Moving Forward

People often comment on how living abroad turns even the most mundane chore into an adventure. Buying fruit involves successfully reaching a place that sells fruit, somehow communicating the kind of fruit you want to buy, understanding how much to pay, and getting back home again. This excitement holds steady as you begin to master new skills—learning numbers, learning to bargain. There’s always a new level that you’re reaching for, be it more fluent communication or lower prices.

However, this wears off eventually. These days, daily life is rarely an adventure and I’m happy with that. Unpredictability gets old. I also view the fact that I can go somewhere and order food without mishap or confusion as indicative of the fact that I’m doing well. I’ve moved beyond coping to adjustment and I’m content to wander into my usual lunch haunt and eat my tempeh and rice without any major upheaval.

Besides, I know that if I do want that sort of adventure I can just go into a place where I’ve never eaten or shopped before. Then I’m back to square one, figuring out how to order all over again, playing the habitual game of chance: Will they understand my accent or not? Will they be able to cope with the fact that a foreigner just walked in the door? Usually, I’m not looking for this kind of excitement. I’m a creature of habit and I dislike fuss, so I usually eat in the same places and usually go to the market with an Indonesian friend. At this point I know I can go new places and I know I can bargain on my own, I just usually choose not to.

On one hand, you may say I’ve given up on Indonesia. I’m not out exploring. I’m not out doing new things. In fact, I spend the majority of my time on my own, practicing (or more commonly thinking about practicing) dances.

I’d argue, though, that while I may not be catching buses back and forth across Java, I’m exploring Indonesia in a different sort of way—I’m exploring my relationship with the country, both on a short-term and long-term scale.

If you look through my notebooks and even posts on this blog, you’ll find a recurring theme that could be titled “You are not Indonesian.” Indeed, I have written this exact phrase as a reminder to myself on numerous occasions. I don’t want to be Indonesian, but spending the majority of my time surrounded by Indonesians does tend to skew things.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself becoming increasingly aggravated when it’s assumed that I am a newcomer and therefore at a lower linguistic state than everyone else. Logically, I know I shouldn’t get annoyed with people—it’s a safe assumption to make that most foreigners are not going to understand the Javanese that gets tossed around on a daily basis. Nevertheless, it irks me, possibly because it feels like the people making these assumptions haven’t taken the time to actually get to know me. They paint me with the broad foreigner brush and stop there.

Recently, one of my dance teachers—probably my favorite dance teacher at ISI—asked me a question that included one word (one word!) of Javanese. When he realized this, he got flustered and tried to backtrack while I got annoyed because I could easily have answered his question without all the fuss. And it was a simple Javanese word! And it wasn’t even that critical to the sentence!

In my teacher’s defense, he has almost no reason to know that I understand a good bit of Javanese. I only interact with him in class and I’m (almost) always on my best Indonesian student behavior, meaning if I don’t have something important to say, I don’t say anything to the teacher at all. And it’s not like I’d ever use Javanese with an authority figure anyway, because I don’t have enough formal Javanese for that.

I understand why people make assumptions like this, but they still bother me, which is where this “You are not Indonesian” thing comes in. I’m not Indonesian and I have no illusions that I’ll become Indonesian, nor do I want to. However, what I do want is to be treated as an ordinary person.

This is why I stick to my routine. When I go to my normal lunch place, the woman who owns it asks in Javanese if I want to eat without thinking twice. Her children have stopped seeing me as a fearful unknown and are happy to wander around me and make faces or exchange witty banter. They all see me as a person, albeit a foreigner who doesn’t mind eating alone with a book. This isn’t a transition that comes quickly and at this point I’m not interested in replaying this transition over and over.

Which brings me to the future, or what I am interested in. As you may or may not know, I’ve been tossing around the idea of grad school. It’s now time for me to officially announce that, come September, I’ll be attending University of Michigan in the Southeast Asian Studies program. It’s time for me to move on. I’m leaving Indonesia physically, at least for the time being, but I’ll spend the next few years focusing deeply on the country in other ways. As various people have told me and, indeed, as I’ve said myself, I need some perspective. I could go on living in Indonesia for a while longer—that’s become easy—so now it’s time for a new challenge.


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