Tag Archives: culture

#Magicalmystical

Where would I be without Magical Vriz? Crazytown. My house is almost ready, and I can’t wait to post pics.

Let’s talk about body adaptation processes in the tropics. First, your bowel movements stop and/or speed up exponentially. Then, you’re just extra sweaty all the time forever. Clogged pores. My period this month (started yesterday) is just whacko–probably from moving back to the tropics, might be the nearly full moon, too. Good stuff? Basically immediately healthier skin and nails. Bye-bye, hangnails! Hair would be healthier if it weren’t for the chemically shampoos. Teeth are immediately dirtier because of disrupted flossing routine. (Okay, that’s probably just my own damn fault).

Can I just say, Miss V helped me get my salt lamp situated. I carried this beautiful 10-pound Himalayan salt lamp all the way from the US (checked for security purposes at Detroit and in Jakarta, pulled all the way out my damn bag), and after five minutes of being plugged in last week, the little lightbulb shorted out. Great! V bought me a replacement today, and I’m on cloud nine. She thinks I’m quite loony. Well, I am. But I need my therapeutic techniques for dealing with life on top of all the physical stresses of moving back to tropics-land!

Stare at the salt lamp. Work on my coloring. Keep blogging. Hang out with friends, in person and virtually. Get back into the workout routine. It’s hard transitioning back– feelings of guilt over leaving people behind, anxieties about finishing my research project and getting into the swing of work, jumping right into a whole mess of new things effectively immediately after getting off the plane… I’m so lucky to have such a strong support network here and to have been stubborn enough to bring my ‘silly little things’… essential oils, knitting supplies (most of which I probably won’t use), my banjo, my salt lamp, my special Mason jar, my dang French press (which made it, by the way– didn’t break!). The essentials, you know?

I’m glad I’m not as stubborn about “going without” as I used to be. Life can be very comfortable here.

 The Spiritual Practice of Menstruation: There is so much more to the menstrual cycle than the biology lesson given to explain it, in the same way that there is so much more to sex and childbirth than the mechanics. The menstrual cycle is a cycle to base your life around, in fact your life is based around your menstrual cycle whether you realise it or not, whether you pay attention to it or not. There is magic inherent in the menstrual cycle. Each cycle provides a woman with the opportunity to understand and read the messages her body gives her for any specific healing she needs. Each cycle creates the opportunity for as much spiritual growth and personal development that she could want. Before electricity, women ovulated when the moon was full, and bled when the moon was dark. The pineal gland in our brain sends messages to our ovary, by hormones, to release an egg based on the amount of light our brain senses in the night when we are asleep. At the point of most light in the night, the full moon, we are programmed to ovulate. Ovulating at the full moon means we bleed at the dark of the moon, the time when the energy is more inwardly focused anyway. The average menstrual cycle is the same as the lunation cycle 28 days. Not only are we meant to be synchronised with the moon phases, we are also meant to be synchronised with each other. If you know where you are in your cycle you can much more easily ‘go with the flow’ so to speak. You could even manage your life around it. Start new projects in the first and second week of your cycle. Express your creative urges. Have parties when you’re ovulating, finish off things in your third week. Stay home, and be on retreat when you’re bleeding. In this way you’ll actually be looking forward to your blood coming, and be ready ‘to let go’. The mysteries of the women’s blood by moonsong.com.au #women #power #sacred #feminine #yin #spiritual #wombman #shaman #mystic #menstruation #magic #embrace #blood #mystery #moon #cycle #weareone

A photo posted by Mystic Rebelle (@mysticrebelle) on Sep 11, 2015 at 1:01pm PDT

Advertisements

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).

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…

gallery visit – fauna by amrizal

Satrio, Ale, Vriz and I went to a local art show recently. The exhibition was “Fauna” by Sumatran artist Amrizal (pictured above). His work is currently on tour, and we were lucky enough to have him in Batu for a week. The gallery, Pondok Seni – Galeri Raos Batu, was intimate and warm; I hadn’t ever been there before, and I’m beyond happy that Satrio brought us there. The gallery has different exhibits from week to week; I’m sure we’ll go back soon so that I can share more. This was my first time seeing any artwork outside of museums and batik studios–my first glance at contemporary Indonesian art. It was wonderful.

The theme of the exhibition was “fauna” or animals, and each image had a black and white representation of humans and/or animals plus handwritten text in a variety of languages (predominately Indonesian). The text was primarily political and social commentary–the progressive and liberal type that resonates with me personally–but much of it was hard to read. There was some poetry thrown in as well. It was sometimes in accessible because as far as I could tell a lot of it was stream-of-consciousness scribbling, so the artist was writing fast n furious making the letters hard to discern at times. Plus, reading Indonesian is harder than speaking, and I struggled with the language barrier. But, I could understand that there was commentary about economics, capitalism, war (the text below the large eagle was almost exclusively anti-war commentary), education and poverty, history, geopolitics… It was stunning work and invigorating to see and experience. There’s a lively and active punk/anti-capitalist/anarchist/underground scene here, so I wasn’t totally surprised by the nature of the exhibition or its content, but it was a little bit of a surprise to find it in Batu, a tourist town with a focus on agriculture and eco-tourism. A pleasant surprise, for sure.

So, I didn’t take a billion pictures, and unfortunately we didn’t get to meet the artist in person. But you can get a quick idea from these pics about what the gallery looked like, what the basic concept of the exhibition was, and some grasp of the general/overall feeling. Next time we go to an exhibition, I will take more notes so I can provide additional (more thorough) commentary; I snapped a bunch of pics this time with the intention of posting them here so you could see what the gallery was like. The artwork was so beautiful and the space was so perfect. I had a wonderful time and felt–as I said–invigorated, like…okay, back to “normal,” ha! This was a really comfortable space for me, and I was so pleased to enjoy it with close friends. I love seeing my own political and cultural beliefs reflected to me across the medium of culture; finding connections with people (artists, friends, colleagues, whomever) at the basic or fundamental levels of worldview or political outlook despite hugely different religious and cultural backgrounds is sublime, in the sense of actual sublimity, not cheesiness. Shared subculture, solidarity. No matter where one comes from or what one’s life looks like, we can find common ground in recognizing and speaking out against common enemies (greed, corruption, consumer capitalism gone wrong, free market economics gone worse, the destruction of war, etc etc). The rest is often just details.

Thanks again to Satrio. Really looking forward to the next visit to pondok seni.
That’s all for now,
Sammy

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.