Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Beyond the Western Horizon

Posted by John

If you need a crash course on non-Western religions, there’s no better place to start than Indonesia.

In Surabaya Danielle and I live near several mosques, which offer loud reminders throughout the day of the regular rhythm of Islamic life. Last Friday, the main prayer day in the Muslim tradition, we were at Mesjid Ampel, Surabaya’s oldest and most prominent mosque. Sunan Ampel, the man who brought Islam to Indonesia’s largest island of Java in the 15th century, is buried in the mosque’s courtyard.

In this more pious neighborhood known as “the Arab Quarter,” men in white dishdasha and black fezzes and women in black abaya made their way to prayer past a market selling Korans and prayer rugs. Processions like this one—to and from the mosque five times a day—offer a glimpse of Islam fostering community.

Immediately before our trip to Mesjid Ampel, we were at Kong Co Kong Tik Cun Ong, Surabaya’s preeminent Chinese Buddhist temple with a long and complicated name. Chinese people have lived in Indonesia for centuries, gravitating to trading roles as the “Overseas Chinese” have done throughout Southeast Asia. As the hub of East Java’s maritime commerce, Surabaya has long been a center of Indonesia’s Chinese community.

Relations between the Indonesian majority and Chinese minority have had their share of acrimony, including anti-Chinese riots that killed more than 1,000 people a decade ago. During the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, some Indonesians resented ethnic Chinese citizens’ financial successes. Indonesian-Chinese relations appear to be mending, however. Celebrations of Chinese New Year, illegal until recently, now have the official sanction of a national holiday, and the government has lifted authoritarian-era restrictions against Chinese-language schools and media.

The main expressions of Chinese culture we’ve seen in Indonesia were at the two-story pagoda-style temple we visited last week. Plumes of incense smoke surrounded numerous altars, including one devoted to Siddhartha Buddha. The temple still draws worshipers, and we saw several people making offerings and saying prayers.

Like Indonesians, Chinese people have a long history of incorporating different religious traditions, and this syncretic approach was on display at the temple. As with other Buddhist places of worship, Surabaya’s temple incorporates Confucianism’s devotion to ancestors. It also apparently contains elements of Taoism if you know where to look, but I’ve yet to advance to the intermediate stage of my non-Western religions crash course. Tao means “the path”—since that’s all I remember, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not a path I’m on.

East Java also once formed Indonesia’s Hindu heartland. The Majapahit kingdom, which became Java’s most powerful realm as Buddhist kingdoms declined in the 13th century, established Hinduism as its official religion. For close to 200 years, the Majapahit dominated East Java, building elaborate temples to worship Hindu deities. Islamic kingdoms ultimately defeated the Majapahit at the end of the 15th century and forced Hindus to flee to Bali, center of Indonesian Hindu life today. But several Hindu temples remain near Surabaya at Trowulan, the seat of Majapahit civilization.

Our visit to Trowulan formed part of a non-Western religions crash course rather than a dissertation, so most aspects of Hindu worship and its seemingly endless pantheon of deities remain a mystery. That said, I’m getting much better at distinguishing between Brahma, Shiva the Destroyer, and Vishnu the Preserver, Hinduism’s three core gods. Trowulan’s museum contained several 14th-century terra cotta sculptures of this Hindu triumvirate.

One of the more arresting sculptures featured the Majapahit King Airlangga depicted as the god Vishnu astride his escort, Garuda. We weren’t allowed to take photographs, so I’ve substituted a photo (left) of a sculpture at the entrance of Surabaya’s Airlangga University depicting the same scene. It’s a sign of Hinduism’s enduring influence in Indonesia that one of the major universities is named after a Hindu king and the national airline is named Garuda.

We also toured five of Trowulan’s remaining Hindu temples. Our guides exhibited the civic pride that obtains when you live among the ruins of an empire immortalized in history books. At the Bajang Ratu Temple, they pointed out a kala (right), the google-eyed gargoyle that wards off evil spirits. One of the current Indonesian presidential candidates is named Jusuf Kalla—maybe his platform should include “warding off evil spirits.”

The guides also took us to Candi Tikus, a temple that had been buried beneath volcanic ash and turned into rice fields, forgotten until a 1970s excavation. The most impressive aspect of the Trowulan complex was Candi Brahu (left), a 25 meter-tall brick temple. As one of the oldest temples from the Majapahit period, it reflected the Buddhist tradition that prevailed here in previous centuries. It has the rounded stupa shape of the Buddhist temple, but the door at its center marks it as a Hindu place of worship.

In addition to serving as an installment in our non-Western religious traditions crash course, the Trowulan Museum also provided an introduction to Java’s prehistory. A fossil purporting to contain remains of a stegodon species elephant from 3 million years ago reposed forlornly in one of the exhibit halls, not even protected behind a pane of glass or velvet rope. It seemed likely such a placement would invite disrespectful treatment from schoolchildren passing through on tours. After traveling such a great distance across the generations, the stegodon seemed to deserve a greater place of honor.

Another exhibit outlined the story of homo erectus, the “Java Man” species from more 1.5 million years ago. Remains of this close ancestor to homo sapiens were first excavated near Trowulan at the end of the 19th century, offering some clues to humans’ evolutionary chain. If nothing else, the Java Man exhibits served as a reminder that all of our contemporary religious traditions, East and West, rest on the foundations of something much older.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Shark and the Crocodile

Posted by John

Legend has it the shark and the crocodile staged a wrestling match off the coast of Surabaya for the title of strongest animal.

This purported battle of the beasts has become the city’s foundational myth. The story doesn’t specify a winner, but today the episode is depicted on the urban seal (left) and embedded in the city’s name. (“Sura” is the Javanese word for shark and “baya” the word for crocodile.) This zoological showdown remains an apt metaphor for a place where rival forces contend for the city’s soul. Ostentatious wealth and Western styles of consumption pull Surabayans one way, while tenacious poverty and Javanese traditions pull another.

During morning rush hour, German luxury automobiles careen through swarms of motorcycle and pedicab drivers. There’s money to be made in Surabaya, East Java’s largest port where cargo ships unload consumer goods and international companies vie—like their crocodile and shark predecessors—for supremacy. At the end of the day, businessmen and foreign diplomats retreat to satellite communities ringing the city. Tree-lined avenues in these nicer neighborhoods wouldn’t look entirely out of place in Orange County.

At the same time, shanties sprout up on the city’s clogged alleys to accommodate hundreds of thousands of workers who migrate to Surabaya from nearby villages. They leave their rice fields with hopes of earning a few more dollars a month in the city, maybe as a housekeeper or busboy. People view coming to the city as an economic opportunity, but it still often means living next to open sewers in a one-room house with a dirt floor.

Danielle and I straddle the chasm that separates Surabaya’s upwardly mobile business classes from recent village transplants. Our dollars go a long way here, but we won’t be living in the plush condominiums that shelter wealthier residents from the city’s harshest aspects. Yet we’re not about to forego air conditioning in 100-degree temperatures or treat disease-carrying rats and mosquitoes as inconveniences that we have to endure.

Each day in Surabaya becomes a search for some sort of middle ground. That search includes our daily trip to check e-mail at one of the city’s 20 shopping malls. Surabaya has its share of Internet cafes, but their connections have all the speed and reliability of a passenger pigeon. They often have long waits as well, since teenagers here are eager to get online and don’t have computers of their own. If Danielle and I want to stay connected to the rest of the world, we’ve had to make our peace with bringing our laptops into Surabaya’s glittering glass cathedrals of consumer capitalism.

It still feels like something of a middle ground, however, since we make our trips to the mall more economical by piling into a bemo (left) with 10 or 12 Indonesians. These minivans, usually three or four times cheaper than taxis, are outfitted with benches and serve as the informal means of public transportation in Surabaya. My brother, sisters and I used to push and shove each other in what seemed like the tight confines of our parents’ 1987 Dodge Caravan. Compared to that, however, a bemo ride feels more like the circus routine where clowns keep piling into a comically undersized sedan.

The Indonesian passengers aren’t sure what to make of us. On one of my solo journeys, a group of schoolgirls giggled and dared each other to talk to me. When I greeted their “Hello, mister,” with a smile and an arched eyebrow, it set off peals of knowing laughter. Most passengers smile and some offer directions, which can be helpful since I’ve already ended up stranded across town twice. With no posted maps or schedules, information about buses becomes like folklore that travels through informal networks. You’re supposed to ask other passengers if they know which bemo goes where, but that doesn’t help when you don’t speak Indonesian.

Several people have cautioned Danielle about copet, the dreaded pickpockets that supposedly lurk behind every corner. After all these warnings, we’ve made a habit of riding the bus with our money hidden about our person. So far, however, most bemos are full of mothers and young children, nothing like the hardened criminals we’ve been told to expect.

Once the bemo ride has ended, entering into the mall requires a complete cognitive and sensory realignment. These climate-controlled and meticulously clean palaces of commerce have far more in common with retail spaces in suburban American than with the noise, dirt and poverty outside. High-end stores like Louis Vuitton, Zara and Calvin Klein cater to Indonesians with a passion for fashion and the rupiah to pay for it.

There also appears to be a robust trade in lingerie, despite the modesty that prevails in all exterior aspects of the Indonesian wardrobe. However, both Danielle and I have noticed that all the photographs on storefronts appear to depict Caucasian women modeling the revealing undergarments. Perhaps images of Indonesian women—presumably the vast majority of customers—in various states of undress would rile cultural or religious sensibilities. Or it’s possible that “whiteness”—and the personal freedom and standard of living it’s meant to entail—can be some sort of luxury brand. Either way, it’s very obvious and a little peculiar.

When we express our dissatisfaction with the antiseptic facade that the malls present, people are at a loss. Why wouldn’t you want to be there if you can afford it? The mall is the vibrant neighborhood, the locus of all social activity. No other city I know seems to have engineered such a complete privatization of public space.

Surabayan leaders realize this about their city and have vowed to do something about it. The Jakarta Post reported yesterday that the Surabaya municipal council will pass an ordinance requiring malls to provide reading spaces or face a $5,000 fine. Malls already have Muslim prayer spaces, so perhaps a library is the next step. A survey showed that 80 percent of Surabayans lack access to reading material and that Indonesians rank 96th out of 100 countries in terms of citizens’ interest in reading.

If there’s room at the Surabaya mall for the cultural imports like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, there’s probably room for Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen as well. Perhaps the shark and crocodile can sit and read Moby Dick together.

Longing for Siberia

Posted by Danielle

Over the course of my research, I have found that many Russians and Indonesians feel a sense of nostalgia for the periods when they lived under more authoritarian systems. The possibility that people are nostalgic for a time when their lives were more constricted strikes most people in the West as alien. But such nostalgia can be quite rational when it comes from a longing for conditions that are more stable, if limiting.

Even though I’ve thought a lot about nostalgia and analyzed its causes and consequences in Russia and Indonesia, I had never felt a true sense of nostalgia until we arrived in Surabaya, the capital of East Java. After a week and a half in Indonesia’s second-largest city of 3.5 million, I am nourishing a deep sense of longing for…Siberia. Yes, it is true, I am missing the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk, where I spent fall 2008—that very location that I was eager to depart only a few months ago.

As frustrating as my time in Krasnoyarsk was in some respects, Indonesia has its own share of challenges that can make one miss the relative predictability of my life in Siberia. In trying to understand the source of my own nostalgia for a formerly closed industrial city where people took me for a spy, I’ve identified three primary factors: 1) bureaucracy; 2) public infrastructure; and 3) living conditions.

First, my journey through the Indonesian bureaucracy has reached a further stage of absurdity since arriving in East Java. On my first day in Surabaya, the local sociologist I hired took me to the special research section in the governor’s office to hand in my letter from the Department of Internal Affairs. The office was on the outskirts of town, a completely inconvenient location that I would have never found. Once in the office, we were given another letter that we were told to photocopy seven times. However, there was no copy machine on the premises, and we ultimately had to drive about a half an hour looking for a copy shop.

Unfortunately, the headache did not end there. After we returned with our seven photocopies, each was stamped and I was given five copies for myself (I still haven’t figured out why I need five of my own officially stamped copies of the letter.) The staff at the governor’s office told me to take one letter to the mayor’s office, which I did the following day.

At the mayor’s office, I was asked specific questions about my research. In particular, they wanted to know in which of Surabaya’s 33 districts I would be conducting research. I tried to explain that I didn’t know yet, but they insisted. To cover all my bases, I said I’d be doing research in all of the districts. That seemed simple enough. They told me to return the next day at 11:00 a.m. to pick up my official permission letter.

After hearing countless stories about my bureaucratic adventures, John joined me at the mayor’s office. When we were finally called in, I was shown a letter and told that I would need 35 photocopies of it. Yes, that’s a copy for every single district in the city, plus one for me and another for the Department of Internal Affairs. I began to worry the next step was to make 3.5 million copies of the letter and hand-deliver them to each of the residents of Surabaya.

Luckily, the civil servants in the mayor’s office seemed to take pity on the poor American and actually made the copies on their machine (for a nominal fee)—a privilege I am sure is not extended to the multiple college students who were also waiting for their official permits to write their theses and term papers. And yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Every college student conducting research in Surabaya needs official permission from the mayor.

After the photocopying was done, each letter still needed to be stamped, placed into an envelope, and stapled shut. Since the process looked like it could take over an hour, John and I volunteered to help.

Curiously, the letters are not actually addressed to anyone, they say “to the district of X.” My research assistant confirmed that I don’t actually need to send them anywhere—they’re just in case anyone asks for proof that I have permission to conduct research. So now all these important official letters from the mayor are just sitting on a pile of books in our room.

After all these bureaucratic shenanigans, the obnoxious little issues I dealt with in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk—registering visas, not being able to buy a cell phone plan without a Russian passport, going to multiple offices to get a dorm room, and submitting a final research report—seem trivial.

The second factor causing my nostalgia for Siberia—Indonesia’s poor public infrastructure—has also taken a bite out of my pocketbook. Most people don’t think of a modern metropolis when they hear the word “Siberia,” but I’ll take their public transportation system over Surabaya’s any day.

So far, I have spent an average of $13 a day on taxis in Surabaya because the bus system remains undecipherable. (Today, John ended up stranded across town attempting to return from the mall and ended up having to catch a $5 taxi back home.) There are no maps or posted routes. The only way to figure out where a bus is going is to ask someone familiar with the particular neighborhood you are in or are trying to reach. You can’t ask the driver, because he’ll say yes to any location if it will get you on the bus.

Asking someone for bus information is easier said than done since Indonesians who can afford a motorcycle opt out of the public transportation network. Others assume that foreigners should only take taxis. They see us as incapable of protecting ourselves from pickpockets or fear we would shrivel up and die from the experience of crowding onto an Indonesian bus. We’ve figured out which bus we can take to get to the mall and check e-mail, but otherwise, we’re confined to taxis for now.

Not that taxi travel ensures efficient passage from Point A to Point B. Indonesian cities, lacking any meaningful urban planning, are essentially networks of alleys that form little urban villages connected by larger roads. These alleys are rarely passable by a car, so my typical trip to an interview involves a drive to a general neighborhood, where the taxi driver has to ask an average of three passersby for directions to the correct alley. Yesterday, it took me an hour to find my interview location, even though it was only 5 miles away.

I have often praised the public transportation system in Russia, with its logical bus routes that nearly all city residents use. Right now, I long for Krasnoyarsk’s number 2 bus, which for 50 cents would take me from my Soviet-era dorm on one edge of the city clear across town to visit my Czech friend Magda. Or the slow, steady number 3 that I often took to visit my friend Marina. I’ll even take the unpredictable traffic jams in Krasnoyarsk, which seem benign when compared to the polluted congestion of motorcycles, cars, pedicabs, and bicycles that clog every inch of free space in Surabaya (sidewalks included).

Our sub-optimal living conditions in Surabaya also have me missing Siberia. After searching in vain for either a host family or a short-term rental here, we have ended up living in a $22/day bed and breakfast. The bed takes up 90 percent of the space in our room and the layout is such that we can barely stand up at the same time. The building is safe and secure and on a nice street, but both the space itself and the neighborhood leaves much to be desired.

Aside from the daily breakfast of rice and some mystery side dish, we need to eat all of our meals elsewhere. Since I came back from Indonesia in 2007 with a parasite, we’re trying to stay clear of street vendors, which basically means that we’re eating a lot of fried noodles at the cafĂ© located a few steps behind our guesthouse. John’s discovered that the best place to pass the time when I’m working is to walk to the Dunkin’ Donuts shop at the train station.

All of this has me wistful for my old room in the Krasnoyarsk obschag. Maybe it had a broken window. Yes, the kitchen ceiling almost collapsed when a pipe burst in the flat above ours. And then there was the ongoing construction. But there was a kitchen where I could make tea any time of day or night. The room I shared with Petra, a Czech exchange student, was actually big enough for us to walk around in. And we had a washing machine—I did not hand-wash a single article of clothing in Krasnoyarsk. The toilet flushed. There were no insects or rodents. All this for a mere $70 per month.

One of the things I’ve learned from my research about nostalgia is that it can be paralyzing. If you fixate on the past, you risk inflating the positives and discounting the negatives of that previous time. I’m confident I don’t really want to go back to Krasnoyarsk, but after several hours of searching the winding alleyways of Surabaya and struggling to interview people in my inadequate Indonesian, it sure would be nice to come home to a room where I could sit at a table and drink some tea.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Peddle 'til You Meddle

Posted by John

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the army of peddlers who have attended to my transportation, gustatory and souvenir needs from the moment we landed in Jakarta a little over a month ago. You’ve all gone to great lengths to show concern for my potential hunger, thirst and fatigue. You’ve sought me out on every street corner, train station and cafe. You’ve even thought of my need for musical accompaniment every step of the way. It’s all very been very kind.

But before you dangle another bottle of water under my nose, tug me by the shoulder and promise a private tour of your batik gallery, or forcibly seat me in one of your pedicabs and offer me a ride across town, rest assured I won’t be shy about asking for anything I might need during my next three months in Indonesia. In the meantime, I’d like to give you all the nod that says, “Don’t worry about me. I’m good.”

The latest episode of Indonesians’ more meddling form of peddling came during the bus trip Danielle and I took to Caruban, the village where the cousin of one of her Indonesian colleagues was getting married. We were excited about the chance to witness this Javanese ritual, but first had to navigate through a few roadblocks on the three-hour ride from our home base in Surabaya.

At 5:45 a.m. on Sunday, the Surabaya bus station already buzzed with activity. Indonesians start the day earlier on account of the heat and the 4:30 a.m. call to prayer, but it’s still jarring to see so many people out before 6 a.m.

Even at a full bus station, however, there was no sign of attendants capable of answering questions about arrivals of departures. No posted schedules, either. So we did our best to make our way through a maze of taxi drivers and shopkeepers, trudging toward the bus platforms. When the one uniformed attendant we found assured us we could get to Caruban on one bus—he even escorted us to the door to make sure we’d understood him—we boarded with hopes of an imminent departure and an on-time arrival in advance of the 9 a.m. wedding.

Instead, we spent the next half-hour as captives, unwilling participants in the impromptu bazaar that opened for business on the bus itself. As the driver waited for more passengers to pump up his fare, peddlers trod through the center aisle offering all varieties of fruit, beverage and confection. While the bus station didn’t have a route map or schedule, one bus vendor thought we might like a world atlas instead. We still weren’t sure the bus we were on would take us to another nearby East Javanese town, but here someone was offering us a full reference guide to the Swiss Alps and lakes in Africa.

The most aggressive sellers abandoned any pretense of decorum, plunking the merchandise down on my lap and calling out the price. Even feigning sleep (a plausible ruse at 6 a.m.) failed to dissuade them. My nap ended when one hawker tossed a trinket on my seat. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a set of nail clippers with a plastic octopus attached. And I’d been looking all over town for a nail clipper with a mollusk. Thirty-five cents—what a deal!

The more than 20 onboard sellers all wore the same uniform, a bright orange vest with a blue ID number stitched on the front. Even the four guitar players who came on board to serenade us wore a uniform. So these sellers weren’t just random guys off the street; the station had licensed them to be there. They’d had to petition or audition for the right to try to pick up a few cents here or there from the one passenger in 100 who might offer the equivalent of two quarters for the world atlas.

The situation reached its apex of absurdity when the guy with octopus nail clippers came back through the cabin for a second pass 15 minutes after his first canvass. It was almost like he was expecting one of us to say, “You know, I wasn’t sure if I wanted those octopus nail clippers, but now that you’ve given me some time to think about it...”

There’s an obvious reason Indonesian hawkers aggressively promote their wares. In a country with few stable forms of employment, poverty predominates. Many neighborhoods in cities like Surabaya are tightly packed, dirt or asphalt paths lined with tiny one-room houses that have concrete floors and tin roofs. The average Indonesian survives on less than $3 a day, and most of the vendors in the streets of the city are living on less than that.

Even accounting for the lower cost of living here, $3 doesn’t stretch very far—it’s not enough to ensure access to food, electricity or clean water. And with most Indonesians (especially middle-aged and older Indonesians) having less than a middle-school education, there aren’t clear routes out of poverty. That’s especially the case in a country where profitable state-owned businesses remain in the hands of well-connected elites who consistently rank among the world’s most corrupt.

In this environment, the chance to make 20 cents selling a bottle of water or 50 cents for a pedicab ride around the block has a meaningful impact for a family trying to put together enough money to buy rice from the local market. But pedicab drivers have to compete fiercely when there seem to be 10 of them for every passenger. With far more supply than demand, every passerby is treated like a potential customer, no matter how studiously he avoids eye contact or how quickly he waves off assistance.

Indonesian sellers’ boundless energy demonstrates a promising kind of initiative, but it’s an initiative that begs to be directed at more pressing needs. Rather than knocking themselves out trying to earn a nickel selling watermelon, these peddlers could be building better roads in a country where potholes outnumber people or cleaning rivers that are depositories for trash.

It’s hard to build the political will for a public works program, however, when no one trusts political and business leaders. Everyone suspects that such an initiative would be just another opportunity for friends of the governor to skim money off the top. The current president has made anti-corruption his signature issue—with several high-level prosecutions to his credit during his first five-year term—but old habits (and popular fears of these habits) remain.

Indonesians who have money often seem to think the best way to redistribute income is to buy an occasional item from hawkers and give money to street musicians. The idea seems to be that the money will go directly to someone in need, whereas taxes will end up in some government official’s bank account. This sense of generosity (or obligation) to less fortunate individuals extends to the many Indonesians—including middle-class Indonesians—who hire servants for their house or pay people to do tasks that could easily be done by a machine, like washing clothes. But as far as peddlers are concerned, there are more of them than these acts of generosity can sustain, and Indonesia awaits the arrival of a political party that can better align the energy of its workers with the society’s needs.

If nothing else, the Surabaya bus station could employ a few more of these peddlers as attendants at an information booth—we ended up on the wrong bus. The attendant who had assured us that we could take the bus to Caruban had neglected to mention that we would need to get off the bus in another town, some 40 kilometers away from our final destination.

We ended up late to the wedding, arriving only in time for the last hour. Most of the proceedings were in Javanese (which Danielle does not speak), so we had to ask her colleague for an explanation of the bride’s and groom’s bows to each other and to their parents. We surmised there was an Arabic prayer from the Koran at one point, but most of the rest remained a mystery.

Toward the end of the ceremony, as 200 members of the bride and groom’s families looked on, the emcee summoned Danielle and me to the podium to join the bride and groom for pictures. In this small Javanese village, where most residents were born and will stay for most of their lives, we were honored guests from America, objects of curiosity in our batik prints. I couldn’t make out most of what the emcee was saying—some sort of joke about tourism. Struggling over Danielle’s French-sounding last name, he ultimately settled on calling us: “John and Lucy.”

There wasn’t much ceremony left after that, so we headed back to Surabaya. The bus ride back wore us out, but not to worry. When we pulled into the station, there were, of course, plenty of taxi drivers eager to drive us home.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Indonesian Elections: Party Hearty

Posted by John

Anyone lamenting the monopoly Republicans and Democrats maintain over American politics might want to visit Indonesia to see what can happen when party creation rages out of control. The presence of 44 parties on Indonesia’s parliamentary election ballot might appear to indicate healthy competition in the political marketplace. But if this is healthy competition, I’ve yet to detect anything resembling a party platform, let alone 44 of them.

It’s enough to make the Lesser of Two Evils seem not so bad.

Under these crowded electoral conditions, it’s hard for a party to become more than a name, number and logo on the ballot. Even the election itself has a logo, an anthropomorphic pencil (see photo at left) that's gone door to door to explain idiosyncracies with the ballot. With so many choices, voters and politicians rely on political shorthand that privileges personalities over policy.

Consequently, each day of press coverage focuses on which politically minded former Army general has joined forces with a former president or a disenchanted former cabinet member. There’s little talk—yet, anyway—about what the government should do to improve public schools, protect workers’ rights, or lift Indonesians out of poverty.  

The presence of so many national parties means a walk through the neighborhood can turn into a voyage of political discovery. In Surabaya last night, I noticed a huge political party flag fluttering atop a building next to a mosque. Probably a Justice and Welfare Party (PKS) flag, I thought. That’s the biggest Islamic-oriented party in Indonesia. Or maybe it’s a National Awakening Party (PKB) flag—that’s the biggest Islamic political party here in East Java.

Instead, it turned out to be a flag for the Patriot Party—a new island on my Indonesian political map. I wasn’t confident the Patriot Party even existed, until I went home and checked the parliamentary results. There they were, those plucky Patriots—hiding in the 30th slot on the list of parties, with 0.5% of the vote.  As far as Indonesian parties go, it’s still hard to tell the players without a scorecard.

In the interest of bringing this party free-for-all into some sort of order, Indonesia’s election law stipulates that a party needs more than 2.5 percent of the votes to gain representation in parliament. This rule has winnowed 44 pretenders down to 9 contenders.

But the intrigue doesn’t stop there. Any candidate for president needs to represent a party (or group of parties) with at least 20 percent of the seats in parliament. Only one party—current President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party—reached that threshold by itself, so now other party leaders have started courting each other.  

Under these conditions, Indonesians could get a case of whiplash trying to follow party realignments. So far in May, two months away from the presidential election:

  • President Yudhoyono jettisoned Vice President Jusuf Kalla, a holdover from Golkar, the party that ruled Indonesia during the authoritarian Suharto era. It’s not clear whether there were major policy disagreements between Yudhoyono and Kalla or if they’ve just grown tired of each other. Try to imagine Dick Cheney and George Bush or Al Gore and Bill Clinton parting company two months before Election Day.
  • Kalla, convinced he’s ready to be president, has teamed up with Wiranto, a former Army general that formed his own political party. Nobody gives Kalla much of a chance, but that’s not stopping him from trying.
  • >Party of Democratic Struggle (PDIP) leader and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri is probably teaming up with Prabowo, another former Army general with his own political party. Or she might cast her lot with President Yudhoyono, her once (and possibly future) archenemy that defected from her presidential cabinet and defeated her in the 2005 presidential election. It wouldn’t quite be a Clinton-Bush ticket, but it’s certainly a case of opposites attract.
  • A trio of Islamic parties—PKS, PKB and PPP—have served as part of Yudhoyono’s ruling parliamentary coalition since 2005 and endorsed his re-election. Some of the parties are talking about deserting the coalition, however, now that Yudhoyono chose the leader of Indonesia’s treasury as his new vice presidential partner. These Islamic parties each put forth their own vice-presidential candidates, only to lose out to a dour (if capable) bureaucrat.

As if the proliferation of parties and political alignments didn’t create enough problems, there’s still the question about how many of Indonesia’s 170 million eligible voters were left off the rolls. Initial estimates suggested that as many as 40 million Indonesians were disenfranchised. But now it may turn out that some of these 40 million were just people who didn’t vote. In any event, tens of millions of voters were definitely left off the list, potentially changing the outcome of the election.

In addition, the state’s election commission was supposed to certify the results of the parliamentary election on May 9. They appeared to do so at the time, but now there’s talk that they might have to take a seat or two away from a party here, add a seat to a party or two there...

An election with 44 parties, 40 million ghost voters, and a game of musical chairs in parliament — it makes the Democrats and Republicans’ 2000 battles over butterfly ballots, hanging chads and manual recounts in the Florida recount seem tame in comparison.

Three cheers for two parties.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another Variety of Indonesian Religious Experience

Posted by John

As a stranger to Indonesia, I muddle through interactions with the help of rehearsed Indonesian phrases and the kindness of people who speak a few words of English. Danielle can translate between Indonesian and English, but she can’t do that when she’s across town. Consequently, the absence of sustained face-to-face contact and the give-and-take of conversation confine me to the periphery of most of what happens here.

Communicating through gesture and simplified sentiments has become a form of survival, but my learning about Indonesia remains mostly at the level of abstraction. I know, for instance, that Indonesia has more than 200 million Muslims, but this number lacks a human dimension. The call to prayer happens five times a day, women in headscarves ride buses and motorcycles throughout the city, but these are surface reflections of something happening at the core of Indonesian society. One of my language instructors is a Muslim, but I can’t grasp much of what her life is like. She’s too busy preventing me from doing grave harm to Indonesian verbs and adjectives.

This sense of isolation from Indonesia’s Muslim culture is why I jumped at the chance to join Danielle when she interviewed Kyai Muhamin, a respected Islamic cleric in the city of Yogyakarta. Kyai is the Indonesian name for a religious teacher (the Arabic equivalent is “alim”), and it usually applies to someone like Muhamin who runs a Muslim boarding school.

One afternoon after language classes, we traveled with one of Danielle’s Indonesian instructors to Kyai Muhamin’s pesantren. “Pesantren” is the Indonesian word for traditional Muslim boarding schools, which are known in Arabic as madrassa. The interview would take place in Indonesian, but I brought my notebook to take down names and words to ask Danielle about later.  

Since 1992, Muhamin and his wife have run a pesantren for teenage girls. The school currently hosts 22 girls, but has been home to as many as 60 students at a time from Indonesia, Europe and even Indiana. Most study at the school for five to six years, in some cases going on to university.

Tuition at the school is free, which has long been a selling point for pesantren in Indonesia. Poorer families are priced out of public education in Indonesia due to fees parents are expected to pay. At the pesantren we visited, girls pay for the electricity, do their own cooking and help with upkeep of the school. The school tries to uphold the principle of mandiri (“self sufficiency”), including raising its own food. The brood of baby chicks that ran across the courtyard during our arrival seemed to confirm this. 

Indonesians’ use of “kyai” and “pesantren”—Javanese words, rather than Arabic ones—hints at a willingness to offer their own interpretations of Islam rather than relying exclusively on Arabic terms and concepts. Kyai Muhamin suggested as much when he talked about the kyai’s role in society. Like other Indonesians we’ve met, he emphasized the importance of cultural syncretism in a country with significant pre-Islamic and non-Islamic traditions, and said the kyai does more than transmit knowledge about the Koran. For my benefit, he switched over to English when making this point, saying “Local wisdom, local culture.”

Even with this acceptance of Indonesian idioms, however, a significant portion of the pesantren’s curriculum focuses on Islamic law and Arabic grammar. Students pray five times a day, including a session in the evening that lasts several hours. Then again, at one point in the interview we heard the unmistakable sound of English-language pop music coming from one of the girls’ dormitories. “I want to be with you, you’re so beautiful,” intoned some silver-tongued crooner. Maybe cultural syncretism prevails, even at a pesantren. Teenage girls around the world share some qualities, and Muhamin didn’t seem overly concerned on this point.

On the question of Islam’s relationship with Indonesian culture, Muhamin drew a distinction between the country’s two largest Muslim cultural organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. Muhamin belongs to NU, which he described as more accepting of indigenous Indonesian influences on Islam. He said Muhammadiyah, by contrast, adheres more strictly to Arabic precedents. Both organizations can claim more than 30 million members, however, revealing meaningful disagreements about the proper role of Islam within Indonesian society.

These disagreements have spilled over into politics in recent years, where parties that refer to Islam as their guiding principle have significant followings. Foreign-based Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Muhamin characterized as “anarchist” and “anti-American,” have only a handful of followers. But the Justice and Welfare Party (PKS), an organization that takes its inspiration from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, polled 8 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections that just ended and will likely join the ruling Democratic Party’s congressional coalition. PKS has tried to moderate its image in recent years, but still calls for the establishment of sharia (Islamic law) in Indonesia.

Kyai Muhamin, a firm proponent of respecting Indonesia’s various religious traditions, rejected this idea of bringing Islamic law to Indonesia. His school may teach the subject, but he doesn’t want to see it imposed on others as the law of the land. “I’d rather live in Italy than a country with sharia,” he said.

In his admonitions against mixing of politics and religion, he had harsher words for kyai who in the past cast their lot with Suharto, the dictator who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades. Suharto gave these kyai money to build their pesanstren, which Muhamin saw as corrupting these Islamic teachers and undermining the principle of self-sufficiency. Some of these kyai also endorsed Suharto’s policies, giving this authoritarian ruler a veneer of legitimacy. This close association of important Islamic figures with the ruling regime led to their “degradation,” according to Kyai Muhamin.

Danielle and I had been hoping for a tour of the pesantren and a chance to meet with some of the students, but Kyai Muhamin ended up talking to us for the balance of the two hours we had. We did get a feel for Islamic worship at the pesantren, however, when a muezzin walked into the temple immediately behind Kyai Muhamin and made the afternoon call to prayer at 3 p.m.  

It proved something of a peculiar situation—we hadn’t been invited to watch the prayers, but there they were unfolding a few feet in front of us. We heard the sound of water coming from a tap, as members of the prayer group did their ritual ablutions before entering the temple. Seated directly across from the small temple’s open windows, we could see girls in knee-length white prayer garments and white headscarves file in. We didn’t want to stare—some of the girls seemed to be starting at us—but it was impossible not to notice.

A few of the men and boys working at the pesantren also joined the prayer. It was clear that men and women were to be expected to be in separate places in the temple. A group of seven or eight girls kneeled in a row at the back of the temple, while the four of five men kneeled toward the front.

The muezzin took his place at the front of everyone, kneeling with his back to the rest of the group. With a book in his hands and his eyes closed, he appeared to be whispering a prayer, and no sound was audible. Every minute or so, he would begin to bow his head and touch it to the ground. The rest of the group would follow, repeating this gesture 10 or 12 times over the next several minutes. 

It was fortuitous we ended up in a place where we could witness (even indirectly) a daily prayer, a form of worship that forms a part of so many Indonesians’ lives. While we remain on the periphery on Indonesians’ lives, every once in a while there’s a moment like this one where we catch a glimpse of something that’s inside. 


 A few days ago we arrived in the East Javanese city of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city with 3.5 million people. Danielle will be conducting some of her interviews here over the next six weeks.

Most of our time has been devoted to apartment hunting, which has cut into research and writing time. Still, it has had its share of adventures. When one budget apartment turned us away because they required a minimum six-month commitment, they referred us to Singgasana. When we arrived at Singgasana—a resort with extravagant bungalows, an enormous swimming pool, and a golf course—we quickly realized we were out of our league.

 What had possessed the guy at the budget apartments to recommend a place that cost 10 times as much as the apartments we’d asked him to show us? It had the feeling of a Queens’ landlord telling a budget traveler to New York, “I can’t help you, but you might try this place called ‘The Plaza.’ Here’s the address.”

 Even with Danielle’s expert Indonesian, we’re still muddling through.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Varieties of Indonesian Religious Experience

Posted by John

Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic-majority country—more than 90 percent of its more than 235 million people are Muslim. Do the math, and you’ll see there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Middle East. But while there’s an abundance of mosques in Indonesia, Indonesia’s religious experience is far more complicated than this “largest Islamic-majority country” characterization suggests.

The world’s two largest religions—Christianity and Islam—have often eradicated traces of the religions that preceded them around the world. Christianity borrows heavily from Judaism, Islam borrows a bit from Christianity and Judaism, but a more common outcome has been for Islam or Christianity to supplant societies’ existing religious traditions.

This hasn’t been the case in Indonesia, particularly on the main island of Java. The vast majority of people today pray to Allah (even Christians, it turns out, pray to Allah, since “Allah” is actually the Indonesian word for “God.”) But reverence remains for the Buddhist and Hindu traditions that prevailed here for centuries and never disappeared. For one thing, Hinduism still thrives on the Indonesian island of Bali. But more importantly, Indonesians of all faiths—especially in Java—talk approvingly of their society’s “religious syncretism.” This mixing of religions is evident cultural epics that center on Hindu characters and in mosques topped with pagoda-like pendopos rather than traditional Islamic domes.

Located in the seas between the civilizations of China and India, Indonesia adopted elements of both these civilizations’ religious practices starting as early as the 3rd century A.D. A world away from the religious lodestars of Jerusalem and Mecca, trade networks transmitted Buddhism and Hinduism to Indonesia and much of Asia. Kingdoms emerging on the major Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java in the 7th century often adopted one of these faiths as a means of consolidating their society’s collective identity and articulating a belief about the transcendent.  

Evidence of Indonesia’s Buddhist and Hindu traditions are abundant here in Central Java. Nowhere are they more obvious than at the massive Buddhist Borobudur temple and Hindu Prambanan temples outside of the town of Yogyakarta. These UNESCO World Heritage Sites were built within 50 years and 40 miles of each other in the 8th and 9th centuries. It seems to confirm Indonesians’ pride in their religious syncretism that here, in the middle of the world’s largest Muslim country, lie two of the world’s major Buddhist and Hindu temples.

We managed to take in both of these sites last Sunday. Borobudur, a symmetrical terraced pyramid topped by a dozens of circular stupa, was constructed from some 2 million volcanic rocks. It would have required incredible religious devotion (or coercion, or perhaps a bit of both) to create. From top to bottom, it stands over 100 feet with a width of 387 feet. This sheer size puts it in the same category as the Mayan Chitzenitah pyramid in Mexico.

Yet for all Borobudur’s grandeur, what’s more impressive are the delicately wrought details on thousands of panels along the six terraces leading up to the top. These bas relief carvings (see a sample to the right) depict scenes from Buddha’s life, with Buddha appearing sometimes as a rabbit, deer or swan. A number of larger Buddha statues—some who’ve lost heads to either looters or decay, no one’s sure which—sit in the Lotus position at different spots along the terraces.

The practice of Buddhist worship at Borobudur (which we followed) is to ascend by walking clockwise around all six terraces to the top, where dozens of Buddhas sit serenely inside thimble-like, latticed stupas. It was less serene than it might have been on account of the huge crowds, but still impressive.

This ascent is meant to parallel the Buddhist journey of enlightenment, from the human world of desire and worldly concerns toward nirvana and the sphere of the gods. It’s hard to imagine places more beautiful than Borobudur, and walking through it you have a sense of the dedication Buddhism has inspired throughout the centuries.

While Borobudur is impressive for its unity and symmetry, the Prambanan temples are more remarkable for their diversity and sheer numbers. These architectural differences are somewhat reflective of the religious traditions themselves—Buddhism with its emphasis on oneness, Hinduism with its panoply of deities of differing ranks and orders. More than 240 of the original Prambanan temples remain, including the six largest temples devoted to primary Hindu deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. 

Like Borobudur, the Prambanan temples have bas relief panels carved to depict traditional religious stories. The monumental scale of this undertaking testifies to the following Hinduism once had in this part of Indonesia. We were hoping to get a close look at the panels of Shiva Temple, which contains the Ramayana, a Hindu epic that has become central to Javanese culture and is re-enacted through countless dance dramas and wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances. Unfortunately, the Shiva and several other temples sustained major damage in a 2006 earthquake. The temples are all still standing, but people are no longer allowed to walk inside them. We had to settle for a view from the distance, which was still remarkable in the late-afternoon sun (see the photo on the left).  

Details about the 8th- and 9th-century Javanese kingdoms that created the Prambanan and Borobudur temples are murky. But one story has it that as the Buddhist kingdom that built Borobudur was on the decline, one of its princesses ended up marrying into the Hindu kingdom that built the Prambanan temples a few decades later. Our Lonely Planet Indonesia guide speculates that this union between Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms might explain why there are Buddhist architectural elements in some of the Hindu Prambanan temples. If so, score another one for Indonesia’s religious syncretism.

Lest you think there’s no Islamic worship going on here in the world’s largest Muslim country, rest assured. We had a chance to witness afternoon prayer at a traditional Islamic boarding school earlier this week—we’ll talk more about that and have some other reflections on the varieties of Indonesian religious experience in our next post.

Indonesian Bureaucracy: Welcome to the World's Largest Filing Cabinet

Posted by Danielle

I, Danielle Lussier, hereby swear that I will never complain again about the bureaucracy at the University of California, Berkeley. I will never utter a negative word about the Sponsored Projects Office, the Committee to Protect Human Subjects, or any of the other systems I have at various times suggested were inefficient, unclear, or unnecessary. As a month trying to navigate Indonesia’s bureaucracy has taught me, UC guidelines are clear, its goals logical, and its offices actually FULFILL the tasks they are meant to perform, even if the processes are not fully transparent. In fact, I think the University of California, Berkeley should take on an advisory role in organizing a reform of the Indonesian bureaucracy. Seriously, this could be an important contribution.

My newfound love and respect for a UC system I have likened in the past to the Soviet bureaucracy is clearly a product of recent lived experience. At John’s encouragement, I am sharing a bit of my own story dealing with Indonesian bureaucracy. For most people who have lived most of their lives in an open and free society and have not subjected themselves to conducting research in a formerly authoritarian country, the entire concept of needing permission to do research is completely alien. But, according to Indonesian law, any individual—citizens as well as foreigners—must receive permission from the state Ministry of Research and Technology in order to conduct research on any topic. I repeat, any topic. Presumably, if you wanted to count the number of stoplights in Java, you would need a series of permits. After about six months of back and forth with this agency, I finally received approval to conduct research in Indonesia. I thought that this is where the headache would end, but the official approval was only the beginning.

The real hassles began once we arrived in Jakarta. Before leaving California, I had downloaded a guide to the Indonesian research bureaucracy that an Australian scholar posted on the internet. If not for this woman’s guide, I would have been completely clueless as to what I had to do once I was in the country in order to comply with all of the laws and regulations relating to my visa (none of which apply to John since he is currently here on a tourist visa).

In the roughly three weeks since we’ve been in Indonesia, I have been to the police headquarters three times (and need to go back once more), the local immigration office three times, the Ministry of Research and Technology twice, the Department of Internal Affairs twice, and once to the office of the governor of Yogyakarta. I am supposed to go to the mayor’s office in Yogyakarta as well, but I decided to try and just mail the letter that requests his permission to conduct research in the city.

I also have to visit all of the governors’ offices in the cities where I’m doing research, starting off another chain of letters that then need to be delivered to mayors and county officials. One would think I was asking for permission to conduct some wild experiment that could interfere with municipal services. But really, all I am doing is requesting access to newspapers, published reports, and permission to have conversations with residents of different regions.

My various trips to all of the above agencies have eaten up something in the range of 20 hours, cost about $175 in official fees, and involved some 30 official-looking pieces of paper that I am sure are of no real importance to anyone and will just end up in a filing cabinet somewhere. Yet, most importantly—at least from my point of view—nothing that has transpired in any of these letters, exchanges, or requests for permission is helping me carry out research. If anything, the process is discouraging me from ever attempting to do research in Indonesia again.

Bureaucracy reform is something that average Indonesians are clamoring for, but the obstacles to it are great. The logic is very simple: the bureaucracy employs countless Indonesians, who spend the better part of their day cataloguing and stamping documents that are of no use to anyone. Papers are logged by hand into registries and put into different colored folders that will never again see the light of day.

As I was commiserating about yet another day of being shuttled from one window to another, John pointed out the irony of the situation. The government sets these laws and regulations that must be upheld and employs tons of civil servants to populate various bureaucracies, but then places the burden of pushing the papers from one bureaucracy to another on me.

With the exception of a couple of forms related to my residency permit, my signature has rarely been required. Usually, Bureaucracy A (like the Ministry of Research and Technology) gives me a letter to give to Bureaucracy B (like the Ministry of Internal Affairs) rather than just mailing the letter themselves. Then, within any given bureaucracy, I have to physically collect some form from one desk, carry it over to another desk to be signed, stamped, and turned in. If a bureaucracy required more than one copy of something, I was always the one to photocopy it (and pay for the copy). You’d think given the size of the bureaucracy that this sort of paper shuffling might be part of their job. But, I guess the government would just fall dead broke if it had to pay for the postage stamps and photocopies that would be necessary if it were going to push its own papers.

The most efficient way to reform the Indonesian bureaucracy would be to do away with countless rules and regulations that create paperwork without providing a real function or service. But then what would you do with the diligent low-level civil servants currently carrying out these tasks? No government wants the unemployment of this sector on its clock.

Maybe if UC Berkeley could conduct bureaucracy reform in Indonesia, it would meet the challenge of an oversupply of bureaucrats by developing a re-training program to deploy human resources to another sector. With all the money Indonesia would save by trimming bureaucracy, maybe it could finally expand meaningful public services, such as building schools and sanitation facilities. I for one think I’d respect the bureaucracy here a lot more if I saw a better provision of public goods where they are truly needed. But, then again, this is why I swear my devotion to the UC Berkeley bureaucracy and why I’d be a miserable politician.

We’re wrapping up our time in Yogya and will head to Surabaya, East Java on Sunday. John and I have both been busy with language study and other work (as well as a bit of sightseeing), but hope to post some more pictures and updates soon.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Unkindest Cut

Posted by John

Any linguist will tell you Indonesian is an easy language to learn.

Unlike most other Asian languages, it uses the same alphabet as English. Those 26 Roman characters create a comforting sense of familiarity from the outset, whereas Chinese, Japanese and Korean pictograms seem deliberately designed to disorient the uninitiated.

What’s more, Indonesian verbs don’t have tenses and never need to be conjugated, so no endless series of “amo, amas, amat” exercises for the beginning student. If you, I, he or we love someone—even if we ever loved someone—“cinta” will do. That may seem confusing at first, but you learn to pick up the meaning from pronouns and context. It’s a small sacrifice, considering the fact that it liberates you from having to remember which endings belong with which verbs.

Ever have trouble remembering when to use “good” and when to use “well”? No such problem exists in Indonesian, since adjectives and adverbs usually take the exact same form. To mix metaphors and languages here for a minute, in Indonesian you may not be feeling very baik, but you can still remain in someone’s baik graces.

You’re probably getting the hang of this already.

There’s a reason why Indonesian is considered so easy to learn. It’s a recent innovation, formalized in the early 20th century as a nationalist project to unite Indonesia’s more than 100 ethnic groups on more than 1,000 islands, each group with its own language. It has its origins in the Malay trade language that has permeated the Indonesian archipelago for centuries of maritime commerce (and which is still spoken in Malaysia as well).

Like most aspects of Indonesian life, the national language incorporates foreign influences when they’re found to be suitable. In addition to the language’s Malay roots, there’s a sprinkling of Dutch words. No reason to reject the colonial language out of hand when it’s found to be useful. There’s a light Portuguese linguistic footprint as well, owing to these Europeans’ presence in Indonesia in the 16th century (they stayed in East Timor until the 1970s). Throw in a few words from the Islamic language of Arabic, some Sanskrit terms from Indonesia’s Hindu forbearers, and you’re in business.

Finding a linguistic vehicle to bring together a disparate population in the modern era requires a commitment to simplicity. People won’t give up their own languages unless you make it worth their while, so you can’t hold on to archaic conventions and quirky rules solely for the sake of posterity. The new language must be sensible, convenient, and above all rational—the linguistic equivalent of the metric system.

Yet for all the purported ease of the Indonesian language, my four hours of daily one-on-one intensive language training sessions in Yogyakarta last week were beginning to take on the feeling of an interrogation by the Grand Inquisitor. This struggle occurs despite the fact we’re at Wsima Bahasa, the best language school in the country and the “Grand Inquisitors” of my imagination are incredibly competent instructors who, truth be told, treat us with kid gloves.

Spending an extended period of time surrounded by an unfamiliar language is perhaps the most disorienting of human experiences. Sessions at Indonesian language boot camp leave me feeling deprived of my senses and doubting instincts I’ve learned to trust over the course of a lifetime. I know the red light in the center of the road means “stop” in any language, but what happens when I start speaking Indonesian and “go” comes out instead?

Each session became a test of willpower and endurance. The heat, unfamiliar noises, forced repetition, teachers’ intent gazes, flashes of recognition betrayed by defective memory or stammered diction—at the end of each class, I was ready to confess to a major crime.

You wouldn’t know it from this melodramatic description, but 90 percent of my Indonesian language training sessions are actually conducted in English. My instructors speak my native language better than I do, so much so that I’m surprised when they ask after the meaning of some American idiom I’ve employed. So this isn’t a prisoner-of-war situation where I’m caught far behind enemy lines—there’s always a ready escape hatch of English, an escape hatch I’ve readily employed with little shame.

Still, these Indonesian language lessons have been the first time in a while I’ve been on the receiving end of the inherent power relationship embedded within language. In a world where everyone learns English as a second language, I usually wield the whip hand, whether I realize it or not. So the next time I’m caught in line in the United States behind someone struggling a bit with the English idiom, I’ll be a bit more forgiving.

A neurologist could probably explain exactly why there’s dispiritingly small space left in the 34-year-old brain to acquire language. I really wasn’t looking for an explanation, however. I just knew something had to give, so I asked (or had Danielle translate my request) to reduce my sessions to 2 hours a day. Mercifully, the school agreed.

I celebrated the first day of my newfound freedom—two hours each day in the late morning—with a trip to the barber. I’ve surely learned enough Indonesian, I thought, to handle this basic task. I’d already had that unfortunate incident last week when my hair clippers exploded after I’d failed to plug in the proper wattage converter, so I eventually had to do something. With my close-cropped hair, it wasn’t like much could go wrong. Or so I thought.

I never made it to the recently rechristened “Obama’s” barbershop. The intense heat had me detour instead to a nearby salon that billed itself as “styling for women and men.” When I stepped through the front door, the stylists looked at me a bit quizzically. Does this guy want a perm or something?

A few seconds of halting dialogue between us, and they quickly realized that my Indonesian wasn’t sophisticated enough to articulate or comprehend such advanced hairstyling concepts as “layers” or “highlights.” And with my hair, it’s not like Rapunzel just walked in to their establishment. At a loss for the right Indonesian words, I drew my hand over my short locks, pantomiming what I envisioned as the universal sign for a Johnny Unitas flat-top.

My stylist nodded in what seemed liked agreement, but somehow I ended up being escorted over to the sink. Before I knew it, there was shampoo in my hair. This was a bit more than I bargained for, but with the exchange rate in Indonesia, it was all going to come out to $3 anyway, so I figured I might as well smile and try to enjoy it.

Once I was back in the stylist’s chair, he proved a bit more fastidious with the clippers than I was expecting. To my mind, there’s only so many ways to style a flat-top, but I appreciated his sense of professional dedication. Maybe fifteen minutes later, I was back at the shampoo station, having my hair rinsed. Shouldn’t be long and I’ll be out of here, I thought.

At that point, however, I was handed off to what I presumed was another stylist. She showed me the haircut in the mirror and asked a question, which I in my haste assumed to be Indonesian for, “Do you like it?” Ready to leave the salon, I nodded yes and said “Bagus,” which I had learned as the all-purpose Indonesian version for “It’s good.”

Having expressed my satisfaction, I expected this new stylist to pull off my smock and bring me over to the cash register. Instead, she started anointing my scalp with oil. Again, this was pleasant enough, but it seemed curious. When I said, “Bagus,” had I fully understood the question?

She continued running her fingers over my scalp and down my neck. By the time she reached my shoulder, I realized, to my horror, that she’d asked, “Would you like a massage?” And I, in deploying the little Indonesian I knew, had nodded my head resolutely and said, to her ear anyway, “Sounds good! Sure!”

I’ve spoken metaphorically here about how paralyzing it can be to not know how to say something in the predominant language, but there was nothing metaphorical about this. It was paralyzing. I was having my shoulders poked, my back prodded, and the space between my fingers probed for their pressure points. The stylist—or perhaps she actually was the salon’s in-house masseuse, what did I know?—wasn’t shy about putting her hands down the back of my shirt to get those treacherous knots that were only tensing up more as my shock increased. It’s usually relaxing to have a massage, but I was desperate to find a way to call for this “relaxation” to come to an end.

But how would I do that? I had just learned that using “bagus”—“it’s good”—would only bring on another round of potentially more compromising contortions. Think, John, think. In the Indonesian language unit on bargaining, there was a phrase you are supposed to use when you wanted to bring the haggling to a close. What was it?

As my fingers were being bent in every direction, vocabulary lessons flashed before my eyes. I could say “rice,” “clock,” maybe “airplane” if I really thought about it. But what message would that send? They’d probably be harmless nonsequiturs, and they certainly wouldn’t help me out of my predicament. Worse yet, by saying “airplane,” would I unwittingly be calling for some more complex and potentially permanently damaging massage maneuver?

My brain, at the breaking point, finally alighted on “Tidak apa lagi,” or, “No, nothing more.” After all my complaints about language immersion, I was suddenly painfully aware of the merits of intensive classes. As the massage continued, I bided my time, confident that the next time the stylist cum masseuse spoke, I could pull the plug on the whole thing.

Tidak apa lagi,” I said a few minutes later, and with that, deliverance. At that moment, they were the three most beautiful words in the Indonesian language.