Kartini and The Question of “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?”

 

kartini

Kartini, in the middle, with her younge sister Kardinah, and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (Dereisnaar)

 

One of the most interesting people that I know is R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879- September 17, 1904), a young ambitious and brilliant Javanese woman who contributed and shaped Indonesian history, especially in the early twentieth century, because of her relentless dedication to elevate the status of women in her society.

Kartini was born into a high-class family in a small town on the north coast of Java island. Despite the immense privilege that her family possessed, her time was hard and challenging. It was the time when women’s status was reduced to a fertile uterus and kitchen. The effects of Dutch colonization were deeply inhuman and evoking a sense of opposition in her spirit. Moreover, Kartini was uneasy with the way the Javanese behaved. They were lazy and only glorified prayers and spirit offerings to improve their conditions of life. Perhaps, the most devastating thing that happened to her life was when she had to be withdrawn from her school by her family to obey to her Javanese tradition. Around this time, girls of high nobility family, were excluded from outsiders to prepare them for an early arranged marriage.

These things made her heart broken. She turned to reading as an escape from her bleak reality and a way to stimulate her curiosity. Not only was she a voracious reader, but she’s also a prolific letter writer. Kartini wrote letters to unpack everything she observed, both in her internal and external life, mostly to her Dutch friends, in Dutch. After she died, her letters were posthumously compiled and published in a book titled “Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light)” in 1911, and then later translated in English by Agnes Louise Symmers as “Letters of a Javanese Princess.”

IMG_2043

My left hand holding “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

In the book, there is one letter that was written to her friend, Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, in 1900, that has left a profound mark on my mind.

The letter begins with a story of Kartini who asked her Dutch friend named Letsy to play with her at recess. Letsy, who at the time was reading a book, politely declined the invitation because she had to study the book in preparation for an exam. She did not want to fail the exam, and she said that she had to be smart because one day she’d like to be a teacher. When Letsy curiously asked Kartini what she would like to be in the future, Kartini innocently replied, “I don’t know.” The question startled her. Kartini stood in disbelief, unable to articulate her answer. It was a strange question for her because nobody had asked her this question before. And perhaps, devastatingly, she lived in an era when her society did not believe that women were capable of thinking and dreaming big.

Right after Kartini was asked the question, she sprinted to her house, still haunted by Letsy’s question. When her brother frankly told her that she’d naturally be a Raden Ayu in the future (a Javanese married woman of high rank), Kartini realized that her fate was already shaped by her society without her will. Being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent.

Though she eventually married to a man that was carefully chosen for her, Kartini refused to live her life like most of Javanese married women who were submissive and expressionless. The older she got, the more passionate she became with the issues of women’s rights. Even, she erected a small school for young girls with her sisters. She was not only a teacher who taught them writing, reading, handiwork, cooking, and art, but also, she became their mother who taught them about love and life.

A century after she died, even when Indonesia has become more modernized than her time, some of us still think that this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is challenging. It’s a big question, but at its core, it invites us to define our own dreams vividly.

Defining our dreams means refusing our parents, lovers, neighbors, and even politicians to shape them. Defining our own dreams means avoiding shallow work and embracing any future obstacles as a learning process. This also means planting ourselves in the soil of optimism and solid work.

James Baldwin, an American writer once said, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”  Just like Baldwin, Kartini refused to let her world to define and dictate her dreams. She told her world how she and other women would like to be treated. She didn’t live in somebody else’s dreams. She made her own dreams.

Legendary Indonesian Educator and Feminist Kartini on Education, Religion, and Some of Her Forgotten Wisdom in Her Letters

 

 

COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Gesigneerd_portret_van_Raden_Ajeng_Kartini_TMnr_10018775

Kartini. ©Troopen Museum. Via: (Wikimedia)

 

Alice James, the sister of William James and Henry Jamesonce wrote in her diary dated from mid-June of 1889:

“I went out today, and behaved like a lunatic, “sobbed” … over a farmhouse, a meadow, some trees and cawing rooks. Nurse says that there are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing. How grateful I am that I actually do see, to my own consciousness, the quarter of an inch that my eyes fall upon; truly, the subject is all that counts!”

Indeed, there are a lot of people “who drive everywhere and admire nothing”. We over glorify people who travel because we mistakenly think that traveling is the only way to gain understanding of our world. Meandering in one place, I believe, can be as stimulating as traveling around the world, if only one pays attention to what one sees, with one’s awakened mind. In other words, the great poet Jane Hirshfield once said: “To perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look… To form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

I know a young woman whose social life was extremely constrained because she was forced to follow the strict tradition of her society by her family. Behind her small world, her imaginations and ambitions were abundant. She trained her eyes and mind to be awake–faithfully awake to her cloistered world. This young woman was R.A Kartini (April 21st, 1879- September 17th, 1904). Born in the island of Java, Indonesia, in the late nineteenth century when Dutch colonization still heavily enveloped Indonesia, Kartini rose as one of the most prominent voices for women’s rights in Indonesia. She also grew restless with the practice of mysticism among Javanese people. Coming from a Javanese privileged family who was receptive to a western rational thinking, Kartini wanted to eradicate the mysticism, elevate the status of women through education, and plant a rational thinking as a new way of life in her society.

kartini

Kartini, in the middle with her younge sister Kardinah and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (dereisnaarbatik)

 

One of the most compelling things about her life was, she did not voice those concerns orally out in front of public. She was a “silent” activist. She poured her lamentations, worries, and dreams through letters that she had written to her friends. Throughout her life, Kartini had written hundreds of letters mostly to her Dutch friends in Dutch. In a letter that she wrote to her Dutch friend, E.C Abendanon, Kartini explained the importance of the act of writing letters:

“Letters are truly important in my life; . . . if I did not have this exchange of letters, I would not have the courage to abandon our age-old traditional customs.”

Kartini turned to letters because that was the only form of communication that she was allowed to have by her father. Most importantly, it was a way to keep herself connected with her outside world when she was a “prisoner” in her house. 

When she was twelve and a half years old, she had to be withdrawn from her school in order to prepare her for early marriage (Back in the day in Java, a woman of nobility, especially a young unmarried girl, had to be secluded from outsiders other than her family until a man came to her family and decided to marry her). Her relentless exchanged letters with her Dutch friends also fed her curiosity about the world outside of hers. These letters had a huge role in shaping Kartini’s ideology on feminism, education, religion, and the power of critical thinking as a survival tool.

A few attempts had done to compile and translate her letters into a book. One of which is this old-forgotten book that I have read titled Letters of a Javanese Princess (Public Library), translated into English from Dutch by Agnes Louise Symmers. The letters in this book give honest pictures of Kartini’s struggles and aspirations as a young idealistic Javanese woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

As a Javanese, she despised the rigidness of her culture. She expressed it in a letter to her Dutch friend, Stella Zeehandelaar, on August 18, 1899. She wrote:

“I have always been an enemy of formality. I am happy only when I can throw the burden of Javanese etiquette from my shoulders. The ceremonies, the little rules, that are instilled into our people are an abomination to me. You could hardly imagine how heavily the burden of etiquette presses upon a Javanese aristocratic household. But in our household, we do not take all the formalities so literally.

[…]

Javanese etiquette is both silly and terrible.”

Her lamentations on her own culture were very clear throughout her letters. She thought that her Javanese tradition had fettered her energetic spirit that was always hungry for a new experience and knowledge. Kartini was the opposite of the ideal girl that Javanese people adored. She’s outspoken with her feelings, energetic, and liberally minded.

Written for her Dutch friend, Mevrouw (English: Miss) Abendanon Mandiri, Kartini illustrated an ideal Javanese girl:

“The ideal Javanese girl is silent and expressionless as a wooden doll, speaking only when it is necessary, and then with a little whispering voice which can hardly be heard by an ant; she must walk foot before foot and slowly like a snail, laugh silently without opening her lips; it is unseemly for the teeth to show, that is to be like a clown.”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-3d89-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Girl From Java. 1909. Perkins, Charlton B (Photographer). Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Despite her resentment on her culture, there’s a soft spot in her heart for the Javanese culture. It’s an interesting observation to see the contradictory feelings within her.

 Kartini wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri in a letter from August 1, 1901:

“We know that we are [Kartini’s family] impregnated with European ideas and feelings–but the blood, the Javanese blood that flows live and warm through our veins, can never die.

[…]

Still, there is much good in the Javanese people. We are so anxious for you to admire our people. When I see something fine, some trait of character, that is peculiarly Javanese, then I think ‘How glad I should be if Mevrouw A. were with us. She would be pleased at this thing, would appreciate it, she who has wide open eyes for everything that is noble'”.

AWSS35953_35953_23469509

Kaart van het eiland Java, 1596 ( Map of the island of Java, 1596 ). ©Rijksmuseum Museum, Amsterdam. Via: (Artstor)

 

Among several letters compiled and translated in this book, there is one letter that has left a profound mark in my mind. In a letter that she wrote for her Dutch friend named Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri from August 1900, she recalled a life-altering conversation with her Dutch schoolmate named Letsy, a long time ago, when she was still a student at a local elementary school. This conversation shook her heart and made a deep impression upon her. Interestingly, in this letter, Kartini described herself as “the Javanese” or “a brown girl” or “a little girl”.

Kartini wrote:

“It was recreation hour at the European school at Jepara (a small town in the province of central Java, Indonesia). Under the yellow blossoming waru trees in the schoolyard, big and little girls were grouped in happy disorder. It was so warm that no one cared to play.

“Shut your book, Letsy. I have something to tell you,” pleaded a brown girl [Kartini], whose costume and headdress betrayed the Javanese. A great blonde girl, who leaned against the trunk of a tree reading eagerly in a book, turned around and said, “No, I have to study my French lesson.”

“You can do that at home, for it is not school work.”

“Yes, but if I do not learn my French lessons well, I shall not be allowed to go to Holland year after next; and I am so anxious to go there to study at the Normal School. When I come back later as a teacher, perhaps I shall be placed here; and then I shall sit on the platform before the class as our teacher does now. But tell me, Ni [Kartini], you have never yet said what you were going to be when you grew up.”

Two large eyes were turned toward the speaker in astonishment.

“Only tell me.”

The Javanese [Kartini] shook her head and said laconically, “I do not know.”

[…]

Kartini was truly haunted by Letsy’s simple question. To her, the question was not just a question, but it was more like a wake-up call. Kartini was ashamed of her own mediocrity for not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up. At the same time, she was fascinated by her white friend’s ability to imagine her own personal future. This kind of thinking, the ability to construct one’s personal future, was considered a luxurious privilege and a foreign thinking in Java. Nobody had thought about this. Java was very underdeveloped–deep in mysticism and under harsh Dutch colonization.

Her mind continued to ponder that question, relentlessly. She truly did not know what she wanted to be when she grew up.

When her class ended, Kartini sprinted home carrying Letsy’s question. Then she turned to some of the most trusted people in her family to ask for help: her father and older brother. Her father didn’t take her question seriously. Then when her older brother named Kartono came home, he said that she would naturally be a Raden Ayu (a Javanese married woman of high rank).

At this time, Kartini had more questions than answers.

She did not know what he meant by becoming a Raden Ayu. She grew restless and studied those who were regarded as Raden Ayu. What she learned about the lives of those women, those who were being called as Raden Ayu, awakened her opposition spirit in her heart. Feeling shaken about the fact that being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent, Kartini prayed that she would never be the one.

DP71291

Javanese Women Preparing Rice. 1860s-70s. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via: (ARTSTOR)

 

As I have told earlier, Kartini had to be secluded from the outside world when she was twelve and a half years old until her marriage to follow the Javanese tradition. In those stifling years, she had to stay at her parents’ house. This tradition devastated her so much as she had to leave her desk at her school, a place where she fertilized her curious mind with boundless knowledge. Through this letter, she described her experience of being a “prisoner” in her parents’ house.

Kartini wrote to her another close Dutch friend, Stella Zeehandelaar, from November 6, 1899:

“No, Stella, my prison was a large house, with grounds around it. But around those grounds, there was a high wall and that held me a prisoner. Never mind how splendid a house and garden may be if one may never go beyond them, it is stifling.”

In this very limited space, Kartini found her inner strength through books and writing letters. It was her father and her older brother named Kartono who relentlessly encouraged Kartini to educate herself through reading and writing once she was out of school. Her family had an immense access to books because of the strong receptivity of the family on knowledge, especially on western ideas. 

Her father was a servant of the Dutch who made him a “Regent” or governor of a town in the province of central Java called Jepara. This close contact with the Dutch and his welcoming personality made him easy to be around western culture that he later transferred to Kartini. Meanwhile, her older brother, Kartono, was the embodiment of the live of the mind. Graduated with honors from a colonial Dutch high school in Indonesia and educated abroad in Holland and Vienna, studying literature and languages, he was a central intellectual figure in Kartini’s life besides her father.

In page 77 of the book, written to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, dated August 1900, Kartini wrote about her passion of reading. She called books as her “quiet and silent friends”.

She wrote:

“She had always been fond of reading, but now her love for reading became a passion; as soon as she had time, when all her little duties were done, she would seize a book or a paper. She read everything that came into her hands; she greedily devoured both the green and the ripe. Once she threw a book away which was full of horrors. She did not have to look into books when she wished to know of loathsome, nauseating things; real life was full of them; it was to escape from them that she buried her soul in realms which the genius of man has fashioned out of the spirit of fantasy.”

Not only was she a voracious reader but she was also a passionate learner in everything. She wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon Madiri in a letter, dated June 10, 1902:

“Dutch has always been my favorite study, and many people say that I am thoroughly at home in it. But heavens! fondness for a language is a very long way from knowledge of it. Next to languages I like geology. I also enjoy mathematics, but I am still struggling with the groundwork of history. Not that I do not like history; I think it is interesting and very instructive, but the manner in which it is set down in schoolbooks has little charm for me. I should like to have a teacher who knew how to make the dry parts interesting. What I do think delightful is ancient history; it is a pity that so little of it has come my way. I should love to study the history of the Egyptians, and of the old Greeks and Romans.”

Something interesting happened in her life when she was sixteen. For the first time, her father allowed her to taste the fresh air of the outside world. She went traveling outside of her town to see a cultural festival in a nearby town. Of course, she rejoiced this moment as she finally breathed the sweet odor of freedom. However, for Kartini, the word “freedom” meant so much more than just being able to travel outside of her house. She wanted the freedom of the mind and spirit.

In a letter to Stella Zeehandelaar, dated May 25, 1899, she said:

“But I’m far from satisfied. I would still go further, always further. I do not desire to go out to feasts, and little frivolous amusements. That has never been the cause of my longing for freedom. I long to be free, to be able to stand alone, to study, not to be subject to any one, and above all, never, never to be obliged to marry.”

SS35197_35197_33812526

Javanese Street Scene. Douwes Dekker, N.A. March 27, 1949. © Cornell University Library. Via: (ARTSTOR)

 

Kartini was determined to be a spinster for the rest of her life in order to keep her individuality and autonomy. This was a daring statement coming from a woman of nobility in Java that was expected to marry to a man. Her deep aversion of marriage came from the prevalent practice of polygamy among Javanese royal men. Kartini’s deep-seated resentment on polygamy can be found in her letter to Stella Zeehandelaar on November 6th, 1899:

“I shall never, never fall in love. To love, there must first be respect, according to my thinking; and I can have no respect for the Javanese young man. How can I respect one who is married and a father, and who, when he has had enough of the mother of his children, brings another woman into his house, and is, according to to the Moslem law, legally married to her? And who does not do this? And why not? It is no sin, and still less a scandal. The Moslem law allows a man to have four wives at the same time. And though it be a thousand times over no sin according to the Moslem law and doctrine, I shall forever call it a sin. I call all things sin which bring misery to a fellow creature. Sin is to cause pain to another, whether man or beast. And can you imagine what hell pain a woman must suffer when her husband comes home with another–a rival–whom she must recognize as his legal wife? He can torture her to death, mistreat her as he will;  if he does not choose to give her back her freedom, then she can whistle to the moon for her rights. Everything for the man, and nothing for the woman, is our law and custom.”

The practice of polygamy in Java and the lack of access to education for her people, especially for the women, drove Kartini’s ambition to elevate the status of women. She believed that when women were educated, their future generations could reap the immense benefits of it. For Kartini, education was the critical key for a society to be truly civilized, and it had to be started from educating women.

She wrote a letter to Mevrouw M. C. E. Ovink Soer in 1900:

“But is an intellectual education everything? To be truly civilized, intellectual and moral education must go hand in hand. And who can do most for the elevation of the moral standard of mankind? The woman, the mother; it is at the breast of woman that man receives his earliest nourishment. The child learns there first, to feel, to think, and to speak. And the earliest education of all foreshadows the whole after life.”

In the same letter to Ovink Soer, Kartini continued to explain the root cause of the poor condition of her society. She and her sisters had an enormous ambition to go to Holland to study. Once they came back, they wanted to erect a school in order to lift the status of native women out of their age-long misery.

Kartini wrote:

“The most serious fault of our people is idleness. It is a great drawback to the prosperity of Java. So many latent powers lie undeveloped through indolence.

[…]

Our people are not rich in ideals, but an example which speaks, would impress them. They would be impelled to follow it. My sisters and I wish to go before and lighten the way; for that reason we want more than anything else to go to Holland to study. It will be well with us if we can go. Little Mother, help us!

When we come back to Java, we shall open a school for girls of the nobility; if we cannot get the means through our Government, then we will work for it in some other way, ask our friends to subscribe, start a lottery or something.

[…]

Besides believing that education was the key to form the future of her society,  she wholeheartedly believed that education was also a form of spiritual survival. In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri dated January 21, 1901, Kartini beautifully captured:

“Education means the forming of the mind and of the soul. I feel that with the education of the mind the task of the teacher is not complete. The duty of forming the character is his; it is not included in the letter of the law, but it is a moral duty. I ask myself if I am able to do this? I who am still so uneducated myself.

I often hear it asserted that when the mind is cultivated, the spirit grows of itself.

[…]

Great care has been taken in the cultivation of the understanding, but in the cultivation of the character, none!

javanese-landscape-with-tigers-listening-to-the-sound-of-a-travelling-group-1849.jpg!Large

Javanese Landscape, with Tigers Listening to the Sound of a Traveling Group. 1849. Painter: Raden Saleh. Via: (WIKIART)

 

Kartini’s ambitions were bigger than herself. Her ambitions to build a school for native women and going abroad to Netherlands to receive western education were uncommon and peculiar for a young Javanese woman living in the early twentieth century of Indonesia. She had faced a relentless criticism, even from her family, especially her mother who was uncertain with the practicality of her wild ambitions.

In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, dated October 7, 1900, Kartini recalled that conversation with her mom. Her response to her mother’s questions truly illustrated her character as an idealist young woman.

A little while ago in talking to Mama, about something of interest to women, I told her what I had said so many times before, that nothing attracted me more, that nothing was more longed for by me than to be able to fly alone upon my own wings. Mama said, “But there is no one now, not among us, who does that!”

“Then it is time that someone should do it.” [Kartini’s response]

“But you know very well that every beginning is difficult. That fate of every innovator is hard. That misunderstanding, disappointment on top of disappointment, ridicule, all await you; do you realize that?”

[…]

“I know that the way I wish to go is difficult, full of thorns, thistles, pitfalls; it is stormy, rough, slippery and it is–free! And even though I shall not be happy after I have reached my goal, though I may give way before it is half reached, I shall die gladly, for the path will then have been broken, and I shall have helped to clear the way which leads to freedom and independence for the native woman.”

Kartini’s letters were not only brimming with her immense ambitions to elevate women in her society, but also the topic of religion appeared quite frequently in which she spoke beautifully that religion, at its core, was a gift for humanity.

“Religion is designed as a blessing, it should form a bond between all the creatures of God, white or brown, of every station, sex, and belief, for all are children of One Father, of One God.”

In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri dated December 12, 1902, she, again, touched on the topic of religion:

“We were turned away for a long time from all religion because we saw so much un-charitableness under its mantle. We learned, at first slowly, that is not religion that is uncharitable, but man who has made what was originally Godlike and beautiful, bad and ugly.”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dc-9a41-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Java -Traditional crafts. A group of female handpainters (batiksters). Holt, Claire (Collector). Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Her dream of owning a school finally came to fruition. Kartini expressed her happiness and the condition of her school in a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, dated July 4, 1903. She wrote:

“We started with one pupil, quickly the number jumped to five, tomorrow morning eight will come to the kabupaten (English: regency), and soon there will be ten. We are so pleased when we look at our little children. They are such a fresh unspoiled little band; they always come exquisitely neat, and they get along so amiably together.

[…]

The children come here four days in the week, from eight to half past twelve. They study writing, reading, handiwork, and cooking. We teachers do not give lessons in art unless the pupils show a special aptitude for it.

Our school must not have the air of a school, nor we that of schoolmistresses. It must be like a great household of which we are the mothers. We will try and teach them love as we understand it, by word and deed.

Not too long after she started her school, in November eight of 1903, Kartini tied a knot with a man in which she described as, “a lovable good man who has a noble heart and a clever head as well.” That man was a regent of Rembang named Raden Adipati Djojo Adiningrat. Of course, this was an arranged marriage that her father had prepared for her. Even though it was an arranged marriage, the man that her father chose for her was not an ordinary man. He was very political, cultured, and educated. It’s an interesting investigation given that she had given up her youthful dream of studying abroad in Netherlands and had chosen to be somebody else’s wife-a choice that she initially resented.  Having read the way her letters were written, especially those that she wrote after her marriage, it seems like she was truly happy letting him into her life.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dc-8403-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Dances, Surakarta (Solo) style. Female dancer, Solo. Holt, Claire (Collector). Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

A year after her marriage, Kartini conceived her first child. This was a precious moment for her and her husband. Just like any other anxious and soon-to-be mother, she wondered what would happen if the child was a girl. She expressed her dream of raising a daughter in a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri dated June 28, 1904:

“If the child that I carry under my heart is a girl, what shall I wish for her? I shall wish that she may live a rich full life, and that she may complete the work that her mother has begun. She shall never be compelled to do anything abhorrent to her deepest feelings. What she does must be of her own free will. She shall have a mother who will watch over the welfare of her inmost being, and a father who will never force her in anything. It will make no difference to him if his daughter remains unmarried her whole life long; what will count with him will be that she shall always keep her esteem and affection for us.”

Her little “treasure” finally came to her world. It was a boy, not a girl that she had dreamed of. Four days after her son was born, Kartini died unexpectedly, being just twenty five-years old.

She may not live too long to see all the changes that she had hoped to see in her own society, but at least, she had planted ideas that had inspired many of Indonesian women to refine themselves. In fact, every 21st of April, we, Indonesians, especially the women, celebrate her birthday as an occasion to reflect her life, and also it’s a reminder that we have come so far from where she initially stood at.

I should make a necessary note here: there are so many of her teachings that I did not include on this blog. In fact, there are still many of her untranslated letters that remain in Netherlands. The things that I picked above were the things that I thought not only reflected her deepest ambitions and intellectual spirit, but also her timeless and timely wisdom for us, people who live in this twenty-first century. Moreover, my personal taste of selecting her letters played an immense role as well. I highly encourage people to get a copy of this book regardless of what we experience in life because we could always find something valuable in her letters.

IMG_2043

My Left hand holding the book “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

Four Years: Some Thoughts on Studying Abroad and Embracing Contradiction

 

IMG_2132

I was not as articulate in English as I am now. Language used to be a firm barrier in my life during my freshmen year of college. That was the first time when I had to step out of my native language, Indonesian, and begin to think in English. Though I still feel self-conscious with my accent, when I give an in-class presentation or simply speak English with strangers, this language has slowly interwoven into my being. Now I understand many more words than I did before. I can participate in challenging discussions with my peers and professors. What was impossible, has become possible.

Now, the problem is more than just the words of the language; it’s the ability to understand all of the underlying meaning that is expressed.

I take it as an elemental truth that language matters–It’s more than just a tool of survival. The language that we use reflects the story that we want to tell ourselves and our world. At its core, language is always brimming with human dynamics. The more I understand about the language of this country, the more my understanding of its human dynamics expands. When I can speak the language that Americans use, I don’t perceive myself as an outsider. I am with them. Their stories are mine and my stories are theirs.

This is a good sign because I don’t feel alienated and have found “home” in a foreign territory. The problem with this connection is that I also feel their pain. When they have struggles, it troubles me because whenever I hear these stories, I don’t want to be part of them.

IMG_2098

Last summer in Indonesia when I told a stranger that I was going to America to finish up my degree, her eyes sparkled with amazement. I had anticipated this reaction. Then she said something so common, “Everyone must be so happy in America. There is no poverty. Oh. I wish I could go with you.” This was the America that she had understood from the stories of her life. Even all my friends are still thinking this way.

My stories of America are different than hers.

I work part time as a banquet server at a local hotel in the MSU area. There, for the first time, I have seen people whose lives are so constrained that, to survive, they have to work three jobs. I feel shame about how fortunate I am, working only one job and still squandering my money on useless things. One of those people that I met was a vivacious middle-aged woman named Y. She has been washing dishes for twelve years and she also works at two other places. “I like this job,” she said with such outspokenness. Strangely, a part of me saw layers of tiredness and some deep inner dread behind her eyes. The next day after we talked, she screamed at an empty bowl, “I hate this job!” During my freshmen year, I’d have just heard her words without being able to construct any meaning, but now I understand her meaning that is different from what she’s saying and the pain she feels. When someone must work more than two jobs to survive, I know that her life is not easy.

One time I overheard two of my Chinese friends talking in Chinese to each other. Then an elderly white man whose hair was unkempt approached them, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use Chinese here!” He laughed like a fool and walked away from them. My friends stood shocked. If I had encountered this man when I was still in my freshmen year of college, I’d have judged him directly that he’s very racist and the rest of white men in America were also racist. Three years later, my answers are a little bit different. I refuse to call him a racist because I don’t know the drive of his intention. Maybe one Sunday breezy afternoon he tried to practice his French with his sweet lover in a café, and someone approached them and said, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use French here!” He felt very insulted and he brought the pain to my friends by insulting their language. Maybe a Chinese man had robbed his engagement ring when he went out on a stroll alone in a park. Or, maybe he once had a horrifying dream that everyone in America suddenly speaks Mandarin and he’s the only one who speaks English and he wakes up feeling extremely anxious about his own future.

Maybe after all, when we are talking about someone who is racist, we are talking about his “unresolved” pain and his immense fear of a particular race. Three years ago, I would not have been able to construct these possibilities. Racism is a complex topic and I still don’t know how to approach it.

As this country enters a new period of unrest, I have noticed a transformation of the language that my friends use. From their language, there is a lot of raw human fear circulating through it. I cannot count how many times my friends have spoken to me of their longings to move to a place with better government.

IMG_1945

However, this is something I deeply believe: to only mention pain without mentioning beauty is a chronic failure of living.

I have met some people who have taught me to be kind and forgiving in this country. I have exchanged stories with people whose ideas inspire me to be less cynical and more hopeful with the strained reality that we have. I am forever grateful for having the privilege of exposing my eyes to the beautiful color of the trees in the fall. The liberal arts education that I have received at MSU has allowed my mind to traverse across disciplines, time, and spaces. Philosophy has slowly gained my attention, especially Stoicism, as it has taught me to only focus on the things that I can control and ignore the rest. From the literature that I have read across the years in the MSU library, I get to absorb mind-stretching ideas from some of humanity’s greatest thinkers such as James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, May Sarton, Thoreau, Toni Morrison, and Patti Smith .

Standing up amidst those stories from the people I had met and the writers I had read makes me realize that America is far more complex than what I had seen a long time ago in TV and magazines. Sometimes the stories that I had heard are hard to swallow. I don’t know which side I should trust more: the good, happy stories brimming with hope or the sad, depressing stories with pessimism. In other words, I’m conflicted between choosing one of those sides and being deaf to the other side or taking the contradiction gladly because they are part of my reality. What I’m sure of is my greater understanding when I communicate with my American peers and live life with them, good or bad.

crop

There’s a line that has stayed with me from Alfred Kazin’s journal. In it, he wrote, “The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness,” he continued, “And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know.” The more I ponder about his sentence over the years, the truer it sounds to me—the contradiction that I have seen is part of my reality—inseparable and inescapable. I think this is the best-learning that I have gotten thus far from living and studying abroad. I learned that pain and beauty can co-exist simultaneously. I learned that I need to teach myself to see things as they are, not with the intention to judge but to understand. Education must transcend a person’s view of life beyond a traditional classroom. Seeing the contradiction, is not only a part of my own reality, but also, most importantly, is my education.

Photographs by Vidi Aziz

.