This past Saturday, we had the privilege of making two remarkable visits in what added up to my favorite day in Jogja thus far. Though to be precise none of our Saturday was actually spent within the city limits. Together with our Indonesian research partners, who encompass a range of ages between 20 and 30 and a wide variety of academic disciplines, we left Jogja at 10 a.m. We headed first to the farm and home of Iskandar Waworuntu, a farmer and educator whose property was located an hour’s rickety car outside of the city center. The ride, which for us passengers in the back of the van was filled with stunning views of the coast and surrounding mountains, was surely less enjoyable for our driver as he struggled with the manual transmission up the sharp ascent, leading to some exciting/terrifying engine stalls and uncontrolled reversals back down the road. Nevertheless, we survived and our effort (rather, the driver’s) was well worth it, paid for by panoramic vistas and one of those hope-I-never-forget-for-as-long-as-I-live moments (which are rapidly piling up for me in Indonesia) with my first sight of the Indian Ocean and the sun bouncing off its telltale Tiffany blue waves several miles away.
Iskandar met us in the driveway of his home, a large compound of buildings with the characteristic pagoda peaks and moss-covered terracotta tiles of traditional Javanese architecture. Iskandar filled a room already packed with Indonesian and American students with one of those rare outsized-presences, which despite his soft-spoken demeanor, expanded far beyond his self. His presence was magnified by his height – he is huge by Javanese standards, though my ego, which has been inflated to dangerous levels since I realized I’m far taller than any Indonesian I’ve met, could rest easy – I still had a couple of inches on him.
Iskandar took us on a tour of his farm, which was constructed as an irrigated grid system resting on a series of tiers built into the mountainside. The farm’s tiered design, efficient use of space, and completely sustainable operation aided by a surprising amount of modern technology recalled an illustration of a settlement in the Martian desert off the back of a paperback version of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles that I read in middle school. Like Borobudur Temple in my last post, this farm emanated a sense of otherworldliness. Not a square foot of land was allowed to lie unused. Iskandar doubles the seedbeds as chicken feeders, so the chickens can aerate the soil in their search for worms that are raised in buckets under the cages of rabbits whose urine adds nutrients to the soil for the worms’ consumption. Got all of that? The rabbits are raised for human consumption, and their waste, plus the human waste that they become (what a delightful image), and the waste of the goats, cows, and other livestock on the farm are all added to two large sealed concrete domes. The domes, to continue with my sci-fi references, looked just like the farm buildings on Tatooine that you see at the beginning of A New Hope. Instead of housing the Skywalkers, however, they are actually bio-fuel generators, filled with a mixture of waste and pressurized water that push the methane emitted from the decomposing biological matter up the hillside through a series of vents and pipes to the main house, where the gas is used to cook food. I had a bit of a chuckle to myself at the thought that the food you’re eating is produced from the food you just ate. Talk about sustainability.
Following his tour, Iskandar spoke to us about the need for humans to not only take from nature what can naturally be replaced, but to give back and offset the centuries of misuse and abuse of our natural resources. He spoke too of the spiritual and ethical impetus for living a sustainable life. Iskandar, a practicing Muslim, said that “even if you don’t believe in God, and just believe in good – which is God’s most important part – you can still see the need to take care of all that we have been given.” With that he bid us to dig into one of the more memorable meals of my trip, a feast of catfish satays, cucumber curry, roasted eggplant, fried tofu and tempeh, all made, grown, raised on the property. Even the water was ridiculously good; it was drawn from a 200 meter-deep well tapping into a 100,000-year-old aquifer, untouched till now. The freshness of each ingredient made the Whole Foods produce counter look like a raccoon-inhabited dumpster behind a Taco Bell.
After the farm we drove another hour to the beautiful black sand Parangtritis beach where we – the six Bi-Co students and our Indonesian counterparts – enjoyed an afternoon of intense waves (the largest I’ve ever seen), coconuts, sunburn, and, well, I’ll let Google image search do the rest of the talking. As we got ready to leave the beach, we were seated in a circle with Joan Scanlan, a woman of American birth who has lived in Indonesia for close to twenty years and has two daughters with an Indonesian man. The subject of her talk was “cross-cultural understanding” and since she occupies such an interesting position at the intersection of the cultures of the students in our group, I was excited to hear her thoughts and suggestions for us as we try to get to know each other in these first few days and weeks of our partnership. Yet after we sat in our circle for half an hour, I increasingly felt that the conversation – through no fault of the students’ – was, for lack of a better word, lame.
Side note: to my mind, one of the more tiresome practices that Haverford students (myself included) engage in – and perhaps college students in general – is the habit of turning any experience into a somehow problematic event. I understand that’s a broad, vague statement, but so too are the ways we problematize (hate that word) so many aspects of modern life as evidence of post-colonialism, globalization, late capitalist excess, Western hegemony, etc. – all words I similarly try to avoid, if only because they seem to be so persistently misused. Platitudes like “the world is so messed up” and “it’s just a product of his white privilege” or “stop being so hetero-normative” can trivialize and simplify those human events, relationships, and basic tenets of our individuality that are so much more complicated than those allowed for by a black-and-white worldview in which every situation provides another problem to whine about. That is not to say that racism, nationalism, neo-colonialism, homophobia, and injustice do not run rampant in our world. They do, and must be fought and opposed at every opportunity. All I’m saying is that they’re not the only forces in the world and that our actions can also be the product of positive forces, not just negative ones. But like I said, this is an issue I have with college students — both myself and my peers. The rest of the world suffers from not confronting these questions, but I think college students sometimes lose sight of the broader picture by focusing on them at the exclusion of others. For me, a central part of college is to analyze the problematic models and pathways of power and abuse in the world that we might not otherwise notice, but I don’t think it’s necessarily useful to apply these paradigms to every minute action or occurrence. Not every experience can or should be reduced to a pile of crap – though Iskandar would probably like the unlimited fuel for his home. I know that this line of reasoning might be/definitely is unclear, so as an example, consider the time my friends and I went to a Pakistani restaurant in Philly last year. One friend, who I love dearly, treated us all to a lengthy remonstration on how the meal he was preventing us from enjoying was really the product of a post-colonial system of migration that came about because we (i.e. white people – not a wholly accurate description of our group, anyway) had robbed the Asian subcontinent of its human resources through a global system of capital exchange that favored western countries and left little opportunity for employment or social mobility in the rest of the world. Or something like that. I’m sure that’s true – and I do believe it is essential we question the systems of power and exploitation that drive the world – but dude, leave my mango lassi alone.
This is all a way of saying that I hate what I’m about to do. I’m fully aware of my hypocrisy as I dive into what was on the surface a beautiful event – sitting in a circle on breathtaking beach, sipping water straight from the coconut, meeting six new, exciting, brilliant students from Indonesia. What could be so bad about that? The issue I have is that Ms. Scanlan’s discussion was based around difference. Specifically she outlined the supposedly insuperable differences between Americans and Indonesians that we will have to confront if we have any hope of working together this summer. She told us that Indonesians are offended if you touch them on the head or eat in the street. We were informed that bathrooms here don’t have toilet paper (as if we hadn’t yet noticed). And we were told that Americans are independent, that we speak our minds, that we are more comfortable being ourselves in public than Indonesians. Indonesians, we were told, are a withdrawn, self-effacing, modest people who – according to Ms. Scanlan – can be so reserved and eager-to-please that it can take years before “you figure out what an Indonesian person is really like because they hide themselves from you.” When I suggested that in my limited time in this country, the biggest surprise was how similar – despite all our differences –Indonesians and Americans (two inadequate demonyms that broadly paint over the diversity central to our two countries) were, my observation was treated as naïve and cliché, the kind of thing any young idealistic college student would say. Ms. Scanlan made no mention of the characteristics our American and Indonesian cultures share, just the differences.
It is vital for us to be informed of the cultural norms and customs of the country we are in. And it is essential that we don’t fulfill the “ugly American” stereotype believed, with good cause, by many people around the world to be the only type of American traveler. Yet when our differences are highlighted at the exclusion of all else, when we are told, “Indonesians are the opposites of Americans,” we lose sight of the ways in which we can connect, which was the intended purpose of our talk. You can’t build bridges over gulfs of polarity. Instead I think we can aid cross-cultural understanding by combining lessons on what makes each culture unique with a discussion of the similarities we share. And there is reason for hope for increased cross-cultural understanding, for such similarities, in this global world we live in, are ever increasing. The more I work and hang out with young Indonesians, the more I feel that we belong to a global youth culture with which we more strongly identify than any national or ethnic identity. That this youth culture is heavily dominated by the West is a problem I recognize, but if our goal is to connect, to bridge, to bond, I think that focusing on what we share should be the first order of business.
So in addition to making sure we Americans don’t go around patting strangers on the head or expecting toilet paper where there is none, why didn’t we have a conversation about the things we share? Like the European soccer teams we, Americans and Indonesians alike, support (or detest – Italy I’m looking at you). Or we could have discussed our lives as college students, which despite the gap between the styles of the American and Indonesian education systems, are similarly filled with questions of undecided futures and self-exploration. These points, among many others, are the points where I have best connected with my Indonesian peers, and they with me. Maybe I’m making mountains out of molehills, but I left our beachside discussion feeling that we were being set up to fail in our cross-cultural relations, that our differences were made out to be insurmountable. I’m happy to say that with just a few minutes of un-moderated peer-to-peer conversation, those differences, both real and imagined, fade away once a couple of like-minded soccer fans can gleefully bash Gianluigi Buffon and Mario Balotelli for their latest on- and off-field buffoonery.
Well that’s all for now. Though my tirade with respect to our “cross-cultural understanding” course might suggest otherwise, Saturday remains, several days later, the most enjoyable day I’ve had so far in Indonesia. I hope to update you soon with some news about the research I’m doing with my wonderful new partners Tere and Tiwi on the LGBT community here in Jogja.
Selamat tinggal teman-teman!