Steps to Somewhere

I’m working on holiday songs for the Tesla coils these days, lugging my laptop to campus to search for Christmas carols online, then going back to my room to drink a mango juice and imagine the little lines on my computer screen becoming bolts of lightning halfway across the world. Lightning that plays music. Best job I’ve ever had, I tend to tell people, and it’s true, though some of the shine wears off when I never get to see the lightning in person.

Dance class, Tesla coil songs, grad school applications: this is my life these days. But for the language I use when I step out of my room, I could be anywhere in the world. I feel untethered. Floating.

Rainy season has started, each afternoon punctuated by a sudden darkening of the sky, clouds gathering and building up until they spill over in a rush of rain, water pouring down, washing the humidity out of the air. Nights I spend shivering under my fan, too cold to sleep soundly but unable to turn it off for fear of mosquitoes. I dream of high school, of people I used to know.

This time a year ago, I knew I was staying in Indonesia. I didn’t know the how, not specifically, but I had options—job, school—and I knew I would pick one. At the Jogja airport last June, I had a roundtrip ticket, a summer job with Tesla coils, and a bed waiting for me in Indonesia. This year I have no such certainty. Judging from the grad school applications—American grad schools—there’s a good chance that I won’t be here next year.

It unsettles me. I stayed in Indonesia because I wasn’t done learning. I’d just found my place. I was just ready to begin. Most days I still feel this way. I still stumble over Javanese—and where else will I be able to practice that? I still don’t understand gamelan music, can barely count it.

Then I wonder why I’m doing all this. Why do I puzzle over Facebook statuses written in Javanese as if they matter? Why do I hesitate before going into a new restaurant, worried they won’t understand me? Why do I feel like a failure when I don’t go out on a Saturday, exploring Solo like I said I would? What am I really doing here? What am I really trying to accomplish? I feel like I’m in limbo, uncertain future leading to uncertain present.

Tuesday we have to meet someone from Jakarta, sent out to talk to all the Darmasiswa students, but I have a midterm, which means I have to face one side of the room and do the dance we’ve been practicing, as if I have it perfectly memorized like everyone else. Somewhere near the end of the dance, I notice someone lingering by the closed door to the dance studio. Flicking my eyes in that direction, I see it’s a man wearing a pink shirt and a camera. The only reason I’m allowed to be late to the meeting is because I have an exam and since I’m a foreigner and I’m dancing and this is therefore amazing, they sent someone to photograph me. It’s distracting. I look back at the mirror in front of me and try to ignore him and become the lovesick prince whose story I’m supposed to be dancing. It doesn’t really work, but I pretend.

When the dance finishes the photographer disappears and I shove the headpiece I’m wearing into the hands of another girl before ducking past my teachers and into the dressing room. Five minutes later I am ducking past them again, nodding apologies at the same time. Five minutes after that, sweating into my batik, I lower myself into a chair in the international office and smile as I’m introduced to the woman from Jakarta.

She talks about other scholarships, other ways to stay in Indonesia. I ask questions while I gulp at tea. I don’t know what to do. Staying would be easy. Leaving would be easy too. Leaving here would always be easy.

Later, one of the people at the international office asks if I want to dance at his neighborhood’s New Year’s celebration. An American performing Javanese dance—that’s something they’ll never forget. I say yes, but my smile is forced. An American doing Javanese dance! How amazing! Never mind that I always make mistakes, never mind that my technique is still lacking. The attention is undeserved, though I know the sentiment is sincere. Nevertheless, now there are photographs on a computer somewhere of a midterm I would rather forget.

I planned to spend New Year’s in Jogja. There’s a celebration in a neighborhood there too—gamelan all night long, noise makers at midnight. I planned on exchanging insults with my favorite neighborhood kid and gossiping with the women about all the boys who haven’t proposed to me. And maybe this was the year I’d drive to the beach with my friends to watch the sun rise. There are so many things to do here that I just haven’t. I’ve never seen the albino buffalo parade around the Kraton, never found that church south of Jogja with its depictions of Javanese Jesus, never watched the sun rise for New Year’s. Of course, there are the things I’ve missed in the US: weddings and funerals, performances, people.

I get to class early and give myself a barre in the empty room. The steps fall into place as they should—my muscles still remember—but my extensions aren’t high enough and my ankles are weak. After, I try some of Nutcracker and I’m shocked when the steps to Waltz of the Flowers don’t flow instantly through my limbs. The dance—or at least remembering the dance—was once as easy as breathing. It comes back in the end, but I have to think about it.

It’s almost December. Nutcracker performances are starting soon.

At the immigration office I meet a woman from Toronto. I take her number though I know I will never call her. She asks how long we’ve been here and someone says three months. She calls us newbies. I wonder how long she’s been here, but she came to the office on her own and that has to mean something. I want to say that I’ve been here longer than them, that I’m not new, but I don’t. What am I trying to prove? Who am I trying to prove it to?

Most days, I still feel new and lost. Not all the time, but there are moments.

I go to UGM, just to ask about how one might apply to grad school there. No definites, but I want to know deadlines, want to keep everything organized in my head. At the international office there, I’m pleased to find that the person who worked with me through all my horrible visa issues of the past year is still there. She’s about my age and usually people don’t last long in her job—they move on to better positions. Still, I’m pleased to see her. She’s good at what she does. I tell her what I want to ask about, but I have to frown and lean in when she says some words. Accents are still hard for me to understand. Words fade in and out.

When I go out with my friends, I watch how strangers react to me. I still sound like a clown, I realize. With my friends, it’s easy to forget. They’re used to how I sound, used to my strange turns of phrase when I make the mistake of translating something directly from English. With them I forget to feel out of place, but the fact is that I am out of place. I always will be. And so I go back to asking why. Why go? Why stay? Why do any of the things I do?

And so I drink another mango juice and look at my applications essays one more time and listen to Christmas carols, waiting, imagining lightning.


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