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The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Rani Robelus. Rani is spending a year serving as an English teacher and a video tutor in Yogyakarta, Indonesia through VIA. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.
In June of 2007, I traveled to the world’s most populous Muslim nation and largest archipelago. I walked through streets scented with clove cigarettes and burning banana leaves, echoing with the otherworldly call to prayer. I went back to my mother’s homeland. I went back to Indonesia.
At that time, I had just graduated from high school and was searching to reconnect with my roots. As soon as my plane landed, I fell… In love, that is. I fell for the people, the food, the colors and the smells. Ever since that trip, this deep-seated urge to return and be immersed in the culture hadn’t—and wouldn’t— leave me in peace.
And so, I’m finding my way back.
Though this time, I know it won’t be easy. Packing up my bags and leaving my life in DC for the other side of the world gets my heart racing, but I know many challenges lie ahead. No doubt, there will be times I’ll feel disoriented and completely alone. I’ll probably bear witness to (and even be a target of) corruption and bribery, and life will be measured in jam karet or rubber time. Most of my time might be spent going in circles, trying to understand what people really mean behind their polite façade. But most of all, I will arrive in Indonesia with my own cultural baggage. I’ll have to increase awareness of and ultimately overcome my own cultural and personal assumptions, values and biases.
This was something I learned during my last trip to Indonesia. During that summer of 2007, I met my Indonesian family for the first time since I was two years old and my idea of the nuclear family and how it should behave was completely turned upside down.
Though they all lived in the same house, the members of my mother’s family lived in two different worlds. My wealthy great aunt provided my uncle with a job as her driver while his wife cleaned the house, cooking and washing clothes by hand. In return, they lived with their son in a small, single room at the back of her home.
From a Western girl’s perspective, the rules of the house seemed backward. Because of my uncle’s “lower” status, it was an unspoken rule that he and his family couldn’t enter the house through the front door and were silently prohibited from eating at the same table as the rest. My mother’s aunt and uncle treated my mother with more respect because she had made her way to America, and in their eyes, anyone who lives in the U.S. had made it rich.I vividly remember eating with my great aunt’s immediate family at the dinner table, and seeing my cousin Achmad— who is my age— back in the kitchen picking up food and returning to his back room. It made me feel guilty and shameful that there I was sitting at the table, eating the food his mother had cooked us. There I was walking in and out of the front door as I pleased.
After dinner, I walked to the back of the house to chat with Achmad. I couldn’t help but think that our positions in the world could have been easily reversed. I could’ve been living as the second-class family member, but pure chance prevented it. It’s this side of Asia which visitors rarely see—the silent discrimination based on wealth and status which is so burnt and engraved into the culture. This is an example of how culture dominated and all I could do is accept that for my family, this is their way of life and how it’s been for centuries. The only thing I could be held responsible for was my own actions, and as much as I wanted to shout and teach my family the right way to treat a human being, I could not be responsible for theirs.
And so by living in Indonesia, I hope my own cultural perspectives and values will continue to be challenged and examined more sharply under a magnifying glass. I also want to learn how to better solve and deal with complex problems, and discover what I can handle when placed in disorienting, foreign situations. I expect to become an expert at making a fool of myself and laughing it off, at knowing what risks to take and when to take them. And most of all, I hope to reconnect to a country I lost touch with years ago.