Thoughts on Indonesia from an Inevitable Optimist

Since my arrival in Indonesia, I have been pressed with this elusive question: Why did I choose to apply for a Fulbright in this country, out of the dozens of other countries that I could have selected? There was something appealing about this diverse nation, something that has attracted many a traveler before me, but I did not quite know what it was. Although I have been unable able to answer this myself, what follows is my attempt to unravel my bemusement about the nature of this archipelago, that which makes it so alluring and mysterious.

In my United States passport, at the top of one of the visa endorsement pages, there’s a quote taken from Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Presidential Inaugural Address. The quote reads:

For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it–and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”

Below the quote is a picture of two cowboys on horseback, wrangling a herd of longhorns across a vast plain with a distant mountain range in the background.

I have often read over this quote while looking through my passport in airport terminals before a flight. I can understand its relevance, and I’m sure that, at the time of its delivery, it was a stirring piece of narration indeed. However, I can’t always help but think that the quote is an ominous indicator of the changes America, and our planet, have undergone since 1965. (I think it is safe to say that America has done more than its fair share of “bending” in the last fifty years.)

But I digress. To me, the quote has lost its applicability to the idea of American expansion. However, I do feel it provides a powerful lens through which to analyze an American’s motivations to travel to Indonesia.

In my experience, the majority of Americans know close to nothing about Indonesia. Before doing some research during my application, I was one of them. I saw Indonesia as a smoky forest, dimly illuminated by foggy twilight. I didn’t know what secrets it hid, but I knew what secrets I wanted it to, especially in terms of its physical qualities and the metaphysical characteristics it might bring out in me. I saw myself emerging from a year in Indonesia infinitely richer with unnamed experiences and insight absorbed through my interactions with this mysterious land. It was this mysteriousness, this obscurity, which made Indonesia all the more appealing.

An idyllic sunset over the water. Some aspects of Indonesia truly do surpass our imagination. (Nicholas Hughes/Indonesiaful)

An idyllic sunset over the water. Some aspects of Indonesia truly do surpass our imagination. (Nicholas Hughes/Indonesiaful)

This is where I find the first half of the aforementioned quote to hold value—for me, Indonesia was the “uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge” just waiting to be explored. I viewed my going to Indonesia as both a new journey to an unfamiliar destination and a step away from my comfortable suburban life.

After living for just one week in Kupang, Indonesia, I can already see that this experience is going to be much different from the romantic, idealistic picture I had composed for myself pre-departure. However, I do not say this with disdain or disappointment, but rather with elation. I saw Indonesia to be an enchanting resource for me to learn and develop from, and it has been. I have greatly enjoyed facing the challenges of learning such an unfamiliar language and culture, as well as meeting multitudes of pleasantly perplexing people. What I overlooked is that, to the students for whom I will serve as a teacher, I will be the same exciting, untapped resource as the unfamiliar country will be for me.

I don’t mean this in a narcissistic I’m-so-awesome sort of way. What I mean is that for my students to have a young, twenty-two year old American man (a real bule!) teaching them provides a connection to the fascinating country of America in their classroom. And by connection I mean a real connection, as opposed to the glimpse of America they see through pop culture and media. I also didn’t realize how enthralling the students would be—I can already see that the education I will receive from interacting with these students will be difficult to surpass in terms of what I can give back to them (but I will try!).

So, although I set off for Indonesia intending to “bend” it to satisfy my thirst for cultural education, I realize now that my students and new friends will be the ones inadvertently shaping me through their mesmerizing curiosity. This is what I couldn’t grasp before leaving for Indonesia—the country is not a sleeping giant waiting for you to explore so much as it is a colossal being eager to explore you. Oh, and does it explore you! Through the constant inquiries about your comings and goings and sometimes-prying questions about your personal life, the people of Indonesia are not bashful about their curiosity.

The beauty of this relationship is that if this past week is a sign of what’s to come, I can only imagine the vastly rich experience that both parties will gain from a bewildered bule wandering around Indonesia for nine months. The only thing to do is let my guard down and embrace this new adventure. So, as LBJ beckoned to the American people in 1965, I say “Farewell” to the world I knew, and throw myself blindly into the “sleeping harvest” that Indonesia holds for me.

About the author: Nicholas Hughes is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. He graduated from Rutgers University in 2013 with a double major in English and Anthropology.

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