Eli Fisher '16: Reflections on a First Year in Yogyakarta
I have been struggling with what to write for this narrative for far too long. Should it be funny? Should it be a narrative about my own personal growth? Should it be informative? Should it be a story that serves as representative of a larger lesson? Alas, I have decided to present some stories and reflections, from the sublime to the mundane, about my time in Yogyakarta thus far.
Dressed in traditional Javanese clothing with an UGM lecturer at a wedding celebration.
A couple months into the fellowship I found myself returning to one of my all time favorite TV shows, Curb Your Enthusiasm, for a few slightly unexpected reasons. In the past year I have been spending far too much time stressing about my receding hairline, and cursing the hair gods for not connecting beard health to hair health, as my beard remains as healthy as ever. Thus as a way to cope with the rapid recession and the subsequent anxiety stemming from said recession, I looked to Larry David, the father of all bald Jewish men, for solace as hair loss is a recurring theme of the show. Whether or not this has actually helped quell my anxiety, it certainly has led me to consistently joke about it in a self-deprecating manner. Around the same time I also began thinking a lot about my own Jewish identity and more specifically, Jewish humor. As a Jew in Indonesia I am a bit of an anomaly. While I do not consider myself particularly religious, I do identify as very culturally Jewish. Since being in Yogyakarta I have only met two other Jews that I know of, and often the Indonesians I meet have either only met one or two Jewish people, or I am the first one. More so than I expected, I have found myself missing a certain “Jewishness.” So, once again I looked to Larry David, and a few books on Jewish humor to get my fix. Ultimately this led me to give a presentation on historical Jewish humor as seen through Curb Your Enthusiasm. In this presentation I chose to focus specifically on jokes stemming from the fear of assimilation to the non-Jewish world that has existed since Jews immigrated to America in the 19th and 20th century. As examples, I played a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm and presented a few jokes including:
“A Jewish father in the 21st century is walking with his son when he is stopped by a passerby who tells him how handsome the boy is. He proudly thanks the stranger, who then proceeds to ask the boy’s name. “Shlomo,” the father replies. “Shlomo?” says the passerby. “What kind of name is Shlomo?” The father answers: “He’s named after his dead grandfather whose name was Scott.”
Sadly, I have had a few discussions about Judaism and found that some Indonesians are only familiar with classic stereotypes and conspiracies about Jews, often those related to business and money. And while Larry David should not be anyone’s only introduction to Judaism, it is certainly better than only being familiar with these stereotypes and conspiracies.
View from the top of Mount Merapi, an active volcano right outside Yogyakarta.
In all the classes I taught during the second semester, there was one in particular that has continued to be one of the most memorable. For this English conversation class, the students were to bring in any recent news article from a reputable news source, present for a few minutes on the article, then lead a brief discussion. All of the students were very engaged and most picked really interesting and thought provoking articles, but there were two discussions in particular that made this class particularly memorable. The first discussion was on an article about men and women receiving equal pay in Iceland. The young woman who presented this article comes from a conservative background, and while giving us her thoughts about the topic we could see her actively grappling with this issue. As she was speaking we watched her come to the conclusion on her own that she believed men and women should get paid the same wages and the fact that this was not the case had suddenly occurred to her, seemingly for the first time. As she came to this realization she abruptly stopped and said, “Oh my god, I sound like a feminist!” And while I always remain neutral in these discussions and merely serve as a facilitator without interjecting any of my own opinions on the matter, I really could not help but smile while a few of the girls next to me said, “What’s wrong with that!?” A few minutes later another student presented an article related to mental health support. Her presentation spawned a discussion on the topic of mental health, how it is often very taboo to come forth and admit that one is struggling with such difficulties, and the lack of support for those who need it. Many students then began to discuss their own struggles with depression and anxiety and the support from their fellow students was incredible to see. Students were incredibly open about not only their own struggles, but also how they were able to overcome these struggles and what they thought might help others. Both of theses discussions stick with me not only due to the fact that they were able to have a very meaningful discussion about difficult topics in another language, but also the openness they felt in that moment to discuss topics that typically would not be discussed in such a setting.
Cooking at Bu Wiwik's house!
I have come to really appreciate how different the Shansi experience is compared to other study abroad programs and fellowships that I have seen or heard about here. I recently learned about what kind of in-country preparation others receive and what kind of support systems exist on the ground, and for some of these programs these are quite extensive. While have the pleasure to stay at the homestay of Ibu Wiwik, the Shansi mother and one of the nicest people I have ever met, we do develop a very unique and immediate independence which is an important part of the Indonesia Shansi experience. For the Shansi fellows here, life and work are very much a ‘learn on the job’ experience. We are dropped into this new situation where we only know a few people and must figure things out as we go along. While this can be a bit stressful and has been the cause for some frustration it has also produced many comical experiences, such as trying to figure out what to do when your scooter dies in the middle of an intersection. But, I have appreciated these challenges and have begun to take pride in my ability to overcome them.
Monthly blues night at a local coffee shop.
This narrative would certainly not be complete without mention of my Indonesian language struggles; a struggle seemingly mentioned in many a Shansi narrative. “Oh Bahasa Indonesia is so easy compared to other languages!” “You don’t really need to learn the grammar so you’ll have no trouble becoming lancar (fluent)” I have heard these, and other comments like this, from Indonesians and foreigners alike. However for me, it has not been so easy. I am aware that this is due, in part, to the fact that I have not studied as much as I should. But also I am in a unique position where learning another language forces me to confront two learning deficits of mine and the resulting insecurities that follow, specifically my short term memory and word retrieval ability. A few years ago I had what was likely an infectious parasitic brain disease, which limited my ability to create new memory and summon words easily. These are issues I still struggle with and both have caused me a lot of frustration over the past few years. Thus, learning another language has presented a unique challenge for me. Nevertheless, at this point I do feel very comfortable getting around my day day-to-day life with my Indonesian. But, for me the process of learning Indonesian was also made a bit more stressful due to the fact that I unfortunately often find I’m comparing myself to other Shansi fellows. This is quite easy to do, and not only with language. As a fellow in Indonesia, and more specifically in Yogya, we all go through exactly the same steps. We stay at the same homestay, we take language classes at the same school, we meet many of the same people, we work in the same offices, and exist in the same city that begins to feel smaller as the time goes on. Therefore you can more or less see how you compare to the many fellows that have come before you, and often will hear about the cool things they did or what they struggled with. In some ways this can certainly have a positive effect; it has inspired me to take more language risks, attempt to forge new relationships with co-workers, and go on more uncomfortable tinder dates then I probably would have. But I have also found it a bit dispiriting, especially comparing language skills and social life, two aspects of this fellowship I constantly overthink. It sounds petty, but this has been something that I have had to actively work on not doing, and even after a year this remains something I continue to struggle with. While we all come to the same place, from the same school, and do the same things early in our fellowship, we do come from very different backgrounds and personalities and adapt to new situations in different and unique ways. However simple these thoughts may seem, reminding myself of this has indeed been quite helpful throughout my first year.
I would just like to conclude this meandering narrative by saying how much of an enjoyable and meaningful experience it has been so far. And, I have become increasingly grateful to have another year in Yogyakarta.
Waisak celebration with Borobodur Temple in the background.