This is a question I hear incessantly in Indonesia. This question translates to “From where?” and can be used in two different ways: “Where are you coming from?” (as in, “Where were you right before you arrived here?”), or “Where are you from?” (as in, “Where do you come from, as in, like, originally?”). Since I very distinctly do not look as though I am from Indonesia, “Dari mana?” is usually intended to ask the latter when it is directed towards me.
Last year, while living in Malang, my Indonesian friends and their playful sense of humor encouraged me to play with the dual meaning of this question, and whenever we went hiking up nearby mountains or to various waterfalls, when people we met along the way asked me, “Dari mana?” I would reply, “Dari Malang!” This, of course, wasn’t exactly a lie, as I was always coming from the direction of the city, but that wasn’t what people wanted to know. Most folks would follow up with “Asli…?” (asli means original or originally, and “Asli mana?” is another way to ask where someone is originally from), and that would lead us into the typical discussion of where I was from and why I was in Malang, my friends still giggling off to the side.
It was a wild few days of trying to see everyone who had made my time in Malang memorable (I wasn’t completely successful—there were still a few I was not able to see, and I hope I will have to opportunity to go back again and fix that). But even with a packed schedule, I still had time to reflect on just how surreal the experience of going back to Malang was.
So much was the same. I hopped on a rented motorbike and zipped around familiar roads without hesitation, my mental map of Malang still ingrained into my subconscious. I fell naturally back into conversations with teachers who still go to lunch at the same favorite nasi padang place. Students (following the screaming and hugging and in a few cases crying that took place immediately upon my arrival) laughed and smiled and gossiped in the same way I remember them doing when I was their teacher. I took my place at suppers with friends, chatting and eating sambal as though no time had passed. I’ve only been away from Malang for a mere six months: it hasn’t changed all that much.
But there was so much that was different. My school has a new principle, which meant that the teachers’ rooms had been rearranged and school committees had been restructured. There is a whole class of tenth graders at my school whom I have never met, and who stared openly at me as I talked to some of their seniors, before I got some of my old students to introduce me. My site mate, the rock that kept me grounded and steady during the ups and downs that is the ETA experience, is back in her home state of Florida, and was not there to share the experience. Many other friends, either foreigners or Indonesians, have since moved to other cities, and their presence was certainly missed.
Of course, the thing that had changed the most was, well, me.
Some of these changes are of the sort that simply come with the passing of time: I’m ever so slightly better read and more thoughtful, allowing me to better keep up in conversations with my friends’, most of whom are either finishing their master’s degree or already working and are far wiser than I am. Some changes came out of having lived in Indonesia for a little longer, such as the increased speed and accuracy of my Indonesian.
But there were changes that stemmed specifically from my having lived in Gorontalo for three months. My friends, most of whom are from Java, teased me for the new accent they detected in my voice, which I had not even realized I was developing over these past few months. As my friends weaved in and out of the thick Malang traffic, I found myself getting left behind on occasion, driving too hesitantly, having adapted to the significant lack of traffic and the slightly less aggressive driving habits of Gorontalo. “You’re not from Malang now,” my friends teased, “You’re from Gorontalo.”
And then, all too soon, I returned to Gorontalo, to streets and rumah makan which are just as familiar and to friends whom are just a precious to me as those from Malang, at this point. It seems now that I am from a lot of places: Pennsylvania (where I spent most of my childhood), Central New York, East Java, and now Gorontalo.
All of this is really just a result of growing up, of finding my own place in the world. Whether they move to a country on the other side of the world or to a home down the street, most people do not stay in one place for their entire lives. For me, the difference in my various homes is more noticeable, because they have been so very different from one another; I’m one of the lucky few able to have this sort of experience.
I’m also one of the lucky few able to share my unique experience. Not all ETAs who return to Indonesia are able to return to their old sites, and I am very fortunate to have been able to do so. None of my friends in Malang had ever had the opportunity to visit Gorontalo, and armed with photos, kerawang (the traditional fabric from Gorontalo), and the little of the local language I know, I was able to share at least a little of this with them, in the same way that I share a little of all I have learned from Indonesia with people in my hometown, and share the experience of having grown up in the Northeastern U.S. with folks here.
I will admit that there are days when being “from” so many places exhausts me, when all of the connections I have made and which I work so hard to maintain from all over the world end up making me feel isolated from the here and now I currently find myself in. But there are also days when these connections fill me up and shower me with a love I do not deserve. And for that, I am so thankful.