Hyacinth Parker '17: Indonesia hasn't broken me...yet
Hyacinth Parker is the 2017-2019 Shansi Fellow at Gadjah Mada University. This is her first year narrative.
Since moving to Indonesia, I have made lists.
There have been a variety. A list of Western foods I want to make – chicken pot pie and mashed potatoes at the top, though I never remember craving them at home. A list of clothing that I hope the people at the laundry service don’t shrink, burn or lose. A list of self-service laundromats I started going to after they shrunk a friend’s dress, burned my jacket, and lost all of our dish towels. The money I’ve spent for the week. The people who have exclaimed “But you’re Black!” in Indonesian when I tell them I’m from the United States. The times I’ve been shocked when hearing an Indonesian person speak with an Australian accent – and a corresponding list of the times I’ve scolded myself for assuming that American accents are the baseline. The flavors and spices and the places I can find them…or can’t – namely vanilla extract, which is not available in Indonesia other than in Bali and Jakarta because it contains alcohol (who would’ve thought). A list of people I have met and liked. A list of people who I did not connect with and the reasons why – didn’t understand my humor, poor eye contact, said Trump wasn’t that bad. The English names of Chinese kids who I teach online for extra money (Smile, Apple, Barbie). The jokes that my students have actually understood and laughed at (my most recent success was joking that having a boyfriend was the same as having a pet). A list of nice coffee shops. A list of the terribly cliché signs in these nice coffee shops. A list of the movies and tv shows I’ve watched with my Czech roommate, and the number of times she’s said “Americans are crazy” after finishing an episode of House of Cards, Riverdale, or Insecure, or during the rolling credits of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, and Lady Bird.
A list of the number of times my mom has said “tomorrow is another day.”
The longest running and most consistently updated catalog is that of my wins and losses. When I have won the game, and when Indonesia has beaten me with a characteristic smile and ‘Maaf, ya’ (Sorry, yeah), followed by a small bow, which means that my turn is over. Even the smallest wins and losses determined whether my day was a success or a failure, whether I could pass ‘go’ and collect two hundred dollars, or landed on the ‘go to jail’ sign.
When I first arrived, there was a three-day period when I had no clue how to get water. Each water level decrease in my three-gallon jug, only increased the volume of my internal scream. It sounds funny to an outsider. Why wouldn’t you just call someone? Why not just order the gallons online? Couldn’t you just go to the grocery store? Every time I tell this story, someone comes up with some incredibly rational solution they believe I overlooked. It would work in the U.S. so why not in Indonesia? But that’s the thing I had to learn. Things that seem obvious at home, just aren’t obvious here.
Take the water. In the past, there was a guy who would deliver the three gallon jugs of water to the apartment. You would text him, and a few hours later, he would show up with the water that would last you for the next two weeks. When I texted the guy, however, he didn’t respond. I waited a day and then tried again and breathed a sigh of relief when I got a message back. The water was three cups away from being totally empty and the man agreed to come by later that afternoon.
But he didn’t come. Literally didn’t show up. I messaged again. I called. I asked a friend to contact him in case there was something wrong with my number. I asked another friend to check my writing to make sure my Indonesian was comprehensible. But nothing.
I ended up receiving a message from him three days later, after I had taken matters into my own hands. After I spent two days commuting to the corner store a mile away to grab the liter plastic water bottles I had promised my environmentally conscious friends I would never purchase.
After I jumped on my motorbike and drove through the rainy streets of Jogja until I found a stall on the side of the road selling the huge water pieces.
I felt like Nancy Drew as I found the stall, loaded the two 1 ½ ft. high bottles onto my bike, and drove them to my apartment. Like Hercules as I carried them up the two flights of stairs. Like Wonder Woman as I cleaned one jug off and loaded it into my water dispenser.
A few hours after succeeding in this immense feat, my phone buzzed. The water guy. His message translated to “I might be at your place around 3.” I responded “Don’t bother.”
This is only one example of a day in Indonesia. I can happily report that my days have become more nuanced as the months have passed – characterized less by the immediate panic that set in after recognizing that I was faced with yet another challenge. Many of these basic things have gotten easier, or at least, I’ve figured out how to handle them. When I had to get a new gas tank for the stove, I didn’t bat an eye when I found myself transporting an 80-year-old man on my motorbike to my apartment, the 40 lb. metal container in his lap.
My list of wins has been way closer to my list of losses this year than at any other point. I don’t face these huge obvious challenges every day. However, I still face enough struggles that seem minute to outsiders but are gargantuan to me. Even the things I know aren’t big ticket items are tiring. One example is when my homestay mom finally told me that every time she said “Doesn’t matter,” it actually really mattered. I was filled with dread as I ran back through what seemed like countless times she had said “Doesn’t matter” and I had believed her. Another example is the amount of NGO’s, clubs, arts and culture groups I’ve contacted and gone in to talk with only to realize that what I thought was a legit organization was really just a friend group hanging out in one of their houses. No big deal, but it’s a jolt to realize that you’ve walked into an already established friend group that mostly speaks Javanese slang when you’re only trying to intern.
I think that many of these losses are just a result of The Transition. The result of moving into the larger world after the relative ease and comfort of college. If you spoke to any of my friends at home, they’d all say they’re doing fine but would also most likely say something like “This year has been equivalent to being repeatedly punched in the face.”
It’s comforting to know it’s not just me. But also, being on the other side of the world with new languages, a new culture, a different humor, dress code, internet blocks, religion, set of expectations, etc. has not made things easier.
Every time I’ve told my parents about these struggles, my mom has said, “Tomorrow is another day.” Most times I’m in a bad mood and quip back “Yeah, you said that about today too.” But the adage has gotten me through the times that have been exhaustingly difficult. My dad always comments on how quickly I can bounce back from a hardship. This year, I’ve bounced so much it feels like I’ve been on a trampoline. The year’s bruises have been both mental and physical – falling off of my motorbike made me brutally aware of my mortality at too young an age. But I have figured things out. I ended up finding an internship. I continue to study Indonesian and I’m (slowly) learning Javanese. I’ve travelled to Hong Kong and Vietnam and Taiwan and Thailand and Malaysia – many places that I had never given much thought to before landing on this continent. I got water.
So while my list of wins and losses currently feels like I’m operating at a 51:49 percent ratio, and while many of my other lists have titles like “How many ways a server can tell you that what you ordered is not in stock,” and “Occasions when people giggle to avoid confrontation,” I’ve also had a growing list of tricks that have helped me figure out how to navigate each new day.