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!

On Identity Abroad: A Woman of Color in Indonesia

So, my Independent Study Project (ISP) situation was a bit different than the majority of the students’ this semester. I was one of the few who ventured outside of the program’s main island (Bali) onto other islands. In my case, I travelled to the Lake Toba area in North Sumatra first, then to Jakarta in Java, before returning to Bali.

Locations of ISP Study (Sumatra and Java)

While theoretically, each of us conducts our ISP alone in an academic sense, I considered myself also physically alone and independent from the program and other students. Although the program ensures to check in with each and every one of its students through phone and I could rely upon contact persons stationed in both my locations, I felt the weight of my independence quite severely. For a good portion of my ISP month, I was literally alone, with my contacts and the SIT Program staff only available for emergencies.

I must say that my isolation from the SIT group was mostly a personal advantage to me and my study, because it offered me great opportunity to examine myself and how others in Indonesia navigate my presence in ways that I could not have while sequestered within a group of people. In addition, I had opportunity to observe other aspects of Indonesian life and culture across multiple islands, which more concretely impressed upon me how greatly diverse Indonesia is.

ISP Weaving Project

One subject addressed during Whitman’s pre-semester off-campus study orientation was the experience of being a woman and a person of color abroad. I would consider myself to be both, and these two aspects of my identity became very relevant to my experiences during the study, but in surprising ways. From that orientation and from my own musings on the subject, my general conclusion seemed to be that whatever ethnicity you appear as will be in contrast to the general look of the people living in your chosen country of study. In some sense, my time in Bali and Java confirmed this thought. While the majority of my homestay parents remarked upon my similar coloring to Indonesians (or of Asian ethnicities), most Indonesians do not wear their hair curly such as I, which makes me quite easy to identify as a foreigner. However, in North Sumatra, many people wore curly hair.


Imagine my surprise. It was pretty awesome to see the many varieties of dark, curly hair there. While I hadn’t came across someone with ringlets as tight as mine, some came pretty close. One of my former homestay families has a little girl with a mountain of curly hair. Whenever we ventured out together as a group, I seemed to go completely unnoticed among them. My newfound capability to ‘slip under the public radar’ was in stark contrast to my experiences in Bali. Not only was my curly hair an anomaly there, but the majority of my SIT group was made up of white women. Needless to say, we often drew quite a crowd—especially in areas non-frequented by tourists. In contrast, it was quite disorienting to walk unnoticed in public spaces while living in North Sumatra.

North Sumatra Homestay Family

If I had planned to do more participant observation for my study, then I would have been in a very good position to do so. That was the only instance in my life where I blended into the majority population, and while that did not necessarily change my attitude towards Indonesia or even towards myself, I finally experienced the power of going unnoticed after nearly three months of nothing but attention.

Thank you, and until next time!

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!