experience, I figured. I accepted the Fulbright with doubts about my ability to return and be emotionally/mentally healthy, avoid depression and anxiety, not develop another pattern of disordered eating (and constantly fluctuating weight and self-esteem), and find positive strategies for self-care and relaxation that didn’t make me feel guilty about avoiding engagement with the community and “wasting” time abroad.

There are a few things about life in Malang that make living in East Java immeasurably easier now, as a city/campus-based Fulbrighter, than village-style living. It was blatantly obvious to me that living alone (or at least with same-aged peers in a housemate-type situation) rather than with a full-time host family would make a huge difference, as would being able to take and use motorcycles. Living with constant access to Wifi, indulging in my first smartphone, and making my own schedule also help, as do my current “work” situation (research and writing on my own schedule vs. teaching high school) and being surrounded more or less by same-aged peers with similar interests and experiences rather than high schoolers, little kids, and adults/grandparents (in my village, people my age were either busy raising their children or off in a bigger city studying rather than hanging around the village, and so I had…well, no friends my age in my village who could just hang out).

I suppose the major point of reflection on this line of thought is the inadequacy of blanket/zero-tolerance Peace Corps policies for nurturing Volunteers to be the best they can be. There are two major benefits to motorcycling, for me: (1) engaging with the community is much easier when transportation options aren’t limited, meaning cross-cultural communication/interaction is boosted, one can attend and participate in more cultural events, and it’s not a burden to community members to organize special transportation, and (2) I’m in control of myself, and I can remove myself from uncomfortable situations very easily when I control my own transportation, i.e. didn’t ride in someone’s car to an event. Plus–obviously–there’s greater independence, meaning I can do things like shopping and going to the gym without having to waste time doing public transit, even though the downside of that is there’s less engagement with people on public transit. But honestly… that was always really trying on my patience, anyway.

In terms of housing, I realized once I was able to step away from Peace Corps life after finishing service that I had been putting excessive amounts of pressure on myself to engage with people, especially my host family, because I felt like shutting myself in my room–even though it was the only way I could get private, personal, re-charge-the-batteries time at site–was a bad thing to do. Imagine berating yourself for two years straight about taking me-time. I think the mentality of PC being a 24/7 job is really detrimental, and constant pressure–even if it comes from oneself–to engage and be active and “on” can be totally damaging to one’s ability to serve and be the best PCV possible. For me, “best” here means healthy, mentally and emotionally resilient, well-rested, positive and outgoing and open-hearted, and loving. I need to note here that the 24/7 job thing is actually part of the swearing in oath that PCVs take when they start their service. Why do we think that’s an okay thing to agree to?

I wasn’t my best self when I was a PCV, and I think it would have been totally different for me if I had my own place and my own transportation in my village. The reason we do host families here is because it fits cultural norms and provides a great community support system for Volunteers’ safety and security, and the reason we don’t do motorcycles is because of the liability issues and difficulties of getting injured Volunteers to hospitals with Western standards (PCVs in Indonesia with serious injuries must be medically evacuated to Bangkok, Thailand) on top of the expenses and risks of transporting seriously injured Volunteers. I know I signed up for Peace Corps and all its rules and regulations, but I think it’s a shame that the program can’t be more attentive to nurturing Volunteers rather than helping them survive (emotionally, mentally, and literally, i.e. health-wise). I think Volunteers develop the habit of blaming themselves for their adjustment issues, although in some cases a few simple environmental, i.e. external, tweaks could work wonders for the PCV and their communities.

That’s all for now– some fun and pic-filled posts coming soon! The gang and I have been doing a lot of adventuring as we try to make use of our last precious days together, so I want to share about that… next time. I also want to write some more posts of substance, and I think that having more time this summer will allow for that. Who ever dreamed I’d still have summers “off” at nearly 30 years old? Score.

And in closing, I need to say: so sorry for the scatterbrained posts lately! I feel like there’s not enough time to organize my blogging as much as I’d like, but I’d rather share something than nothing, even if it’s pic-less and messy. Hopefully you can get something, and at the very least I like to get my thoughts out, though there’s hardly time to reflect on my own reflections. That’s lame! Life just never slows down… and that’s sublime, in its way.

Thanks for reading, as always!
Sam

Khitan: Coming of Age

So, I haven’t been to a circumcision party in a long time, but I went to one this week! I used to go to circumcision parties all the time in the Peace Corps, but, now that I live in the city, it is a rarity for me to get invited to one (largely because I don’t live with a host family, I think). However, I got an invitation last week delivered to my boarding house, and I was stoked to go and celebrate with the family.

Circumcision parties happen in two forms here, in my experience: one where the kid is snipped right before (or sometimes during) the party and has to sit wrapped up in a sarong atop a pillow for the duration, and one where the kid is snipped several days or even a couple/few weeks before the party and the “party” is just a reception where the kid and his family receives guests (menerima tamu). Normally, in the village, the circumcision party is of the first variety. The one I went to this week was of the second. The young man of honor was a little boy I’ve been visiting occasionally to help him boost his conversational English skills.

I met the family when the father approached IRO looking for a native English speaker to hang with his kids, and Mas T hooked me up with the connection. The family is really lovely, and they treat me to a tasty meal every time we meet. I speak English with all of them; the dad’s a prof and the momma is an English and maths teacher at the local Kumon education center. Their eldest child is a sweet and thoughtful high school girl with a speech impediment (which has caused her to endure a lot of teasing here, as collectivist cultures tend to value conformity and ridicule those who stand out, especially in adolescence…although kids with lisps get teased a lot in the US too, of course). She likes the band Evanescence and loves to travel. Their youngest is a sassy, sassy boy who’s in 4th grade. He loves his iPad, eats nonstop, and speaks great English for his young age. He’s also a maths champ!

So, it was his circumcision a few weeks ago that we were celebrating this week. Last time I saw him, I asked him whether he was nervous and how he was going to cope with the procedure. He said well, I’ve got a plan–I’m just gonna bring my iPad and play games. No big deal. Ha!

An Islamic rite, the circumcision ceremony is called khitan. Age of circumcision depends on the country/culture context. Here in Indonesia (and as far as I know also in Malaysia), it occurs sometime prior to puberty but after age 5-6. Female circumcision also happens here and is known as an adapted or adopted Arab custom, although it’s not as widespread as in some African countries like Egypt and Somalia. Usually it happens at birth or in infancy for girls.* Circumcision of any kind is not directly mentioned in the Qur’an as a requirement or obligation, but it is mentioned in the hadith (the narration of the words and actions of the prophet as witnessed by those around him during his life, saved so that Muslims can behave virtuously through mimicry/embodiment) and sunnah (practices and beliefs the prophet himself, directly, taught Muslim adherents to follow).[1]

At the reception, our newly chopped friend sat on a special bench in front of a huge poster with his face on it and received guests for photos (and gifts). We had a lot of tasty food, listened to some beautiful live singing including songs by various family members brave enough to take the mic, and heard speeches from important family members like grandpa, mom, and dad. It was a lovely event, the climax of which was the little boy reciting some Qur’anic verses for the audience. (I want to upload a video, but I can’t figure it out. Sorry. Next time.)

At the end of the party, the little boy just broke my heart with his happiness at my attendance. He so sweetly asked “When are you going to come and see us again?”, really just melting my heart. He’s sassy and spoiled, and I just love him. I was glad to have gone and supported him, and meeting the extended family was lovely. This party was much swankier than anything I’d ever seen in the village, but the feeling of happiness and pride was just as palpable, and of course the tea was just as sweet.

That’s all for now; just a brief little post and a few pics. I hope you learned something new!
Sammy

*In the mid-2000s, female circumcision (female genital mutilation or FGM) was made illegal by the Indonesian federal government (even though later federal guidelines outlining safe methods and techniques for female circumcision to local health facilities contradict the federal position towards it). I think any tampering with genitals should happen in adulthood after someone, male or female, can give fully informed consent. Here’s an article on the current state of affairs re: FGM and Indonesia. As I’m sure you’re aware by now, Indonesia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, and FGM occurs widely and is supported by some major Islamic social organizations here despite its dangers to women’s physical and psychological (not to mention sexual) health and isn’t even prescribed by the Qur’an.

[1] http://www.understanding-islam.com/articles/sources-of-islam/hadith-and-sunnah-two-different-concepts-186

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.

 

At a Glance: Dukun, Kyai, and Mental Health in East Java

A man who lived a few houses down from Mas M killed himself this week. On the day, he helped his child get ready for school, dropped her off by motorcycle, came home, wrote his suicide note, then hung himself.

He wasn’t a poor man, though he was unemployed; his wife sells vegetables, and the family survives solely on her income. There were troubles in the marriage. She had recently demanded a divorce. His suicide note was addressed to her: if you want a divorce, here you go: divorce–dead.

The news of the man’s passing made the papers and was featured on the local evening news. The neighbors are still gossiping about the amount of blame to place on the wife’s shoulders in the matter. Mas M is convinced that the man had an ongoing psychological issue, and I’m inclined to believe him since I can’t fathom a parent of a young child taking his or her own life and being mentally stable at the time.

*

I don’t have statistics because the annual federal reports about healthcare in Indonesia that I have read focus primarily on more seemingly more pragmatic healthcare concerns like clean water, basic medical and nursing services, dental care, and infant mortality and health. Mental health is problematically but understandably not at the top of the lists of concerns in developing countries, and it’s not given nearly enough attention worldwide since mental illness and psychological disorders can be so invisible.

Even though I can’t quote stats for you, believe me when I say that mental therapy, counseling, and psychiatry are not widely available here in Indonesia when compared to a place like the United States. At the very least, mental health care options are not widely advertised or promoted as a normal or acceptable path to health and well-being. This is partially because modern mental healthcare hasn’t become part of the culture here yet (i.e., this isn’t because everyone knows about modern mental healthcare and rejects it outright).

The man who killed himself was undoubtedly suffering from something like acute stress or depression, undoubtedly psychologically burdened by his lack of gainful employment and his crumbling marriage. In Javanese culture, all three of these things are very looked down upon, particularly for men: divorce leads to gossip and divorcees can be shunned; men should always be employed, especially fathers and husbands, if they want to be viewed as respectable and contributing members of society; and family members of people who commit suicide are often implicated as being somehow off, wrong, or not right (i.e. implicated in not providing a supportive enough environment for their family member not to kill themselves, regardless of the family member’s mental health status or the actual home and family environment).

Many of the dukun I’ve been talking to help people with more than physical health issues, finding lost objects, matchmaking, or pregnancy and birth; they often also provide psychological and couples counseling, relationship and family advice, and mental/emotional support during difficult times. If someone is going through a rough time in their lives–feeling like they need help getting their crops to grow successfully so that they can eat and earn money, worrying about their lovelife going to hell in a handbasket, or finding difficulty coping with a serious illness like cancer or diabetes–they usually receive some level of counseling and mental health support when they pay a visit to a legitimate dukun,* even though this is not the primary purpose, in their minds, for the visit. This is a good thing not only because mental health care professionals are hard to find, particularly in rural areas, but paying for professional help is usually quite far outside the realm of financial possibility for the average Javanese villager. In fact, the unaffordability of modern medicine for some segments of the population is one reason why the services of dukun are still in high demand in some areas (mostly those that are more remote).

For coping with psychological issues, most villagers seem to rely heavily on religious leaders, and the general culture view of mental illness in that someone has strayed too far from religion and therefore has too many thoughts or wrong thoughts (which lead to wrong action, which leads to strife and tumult). The kyai is an Islamic cleric and religious leader who also offers healing services, and many villages have more than one depending on the size of the population and the strength of the religious culture in the area. As dukunkyai can be men or women, though women kyai work primarily with female audiences/visitors. They use religious teachings and spiritual counseling to help people overcome their problems. They often prescribe lifestyle changes, encourage prayer, and promote fasting, charity, and adherence to Islamic doctrine as interpreted by whatever Islamic organization/”denomination” of which they are a part.

What is interesting is that kyai, by and large, do not believe in the practices or validity of dukun, though the reverse is certainly not the case, especially when the dukun is Muslim. For the more orthodox practitioners of Islam, belief elements of the supernatural beyond standard Islamic cosmology are unacceptable and can even be heretical. For example, belief in both benevolent and malevolent jinn is standard, but the existence ghosts and ancestral and place spirits–even from Javanese cosmology and mythology–is strongly questioned. However, a villager could consult a dukun on a Saturday and visit a kyai on a Sunday for the very same reason and not be bothered by the contradiction in the slightest. The more devout among them simply say “percaya gak percaya,” I believe but I don’t believe. There’s no reason to commit either way if one or both can produce results; the end is more important than the means when well-being and religious righteousness are concerned.

*

What I have been learning so far about dukun never fails to involve contradictions, and I am going to start writing more about this. I’ve finished collecting data and finally have all of the interviews transcribed, so I’m moving on to the next phase of my project, which is analysis and write-up. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening, so now it’s time to speak and write.

Now that I’m not going to graduate school next fall, the possibilities for what I write and how are even more limitless than before; I’m technically not required to produce a written body of work in any format as a condition of my grant, but I had been aiming to produce an academic article in the form of a comparative piece using data from my thesis and Fulbright projects. However, I’m not sure that’s the direction I want to go any longer. I’ll probably aim to get an academic piece of some kind published, but I’m going to take the rest of the month to decide and explore my options. I don’t want participants voices to be lost and I don’t want to have to cut their stories down into little data-bites to cram everything into a short article, but I don’t want to lose sight of the original goal, which I still think is worth pursuing. I’m just contemplating alternative–additional–possibilities.

In the meantime, I’m going to start writing more and sharing here. Time to get my thoughts and new understandings on the page, and there’s no better place to start. Blank Word documents scare me.

*

I don’t really know how to wrap this post up considering how heavy the content was at the beginning. I hope that any of you who may have stigmas about mental health care consider reevaluating your ideas about the topic and make sure to support any of your friends and relatives (or yourself) in getting the care they need, if they ever need it, even if it’s just accompanying them to church, the mosque, a healer’s house, or a doctor’s office. There’s no way of knowing the inner workings of someone else’s mind or to know for sure whether any form of external support could have prevented the little girl’s father from taking his life, but it’s too much for a child to have to lose a parent to suicide and too much for any family to deal with.

Thanks for reading,
Sam

*There is such a thing as a “fake” dukun or dukun palsu, which is a person claiming to be a dukun and not actually doing anything for clients or someone who really does have supernatural powers (percaya gak percaya!) but whose primary motive in providing services is to earn as much money as possible from unsuspecting, innocent clients who are genuinely seeking help (or those nasty clients who are looking for someone to curse their neighbor or rival).