Teresa Tippens '15: Jogja, with Love

Teresa Tippens was the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellow at Gadjah Mada University. This is her first year narrative. 

My co-fellow in Aceh, Patrick, and I have a bit of a running joke about our positions within Shansi. I’m the “naughty child” because earlier in the year, I kept forgetting to reply to emails inquiring about my health and safety, which obviously didn’t sit well with the Shansi staff. I call him “Shansi’s darling” because they’ve written and posted more things about Patrick and his accomplishments than any other fellow this year. It’s a joke, but hiding behind it is the greatest source of anxiety I’ve faced since landing in Jogja: what am I doing here? What am I accomplishing?

Early on, I asked Patrick for some guidance. “Well, Teresa,” he said, “you have to find your strengths and utilize them.” Solid advice, but I wasn’t sure what could be defined as a strength beyond “I make great baked goods” (which is definitely a strength, don’t get me wrong). On top of that was the stress of adjusting to a crazy new life on the other side of the world. I sometimes felt like so much mental muck was being kicked up from the daily grind that I could barely process simple things, like being hungry or needing to sleep. What are my strengths? I’ll tell you after I figure out how to get drinking water delivered to my apartment, thanks.

I’m not sure what I expected. Oh wait, yes I do: my thoughts were, “Well, I know how culture shock goes because I’ve already lived abroad. This will be easier because I’m already an experienced pro.” Oh, Teresa-of-one-year-ago! You weren’t completely wrong, but you were missing one key component: change is hard, no matter how many times you experience it. Whether you are moving to a new country or breaking bad habits, being confident in the beginning doesn’t mean the adjustment is easy.

I arrived in Jogja poised and brimming with confidence; Jogja took one look at me and laughed. I figured I’d be able to get over my culture shock in four or five months and immediately start working on my “Shansi Project”, or the fantastical feats fellows achieve when they aren’t teaching or working. But somewhere between being sad about my poor Bahasa Indonesia skills, yet another bout of food poisoning, being terrified of getting a deathly illness, and crashing my motorbike for the third time, the first five months were gone. Then six. And seven. With the end of my first year suddenly staring me in the face, the insecurity became suffocating: What are you doing here? What are you accomplishing? How are you playing to your strengths?

my motorbike and neighborhood cats

Here’s the thing: I originally applied for the fellowship in Machida, Japan, because for me, Japan is a comfort zone and I was confident I’d be able to get down and dirty with doing all the things I’m interested in doing without a rough transition period. When my acceptance letter instead read “Yogyakarta, Indonesia”, I thought, “Well, #yolo.”

me at Prambanan, a very famous Hindu temple in Jogja. note the scarf, I wear it most days here

I knew it was going to be hard. The difference is that while adjusting to Japan had its struggles, Jogja has been able to drag my deepest-rooted insecurities out of hiding in a way Japan never quite got around to. I never had to drive in Japan. I never really worried about my proximity to a reputable hospital. I never had to live on my own with no close connections nearby (or at least none within walking distance). Living in Jogja not only revealed those fears, but did so in front of an audience of strangers and new acquaintances. At times I felt like screaming to people, “This isn’t who I actually am!!” because the anxiety-ridden puddle of terror I was felt so far from my perceived identity I wasn’t sure how they sprang from the same person. Of course, they did spring from the same person; they were just parts of myself I didn’t want to face.

I was incredibly lonely. I think most fellows are in the beginning. In my case, a large part of this stemmed from the fact that I told myself I wasn’t allowed to surround myself with only other foreigners because “I was better than that”. It’s true that there are many people who move to other countries and isolate themselves inside a bubble of people from their own culture. They get a pretty bad rep, especially among other expats. But I didn’t have any friends at all. I wasn’t in a high school being forced to talk to people until my language skills got better, and I didn’t have a host family to eat dinner and socialize with. At some point I figured any friends were better than no friends, so I started hanging out with foreigners. I was kind of disappointed in myself. I felt like I’d given in.

How wrong I was. Here I was, suffering from loneliness and culture shock and avoiding the very people capable of empathizing with me the most: other expats. And here’s what else I didn’t realize: expats exist in a kind of weird, globalized space where we all bring our own backgrounds to the table but also all have a lot of the same struggles and experiences. When I opened myself up to the expats of Jogja, I didn’t just end up with other Americans. There were plenty of Australians, Europeans, Africans, Asians–and Indonesians, many of whom had studied abroad or were otherwise interested in foreign cultures. In other words, a magical community of people I couldn’t believe I’d avoided hanging out with. Once I opened myself up to them, the rest just started to fall into place. I remember telling one friend that the night I arrived in Jogja, I’d cried when I discovered my shower didn’t have hot water. He laughed and said, “You know how there are always lizards on the walls? Google told me they were poisonous and I spent the whole night scared I was going to die.” Turns out my fears weren’t unique in the slightest, and suddenly I had people to talk to about them. And some assurance that things were going to get better.

Me and my bule friends on a trip to Bali

When I was in middle school, I switched violin teachers for the first time. My new teacher was strict, demanding, Russian, and had a bad habit of making me cry after lessons. I’d been excited to work on more complicated pieces and advanced works with her; instead, she made me spend several months correcting extremely basic errors with sets of etudes and scales. I’m not saying that I had “errors” in my personality that needed correcting, but the process of transformation has been remarkably similar. After months of changing the basic way I played violin, I was not only ready for more complicated pieces, but I was also a completely different–and much better–player. Living in Jogja has reshaped who I am in the very same way. Pieces of my foundation have crumbled and given way to stronger, more flexible roots.

I don’t think I ever expected to live anywhere other than Japan or America, and I was perfectly okay with that. But somewhere, a butterfly flapped its wings and shifted my universe and I ended up living in Jogja. This year has been in turns confusing, exciting, terrifying, thrilling, wonderful, awful, and every single thing in between. This experience and this city have drawn out of me a very different person than the one who arrived last June.

What have I accomplished? “Finally adjusted to life in Jogja and also gained a bunch of confidence” isn’t exactly something you’d put on a resume, but there you have it. It doesn’t make me Shansi’s darling, and there is certainly still a lot more to be done. But it does make me really, really proud, and excited to see where the next year takes me.