Climax of the Semester: A Field Study and the Benefit of Breaks

My primary reason for applying to a SIT program was the promise that I would have the opportunity to conduct a field study for my Independent Study Project (ISP). While the SIT Indonesia program also offered opportunity to pursue other major projects, I stuck fast to my original want. I had never conducted a field study before and likely never will at Whitman because my major and my own interests simply do not support doing a field study.

I and the other students were allotted a month to conduct our projects, and during that month I learned more than I could have ever prepared for. In all honesty I entered this project fairly confident in my abilities. With my skills in English writing and reading, as well as my lack of nerves, I felt endowed to tackle the research and the writing periods. For the most part, in hindsight, my skills did not fail me. What I did not expect were the difficulties with time management.

My Apartment in Jakarta

A month is not very long. On paper, us students are allotted perhaps three to four weeks to conduct research, then the last week is spent writing the paper draft. I have always known myself to take a long time to both write and research, so I planned to begin writing half a week in advance and to have finished all of my external source research beforehand. Yet, the amount of evidence that I amassed and the time that it took to both outline and draft far overshot a month’s limit. Perhaps what truly trapped me was the endless number of external sources to examine. Technically I could have started that research before I even embarked upon my ISP and perhaps still wouldn’t have exhausted my research.

And I should have begun research much earlier. It would have saved me much time, energy, and sanity. Due to my lack of proactivity, for the last two weeks I spent hunkered down in an apartment in Jakarta working nonstop on my ISP. Needless to say, I went quite stir-crazy. Out of necessity I took two days off to counteract the numerous hours that I spent on the project.

Night Bus to Bali

Ferry to Bali








One of the benefits of conducting this ISP alone were the opportunities to take true breaks. During them, I could self-reflect and take advantage of these private moments to recollect myself. There was great value in simply spending time alone, especially during the few times I went out and ate at restaurants. I am not one to whip out my phone to find entertainment while at a restaurant. Thus, I spent my time reflecting upon myself, my experiences, the ISP project, and on my future. Even better, sometimes I thought nothing at all. It was great quiet time away from the apartment. Afterwards, I was better prepared to reenter the fray of research and drafting. Considering my short schedule, it might have been unwise of me to take that time off, but it did wonders for my peace of mind.

My ISP Presentation

I would love to say that I finished my ISP paper on time. However, even a full week and a half of work was not enough time for me to finish it. I was lucky that I rode a night bus to return to Bali and had a long stretch of time to work on the paper. That trip totaled around twenty-one hours, and I probably spent eleven of those hours dutifully typing away at my poor computer. When I arrived in Bali at the program center, I still wasn’t done; and I turned it in two days late.

The fact that none of the students—as far as I know—turned theirs in on time, too, was quite comforting. Now that I’m older and wiser with the power of hindsight on my side, if I were to write my ISP all over again, I would still probably suffer greatly. I am floored by how long it takes to write that project, but holding the finished product in my hands makes up for the experience in spades.

Thank you, and until next time!

Pre-ISP: Planning and Waiting for the Unexpected

With roughly two weeks left until our Independent Study Project (ISP) period, everyone was restless. Restless and eager. I myself felt no less anticipatory, excited even. The ISP month is fraught with uncertainties: on where you’ll live, what you’ll experience, how you’ll accomplish your study and write a fantastic paper, too. (And I must say, the uncertainty doesn’t stop during the ISP itself either—but more on that in another post.)

An Adequate Description

For me, the greatest promise ISP held was to conduct my lifestyle with much more freedom than the regular program schedule allowed. While naturally, I expected to be constrained by limitations in environment, money, and the fact that I most definitely would spend most of my time on the field study; I also anticipated little freedoms in what I would eat, where in my area of study I could travel, what time to awake from sleep, how to spend free time, and so on and so forth. I figured that one could view the ISP period as a well of free time, and it was up to me to decide how to allot that time between my studies, basic needs, and free time.

Giving a Presentation in Class

That isn’t to say that we were simple dropped into the situation with no plans at all. During those two remaining weeks, in between the final exams and essays, we were required to complete an ISP proposal, which hammered out some of the more crucial ‘uncertainties’ such as housing, transportation, budget, and a rough schedule of one’s field study. Having determined these basic requirements, despite that fact that pretty much everything is an uncertainty—even how I would acquire food—I didn’t feel bothered. By then the SIT program had hammered in a nonchalant, go with the flow attitude. In fact, I was comforted to know that my future ISP experience was an unknown. I simply didn’t have enough information to form clear expectations, which I feel helped me prepare for all the unexpected experiences—of which there were many.

Preparation for the Language Exam

One such experience occurred before I even departed. As I was compiling my ISP proposal, so were the other students; and it was a topic often featured in our final conversations with each other. We found our thoughts wandering towards out financial budgets and the stipend allotted to us by the program (7 million rupiah: roughly $500). To my great shock, everyone shared that they were over-budget. You see, the cost of living in Indonesia is significantly less than in America, so much so that I would have expected everyone to stay within budget. I myself expected to go over because I planned to travel further; thus, I fueled more funds into transportation. However, the bulk of our group were to remain in Bali, needing no plane tickets—which in my case took up the heftiest portion of my budget. Later in the week, we were told that the cost of our VISA extensions had gone up, and it would be deducted from our stipend—leaving us 5.7 million rupiah instead (roughly $400). It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, but it put a group already overbudget further into the red.

The reason why I linger upon this for so long in this post is because efforts to behave frugally will not pay off when it comes to the ISP period—at least not in my group’s case. Non-withstanding any costs that one may pay before the ISP period, it is absolutely necessary for future students with this SIT program to save money before embarking; and considering the often hectic schedule of the program, it is especially crucial because one is unable to make money while abroad, unless they work a few hours here and there remotely (like myself). 

Thank you, and until next time.

Our Last Stint in Bali: Lingering Java and the Arts in Kerambitan

So, this post will be technically split up into two parts. All events are set in Kerambitan; however, the first part details some of my lingering experiences with some friends in Java—despite having long left the island. The second looks at how the SIT program involved us in Kerambitan’s art scene.

Now, it is customary for us SIT students to share our college major in our introductions. We’ve had to introduce ourselves many times, and the most general reaction to my declaration that I am an English major is one of amusement. They often mention their confusion over why I study how to speak English if I already speak English—which isn’t untrue, but I would claim that the focus of an English major in America expands on other forms of communication in English than on simply grammatically correct speech. And yet, despite the chuckle that most Indonesians get from my major, there is a strange power here in being an English major, especially in the Pesatrens. Already I have received requests from male students and staff at the Pesantrens to look over their essays for various English assignments, and even for one’s language test to get into an American graduate school. The other English major student in SIT tells me that he has also received such requests. I have never felt so impressed by the power of knowing English and of knowing it well in Indonesia. The responsibility that I feel to not steer these men wrong is sobering. But I guess that’s life. It seems simple, but it is monumental to know that whenever one offers advice, if it’s taken, then one is impacting another person’s life. That is true in America, and it is especially true in Indonesia.

Group Photo after Dance

Another subject that I’d like to share with you is about art in Kerambitan. Us SIT students got to participate in a small part of Kerambitan’s art scene in two ways. The first was through a festival for the village, during which we danced on stage for the attendees. The dance is called Jangi Janger, named after the song we were required to sing along with it. I and two other females danced the men’s role because we had an uneven number of male to female students. In comparison to another dance we performed in Java—during which I danced the women’s part in the women’s dress—it was far easier to do everything in the man’s costume. Our dance was simpler and required less skill, the outfit allowed for a far greater range of movement and breath, and we wore the headdress without pain. It was all quite comfortable. However, one discomfort is question about whether our performance toed the line of cultural appropriation. We were dressed in traditional Balinese clothing and danced to an old Balinese song; and yet, I did not understand the cultural significance behind our dress nor of the song. Even now, I still wonder about it, which only incentivizes me to prevent future feelings. One solution I’ve considered is to consistently interrogate exactly why we participate in traditional Indonesian activities. In other words, I feel motivated to understand traditional practices here in Indonesia and what the  SIT program expects us to gain from it in order to judge whether or not I can respectfully participate. I am unsure how the program takes cultural appropriation into account about its activities, but it doesn’t hurt to be proactive by asking questions and taking personal responsibility.

Working the Torch

The second opportunity to learn about art in Kerambitan was through the program’s arts project. For the arts project, we were individually required to study at least one art form (painting, woodcarving, silver jewelry-making, ceramics, etc) and present our finished products to the group. I decided to learn the silver jewelry-making and focused my attention on how the artist’s creation process was extremely visible to the rest of the community through a large window into the workshop. The artist’s work, from beginning to end, was transparently on display—unlike in America, where the creation process is typically concealed from the consumers’ view. Another takeaway is that everything in Kerambitan—even the most detailed, intricate items—is handmade. People center their whole careers over one art form, and their handiwork is displayed throughout the community—on the townspeople’s’ intricately carved wooden doors, the silver jewelry adorning people’s bodies, the ceramic plates and bowls from which people eat, and much more. Everywhere I go it is awe-inspiring to see such skill.


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!