Letter from Jakarta

Saera Fernandez

Editor’s note.   The following article is a slightly edited version of a letter I received recently from a young woman whom I taught at Boston University.  Saera Fernandez is spending several months in Jakarta working for a NGO and pursuing some social science research on a Christian community in this mostly Muslim city. The letter is reprinted here with her permission. 


The letter’s claim on NAS readers is that it deals with the “citizen of world” ethos fostered in contemporary American higher education. Are we truly at home anywhere in the world? Or does the sense of being at home require something more than a cosmopolitan attitude?   Saera hopes that her research in Jakarta will assist her in winning admission to a graduate program in anthropology.   Of course, a significant step toward that goal is to develop the knack of being where you don’t really belong.

The letter may also inevitably call to mind another young woman who went to Indonesia to pursue anthropological research. Stanley Ann Dunham was there in 1977-1980, as a graduate student studying Javanese blacksmithing.   Dunham later, like Saera Fernandez, worked for an NGO in Jakarta focusing on services for the poor.   Dunham, of course, was President Obama’s mother. 

                                                                                                                                Peter Wood

I recently found the idea of having a reliable mailing address other than my mother's very appealing. I ran out of fingers counting how many times my address has changed in the last five years but when I moved into number seventeen I thought to myself, 'Wow. I cannot believe I live here....' (see www.sudirman-park.com)

I was overwhelmed by the fountains, cafes, restaurants, pools, jacuzzi, spa and salon all inside my building and by the spectacular view from the 33rd floor of my new downtown apartment. I had done what I had wanted to do and I felt proud of myself as I curled up in my chair, Javanese coffee in hand and gazed out my window. No, this was not home, but I decided to call it that for the next few months. I had come to a city on the other side of the world alone, knowing no one, knowing not more than a handful of formal words with a backpack, a laptop, and wide eyes. I managed on my own to establish research contacts, get a part time job, learn enough survival Bahasa to get around, and get a feel for the public transportation system.   With the help of a roommate, I found an apartment in which to unpack my bag.

My days are filled with logistics, interviews, questions, bureaucracy, reading, being lost and perpetually slightly confused. If I understood the words people said to me I might be offended . . . a little. My naked forearms tend to cause commotion. I am a walking spectacle. My 5'8' stature towers over the average 5'2 Indonesian. My ambiguous features are just similar enough to Javanese faces to make my round eyes seem exotic. Heads turn in wonder. The awkward Indian-looking girl walks much too quickly for a Javanese, carries a camera, and speaks in a Western accent. They stare and comment.   I smile. I have no idea what they’re saying.

I wake up every day and look out a window that carries its view to the exorbitantly wealthy southern tip of the city knowing that in the other direction, just north of the complex is a slum running with mazes of raw sewage. I take the elevator down and walk past security guards and access card exits and out a reception area lined with glass and shiny floors. I say, "pagi" in the morning and "malam" at night. I rarely say, "siang" because to go outside during the afternoon would be to walk out into a blaze of furious heat and stifling humidity.

I am living on the equator on a densely populated volcanic island.

I try to walk with my head up but the shame of living in between two very different worlds keeps it slightly hung. I secretly want to hide but I make myself walk down the driveway of my complex, out the gates, and past the beautiful white mosque, whose speakers I can hear at 3 a.m. They sing in a tongue not native to either Java or me. Though I don’t understand the Koranic verses, the sound of them calms me during my regularly sleepless nights. I turn and stumble on the incline of the unpaved road that marks the edge of Jakarta’s slums. A few paces more and I inhale through my mouth the stench.   I force myself to resist the temptation to look around, and lower my gaze to avoid making eye contact with men, but I try to catch the gaze of women in hope of making silent alliances. I smile. I sweat. I cough and hold my breath to block smoke from burning garbage.

I see a vendor with three small children sitting behind him and ask him, "berapa ini?" He never looks me in the face as I hand him the twelve cents for a handful of slices of mango. (He doesn't look me in the face because it is a sign of respect.) I thank him and smile at his children and I try to ignore their decaying teeth and fingernails.   The mango is soothingly cool but seems to intensify the blazing heat. The blaring of horns mixes (poorly) with the guitars strummed by teenage boys.   I think, "they should be in school," but there are no laws making them go and no social structure urging them on. A line of taxis (called taksi because there is no pluralization in Bahasa) is on one side and the bus stop on the other. I walk towards the bus stop with mixed feelings. I take the bus because its only twenty cents, but the cabs are cheap too.   I makes me feel sick knowing that I can afford a taxi but the people around me—the people I want to know--cannot. I take the bus to appease my anger at the injustice—though it is purely a gesture. Ninety percent of the population is poor, eight percent middle class, and two percent make up Jakarta’s elite. My guilt-ridden American consciousness takes a break on the bus. If I do as they do, if I sit on this bus and eat what they eat and go where they go, will I erase the unfairness of my privilege? Somehow.   Maybe I'll become less of an Other.

This is, of course, complete nonsense.

Sometimes I get an old metal seat covered in ripped plastic; sometimes I have to squish myself into the bus sardine style. Cockroaches roam freely in the corners and along the walls and I try to calm my toes as they scrunch up. The temperature, which is stifling outside is even more suffocating on the bus and I'm surrounded by people strangely wearing sweaters and fleeces. Perhaps they have heard of global warming and are taking precautions. I pass luxury shopping centers that house Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.   Outside of them are barefoot women carrying babies and children with soot-smeared faces. My lungs burn from the exhaust from the bajajs, trucks, cars, and motorbikes. Jakarta has no air pollution laws. 

I put my headphones on to create a soundtrack for this world I am trying to touch. I feel in the midst of it but somehow excluded. Something stands between it and me.

                                                                        * * * * * * * * * * *

My vision is blurry without my contacts.   It is 10:15 a.m. and I am just now sort of falling asleep while my roommate closes the door to our apartment. I cannot seem to get off New York time and I think about the walk I would be making home from Temple if I were in Forest Hills instead of Jakarta. I drift off. 10:30 a.m. and I hear a key slip into the door and I think, "Allie forgot something and had to come back." There is a struggle with the door and I think, "One day Allie will get the hang of it." Struggle, key turn, struggle. Silence. I think, "Why would she come all the way back and then leave?" 10:35 a.m. and I hear the key, lock and door dance and think, "Ok, I'll stop being lazy and open the door."

Peephole covered. The struggle with the lock intensifies.

No. That's not Allie's key.

I grab the phone, I call security. It rings and with every ring my heart beats harder. Pick-up-the-phone. PICK UP THE PHONE. I grab the nearest hard object without taking my eyes off the peephole. Ring, ring...ring...

Scream? No, no one will hear me. Open the door and tell them off? No, they will overpower me.

I see the hand drop and make out someone scurrying to the right. The phone continues to ring. I feel my chest rise and fall and I run to the kitchen to grab a knife. I will protect myself. The ringing continues as I hear footsteps stop in front of my door again. The door tango resumes.

Dial Indonesian 911? It doesn't exist. Call emergency services? Pizza would get delivered quicker. I'm alone.

Twenty-one minutes pass from the first ring until a gawky unarmed security guard shows up at my door. I hear mostly words I don't understand and things blur together through lack of sleep, coming down off adrenaline and general confusion.

Nothing is done, no report is filed. My landlord says they will come in a few days to replace the lock.

I'm no fool and I know what probably happened.

I barricade myself in, place hard objects strategically throughout the apartment and sleep with a knife by my bed. I curl up and think, 'No, this is not my home."


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