Sydney Garvis '18: Shansi Mythology

Sydney Garvis is the 2018-2020 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is her first year narrative.

Recurring characters in my life are always telling me stories about the house that I live in. It seems I've only blown off the dust on the cover of the dilapidated tome of stories of cat adoptions, secret parties, and rainy days that various people in my life have mentioned to me about the time they lived in the house I now live in. A long time ago, an alleged ex-combatant in the Aceh separatist movement GAM, once shot at the house, and I can’t get a straight answer about why this actually happened, but apparently it was to intimidate the residents. (I haven’t been able to find any bullet holes in the walls.) More recently, a Halloween party was hosted in the house, complete with scary paintings; until recently they were taped on the side of the fridge. A volleyball court was once the center of trash-talking tournaments in the hot shade of the backyard. There’s no sign of it now, only weeds that an old man comes to cut for his hungry cows. This colorful volume of Shansi stories doesn’t exist, any written word is forgotten on the brown bookshelf in the living room. Its contents are only expressed orally over a cup of kopi sanger, like most other things in Aceh.


The house itself is bigger than the average Indonesian home, and actually one house split into two, as to stay in accordance with Sharia law that forbids unmarried men and women from living under one roof. The unevenly divided house, in reality, means there is a boarded over door in my kitchen that leads into the other house’s kitchen, and when I want to borrow our one shared can opener, I have to put on my shoes and walk outside to the exterior door of the other kitchen, just to open a can of imported garbanzo beans. Recently, a woman stopped in the university office and chatted with me about the time she had lived in the house years ago. Pak Kim, an older Korean professor, lived in the smaller house, and so to her, the separate houses meant checking every couple of days to make sure Pak Kim was still well and that he had a gallon of water in the water cooler. To the incoming fellow Emily, it means for the first time in five years, the house can be shared because there will be two fellows of the same gender, or possibly recombine the houses into one. 


The house has been passed down from Shansi fellow to Shansi fellow since the second year ever of Shansi fellows in Aceh, in 2008. Not only the structure, but all the half-used spices in the kitchen, the paperbacks on the shelf, the clothing that couldn’t be shoved in a suitcase, and roommates and beloved friends, have been passed down as well. The house and its contents have changed a lot; Peter and I added a whole lot of plants outside and inside, I painted the inside of my house, and my plan is to change it even more. It needs a new coat of paint on the exterior, and the living room couch has been there for over ten years! These changes come with inklings of fear that I’m disrupting something I shouldn’t disturb. Perhaps if I choose a different color of paint, it will ruin the continuity of first day and last day pictures taken on the front porch, or that replacing the dusty couch will sever a connection to our Shansi ancestors who passed so much time sitting, sweating because of the heat, in the living room, just as we do now. 

Peter, Jannah (the lovely roommate of my predecessor, Julia Skrovan ‘15), and me in front of the house. Look at our plants!

Other things in my Shansi life have been passed down as well. My desk in the university office has a funny picture of Tino on it, some lesson plans I use were written by Julia and Leila, Peter decorated the front of the fridge with his trademark green apple stickers, over many years a collection of ESL teaching books have accumulated in the Language Center Library. There are invisible fingerprints left by each fellow on the people they were surrounded by, surprisingly not limited to just the borders of the city of Banda Aceh. On a trip to Takengon, an 8 hour drive into the cooler, coffee-growing highlands of the province of Aceh, we stopped at a coffee farm and café to be tourists in a place that not many tourists frequent. Many interactions I have start with the usual request for my story; the more remote the place, the more requests I receive in a day. Where am I from, what am I doing in Aceh, was I assigned to come here or did I choose, where did I learn Indonesian so well, am I married yet, what do I think about Aceh. My ability to speak Indonesian is really overstated in these interactions because I’ve had so much practice answering these same questions. I should add, I’m happy to answer these questions because when I see another foreigner my curiosity is stirred about their origin and purpose in Aceh. As the owner of the coffee farm launched into this thread of inquiries, he perked up at my story. He knew an English teacher who lived in Banda Aceh a few years ago, and who was interested in making films. Patrick! As soon as I said the name, he recognized it, told the story of Patrick’s visit to the farm, and I was amazed by the breadth of the relationships that Shansi fellows had cultivated. That wasn’t the only coincidence like that. While traveling in Bali, I met a businessman who commutes between Tokyo, Jakarta, and Bali, and who, years ago, used to be a student of a Shansi fellow, when she taught in Jakarta, after her Shansi fellowship. He’s even been to the house in Banda Aceh and has also visited Oberlin’s campus. 

Stories are shared over a cup of coffee with some small sweet cakes and treats. My favorite is a sanger, which is a cup of arabica coffee with sugar and sweetened condensed milk. The name comes from sama-sama ngerti, translating to something like “equally understood”. It was a code to the waiter to use less sugar and milk in the drink, which reduces the price by a few cents, popularized during the economically difficult 90’s in Aceh.

I occasionally wonder, in a narcissistic way, what stories will be passed down about me over cups of coffee? What gossip will be turned into partial myths that are entered into these volumes of Shansi mythology? Who will remember me after I board the plane to my next destination after this two year long fellowship? These questions sometimes empty out my experience, my inner dialogue insisting I compare my own experience here to the experience of others, wallowing because maybe I am not having as good of a time or much less of an impact during my time here. This feeling is only exacerbated by the dearth of direct information from past fellows about their time in Aceh and the surplus of big fish stories told years after their time here or details about them made more central to their character than they actually were. But most of the time, the stories I hear about past fellows and hand-me-downs in the house and office fill me up and remind me that I’m in a special program, built on sturdy relationships with many people in lots of places, lucky enough to have people who might one day talk about me to Shansi fellows who are years my junior. I shouldn’t be worrying about this -- I still have a year to iron out my legacy.  


This mythology, this oral history, is only possible due to the magic of the one year of overlap between fellows. That overlap, at least in my mind, means moving abroad to do a job I’ve never done before in a place as different as Aceh, but having a puddle of support to jump into. It heightens my sense of community here, it boosts my confidence in the classroom, it means I have people to answer my endless questions before I even ask them. It means I don’t have to figure all this out on my own.

Learning about Acehnese oral history as well, Peter and I are here with the actors from the play Tjoet Nyak Meutia, an Acehnese heroine who fought the Dutch colonists in the early 1900s. Interesting tidbit: Tjoet Nyak Meutia (played by the actress wearing green on my right) is pictured on the 1000 Indonesian Rupiah note.

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