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!

Embarking upon the ISP: More Trite Conclusions

Before jumping into my personal experiences, let me break down my ISP for you: I aimed to study about the creation and usage of Batak textiles, also known as ulos. In order to find interviewees, I decided to travel to Balige in North Sumatra and spend time with the Toba Batak weavers there, as well as to get a handle on the social functions of ulos in that area. Perhaps halfway into my month I would leave Sumatra and head towards Jakarta (the capital city of Indonesia) in Java for an incredibly well-timed museum exhibition about ulos.

I entered into my period of study with no clear thought on how to narrow down my subject focus into something more worthy of a final thesis. Due to a lack of information at the time about specific ulos in the Balige area, I was forced to adopt a ‘go with the flow’ attitude in order to make the most of whatever information I was able to actually glean from my time in Balige. I must say, that this ‘go with the flow’ attitude was the most useful and widely applicable mindset to adopt. Beginning with complications with my flight to Sumatra, leading into a multitude of random, odd occurrences during my ISP and onto strange tangents in regard to my study, as well as much more; the mindset helped alleviate the anxiety that springs up with the unexpected. Furthermore, I feel that this attitude equipped me with the strengths to navigate those new and unfamiliar experiences.

Travelling along Lake Toba to Desa Meat

Desa Meat from a Distance

For example, I arrive in Medan, Sumatra, and prepare for a long drive to my target area in Balige. What was supposed to be a four-hour drive became a nine-hour drive, and my plans to immediately settle into my living space were put on hold. Instead I stayed the night at the home of my contact in Balige. And from there on out, my living situation was as similarly unpredictable as that first night. Although I did secure a space very close the village, I often randomly bounced between it and my contact’s home. I had expected my contact to withdraw once I’d settled in, but instead he and his family would graciously bring me to various places in Balige in order to show me how their Batak culture could be seen within the city—which was an invaluable help to my study.

Balige City

In all honesty, I feel like I continually come to conclusions during my semester that should be beyond obvious, so forgive me if I’ll make another: Without my contact or his family, I would certainly not have had access to many of the places and people that have fueled my ISP study. In fact, I would not have even known that these people and places exist! Thus, I come to the extraordinarily trite conclusion that connections are everything. Such people are more likely to know the ins and outs of a place and of their people far better than I, a stranger, could divulge during my brief stay. Without them, my study would certainly be lacking the bits and pieces that in my opinion enhance the overall quality and depth of my findings.

This is a Papaya, Big Papaya

Even by taking the time to simply socialize with the people in the area enriched my experience and added to my knowledge, impressing upon me how very little I actually knew and where I should start in my journey to find out more. Therefore, I make the claim that dedicating the time to casually integrate oneself into the social spheres of a place is just an important as the academic research that one must perform while conducting their ISP.

Thank you, and until next time!