when coming home is an art you haven’t mastered yet

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how was your trip? they will ask
I won’t really have an answer, though I’ll think
what is that word for when you feel such melancholy that your chest starts hurting? for when the blues is so raw that your body can’t help but translate the emotional impulse to a physical ache

what is that word for when you can see your elders growing old, when they can no longer keep up a conversation with you, and you’re scared that one of these visits will be the last time you’ll see them?

is there a saying for when you’re so glad that you still have friends from childhood that, no matter how long you haven’t seen them, conversations just flow like some metaphorical flood gates have been opened?

how do you express the weight of nostalgia you feel when you see old pen marks on the wall, marking your height growth in your childhood home

how do you convey to someone, I can only say “It was great, nice to see family and friends”, because if I attempt to give more substance it’s like a trigger, and it wouldn’t be fair to unleash this torrent of thoughts on a well-meaning acquaintance

will they get it if I mention the slight tinge of guilt when there’s glitches in my mother tongue, or the privilege of going home and feeling like I’m home

is it polite to say “There’s not yet a word to describe this feeling in the English language, so the word ‘bittersweet’ will have to do”
will they understand what I mean when I say it was me who made the choice to leave, either out of bravery or stupidity, and for every time I feel glad to have left, there’s an equal weight of regret looming in the background

how was your trip? they will ask
is it appropriate to say “I returned to a city and country that has broken my heart plenty, and slowly I’ve come to understand why I break hearts”
can I say that I’m now too foreign for here, and too foreign for home, but never enough for both

the art of coming home means learning a tricky dance and committing to a lifelong performance
because to leave home is to understand that you’re leaving a part of your person and sticking it in amber: crystalized, ready for safe keeping
I haven’t figured out how to keep it safe just yet.

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Diaspora blues image + text via theijeoma

Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87

I don’t mourn publicly a lot, especially when someone public died. But this is Bill Cunningham. I, like so many others who don’t live in New York and is an insider of the fashion world, knew of Bill from the documentary Bill Cunningham New York (which you should watch right now if you haven’t). His work ethic and integrity inspired me a lot as a journalist, as a fashion enthusiast, as an artist. Despite his revered position and respect from many in ivory towers, he loved the working people and he loved individual style. May he rest in peace, and may we all strive to have, at the very least, half of his integrity.

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ramblings on food, privilege, and why white people like to quantify their lineage

**Disclaimer: Some of these scenarios I’m mentioning may be applicable to other minority groups not based on race, but for the context on this post, I’m focusing specifically on people of color in the United States. I also talk a lot about “white people” but I hope everyone realizes that a.) it’s not all white people (duh), and b.) that these scenarios are caused by a systemic problem of white supremacy that white folks (and non-white folks) are complicit in, whether intentionally or not, and not caused by individual white people.

Tomorrow is mother’s day (well American mother’s day anyway). Holidays that center around families are always hard for me, mostly cause my family live far away. I’m sure for many folks who don’t have Hallmark-ready sentiments about their families (because of histories of abuse, displacement, or whatnot) also feel a certain hardship around these holidays. Please think of them as well tomorrow in addition to thinking of your mommas.

I was homesick today, so I decided to buy some corn, some condensed milk, some shredded cheese, and some rosé. When I was growing up, I used to eat boiled corn (off the cob) mixed with butter, condensed milk, and cheese. It was one of the best things ever, so why not use some comfort food to cure a little homesickness? Plus, rosé is always appropriate for any state of mind.

I’m not really sure why I’m writing this, but I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. I mean I always do I guess, cause I eat a lot and I love food, but I think about food in the sense that it’s so much more than just that thing we eat to keep us alive. For many cultures, food is everything more than just sustenance. It’s one of the symbols of a given culture. The ingredients that go into a dish involves chemistry and history and geography and anthropology.

Indonesian food is amazingly savory. There are so many different spices and herbs that go into it because our geography allows our land to be used to grow these things. Some dishes take hours to make. My mom is the resident chef in my family. Most moms in Indonesia are, though not always. In Indonesia, food is how you show you care about someone. If you come over to someone’s house, their way of showing hospitality goes a bit farther than tea and crackers—often it’s a whole meal, often you’re pushed to get second helpings (and third helpings, and fourth helpings). That kind of culture isn’t exclusive to Indonesian culture.

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Went to an iftar with a family friend during Ramadan in Al-Salt, Jordan, and got to eat from this spread.

Whenever I get a chance to eat Indonesian food here in Seattle, it’s like a blessing. Eating sambal (chili sauce), smelling kunyit (turmeric), hearing sounds of meat being stir fried in a wok it takes me to another place. It takes me home. I’m sure that’s true for many people of different cultures as well. For a lot of racial minorities and diasporic peoples, eating a certain kind of food takes us to this collective consciousness that we have within our in-groups, near or far. If I’m eating Indonesian cireng (fried tapioca with spices), I’m most likely going to think back to my time in elementary school, peeking out of my school bus to buy them with friends from street vendors that storm the streets while all the cars are stuck in traffic. Many people my age may have this same train of thought too.

***

I went to a spoken-word poetry performance once, and the performers asked why white people food tastes so bland given the fact that their European ancestors colonized the world to take other peoples’ spices. Well it turns out, because of colonization, Europeans from the higher to lower class can get ahold of spices very easily. Being bougie-ass folks that the European ruling class can be, they don’t want to eat the same things that the poorer Europeans do, so they made “pure” dishes (i.e., ones cooked without spices taken from colonies) the It-food. The It-food is exclusive, the It-food is ~pure~, the It-food has none of those dirty peppers in it. And as in most places, what the ruling class does, everyone follows (think Regina George wearing army pants and flip flops, so obv everyone wanted to wear army pants and flip flops). So apparently that’s how we got Johns at Jai Thai eating Pad See Ews with 0 stars.

Food is chemistry, it’s history, it’s geography, it’s anthropology. Food is race, it’s class, it’s religion, it’s culture. But I wonder whether most white people would know that history of why chicken pot pie isn’t as savory as chicken massala. I wonder if white frat bros who gawk at a Mexican man selling elotes from his food cart on the basis of “that food is probably super dirty and unsanitary” realizes the irony of them eating at Chipotle twice a week. I hope the white people who judge the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the number of Japanese-looking customers recognize that some of those same customers may have been made to feel shitty by white people when they were growing up because their lunchbox contained tuna rolls instead of tuna sandwiches. I hope those white people have that kind of collective consciousness.

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Feastmode: About to eat Padang food back when I was in Jakarta in 2013

***

A few years ago my housemates and I threw a party at our house, it was a successful party, full of white college hipsters and Rainier beer-fueled fun. It was almost 3 a.m. and I was ready to turn in and call it a night. We had turned the party lights off and most people had gone home, except for a few stragglers. One of them was this white guy.

He asked: Hey, what are you? (Because there’s always that one white guy that asks that of POCs amirite)
Me, being tired and not really in the mood to smack basic-ass white people in the face: Uh, I grew up in Indonesia
Him: Oh cool, my grandmother’s 1/16th Korean
Me: Oh cool, you’re just another white guy to me tho
I left.

Sometimes I wonder why is it that so many white people like to quantify their ancestry. Why is it so easy for them to turn their lineage into simple fraction, as though their roots are so easily quantifiable and not at all based on complex histories affected by violence and displacement, among other things?

Maybe on some level white people recognize that most minorities have a collective consciousness within their in-groups. If I see another POC, we both will probably have personal stories related to how racism has affected us. Different stories, perhaps, but they have a common denominator of racism (also applicable to other minority groups affected by an -ism). Maybe some white people want a collective consciousness that’s related to ethnicity too. Maybe that white guy at my house party thought that he and I could have the same collective consciousness because we both have non-white blood in us. Except I have 100% non-white blood and him less than 6% apparently; except he probably doesn’t lose sleep at night specifically because he misses the food his mom cooks thousands of miles away (he could possibly lose sleep for other reasons); except he probably doesn’t get hit on by white guys because they have a fetish for Asians; except he probably doesn’t feel guilty for being able to speak English better than his mother tongue.

Maybe that’s why some white people like to say they’re a quarter (or whatever fraction) Native American, as though having a smidgen of Native blood (or whatever non-white blood) is the same as being raised in that culture, or the same as viscerally knowing the trials and tribulations and joy and inside jokes of that culture. As though being able to “pass” as white even if you’re mixed race isn’t also a form of privilege. Maybe ethnic pride isn’t the only reason why some white people like to announce that they’re 50% Irish, 20% Hispanic, 5% French, 14% German, and 1% Native American. Maybe it’s also because they want to forget that less than a century ago, their European ancestors pushed people who had even 1% of non-white blood to the margins through every method from not allowing them to vote, to making them drink from specific water fountains, to murder.

Maybe some white people just want to feel like they can #relate. Maybe they want to find other histories to relate to because the history that they should actually #relate to involve murdering and enslaving whole groups of people. And that’s understandable, who wants to acknowledge shit like that? But maybe white people should start if we are to get to a “post-racial society” that so many white liberals want. Black and brown people in this country already acknowledge that painful history (whether we want to or not), why not white people too? It seems that the “progressive” movement lately is like code for “waiting for cis white straight people to catch up with all the rest of us.”

***

I often get the sense from some white people that they think that racial minorities having a collective consciousness with members of their own race equates to having privilege. Like how men think that women having signals with their wing-women at bars for when an interaction with a man has gone sour is equal to having “female privileges,” as though they don’t recognize that those signals were necessary because of a culture in which saying no to a man can mean violence in response. Sometimes I hear from some white people that black people are privileged for being able to say the n-word. But is it privilege when they have to reclaim a word that used to be used to justify their murder? Isn’t it that when you have to reclaim something, that means that that thing was taken from you without your consent to begin with? Is it a privilege to be a victim of stealing? That’s a new concept to me.

Maybe people of color in America have a collective consciousness because they are constantly told that their experiences are the “other” whereas white is the “default.” That growing up eating mac and cheese is part of “childhood,” but growing up eating rice is part of “Indonesian childhood.” That eating dim sum is a “Chinese thing” but eating fries is just a “thing.” Maybe people of color in America have a collective consciousness because they recognize that they don’t come from an Anglo-centric land, but Anglo peoples have to some extent wrecked it all the same. So most POCs acknowledge their histories, their communities, and the culture from which they stem because they need to. Because the group in power (i.e., whites) won’t acknowledge that history for them. Is it a privilege if we have to do certain things for ourselves because otherwise those things will be erased from history? Maybe if some of these white people would like to also have a collective consciousness relating to race, they should acknowledge their own histories first, systematically and personally. Even if that history is filled with systems being devised to take things from other groups, time and time again. I get it, this whole mess of crap that is racial/cultural relations in the US is not the fault of individual white people, it’s a systemic problem. But wouldn’t it be nice if more of them listened to POCs on how to solve it?

making art while brown: when you’re expected to have essays to back up your rage

Before I begin pouring my thoughts onto this page, I wanted to say that I’ve been tempted to start a semi-regular column (presumably called “making art while brown”) just to highlight my experiences and conversations I’ve had regarding the experience as an artist of color trying to make art (specifically dance) in white-ass Seattle. Not gonna promise anything though, cause schedules and things tend to pile up and I tend to overwork myself (which I’m trying to get better at). But I’ve always appreciated writing about my experiences as a way to analyze it and how it fits into larger societal privileged/marginalized dynamics. Hopefully by pushing myself to write more about it, it can make me a better activist/artist/writer/person. If you are reading this and would love to have further conversations about it, trust that that feeling is mutual, and there’s always an open invitation for such productive discussions. That aside, here goes:

I’ve been really angry lately, and for lots of different reasons. Chances are if you’re someone with a marginalized identity, and you’re not part of the white-cis-het crew, you’ve been angry a lot at the way these power structures treat you.

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image from “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

In my last post, I wrote about the frustrations that come with being an artist of color in the predominantly white Seattle dance scene. I wrote about the frustration regarding and fear of being tokenized as a person of color, of being put in a box because I made the choice to deal with my identity as an American-Indonesian in a performative work, of being dismissed because I consciously decided to address my distinctly non-White upbringing. I talked about it again recently with one of my bffs/my emergency contact/honorary sibling for The Murmur Journal. The bottom line of this frustration is not that I’m scared of being criticized for my art, but that it sucks that I’m the one worrying about being tokenized and essentialized as a person of color as opposed to people (mostly white people) just realizing that tokenizing/essentializing POCs is not OK.

After that performance, of which you can watch below, I got a lot of really supportive and insightful feedback, none of which tokenized my experiences. If anything, a lot of the conversations I’ve had with viewers had to do with how other folks managed to layer their own experiences on the work, and that led to a lot of beautiful revelations on humanity, on relationships, on imaginations.

But then came the review. To be clear here, Sandi Kurtz is a respectable dance journalist/historian in this city, and this post is not a form to attack her in any way, but I do want to add my two cents to her review on SeattleDances (for which I also write reviews/previews). She wrote:

“The work could be seen as an affectionate nod to Ruth St. Denis, who used elaborate costumes to help create her faux-ethnic solos, or just a happy coincidence—either way, the two seem to share an appreciation for the effect a truly stunning costume can have.”

Ruth St. Denis is a renowned choreographer, but she’s also got a record of being problematic, mostly because she created art in an era where it is “trendy” to create Orientalist, appropriative works that fetishize non-Western cultures (other examples of this: Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, and many other choreographers of the early 20th century—or even later, Doug Elkins for example—that do make “faux-ethnic” dances). The idea that someone would compare me to a choreographer who gets accolades for appropriating and fetishizing cultures that aren’t theirs offends me greatly. My work is and has always been an earnest way of dealing with my identity, and yet the only record of that effort is a person (of considerable privilege) comparing me to a choreographer who tokenize cultures like mine because it’s “exotic” and “ethnic.” It’s as though the assumption of my only goal was to “combine Eastern and Western cultures” in order to be “edgy.” It’s not. I am brown. I am ethnic. That informs not just how I make art, but also how I live my life. I do balance Eastern and Western cultures on the daily not because I want to be “fresh” and “unique” and “cutting-edge,” but because it is something I have to do in order to survive. It’s something I think about daily because if I don’t, the overwhelming guilt of finding yourself complicit in white hegemony as a person of color is unproductive. If I don’t think about it daily, I risk of losing the (non-Western) cultures, nuances, values that I grew up with that is so crucial to my current existence. Obviously I don’t expect viewers who don’t know me to get that (because duh how would you know right?), but I think that statement just needs to be put out there in the world.

video: wali panca at Velocity’s Next Fest NW: Utopia

But I’m not writing this post to talk about that. I’m not in a place where I feel like I need to respond to the review. What Sandi wrote is her opinion and it’s valid (maybe problematic, but still valid), and what I wrote above is my opinion and it’s also valid. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people be right about things and still not agree.”

Instead, I wanted to analyze my anger. After I read this review, I was considerably angry because months earlier, I had written about this very subject. To quote from my previous post:

“The thing is, white-cis-straight people make stuff based on their past life experiences all the time, and they don’t have to worry about having that experience fetishized the crap out of itself. Because their experiences are considered the default, therefore relatable. Mine’s foreign. It’s exotic. …

The thing is, I don’t need people to think a certain thing when they’re viewing my work, I’ve never thought that ever. That’s the beauty of art right? Viewers get to layer their own experiences on it. But it sucks knowing that some people are going to put you in a box because they just grew up differently than you. And somehow you’re the one that gets stripped of your complexity, because the white hegemonic system makes it real convenient to do so.”

In my interview for the Murmur Journal, I elaborated even further:

“I was worried that people would think, ‘Oh of course it would be this ethnic thing because this is what she knows.’ … there’s always that nervousness. You just think about what people’s intentions are. When they ignore you and don’t ignore the white person next to you, you wonder about their intentions. There’s a lot of self-analysis that happen. What’s frustrating is that you worry about their intentions but they don’t think about your intentions. They often just rely on stereotypes. … That’s problematic.”

And I felt that that very concern of being put in a box was manifesting right in front of me. And I was upset that even though I saw it coming, I’m still upset about it. So then I had conversations with people I love about it. At one point, my significant other asked me:

“Do you think you’re gonna write a response to it like Au Collective did with the review of you guys’ show?” (For reference, read here, here, and here)

Maybe some people would consider this post to be that response, but I don’t consider it as so. Honestly, I didn’t want to respond (and I still don’t). It takes so much time and effort and courage to express your frustrations and anger as a person of color to a white audience, and I constantly wonder who benefits from that time and effort and courage.

And that’s exactly where the problem lies. We as marginalized peoples (whether POCs, femmes, queer folks, trans* people, differently-abled folks, religious minorities, and many other intersections thereof) constantly have to summon up courage just to be angry. It is as though the white-cis-het-masculine hegemony expects us to summon time and effort and bravery and guts to face our trauma in order to craft eloquent essays to explain to them why we are angry with this system. And for whose benefit is that? We know why we’re angry, so surely we won’t be the ones primarily benefiting from such an ordeal. Most of the time, if we don’t calm ourselves down enough to explain our rage, we risk being seen as the “angry black and brown people,” or the “angry queers” or “angry activists” or whatever the stereotype is. And lemme tell you, that’s not a fun stereotype to be put on you.

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image from “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Here’s where the conundrum lies though: being angry is sometimes necessary, because things should make you angry because we should, in general, hold ourselves to higher standards as to how we’re treating other human beings. South Asian trans* artist/poet/human being extraordinaire Alok Vaid-Menon says so eloquently in an interview:

Q: Oftentimes there is a narrative of negativity imposed upon activists and anyone who is outraged by the reality of the world. We are encouraged to “think positively” and operate with Hallmark-ready sentiments on our hearts. People also don’t like being told they’re wrong or that their behaviors contribute to violence—that word alone really scares people. You use the word “rage” a lot in a way that suggests it’s positive or productive. What does that word mean to you? Why is rage important?

A: Oh gosh, I think rage is so beautiful and awe-inspiring. Rage means intensity, honesty, confrontation. It’s gotten a negative connotation, but I think it’s actually necessary because so much of this world is about desensitizing us to everything, making us numb to our own pain and the pain of others, and sometimes people need to be awoken to the fact that there’s something worth fighting for.”

It is so important, but wouldn’t it be lovely if marginalized peoples are also given a space to be angry in their own ways, to not have to validate their anger for the benefit of privileged people. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we don’t have to be tired of being angry, much less sick of being tired of being angry? I’m honestly so sick of being tired of being angry. At one point, I wished I didn’t exist as a woman of color in a country ruled by white men, and that’s a hella scary thought, honestly. On the one hand, I know that if I’m just apathetic to these injustices, I won’t win because then I’m just being complacent, and that’s no good. But you need energy to be anything but apathetic, and if you do choose to resist (by being angry or critical or whatever), there’s still the risk that you won’t win, because the hegemonic system is not made for marginalized peoples to win. So here we are, back at where we’re started: between a rock and a hard place.

If you are an artist of color, or even just a person of color who don’t consider yourself an art-maker, I would love to know how you navigate this conundrum, how you hold space for other people, while simultaneously holding space for yourself to resist and be angry yet still take care of yourself. I’m all for using art as part of that effort, cause I think art is a necessary part of navigating this conundrum. But what if your art becomes entangled in that conundrum? Then how do you escape that and look at it critically while still making sure you don’t burn out? I would genuinely like to know, what’s your relationship to rage?

xo -i

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making art while brown: to POCs whose art is de-facto radical

I’ve always known that my existence will always be political. I don’t think I understood it in those exact words growing up, and I don’t think I understand it in the more concrete ways in which I do now. I just know that there is a specific mold that society prefers people to be, and I don’t fit in to that mold. As the years go by, that becomes clearer.

What mold am I talking about? Well, one that’s forced by patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, ableist ideas. As a brown woman, I for sure don’t fit into that mold. When structural systems of power depend entirely on this mold, existing as yourself outside of that mold is in and of itself a struggle for power. It’s political.

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Many people who know me also know that I was born in Texas, but grew up in Bogor and Jakarta, Indonesia. I moved to Washington state when I was 15. First to Vashon, then Auburn, then Seattle. That wasn’t a very typical coming-of-age experience, for an American nor an Indonesian.

As a kid I was really active. I still am as a dancer, but when I was younger I loved playing sports. I did Karate and Tae Kwon Do, was on the basketball team and later the soccer team, and had a brief stint with the swim team. Being outside in a tropical region means the sun shines really bright and for the most part I was always tan (I was already dark-skinned to begin with). When I was younger, before I was even 10, I think, my aunts would say to me: “It’s okay that you’re dark-skinned now, your skin will get lighter when you grow up and you’ll be pretty.”

Growing up, I didn’t really have dolls that looked like me. I had Barbie dolls, and Barbie dolls weren’t brown and small and queer back then. They’re still not.

When I was in elementary school, I had a few guy friends, and each one of us had nicknames. Mine was “ant,” because to quote them, I was “small, black, and stupid.” They were joking about the stupid part, because they knew I was smarter than all of them, but I was still the small, black girl. (It’s funny looking back at this now because now, Black to me is a very distinct identity that I very much don’t posses, but in Indonesia if you weren’t light skinned then you were considered “black”)

Throughout most of my primary school years, I understood that I would not be called “pretty.” For some reason, the Indonesian words for “pretty” or “beautiful” were often reserved for people who are light-skinned. If you were dark-skinned, the go-to words were “exotic” or an Indonesian phrase that directly translates to “black and sweet” (”hitam manis”).

When I moved to the US, a lot of people in Vashon didn’t know where Indonesia was. One girl asked me: “Is that like near India?” Or they would ask the all-time favorite: “I know Bali, do you know Bali?” because that’s the only thing they’ve heard of Indonesia, and they heard about it from Eat, Pray, Love. Yawn. Yes, white girl, of course I know where Bali is. Good for you for being so cultured.

During this past Thanksgiving weekend, my Indonesian friends and I went to Poulsbo. On the ferry to Bainbridge Island, we sat at a booth on one side of the ferry. Everyone on every other booth on our side in the cabin was white. This white lady was going booth to booth to register voters. She took a look at our booth and skipped it. We were all brown. I am an American citizen who has voted in every election since I turned 18. The lady didn’t even bother to ask.

Once, after a discussion in my dance history class on cultural appropriation within dance, a white girl friend of mine asked “Why can’t dance just be dance?” She proceeded to look at me and said “I know why you think it can’t, but I feel like dance should just be dance,” as though it’s my fault and my problem that I can’t get over the politics within things (even dance! gasp!)

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One time I was reporting on an event on climate justice, and I was shadowing some canvassers who went around Columbia City to get the perspectives of marginalized, low-income, racial minorities on how climate change issues impacted them. I was shadowing canvassers who were interviewing a Black, homeless veteran. He didn’t answer the questions they asked right away but instead proceeded to wonder out loud about my ethnicity. He said “You can’t be Indian because you’re not dark enough, but you can’t be Vietnamese because your skin is not light enough, but the Vietnamese women are the most beautiful, so what are you?” Upon knowing that I’m Indonesian, he said “Ah, a Polynesian princess. Your ancestors must be beautiful.” I went home after and cried.

Every time I go back to Jakarta now, it’s always hard to switch languages at first, and from time to time the tiniest hint of an American accent would slip. My friends would call me a term that translates to “foreigner,” but it’s only used when referring to white foreigners. I was never a fan of that. When I go back to Seattle, I’m still the foreigner because I’m brown and Indonesian and have an “exotic” name.

Why am I writing about all these stories? Well, I recently made a dance piece that wasn’t explicitly about these stories but is very much influenced by these experiences (and more) and how they affected my worldview. It’s going to be premiered next week. It’s scary as fuck. Not because I don’t think people are going to like it or that it’s not going to be good (because I don’t really care about the first one and I am confident that it’s a good piece), but because I know there will be people watching who will put me in a box.

Seattle is a very white city. I’m not a white person. I’m reflecting on my experiences as a person of color who juggles these identities and these ideas of home as an American and an Indonesian. I’m using non-Western music, the title’s going to be in Old Javanese language, and I’m brown.

The thing is, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never explicitly put these ideas about my identity on stage before, despite always juggling these ideas in my brain, writings, and everyday conversations. It usually just filters through in my stage works. Everything I’ve made as a choreographer up to this point has always been a work of research: I explore universal concepts, I investigate the experiences of others, I analyze discourse on certain things. I still do all of that with this work because that’s always been my process, but there’s a very personal and very sentimental element at play here, because in a way, I’m blurting all the things I’ve written about above—and more—in the piece, but not explicitly and the viewers won’t really know it (and that’s okay). It’s time I put these ideas on stage.

The thing is, because Seattle’s a white city and the tastemakers in the dance scene are mostly white and grew up influenced by a North-American perspective on what home means and what growing up was like, they won’t get how hearing the sound of traditional Indonesian gamelan makes me feel like I’m in 4th grade, learning how to play the instruments. How that reminds me of childhood and innocence. They won’t get how the highs and lows of sindhen vocalists make me feel like I’m being sung a prayer that keeps bad things at bay. How that makes me feel safe. A lot of people will think it’s just “ethnic” music. People may think, “Of course she would make something like this she’s Indonesian,” and proceed to think that I’ll be the go-to for Indonesian knowledge and only that. People may not know about how frustrating it is to feel foreign in the places you call home, how guilty you feel when you find yourself complicit in white hegemony as a person of color. Some people may think that I’m just trying to be edgy in trying to “blend Eastern and Western cultures.”

The thing is, white-cis-straight people make stuff based on their past life experiences all the time, and they don’t have to worry about having that experience fetishized the crap out of itself. Because their experiences are considered the default, therefore relatable. Mine’s foreign. It’s exotic.

The thing is, I don’t really know why I’m writing all this. I’m writing this at 2 a.m. after an 8-hour stint of covering the news at work. I’m anxious and nervous and excited and drinking so much wine, just like any choreographer would be a week before a premiere. I’m not writing this to be preachy or offer a solution. I’m writing this because some people in white Seattle are going to watch my piece and exoticize the hell out of it and I’m the one worrying about it, as opposed to them realizing that that’s not okay. And that frustrates me.

The thing is, I don’t need people to think a certain thing when they’re viewing my work, I’ve never thought that ever. That’s the beauty of art right? Viewers get to layer their own experiences on it. But it sucks knowing that some people are going to put you in a box because they just grew up differently than you. And somehow you’re the one that gets stripped of your complexity, because the white hegemonic system makes it real convenient to do so.

Any artist presenting work has a million different things in mind, and there are a lot of inherent risks within that existence. For many artists, those risks are why they became artists in the first place. But if you’re an artist of color, and you’re putting your experiences into a work and acknowledging your brownness or blackness, there’s a seemingly inherent risk: That people are going to watch and some of them will think “Of course they would make this, this is what they know,” as though it’s your fault for not “getting over” your existence as a person of color and not instead joining the white artists that are out there “objectively” researching elusive ideas. That’s real frustrating, and that’s not a sustainable art-making environment.

But I don’t know, I guess at the end of the day, we as people of color are going to just deal with shitty systems, whether in art or politics or economics or whatever. And we’re gonna stick with each other and support the hell out of each other in the process. In the words of the late, great Mark Aguhar:

“It’s that thing where the only way to cope with the reality of your situation is to pretend it doesn’t exist; because flippancy is a privilege you don’t own but you’re going to pretend you do anyway.

And yet despite how dreary it may feel, it’s also kind of empowering in a way. These words from musician Meredith Graves really speak to me:

“For most of us, [combining art and activism is] unavoidable. As long as art, like music, remains predominantly a cis-straight-male scene, any art made by a person who doesn’t fit those parameters is a form of activism. It’s not that you have to be overtly political or run around on stage screaming like I do—you can make quiet, dreamy music or weave or do silent performance art or just insist on existing in volatile spaces, and it’s still an insanely radical act. Giving yourself permission to exist is both activism and a form of art.”

I guess now that I think about it, I’m writing this for the black and brown folks out there making art and I just want to say: you’re not alone, and you got this.

-i

dispatches from Europe: who needs religion when you have art

Piazza Navona, Roma (Sat, Aug. 8, 2015)

It’s cloudy and it was drizzling a bit here, but so nice and cool right now in the evening. Dusk is starting to fall and I’m people-watching in Piazza Navona where the famous fountains are. It feels slightly weird being here alone, but really though I love people watching. The tourists roaming about, the locals chatting loudly and smoking, the street performers and artists and vendors et al—what a lively crowd. I’m glad I decided to come here tonight instead of eating in, even after three hours on the train from Florence and another hour trying to find my flat from the station. I just read a post I wrote this time last year while I was smoking argileh solo at a coffee shop in Amman. I wrote how much I love people-watching, and I was wondering what I can do with that passion. Still haven’t found found the answer to that. But anyway, I honestly think I’d be just fine if I didn’t find something to do with it. It could just be a thing I use as a source of poetry or art and things.

I’m really glad I decided to do this solo portion of the trip. There’s something kind of refreshing about being alone with your thoughts, but also relying on the kindness and friendliness of strangers for help sometimes or even just some company. Also, being surrounded by so many historical things is pretty moving. You know countless of people have seen it before you, and yet you’re still able to feel intimate with the object or site or artwork or whatever—gasping as though you were the first to ever see its beauty or wonder at its marvelousness.

Outskirts of Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City (Mon, Aug. 10, 2015)

Holy fuck. The Sistine Chapel. Now I know why everyone’s really into the Museo Vaticani. And also holy shit, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is probably the single greatest use of negative space in all of art history. I had to buy two postcards just because I didn’t want to lose sight of it. I also took pictures discreetly (with low quality, no doubt) even though you’re not supposed to. The sheer scale of the artworks there and in Raphael’s Rooms is enough to make a grown person cry (thank God for that art history course at GRCC also).

This is my last day in Europe. Kind of bittersweet, but I’m also very happy to be coming home. It’s raining in Rome right now, and it’s actually kind of nice. I appreciate the light drizzle that makes the air cooler and reminds me of Seattle. Chuckling at all these tourists clutching their umbrellas for dear life though. Going to St. Peter’s Basilica after this. I’m sitting at the edge of my seat.

Portofino Cafe, Via Colo di Rienzo

Another holy fuck from me. St. Peter’s Basilica is fucking stunning. Again, I almost cried. And St. Peter’s Square with its welcoming vestibule and piazza design, I can see why millions flock to it. If I were Christian, I would want to take mass there all the time I think. For me, being inside these basilicas and churches and all, it’s fascinating because these are man-made things. Yet, the spirituality within the dedication with which they are created is kind of mind-boggling. I mean how do you get the determination to finish hundreds of square feet of paintings and frescoes and tapestries or large sculptures?

I’ve always had the belief that art-making is never solely the result of divine intervention or inspiration or whatever. It’s absolutely the result of hard work and skill. It’s blood, sweat, and tears. But still, seeing works of art at a scale that grand, you can’t help but think that maybe it does have something to do with the divine? Kurt Vonnegut once said that the only proof he needed for the existence of God was music. I would agree, but I might also add that the only proof I needed was the human brain. Because it’s through these that people built and carved and composed and created these absolutely stunning, touching, and telling works of art—like the walls of the Sistine Chapel, like the sculptures within St. Peter’s Basilica, like pretty much everything in the Louvre for God’s sake. Who needs organized religion when you’ve got art as a way to channel your spirituality? It’s tolerant, it’s healing, it brings people together, it’s divine. The greatest thing is, it explains the human condition so eloquently without having to use words. It’s a way of understanding why we are put on this Earth, which, to many, is kind of why they gravitated to organized religions to begin with.

But you know what the best part is? It doesn’t require you to convert anybody or compete for some otherworldly being’s validation. Yet, it still gives one that sense of purpose and the therapeutic effects that come with the good parts of religion.

There’s a part of a speech that we’re read (scroll down and just read the last three paragraphs, or all of them if you wish) before every major concert at the UW. It basically says that artists are sort of like a therapist for the human soul. We look at the insides and see if we can get things to line up again. A great work of art can lead people to be incredibly peaceful and well.

Here’s the thing though, I know a great many pious and devout people who are religious as much as they are spiritual (please note the difference here), and the existence of religion has brought an immense amount of joy and wellness and purpose to their lives. And they do this in private, between them and their God, without feeling the need to judge others or compare themselves and think, “I am holier than you.” If every religious person in the world are like that, how incredibly peaceful our world would be? I think the arts are an encapsulation and an idealistic portrayal of what religion could be (or maybe used to be? God knows at which point people just started going berserk and started killing each other in God’s name). Of course that’s not to say that the arts communities can’t be corrupt and money-driven and capitalistic—that just comes with being human in the 21st century. But they way the art community support system is created, in its purest form, weeds out that sort of thing. It has less of an established hierarchy and much, much less of a baggage compared to religion.

xx

i

dispatches from Europe: backlogged thoughts from the last night

Necci Del 1924, Pigneto, Roma (Mon, Aug. 10, 2015)

This is such a hipster place I love it. Plus, the waiters are really cute also? There’s plenty of artsy crowds here which I appreciate. I’m glad I decided to come here today. The neighborhood I was at a few hours before was also pretty nice—Colo di Rienzo. It’s more upscale compared to Pigneto with its graffitied walls and quiet alleys. This evening’s been very pleasant so far (thank God for the rain, the weather got immensely forgiving and I love it).

It’s intriguing to watch young Italians, smoking and drinking wine and being fab af. I can’t believe this is my last night in Europe. I’ll save this time for observations on the people/places that I’ve been on this trip so far.

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Amalfi Coast (Sorrento, Positano, Capri), Italia

Middle-aged tourists. You gotta be rich to stay here a prolonged amount of time and enjoy it. There isn’t really that much culture in downtown Sorrento. Massa Lubrense/Sant’Agata, which is pretty far up in Sorrento, is pretty nice though. It’s a lot smaller, more Italian with a pretty small community. I love walking the streets there at night, with the white laundry hanging from apartment balconies, people and kids staying up late almost every time I go out, gelato places that open late—I love it. Also, the desperate 18-year olds/middle-aged men that hang out at Gringos.

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Lille/Roubaix, France

A really pleasant small town. I probably couldn’t live there for long given my dislike for small towns, but having a friend there was nice. Highlights include the antique market and the old town. I must say though, if I have to live in a small town somewhere, I’d probably do so in France. The weather was pretty shitty when I was there, and after coming from fucking sunny Sorrento, my body was a wee bit shocked to say the least. But still, catching up with old friends was very gratifying. Especially when you’re in Lille and get to enjoy really fucking good cider from Belgium. That and the crepes and Yanka + her dad’s cooking. I’ve no reason to complain.

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Paris, France

Probably my favorite leg of my trip. I stayed here the longest, so that might have something to do with it. But in addition to that, I think my love for Paris has as much to do with the company I kept in addition to the things I got to do. Living with Archie was lovely. Again, catching up with old friends is immensely satisfying, especially friends you know you’ll want to keep in your life. I think reconnecting with these two people from my childhood/teenhood has helped me come to terms with what I’ve gone through the past few years, the things I’ve done, and the person I’ve become. Some of our experiences have kind of paralleled each other. It’s so relieving because I don’t encounter that a lot in Seattle, except for several other fellow whitewashed Indonesians who’s in the same boat as me. I think it’s also a nice way to close a chapter in my life. I’m out of college and supposedly an adult now?

I’ve written a bit about Paris already, but I might as well repeat myself right. I love that I get to go to a strip club in Paris’ red light district/have a picnic next to the Eiffel Tower with my middle school friend. Those were really wonderful parts. But also just seeing beautiful churches like the Notré-Dame and Sacre Coeur Basilica, drinking coffee in the early evening and talking about life, seeing the fucking Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory, walking around while tipsy around Pigalle looking for kebab, seeing Salvador Dali’s works, visiting Isadora Duncan’s grave, finding out that a piece that I made might potentially be performed in NYC?!?!? Also the wonderful museums and exhibits I visited like Monet’s Nymphéas, images à charge at Le Bal (probably my favorite exhibit, SO glad I went a few hours before leaving for Florence), Victor Hugo’s house, Memorial de Shoah, the Lanvin Exhibit at Palais Galliera (I didn’t think you could cry from seeing an exquisitely beautiful dress, but you could).

Also, the city works so well. Public transport is very reliable. I can’t help but love it.

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Firenze, Italia

One thing: Really fucking hot. However, I’m still glad I visited the slightly less-visited Oltrarno first. The thing is, Florence’s central area is also pretty small so that you can’t help but see tourists everywhere. But still, the small bits of local life that I got: the vintage store and jazz stores I visited in Oltrarno, the street food and food market in Mercato Centro—those were very comforting. The Biblioteca (local public library) was also another source of comfort. They’ve got really good caffe freddo and a really interesting view of the Duomo. It’s also very local, lots of Florentine students studying and chatting with friends. Another highlight: Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia. Now I know what the fuss is about, it’s pretty damn insane, but the Rape of Sabine is also pretty damn gorgeous. Also: Museo Gucci. It’s so interesting seeing the quintessential Italian aesthetic. And Gucci’s eveningwear dresses for Blake Lively and Evan Rachel Wood that were on display made me teary again. The Duomo was alright, not as moving as other churches I was at, I actually prefer Santo Spirito better. Bottom line: I’m glad I decided to take an extra day to explore both sides of the Arno. It made me cut Rome a little short, but it’s fine though, I can always come back here.

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Roma, Italia

The sheer amount of history I was able to witness and unearth by being here is really fabulous. The Colosseum is obviously very colossal, and there was a cultural history exhibit on Terra/Gaia which fits very well with the visit. I’m sad I didn’t get to go to any of the flea markets here (or in Paris), but I was able to discover some A+ vintage/thrift stores, which deserves an A+ on its own. Fontana di Trevi and Spagna was gross and tourist-filled, but not rewarding enough to make it worth it. At least Piazza Navona was worth it with their 15Euro menu and lively street performers.

Today was really wonderful though, quite a nice bookend to the whole trip. I went to Museo Vaticani and waited in line for what seemed like for-fucking-ever. But it was worth it to see the Raphael Rooms, and obviously the Sistine Chapel. Not enough can be said about it. I wanted to stay there and witness the ceiling and the Last Judgment for hours. It was that moving. And obviously St. Peter’s Basilica. Lemme tell ya, one thing I love most about traveling solo is that you can cut into any line you want and no one can say fucking anything. Can’t tell you the number of times I did that. Just walk with a purpose, look like you belong, and get what you want. Saved myself a good two hours waiting in line.

Anyway, the Basilica was something incredibly spiritually moving. Sad I couldn’t see the Pope irl, but saw the balcony where he would go out to greet his people from time to time though, so that’s close enough right?

And now here we are, chilling, listening to Italians catch up and chat about random things. It feels very bittersweet to understand that this trip is almost over, but it’s been such a fulfilling ride that I’m glad I was able to do it. The people I met along the way, the things I got to see and experience, the things I learned about people and the world around me? Europe is pretty damn fabulous. Ciao for now I guess? Or until the next time I travel :)

Gonna miss Europeans and their late dinnertime, but for now, it feels good to go back to America. Damn though, this is a simultaneously tiny and big world, and I’m just a fucking tiny speck of dust on it. This trip was one hell of a way to be reminded of that.

xx

i

dispatches from Europe: jazz music makes me feel like I’m home

It’s my last night in Europe and it’s an incredibly bittersweet feeling to have to go back to Seattle tomorrow. Excited and relieved, but it’s been such a fulfilling and telling trip I can’t help but feel sad. I’ve written A LOT since I’ve gotten here but haven’t had the inclination to publish any of my writings. SO in honor of me pulling an all nighter tonight to reduce jetlag once I’m back in the land of Uncle Sam, I will publish my writings in bulk tonight! Starting from the most recent to the least (that way if you read in my blog you’ll read the least recent first, then it’ll be in somewhat of a chronological order, capiche?). Anywhoo, to kick things off, I thought I’d start by sharing a little something I hold dearly to my heart: jazz music. As with any kind of traveling experience, obviously homesickness is a thing. What I’ve found out recently is that jazz music helps me deal with it quite a bit. It’s weird to discover that now, considering I’ve probably gone through over 1000 instances of homesickness in the past five years and I’ve loved jazz music for even longer than that. Still, that’s kind of a nifty thing to find out while I’m here. Here are some tunes that has made my travels from Sorrento to Lille to Paris to Florence to Rome that much more special, and every place I stayed at that much more homey. Note: the following includes individual tunes as well as whole albums (with some specific song recommendations). Please note that my Spotify doesn’t work here so I couldn’t link some of these through to Spotify, so Youtube will have to do if that’s the case.

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1. Koop Islands by Koop

This whole album is wonderful and I listen to it all the time. It never fails to make the world that much more rosy. Every tune in here is lovely, but I do recommend “Koop Island Blues,” “Strange Love,” “Come to Me,” and “Whenever There is You.”

2. “April in Paris” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Although I listened to this in August, I was still in Paris so that still works, right? Also Ella + Louis = life.

3. Billie Holiday

Just anything by her really. Although my favorites are “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” “Moonglow,” “All of Me,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Summertime,” “I’ll Be Seeing You (1944 Single),” and “Autumn in New York.”

4. Nina Simone

Also anything by her, but some specific loves: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Wild is the Wind,” “See-Line Woman,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Sinner Man,” “Four Women.” Nothin gets me goin about art/life/politics as well as Nina’s passionately relevant tunes.

5. Cheek to Cheek by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

This whole album. I love everything. Nuff said.

6. “Everytime We Say Goodbye” by Chet Baker and Caterina Valente

Chet Baker’s trumpeting is already bae. We all know that. But add Caterina Valente’s smooth vocals and lightly accented pronunciation and you will melt.

7. “Almost Blue” by Fay Claassen

She covered Chet Baker’s songs in honor of his 75th birthday, and they will both make you either a. fall in love or b. want to fall in love. Oh and Chet’s version of “Almost Blue” is also tdf.

8. The Bridge by Sonny Rollins

The sound of saxophones. Enough said. His rendition of “God Bless the Child” and “You Do Something to Me” are two of my favorites.

9. Amy Winehouse

Ah, the late, great vocalist. Her covers of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me (Demo),” and “The Girl from Ipanema” makes me swoon.

10. Songs from Woody Allen’s Films by Various Artists

I know what you’re probably thinking. Woody Allen? Ugh. I get it and I feel the same way, but you also can’t deny the man can choose tracks for his movies like no other. Recommended: “Si tu vois ma mère” by Sidney Bechet (from Midnight in Paris), “Moonglow” by Artie Shaw (from Annie Hall), and “Sunrise Serenade” by Glenn Miller (from Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Other songs from those artists will also do.

Those are only a sliver, and there’s so much more I haven’t mentioned! Like big band swing music are great, Dave Brubeck’s great, Van Morrison’s great, and so much more. Bottom line: listen to more jazz. You need it in your life.

Also look out for more of my posts soon por favore.

xx

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if there’s a place I could heal
I want to be there
I want to curl up inside
the moments before the ecstasy of two feet turns
into agony
touching the ground
between a quicksilver kick and
a frozen hinge, between a 
sentimental reach and a full-throttle
bobble
I want to build a home
where transitory moments disperse
the journey between a gaze and a touch
what happens when journeys become homes?
what gets replaced?
who will visit?
who will get lost?
where will we put the vase of tulips?

the case for disorganized religion

I would like to preface this by saying that I am currently in the midst of having an identity crisis when it comes to my religion. I grew up as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country. On one hand, choosing to not believe is a hard thing to do, but on the other hand, none of the established organized religions really do a good job of making me choose their side either, what with all the sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice and stuff. So just know that about me.

But regardless, this is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. I actually wrote a lot about it when I was in the Middle East. I think there’s something about being so close to the center of a lot of major religions, whether I subscribe to those religions or not. There’s also something about being so close to a lot of religious and sectarian conflict — you can’t help but think about it.

I was at an art gallery in Amman, overlooking the classic Jordanian skyline, drinking a strawberry smoothie in the glaring hot summer day. It was a Friday. I remember because most places were closed that day, but this gallery was open. There were many art works inspired by Islam, and I was happy to see that. Here’s what I wrote then:

“Religious identities are so curious. Where did it all even start? I guess for people who believe in God, the prophets, angels, and the likes, and subscribe to a religion, the answer is easy. Religious identities come from the religion itself, and the pioneers of the religious establishments (i.e., prophets and such). But it’s really curious for those who chose not to believe. How would they explain religious identity? Maybe as like a corrupt institution started by those with strong imaginations? Maybe.

But regardless of where it came from, individual religious identities are a curious thing. I used to think that the regular prayers that Muslims do five times a day as just something I do, and it’s something I always have to do. But now that I’ve strayed away from it (sorry parents and other family), it’s so interesting to see just how much of the religion stays with me and becomes part of my identity, even when I don’t actively practice the religion itself. For example, I still fast, I still don’t eat pork, but I drink, I do things that go against what Islam taught me. Individual religious identities are so interesting because of the negotiations one has to make to accommodate other aspects of one’s identity. 

But collective religious identities are a whole different beast. They can be very oppressive simply because they are more monolithic. The directions they’re going very much depends on the religious leaders. That’s why for those who subscribe to a collective religious identity (which means you either practice an organized religion, more or less), critical thought is really important, and empathy is really important. Sadly though, that’s never really the case.”

That’s what I had to say on the subject six months ago. Earlier today in Paris, cartoonists and journalists for Charlie Hebdo magazine were murdered by gunmen, who reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) before opening fire on live human beings. Throughout many years, many others who claim to be Muslims shouted “Allahu Akbar” before opening fire at countless innocent others: men, women, children, elderly, Muslims, Atheists, Christians, Yazidis, and more. Many others don’t shout “Allahu Akbar,” but they still took other human lives with the belief that that is what their God wanted.

Yes, terrorism is not just about individual extremism, there’s many other complex issues at place like colonialism, economic, social, political problems et al. But just for a sec, look at these people who murdered others in the name of God. I don’t understand how people can be so selfish and so astonishingly arrogant that they have the audacity to think they know what God would have wanted for others who maybe have disrespected God (or the idea of God) in some way. These people who kill, they’re people. They’re humans, and they think they know what God wants? Gimme a break.

I think that’s my whole problem with religion. It’s not that I have a problem with God, it’s that I have a problem with God’s biggest fans. They’re just humans, and humans are imperfect and oftentimes corrupt. Religious institutions are still institutions, which means they have a hierarchy and a power dynamic, and they’re oftentimes run by the privileged few (read: straight cis male). These men often think they know God so well that they proclaim themselves to be kings of the world who can make decisions for other people. When there’s a hierarchy, there’s bound to be inequality, and I don’t want to be part of a system that enforces that.

Most of all, from what I’ve seen, a collective religious identity assumes that people are their religions, not that the religion is a part of the person. It essentializes people. Like Catholics can’t believe in anything else but Catholicism? Or Muslims aren’t also complex human beings who can make choices for themselves, even if those choices may go against Islamic teachings? I don’t want to be part of a system that boxes me out of convenience. 

I don’t consider myself religious, but I am pretty spiritual. I pray before I go to bed because if there is a God somewhere out there, I hope God keeps the spiders and weird insects out of my room. I pray when I want to achieve something because maybe if there is a God somewhere out there, then God can help with that. I believe in God, but I believe that each religion are just providing a way to get to the same thing: an easier time with living in the world, and heavenly atonement for those worldly struggles (I guess? I don’t know. That last bit sounds too romantic, but I’ll just go with it for now). But the point is, my relationship with God is my relationship with God, and I do my best with it. If God doesn’t like it, okay, but if other people don’t like that relationship, well sorry but this is a party they’re just not invited to. I mean really, who needs religions? We’re all pretty much just trying to do the best we can while being nice to each other. Isn’t that what every religion teaches anyway?

If you subscribe to an organized religion, know that there’s always a way to make it better. Or you can also ditch systems run by humans who think they know God better than you do and just do you. If you don’t believe in God, I believe that you’ll make it through this weird-ass world cause you’re strong independent people. But just please, let’s be nice to each other while we’re doing all that.

-i

“I don’t know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of the Perpetual Astonishment” — Kurt Vonnegut

strong feelings on being the "sad artist"

I despise the idea that in order to make good art, you have to suffer.

Sad art is valid art, but it doesn’t always mean good art. To make art that’s effective and impactful, you have to be restless. There’s gotta be something that makes you restless, something that’s just dying to come out — whether it’s something you want to say, change, do, you’ve just got to be thinking of something.

Everyone’s been sad. I’ve been sad. I’ve made art because of it, and not just dance. I’ve made art to survive the sadness. I’ve experienced sadness for a variety of reasons, from breakups, homesickness, identity crises, fear, anger, and even empathic sadness for a group of oppressed people whom I don’t even know personally. I’ve been having a lot of that kind of sadness lately.

I’ve made art based on all those kinds of sadness because I was restless each time. It’s funny how I’m just noticing now that my most effective and fulfilled works has been works that interacted with the world. It’s not just a recount of some isolated, personal incident (like a breakup, for example), but the grander, more universal human experience behind it.

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It’s foolish to think that when you’re an artist, you don’t need to know about the world around you: the people you interact with, the people you walk past on the streets, the history of the places on which you walk, the narratives of lives you’ll never touch — those that are miles away.

A lot of young artists seem to think that just as long as we have feelings, we can make art because art is subjective. Yes, and no. Sure, art is subjective, but we are not the center of the universe, and our art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It interacts with the social, political, economic, and cultural truths around us, whether we like it or not — especially when there’s an audience for our art.

A lot of artists my age seem to think that as long as they have feelings, they can make art, and oftentimes, they equate those feelings to sadness, so they wallow in their sadness to keep the “creative juices flowing,” so to speak. They stay depressed for a prolonged length of time in order to suffer in the name of art.

That’s foolish, and that’s not a sustainable way to make art. Depression is a very real thing, and it’s nothing to glamorize. I’ve spent many days trying to fight off those demons and sadness so it doesn’t consume my life, so that I stay mentally healthy and able to function. I know other people around me with the same demons or even go through worse things. They fight it every single day. It angers me, then, when artists my age think that when they’re sad, they should keep being sad because now they’re part of the sad kids club and no one understands them. So now they’re somehow on a different wavelength than everyone else — a supposedly better one because it’s less crowded.

I don’t for a second doubt the validity or reality of other people’s sadness. That’s not for me to judge. But when many use the cloak of depression to make “good” art, I wonder about what that does to those who are actually depressed, who struggle to get out of bed most days or even think of harming themselves because of their depression, and inexplicably told by people around them to “just get over it” when so-called artists claim the cloak of depression and is enamored for it. Are these artists then appropriating depression to make art? What are the ethics of that?

I lament the fact that so many artists, and particularly artists my age who have only so much life experience to reflect and make art on, think that art is so subjective that the only way to make good art is to sacrifice their mental well-being. Impactful art comes when it effectively communicates the human experience, even if it’s just one sliver of it.

Art is subjective, but it also has the ability to interact with the world around it, and therefore the artists and art-makers should do so too. Go outside, talk to people, read the news, be aware, fight ignorance, learn new things. The world isn’t perfect — there are plenty of things to get restless about. So get mad, get confused, get happy, and get sad. Make art about your anger, confusion, happiness, sadness. Make art about your experience of being human, and someone somewhere will be able to relate to it. But just remember than in this world we live in, the idea of “good art” relies so much on monetary values and values of popularity. Those things aren’t worth sacrificing your mental well-being.

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A batch of photos from another rally in support of Palestinians in Gaza. Community members gathered in the Rabieh neighborhood of Amman on Friday, July 25, near the Israeli Embassy to protest against the violence in Gaza. Couldn’t get photos as well as the last rally I photographed because people were too damn tall and I’m too damn short, and everyone was crowding around the speakers. I’ll try to upload some videos I took soon. It wasn’t as crowded but it sure was pretty loud, and spirits ran high.

While this was happening in Amman, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was working with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work out a ceasefire, which Israel rejected. The two parties eventually agreed to a 12-hour unilateral truce, mediated by the United Nations, beginning 5 a.m. GMT on Saturday.

dispatches from the Middle East - Amman's domestic workers

I went to this cafe on Weibdeh planning on working on my story, but I thought I’d write a little bit about my process first. I’m currently working on a story about domestic workers in Amman. I don’t really remember what gave me this story idea, maybe I read something online about it or something. Or maybe before I came here, I had heard from someone that there were a lot of Southeast Asians coming to Jordan to work as domestic workers, including those from Indonesia. And when I came here, I wanted to look for an Indonesian community (expats, traders, businesspeople, domestic workers, whatever). Found one or two expats, but in the back of my mind I knew that the domestic workers’ community had to be there somewhere, and I wanted to find them.

I think part of it too was that the subject is pretty close to me, but I had never really thought much of it when I was growing up. In Indonesia, most everyone, from the lower-middle class upward, deals with domestic workers in some way shape or form. We called the domestic workers “pembantu,” which translates to “helper” or “maid.” Sometimes we call them “Mbak,” which is kind of a colloquial way of saying “Ms.” in Bahasa Indonesia. I had a few workers in my house back in Bogor, which is a 30-minute drive from Jakarta, the capital city where I would eventually move in sixth grade. When I was little, my family had a cook/housecleaner, a baby-sitter/housecleaner, and two drivers: one for my parents (they work out of town), and for my sister and I (we had a carpooling thing going on with kids from my neighborhood who went to the same school). We had a specific space for them, right next to our backyard behind our kitchen. They had a room (one of them would live with us and go home on the weekends), a bathroom, and some space to hang out. I grew up with them. I remember the cook’s kid used to come to our house and play. His name is Andri. I don’t care much for him, he was kind of an obnoxious kid, and I didn’t care much for younger kids anyway, even when I was still a kid. But I grew up with them nonetheless. My babysitter eventually got married and had kids. I think her family came to my house at one point? I don’t remember. But I do I remember visiting her house once with my family, in a neighborhood not far from where we live. But then my family moved around, first from Bogor to Jakarta, and then around South Jakarta. The maids and drivers living in our house would then change.

In some ways, the workers were like an extended family, they would know my extended family. We came to their weddings, gave them souvenirs when we went on vacation. They would know my friends, I would know my friends’ maids or drivers. I would tell them stories about my grade-school crushes and we would watch Mexican Indonesian-dubbed telenovelas (soap operas) together. They would watch Cartoon Network or Disney or Nickelodeon with me. They would sit with me as I watched CSI when I was 3rd grade, which prompted me to seriously consider a career as a ballistic expert. My parents were so OK with me watching crime shows that young, although they always covered my eyes during the violent/sexual parts, and that’s why they would only let me watch CSI without them as long as the maid was there with me.

Growing up, I didn’t really think domestic workers could be mistreated. My parents always treated them respectfully, and so I thought that was the only way you would treat them. When I would visit my friends’ house, I was sometimes surprised when my friends didn’t treat domestic workers the same way I did. I remember one of my friends said to me nonchalantly about her driver, “Why are you so nice to him? You can yell at him if you want.” I just kind of raised my eyebrows at her comment, like I remember thinking “gosh you’re such a brat fuck off.” One time she was out buying something at the convenience store when we were on our way somewhere, and I didn’t really want to get out of the car so I stayed with her driver. We just started making small talk and he just vented about how he felt annoyed with my friend snapping at him all the time. I thing I said something along the lines of like, “yeah, damn, she’s really rude to you, I’m sorry.” But of course domestic workers were personal matters for families, you don’t criticize how other people treat their workers, and that’s what makes the issue really complicated sometimes.

Of course when I moved to the States, there were no more maids, and I was OK with that. During Islamic holidays, typically the maids would go home to their families anyway, and my family would just go ahead and clean and cook and do laundry and go about our business as usual, so it’s not like housekeeping was totally new to me. But whenever I went back to Jakarta, I would always think, “you could just call out to someone and have your meal delivered to you? Have your laundry done for you? And ironed? damn what a luxury.” And it was, and I think deep down I had always knew it was a luxury, but I had never really thought much of it.

Anyway, here in Jordan, you can’t really generalize the experience of domestic workers, it really depends on the employer, the workers’ awareness before coming, the agency, etc. etc. Sadly though, there’s still so many people who experienced such bad things, even things close to slavery. For my story, I went to this NGO called Tamkeen in Amman, which provides support for migrant workers and interviewed the manager there. I could go more in-depth about the background of domestic workers in Jordan, but I suggest you just either go look it up or wait for my story and read it then. Anyway, I asked the folks at Tamkeen if they knew anyone I could talk to about their experiences, and they were just like “just stick around, usually people just drop in most days.” It took three visits, but on the third, two people did drop in, and guess what, they’re actually Indonesians. Their English wasn’t super and my Arabic was nonexistent, so I interviewed them in Indonesian, which felt super new to me. And then I realized I hadn’t actually spoken to people in Bahasa Indonesia much lately, so my grammar was a little weird at first.

I felt so bad for them, like, basically they were told they were gonna be in Jordan for two years, but their employers kept them longer and withheld their passports, and when they kind of “ran away” and went to the police station to report their situation, their employers found them and said if they wanted to leave their positions, the workers would need to pay JD2,500 worth (around $3,500) so the workers could officially transfer to a different employer. Well the workers paid like JD500 I think cause they obviously can’t pay JD2,500, esp. with the little amount they get from actually working (unfair wages are also a huge problem here). They don’t get breaks, they don’t get to go out of the house. In most cases, sexual and physical violence are also a thing. It’s literally like slavery. The Jordanian government has set regulations to protect those workers, but as I mentioned, because these matters were considered private between employers and workers, it’s challenging to enforce it.

But then on the flip side of that, there are also workers who really enjoy working for their employers, like a Sri Lankan woman I interviewed today. She went here expecting to work for two years, but because she liked her employer and the family treated her well, she stayed on. She’s been here 20 years, and married a Sudanese man whom she met in Amman, and they have two kids. She’s traveling to Sudan after Eid for two weeks to see her family, and she goes home to Sri Lanka every two years to see her parents, both of whom are really ill, she told me. But for the two Indonesians, I asked whether they’re going home for the Eid holiday. One of them answered “What holiday? I haven’t been home in eight years.” They both have kids whom they left when they were little, they’re now nine and 11, I think? I have to listen to my recordings again to be sure. But they said they Skype and chat through Facebook with their families regularly.

I’m glad they’re with far better employers now, although not officially because when they paid the JD500, the old employers didn’t sign the official transfer papers, so they couldn’t get a work permit and thus considered living here illegally. They’re now trying to obtain a Jordanian ID card so they could work legally. I’m glad they found Tamkeen and I’m confident they will get the help they need. When we parted, I pecked them both on the cheeks and said I really hope things will be easier from this point on. They’re in good hands.

It’s hard not to feel guilty. When you meet someone from your own country, you always feel some sort of bond with them. Kind of like, “hey, we’re in this strange new land together, we can help each other out.” But of course in this case, and in most cases, guilt is unproductive. But then again, I can’t help them out in the way I would like to, like legally or financially. I don’t have the capacity for that. What I can do, however, is tell their stories through the platform I have. The ultimate hope is, of course, that telling their stories will make a difference. Oh, how I really hope it will.

-i

dispatches from the Middle East - why the fuck are we letting this happen

So I read a post on Facebook today, by a guy I barely knew from back in high school. It basically said “I’m sick of all this #prayforgaza shit, people die everywhere” and then went on to say stuff about how people should wake up, because the Nike shoes you wear are made in sweatshops that are probably forced labor, people in Detroit running out of resources, and there are people dying everywhere even in our backyards, so we should all wake up to these realities.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think his points were wrong or invalid. I think it’s true, people are dying and struggling everywhere, even in the United States, like in the poorer neighborhoods. People are struggling, in the U.S., in Thailand, in France, wherever. But honestly, I’m sick of people (and here I’m talking specifically about Americans, and most of this post is directed toward Americans) thinking that everything bad that happens outside of their hometown somehow happens in a vacuum, and that because it doesn’t happen to people they know specifically, then it doesn’t affect them and more importantly (and more destructively), they shouldn’t care. No. Because everyone should care. You know why? Because America is a powerful country. We won wars, we start wars, we invade countries, we have the power to do that. We have the power to support countries that are going through wars, we have a powerful say in international relations. You know why we have a powerful say? Because, as many American exceptionalist would say, America’s the greatest fucking country in the world. For the record, we’re not, but we’re pretty damn powerful, that’s for sure. You know who’s powerful in a powerful country? People who run it. Politicians. You know who gave those politicians the power? Ordinary people like you and me.

When I say America has a powerful voice in international relations, I’m saying we, ordinary people like you and me, have powerful voices in international relations. Sure, stuff that happens outside of the U.S. don’t really affect us, but what we do, especially when it comes to civic duties, does affect people outside. And we should wake up to those realities.

Now let’s be clear here, I’m not saying the whole system’s perfect, because it’s not. Being a journalist, I firmly held the belief that in order for a democracy to function, the citizenry has to be informed (ergo the media, although you know, the media can be corrupt too). Is the American citizenry informed? Not as thoroughly as they should be. And even if they are informed, or have the privilege to be informed, many of them think differently, and so disagreements happen. Disagreements are not inherently a bad thing, but it’s definitely a bad thing when it causes shit to not get done. And oh boy, has that happen way too often for our own good. And on the other hand, there are always ways for people to get power even when we don’t elect them, and that’s a huge fucking bummer. You know why that happens? Cause we live in a capitalistic society, and that creates injustices. Money makes the world go round, and in a world that values free-market, money makes it spin. When I was in grade school in Indonesia, we were taught that in a socialist society, everyone gets the same thing, no matter who they are and what they do and how hard they worked. But in capitalism, it’s based on the concept of individual rights, so theoretically, everyone would get something that reciprocates what they worked for. I thought, that’s a good idea! Cause people are different so of course their successes would be different! Go capitalism! But of course, only years later did I realize that yeah, that’s a good idea, if only everyone got an equal playing field to begin with, that way when some people get less things, it will actually because they didn’t work hard enough, not because they started lower than everyone else. And how can people start lower than everyone else? Well, the United States was based on imperialism, silly, do you expect people to have a jolly good time after that? Racism, sexism, white supremacy, anyone? That’s how corrupt the system can be. This whole paragraph’s totally off topic, but probably worth saying anyway.

Now back to my point about Gaza and our civic duties. We have the capacity to care about more than one thing at a time, we’re humans, we’re fucking smart and evolved and whatnot. And yeah no, just posting #prayforGaza isn’t gonna do anything unless you do something about it. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop doing things, it means you should start doing things. So start doing things. Realize just how much power you have. When you say “America is the greatest fucking country in the world,” don’t just say it with blind pride and nationalism, say it with the recognition of how much power and privilege you have by being an American citizen. Check your privilege. Our votes are powerful, our media’s everywhere, even our passports are powerful. Do you know how many countries we can get to visa-free? (Or get visas upon arrival?) Lots.

Caring about things that happen a world away doesn’t mean you should forget the things that happen in your neighborhood. Caring about children being bombed in Gaza doesn’t mean you should stop caring about kids being targeted by police because of their skin color in New York City. Yeah, sure, it gets tiring caring about a lot of things, people getting bombed and frisked and stuff, but do you know what’s even more tiring? Getting bombed and frisked and stuff.

Everyday, I open my Digg Reader, cause I subscribe to a lot of RSS feeds from different news outlets, watchdog organizations, analysts, NGOs, and all that, just in case there are story ideas there. This means that every day I get a dose of just how evil this world can be. A plane with innocent people was shot down because the people below it are killing each other for power in Ukraine, and a few friends of mine actually know someone on that plane. In Gaza, people are getting fucking bombed. In Bosnia, people are just starting to properly bury the victims of war crimes from WW2, which they recently found in a mass grave. These are like 2 percent of the depressing headlines.

At work, I like to sit with the guy who does the World pages, because he gets the news from the wires, and you can really analyze the difference between American news orgs’ coverage and Eurpoean news orgs’ coverage, especially on Middle East issues. But anyway. Yesterday, I left work seeing headlines of 300+ people dying in Gaza. Today, I left work seeing headlines of 400+ people dying in Gaza. Within 24 hours, more than a hundred people were killed. Sure you may read, oh wow there are more than 400 people dead. But read it again. There are more than 400 people dead. Many more are dying and injured. If you’ve ever gone to court, watch a movie about crimes, or just not live under a rock, you know that generally, the sanctions for killing one human being are pretty rough, right? Well multiply that one person by 400+. Logically, shouldn’t the sanctions be 400+ times rougher? Theoretically, sure. In practice, what’s really being done about it? I’ll tell you when we all find out. God knows when that’s gonna be.

Today at work, we were trying to find photos to go along with the depressing stories. The sheer nature of the photos got me so so depressed. Like what the fuck world. How did we let this happen. My stomach turned, God knows what the photographer’s stomach might be like. Both Rajive and I couldn’t do anything but shook our heads and wonder how something like this could happen. I feel like there must be a way to stop this. But then again, I feel like it’ll need to be a combination of ordinary people talking louder and people in power listening closer. God knows when that’s gonna happen.

You know what got me really depressed? The fact that when I die, when my generation dies, things like hate and the hunger for power won’t die, so there will probably still be people suffering. When I was in grade school, we had a religion class, and I remember someone asking the teacher why God invented the world, the universe, the earth, mankind, etc. The teacher said because God had a lot of love and he wanted to spread the love around. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, because I was just too busy waiting for lunchtime. But now, I am honestly baffled at how he could say that with a straight face and so earnestly. God wanted to spread the love around? Tell that to the 400+ dead people in Gaza. And Bosnia. And Ukraine. And Burma. And everywhere. Makes me so giddy with love. If only the deceased were told the same thing I was when they were in grade school. Maybe they can follow-up with God when they meet. “Is it true you wanted to spread the love around? Or was Imana’s grade-school teacher just spreading a load of crap?”

Anyway, sorry for the depressing post, but I’ll just leave you with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite humanists of all time. It’s not cheerful, but it’s spot-on and witty, and that cheered me up slightly. Wit is a great pick-me-up. It’s from the book “A Man Without a Country,” and it’s seriously one of the greatest books ever written. SO many brilliant insights on life and spoken so simply, with the classic dark humor and razor sharp wit that Vonnegut so effortlessly embodies.

A note from Vonnegut early in the book: "I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding.” Without further ado: 

Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prison or lunatic asylums.

That’s correct.

Millions spent on public health are inflationary.

That’s correct.

Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.

That’s correct.

Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.

That’s correct.

The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment’s notice, the safer humanity is and the better off the world will be that our grandchildren will inherit.

That’s correct.

Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.

That’s correct.

Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw the customers, put a stop to the competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.

That’s correct.

That’s free enterprise.

And that’s correct.

The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.

That’s correct.

The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.

That’s correct.

The free market will do that.

That’s correct.

The free market is an automatic system of justice.

That’s correct.

I’m kidding.

-i

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Men, women, and children alike gathered on July 15, 2014 evening near the Israeli Embassy in Rabieh, Amman, to denounce the violence against civilians in Gaza by Israeli forces. The rally began during the Taraweh prayer at nearby Masjid Kalooti near the embassy and continued after. (Photos © Imana Gunawan)

–click images for captions.

To see more photos, go to the audio slideshow on my Vimeo.

dispatches from the Middle East - traveling's a privilege for the privileged

So, yesterday I wrote a post about how traveling is awesome and you get to be less basic because of it. It still holds true, but here’s some other sides to that point. 

Traveling is a privilege. You have to have money and some kind of stability in your life to handle the instability that is traveling. Either you need a stable income, or you need a financially stable support system behind you (a family, or something else akin to it). Not everyone has that. I recently read on Matador Network, a network for travel writers, a post by Matt Hershberger titled “5 things we need more of in today’s travel writing” and it’s really good. Hershberger, himself coming from a privileged position, said there needs to be more diverse voices within the community. You should read the article in its entirety because he has good points, but here I quote:

Travel writing can have a certain element of privilege to it. How many times have you read a piece about a rich white kid “finding” themselves on a trip abroad? I’ve been that rich white kid, and I’m not saying there’s no place for that type of travel writing. But the fact is, it isn’t only rich white kids who travel — virtually everyone does, and for a host of reasons. Those voices need to be heard more as well.

I wholeheartedly agree. This next point I’m going make is especially relevant if you choose to share your travel experiences publicly, as I am doing with this blog, or Hershberger is doing with his work. As I mentioned in my post linked above, traveling makes you question what you previously know about the world, but if your prior point of view is identifiable mostly to the privileged majority (i.e., white, economically stable, able-bodied, straight, cis, male), your experience is going to be especially relevant to that demographic only. And of course I’m not saying that that perspective is wrong, invaluable, invalid, or lacking an audience. What I’m saying is that other voices needs to be heard as well, because they’re also relevant, valid, and has an audience.

We’re all complex human beings, and we have different facets of identity that intersects one another. The privileged perspective, when put in the traveler’s shoes, will rethink their lives in a way that’s parallel to other privileged perspectives (note: not the same perspective, but perspectives that have parallels to one another. Yep, semantics).

Case in point: a white, cis, able-bodied guy who has been living in Oregon all his life goes to a refugee camp in Lebanon, and another guy of similar positionality comes from Idaho and goes to eastern Uganda to learn to speak Lugisu. Both of them got their minds blown because they’ve never left home before, and they both come back presumably more socially aware than before. Now, another white guy who has a physical disability goes to the same place in Uganda, or a New York-born Nicaraguan trans* woman travels to Serbia. Think of what their experience might be. The way they process and experience things, and the way they get their minds blown is gonna be different from each other, and from the first two guys.

The thing is, our culture has ingrained in us the idea that the privileged perspective (white, cis, upper-middle class, able-bodied, straight, male) is the “default” perspective, so that means that their experience is going to be applicable to absolutely everyone. But not everyone is of that demographic, so not everyone is going to identify with the experiences of that demographic, and that’s ok, because even within that demographic they have different experiences. That fact is not one individual’s fault, but it’s a whole culture’s transgression (well if you use it to oppress others, then it’s your fault). And of course, this phenomenon is not exclusive to travel writing, but it applies to representations in the media, government, art, culture, and all that — but that’s a whole different essay lol. In my previous post, I said that the world is big enough for people to not agree with each other and be different. And guess what’s? The Internet, the TV screen, Hollywood, and the media is big enough and is a rich enough industry to accommodate different voices, so why not accommodate different voices? I still haven’t found a good answer to that question because hint: there is no good answer. We should accommodate diverse voices period.

Now, back to traveling — here’s my other point. Sometimes other people’s marginalization may make it more challenging for them to travel. For example, if someone has a physical disability, it may be difficult for them to travel to a place where accessible infrastructure is lacking. Or LGBTQIA+ -identifying folks may avoid countries that have historically harmed (or is still harming) folks that identify like them. Even though yes, traveling’s gonna enrich them, they have to accommodate their safety and well-being first, because certain places may still extremely marginalize them or even physically harm them. So that point of view has to be taken into account too.

In another case, let’s say A works as a street vendor to feed family of five children, and B has a wife and two kids, and works as an accountant in a corporate firm. They’re gonna have unique experiences even if they go to the same place, and their perspectives are gonna be changed in different ways. But A, as a street vendor, is more likely to find it challenging to just up and leave his job when he’s the primary provider for his family, whereas B can afford to get paid leave. So B, who has more privilege than A to begin with, gets to leave and travel and learn, which is another privilege.

But here’s another thing: Yeah, I said that traveling teaches you a lot about different people and the state of the world, but it isn’t the only way to do that. If you have the privilege of owning books, having access to libraries, the Internet, newspapers, a TV, online news sites, and all that, you can learn too. You don’t have to live in a vacuum, you can think critically about things, and you can learn about people. You should learn about people, and identity, and humanity. Because you know what? (get ready because it’s gonna be one of those cheesy “bam! Here’s your lesson for the day kids!” type moment) Humanity transcends politics, and money, and power, and greediness, and ego. I genuinely think that if people just recognize other people as human beings with rights that should be delivered to them on a silver platter (like most of us experienced), then they wouldn’t think to oppress others or treat others like sub-humans (a la racism, sexism, classism, and all other -isms). I think that traveling is a fast and rough way to help people realize that. It gives you a wake-up call and exposes you right away to differences and similarities between people. It forces you to recognize the humanity in everyone (like when you get lost, and you really need to get somewhere in a foreign country. You may not speak the same language, but people are genuinely eager to help you. That means a lot when you’re desperate).

So, I don’t know, maybe the key to achieving world peace and the utopian equality is to give everyone a paid vacation so that they can see the humanity in everyone? If only things are that easy.

-i

dispatches from the Middle East - on traveling and being less basic

I think I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a nomad. You know, my weird transnational dance that got me pretty depressed in the U.S. is starting to seem small. Not only because here, I’ve had the chance to be more aware of other people’s marginalization and my own privilege, but also because I’ve gotten some distance from my own identity issues. And of course, that’s not to say that I don’t pay attention to my own positionality when I was in the States, but it seems like my situation, my weird split identity between two countries and never-ending homesickness exist in a vacuum. No one knows about it, but it hurts. For some reason, the baggage hurts and it felt heavy. I think the reason it felt so heavy is because I have strong ties to both Indonesia and the United States, and only those two places (at least up till recently). So as long as I stay between the two places, my identity will likely always be fractured between the two. Yet, if I were to keep traveling, keep moving and discovering new facets of my identity, that baggage won’t seem too big in comparison because guess what? The world is also way bigger in comparison.

Now that I’m here, my homesickness is split between Seattle and Jakarta, of course. I miss the lush evergreen sights and endless coffee shops and bookstores. But on the other hand, many facets of Amman reminds me so much of Jakarta, and it also makes me miss it. I can’t argue with the fact that my experience here is undoubtedly influenced by my experience of growing up in Indonesia. The fact that Amman reminds me of Jakarta, the fact that hearing the Adzan (prayer calls) makes me so nostalgic for my childhood, the fact that people recognize my name as Arabic — those are things that probably won’t happen to someone who comes to Jordan from, say Nebraska or Philadelphia or somewhere. Here I’m known as the “American from Indonesia with the Arabic name.” There’s so many stories and questions within that, and being able to explore new facets of my identity, new ways of thinking, and new labels I have to go through, is exciting and fascinating.

As I sat here entertaining the idea of coming back soon after I finish schooling, I wonder what kind of baggage I’ll have then. But it’s surprising how leaving places is starting to feel easier. Maybe it feels easier for now because I’m only here for two and a half months. But still, it feels like leaving will be less heavy, less ties, less hard goodbyes (maybe on my part, but probably only because I’ve gotten used to it by now). The reality is, people move on, people forget, people get over things, and life goes on. You’ll discover the people with whom you’ll actually want to keep in touch with. You’ll discover the people who will do the same with you, even if they’re not traveling to the extent that you are. You’ll feel sad when people forget you. You’ll still have people that you’ll stalk every once in a while because you’re curious with where they are now in life (but of course that’s not exclusive to people who travel, everyone stalks everybody else online). You’ll have people who say “I miss you!!!!” occasionally but then never contact you to catch up. You’ll have people you just don’t care about. I know all this better now. Yeah, homesickness is gonna happen, yeah it’s gonna suck for like two seconds, but no you’re not gonna regret moving. Traveling is really one of those things that add so much to you. Your life can either be a flatline with no travel or a series of hills and valleys of experiences when you travel. And when I say travel, I mean like really getting to know a place. Not just touring (or worse, “voluntouring.” Major no-no), but really getting to know the history, the culture, the people, the make-ups of the society, the political issues, the complexities of the country’s existence. It’s a lot to learn, but it’ll give you a whole new outlook on things, even things back home, where you feel comfortable already.

For better or for worse, traveling detracts your innocence and simplicity in view points, it detracts so much from basic-ass rachetness. Not to say that once you’ve traveled, you suddenly know everything. No you don’t, and you’re not above anyone for having traveled, because that in itself is a privilege (I’ll try to provide a counterpoint to this post tomorrow probably, about how traveling is a privilege). But you’ll no doubt learn new things about the world and yourself. You’ll learn new things only to know that it’s impossible to learn everything, so you try to take as much of it in as you can. When you travel, you know a little bit more about this huge and complex world we live in. You know that people are different but they’re people: they’re stupid, they’re not perfect, they make mistakes, they mean well, they can be ignorant, they learn new things all the time, they’re not a monolith. You’ll learn that the world is absurd and a hell to live in for some people. You’ll learn that some places are more of a hell than others, and that our definition of “hell” can be different and the same. You’ll discover that the world is big enough for people to not agree with each other. You’ll learn more about tolerance and disagreeing respectfully, because every culture is different and it’s rooted in thousands of years of history. You’ll learn that everything is connected to each other, and nothing bad in this world ever happens in a vacuum, because we live in an intersectional system that allows for marginalization and oppression of others. Why? Because we’re people, and we’re not perfect, and we make mistakes (some of them are grand mistakes, but for some of them, it’s not too late to rectify, but it takes a [global] village). Most of all, you’ll learn that you are very, very small, and your troubles and achievements are no more than a speck of dust, and it doesn’t mean anything to anybody else, and that’s okay. Traveling detracts ignorance but adds heaps and heaps of knowledge, experience, baggage, and life skills. I think the baggage part is especially true if what you’re doing is more than just traveling, but also uprooting or leaving your home to make a new one. Traveling or touristing is like a quickie in a bathroom stall with a country. Uprooting is like freaking procreation. You’ll birth a new home, a new sense of home, a new sense of the world, a new you. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s kind of true though. You’ll change, and you can’t go back, for better or for worse. Hopefully, you’ll discover the strength to feel that you don’t want or need to go back. You’ll just move on. And hopefully, you’ll use the things you’ve learned to do some good in this world. Hopefully, you’ll change more than just your Facebook profile picture.

-i

dispatches from the Middle East - shared cabs and night rides

It’s been a helluva week, and I cannot be happier than ever that it’s over, especially after recent events at work. The weekendd starts tomorrow, and I’ve got some pretty fun plans for tomorrow. Cordu, a fellow intern at JT, and I are gonna go to Souk Abdali, a weekly market that sells everything from clothes straight from the wholesaler to fruits and veggies and toys. I think I talked a little about it in one of my first posts, but yeah. It’s a mecca for bargain stuff, really. Anyway, I know that I was hoping to finally write some more analysis-type stuff on things that’s happened to me, but that’ll have to wait over, you’ve guessed it, descriptions of things I did today!! Yay!!!!!!!!!1

First of all, I finally got to meet my sources and did a group preliminary interviews and somewhat solidify what I’m gonna be reporting on. Just so that I can send my pitch letter back to outlets in Seattle. So far, a lot of it is still really up in the air, but the NGO I’m hoping to profile says that they may do some field work in the next couple of weeks and I could come with. Exciting to have this project finally move, even if just a little bit. In addition, though they’re not promising anything (understandably), there might be a possibility that I could come and cover their work in Zaatari or Azraq refugee camps. Guess we’ll see, but fingers crossed.

Now, on to the next point. I also got to go to ballet class!!! Yippeeee. It’s been a month geez…. My turns are not what they used to be, nor are my balances and strength. But who cares, dancing feels so good, and it makes me feel amazing afterwards. After that, I had iftar in one of the malls in Sweifiyeh and went back to work and all that. Finished work at about 10 p.m. and then decided to go check out Rabiah neighborhood where the Israeli embassy is. I couldn’t find it after walking around the neighborhood and asking around, but it did seemed a little quiet in the area, so I decided to go back home. I told the driver to go to Jabal Lweibdeh where I live, and apparently he didn’t know how to get there from where we were. Guess what, neither did I. He also spoke about as much English as I do Arabic, only like a even a little bit less. So we kind of just drove around a little bit and at one point, this girl hailed my cab and said to go to Tajj Mall, which is a fancy mall in a fancy part of town. The driver said to come in (sharing cabs is kind of a thing here). She thanked me for letting her share the cab with me. I think the driver told her that I didn’t speak Arabic and he didn’t speak English. Well guess what, she started speaking English and got super excited. Apparently she’s a Jordanian who was born in New York and currently lives in California, but she’s in town for the time being. She comes to Amman about once every year, kind of like me and Jakarta.

Anyway, we exchanged numbers and she told me to call her if I got lost on the way to Lweibdeh lol, and we made plans to hang out later on Friday. But anyway, we passed by Abdoun, the fancy part of town I mentioned, and apparently they closed down the streets around the U.S. and Israeli embassies cause of things happening in Gaza in Israel, as well as possible protests happening here. There were protests and attempted sit-ins at the Israeli embassy last night, with arrests and stuff. There were also things going on in Irbid, which is a ways north from Amman. Rajive told me earlier that it may be crazy tomorrow around al Balad with public rallies. Not exactly sure what he means by that, or what might happen, but I guess we’ll just see. Everything that’s happening around us is fucking crazy.

Moving on with the story though, after we dropped Tala, the New Yorker-Californian-Jordanian at Tajj Mall, we set off for Lweibdeh. At this point, the driver knows where to go and how to get to Lweibdeh. But of course, we stopped for these two guys who also shared the cab with me. They didn’t speak English tho, so I couldn’t make friends or eased the awkwardness. But we went to somewhere I’m not really sure where, but it was in East Amman (Abdoun, Tajj Mall, and Rabiah are all in West Amman, the more well-off part of town), and it was kind of a ways away from both Abdoun and Lweibdeh. It was kind of awk, but I don’t really mind it though, I like driving around at night and kind of get to see the city glow with life at night, especially during Ramadan where the lives extend all the way to Sahur (that’s the Indonesian spelling, the Arabic one is apparently suhoor), which is the pre-dawn meal that people have before a day of fasting during Ramadan.

Anyway, afterwards we finally went to Lweibdeh, and the driver tried to make conversation with me, but we didn’t speak each others’ language, so we ended up conversing via informal sign language and gestures (lol). It was kinda weird, but he was nice and not awkwardly weird or rude or whatever. Anyway, I got home around 12 and drank a beer and now writing tis post while watching the news on Al Jazeera. Damn it’s depressing. The news is fucking depressing. And it’s fucking hot here.

-i