Sport has always been a favorite topic for Louis and Rowan, so this week they get into the weeds on the sporting cultures of their locales.
Sport has always been a favorite topic for Louis and Rowan, so this week they get into the weeds on the sporting cultures of their locales.
I suppose there’s a reason I started this blog here, in Indonesia, rather than when I lived in the UK or the Netherlands. I found out this week it’s likely because this is the first place that I’ve truly felt like a foreigner.
I can’t say that this realization came to me organically . It was the hypothesis of an Argentinian guy I spoke with recently. He’s lived here for seven years and said that, of all the places he’s lived, this was where he could never truly feel a part of the Indonesian society, let alone Balinese. And in my more limited experience, I have to agree with him.
Of the expats I know that have lived here for many years, even those who are married to or work with Indonesians and speak the language fluently, all still run in expat social circles. This is not to say integrated foreigner don’t exist, I have stories of a couple and perhaps I have too small a sample size to declare this definitively, but the integration of foreigners or immigrants into Indonesian society is relatively minimal.
Part of this, I think, has to do with the extremely rich cultural heritage of Indonesia and, again, Bali in particular. Unless one converts to Balinese Hinduism and joins a Banjar, one is seen as an outsider. This has more to do with the strength of society than of any social barriers that are constructed
Another factor that influences this is the strong nationalism that runs through Indonesia. This is not a nationalism that was fueled by an immigrant narrative like the US (current Presidential candidates notwithstanding) or a kind of secular civic nationalism like in France, but a vibrant post-colonial nationalism that places the Archipelago’s fight for independence against European colonialism at its center.
This is not to say that I’ve had negative experiences or see this a social defect. Indonesians are culturally the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve come across, almost to the point of over politeness. But there is a distance, possibly even a society-wide wariness, that is hard to ignore.
And in some ways this is reflected in government policy. I’ve complained about the immigration process before, but it goes even further. Foreign citizens are not allowed to own real estate in Indonesia (with a minor and recent exclusion of high-rise apartments in Jakarta) and must have an Indonesian business partner to own a company (I think that’s how it works, at least). Both of these are disincentives for expats to make a permanent life here. Naturally many still want to and find ways around the regulation (for example 99 year leases), but the point remains.
But I don’t think Indonesia is alone in this. Any country with a strong ethnic base (I could go in depth here into why I called Indonesian nationalism post-colonial and not ethnic but I’ll save you the IR talk and just point you to the Types of Nationalism Wikipedia page) would have some incarnation of it.
And for what it’s worth, it makes for some entertaining and controversially worded conversations at expat bars.
On August 17th, Indonesia celebrated its 70th year of independence. Here’s why you should care:
First of all, you know more about Indonesia than you think. It’s likely you’ve heard of Java and Sumatra from your local coffee shop. Then there’s Borneo (Indonesia calls it Kalimantan and shares the landmass with Malaysia and Brunei), one you probably know for its jungle and subsequent monkeys. And of course Bali, the island famous for its vacationing hippies, surfers, and Australians. Well, all these places and a whole lot more comprise Indonesia.
It’s okay to admit you hadn’t put all that together, not many Americans or Europeans (apart from the Netherlands) know much about the Archipelago. And even if you’ve been here, it’s hard to grasp the sheer enormity of the country. There are upwards of 250 million people that live on some 17,000 islands stretched across a distance roughly equal to that of Lisbon to Tehran. There are hundreds of ethnic groups and an equal diversity of local languages and dialects. It’s a huge, complex, and increasingly important place, which should be enough to pique your interest but here’s why you should really care that Indonesians just celebrated their country’s 70th birthday.
Prior to declaring independence from the Dutch in chaotic days immediately after World War II ended, Indonesia wasn’t much of a country, let alone a nation. It was a vast stretch of resource-rich islands that for nearly 400 years, until it was was conquered by Japan in early 1942, had been controlled by the Dutch. In its 70 years of nationhood, Indonesia has lived in a kind of international purgatory. It’s a country that is too big to ignore but one that has never quite lived up to its potential; a country that is incredibly proud of its heritage, both ancient and modern, while harboring deep insecurities about its history and national identity. In its paradoxes, Indonesia is the embodiment of the forces and failures that have shaped the post-war world.
It’s not enough to say that Indonesia is “important” because its home to the fourth largest population in the world or because it is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. These are factoids that are useless without context.
With the additional knowledge that Indonesia’s 220 million-plus Muslims are trending toward social conservatism – headscarves are becoming more popular, the country’s Islamic political parties have recently pushed through laws restricting the sale of alcohol while planning measures to ban it completely, and Aceh, a semi-autonomous province at the northern tip of Sumatra, has instituted a form of Sharia law- it not only becomes clearer who Indonesians are and what they believe, but global patterns are easily recognized.
Islam is only part of Indonesia’s story. The country has a growing middle class whose thirst for traditionally Western images of success – things like cars and shopping malls – has already left indelible marks on both the landscape and culture. Capitalism, the consumer-is-king kind that defined the American economy of the last century, has taken hold as more Indonesians find themselves with disposable income (or debt). But in a time when many in the West are looking for alternatives to the environmental devastation caused by that consumerism – things like reducing the use plastic, investing in public transport, and reducing carbon emissions come to mind – Indonesia seems a crucial step behind. Greater Jakarta, the world’s second largest megacity and home to 30 million people, does not have a mass rapid transit system and recycling plastic is nearly non-existent. How Indonesia’s middle class adjusts (along with the exploding middle classes of China and India) to sustainability will be a key barometer to how the so-called ‘developing world’ responds to climate change.
Indonesia also finds itself at the in a unique and important position geo-politically. The location of the archipelago and its maritime chokepoints between China and the Indian Ocean have always been central to the country’s identity and geo-strategic importance. Indeed current-President Joko Widodo promised in his election campaign to make Indonesia a “global maritime axis” and has set about tightening the country’s maritime security and expanding diplomacy to its neighbors. Over the next decade, its neutral relationship between the China and the West and its ASEAN allies in the region (Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam) combined with a lack of skin in the South China Sea game, could place the country squarely in the much-needed role of intermediary if and when tensions rise.
Finally, what Indonesians actually celebrated on Monday was 70 years of nationhood. When Sukarno (the country’s first President who ruled for nearly 20 years before being deposed in a military coup) declared the Republic of Indonesia on August 17, 1945, the modern idea of “Indonesia” was only a couple decades old. Like much of the nationalism that has drawn the world’s current borders, Indonesia’s strain does have some historical basis, a concept called ‘Nusantara’. But like many other nations, this heritage, alongside a bloody and often heroic origin story (much like the American Revolution), was co-opted, crafted, and fueled by successive dictators and their elites in order to further a strong central government.
Indonesian patriotism is alive and well and – much like its American counterpart – is often convoluted with an inability to admit sin. As American “patriots” ignore racial prejudices and the wrongs of slavery, Indonesia has started the painful process of recognizing (if not yet reconciling) some of its own. This most notably means the genocide of hundreds of thousands of communists, their sympathizers, and ethnic Chinese in 1965-66. This oft-forgotten and/or misremembered tragedy was only introduced to Western and Indonesian audiences through the brilliant documentary companion pieces, “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”, by Joshua Oppenheimer. Yet despite the films’ widespread acclaim, knowledge of the events both in the country and outside, remains marginal.
Understanding Indonesia’s past, studying its present, and looking to its future – all three of which its citizens celebrated on Monday – are no longer activities reserved for scholars of South East Asia. As its 70th birthday passes, the country’s growing global importance and ability to act as a global weathervane should be marked as well. The news coming from the archipelago is more important than plane crashes and volcanoes and we’d be smart if we started watching.
You can also check out Rowan’s post on Jakarta’s horrendous traffic here.
So far in Semawang Stories, I’ve described what life is specifically like in Bali and some peculiarities therein. This week I thought I’d give a little insight into what I actually do all day, you know, for, like, money and stuff.
First of all, Semawang Stories does not make any money and likely won’t in the foreseeable future. Unless one makes it big, being a mostly full-time writer isn’t exactly a lucrative business so I’m not exactly planning on making it rain anytime soon (plus there aren’t any (legal) strip clubs in Bali).
The best part of this ‘job’ is that I make my own hours and work is almost entirely on my own schedule. I say almost because deadlines from editors are a thing but fortunately I haven’t had too many as of yet. With the exception of my Vice Sports article on the #muzzaswell, which was somewhat time-sensitive because it was essentially on a weather system, my pieces haven’t needed to be rushed out.
The real reason I chose this subject is that the past 48 hours have been a pretty rapid series of highs and lows. On Friday, I wrote a piece about a local jazz festival I attended last weekend which should be published next week. And frankly, I kicked its ass. It’s the same feeling you get when you drop 20 in a game of basketball. The piece will be on a site called Bali Coconuts that I’m just establishing a relationship with having written this article for them about an art festival here in Sanur. On top of writing what you know is a good piece, submitting two articles within two weeks and getting paid for both (albeit underpaid) is damn gratifying.
Then, I woke up Saturday morning to find that a piece I’ve been working on for almost two months, one that will be my first in print, will likely be delayed until the next issue. The Editor-in-Chief wants it re-worked and some more urgency put into what I find to be an already engaging narrative. But as my editor put it, this is a big boy magazine and the Editor knows what the hell he’s talking about. More to the point, I’m incredibly proud of this story and this is absolutely the right magazine so I’m content to let this play out.
And yet, in the very same batch of emails (since I’m +12 hours from the East Coast, I get a whole day’s worth of email first thing in the morning), came a positive reply from an outlet I’ve been trying to pitch for months about a story I’ve been trying to pitch for months. This is no guarantee that I’ll be published, but it’s a big breakthrough and could very well lead to more consistent work in the coming months.
And this is basically what I spend most of my time doing, finding stories anywhere I can, putting together pitches that will grab an editor’s attention and then waiting. The waiting mainly consists of finding more stories and, in this age of constant media, keeping up with what’s going on in the world (i.e. surfing the web and reading content. Also, pro-tip, if you want to improve your writing, start reading more, find an author you like, and copy their style until you find your own.).
On the whole, I really can’t complain. I love doing this and, while I may not be making much money at the moment, I know that I can write as well if not better than many others (present post possibly excluded) who are doing it for a living so I know I can be a success if I put in the time. And I don’t mind doing that. As with many jobs, success depends as much on whom you’re connected with as how good you are at your job.
I’ll end this spiel here with the promise to return to a non-insect and more Bali-related topic next week. Thanks for tuning in and make sure to check out this week’s Frying Pan Podcast. It’s our best yet.
Rowan also wrote a piece a while back on the remnants of Dutch colonial bureaucracy in Indonesia. You can check it out here.
So last week I had to get ants off my mind, which now seems a little absurd and entirely self-indulgent but since I promised a Part II, I guess I should follow through. And really this should be the more interesting of the two because not only am I going to include some videos but I’m also hoping to make some more insightful commentary. Granted, said commentary surrounds ants and their behavior, but there are some parallels between the eusocial insects and things here in Bali.
The first has to do with traffic and driving.
Now, I’ve written in these pages about the traffic in Jakarta, and while the traffic in Bali isn’t quite as bad it’s not exactly flowing. Many of the roads are too narrow, the ones that are wide are over-crowded with both cars and motorbikes, and, most relevantly, drivers here have their own ‘style’ of driving.
This ‘style’, for lack of a better term, is both aggressive and passive. It ignores much of the standard rules, like staying within one’s lane and/or waiting for a clear opening to enter a road, and yet it has its own conventions. For example, a high-beam flash that would ‘I’m yielding to you’ in the US, here means the opposite; essentially, ‘Get out of my way.’
But amidst this significant amount of confusion, ignorance of traffic protocol (because despite the actions of drivers here, the written rules of the road are just about the same), and the limited road-space that only becomes more limited with the lack of parking (cars (or buses or) can be parked seemingly anywhere here; on the curb/sidewalk, on streets that should be one-way but aren’t, behind a row of already parked motorbikes… you get the picture), it all works. The point I’m trying to make here is that Indonesian driving; especially the way motorbikes crawl through traffic at stoplights and find spaces unusable for cars ,is a lot like watching ants. The patterns can be hard to visualize or understand but they’re there and there are, maybe not rules, but guidelines. It might look messy and confusing and borderlines dangerous, but there’s a system. I think.
Next, I want to return to a book I cited in Ants: Part I and one that I’ll refer back to again, Bali: Sekala & Niskala, by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. In Eiseman’s chapter on cremations he writes:
“When the big day is finally picked, an unbelievably complex, interlocking series of preparations is set into motion. And yet, in spite of the thousands of little details that must be attended to, there is no checklist of tasks, no boss who assigns jobs and see that they are carried out. Somehow it all works out, in typical cooperative Balinese fashion.”
Now, I mentioned above that ants are ‘eusocial’, which, according to Wikipedia is the “highest level of organization of animal sociality,” and because of this, ants are able to achieve pretty remarkable things. Here’s where the videos come in:
(Ok so no videos at the moment because of some technical difficulties but here are some snapshots from the vids)
So while it’s always dangerous to compare things like a human society, with all its intricacies and conscious thought, with that of a chemically-automated social structure (Maybe? Don’t ants communicate with chemicals? But I guess so do we in a lot of ways, too. Right?), but I’m going to do just that.
Balinese society – especially the way in which everything gets done with no outright or imposing leadership and how everyone knows their task, seemingly without being told – looks a lot like ants to me.
So there you have it; just around 1000 words on Ants and Bali. I’ll be moving away from Formicidae-related topics next week so stay tuned and make sure to check out my podcast with Louis Rive. It’s called The Frying Pan, and this week we’ll be talking about the frustrations of foreign bureaucracies which is a lot more interesting than the bureaucracy itself.