Leila Goldstein '14: Running For My Life

Leila Goldstein was the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is her second year narrative. 

I was first introduced to flypaper in Indonesia. The first time I saw it in action, the adhesive paper was already covered with dead and dying flies. I watched as a soon-to-be prisoner flew by with one of her legs grazing the sticky coating. I saw her place down another leg to help with pulling off the first. Soon she was attached at all points and I looked on as she struggled to pull herself off with no success. In my lowest moments on this fellowship, I have identified with that fly. I have felt stuck in a hard place, only getting myself deeper in as I tried to pull loose.

With a year of relative unhappiness under my belt, I was determined to make my second year more structured, daring, and joyous. While traveling to Beijing this summer, my co-fellow Ursula mentioned how her whole family had run marathons. I had never entertained doing a marathon, thinking they were only for super-athletic types who had run their whole lives. And although I knew Ursula was far more disciplined than me after she described her Chinese study schedule, as we both sat dicking around on our computers, I figured, if she can do it maybe I can do it too. Besides, after a year of motorbiking, teaching English, and eating durian, I was now an expert at doing things I knew nothing about and had never done before.

wearing sensible shoes in Beijing, China while visiting Shansi co-Fellow Ursula


At the end of the summer I visited my parents in Singapore and set this half-baked plan in motion. Not with training, of course, but with buying neon sportswear and track pants to cover my woman-skin in style. I also bought a pair of new teal and pink running shoes at a high-tech running store. There, a running expert watched me run on a treadmill to conduct “gait analysis” and optimally advise me on what type of padding my feet required. I also settled on a half marathon—not wanting to kill myself—in December in Singapore. I still had not gone on a single run.

I am no sporty spice. In high school I spent the required laps in P.E. class plotting political protests against my conservative gym teachers. I was never on a sports team, but was a member of theater sports, an improv competition league. I received a varsity letter not for swinging sticks or flicking pucks, but for being a part of the theater journalism team. I was also not very cool. Aside from the occasional dance class, athletics has never been a big part of my life. About three minutes into my first run in Singapore’s 80 degree weather, I had the thought “Oh, wait, I forgot, I hate running.” But, I’d already bought the outfit so there was no turning back.

running on the black sand beach

Running in Banda Aceh is not always so fun. First of all, running is not always so fun. (Have you ever gone running before? It’s pretty horrible, right?) Your feet hurt, you sweat, you breathe like you’re going to die. Also, it’s really hot here, which limits running times to early in the morning and late afternoon. Another problem is running location. During my first year I was groped by a stranger on a motorbike while walking in my neighborhood, so running around my neighborhood was out of the question. I decided the athletic track on campus was the best place to start my routine. At the track there were always people around walking, playing soccer on the field, or sitting under trees with friends.

In Banda Aceh I stand out. I don’t cover my hair or all of my arms and I’m white. Plus, while I’ve seen girls play on organized basketball and volleyball teams and in all girls yoga classes, running is not a common way for girls to exercise. Sometimes I see girls at the track, but they are usually leisurely walking with friends while wearing full body plastic sweat suits.

People shout at me a lot. I probably would too if I saw an alien walking around town. I’ve gotten used to the occasional “bule” (white person/foreigner) call. And I like to be creative when responding to probing questions about my birth year (‘56), marital status (married with seven kids), and why I have an Arabic name (You’ll have to ask my parents cough cough it’s also Hebrew). These interactions can range from amusing to somewhat annoying. The same random calls and questions happened on most days at the track, but could usually be drowned out by Nikki Minaj playing in my headphones or evaded with a brief toothy grin and a double thumbs up.

However, occasionally I experienced genuine harassment. A few times groups of guys tried to block my way on the track so that they could talk to me. I once was chased off the field by a bunch of men when I kept running a few minutes past sundown, adding some sprinting to my regular workout. I also had guys run alongside me while making strange faces and gestures as their friends laughed from the sidelines.

Ignoring these harassers has been my main tactic, not wanting to give them the attention they want. But when someone is standing in front of you blocking you from moving, it is impossible not to respond. The first really bad incident was during my first two hour run. I was fifteen minutes from finishing when a group of men started calling out to me. One disadvantage of running on a track is that you keep passing the same harassers and they can plan their next gag while knowing exactly when you’ll be circling back. They started yelling things like “go baby” and clapping and jeering as I passed. Then a few of them sat on the path to block me from running. This was when I totally lost it. I was exhausted from running and had no composure at all. I was angry and I started yelling. I probably looked like a crazy person, especially in a culture where people rarely express anger in public. Plus, there wasn’t a chapter on “Cool Comebacks to Sexual Harassment” in my Bahasa textbook, so I really wasn’t making much sense or much of an impact. “That’s not funny!” I yelled. “Don’t be like that!” I hurled at them. And most threatening of all “That’s not polite!” I screamed. I spoke on the verge of tears “I can’t run on the street because I got groped running on the street, so I have to run here, but there are always men like you harassing me!” Two Unsyiah students came over to help me. They told me to call them anytime I wanted to run so they would come with me, because it’s not that common to see a woman running alone. I was grateful for their help, but also annoyed at the suggestion that I needed a friend to come with me even at a place specifically designed for running. I felt embarrassed about my outburst too. I don’t regret my reaction, but I didn’t feel great afterwards either.

Yet, I wasn’t going to let this get me down. The constant notifications I was getting from my running app weirdly kept me from giving up. I also got some tips from my Bahasa teacher Vivi about good comebacks, most of which involved shaming men for not living up to honorable Acehnese culture. I started running with my friend Emma on a mystical, usually deserted black sand beach. Running became meditative: it was a time to think, to not think, or to listen to an endless loop of Taylor Swift songs. It was a time for lots of mental math. OK, I’ve run 13 minutes, that means I have 17 minutes left. How many kilometers have I done? Three, OK that’s one seventh of what I’ll have to do in the real race. Random parking guys and strangers on the street recognized me as that girl who was always running. I became really diligent about managing my time. I came to love pushing myself physically and mentally. I had another harassment incident, but this time I was more composed (it was the beginning of the run) and my Bahasa was better. (“I just want to run here and you guys are making it impossible! How would you feel if every time you passed, a group of twenty men laughed at you!” hitting them with that tried and true, fierce as fuck golden rule.) I got looks of shock and shame, as if they didn’t know I was capable of responding, and an apology and permission to keep running. (No thank you, I do not need your permission to run.)

My time in Aceh has been a test of endurance. It has been a long, slow run around a small track. I am able to withstand discomfort because I know there will be a big payoff in the end. I have sat on long stuffy car rides in the heat knowing that the result will be a delicious array of wedding food and deserts. I have struggled through not being able to communicate my ideas about religion, gender, and culture to my friends, knowing that it will benefit our friendship to at least try to explain what I think. I have faced a sea of blank stares from my students when they don’t understand what I am asking, forcing me to become more creative in my teaching without getting discouraged. While I sometimes feel like I am running in circles, and at times I literally am, I have seen the slow surprising power of endurance. I am not a stranded fly stuck in one place. I am just moving really slowly. A tortoise. All I needed was a bit of time to see my gradual progress and to realize I was winning the race.

Then, in November, came the first major hitch in the plan. I had signed up for a half marathon in Singapore, but my visa was still being processed and my passport was, apparently, inside of a locked box at the immigration office in Banda Aceh that could not be opened without canceling my whole visa application. My earlier application had mistakenly, and hilariously, stated that I, an American citizen, was in Indonesia to study English. When that proposal was understandably rejected, my application had to be reprocessed, thus taking much longer than expected. So, the Singapore race was out, but I remained calm. I searched online for races in Indonesia and found one in Jakarta on December 19th. As I wouldn’t be able to leave the country for Christmas, my mom decided to come see me run in Jakarta.

The day of the race I flew to Jakarta and met my mom. The race started at 11pm because of the relentless heat and traffic during the day. We arrived at 9 pm. When I got out of the cab I started seeing people in orange race t-shirts. I asked one guy where I could pick up my t-shirt and he said “Oh, you had to pick it up last week.” I wasn’t worried yet. I arrived at the sign-in booth and said I needed to pick up my t-shirt. “Oh, you had to pick it up last week,” a race organizer replied. Then they said I could not run. The orange t-shirt was the ticket into the race.

In disbelief after all the work I had put it in to get there, I decided I was not going to let this happen. They had to let me run. I dug my heels in and began my defense. I showed that I had paid and registered for the race, explained that I did not live in Jakarta and could not have picked up the t-shirt, and pleaded with them that I had come all the way from Sumatra to run. They told me “Well, you could have had a friend pick it up for you” to which I responded “I don’t have any friends!” When this didn’t work, I made vague threats of mean posts on social media accounts I don’t even have. Finally, after an hour of being the loud obnoxious American I am, an Indonesian woman came to my defense and told the guy they should just let me run, and he reluctantly let me in the arena. I didn’t have a t-shirt or an official timing chip. That was fine with me. I just wanted to run.

I rushed in to the group of runners waiting to begin the race. Of the 2,500 runners, I was the only person not wearing an orange t-shirt. The actual race was a blur of adrenaline, hip pain, an inner macho voice saying “You didn’t come here to walk,” and little cups of Pocari Sweat. As I finally crossed the finish line I saw the poor race organizer I had yelled at. He congratulated me on finishing and I apologized for being so difficult. I met up with my mom and hobbled back to the hotel exhausted. The whole experience was oddly typical of my time in Indonesia: not understanding the system, having to argue with men in order to run and get what I want, and then hopelessly sticking out like a weirdo American despite all of my efforts to blend in.

at the half marathon in Jakarta–it’s not easy being green


As my time in Banda Aceh is coming to a close, I have been doing a different kind of mental math. Is this the last time I’m going to eat at my favorite lunch place Montasik? The last time I have to refill the water jug? My last trip to Calang? How many more classes with Vivi do I have? Is it worth getting my motorbike washed if I’m only here for four more weeks? How many more times will I get to watch Gilmore Girls with Amel? Despite all this counting and the mixed emotions that come with it, in my last few months here I have been enjoying somewhat of a “runner’s high.” After making it through my last two years here, I am trying to get in as many sunsets, beach trips, cheap massages, and late night sessions with friends, trying to spend as much time as possible with my favorite people doing my favorite things.

at the beach with my friend Tya

A few weeks ago I helped organize a screening of the documentary “I Learn America” about international students in the US. I was nervous about speaking afterwards, worried they expected me to be some kind of expert on US immigration issues and anxious about my Bahasa. It ended up going really well. I spoke about my experiences in Indonesia and an Indonesian woman, Una, spoke about her experiences getting her master’s in America. I felt proud of how far I had come in speaking in front of new groups of people, in my language abilities, and in my confidence in myself. The final question came from a bold female student: “My question isn’t about America because I can just use Google for that,” she said, the crowd laughing in response. “My question is, as a woman: Una, did your parents really allow you to go to the US alone? And Leila, did your parents really allow you to go to Indonesia alone?”

My first reaction was how sad it is for some women here to feel so controlled even in pursuit of an education and an international experience. What came to mind next were all of the similar reactions I received in the US after people heard I was going to Banda Aceh for two years. Many people simply asked why I wanted to move to a place that put so many restrictions on women. Other people made comments about it not being a good place for women to live. Even Shansi has considered not allowing women to go to Banda Aceh in the future.

It’s not safe for a Muslim woman to live in America with so much Islamophobia. It’s not safe for a foreign woman to live in Banda Aceh under Sharia Law. While the various experiences of women around the world are certainly different, both of these perspectives make claims on what is a safe place for a woman. And both share the idea that we can protect a woman by limiting her movement in the world.

Why would you move to a place like that? Why did you stay? Why do you keep running?

I don’t have a good answer to these questions, except to say: just leave women be, wherever they choose to run.