Sydney Garvis '18: Before My Eyes

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

When my mom and sister came to Indonesia this Christmas, after a year of not seeing each other, our family dynamic was no different; family is the same regardless of hemisphere. We caught up with each other a whole lot and laughed and played cards, but we also had some arguments or fights or spats or heated discussions. I have a hard time picking a word to describe these conversations; I’m not sure anything like them occur between people other than sisters who are close in age, and I think that because I, for reasons unknown, speak to my sister in a way that I would never think to speak to anyone else in my life. 


The most acrid of fights this trip occurred on a borrowed motorbike in search of the only ATM on this side of the island, based on only our bungalow host’s oral directions. Our fight started because we were a bit lost and, I’ll admit, because of my tone. She thought we’d passed the ATM and I told her I’d spent enough time in Indonesia to know that we hadn’t. Our low blood sugar, mutual irritation, and the ravenous mosquitos caused the floodgates to open. We sat down and let it out: she was angry with me for thinking I knew everything about Indonesia, even though I’d never been to this new island we were visiting, I was angry because she’s always been the traveler and couldn’t she let me help her, she was mad because I wasn’t giving her or Mom any chance to figure things out on their own, I was mad because she was lecturing me on how to communicate and express myself. Our frustration flowed as we struggled to find the sweet spot in the fight, when each sister has decided she doesn’t need the last word. There is a special phenomenon when we both know the fight is over, no grudges are held, and we can indulge in an ice cream with little memory of the raised voices just before. 

My mom, sister, and I in front of the plane we took to Belitung Island, Indonesia.

There was a moment in the fight when I said, “Well, I’ve lived in Indonesia for like 2 years now, what else am I supposed to talk about?!” and my words have stuck with me since then. It really does, at times, feel like Indonesia is all I have the capability to think and talk about. I’m constantly asked by people, some who have lived in Banda Aceh for less time than me, what I think about the place, the food, the humidity, what my opinion is on this or that. My perspective is rare enough that I had the opportunity to be interviewed on live Indonesian Television. I kept my shaking hands in my lap as I tried to explain that Aceh is not confined to what you read in the news stories; these are strong, close communities, and while I’ve had some struggles, I have found a great life here, with the help of some really amazing people. 

A new hobby always comes with new friends: Paula and I with our watercolor bookmarks.

Aceh is a place that has altered the way I live, in ways that I only register when I leave and return and notice differences again. When I first arrived, I thought I could never get used to these changes, but now they feel like normal afterthoughts. I think it’s a little gross if I don’t wash myself after using the bathroom. My ideas of modesty, clothing, and fashion have completely changed; I no longer think it’s ridiculous to go out in 90°F heat wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt, I now think it’s practical. Just like everyone else in Indonesia, I don’t feel quite full unless there was rice with the meal. Often, the sound of a call to prayer coming from the mosques nearby doesn’t consciously register in my ears. There is an odd, brief moment when we watch US American movies and they drive on the other side of the road and it looks weird to me. I have given up on being frustrated by expecting plans for my day or life to happen on schedule, such a funny change from my Google calendar when I was at Oberlin, with every minute reserved for some prompt activity.


Last year, Peter, my senior Shansi fellow, and I travelled together before he left, and in Surabaya we stayed with an Indonesian guy who had an extra room because his aunt was away for Eid. Between bites of fried eel and rice, he asked us both, “Do you think you’re happy?”, and after a beat I realized I hadn’t asked myself this question for a while. “I guess, I don’t think about it, so it means I must be happy.” 

Listening intently to the questions about Aceh... hoping I’ll be able to understand and answer. 

I feel that same sensation around every three months when Gavin and Ted remind us to send in our reports. It’s only when I’m faced with processing and putting into writing my personal growth, relationships, struggles, and frustrations that I count how many experiences I’ve had here, and it was all without realizing how much I’ve changed since first arriving and being too scared to leave my room at the homestay. I can list above how many ways my life has changed in subtle, concrete ways, but it’s hard for me to process and then to communicate how much I feel my mindset has changed as well. 

The Aceh Zero Plastic community held a park clean up. 

My senior year at Oberlin, I applied for Fulbright ETA and was rejected. I also had a dream to do the Watson Fellowship, but was told not to bother with an application because my GPA might unofficially disqualify me anyway. Before Shansi, I felt I had a short, specific list of opportunities that I could pursue for the rest of my life. As I near the end of two years of living in this community, teaching some of the most eager students I’ll probably ever have and absorbing new outlooks without realizing it, I see now that that list for the rest of my life is absolutely endless. Because of this experience, I am at ease with the idea that I could go to any country and figure it out, without a program’s guidance, and hopefully grow as much as I have here. My only challenge now is to just choose what I want and pursue it (and perhaps navigate various baffling visa applications).

If I feel like I’ve changed a great deal, then why am I still arguing with my sister on the side of the road? I don’t have any answers. I don’t know if we’ll ever not do that, and to my mom’s remiss I don’t know where to tell my family to meet me next Christmas. I’m still trying to understand the ways I have changed, and seeing my sister made me see some ways I haven’t changed, and both are okay. I have an opened mindset about where I’m going, with no real destination as of yet, but I’m happy to feel grounded in my family with whom I can banter, and yell at and explore a new hemisphere.

My overwhelmingly large (35 students!) but wonderfully curious conversation speaking class last semester.

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