Full Days vs Free Time: Make the Most of Them Both

After my experiences in Bali and Java, and upon returning to Bali once again, I feel that it is really important to stress the unpredictability and chaotic nature of this study abroad program’s schedule. It can be cumbersome to navigate mentally because free time is precious, so much so that one has to carefully plan their free time in order to get the most out of it.

It must be said that there are benefits to the busy schedule. Because we only spend three weeks in Java, we want to make the most of our time there by experiencing as much as we can. In addition, the business of the schedule helps to eliminate distractions so that we can focus on our experiences. It is crucial that we try to pay close attention to our many lectures and excursions and to be constantly be analyzing and reflecting upon them. These habits are important not simply to help us grow our knowledge of Java, but also to prepare for the midterm.

On the note of academics, because free time is rare, I advise that future students spend a good chunk of it preparing for written assignments, oral presentations, and the occasional exam. In my experience, these assignments aren’t overly difficult nor are they frequent, but there is little time to complete them with an eye to quality. Furthermore, these assignments don’t directly build up to one another, so it is worth doing some extra research into what each assignment should look like, such as oral presentations, in-class essays (for exams), cultural observation papers, etcetera. Many of the written assignments take an anthropological bend; therefore, I advise future students try to become familiar with basic anthropological principles, as well as the general structure of anthropological papers. It is very important that one becomes accustomed to anthropological methods, because there are no lectures or information sessions proceeding these papers that detail how to successfully write them. Proactivity is your friend.

However, that shouldn’t mean that you spend all your free time studying. In my experience, it is important to take time away from the program’s schedule to further explore certain areas of Indonesia. In Yogyakarta, during a free afternoon, I and a small group of other students found an art exhibition in the basement of a coffee café, in which everything in said café was for sale—including the furniture and the decorations hanging upon the wall. The art exhibition itself featured mixed media pieces that fashioned animatronics out of traditional Javanese weaponry. In that café, I was treated to a twist on traditional artwork that the program didn’t feature.

Giant Animatronic

Street, or “Sarcastic,” Art

And art is everywhere in Yogyakarta! One doesn’t have to look far before catching sight of street art. An Indonesian student told me that another phrase for this kind of graffiti was “sarcastic art,” in reference to the political satire and criticisms that these images frequently expressed. Simply walking down the streets of Yogyakarta afforded me the opportunity to see intersections of contemporary art and politics at work.

It is almost embarrassing how much artwork we were able to stumble upon during our brief free time in Yogyakarta. In a little jewelry store, there was a shelf also selling comics. The artist sat in view in the back of the shop drawing, and we were able to enter into a conversation with him about his work, and to get a little grasp on his experience as an artist in Yogyakarta. In another location, we stumbled upon a former speakeasy turned restaurant hidden behind what is now a coffee and pastry shop. One of the very first features of this speakeasy is a giant white canvas with colored paint bowls at its side. The canvas was littered with little doodles from presumably other clientele who had stopped to leave a mark. It was wonderful to both see and participate in what I would consider an ongoing, unofficial collaborative piece, chock full of people’s random thoughts and drawings joined together on one canvas.

Collaborative Piece in Speakeasy

Thank you, and until next time!

Indonesian Islam, Pesantrens, and Hijab: Educating Society’s Majority Population

In my experience, Islam can be a touchy subject in America. In Indonesia, it’s one that none can avoid. The majority of Indonesia’s population is Muslim, and that was certainly evident when we visited Java. One of the first signs of a huge Muslim presence was the sound of the calls to prayer ringing through homes and streets. The second was the majority of women wearing hijab. The fact that hijab-wearing Muslims make up the bulk of the population in Java makes it difficult to look at them as “different” or “other.” In fact, I am newly aware of my otherness in Java when I wander around without hijab.

Female SIT Students and Some Staff

But as a feature of the majority population, hijab has an interesting cultural competent that, in my opinion, sometimes extends past religious practice. During our last week in Java, we stayed at a couple Pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), and all of the females in our group (staff included) were required to wear the hijab while out in public, regardless of our religious beliefs. This requirement did not connect with my previous understanding of the hijab and of religion. I am still under the impression that the hijab should only be worn by those who practice Islam. However, despite the fact that most of our SIT group does not practice Islam, we were still required to wear it.

Even in the less conservative areas in Java, namely Yogyakarta, we were told that it would be no problem if we decide to wear a hijab out on the town. Even admitting that we do not practice Islam while wearing a hijab is not considered a social taboo in the places that we have visited. My understanding of who can and cannot wear hijab is far more rigid than this other perspective. After a particularly striking lecture from a Muslim woman about Indonesia’s history with the hijab, as well as my own musings, I have come to view this flexibility over who can wear hijab as a result of the fact that Muslims are a cultural majority in Indonesia. According to the lecture, the hijab has become more than a religious symbol but a common Indonesian one, so much so that it might not quite possess the same strict quality to differentiate that it might have in America—in which the hijab might signify religious difference from the majority of a non-hijab-wearing population. Because of such, that might make hijab more acceptable to wear even if one is not a strongly practicing Muslim.

Opening Speech at Male Pesantren

Let me shift this blog post in the direction of another popular Indonesian Islamic subject: Pesantrens. As I mentioned briefly, Pesantrens are Islamic boarding schools—which include both grade schools and college universities—and our SIT group visited two campuses, one all female, the other all male. While I could not even begin to describe the innumerable experiences I’ve gleaned from staying at these Pesantrens, I can try to give a brief overview of the Pesantrens’ principles that I notices and how it reflects back upon American schooling.

 

 

Dinner with Male Students

During many lectures and informal discussions with the students, a common perception voiced was that males are perceived to be essentially more logical and females more sensitive. The classes and activities available to them in each campus supported that view. The courses actively prepared the males to serve as leaders post-graduation by offering many opportunities to practice public speaking and by fostering discussion about major international issues such as governmental politics and climate change. On the other hand, the courses on the female campus geared them to take a supportive role to the men, with a significant focus on domestic responsibility. The women I spoke to mentioned that in addition to their courses for their major they all also participated in sewing classes and cooking classes. With this in mind, I observed an incredibly strong consciousness of gender roles in the Pesantrens.

 

Group Photo at Female Pesantren

And therein lies one very important motivation behind the Islamic Pesantren philosophy: They are very focused upon community. Each gender has their role to support and improve the whole, but those roles are gender-locked and not taught as fluid. Such social philosophies at play in the Indonesia-Islamic schooling systems are just as present in the US. A common American philosophy is a belief in individualism, and thus, school systems in America may attempt to foster individuals, which can lead to our own problems with communal coherency and communal values. Despite the many differences between the Indonesian Pesantrens and American public schools, it is important to recognize that both hold monumental power to indoctrinate students into society.

Thank you, and until next time!

First Impressions on Java: New Mindsets Gained

For three weeks, we left Bali and stayed in Java, starting in Yogyakarta and finishing in East Java. Our move was accompanied by a host of changes different from our time in Bali. In Yogyakarta, we were assigned new homestay families, dwelt in a more urban area, attended lectures in a university classroom, and spent a good portion of our time with other university students born and raised in Indonesia.

Selfie with My Javanese Homestay Mother

After coming to grips with my homestay in Bali, my homestay family in Yogyakarta proved to provide a very different experience. Yet, it was one just as significant but in a different manner. The house and room were certainly less opulent than mine in Bali, but it meant that the family and I were in closer quarters, and we found it easier to become familiar with one another and form strong bonds. Because of our close proximity, we often chit-chatted to fill the silence. One conversation that sticks with me is one that centered around food. My host mother asked me if I liked apples; I replied, no. She then asked if there were apples in the United States, to which I responded, yes. Then the question: Where in the US? This innocuous question threw me for a loop. I said, all over, in every state. The conversation ended; but it lingered in my head long afterwards. My surprise at her question about where you can find apples in the US—implying the question where can’t you find apples?—prodded me to reflect upon my differing experiences with food I the US and in Indonesia. It made me wonder at the fact that food in the US remains largely constant, and despite variations in quality across states, there is little that you cannot obtain in any state if you have the finances to do so. Conversely, in Indonesia, there are plenty of foodstuffs that are only available in certain regions, which sparks an eagerness in me whenever we go visit a new place. I am already considering deeply on how to bring that eagerness for the new with me to the United States in order to branch out and explore my own country.

Group Photo with University Students

Another difference from Bali is that we held lectures in a university classroom, joined by some university students from the Philosophy Department. It was comforting to be in the presence of other undergraduate students, and we provided each other opportunities to practice our language skills—English for them and Bahasa Indonesia for us. We were able to discuss both the academics at their university, as well as hold informal conversations about music, food, and personal politics. All in all, it was certainly refreshing to interact with other young people.

 

 

University Students Joining Us at Borobudur

They even joined us on our excursions. One such excursion included a visit to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The moment we stepped off the bus we were bombarded with venders on foot hawking water, hats, and even little sun umbrellas. In comparison to similar experiences at Tanah Lot, such street sellers served as an immediate sign that this place catered heavily to tourists, and I should adopt a careful eye when looking at Borobudur’s amenities. In and around the temple, a tour guide led us to certain spots to expand upon their historical significance and to interpret stories carved into the outer walls of the temple.

 

Tour Guide Explaining Carvings’ Stories

 

Tour Guide Showing Interlocking Block System

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every once in a while, he would pause to encourage us to take pictures, and his encouragement further impressed upon me how this space was used to cater to tourists—considering how stereotypical (and often true) it is for tourists to be constantly snapping photos. Even part of the temple is yellow-colored, remnant of Dutch efforts in the past to make parts the temple easier for their cameras to take pictures. Despite the fact that I certainly took lots of pictures (with intent to post on this blog), it did make me feel queasy whenever I heard the tour guide urge us to take photos, because I only heard the enabling of a tourist mindset; and I sometimes wonder at the implications of taking pictures both in the moment and as a way to record memory.

 

Entrance to Borobudur

I know that other students took pictures—some for scrapbooking, others to post on social media—and it fascinates me to observe when and of what people will take pictures, and more importantly, of what they will not take pictures. I hold the assumption that when people snap photos for their personal use (IE: scrapbooking), they are making subtle judgements about what it worth remembering in their future about their past experiences; and when they take photos for social media, they are making similar judgements about what is worth sharing with other people. That which is worth remembering are grand moments—such as visits to beautiful sites (such a Borobudur) or extraordinary activities (such as ziplining)—because those experiences tend to be commemorated in photography. I find it less common to observe people taking pictures of what they consider commonplace or unextraordinary. It should stand as a warning for me; I should resolve to keep my eye open for meaning in any experience. I cannot safely assume that any one of my experiences is unextraordinary or commonplace. This, too, is a mindset that I hope to cement within myself and continue to use long after this program ends.

Thanks, and until next time!

Building Academic Bridges: Comparisons Made between Whitman and SIT

Topeng Masks

During the last few days in Bali before leaving for Java, the SIT group spent a day or two visiting the workshops of traditional artists: a Topeng (mask-making) maker, a Wayang (shadow puppetry) artist and performer, and a traditional Balinese dancer. Something the Topeng artist highlighted in his lecture kickstarted my awareness of the connections between my experiences in Indonesia and those in the United States. He spoke about his experiences as a youth before he became fully involved in Topeng-making for Indonesian dance. Specifically, he stated that he had to learn how to dance before he could even attempt to craft an appropriate mask for dancing. He mentioned a couple other artistic mediums that he dipped his toes into before Topeng, but by then I had already made my connection. The philosophy that his speech implied echoed my own understanding of Whitman’s principles as a liberal arts institution. From my time at Whitman, I have noticed an effort on the part of the faculty to cultivate cross-disciplinal knowledge and study. The more information about other disciplines that students possess, the better equipped they will be to tackle a single subject or discipline holistically.

My True Face

And I’ve learned that implementing a cross-disciplinal approach can also be fruitful across borders. In Indonesia, as an English major I assumed that I would not use many of my skills learned at Whitman in a program focused on art, religion, and social change. When I was researching study abroad programs, this SIT program was not one recommended for English majors, and I have taken that to heart. However, I’ve found my English major incredibly useful while here, especially when it comes to learning the language (Bahasa Indonesia). My ease may be due to my basic understanding of grammar and my versatility in figuring out how to convey something in multiple different ways—because my vocabulary in Bahasa Indonesia is limited and I constantly need to creatively construct simple sentences that work around my limitation. I also use my English major and general interpretive analytical skills learned at Whitman to conduct analysis on the lectures that we have to attend in SIT. I imagine that my English major will only aid me further during the Independent Study Project (ISP) period, during which I will need to think critically about what questions to pose during interviews, when I will need to declare my data collection sufficient enough to construct a paper, and when I need to actually write said paper. I feel my English major at work together with my many interests in Indonesia, and it is a glorious communion.

Wayang Shadow Puppets

Entering Borobudur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the subject of building bridges between fields of academia, I want to speak a little bit about this SIT program’s methodology to learning. It has become very clear to me that we begin the day with a lecture and some reading about some subject, for example some components of Buddhist Indonesia, then we visit some significant places in relation to that topic, such as a Buddhist temple named Borobudur. We take such trips often for the purpose of contextualizing the lectures, and I must say that I deeply appreciate this approach to learning. This methodology helps me merge my intellectual knowledge with the material world, which in turn reinforces the reality of that knowledge and its relevancy within everyday Indonesian life. I find this approach overall quite effective in supporting the program’s goals to effectively impart cultural knowledge about Indonesia, to integrate its students into the culture, and to prepare us to conduct a participant observation field study while at the same time we seek out written articles for our research.

Thank you, and until next time!

First Homestay: Getting Familiar with the Unfamiliar, and My First Brush with Tourism

After an orientation period lasting about a week and a half, we students were finally sent off to our first homestay. The experience primarily forced me to put into practice the Indonesian social customs about which we had been learning to navigate during the orientation period. The true test of my ability to navigate Balinese Indonesian culture began in my homestay.

The language barrier proved difficult for the first day. There are a thousand ways to say something, but I only had a limited amount of vocabulary in my arsenal to communicate it. Thankfully, my homestay mother and I quickly learned how to effectively communicate with each other. I grew used to their dialect of Bahasa Indonesia and kept picking up new words—often referring to my language notebook (and occasionally Google Translate)—while they discerned which words and phrases I knew, thankfully using excessive hand gestures when they spoke. In a homestay situation like mine, all parties involved had to adapt to the pressures of the language barrier. I felt quite reassured to know that it was a learning experience for the both of us.

My first attempt at laundry using a drying rack

On the material aspect of my first homestay, I find the environment was less unfamiliar to me than I expected. I’ve posted some images of the place in this post, and to me it is quite reminiscent of a high-class US apartment. I must admit, after spending a few nights alone in such opulence and after seeing the other host students’ homestays—all which were markedly different and foreign—I felt disappointed by mine. It was too familiar, too Western to my eye. However, after stewing over my situation for a few days, I had an innocuous conversation with my host mother about the purpose of the little house in which I was staying. It was a guest house, but one meant for their eldest son and his family, who lived in another city. It wasn’t meant to solely accommodate Western visitors like myself. My experience with my first homestay may have been atypical in comparison to the other students, but it no less represents a part of Balinese life. In other words, despite the luxury of my living situation, I am still getting a Balinese experience.

 

My homestay’s living room

My opulent shower with three different showerheads

My room at my first homestay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

              And I do believe that I am becoming used to Balinese Indonesia. Already I have begun to experience a tiny bit of reverse culture shock and a great distance from Western tourists. Rural Bali, such as Tabanan and other places without tourists, differ significantly than those with tourists. In Tabanan nearly everyone one passes on the street wears relatively modest clothing: shoulders and knees are covered, necklines are modest. However, in the areas of Bali that are heavily populated with tourists, the styles of dress reveal significantly more skin. Our SIT group briefly visited a couple of such places, namely Ubud, and the sight of people in tank tops and shorts took me aback greatly. The sight of such clothing—and the sight of similar clothing being sold in local shops—impressed upon me that I was in a mini-world meant solely for tourists. If the SIT program was located in an area more heavily populated by tourists, we would have less access to the culture into which we are currently trying to integrate. With that said, I wonder to what extent do these areas represent the varied cultures of its people, and how much does a tourist-heavy town alter itself in order to cater to them?

A snapshot of a less busy street in Ubud

Group meal in Ubud

An incredibly important difference between tourist locations and rural Balinese villages is that most of the Balinese there speak English very well. It is very difficult for me to utilize my Bahasa Indonesia skills because, admittedly, the fact that English is the dominant language spoken there makes me lazy to practice it. Yet, there were many instances in a sprawling marketplace where I wandered into shops, and their owners spoke too limited English. The moment I spoke Bahasa Indonesia to them—and better still when I asked permission to bargain price with them—I could visibly see their faces brighten. While I cannot reasonably speculate any further as to what specifically ran through these shopkeepers’ minds, I know that I myself felt like less of an invader within their space. Because of the opportunities granted to me by the SIT program, I have taken the time to learn their language and communicate with them effectively, instead of expecting them to adhere to my own, incredibly tricky, language of English. In an area such as Ubud, with tourists crowding the streets and shops, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that all Balinese people in the area speak English perfectly and are able to communicate in English at the same level as native English speakers. It would be naïve of me to expect it.

Thank you, and until next time!