Last weekend I was hiking through a local park with my husband when I heard an American accent! My heart dropped. Almost the same way my heart dropped when I moved to NYC from Orlando FL and heard a neighbor speaking Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent. There’s a lot of Spanish spoken in NYC, but nothing with the sweet cadence of someone who learned Spanish straight from Puerto Rico. At the time it reminded me of my life where I spent the second half of my childhood. I had the same perking up of emotions when I heard the traveler in front of me. My eyes narrowed in, I told my husband I could hear another American. I managed to listen in a bit more closely. “Oh, he sounds West coast.” I said in sure confidence. Visages of Seattle, Sacramento, and Reno swept behind my eyelids… definitely not East Coast or Mid-West. I have ears like bats for dialect! Okay not really but I was very confident in at least my coastal assessment.
As we passed the other American I greeted him in earnest. Seeing another white person in Indonesia is weird. Most I have encountered don’t want to engage or talk to me because when I make eye contact with another bule (white foreigner) they often look away or intentionally avoid me. Perhaps because it seems like we’re lost members of some minority tribe, and it would be silly to talk to each other just because of our skin. Maybe because all the other white people can tell I’m an American and we have a bad reputation. Who knows? I always want to run up to people and get to know them because I can go weeks without seeing another bule and I’m always curious as to what brought them to Indonesia.
My African American uncle who married into our family often talked about being uncomfortable when he’s traveling to more remote, white centric areas with my aunt. Skiing in New Hampshire, driving through small European cities, or even coming up to the summer cabin my family owns. There’s always this attention on you. It was never a concept that I understood since I grew up in an incredibly diverse high school. I was always around people from different backgrounds. In cases where I was in white washed areas I “look” prototypically American and continue to fit in.
Now I understand how he feels. It’s just that everyone’s eyes are on you all the time. From shopping, walking down the street, to eating lunch. The amount of times I’ve caught a server staring at me as I sat in their tiny, dusty shop eating ayam bakar (roasted chicken) with rice has lost its novelty on me long ago. Staff and workers often nudge each other and say “Bule!” like I am some B star celebrity that people recognize, but can’t remember where from. If I wanted to be really rude I know how to say “What are you looking at?” but I rarely do. But I have been known to shout back “Ya! Aku bule!” (Yes! I’m white!) with a sarcastic tone in my mouth.
Back on the trail, I mustered up the courage. Luckily white tourists (not those living here) are really receptive to saying hello, as opposed to ones living and working in Indonesia. I could tell he didn’t live nearby with his wide eyes and excited energy. I managed to say hi, told him I was from NJ and ask him where he was from. “Pennsylvania!” he said enthusiastically. Darn, I was wrong! I told him about my family cabin in the Poconos and hoped that he would enjoy the park and floated down the rest of the trail with joy.
I cannot explain the gratitude that comes to hearing one’s language again. While dating my husband in the US, he would bemoan the fact that there were probably less than 20 people in our town who he could speak Indonesian with, and a questionable number less with whom he could speak Javanese. I was sympathetic and tried to make him feel better rather unsuccessfully. There’s no real cure for feeling homesick. I have a huge helping hand while living abroad, considering all the media content we consume here is American English. I also Skype at least once a month with a friend from back home. I talk to my mother or father over Whatsapp.
I feel somewhat less lonely since I know two other women in my life are also living abroad. My cousin who just recently gave birth to her first child in northern Africa. A friend of mine who married an Australian man the same time I married my husband. Both of which I’ve had comforting and tragic conversations about attempts to fit in, creating boundaries, and how we negotiate communications with people who are vastly different than ourselves. Have you tried explaining what maple syrup is to airport security who thinks you’re just trying to smuggle in alcohol? Have you gone out in public trying to do something as simple as grocery shopping when you don’t know any of the brands or what the produce even is? Have you decided to skip going out because you can’t read the signs or know where the public transit goes? It’s exhausting.
I’ve officially been in Indonesia for approximately 481 days or around 1 year and 4 months. Moving isn’t a new concept in my life. I moved from California, to MA, to NJ until I was 12 until settling into Orlando for 9 years. After community college a generous offer from family members gave me the courage to apply (and become accepted into!) CUNY Hunter in NYC. I know my way around the Mid-West, South, and North East. I can talk on the points of Lolita and the effects of post-modern feminism or shoot the shit with a dirty joke on a broken swing set. I can roll a joint, paint, read classics, and share my open book story with anyone who comes across it. But most of these talents and parts of my identity became mute when I stepped into a new country. Suddenly I am navigating the broken sidewalks of Jakarta at night, wandering home with a tote full of English instruction books and student papers to grade. I couldn’t explain to my taxi driver where I wanted to go, just giving directions like left, right, or straight. All of my master’s training became stripped away when I became a private part time researcher.
I found one other woman in my apartment complex (better known in Indonesia as a “Kos” or “Kos-kosan” which is a stripped version of an apartment) to tell dirty jokes to, lucky. Like me she was a plucky, attitude driven Muslim wife who wore no hijab and freely admitted that she had lived with her husband before marriage without being embarrassed. She had spent a few years in Australia and became a good friend who I asked for wisdom in the time of my extremely fragile marriage. We spoke on religion, philosophy, marriage and benefits of Western culture that we missed greatly. Sanitation! High speed internet! Having your neighbor not all up in your business! We spoke to the wonderful entities of Indonesian life. Cheap food! Strong community support and identity! One stop shopping malls! Since then I’ve managed to build my own small collection of friends which has helped, but that first person who you connect with on your own terms is always so life saving.
One thing I can say for sure is the animosity for immigrants at home makes me more sympathetic than ever. The political dynamics of a place like Indonesia are vastly different than America to be sure. In reality, it isn’t like the Indonesia is a world power, or even a household name, with hundreds of thousands seeking to come to its shores. But standing in immigration trying to renew my visa so I can stay for another year helped me feel the anxiety that others may be facing at home. The deportations and raids are on one hand extremely necessary to help ensure the safety and well being of all people on our land, visiting or living. Nobody is or should be entitled to live in another country without qualifying. It might be that they need a safe place to live like in the case of the Burma, Bhutan and Somalia refugees that have settled into Syracuse over the last decade, or being a qualified student studying for higher knowledge, experienced workers entering jobs in the U.S. Perhaps like my own journey it’s about uniting and being with my husband, my family.
A US student peer of mine got a job right out the door after graduation. He confessed to me, “I know I’m not that great, but I’ll cost less to hire than a more qualified worker who studied abroad and will need a work visa.” It was a sad realization about the balance of life and work in the US. I don’t believe we need to scare the shit out of the parents and children who have come illegally and made peaceful lives for years, or decades even. We don’t need better border patrol, or a wall so much as we need to ensure that it isn’t so easy to simply stay if you don’t do anything wrong. Because that’s the reality of many of the illegal friends I grew up. They simply came on a tourist visa and never left.
I’m grateful we have peaceful relations that allow me to live with my husband in Indonesia. But on the other hand, in the US the amassed hatred and anxiety about immigrants has spilled over to anyone who isn’t white. Forget American, because nobody asked “Oh hey are you Chinese-American?” before shouting “Make America White Again!” in my friend’s face. The town hall meeting for Americans back in Jakarta months ago had a huge band of skin colors and tones sitting at the tables but this has always been how I’ve seen my country. Months ago I asked a couple I knew from high school about their experience applying for a spousal visa. Both are Brazilian have spent a majority of their lives living in the U.S. and are intelligent, contributing members of society. The only difference is that the wife lived in the U.S. legally and the husband illegally. The husband, and my own friend since middle school, said he could “pass” for white with a hipster beard and a plaid shirt, but had been harassed and detained at the border despite having a valid green card through his marriage to his legal Brazilian wife. Before the Trump administration.
I think about the quality of life my husband will have in the U.S. He will be praised and valued for his skills alone as a brilliant programmer and network engineer most likely. In our day to day life from the outside no one will support him for his heritage or identity. Our kids I hope to have a blend of both American and Indonesian qualities but it will be ultimately a fragmented experience in either one culture or the other. I assume that we will be scorned or questioned as we already are every time we go out to eat, pull up to pump gas at a car, go to a party invited by friends and meet strangers. People will question or assume his motives, as they do mine. Even our hired pastor who officiated our marriage, 30 minutes before our scheduled hitch, stood and gave me a 20 minute lecture on inter-religious choices in front of all of our guests coming in. My students in Jakarta were shocked when I told them I had married an Eastern Javanese man I met in the US.
America is not the same place it used to be since the Trump election either. There was a shooting in Olathe, KS that gunned down a crowd, targeting legal immigrant workers. The shooter apparently thought he was targeting Iranian workers. First of all, shooting people in public settings is not okay. Second of all, shooting people because of their nationality without truly knowing them is not okay either. Even if these workers were actually from Iran, then confront the apprehension and get to know them. Are they engaging in suspicious activity? Cool, call the police. I’m not going to pretend there aren’t hateful or violent people out there, but I’m also not down for propagating hatred based on Nationality. ISIS supporters blew up their own Muslim brothers in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria just in this past month alone.
The mid-west is already a place I would largely cross of my list of potential places to live because of the silent, but extremely imposing feeling of segregation that exists there. Hate crimes against all manners of faiths and minorities are breaking out across the country and are largely targeted towards Jewish and Muslim believers. I see friends hesitantly post psalms and prayers for fear of being ridiculed for bringing religion into the light even when they are from a major religion. It’s made me think strongly about my own negative reactions to public displays of religion. In America we seem to condemn or ask people to keep that stuff at home. We fight about federal funding going towards buying a Christmas tree for display in the court lobby due to separation of Church and State and the shock of Starbucks turning their cups green in supposed support of Muslim identity. Meanwhile in Indonesia there is a blatant, overarching religious theme to every day life that will effect you whether you participate or not. Christian minority communities have had their churches shut down, terrorized, and otherwise discouraged. This last Christmas season shopping centers including malls in Surabaya and a car dealership in Bekasi found push back from having to wear Santa hats or other Christmas symbols of the holiday. The current Chinese-Christian mayor of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama, is currently facing blasphemy charges for attacking the Quran. Both systems have their ups and downs.
I will never fit in Indonesia. My husband will never fit in the US. I’m an immigrant, that is more obvious than anything before I even open my mouth. Two days ago on Sunday I attended a wedding reception. Everywhere I stood it was impossible for me to blend in as a wallflower. My dress was short, I was easily the tallest woman in the entire room (partly due to wearing high heels but also Indonesian women are TINY), and the lightest person in a room of hundreds of other people. Little girls ogled, adults made double takes, other women looked at me with what was either curiosity or scorn. Sometimes it is hard to tell which. In the end, sitting on a wicker chair waiting for the party to wrap up and for our Uber to come, one of the wedding service staff asked for my picture. Not my name, or who I was. Just my picture. I managed to asked him in Bahasa Indonesia what his name was, give his hand a friendly shake, and introduce myself. But it’s always a bit weird knowing the way I look is the highlight of someone’s next Instagram post.