U-Turns and Deja-Vu: Back in Indonesia (Or in Jakarta, Anyway)


The ringing, joyful tones of Indonesian fill my ears as I zig-zag my way through motorcycle traffic on my way to eat food which will invariably be delicious but is also guaranteed to upset my stomach[1].  Yep, I’m back.

Coming back to Indonesia has, thus far, been a pretty… weird experience.  I had not realized just how much I had readjusted to life in America until I landed in Indonesia and different factors of my experience here, which two months ago had seemed fairly commonplace and every day, surprised me in a way I hadn’t predicted they would.  The constant stares bothered me, even though I knew they would be there.  I almost drank tap water my first night, even though by this point I know better.  Even the prices of everything threw me for a loop.

“I’m eating for seven dollars a day.  Seven dollars a day.  In a capital city.  I mean, I know food in Indonesia is much cheaper than in America.  But seven dollars a day?”  I messaged my site mate from last year, still jet lagged and trying to contend with the fact that I was actually here, on the other side of the world.

I don’t know what to call what it is that I am going through.  I wouldn’t call it culture shock, because I’m not unfamiliar with the culture I now find myself in.  I wouldn’t call it reverse culture-shock, since this is not my native culture either.  After talking to a number of ETAs from my cohort, I’ve come up with a handful of potential names for… whatever this is, including my personal favorites: U-Turn Shock and Deja-Vu Shock.

Because I’m not being shocked by anything for the first time.  I’m more… remembering things about Indonesia which shocked me the first time, which I’d temporarily forgotten.  And then I’m always mildly surprised at myself, for being surprised at all.  It’s a strange series of tiny shocks, one which I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for.

At the same time, while part of me is already trying to navigate being back in Indonesia, part of me doesn’t feel like I’ve returned at all.

For my first two weeks here, I will be in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  Jakarta is a giant metropolis which I associate most strongly with pollution and traffic.  It’s not my favorite city in Indonesia.

Because I am sick every time I come to Jakarta (Every. Time. There is a part of my immune system somewhere which simply does not like the fact that I have ever stepped foot in this city and wants me to know it.), I rarely venture forth into the actual city, and spend a lot of time hopping from office, to mall food court, to hotel room.

And while there are certainly parts of all of these—the cheerful “Selamet Pagi!” we receive from the receptionist at the AMINEF office each morning; the abundance of Asian food at the food courts, and the distinct lack of Western choices; the arrow in my hotel room that tells me which direction I would pray if I were Muslim—which make it clear that I am not in America, these shiny malls, towering skyscrapers, and insane highways filled with taxis are not what I think of when I think of Indonesia.

I think of rice paddies and narrow streets.  I think of colorful houses and whole families piled onto motorbikes.  I think of middle school students running barefoot home from school, and of my high school students riding their motorbikes home with the same enthusiasm.  Until I’m back in a place where this is a part of my everyday life, I won’t feel as though I am back in Indonesia.

I know this isn’t exactly right.  Jakarta is just as much a part of Indonesia as smaller towns and cities, just as New York City is just as much a part of New York State as the small farming town which I call home.  But if I had returned from my first grant in Indonesia to New York City, instead of my home, I wouldn’t have felt “back” yet.  Because even though I would be back in America, it wouldn’t be my America.

That’s what I’m waiting for.  A return to my Indonesia.

[1] Post-typhoid, the stomach sometimes can’t handle strong or spicy foods for up to a year afterwards.  I’m in for a year of not being able to enjoy some of my favorite Indonesian dishes; worth it because I want to take care of my body, but still a bit disappointing.


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