Fulbright Soundtrack

— By Jared Lax —

Music has played a huge role in my Fulbright grant thus far. Karaoke is one of the most popular social activities in Indonesia, so I go butcher some Indonesian pop songs about every two weeks or so. Every day I disappoint my students with my lack of knowledge about the entire One Direction or Justin Bieber canon (though, let’s be real, Bieber’s new stuff is really good). During my grant I’ve found that music has been the biggest buffer for homesickness, reminding me of home and transporting me back there occasionally.

So, I thought it would be fun to throw together a playlist of stuff I’ve been listening to that helps explain my year so far. If this post ends up just being a quick place for you to find some good music, so be it. But I thought this would be fun. Let’s go.

1. “The Wild Life” by Vacationer

To be honest, this song kind of encapsulates what I imagined this year would look like. I live in a city called Pontianak on the island of Borneo. I imagined my year would be wild in a lot of ways demonstrated in this song’s music video: encounters with wild animals, leaping off cliffs, and exploring beaches. And, in some ways, it has been that.

But the wilder things have really been more what makes up my day-to-day life, and I have to stop and consider these wilder things before they become too commonplace to really matter to me. Every time I leave my house and have any kind of interaction I’m doing so in a language I only started learning seven months ago. Oh, and every time I leave my house I do so on a motorcycle that I only started learning to drive six months ago. My cultural faux pas are still many and my patience for cultural exchange is sometimes fleeting. However, I’ve been reminded time and again that living where I’m living and doing what I’m doing is a kind of wild life, and this song ensures I won’t forget that.

2. “I Need Never Get Old” by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

If Vacationer has helped me remember the wildness of what I’m doing, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats have helped me remember that I’m able to live here because of my youth, and that youth is something to celebrate.

While living in Indonesia I’ve had to take many steps to plan and think ahead for life after my grant period. I’m having to weigh the important factors of major life decisions (e.g. where I want to live, what I want to do). That process along with the tribulations of living abroad alone–to a certain degree–I think inherently introduce a different kind of maturity I may not have attained otherwise.

However, this song helps me remember that along with that maturity comes the blessing that I am still only 22. And to really enjoy still being only 22.

And that’s not simply an age thing. As I’ve matured and grown this year, I’ve been reminded by the Indonesian people to remain young in as many ways as I can.

Truly, I need never get old. Not fully, anyway.

3. “Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes

When I commit the faux pas I mentioned earlier, when my students don’t want to give me attention in class, when my power goes out while it’s 98 degrees with 100% humidity, when I shower with cold water for six months, when my Indonesian is really off one day and I can’t communicate what I need to with anyone, when I get sold something with a higher price because I’m obviously a foreigner, when I have to use a squatty potty, when I come home to an army of ants fighting for control of my bedroom, when I find mouse droppings in my house with no sight of the culprit, when my Wi-Fi or Internet connection is too slow to communicate with friends and family back home, when I just want decent Western food for one meal, when I get asked to take one selfie too many, when I get sick from eating something I shouldn’t have, when I lose yet another sock at my laundry place, or when I have really hard days that make me feel lonely, you know what?

Things are always alright.

4. “Sweet Life” by Jeezy ft. Janelle Monae

And conversely, when my students are engaged and enjoying class, when my Indonesian is really on one day and I’m able to say everything I want and need to say, when I’m playing cards and laughing with my Indonesian friends, when I’m teaching my men’s basketball league how to talk trash in English, when I beat one of my coffee shop friends in a chess match, when something so ridiculous happens that I can’t help but smile, when I’m driving my motorcycle at night and I’m the only one on the road, when I have a delicious bite of some local food, when I’m shown the common grace and hospitality that must be a genetic predisposition of Indonesian people, when I connect with my students outside of the classroom, when I sit out on my covered balcony and read during the middle of a thunderstorm, when I have dinner outside and leave without a single mosquito bite, when I’m playing billiards on Saturday nights, or when I have dinner and hang out with Tommy (my counterpart), Vera (his wife) and Keaton (their son that calls me his older brother), you know what?

I’m reminded of the sweetness of my life in Indonesia.

5. “Heroes” by David Bowie

If I’ve learned anything about my students during the seven months I’ve been privileged to know them, it is this: they are absolute rockstars.

My students have a wide variety of talents, from musical to theatrical to athletic to artistic and everything else along the spectrum. Some of them care more than others in my English class, and that is absolutely okay. However, by talking to my students outside of the classroom, I’ve acquired a fuller perspective for who they are as people. And many of my students–as are many people everywhere–are fighting some tremendously difficult uphill battles.

Most of my students would love to go to America or Australia or Singapore or any number of places. They want to see the world, and they are encouraged to follow these ambitions by seeing me live among them in Indonesia. These students are obscenely talented and incredibly good-hearted. They want to conquer whatever is in front of them, and I know the drive of my students has infected me as well.

My students are my heroes, and I hope to serve them half as well as they’ve served me.

(Also, RIP David Bowie.)

6. “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy

This one’s kind of a wild card from the rest of my selection, but I find this song to be absolutely beautiful. This song, in a way that few others do, finds a way to slow me down and simply enjoy its beauty. It may seem cheesy or pretentious to say that about a classical piece, but that’s what it does.

When I hear this song, I think of the beauty Indonesia has forced me to slow down and savor. Some of that definitely includes natural beauty. From Flores to Komodo to Rinca to Bali to Bandung to Pontianak this country has some gorgeous places. Thick green jungles that house a variety of wildlife waiting to be found. Piercingly azure waters poured over twisting coral, fleet fish, and meandering sea turtles. Komodo dragons lumbering mere meters away from you, harkening back to the Mesozoic Era while providing a masterclass in the lurking danger of the natural world. Hikes to vistas and viewpoints overlooking the largest archipelagic nation in the world. The flowery writing merely hints at the actual beauty.

But when I think of Indonesia’s beauty, I really think of the people. The countless grins I receive (with huge variance as to the number of teeth in those mouths) from people simply because they are excited to see someone from somewhere else; the demonstrated eagerness of others to share a meal or a coffee with me; the willingness of some of my friends to ask hard questions about America and answer hard questions about Indonesia; the way anyone from my school will put their life on hold to make sure the little old bule (BOO-lay, Indonesian for “white-skinned foreigner,” though it literally means “albino”) is okay.

These people have been only wonderful towards me, and even after only seven months I feel wholly incapable of ever giving to them what they’ve given to me: a home and a community.

7. “Who Knows Who Cares” by Local Natives

(Skip ahead to the 1:30 mark for the actual start of the song and if you haven’t listened to this song, make sure you find the studio version as well.)

Even though I have two months left, many people I’ve talked to from home have asked me some variation of, “What do you feel like you’ve learned from your time in Indonesia?” I really didn’t have a good answer the first couple times I was asked this question. My stock reply was, “People are generally wonderful everywhere you go,” and this is still very true. And it has been (and continues to be) fascinating to learn about Islam in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country in the world, particularly at a time when some folks paint Islam with one broad (and brutal) stroke. These are very important lessons for me to continue internalizing.

However, my biggest takeaway has become, “There is seldom one best or right way to do things. There’s seldom a definitive ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ Usually, there’s only ‘different.’”

When I first arrived in Indonesia, I expected watershed moments of culture shock–episodes where I would try to do or understand something as I always had in Arkansas or Texas and I would find things unrecognizably foreign upon learning that it happened a different way in Indonesia. Instead, culture shock has been a gradual accumulation of minor differences. Sometimes this accumulation results in a breaking point–there have been multiple times where I’ve gotten home after one of these inconsequential culture shocks and screamed out loud because too many small ones had built up–but more often I feel a perpetual pruning of the expectations and worldview I brought into this country.

Some of this pruning happens in ways that still make me uncomfortable. Other times I feel able to let go of something I hadn’t even realized was weighing on me. And still other times this pruning introduces me to a perspective or practice that simply makes life more beautiful. “Who Knows Who Cares” is too laissez-faire to actually encapsulate this emotion, but Indonesia has instilled a deeper longing to see things from another’s point of view, and this has in turn introduced me to my own fallibility in many ways.

No one likes to learn just how fallible they are. But I think everyone would be better off if they were forced to try.

8. “True Love Will Find You in the End” by Daniel Johnston

Simply put, this country has captured my heart and my soul so completely, so rapaciously, and so quickly. I love one of the lines in this song in particular:

This is a promise with a catch / only if you’re looking will it find you

Cause true love is searching too

And how will it recognize you / unless you step out into the light

I went to Indonesia looking for a country and a people to love, but I never realized the extent to which Indonesia would search for and love me back.

I’m genuinely overwhelmed thinking about what all the people in this country have already done for me. And, as I said above, I’ll never be able to give them even half of what they’ve given to me.

9. “Goin’ Home” by Dan Auerbach

I went to karaoke two weeks ago with my two closest friends at my school. After a good two hours of a mixture of Indonesian and Western songs, we left the karaoke facility in good spirits. After we walked out, my friend Daw suddenly grew sad. He looked at me with a grimace and said, “After next week, you only have two months left, right?”

“Yes,” I answered.

He asked, “Do you think we can take May off the calendar? If we take May off the calendar, do you still have to go home?”


  • What if I’ve missed out on something I was supposed to do here?
  • What if I haven’t made the most of my time?
  • What if I’m letting my school down inside or outside of the classroom?
  • What if I’m being too selfish?

Now that my time here is already dwindling, I think it’s only natural to drift to these what if’s of inadequacy. I’m fearful that I’m not living up to what I should be in this grant. I’m afraid I will look back in May and see only areas where I was insufficient. I’m scared I will have missed something.

I’m trying to use these fears to spur me on to a strong finish of the grant, but it’s inevitable that these fears spring up occasionally. They’re forcing me to reflect, to see weak spots, and to be brutally honest. Those are not always enjoyable things. They hurt. But damn if they aren’t forcing me to pour myself into these two months.

On a separate note, I’m honestly terrified of coming home, too. What if my time abroad has altered me dramatically in ways I won’t notice until I return to a familiar setting? What if it’s difficult for me to be around friends, family, and loved ones after I get back? What if I miss Indonesia in a way that hurts my heart too much to bear? What if I get home and realize I got nothing out of this year?

These fears are acutely felt when I think of going home, but when I listen to this song I find a calmness. An equanimity. This song reminds me that no matter where you’ve gone, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, who you’ve become, who you’ve lost, who you’ve hurt, what you’ve learned, what you’ve missed, how long you’ve been gone, or most importantly, how you’ve changed, that I have a home to go to.

That this home is full of people who love me.

That this home will be fuller for all I’ve experienced here.

That I’ll be taking everyone and everything with me as much as I can when I leave.

That in going home, with its promises and disappointments, its welcome faces and re-adjustments, I have somewhere and multiple someones to bring everything back to.

Songs:indonesiaful picture

  1. “The Wild Life” by Vacationer
  2. “I Need Never Get Old” by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
  3. “Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes
  4. “Sweet Life” by Jeezy ft. Janelle Monae
  5. “Heroes” by David Bowie
  6. “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy
  7. “Who Knows Who Cares” by Local Natives
  8. “True Love Will Find You in the End” by Daniel Johnston
  9. “Goin’ Home” by Dan Auerbach

Jared Lax is a first year Indonesian Fulbright Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed at SMA Santu Petrus in Pontianak, the capital city of West Kalimantan. He graduated from Texas Christian University in May 2015. After seven months, he finally loves sambal.

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