Okay, since I am the only non-white/stereotypical-looking member of the group, you’re probably wondering what the experience has been like so far.
Or not, but here it is anyway.
The best thing about coming from another Southeast Asian country with a similar root in the Malay language is that bahasa Indonesia has some similarities with my national language, but especially with the two other dialects I know. Driving around Jogja and reading street signs, billboards, and store signs is one of my favorite things to do. I love recognizing a word, forming new sentences with the ones I already know, and trying to talk to Indonesians. The reactions are the best – when they nod vigorously in encouragement, smile widely, or burst out laughing with joy at the correct sentence. I always join in readily.
On the other hand, Amanda said that people are just ‘confused’ by me, and I think that’s an apt description.
It’s slightly disconcerting to walk into a restaurant and have the pelayan makan or waiters talk to me in bahasa Indonesia, or that they all seem to be speaking directly to me whenever we order. Though I can understand about 30-60% of what’s being said depending on the situation, it’s an effort without the full command of the language. I respond as best I can, but often end up inserting some English words or just overall talking in English.
Also, this raises some issues on how I should act or dress or talk. Should I wear the same length skirt as Elizabeth and Amanda? Can I speak just as freely in every situation? ‘Bule’ or foreigners are not usually subjected to or expected to comply with the same social codes as Indonesians. I love that my fellow interns are culturally sensitive and very respectful. In my case, though, sometimes I am unsure on how they will consider me and what types of conduct they expect of me. Whether they will consider me bule or local, or how I should navigate this gap.
It’s also different in terms of the NGOs and the people we meet who we’ll be working with. Like Amanda also pointed out, there’s always something that each of us have to explain at some point during the ‘getting-to-know’ people process: i.e. Alex has Javanese blood on his mother’s side and so has eaten spicy food ever since he could remember, or that Elizabeth is vegetarian/pescatarian. But these things you don’t especially need to know immediately after meeting the person. On the other hand, every single time we meet someone new, they usually assume I am: a) some random Indonesian, b) the Indonesian guide or coordinator, or c) an Indonesian student intern working with the program.
I have had to explain that I am an international student from the Philippines who studies in America. Most of the time, Sari explains this; or, if they doubted who I am, they ask me afterwards if I am Asian or Indonesian. However, there have also been times when the host turned to me and spoke in bahasa Indonesia, while I listen and try to understand what he is saying and wondering whether I should go into that extended explanation or not.
Also, if that’s not the case, I am automatically considered among the ‘American participants’. Drawing attention to my citizenship risks disrupting the discourse or situation, and I usually just let it slide. I don’t know how this affects their perception of me, either. I must admit, though, that it does make me feel a little awkward. If told I study in the US, most people also assume that I grew up as a US citizen. After everything has been cleared up, however, it’s great because in each NGO or place we have been to, there’s usually somebody who has been to the Philippines, knows a Filipino/a, or has a friend there or who has gone to visit.
On the positive side, I did not realize that Philippine music and art has also entered Indonesia. Christian Bautista, a Filipino artist, is quite popular among the people I’ve met, especially my teachers. I’ve heard Filipino songs playing on the radio. Though I haven’t been back in the Philippines for sometime, I don’t remember Indonesian music having the same popularity as Korean, Japanese, or American songs. (Translation is no obstacle, given that there are usually subtitles to everything). In fact, I haven’t heard Indonesian songs on the radio at all. Which is a shame since I got the down-lows on and learned more about the politically and socially aware lyrics of the bands’ songs after attending the concert in Boyolali. They were often direct criticisms of the government (especially the Suharto regime), environmentally friendly, etc. I wish that they were more popular in my country.
In this way, I feel like it becomes more of an inter-country dialogue. In addition to this cultural exchange, Satunama, one of the NGOs we’ve visited, had apparently gone to the Philippines to acquire skills and learn with Filipinos on techniques to be applied in the field of civil societies and negotiating with indigenous peoples on water resource management, land management, mining, and other related issues. I was especially excited to learn about this, since I believe this is a step in bridging gaps between Southeast Asian countries in order to tackle similar issues. The Pacific Ring of Fire, with its wealth of natural disasters that plague the countries like clockwork, definitely shares some characteristics environmentally and geographically. Communities in these areas could benefit from a sharing of ideas, and this is something that I hope to see and learn more about in Indonesia.
Ok, I’m not completely floundering. But my experience and presence in Indonesia has certainly seemed as if I were riding on a magic carpet that is ripped out from underneath me periodically.
But I don’t mind it at all, when I fall straight into ‘holes’ like discovering more of the grinning Indonesian interns, who are always happy to give me tips and pointers. Or when I recognize a word I’d heard from a pelayan before. Or when I successfully and sneakily pull off speaking bahasa Indonesian (two or three sentences in proper grammar at the grocery store, ha!). Or when a short conversation about coming from Southeast Asia turns into an interesting explanation on Indonesian history.
I’m sure more fascinating holes will turn up in the future.