Indonesia Through My Eyes: Introduction

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I’m officially a transplant in Indonesia now. I can’t believe it’s been a month. It’s the longest I’ve ever been in this country. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming and realize that I’m not in LA anymore. It’s not everyday you uproot your life to move to another country to follow your passion. So, I’ve decided to create a series to document my journey in my parents’ homeland. Not only will it serve as a way for me to record my adventures, but I hope friends and readers will get to see Indonesia through my lens.

Setting foot 

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I broke my finger before I left LA in a basketball tournament. My parents were concerned for my well-being, as they should be, but I was insistent upon leaving as soon as possible. Being a very driven individual, I didn’t want my injury to stop me. However, it was only when I got on the plane to Korea that I realize it was going to be rather difficult having my hand in a cast. Lifting my bag into the overhead compartment, acting quickly to disrobe for the TSA , etc. posed some challenges. I just sucked it up throughout the trip.

I reached Jakarta passed midnight. I went through immigration with no problem. It was here where I found my injury to be a great icebreaker as the immigration officer was intrigued by it and we talked about it while he processed my entry. My cousin and nephew picked me up and the Jakarta I remembered came back to me: hot, humid and polluted.

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Despite the notorious reputation of unhygienic conditions at street food stands and warungs (mom & pop shops), I ignored my family’s warnings. We got some late night food on the way to my aunt’s house. My cousin drove us to get bubur ayam (chicken porridge) at Bubur Ayam Sukabumi.  After all, I’m a firm believer in supporting local businesses as well as food from these establishments represents the real Indonesian cuisine. The stomach aches and possibility of contracting food poisoning are worth the gamble.

While we exchanged words with each other and caught up with events since my last trip to Indonesia 4 years ago, I witnessed the Jakarta that some people talked about: privileged folks bossing around employees at the warung like second class citizens. I felt very uneasy sitting across from them. I could empathize with the workers because before I came to Indonesia, I worked at a cafe as a busboy and would never want to be given such treatment. It was late, so there’s a possibility, too, alcohol and other libations may have been a factor.

The next day I woke up to my aunt’s perfect breakfast – tofu, tempe, veggies, eggs and rice. Seriously, simple Indonesian food like this is what I appreciate and dreamed of when I first embarked on my journey.

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My aunt is the widow of my dad’s oldest brother. She is deaf but what she lacks in hearing is made up with her big heart. No matter how far apart we were and how long time has separated us, she never showed me any less love.

My family is still somewhat traditional. So, during my first few days, I practiced a traditional Indonesian custom of sowan, where I visit elder family members to let them know I am in their presence and ask for their blessings. It is a way for paying my respects being the youngest grandchild in my dad’s side of the family. It was during this time I realized Jakarta’s terrible condition. The infrastructure, poverty and cleanliness are worse than what I read in the news.

Initial Culture Shocks

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One of the reasons why I studied city planning was to help infrastructure issues in Indonesia. We talk about the pictures of children crossing treacherous bridges in outlying areas in Indonesia. Yet, we forget that even in the the capital city there are problems,too. I’m not saying the rural areas shouldn’t be helped as they do need support from the government asap. Though, how can we help those far away when issues within the immediate area where the country officials reside in aren’t addressed? Forget the smell, how can kids avoid falling into unstable or missing sidewalks that may have steel rebars and other dangerous construction hazards waiting underneath?  I’ve compiled my initial shocks which I’ve experienced, thus far, in my first several weeks and by no means is it a complete list.

Smoking & Trash

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These two are my biggest pet peeves. I have managed to contract asthma somehow in my early 20s. So most type of smoke aren’t good for my lungs. Because I love to support local coffee shops back home (check out Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley), my cousin and friends have introduced me to some spots in the neighborhood. Upon sitting at these establishments, the sight of people smoking indoor is such a distasteful sight. It makes me want to tell them to stop because of my condition. But smoking indoor is still allowed and telling them to stop can possibly offend them. Honestly I’m not sure what I can do to prevent my respiratory cells from deteriorating. While this is happening, I find it scarier that from several folks I met on the street that smoking ads are just scare tactics. In fact smoking does not kill according to them. One said that smoking may further hurt someone if they are already sick but the smoking itself is not bad. Being a non-smoker, I feel like I’m the one in the straitjacket.

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My heart breaks when I see people throw trash wherever they please. Indonesia is such a beautiful country with its abundant natural assets. The waste just contaminates this allure. Unfortunately, the infrastructure does not support it either, so attempting to change people’s behavior is a monumental task. There are folks who benefit from the this rubbish but it’s not like all of it will be picked up. Only the bottles and recyclable materials will be taken. As for plastic bags, ziplocs and wrappers, they will just lay among the sumptuous banana groves and already sad riverbanks. I was fortunate enough to walk in solidarity with the laborers of Java on May Day. While it was great to march with these folks to advocate for labor rights, my attention was slowly being distracted by the sound not of their cheers but their feet kicking bottles on the ground. It was amazing that after the walk, the streets were clean. Still, what if the cleaners or opportunists weren’t there? What happens then?

Water

Whenever I go out to eat back home, a majority of the time I just drink the water served at the table. I know it’s from the tap and maybe it’s not as clean as the bottled ones, but hey it tastes good to me. Plus, I find it more quenching and wallet-friendly than anything else (aside from coconut water). Arriving here, I realized that asking for water (aka Aqua for the brand by Danone) comes in a bottle. Only one time was I served water straight and that was at a restaurant I have come to like in Bintaro called Burgreens.

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I understand that water in general in Indonesian is not clean but I really wonder if the tap water is safe to drink? It’s just hard to believe that ordering tea or something else can be cheaper than water. It will take time to adjust but maybe I should look into it or ask the managers why they don’t serve water from the tap.

Conclusion

Jakarta isn’t like any other city I have ever lived in. Everywhere I have moved previously was still in California, so the culture was still the same. Thankfully, I moved during the presidential election, thus it will give me insight on that aspect of the culture. Transportation is a bit difficult since there isn’t really a place to look up for public transit information. It’s all by asking friends, family and those on the street. Maybe in the next post I’ll get into it more. I’m still trying to figure out how to best document my experience. We’ll see what adventures I share next.

Turbulent times: Anxiety about Indonesia

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Its been more than 2 weeks since my last post. I’ve been overwhelmed by my job hunt in Indonesia so there hasn’t been any stimulation to write despite collecting compelling articles and pictures to post. My title suggests that I am anxious to move to Indonesia as someone like me who has lived in America may have developed such emotions. But, that is not what I am trying to convey. Instead the anxiety that is occupying within me is the result of the uncertainty if my career will continue in Indonesia as planned.

Since January, my guess is that I emailed more than 20 applications or cold emails to various organizations operating in Indonesia that address community development, poverty alleviation, governance reform and environmental justice. I cannot fathom how many messages I sent through Linkedin directed to people in various positions at organizations I am interested in like the UNDP, UN Habitat, Mercy Corps, etc. I even created a short video about myself for a non-profit in Bali. Unfortunately, my application was not considered. My only hope so far is an environmental consulting firm called Leafplus, an NGO called The Partnership and a research institution called Center for Innovation, Policy and Governance. My plan is to move to Indonesia by next month but it is still in the air as if one of these organizations accept me, I’m holding my breathe on the outcome of a working permit and a temporary residence visa as an expatriate. My expectations were never prepared for the visa situation because it never occurred to me that it would be a difficult process as many of my non-Indonesian researcher friends told me it was not.

The situation gets more complicated as I just started a job at the historic Caffe Mediterrenum in Berkeley busing tables, washing dishes and occasionally cook or work behind the register. So it will be difficult for me to give my notice to my boss who has been gracious enough to give me the opportunity despite a very short stint. It gets even more sticky as my membership at a new cooperative household, that I helped shape, will have to end after only living there for 6 months. Although my date for departure is not set, a member that will be leaving the house must give 30 days notice and find a replacement. Therefore, being in this limbo is a difficult one as I want to stay as much as I can but I need to be respectful of the bylaws we agreed upon. In the end, I have to choose what is best for me and leave my friends that I have learned to love as well as had the chance to exchange ideas on politics and social justice. For the moment, it looks like my plan is to move to LA to be with my family that I have missed until a call for Indonesia happens.

You may ask why am I so set upon Indonesia? As an (International) Development Studies major at UC Berkeley, I studied how power structures have been constructed to create the world we live in separating societies we have come to know as “developing” and “developed”. Gaining an education in this study, has given me a toolkit to critically deconstruct and find solutions to issues relating to “development” in the sense of spaces and places (ie: cities, states, countries, etc.). For example, I have learned that we should not use the terms “Developing” or “Developed” because it implies that spaces we call nations progress in a linear fashion and having an endpoint. I can go on about this in another post but for time sake it is suggested and better to use terms like “less-developed” and “more-developed” as these co-notate relativity. Again I will explain another time. So with that said, having this foundation, I find it less useful to implement it in the US as there is already a burgeoning civil society with plenty of knowledgeable folks who are passionate on the welfare of America. However, in Indonesia, despite an already existing community of folks working on the grassroots level in solving the country’s issues, it is a very very small one as this line of work is not as respected yet to the level it is in America. With that said, I believe my skills and experience would better serve working in solidarity with the people I share my heritage.

My goal in working in Indonesia, at least for the moment, is to gain one to two years of experience in the country to understand the social, political and economic climate. It is a dream for my parents and myself to be accepted to a competitive graduate program. My mom, a typical Asian parent, has always envisioned me since I was in preschool to obtain a Master’s degree. She has been so fixated upon the idea as I believe it stems from the idea that graduate degrees equals success. It equals “having made it” as in many working class families, education is the key for social mobility. It never dawned on me that I would be able to reach such an accomplishment until I was accepted to Berkeley. Ever since then, my goal was to make my mom proud as most children would like to do. Moreover, I believe that in order to shape a competitive application, having the opportunity to set foot in my field of study in my country of focus is key to getting a nod by the admissions officer.

I honestly don’t know any other Indonesian-American who is so invested upon going back to Indonesia to help the country. This is why it has became my focus night and day finding individuals who may have answers or advice to share. Those who go back are Indonesian citizens who may not be able to help because they do not share the experience as I do trying to find an opportunity in Indonesia as a foreigner. Also they are going back to work in the business, tech or engineering sectors which already has a path set up and I am not interested. For that reason, my current experience has made me understand why people don’t like going through the path with most resistance. Trailblazing is hard, after all there is none or at least very minimal infrastructure to help you. Therefore, I am relying on contacting and meeting folks in any shape or form who would be gracious enough in lending their knowledge and time in guiding me or share some advice. Honestly, I believe it is worth the struggle because I know I have a lot to offer to communities and folks in Indonesia, whether it be my time or my experience I can share as an equal to help improve their lives together.