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dispatches from the Middle East


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


dispatches from the Middle East - random stuff I thought about during Arg v Ned

I’m ruining my lungs here. Can’t help it, everyone smokes: argileh, cigarettes, whatever. I don’t do it too often, but the taxis here always ride with the window open so all the exhaust from the cars go into your lungs, which is pretty much like smoking. I don’t mind it too much though, plus Seattle has a lot of trees so once I’m back in the PNW it’ll be like a cleanse. Anyway, so after work I decided to hail a cab to al-Balad to people-watch and see the vibe during Ramadan. Plus I was hoping there would be protests against Israeli attacks against Palestinians, cause the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, sent out a statement calling that people should protest in public squares against the Israeli attacks. I heard they were gonna organize it Wednesday night after the Taraweeh prayer (a prayer that you only do every night during Ramadan, and it’s hella long compared to the usual prayers, I’ve been through it), but I wasn’t sure if that meant also carrying out the protests the same night. Other parties say they were gonna do it Thursday night. I heard there was a sit-in this morning though at the Israeli embassy. Good for people for taking a stand on the issue. Just the whole conundrum is taking and destroying too many lives. No one should have to ever live with that. Personally, as someone who grew up as a muslim and actually know firsthand what the teachings are, it makes me so sad how people are actually using those teachings to kill people, as if anyone’s any better than anybody. Being here, back in an environment entrenched in the religious and cultural values I grew up with, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about individual vs. collective religious identities, but I think I’ll save that for another post cause it’s a whole other can of worms.

But anyway, the crisis that’s going on all around me. Who knows when any of them’s gonna stop. And here I am watching the world cup. Here WE are watching privileged men kicking around balls to benefit a multimillion (billion?) dollar company, while people in the host countries are getting evicted, while families across the world are being torn apart. You feel so small and so helpless when you think about the calamity of the whole thing. On my end, I’ve been doing some reporting on my stories that deal with some of these, but things are going so slow. Literally everything. Not to mention that I’m kind of losing my motivation for work due to recent events. But of course, I can’t lose motivation, but right now I’m kind of stumped on what to do and what I can help with at work. I’ll see if I can catch the meeting tomorrow. The thing is, I don’t even know if the meetings are going on or not. Every time I go there, it seems like it’s never going on, so yeah, I’m stuck. I’ll probably try to find some community-based story ideas soon. I wonder what the Asian community here is up to, maybe I’ll visit al Buhturi street one of these days. It’s harder to just go up and talk to people on the streets, mostly cause I can’t speak Arabic and there’s not a good chance that people would know English, but I guess I should try anyway.

Anyway, earlier this month I was hoping to do something on informal-tented settlements, but apparently the government has been doing some major crackdowns on illegal camps, and the camps I was hoping to cover had been disbanded and the people sent back to Zaatari or Azraq, the official refugee camps from UNHCR. I’m so sorry for them. From what I’ve heard, they’ve been making progress — a Seattle and Amman-based nonprofit had been helping them earlier in June with water supply, herb gardens, medical things and all that. I hope that the refugees can still maintain their sense of community though, but the situation’s just so bleak. Anyway, let’s hope I can finally meet my sources tomorrow, I reaaaalllly need to get this story going.

Welp, I’m starting feel a little lightheaded thanks to this argileh (water pipe) that I’m smoking. I really don’t understand how everyone handles it. Like every night and every day just smoking? At this rate people will have crappy lungs by like age 30 or something.

You know, I took a cab here, and when I got in there was a kid in the front seat. I thought, “oh cute, little guy’s joining daddy for the ride.” The driver asked me where I was going, and I said Washat al Balad. He said “how much?” and I was like “um, just use the meter?” Well guess what, he decided to drop his son off first at another part of town and then stopped to smoke cigs and pick up stuff while the meter was running. When I told him to get me where I was going he was like “wait wait.” What an s.o.b. I  went out of the cab to get another one but then he came running and repeatedly apologized. Apologies my ass. I should’ve just gone ahead and get a different cab. I ended up paying 7 JDs. Seven fucking Dinars cause he left the meter on the whole time. That was after I argued with him for like 10 minutes inside the cab in my broken Arabic and his broken English. Fucker. Guess that was my first cab horror story. Ugh.

But anyway, I’m at this cafe in al-Balad, smoking argileh and drinking coffee, and of course I’m the only girl in the entire cafe. Why. Does. This. Always. Happen. #fuckpatriarchy #wheremyladiesat. Thank God the guys are at least somewhat respectful. They just gave me the once over and stare a bit occasionally, but that doesn’t really bother me. Plus the game was on, so I’m sure they have better things to worry about. Also the owners and waiters are really nice so I can’t really complain too much. Here’s a video I took of where I’m at.

The game tho. It’s halftime and still at 0-0. It’s like pulling teeth. It’s the second half now, and I’m feeling lightheaded from this argileh. OK I should stop smoking now. But honestly, people-watching is so much fun, much more fun than watching football. I love it, but I haven’t figured out how to turn the love into something yet. I’ll keep thinking in the back of my mind. I like people. I like getting to know them and hearing their stories, despite what my behavior toward people that might tell you otherwise. Sometimes I can be a little cold and standoffish, but that’s mostly cause I feel so awkward and get so insecure and it literally makes me so anxious to make the first contact. But I think I love places better than people. I get attached to places easily because they’re so fascinating. They’re like the silent witness that watches over the lives walking through them. The lives evolve with time, and then so do the places, but at the same time the place will always retain the history. For some weird reason, I really identify with that, being a silent witness to changing lives. But maybe I don’t want to be so silent about it, I want to convey how beautiful the lives are. I just don’t know what I can produce out of that yet.

I hope I can sleep well tonight, I haven’t been sleeping well for the past few days, and I usually go to bed around 2-3 a.m. so that’s not exactly healthy. But I’ll probably go to the meeting tomorrow and hopefully be able to meet with my sources.  Or maybe I’ll go on that photography trip I’ve been meaning to do. But now, my roommate’s cat is poking my toes for God knows whatever reason. He has a foot fetish. True story.

As it has been the case for much of my time here, there are so many thoughts in my head and a lot of things to reflect on. I’ve been meaning to post some of my reflections on traveling, religion, privilege, and shit like that on the blog, but for some reason I feel like I also need to document the mundane things too, like me watching football and smoking and drinking coffee.

I read somewhere recently that “stories are attempts to share our values and beliefs. Storytelling is only worthwhile when it tells what we stand for, not what we do" (Simon Sinek). But honestly, I think that this blog and you know, the whole Internet, is big enough to have room for all kinds of stories. Each one has its value, especially in travel writing.


dispatches from the Middle East - Ramadan Kareem

It’s already the second week of Ramadan, but it’s never too late to say that (I think). “Kareem” means “generous,” because the month is said to be a generous month and during which people should be generous. It’s sad that although it’s a holy month for Muslims everywhere, many are still oppressing and marginalizing and harming others under the banner of Islam.

But anyway on the more privileged side, Ramadan is making things slow as hell. There’s really not much to do at work and people get lazy. It’s starting to rub off on me and I need to stop it. Alas, I’m just spending most of my time working on stories that I hope to pitch to other outlets, you know, just to keep busy. In theory, that sounds great right, except that people are taking a hell of a long time to respond to my calls or emails.

Sooo yeah. I guess I’ll just travel around town and see things or people watch or something. I’ve been wanting to drive around West and East Amman and do a photography project. The West is basically all this fancy-schmancy part of town with nice malls, big houses with pools in the backyard, tall buildings, and expensive cars. East Amman, on the other hand, paints an entirely different picture. There’s cramped living situations, poor folks, lack of sanitation, and the likes. It’s like a microcosm of “East” vs “West” in international terms I guess, if you want to look at it that way. Also, I badly need to dance. It’s been almost month and it’s killing me slowly from the inside.

Anyway, I had Iftar with a family friend, Suha, and her family yesterday. Their home is on the outskirts of As Salt, a smaller city like 30 minutes north of Amman. It’s so beautiful. Plenty of wide open spaces with hills and valleys. The view of the city from the hill I visited is also really beautiful. It’s quiet and breezy. The weather is relatively cooler than Amman. Plus, we had iftar outside in her yard, so it was a really nice atmosphere as the sun set. I actually almost lived here, before I decided I would find an apartment on Weibdeh insted. I feel like it would’ve been great, except that I won’t have the kind of mobility I have now, or the kind of freedom I have now. I’ll take more pics when I come back there.

I’m definitely visiting again though, especially with the kind of feast they prepared for Iftar. Holy crap. I had like 4 helpings of mansaf, which is rice with scattered marinated meat and nuts that you eat with yogurt, because they didn’t accept my plate being even remotely close to empty. I ate and ate. There were also pita bread with really good hummus and this sauce that has tomatoes, chilis, and freaking cilantro. Dear Lord. The taste mixed and mingled happily in my mouth.


I was pretty much struggling to finish my plate when they asked me whether I wanted another helping. Oh God. I politely rejected and accepted a cup of tea, which came after several gulps of lemon water and Pepsi of course.



Afterwards, I just kind of sat there while Suha forced her son to finish his plate. I haven’t ate that much in a long time, but of course that’s not the end. Suha’s father passed me a plateful of fruit, and I could only manage to eat one. Then I helped Suha with making qatayef, which is what Suha’s mom called “Arabic pancakes.” It’s basically this pancake thing that you fill with various stuffing and then you pinch the edges the close the pastry. It’s shaped like a large dumpling. You can fill it with cheese, walnuts + coconuts + grapes (my favorite), jam, whatever really. Then you fry it. It was so good and sweet. I wanted to finish it, but of course I’m a tiny person and despite my big appetite, my stomach could only take so much. I managed to eat half a qatayef. After talking for a little bit more, Suha offered me this sweet Middle Eastern almond drink thing and some more tea. The almond drink was so sweet but it’s sooo good. I’m pretty sure my body was 80 percent food at that point though. I didn’t know how I managed to handle it. I couldn’t even muster the energy to take more pics of the food, or my food baby.

After I politely asked to go back to Weibdeh, they gave me this huge care package with pretty much everything I just ate and more. There’s puddings, a big bag of fruit, a container full of attaiyef, and the chicken and rice dish with bread, hummus, and the magnificent sauce I mentioned above. Oh and some Pepsi too. Idk what it is with people here and sodas. Even when I’m at the JT office and eating Iftar there, there always seems to be sodas. So there I was carrying this big container full of food. Happy and so full. I don’t remember the last time I ate that much or felt that full. Probably during Thanksgiving. Iftars here are kind of like Thanksgiving, except it’s a whole month of Thanksgiving dinners. Mahmoud, the front page editor at the JT, summarized Ramadan so accurately: “the first two weeks, people only think about food. The last two weeks, they think about clothes for Eid.” True.

But anyway, Suha drove me back home. I had meant to call Rajive, the production/proofreader staff manager who took care of the Mideast and World sections at the JT, that I couldn’t come to work (I originally said I was going to come after Iftar). But you know, food got in the way. And I called the JT and nobody answered. Oh well. At that point it was already 11 p.m. anyway, which is the deadline for the paper to be sent to the printer (makes me miss The Daily. Everyone gets delirious when it’s almost 11 p.m. and the paper’s not done yet).

But afterwards, I dropped my care package home and went to a café near Duwar Paris in Weibdeh, despite me being deadly full and sleepy. It’s so cozy and has the hipster feel, with cool paintings on the walls, murals, and a chalkboard wall. There’s a Banksy mural of a girl patting down a soldier near where I sat. I met a fellow Indonesian whom I met on FB. She’s much older than me but totally the life of the party. So you know, what the hell? Meeting new people’s great. She invited me to a housewarming party that her friend’s holding on Friday. Most of her friends are gonna be there, which is like a lot of expats from different countries and spanning different ages. I would be the youngest one though (as always. I don’t know why this always happens to me). So there’s that. I’m definitely coming to Graffiti Café again though, the people who work there are nice. The barista who was serving when I went is this fashion designer who’s really friendly and witty. I like witty people.

Anyway, I went home at 1 a.m. and immediately passed out cause I was ridiculously full, especially after drinking another cup of tea. Even when I woke up in the morning, I was still happily stuffed. I’m not fasting today, but I ate some qatayefs again for breakfast anyway just in case I got hungry while I went about my day. I didn’t. I decided to go to the JT to see if I could catch the meeting. I missed it, and there was nothing for me to do, so I decided to send a few emails to follow-up on the stories I’m working on. And now I’m waiting for pages and stories to edit, slash Facebooking slash monitoring my Digg Reader. So you know, fun stuff. I’m not even hungry yet. But I probably will be once it’s Iftar time again. I always get free mansaf or roasted chicken and rice here. It’s gooooood.

Well if you made it this far down the post, congrats. If you’ve been following my posts and was expecting a blog post with a somewhat well-researched perspective about current issues in the Middle East, sorry bout it. Instead, you’re stuck with my rants and half-assed descriptions of the things I did and the food I encountered. Cause you know, it’s the first two weeks of Ramadan, and all I think about is food.

But real talk though, I’ve written a lot of journal entries actually, and there are some things in my mind I’m dying to get out, but it’s all in my journal and I’m way too lazy to transfer it all here. Maybe soon. For now, Ramadan Kareem!


dispatches from the Middle East - walking alone in al Balad: the catcalls, wolf-whistles, and ‘ni hao’s

So yesterday I roamed around downtown Amman, or Wasat al-Balad. Before I had even gone, I looked at this online magazine 7iber, which has a kick-ass events calendar (but of course the whole website is in Arabic, so I had to use Google Translate and read things in broken, Google-translated English. Yippee). There was something about an open house for an art space/creative residency program called Spring Sessions. Basically they developed projects that looks at the urban development in downtown Amman, whether it’s using videography to comment on the class system, using street noises to create abstract oral histories, or even using ethnography to look at the different populations that have or is still currently inhabiting Amman’s downtown area. They were also gonna have music performances (which ended up being amazing, see pics below. Maybe I’ll try to upload some of the videos I took).




I found the name of the place I need to go to, the street name just in case, and I made sure I memorized its facade and its surrounding stores. I hailed a cab and told him I needed to go to downtown Amman, Saadeh street. He knew where it was right away. I was relieved but also slightly concerned. “Is he really taking me to the right place though? This seems wayyy to good to be true.” It was. I stopped in front a hotel in Amman’s 5th Circle, not where I was going (turns out there’s another Saadeh street, which is on the 5th Circle, and according to people, that was also downtown). No one in the hotel knew where I needed to go or spoke very good English. So I decided to hail another cab and go to the downtown area I was familiar with, near the Roman Theatre (turns out later when I got home, I found out that the place I needed to get to was called Wasat al-Balad. Well now I know). As we approached, he asked me something in Arabic. I panicked. “I don’t understand, I can’t speak Arabic well,” I said in Arabic with a pretty convincing accent (thank heavens I spent all those years reading the Koran and learning how to write and say things in Arabic, despite understanding next to nothing). The driver smiled knowingly. He dropped me off near the market and said “Welcome to Jordan” with a warm smile. I smiled awkwardly and thanked him repeatedly in Arabic. I’ve been here for two weeks and of course I’m still about as green as the emerald calf-length skirt I wore that day.

So there I was walking around Wasat al-Balad alone, with my canvas bag on one shoulder and camera bag on another. I ended up finding where I need to go after walking around for like 10 minutes. Despite it being quite warm, I wore my cotton cardigan anyway. I figured better to be sweating lightly on a cool fabric than to not cover up and get roasted under the sun. Also, I’m a woman traveling alone. Covering up would probably be wise.


But of course, it was wise yet in vain to some extent. As I walked along the streets, so many interesting humans passed me by. The sight of jewelry and bags and fabrics. The smell of Arabic coffee and homemade perfumes from the shops and the fresh fruit from the juice stands. The sweaty foreheads and cackling kids and honking cars. SO many things to take in. Unfortunately for me, I was an interesting sight to many of these people too. As I walked by, shielding my eyes behind my dark sunnies, catcalls and wolf-whistles and sizing looks were thrown at me. A few of them actually made hearts with their hands and tried to serenade me (I know right). Of course there were a lot of “well hellos” and “good afternoons” and all that, but you know the interesting thing? There were A LOT of “ni hao”s and “annyeonghaseo”s and “konichiwa”s. Like a lot, a lot. Like a shit ton. Like where is this even coming from? I mean of course needless to say, I don’t have anything against those languages and cultures but it felt…weird (an understatement, everything was pretty much harmless but just mildly annoying. OK maybe more than mildly. Like really annoying). It felt weird (and offending too to some degree, but mostly weird) to be stereotyped to a culture that is, yes, part of the larger ethnic group I’m in, yet at the same time not a culture that I belong to.

Let’s look at the racial context here. Yes I’m gonna bore you with this. This anthropology stuff is really fascinating to me, let’s break it down. I’m Asian. I’m Southeast Asian. I’m Indonesian. I’m Sundanese, one of the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia after the Javanese. When you look at it from a race (genetics) point of view, Native Indonesians are of the Mongoloid-Australoid race. Mongoloids are thought to populate Southeast Asia (Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Brunei, and the likes), Siberia, the Arctic, parts of the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and small parts of South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and all the “Stan”s). Australoids, on the other hand, populate Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, the Indian subcontinent, and some parts of the Middle East. But linguistically, Sundanese people like myself are of Austronesian origins, a language family spread through Southeast Asia, Madagascar, the Pacific, and continental Asia. So a bunch of different things.

Then of course, all that background is just me, one person from one ethnic group. Indonesia has  over 200 million people and over 300 ethnic groups, so you can’t really typecast anyone there into a certain race, and everyone has vastly different ancestries. But I guess to put it in shorter terms, I have closer ties to the Pacific Islander ethnic group than I do the Asians of the East Asia (China, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau). So no, technically I’m not “Asian” as in East Asian, I’m more a Pacific Islander. (Although when you look up “Asian-Pacific Islander Americans,” Indonesia is neither listed under “Asian” nor “Pacific Islander,” so well, you know, #awk for me to be celebrating API Month? Just kidding but not really but just kidding). 

Anyway, this is a little off topic but important. For many many years, Pacific Islanders, a really diverse group, is just brought into the umbrella term “Asian” and they want a change. Good for them. Why does this matter? Well because their experiences are different. If you look at Asians, they are socially, politically, and economically more well-endowed, have more representation, and constitute a large population in non-Asian countries. That’s not to say they don’t face oppression and marginalization, but they do have the privilege of being in a group large enough to entail representation, whether in the government, media, academia, what have you. But Pacific Islanders, on the other hand have it different. Even at the UW, they make up less than 1 percent. Many face issues like education gap, large high school dropout rate, which leads to crimes etc. etc. Yet most of their issues aren’t being paid attention to because people think they’re “Asians,” and of course, “Asians don’t have it so bad, right?” (in case you don’t pick up on it, that was /sarcasm/ because wrong).

Now why did I get into all of this shit? To prove a point that I felt I don’t belong to the “Asian” group, and to have like more than 20 people in one concentrated area in a totally foreign country with its own rich history assume an identity to which I don’t belong to feels so weird and kind of alienating. Sure, it’s offensive to some extent, and there’s racial power dynamics at play there and all that, but I don’t want to get into that here and now. The whole thing feels weirder than offensive to me because I don’t look Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean, so under basic logic, I just couldn’t understand it. I could say my name and have people look at me, and they would believe me if I told them I have an Arabic father (though I do not). I have told people in the U.S. that I’m “part Bangladeshi, part Native American” when they asked me “What are you?” (classic.) and they actually believed me. The Palestinian woman who sat next to me on the plane from Chicago to Amman, though she doesn’t speak much English, went out of her way to ask whether I was from India. But never have I ever been under the assumption that I was from Korea, or Japan, or China, or anywhere in East Asia. Of course I have some assumptions as to why this happened, and of course it’s racially charged.


Sexist street harassment’s a universal thing, but I’m sure when it comes to racially charged things, white people and black people and brown people from different backgrounds would experience it differently. I’ve heard of stories of Black folks getting kicked out of a place in Bali because “they don’t like Blacks” or a white couple getting hired to be stand around stores in China and check out the merchandise so people will want to come to the stores because ofc, “Westerners like it.” Notice the different treatments, and try to guess why these things happen. Think of history when you try to guess.

Race as a social construct exists as a real thing, and it’s different in every place. And of course, it’s never black and white, it’s always all shades of grey.

On my first day, one of my editors at the JT told me: “People will be nice, and polite, and rude, and racist. I don’t know why Arabs are racist, we don’t have reason to be. We’re not better than anybody.”

Another one of my editors asked whether I’ve had problems with taxis. I told them I expected a lot worse but felt underwhelmed. The people I talked to or the posts I saw on the Internet said some drivers actually deliberately skipped turning the meter on when they know their passengers are foreigners. I was warned and of course took precaution, but it hasn’t happened to me yet. “It helps that you’re not blond and blue-eyed,” my editor said.

Before I left Seattle, I asked a Jordanian-American columnist at the Most of the people I talked to about the experiences of working as a journalist in Jordan were white. I told her I was wondering how different my experiences would be, being a non-white American. She said it will be different of course, and it will be just like in any city.

When I found out I was going to Amman, the chair of the Department of Communication asked whether I had any concerns or questions. I told him I was thinking about how my experiences would  be, being foreign to a country, being American, but not a white American. I wasn’t asking him of course, he himself was white and had not had much experience with foreign reporting, but he thought it was good that I was thinking about it.

Well this was one of the ways it was different. It has made me think of a whole lot, especially that the concept of race is such a big can of worms. A lot of people’s always thinking of a “post-racial society,” in the U.S. and probably in other places too. Maybe, I wouldn’t know. But honestly, I feel like the worms, the wounds, the baggage in this can is gonna eat us alive before we even get to the kiss-and-make-up part of the process. It’s gonna take a while.


dispatches from the Middle East - first impressions.

Holy fuck. It’s my third day in Amman, and already I’m feeling the wash of sensory overload. There's so many things to see, do, and think about. Like a shit ton. 

If any of you missed the news, I got a scholarship to go to Amman, Jordan and intern at The Jordan Times, an English-speaking newspaper based in Amman. So here I am.

First of all, I love Jabal Lweibdeh, it’s the neighborhood I live in. The neighborhood is beautiful and so relaxed, and there are plenty of pleasant shops around. A lot of art spaces too. Below’s a pic of a quiet street in Weibdeh. It’s around noon on a Friday, which is a day off, and most Muslim men are away in mosques for the Friday prayer.


Well, back to my holy fuck sentiments. There’s just so much going on I really don’t know where to start. But Amman reminds me a lot of Jakarta. There’s pockets of residential neighborhood just like Kemang, Antasari, Cilandak, or Pondok Indah (if I were to draw a parallel, where I live is kind of akin to Cilandak, which is actually where I live in Jakarta). Then there’s the central business district, which is actually really similar to Jakarta’s SCBD or Bunderan HI areas. But here, the city is especially colorless. All of the buildings are beige, although the insides can be colorful. Striking colors pepper the city on shop signs, marquees, billboards, or even laundry and carpets that hung on the balcony. And unlike Jakarta, most areas are separated by patches of dry land (it is a desert after all). The makeup of the town is also divided to these traffic “circles” based on the different hills, which are damn steep. The city’s very much a car city though. I also visited other neighborhoods today. Abdoun is pretty much like Pondok Indah, full of fancy houses and modern attractions. Some of the malls here are also ridiculously similar to places like Senayan City or something. 

On another note, I visited the Roman Theatre today. Damn it’s gorgeous. And then there’s a weekly flea market that has a shit ton of cute things. It took a lot out of me not to buy anything. I’ll probably return next week and raid it. On yet another different note, I’m having major ballet withdrawals I’ve started doing pliés in my room with my roommate’s cat watching (yes, we have a cat).




Now on to the journalism part. Holy fuck. There's so much going on. Like how do you even start writing? First of all, I don’t know if you noticed, but Middle East’s political situation is pretty depressing you guys… For the areas in conflict, there seems to be no end in sight. There’s the situation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIS, if you don’t know what that is, the Inquistr has a pretty rudimentary explainer on the background, and whether to call the jihadist militant group “ISIS” or “ISIL”). In case you don’t pay attention to world politics, which I recommend you do, ISIS is pretty much gaining international attention, not to mention reportedly planning on infiltrating Jordan. Yet, some also say that the situation is largely overplayed by the media, and Jordan isn’t that vulnerable to threats of ISIS infiltration. For one thing, Jordan is relatively more stable than its neighboring countries, and although sectarian sentiments do exist, it’s not as extreme as in other countries. I guess pretty much most of the Middle East is fundamentally sectarian. They have very strong ties to their roots and have major concepts of honor. That, when coupled with the identity crises between nationalism/secularism on one hand and Islamism (or in some cases, Christianism) on the other hand, and then coupled yet again with problematic and un-empathetically drawn borders from the colonial period (see Tarek Osman’s piece from last December for background), politics in the Middle East get pretty damn depressing.

Iraq is only across the border, yet their society is slowly crumbling away. Even the Iraqi government is pleading for help in the form of air strikes from Washington (Obama denied, but this Thursday, the U.S. government announced that it will send 300 military advisers to help Iraq’s army repel the advance of Sunni insurgents).

When you’re sitting comfortably on your idyllic Western lifestyles, it’s easy to look at it and sigh, shake your head, analyze the situation for like two seconds, and then forget about it. Here in Amman, a pretty safe city in a relatively stable country as someone who’s only going to be here for less than three months, similar thoughts occur and I still have that privilege to forget about the situation, but only to some extent. There’s so many more stark reminders of the calamity of the whole situation when you’re closer to the conflict and actually have to keep up with it for your job. You get stark reminders that these are fucking human lives. There are people who are evil enough to kill other human beings, drive them away from their homes, and tear families apart. But as much as we all would like to think of it as “good guys” and “bad guys,” it’s hardly ever that simple. It’s real shady, and they’re all gray.

Then there’s the Syrian refugee situation. Holy molly. If you’re not familiar with the conflict, which not many are, a friend of mine who also received the same scholarship I did and will be going to Sierra Leone to intern at paper based Freetown, wrote a thing about it recently for a Seattle news outlet. Get familiar. Hopefully one of these days I can get access to one of the refugee camps in Jordan (the UNHCR recently opened a new refugee camp) and write a story on one. God knows if there will be people who will talk to me during Ramadan, but I would so want to do something on the Azraq camp during Ramadan or Eid. Stuff has been done on the existing Zaatari camp, but not as much yet on Azraq since it’s still new. When you look at the Zaatari camp, now the fifth largest city in Jordan, you feel pretty bleak real fast. The gender-based and power-based violence that occur, children having to work so young, disputes between refugees wanting to get more resources, rich Arab men coming to the camps only to pick up young Syrian girls to marry in exchange for money for the family, sexual violence by the guards or other refugees, the list goes on. But also, the lack of agency that these people have is so heartbreaking. They don’t have things to do, things to see, things to talk about. It’s a fucking desert. They just want to go home and go back to their lives, but who knows when that’s gonna happen. Instead, they’re on the outskirts of a country that’s not theirs, living a subsidized life provided by people and agencies giving their time, money, and energy for them. That kind of dependency has got to do things to your humanity. Not to mention there’s  added trauma from the things they went through before they even got to the camps. By the way, today is the UN’s World Refugee Day. It’s a shame that in commemoration with this, humanitarian crises are just beginning or still continuing.

Then there’s the LGBTQIA+ community. The challenges they face and resilience they show in living their identities in an oppressive society has always amazed me. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get to writing about a local drag queen or something.

The Jordan Times. I met the managing editor there yesterday. It seems that she’s more concerned with the getting to see Jordan and visiting tourist attraction part of the trip. Which is great, but still, I came here to work. I’d love to still write a couple of pieces for them, especially about things going on within Jordan outside of Amman, like the surrounding governorates and cities. Yes, the dire regional crises is worth covering, but so is the day-to-day lives of people in the country. But given how very watered down the JT’s coverage is, I hope I get to freelance and write feature stuff for different outlets too. The above topics are just a fraction of the things to write about here. It’s crazy.

Welp, that was a long post, but it helped a lot with sifting through all these thoughts. It’s only been three days, and I’m already thinking of returning here maybe after I graduate. Then again, it’s only been three days. Ask me again in a month and we’ll see if the city has driven me crazy.

Also this is gonna sound so basic, but the Middle East is damn hot…..