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 Brushes 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!

First Steps: Learning the Culture and the Language

So, I’ve been here in Kerambitan, Bali for about a week now, and things are hectic. Understandably, the gurus (teachers) here have much to teach us before sending us off to our host families and into Indonesian society by ourselves. For now, our days are spent around the Puri Saren Kangin—the palace at which we are currently staying—and soaking in as much cultural knowledge and Bahasa Indonesia (literally meaning “Indonesian language”) as we possibly can.

Group photo at our program center

While there are many, many aspects of this first week in Indonesia that strike me deeply (too many to cover in a single post), one that I’ve found particularly surprising but quite pleasant is that Bahasa Indonesia seems to me a very easy language to learn. Over the past week, our knowledge of Bahasa has been tested through drop-off exercises in the Kerambitan area. We are required to speak with the locals and to perform certain tasks. Despite the oft hilarity of the language barrier—during which good-humored laughter serves to establish good relationships between myself and the locals—I and other program students have remarked at how less difficult it was to interact with other in Bahasa Indonesia than we assumed. From what I’ve observed so far, the reason behind this is because Bahasa has no gendered language, no conjugates, and few grammatical rules. As of now, the real challenge is to memorize the vocabulary in class.

In addition, I’ve found that it is impossible to learn any language without learning cultural norms in tandem. For instance, in Bali it is not appropriate to say “please” in Bahasa when ordering food because there is no word for “please” in that specific context. Instead direct language—such as “I will have coffee” instead of “May I have coffee, please?”—is expected. While I personally found it difficult this past week to cut off my “pleases” and “thank yous” in such contexts, I realize that it would be disrespectful of me to force my Western way of communication upon Balinese people. In that case, my adherence to Indonesian language standards aids me to participate in Indonesian society in a way that is less abrasive. In summary, I find that language goes hand in hand with culture, with a people’s way of life. Thus, my task for the duration of this semester abroad is to explore both with equal energy.

Part of our classroom at the program center

A way in which the SIT Indonesia program supports the learning of both culture and language is through excursions and drop-off sessions. During excursions, program staff accompany us on a trip to some general area of cultural site and guide us to behave appropriately in such cultural situations. During drop-off sessions, the program staff send us off to perform various tasks—including a scavenger hunt, an exercise in bargaining, and locating unfamiliar items in a market. All exercises serve to help us practice what we learn, and I deeply appreciate that aspect of the SIT Program in Indonesia, because the academic knowledge preps us for practical action. I find it heartening to know that what I learn can be enacted.

Yet, the excursions themselves hold lessons that stereotypical academic environments are unable to provide. Specifically, I realized something during one of the excursions that left me with a shaky understanding of my current place in Indonesia. We visited a temple, the Pura Tanah Lot, which was located within a wide expanse of land that catered to tourists. Despite the fact that it had only been a week, I had grown used to seeing Balinese and Balinese only. White tourists were something of a rarity. Yet, the area surrounding the Pura Tanah Lot was filled with tourists, and not all of them light-skinned. But, to be fair, the majority percentage of the tourist population there was white. And as I saw them walking past, I felt a startling sensation of recognition, that realization that America and white people still existed. Yet, I didn’t identify with any of the tourists. And I don’t identify with the Balinese. I feel like neither.

Distant view of the Pura Tanah Lot and its many tourists

In fact, I am neither, despite my greater relation to the American tourists. And I realized this after some tourists committed a shocking blunder. To be short, they entered into a building off-limits to tourists because only those in full pakaian adat (traditional clothing) can enter. We students had previously acquired some pakainan adat, and thus, were currently situated within the temple. It is easy to excuse their behavior as ignorant, but knowing the importance of these rules makes it difficult to forget. What little cultural knowledge about Bali that I currently possess is a great and necessary privilege. If I weren’t participating in the SIT program, then I could have easily been in those tourists’ shoes, and that is a terrifying thought. It goes to show that even as a tourist, a brief visitor, it is irresponsible to not understand, because it is all too easy to commit a disrespect.

Our group at the Pura Tanah Lot

Thank you, and until next time!