This blog post was started sometime around February 7th or 8th, about three days after I arrived back in Shanghai! It is currently March 11th, and I have been agonizing over this post for like a month ( in addition to doing lots of other stuff!). I have now decided to just go ahead and post it in its unfinished version, because I think that reflects my state of mind regarding the entire trip! It was like a week of non-stop overstimulation, in a good way! So instead of doing an in depth analysis I am just going to put up a ton of photos.
Over the Chinese New Year vacation, I traveled to Indonesia to spend time with my best friend Riley, who is doing teaching English on a Fulbright grant in Samarinda, Indonesia. I helped her teach classes for four of the days I was there, and then we went to the Orangutan Kutai Project to spend the night in the national park and look for wildlife!
I cannot even begin to describe what an amazing experience seeing her was. Something that we talked a lot about while together was the shared process of continually making new friendships that still lack the depth of those developed over 10+ years. There is something about spending time with someone who has known you for such a long time, knows everything about you, that is rejuvenating. And this isn’t even beginning to talk about the experience of actually being in Indonesia, a country that I am ashamed to say I thought very little about previous to visiting. Some preconceptions that I arrived with were: 1) that the whole country would look like Bali, as that is really the only place that is represented on social media etc. 2) That the population would look a lot more like the parts of Asia I have visited or what the media deems to to be Asian. In fact, because of the country’s position in a nexus of trade routes, the population is Arab, Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Indigenous peoples all mixed together. But I think the biggest misconception that I had about Indonesia was to underestimate the depth of faith, and the real conservatism. So, I’m going to talk about a couple of things I experienced in Indonesia, and what I think about them.
I think the most important takeaway, or thing I’m still processing from the week is what it was like to be white in Indonesia. Like many places in the world, colorism is a HUGE issue in Indonesia. Like in China, most beauty products contain whitening agents and people with darker skin tones are seen as ugly, or undesirable. What that translated into for me, was all the students I met touching my skin and saying something like “beautiful” or saying “so white” with a look of awe on their faces. Every time this happened, I would respond with something along the lines of “no, your skin is gorgeous! I’m so jealous of your complexion! This is just a color.” But to some extent, it felt disingenuous because I know that what I say has no chance of combatting messages that they are receiving from American popular culture, their friends and family, the million advertised product. Also, my skin color undoubtedly grants me a million undeserved privileges in our society, and no matter how many times someone tells them that they are beautiful and perfect just the way they are, it will not change the discrimination and hate they will receive. It was not the first time I have been in a place where the average skin tone is a lot darker than mine, but the difference is maybe the exposure to foreigners? Comparing the time in Indonesia to my time in Uganda, Kenya, Costa Rica, Vietnam, it was definitely the most intense reaction I have ever received. The whole thing made me feel really sad, and I don’t have a neat way to tie this discussion up except to just say that it is really complicated.