Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire. Not only the myth-inducing geologic term for the loop of earthquake and volcanic activity around the Pacific, but a very real, very personal welcome to the land of Indonesia. With all the new foods and all the mysterious food preparation techniques, we are all bound to encounter our own, intimate Ring of Fire. So, as I lay in bed here with my “Rasa Grapefruit-Lemon” Powerade Isotonik drink, I’ll re-cap the past week and battle the fiery demons of my belly with almighty electrolytes.

Our first week was spent in Jakarta, a sprawling, dusty, polluted, overwhelming city. Our thirty story hotel with several neighboring condominium buildings looked like the lord of the underworld decided to spring out of the impoverished earth and rule from above for a change. Don’t misunderstand, our hotel was beautiful, very classy, and a pleasure to stay at, but it looked completely out of place from everything else surrounding it. When you walked out of the hotel, all you could see was this monster of a highway with multiple levels and ramps and intersections, which apparently made sense to all the taxi drivers and motorists, but which none of us could really decipher.

I only really ventured out walking from our hotel a couple times. Crossing the street typically involved an approach of waiting for a relative break in traffic (only four motorcycles and two trucks coming, instead of the usual twelve) and running, preferably in a large group. Once we walked to a mall nearby. There are over 100 malls in Jakarta and the range in what constitutes a mall is huge. This particular mall was housed in a bright blue building, with itty bitty shops scattered throughout. Many of the shops were closed, either for Ramadhan or because this was a somewhat crappy kind of mall. It was hard to tell.

I’ve heard that one technique stores use to keep customers shopping is to make them feel a little lost. Indonesian malls seem to take that to an entirely new level. At this mall, escalators crissed and crossed with no apparent rhyme or reasons. You’d find an up escalator but not a down. Or a down but no up. There were stories and stories and half-stories, and all the while you were surrounded by brightly colored shapes and characters and lights because apparently in most things decorative, Indonesia errs on the side of cute.

Not including the rat we saw in the middle of the mall floor, who seemed to be in the process of dying.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, there are the malls in downtown Jakarta, such as the Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia. Gucci, Prada, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Chanel. Everything about these malls glistens. They’re massive… Plaza Indonesia has about three stories, I believe, while Grand Indonesia has about eight, a few of which are taken up by the largest move theatre in southeast Asia. And what’s even more perplexing about these malls is that are right next to each other and they both have the exact same big label stores. And the malls were certainly not empty, but it’s hard to believe there’s really the market for two Gucci stores less than a kilometer apart.

Some stores you may know that seem to be doing well in Indonesia: McDonalds, Shell gasoline, Wendy’s.

Some unexpected stores you may know that seem to be doing well in Indonesia: KFC, Circle K, A&W.

Most of our time spent in Jakarta was for the first phase of our orientation. We’d meet in a little conference room in the hotel with unnecessarily fancy water glasses and unnecessarily fancy martini glasses with mints perched precariously on the edges of our tables.

Two out of the five days we were there, a glass was knocked off and broken.

You would have thought they’d have switched to plastic after the first one.

Orientation varied from extremely interesting to extremely… numbing. It’s hard to make bureaucratic details interesting in English. Even more difficult to make them interesting in Indonesian translated to English followed by a debate in Indonesian then abruptly summed up in English. If nothing else it made all of us appreciate the work that the Indonesian director did in order to get us here. It sounded as though the past five or six months, all she has done has been filling out forms and writing letters to get permission for each and every one of us to be here.

One of the most interesting speakers was Dr. Ibu Irid. (Ibu literally means mother, but it’s also used as a title like Mrs. or Ms.; my students may be calling me Ibu Kelly.) She entered the room dressed completely in white, flowing fabric. At first glance she seemed very much the conservative, Muslim woman. And radiant. She was very radiant.

Well, in the course of her discussion on interculturalism, she seemed to twist out any underlying stereotypes of Muslim women that might have been lurking in our politically correct brains. She was such an engaging speaker, full of stories demonstrating differences in Indonesian and U.S. culture, even calling out to Richard Simmons in the midst of one story. She discussed certain perceptions Indonesians have of westerners and vice versa. Indonesians tend to view westerners as being too time-focused, loud, and stingy. She started riffing on our stinginess, the way we will always scrutinize the bill at a restaurant and divide the meal and only pay for our share. In our group the embarrassed laughs of recognition grew. Just the night before a very large group of us had gone to a restaurant. When the bill came, a few people got into checking the math and arguing that they were overcharging us (presumably because we’re from the U.S.). The staff obligingly re-checked it. The bill had been folded in half, with half of our items listed on the opposite side. We were in the wrong. But as a group we managed to demonstrate just how loud and stingy we Americans can be.

Reinforcing U.S. cultural stereotypes? check.

One of the most fascinating things Ibu Irid discussed was the difference in independence versus community. Though I don’t remember how this study was worded, on a scale of 0 – 100, 100 being the most independent and 0 being the least, the United States was at a 91. Top of the list. (We’re number one!)

Indonesia? 14.

That is one thing that will be an adjustment for me. I am fond of alone time. I like time to myself to decompress, reflect, recharge. While I enjoy being around people and socializing, I am at heart an introvert. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out once I get to my site.

Did you know that the word “privacy” didn’t exist in Indonesian until they adopted it in English? The word is “pribadi.”

The other thing that Ibu Irid discussed was the “culture shock W,” which I had seen in my college Freshmen seminar on culture shock. The details of the curve were labeled a bit differently than they had been in my class, but the basic idea was the same. The W shape demonstrates the ups and downs of visiting a new place and new culture. I’m prone to thinking that the “W” actually looks like a bit more like a sine wave, particularly with such a long intercultural experience, but you get the idea.

Strike that. Maybe it looks more like a line on the Richter scale. At least considering that my first experience with earthquakes happened while I was in Jakarta. And it wasn’t a baby either. One afternoon, I was sitting on my hotel bed journaling away, when I felt a low rumble. I thought it was probably an earthquake and tried to keep my cool. Earthquakes happen every day, right? And they’re usually just those little ones that rumble a little and then you go back to whatever else you were doing. This was probably just one of those little ones. Then, I felt the building start to sway back and forth. From eight stories up, buildings apparently have a lot of wiggle room. I was feeling alright, until I started hearing bits of plaster falling down through the walls and cracking. That was when I jumped off the bed and stood in the frame of my bathroom door. Apparently I had remembered that detail from the two minutes of earthquake safety instruction we got in second grade. Things started to settle down, and I heard all of the other ETAs on my floor out in the hall. Everyone was a little freaked out and not really sure what to do. Do we stay? Is it over? Do we go downstairs? I tried to be calm about everything, as we finally made our way down the emergency exit. Outside, there were maybe a hundred or more people standing around. Immediately everyone began to recount their experience of what just happened. What they were doing, what they thought. None of us had really experienced earthquakes before, so one of the things we really wanted to know was how bad of an earthquake it was. In a strange way, we felt a little justified when we learned the earthquake was between 7.0 and 7.3. “See? Our fear is justified.” We waited for sometime outside, after which the hotel staff invited us into the lobby, where we had to wait a bit longer. Ever the hospitable hosts, the staff began making tea and hot chocolate in order to calm us. It’s hard for me to imagine wait staffs in the U.S. being quite that attentive post-crisis. We waited a bit longer, then were given the okay to go back to our rooms upstairs.

I suppose it has all been part of my baptism by (ring of) fire.


Oh, and I forgot to mention that the title of the last post was from the song that was playing as we got on the plane from Tokyo to Singapore.

And of course, the views I express are mine and only mine. Not AMINEF’s. Not Fulbright’s. Just mine.


  1. Sounds like Delhi Belly to me... :P

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99CT3wQmiFU