Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Here comes the sun

My favorite song a few years ago was George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun". I was going through a terribly difficult time, emerging from big-d Depression, which I am convinced to my core was sparked by a sexual assault which had occurred 10 years prior. Through the help of a support group for people with eating disorders, I was finally coming to understand that what I had experienced was not a result of personal failures, but was a totally normal, in many ways medical, response to trauma. A natural, health response to conditions outside of my control; NOT a personal inability to 'deal with' what I had been facing.

The past few weeks I have felt completely nuts with all of the myriad responsibilities I have taken on as part of my PhD coursework, fellowship commitments, and a grant proposal project that has become very, very dear to me. Somewhere in the midst of everything, I lost sight of just how precious this all is to me. I knew it was a tremendous privilege to be contributing to things about which I am truly, deeply passionate, but I stopped having fun with it. I was waking up before 5AM each morning, trying to get a jump on my workload, and going to bed each night with a to-do list for the next day running ticker-tape style through my brain. I was getting everything done, but feeling like a total failure regardless. If only I was a faster worker, if only there were less bureaucracy, if only I could function without sleep...then somehow I would be able to get everything done to a level of quality and at a pace which would make me feel competent.

Last night I came home utterly strung out. I have been fighting a nasty cold/infection thing for a week, not sleeping well, and was just totally cranky and grumpy and not so fun to be around. My partner, ever brilliant and wise, insisted on a 9PM bedtime for Bethy, and I didn't wake up till 8AM. And the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and I am happy.

In the midst of the paperwork, the writing, the commitments, I have to remember that working flat-out is just going to make me feel like a failure. My self-worth gets too much wrapped up in my academic output; I become the sum of my work, not the sum of my character. Just like in the midst of my Depression/recovery et al, I have to realize that I can't control external circumstances. I can only attend to what's on the inside, recognize that I have to put tight boundaries around what I can commit to in my personal and professional roles right now, and give up the idea that I can be Superwoman. Time to hunker down, say "no" to things, and get shit done while taking care to be wary of unrealistic expectations.



Thursday, October 20, 2011

Buried under books

Help. Overwhelmed. What's up?!, week 8 of the semester!

Sun and outdoors, I miss you. Sleep, I miss you too. (And yet, so, so much happier in grad school than EVER before in my entire life).

Back to class.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Is there a 'write' way to Help?

My mind has wandered back to the movie The Help several times since I saw it a few weeks ago. While there are several good reasons to ruminate on the film and the story it portrays- the implications for race relations, the tenuous politics of friendships that become strained as lifestyle choices and values evolve, inter-generational relationships and expectations- my mind keeps wandering back to a comment author Kathryn Stockett made in an interview with Entertainment Weekly (to which, G-d help me, I simply can't seem to find the link). She said something similar to her comment to Time, “. . . On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told."

Stockett's sentiment has been rolling around in my head as I have been compiling notes for a literature review I am building out around some of the work I did in Indonesia this summer. I keep coming back to this feeling, not with just my Indonesia project but with my work more generally, that my writing about someone else's life experiences for the purpose of highlighting larger abuses of power, structural violence, and injustice in some ways undermine the very goals- equity of opportunity, safety, dignity- that drive me to pursue the type of research I conduct. Is it really possible to say that you are writing about the abuses inflicted on another for the ostensible purpose of changing the social and institutional structures that led to their subjugation without appropriating their voice, undermining their agency, in the process? Is it possible to say that you are telling someone's story because they lack the access, privilege and resources to do so, without girding and reenforcing the social systems that denied them access in the first place? Is it equitable in any way shape or form that my gathering 'data' about women facing horrific violence results in my getting funded to continue to do similar research, while they have no benefit beyond the small trinkets I give to their children after we chat?

In the bigger sense, I do think that it is vital to provide accurate information about abuses of power to those that can change the state of play; policy makers, international funding agencies, political leaders. But I also think that researchers must proceed with EXTREME caution in doing so- I know that I have been too quick to jump to conclusions in a million different ways, some with messy, messy personal consequences, others, thankfully, that I have kept in my own head and had my assumptions uprooted by further investigation before putting pen to paper. No matter how 'accurate' the data (quotes because I think a decent debate could be had about the subjectivity of one's experiences- accurate is open to interpretation), no matter how meticulous you are in your field notes, no matter your level of expertise with the language, no matter your cultural fluency, no matter how much you 'situate' your knowledge (Haraway 1987), the most perilous danger I think those of us who claim to engage in feminist research face is that of appropriating the voices of those who we are seeking to give voice to.

Feminist researchers have debated and discussed this extensively (some of the most influential on my thinking include Patai 1991, Rose 1997, and Nagar & Geiger 2007), and their words, along with Stockett's discussions on her feelings about writing a book in the voice of her family's maid, have given me a lot of pause for thought as I begin to put pen to paper about some of the work I did in Indonesia. I agree with Stockett- I do want this story told- but I want to make sure that I am not undermining the agency of the women who were generous enough to give me insight and access to their world in the process of my trying to be a vehicle to help improve that world.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Home confusing home

Fab fiance and I just returned from a whirlwind wedding planning weekend in Dayton and Cincinnati, our respective hometowns. I left Cincinnati at age 18, drowning in self-doubt, depression, and a desperation to leave behind the identity- fat, kid-from-divorced-home-amidst-LeaveItToBeaver-neighborhood, overly politically active, angry, and reeling from the fact that I had no emotional tools at my disposal to "process", Dr. Phil style, the sexual assault I experienced at age 15. I was escaping my identity- equal parts foisted upon me and embraced by me as a means of justifying my anger towards the things around me which I could not control- just as much as I was escaping the small-ish town in which I grew up.

I left Ohio shaking my hands to the heavens, Miss Scarlett style, swearing, "As God as my witness, I will never live in Ohio again!" Joke's on me that no fewer than three weeks into my freshman year of college at American University that I met a lovely boy from less than 40 minutes up the road from my hometown, fell in love with him the next year, and am now preparing to walk down the aisle with him in 54 weeks (but who's counting?). Dreaming up the ways we plan to show off our shared heritage, I am again and again being struck by the wonderful aspects of my (gulp...I have tried to shrug this label for nine years) hometown. The beautiful art deco architecture, the lush foliage thick with deer (much to the chagrin of the Oakwood city council), and, yes, the affordable cost of housing. My fiance's home village claims one of the best school districts in the country, and running around the track with him and my in-laws this weekend I couldn't help feeling that I was cheating any potential offspring out of the opportunity for a tremendous future by completely shutting my mind to the possibility of returning. Of course, it's not just good schools and the prospects of home ownership that appeal, it's the fact that I emotionally mark my seasons with Cincinnati's many alluring festivals- trips to the not-so-scary haunted hay ride, cutting down fresh Christmas trees (sorry environmentalist pals), Khron's Conservatory spring flower shows, and the annual summer 14 hour pilgrimage in search of the nearest beach.

As I write this five days before my 28th birthday, I have the feeling that perhaps I have settled into an identity that no longer has to be defined simply by what I am not- namely, the overweight, over defensive, over eager to define a new me girl I was when I packed up my red LeBaron convertible and rolled out of town in a cloud of dust and defensiveness nine years ago. Perhaps I am not ready to head 'home' today, but I am grateful to embrace the possibility that my new found sense of self can stick, regardless of where I call home.
Enjoying the view of the Ohio river.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lessons learned week three of Ph.D. program

Above and beyond the insights gleaned from 50 hours of reading over the past three weeks, here's a few other epistemological gems I've picked up since embarking on my Ph.D. adventure:

Diet Mountain Dew and jogging are not sufficient substitutes for sleep.

Learning Russian is very hard. Learning Russian via online course at NOVA just plain sucks.

Reading glasses are the shit. Not only do they help your eyes not feel like they are full of sand after 8 hours of writing and reading, as a bonus you look kinda like a naughty librarian.

Paying attention to the expiration date on your Groupons is difficult when you have 98 other things that feel urgent. Result? Inconvenient fun: Captain America last Sunday night, followed by swanky dinner at Park & 14th on Thursday. Who's the super smart hero with a plan now, Steve Rogers? Umm, yeah, right. Not me.

Life is short, sweet and precious. Spending 85% of it under florescent lights reading can vastly increase your appreciation for the finer things of sleep.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Remembering September 12th

The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has felt like an ominous looming presence on the horizon for the past few years, an inevitable emotional hurdle that as a nation we would have to collectively catapult at some point, a marker that, despite the feeling that the attacks were just yesterday, in fact 3,652 days have passed since the towers fell and our shiny bubble sense of security was savagely, irrevocably burst.

On my way home yesterday I passed by the high school up the street from my house. The front display read "Remember 9/11", and was surrounded by small American flags that had been placed all around it. Not 15 minutes drive from the Pentagon, the possibility of anyone in my neighborhood forgetting 9/11 seems fairly slim.

9/11 is stuck in my mind in a million ways. The yellow sheets I went to sleep snuggled in on 9/10, the smell of the Yankee Sunflower candle next to my bed the same color of the friendly sheets. The phone call from my mom, waking me up the next morning (yep, late sleeper), frantically telling me to turn on the TV. Spending the day with friends, watching in horror the unfolding coverage as we waited for their kids to come home from school to try to explain the previously unimaginable.

Looking at the high school's sign, however, memories from the day after the attacks is what came to mind. September 12, 2001, for a brief, fleeting moment, Americans became a "We". E pluribus unum- out of many cries of desperation, loss, shock and pain, Americans became One nation, committed to moving forward despite the horrific assault We had endured. We may have disagreed vehemently on what 'moving forward' should look like, what direction in which We should head, nor the manner in which We would progress, but We were united in a commitment to assist one another along the way. We wept for those we never knew, shuddered in terror at the prospect that those we love could, indeed, be taken from us in an instant by threats heretofore imagined only by those employed to dream up nightmare scenarios in order to protect Us. We came together in synagogues, mosques, churches, Rotary club halls, and on the steps of Congress. The metal of the smoldering towers melded us together in ways that no bipartisan piece of legislation ever could.

Today, sitting in the comfort of my office only a few miles from those same steps where our legislators came together 2,652 days ago to sing "God Bless America" as we looked heavenward and questioned how to move past our pain, I wonder how 'we' can become that We America became on September 12, 2001. Last night members of Congress gathered again on the steps of the Capitol to pay tribute to the victims of the attacks. I wonder, though, whether the spirit of unity lasted when they went back to their offices. It feels like we are more divided then ever. Ten years ago the towers crashed, and it brought out the best in us at the worst of times. Looking out at the landscape today- the economy in tatters, the unemployment rate threatening to collapse, and the American Dream of white picket fences and 2.3 children beginning to seem as distant a memory as going through airport security with our shoes on- I wonder what calamity it would take to bring Us together again. Why must we wait for the worst to come to muster the best in ourselves? To draw together as a We, rather than point to the 'other' for the problems facing the 'me'? When slammed into rock bottom, We drew together to climb back out. Just because we are heading back down at a more insidious rate of decline, can we not see that bottom is where we are headed once more? Perhaps the threat today is not hard metal misappropriated mid-air, but hard heads intent on blaming our descent on someone rather than finding a way to break the fall.

I can't imagine ever forgetting 9/11; the shock of the day, the pain and horror of the days and weeks to follow. I hope to always remember 9/12, the day We came together.

After 10 years, life goes on. So can We. Let's do it together.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Even if your inbox is still full

A friend once commented, attempting to calm me down mid new-grad-student freak-out, that the goal of life isn't to die with your inbox empty. Regardless of our jobs or roles, it's so easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of data, tasks, family obligations, work, social commitments, and general to-dos of life. This is week two of my life as a Ph.D. student, and I've lost count of how many times I have felt completely smothered by the goals I am setting for myself over the next four years. I have so much I want to say, so much I want to learn. I want to publish on sexual violence, I want to contribute to policy conversations and debates on rape in the context of war, I want to help innovate sustainable solutions to gender-based many things to which I hope to be able to make a valid contribution, and I have found myself growing panicked at the thought that there just are not enough hours, not enough brain cells, not enough energy.

And then, in the midst of the din, I get an email from a department chair that one of my fellow students, Franki Rutherford, passed away last night from pancreatic cancer. My brain falls silent, the chorus of self-doubt and overwhelm hushes to a dull hum in the background of my consciousness.

Last fall, Franki and I were in a feminist research methods class together, and I constantly found myself challenged by her comments. She was a spitfire of a woman; headstrong, determined, opinionated, and an absolutely unstoppable advocate for equality. She was researching women faculty and leadership appointments at our university, and was completely fired up over the disparities in access and opportunities available for women within the upper echelons of university administration. She shared openly her discouragement that so much gender disparity still exists, despite the vast improvements from when she first entered the work force three decades ago. I could identify with her frustration. She rallied other students to get pissed too, the type of righteous indignation that can move mountains.

I have to admit though, I often felt overcome, almost resigned, when hearing from Franki how far away American women still are from equality. We have it pretty great- relatively speaking to our female counterparts around the globe in war torn and/or economically developing countries- but if we still are fighting an uphill battle for simple pay equity and the right to not get solicited for bedtime fun at work, how can we possibly turn the tide against the gender-based violence that engulfs so many of us? It made me tired just thinking about the journey ahead, but it made Franki pissed off in a more productive manner; she was ready to lead the charge, rally the troops, and storm the castle.

When I learned of her death this morning, I was overcome remembering how vibrant and committed she was when I saw her this spring. Still fired up about her research, ready to take down the Man, eager to usher in a new dawn for women. And here I am today, reading an email that the charge she led will have to go on without her. I think of all the dreams and hopes she was pouring into the struggle she cared so much about, how she didn't shrink in the face of the insurmountable odds stacked against women around the world, and I am inspired.

The goal is not to get it all done before the lights go off. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to say our piece as best we can while the spotlight shines upon us, and hope that those who hear us will carry on the tune once we exit the stage.

Prayers to the Rutherford family, much love to you all at this moment. Franki, you will be missed.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Batten down the hatches;thar she blows!

Is it bad that I am laughing a little at how much DC freaks out in preparation for a storm? Not to be a dick, but we aren't getting a direct hit and we are far enough inland that we don't have to worry about storm swells, et al. Having lived in Miami for a few years, this just seems like overkill, people.

By all means, stock up on your bottled water, your radio batteries, and your canned goods, but puh-lease, remember that in this time of peril you should take full advantage of the fact that Pepco will not be able to get the power on for the foreseeable future, that you will not have to work remotely this weekend because the internet will be down, and that you and your significant other won't have to pick up the cell phones because you can blame it on a down tower.

So, here's my challenge to you, oh beloved adopted city of mine: Stock your wine shelves along with your water supply, grab some trashy magazines along with your flashlights, and enjoy the excuse to watch the 1967 animated series of Spiderman with your friends until the power goes out (seriously, you don't even have to tell anyone).

Unplug, unwind, hole up, hang out, enjoy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shitty places to be during an earthquake in DC

Just survived my first (hopefully last!) earthquake. Coincidence that the Virginia midterm primaries were today? Perhaps not, my conspiracy theorist friends (I'm sure this had to do with the fact that the DC area is so liberal, right Rick Perry?).

I was at Home Depot in the paint department, surrounded by really heavy gallons of paint stacked two stories high on shelves wildly shaking, which got me thinking about other shitty places to be in during a 5.9 quake...

*Metro under Capitol Hill stop, as there is a risk that Tea Party members will flood into station screaming, "It's the Apocalypse! Sarah and Rick were right!!!"
*Having sex with a random one night stand who turns out to be sketchy: "See baby, I can make the earth shake."
*Bench pressing weights at Fitness First in Bethesda- not only are you under a huge barbell, but you are in a basement surrounded by a bunch of iron and young professionals trying to look cool while being totally freaked out.
*Having heart surgery.
*White House Situation Room with Cheney- Osama might be dead, but perhaps we could come up with a way to blame this shit on Al Qaeda.

Keep it shakin', friends!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Traditional American Pastime

The second week I was in Bali, one of my newfound friends and I started this (very had to be there) joke about "traditional Balinese 'insert item here'". Each year hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Bali to get a glimpse of Balinese tradition- whether that means crashing a funeral (yes, this actually, truly happens) in order to witness a traditional Balinese cremation or donning a crappy beach sarong and heading with your bulky camera to Pengerebongan "trance" festival (more on this in an upcoming post).

This almost lustful drive for an 'authentic' Balinese experience has had some interesting consequences; tourism has driven mutations of Balinese culture to the point that, according to Degung, if you ask 'what is tourism?' and 'what is culture?', you get the same answer.

Example, you ask? Take Galungan: once again according to Degung, the ceremony used to involve several tantric elements, including the sacrifice of animals. However, having the streets run with blood wasn't something that was considered to be much of a crowd pleaser for us folk of Western origin, so the 'tradition' today no longer includes those more visceral elements. Another case in point would be the 'traditional' Balinese massages that you can get at the countless spas that dot Kuta, Seminyak and Sanur beaches. In Balinese tradition, to wash another person's feet- at least, someone who isn't dead yet- would be to lose one's dignity. Feet are considered the most unclean part of the body, and yet, in the 'traditional' Balinese massages available for about US$6 an hour, most spas include a foot bath where the masseuse washes the patron's feet, often in a flower laden tub. This 'tradition' has nothing to do with anything evolving out of Balinese tradition, but has come into being as part of the constructed 'culture' in response to tourists' perceptions of Bali.

The (admittedly lame) joke evolved out of this hijacking/appropriation of 'traditional Balinese culture', and quickly everything was 'traditional': if nothing is traditional, clearly, friends, everything is traditional!

"Look, a traditional Balinese pothole!"

"A traditional Balinese cellphone store!"

"Traditional Balinese McDonald's!"

"Traditional Balinese sex tourism!"
(G-d bless Kuta)

And my personal favorite: "Traditional Balinese exploitation!"

All of this got me to thinking, what's traditionally American? As my culture shock continues to abate (well, sort of...I have yet to cook American food, eating much tempeh and cooking much curry), I've been on the hunt for things emblematic of my culture. So, what better way to celebrate being home then heading out to see my Redlegs play the Nats? Two really bad ball teams + one lovely fab fiance + one view of DC skyline= bliss.

If only they served nasi campur at the ballpark. Just doesn't quite have the same ring as peanuts and cracker jacks, I guess.

Very, very American pastime: Evan, Fab Fiance and I with Abe Lincoln.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Here Comes the Culture Shock

Family wedding time!! Fab fiance and I have covered half the continental US in our trusty Honda since he picked me up on Monday morning from JFK. We're tucked in at the comfy Red Roof Inn in beautiful (and very nice smelling- who knew?) Minnesota, ready to celebrate fab fiance's brother's wedding.

My brain is spinning with culture shock and jet lag, compounded with 18 hours of road trip. Sitting at a bar across from my lovely soon-to-be-sister-in-law my mind was reeling. 3 days ago I was zooming through remote Bali talking to women about lack of access to clean drinking water, and 30 minutes ago my primary concern turned to whether to do acrylics on my nails for this weekend's nuptial celebrations. The stark contrast has me spinning.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Home again

Just flew back into JFK this morning, slept off the jetlag and enjoying the delicious avocado salad and view at my friend Adam's house. Much as I am grateful to see hot water, dairy products and my fiance, I'm really ambivalent about being back. I feel so overwhelmed by the pace of life and general hubbub of consumer lifestyle...already I have a shopping list put together of shit that really doesn't matter: hairdye, super duper conditioner to avoid split ends, etc. Not that these things aren't nice or looking good isn't important, it's just that all of the ways I interact with the world are dictated by performing the outward roles I embody-heterosexual partner, upper middle class white urban-ite, graduate student- and these roles feel much more defined and rigid here than they do when I am in a setting outside of my regular beaten path.

Much more on this to come.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Broken radiator, fried brain

I want to say so much about the past 48 hours, but frankly am just too pooped to write anything analytically coherent at the moment. Past two days I circumnavigated a small island with my friend R., had an amazing conversation with her about our shared passion for researching post-genocide gender dynamics and her dreams of documenting the experiences of victims of '65 on film (let me know if you're interested in giving a cool $25K to fund this...Bueller? Bueller?), then today went with an attorney who was one of my research informants to her village about 2 hours outside of Depasar. Well, 2 hours, that is, if your SUV's radiator doesn't have a big hole in it.

Long story short: This lovely legal aid attorney had invited me out to her village because she wanted me to see how the water conflict here (several remote villages are having their water diverted for tourism purposes) is impacting rural women, and hear a bit more about her activism on behalf of domestic violence victims. I will get more in depth with the issues around DV once I am back in the States and writing with more than 3 braincells, but for now let me leave it at 1) the mystique of the 'Balinized' woman- bare breasted, quiet and compliant, paired with 2) the pressures of tourism, patrilinial inheritance, and 3) the World Bank's and other international interventions following the fall of Soeharto to strengthen local customary law have left women that find themselves in violent marriages with very little recourse. Their husbands retain custody of their kids, they lose their family home once they marry, if they bring a claim against an abusive husband they are seen as attacking the 'culture' (because a woman is supposed to follow and serve her husband, not question him, period- much less publicly), and they have little economic independence because they are responsible for hearth, home and temple, making ritual offerings sometimes from pre-dawn to midnight when prepping for major ceremonies, and a large portion of the day when there are no major upcoming ceremonies, just the day-to-day responsibilities of keeping up the family temples.

At 9AM, my friend M, acting as my intrepid interpreter, and I went with my attorney pal to her village. About an hour into the (very) bumpy ride, the hood of the car starting smoking. Now, many things in Bali tend to smoke- burning trash, most of my new friends- hell, even I have started causally smoking clove cigarettes (only for participant observation purposes, clearly), but a car hood smoking seemed an occasion for a bit more alarm than the other smoldering things I have come across on this island. One hour, one beer (for M.) one begged use of warung owner's bathroom (for me) and several phone calls later, the attorney's cousin pulled up in a second SUV and we continued our journey, sans smoking car.

Meeting with some of the women who are caring for seven children with no access to direct water was really eye opening in some ways, and in others it was a little underwhelming. This sounds really, really fucked up (because it is), but I feel like in between my work in Miami, my time in Cambodia, and the research and reading I have done at school, that seeing yet another woman being crushed under the burden of corporate exploitation, government mismanagement, and societal indifference was just another brick in the wall. The list of injustices that so many people face, not just in developing countries but even in the US, is just so staggering that when confronted with another living, breathing,and, most terrifying, feeling example of the havoc wreaked by human indifference and corporate/government greed what I mostly feel is impotent.

I'll go way more into detail, I promise, once I am well-slept and slightly recuperated from trying to pack too much research into too short a time, but for now I just want to confess that I am feeling burnt out, and then compacting the burnt out with feelings of guilt about feeling burnt out (yes, there is a hole in the bucket, dear Liza). Here I am, about to lie down to sleep in a safe, mostly bug free room with access to clean- even hot!- running water and safe drinking water, unencumbered by unwanted pregnancies, multiple children abandoned by neighbors that just couldn't handle another mouth to feed when their husband died and they needed the security of a new marriage, and looking forward to going shopping and relaxing at a spa tomorrow, despite my complete misgivings about indulging in the tourism industry here. Where the hell do I get off feeling overwhelmed and upset by the amount of pain other people are feeling?

Honestly, I don't know. And I don't know what to do about it. And I don't know how to be a part of unraveling all of the interrelated webs that keep women trapped in cycles of oppression, poverty and ignorance. The best I can do, at 1:18AM, ensconced in my comfy bed, slathered in my 20% DEET bug cream to ensure that my most frustrating experience with Dengue fever will be trying to spell it, is to say honestly that I don't know how to help, but, perhaps in at least saying it, testifying to the truth that these issues are so much bigger than anyone of us, is at least a step in the right direction.

I started this little blog project because I wanted to give myself a space to publicly say I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL I AM DOING because perhaps, just maybe, you might feel the same way, too. I am not superwoman, and never will be no matter the pressures I feel from school, work, family, comercials on TV, what-have-you, to try to be more than I really am. The problem is, I wish I could be superwoman enough to be able to do more than press RP$50,000 into the hands of the two women who took the time to welcome me into their home (perhaps in the hopes that I would do such a thing) to hear a bit about their lives. Sitting on a front porch of their family compound, looking into the eyes of a woman who lacks even the hope of access to the things I take for granted that make it possible for me to lead a self-determined life- water, health care, education, birth control, a government that I truly believe in some ways has my best interests at hearth (even if it is at the expense of the rest of the planet and its people)- every part of me felt powerless.

At this point I even question my desire to help. Interventions seem to have so many unintended consequences that I question what mess might come from some well-intended person deciding that she knows how to 'fix' what's missing in these women's lives.

Lots more to say on all of this- intervention, self-determined aid and resources, ripple effects of government corruption and, so much.

For the moment, however, I am just going to have to take it the same way we did on the way back to Depasar in the aforementioned smoking SUV: one mile at a time, stopping very frequently to refill my reservoir because I can't be any good to anyone while I am so burnt out.

At least the rice fields along the route offered beautiful backdrops for our many stops to pour water into the radiator.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

GO WILL GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So in awe of my fiance's dedication, hard work, commitment and all around brilliance!!! I am so lucky to be his partner!

GOOD LUCK WILL! Kick ass, take names!!! The Maryland Bar won't know what hit it!

11th Hour Switcheroo

The past five days have been a total whirlwind, simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, confusing, and fun.

The background: I came to Bali because of the opportunity to test drive the ethnographic methods I learned in the classroom over the past year. I got to spend some time doing this in Cambodia, but walked away from that experience feeling strongly that to even attempt to 'do' this bizarre, wonderful, confusing thing called ethnography I would really, really have to spend some time with my research subjects and gain more intimate knowledge of the social world around them to be able to garner quality data and have enough context to be able to analyze it with any level of assurance. It's not about being able to claim that you 'know' something about a given social phenomena, so much as what Donna Haraway (1988) calls "situated knowledges"- given X and Y context, I can say that this and that hold true. I wanted to have the chance to be able to attempt to situate myself in a given context and give this whole ethnography thing a whirl. I knew coming in that five weeks really isn't enough to do this in a very rigorous way, but I knew that being able to conduct my research under my mentor would give me some good lessons on how to operate once I go into the field research portion of my PhD.

In the many months of prep leading up to this field experience, I knew for certain that I wanted to study gender-based violence in Bali. I wanted to know what reverberations were still happening as a result of the 1965 mass violence against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), what ways poverty and 'development' were shaping discourses related to women's empowerment, and understand the legal culture of gender-based violence intervention. I wasn't sure what my research question would center on exactly, but had the above questions framing my thinking as I got on the plane. Within the first 10 days I was here, however, I kept getting this gut feeling that I should pursue trying to understand why a certain group of activists were working to gain recognition of the '65 mass violence. This is politically dangerous work, with great risk of personal harm. Home visits from the police and military intelligence, government officials questioning your family, and an overarching silence on behalf of the population. Most speech about the incidents are indirect, happening within family compounds and whispers and gossips, information passed down to children about missing generations of grandpas. To approach the violence through a systematic, social science type inquiry is exceedingly rare, and I wanted to find out what the driving factors were motivating the activists with whom I was in contact. So I went down that rabbit hole, and things quickly got more murky and more politically complicated.

For starters, I am conducting research along with six other grad students. We all have different topics, but several of us are working with the same group of informants- this activist group- but about different questions. I thought early on that it would be ok, since we were all asking such disparate questions, but by last Wednesday I felt like I was going in circles. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I was talking with Leslie and Degung about the quandary, and said had I realized earlier on I would have switched directions and pursued the gender-based violence path I had originally intended following. "So switch it!!!!" was the enthusiastic response they both gave me.

Ummm...ok. I had learned a bit about an extremely progressive domestic violence law from one of the visiting scholars, an attorney who heads up Legal Aid in Bali. Leslie, Degung and I dialogued out what research questions would shed light on deeper issues of gender dynamics out in regards to this law using the population I had access to as informants in the short time I had remaining here: the pragmatic meets the theoretical.

So, here I am, five days, four interviews, two ad hoc focus groups, and much internet browsing of legal documents later, exhausted, slightly strung out, and presenting on my 'research'- in quotes because at this point I feel like I just have talked to people without really doing any analysis on the data- tonight to the community I have been living in for the past month. Holy short deadline Batman.

While this hasn’t been the easiest thing I have ever done and I think I should have my head examined for switching at such a late date, I think that my circuitous field experience is actually fairly emblematic of field research in general. As grad students we put together these beautiful, painstakingly constructed research proposals, pleading with departments and funding agencies for money to carry out the research, and then plunk ourselves into our chosen site. And then the "oh crap, what the hell am I doing?" reality of the fact that you are sleeping under a mosquito net in someone's home who you don't speak the same langauge as and tomorrow you are getting on a motorbike with someone you have only met once to go interview their aunt about her feelings about something quite painful hits you. You go back to square one, look over your funding proposal and say, ‘oh yeah, that's what I was going to ask’, then show up at said aunties house and realize that you are distractedly concerned about if she boiled the water for the World Health Organization travel advisory recommended five minutes, and, come to think of it, you are a little sleepy too and can't quite remember just why you decided you had the brains and balls to carry this out in the first place.

Going in circles of self-doubt seems to be just as much a part of research as is the actual interviews, field notes, participant observations (read: smoking a lot of clove cigarettes and learning to play the Beatles "Here Comes the Sun" on a ukulele), coding, processing, and analyzing are. Part of learning to ‘do’ research is learning to manage the highs of a great meeting where your brain is firing between what the person just told you and Foucault’s theories of panoptic schema with the despair of staring at your field notes and realizing that you can’t possibly turn what’s on the page and swirling in your head into a book because you are just too stupid and unqualified and everyone hates you and the jig is up and you should go get a job at Wendy’s because clearly the only person who thinks you are smart is your dog and that’s only because you feed her on a regular basis and she eats cat poop so what does she really know anyway.

I’m completely thrilled that I took the chance and switched last minute, I feel like I have at least come to a place of being comfortable living with the discomfort of walking between these two extremes. More on the actual emergent themes that have come up through my interviews in the next few posts.

Next step: Finishing PowerPoint prep, then 5pm presentation to the community. Current time: 1:46pm.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: Fun New Travel Edition!

In my last post I did the most "duh, you dumb moron don't do that shit" thing I could possibly do, and in a moment of self-righteous idiocy posted criticisms of my colleagues (a bad idea to begin with) based on rash, ill founded assumptions that made sweeping generalizations of people that, on the whole, I actually admire quite a bit. My last post focused on a really, really shitty experience I had with four people who I have come to regard as friends over the past month, and in my haste to relate the incidents of the evening I felt were completely unjust and horrific, I lumped several frustrations I had with my overall experiences here in Bali into one general criticism of my fellow grad students studying here with me. Not only was this just a generally shitty thing to do to people who have consistently gone out of their way to be nice to me, my criticisms were founded on a few very minor general irritations about things which were absolutely none of my business in the first place.

In the original version of my Tourism Apartheid post, I wrote the following:

For the past two weeks of our academic program here, I have grown increasingly irritated as my fellow students rent hotel rooms for the evening to study and get hot showers. I have been berating myself for my even bothering to give a crap about it, but for whatever reason it has kept getting under my skin. Stumbling angry and embarrassed through the small street leading to the beach, my nebulous feelings of irritation with my fellow students’ behavior, partnered with the current experience, solidified into a hot anger. Why the f’ck would you come half-way around the world to learn about another culture- and the conflicts rising from horrific, exploitative government mismanagement- only to continuously remove yourself from engaging with people that actually come from/identify with said culture?

In addition to making vast assumptions about others and being just strait up rude, my comments raised several issues of misrepresentation of not just my fellow grad students but also myself.

For starters, the heavy criticisms I levied at my colleagues were based on a very few isolated, minor incidents that I swept into one heap, unto which I poured the gasoline of anger from the club incident. I conflated my mild irritation about our group dynamics with the feelings brought up from my friends being barred access to the Kuta club, and then shot my mouth off in a really, really inappropriate way. This painted the other grad students as being here only to party and indulge in tourist activities, which is not the case and moreover I didn't have any right to throw out this assertion because I have not spent much time with them! I am not super comfortable in group settings, I have always been much more comfortable one on one or with a handful of very intimate, long-standing friends. I turned my own discomfort with the group dynamic into a criticism against people who I really don't know, and if I am really, really honest, I never made a great effort to get to know them, which is truly my loss as they are vibrant, caring people who come from interesting background and have interesting reasons for pursuing research in post-conflict Bali. I criticized- an ungrounded criticism- for coming to other country and not trying to spend time with people from here, but the true criticism should have been self-directed, because I never worked to get to know the people from my own university.

More than the criticisms I levied at my classmates, the bigger issue from a representation standpoint is that in criticizing 'them' (as if six unique individuals who had never met each other prior to a month ago were some unified collective)I positioned myself as some sort of 'authentic' researcher, 'truly' immersed in local culture, more rigorous and legitimate an ethnographer than my fellow travelers. Sheesh. For all of the breath I have wasted- and, likely, all of the people I have annoyed- by talking about the politics and ethics of representation I completely blew it. I have been greatly influenced and cautioned by feminist ethnographers' work on how Western researchers and conflict practitioners come into 'developing' or third world countries to do research and superimpose their own versions of reality on what they are seeing. Even the much beloved Margaret Mead has been criticized for doing this during her time in Bali, and it's something I have tried to be so hyper-aware of that the irony that I ended up blatantly subverting the actions of my colleagues by my own assumptions would be almost comical if it didn't so glaringly speak to larger methodological and ethical flaws I clearly need to work out in my own thinking and actions.

So, where to go from here? For starters, cleaning up my own side of the street, to borrow 12-step parlance, involved frank inventory of where I had fallen off the beam: being critical of others rather than evaluating what my criticisms were hinting at in my own actions; painting myself as a particular 'type' of 'authentic' researcher when, in case this wasn't blatantly clear from earlier posts, I have absolutely no idea 'how' one 'does' ethnography; and, most importantly, not treating others as I would like to be treated. I can't take back what I said (although I did rework the original post to be reflective of the fact that I am being a tourist here just as much as anyone), I can't change that 200 people read my criticisms before I was able to edit the post, and I can't repair the boundaries of trust with my fellow students that I violated through my actions. I have apologized, been willing to listen to their frank critiques of my (mis)representations of myself and them, and to the best of my ability reflected on the ethical and methodological issues called into questions by my actions.

Although I am not relishing the thought of another ten days of (well earned) cold shoulders, in some ways I am truly grateful for my colossal fuck up because I am learning so much from it. Some lessons, like don't post critical shit on a public blog might be fairly obvious, but other things have popped up for me that I think speak to larger issues involved in studying abroad and studying emotionally strenuous material.

One of the reasons I wanted to keep a blog of my experiences abroad is I wanted to have a frank conversation with other students who are considering spending time in post-conflict zones about the upsides and, yes, pitfalls, of engaging in study in emotionally charged situations. Studying away from friends and family is difficult enough to begin with, then to add the challenges of studying subject matter like mass violence or rape (or, if you're really sick like me, you can lump them both together! Whee!) creates even more psychological dissonance and strain. One of the ways I think this strain manifests itself is in tension within the group dynamic. I am absolutely not a psychologist or even a well-traveled student, but in the very limited experiences I have had studying emotionally charged issues be it in a classroom in the US or on a front porch abroad, tensions seem to be expressed in the ways students relate to one another. I can think of at least three examples from my "Gender and Violence" and "Gender and Conflict" classes in the US where groups of us were ready to come to blows with selected individuals in the class who had the uncanny ability to be assholes. (For those of you keeping score at home, I have resolutely claimed the title of designated class asshole for this course. Ten points to me.)

I'm not trying to say that people become scapegoats in these situations, or play off my actions as anything less than a really poor decision. My point is that emotionally tense situations like studying charged subject matter don't always bring out the best in people (even if it's sometimes super amusing, like the guy that consistently referred to vaginas as 'cookie jars' in my "Gender and Conflict" course last fall). When you compound disturbing subject matter with the challenges inherent in studying abroad in a group- not only are you studying with these people, you are living with them, writing with them, researching with them, eating with them, etc- things can get a little gnarly. To have a successful group dynamic I think you really have to be considerate of the fact that people are growing and facing challenges that might not arise at home, not just things like a lack of hot water or (super icky) bugs in your sheets, but also the general growth process that happens when you step out of your comfort zone. I can only speak for myself (a fact I forgot in making the comments in my original post), but I know that over the past four weeks I have come to some uncomfortable realizations about things in my life at home that need to be reevaluated. Stepping away from the day to day of studying, vacuuming, grocery shopping, hanging out with friends, family commitments, etc has given me an uncomfortable amount of space in my head to mull over details of my personal life that need a little tinkering. This is not easy, and I am not the only one in my class having some of these feelings. Being in a group of a bunch of people together for an extended amount of time all reevaluating personal stuff, you have to be a little sensitive to the fact that people are going to be off of their game. The people in my group were sensitive with me. They gave me the utmost understanding and support while I talked through my thinking with them, never bothering to question if they might be looking for a similar sensitive ear. I was arrogant and selfish, consuming myself with reflections about my personal life and not bothering to reflect on how my actions might affect others.

So blogosphere, this is my official mea culpa. I screwed up, I dropped the ball, I fell short of standards of decent human being behavior. Did I learn something along the way? I sure hope so, because I really don't want to have to screw up in this particular way again.

To all those who I offended, my deepest apologies once again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tourism Apartheid

Much thanks to Wiss Alit for permission to post his amazing painting.

Despite the fact that it’s 5:04AM as I write this, having just walked in the door from the shithole known as Kuta Beach, it would be absolutely irresponsible as 1) a budding ethnographer, 2) a trained journalist, and 3) decent human being with a somewhat well-read blog to not quickly put down some of what happened tonight before my sharp memories are dulled by sleep and a deep seated desire to willfully forget much of what I saw this evening.

After a packed day of grant writing, class, and ‘fieldwork’ with a fellow student studying the phenomena/culture of whiteness here (which involved a trip to a spa frequented by locals looking to have a skin bleaching treatment-very, very challenging fieldwork of getting a massage), I headed to Kuta with my friend M. to watch our friend D. play live at one of the Kuta restaurants this evening. D. just released his first album of folksy singer-songwriter music, and I was dying to see him play in a setting a bit more formal than Leslie and Degung’s living room. The show was amazing, augmented even more so by the fact that when D.’s band took a break M. was cajoled into taking a turn at the mic. I had heard both of them play during impromptu jam sessions at Leslie and Degung’s, but watching them under the stars in the rooftop bar, hearing the talent and passion behind both of their music, was really a treat. And it was kinda amazing to see the sheer variety of talent encapsulated in their group of friends that turned up to support D. In addition to M., another guy that I had not previously met got up and did a quick set with hands down the best cover of “Blowing in the Wind” I have ever heard.

Performances were followed by generous rounds of beer and pizza courtesy of the owner since D. was playing. Our revelry was shut down only by the fact that the restaurant was closing and they literally had to kick us out by flicking the lights on and off. Waiters snoozed on the booths downstairs as we slinked out the front onto the sidewalk for more pizza (for the guys) and fizzy water for moi. Once back on M’s bike, it became clear that the traffic was going to be a problem for D. and the others, who were in a car because of the band equipment. We decided to hit the Kuta Apache Reggae club to forgo the traffic until things cleared up a bit, only to find that the club closed about 12 seconds after we arrived. Prowling for live music and a little fun, D. rushed us from one side of the street to the other looking for open bars (most of which cater to drunk tourists and were just getting started at 2am). Coming up short in the clubs that at least tacitly tolerate locals, we headed to one of the gleaming mega clubs blaring pop music at top volume.

This is where things took a turn for the racist and shitty.

We pressed up close to the stairs leading to the sky garden club entrance, only to be patted down by the security guards toting- I shit you not- semi-automatic machine guns. Seriously. I, who was carrying a rather large purse stuffed with ex-pat essentials (antibacterial wipes, bug spray, etc. I left Leslie’s snake bite venom extractor home figuring Kuta was safe enough, at least in that regard), was waved through quickly once the guard saw the bug spray and took away my water bottle. Didn’t want to offend the tourist. My friends, however, did not fare so well. While only my bag was assaulted, D., M., P. and L. were rather intimately patted down from top to bottom- M. actually twice by two different guys. We got the go ahead to press up the stairs towards the entrance, only to be unceremoniously detained by another armed guard. Bahasa Indonesia (the official language) flew back and forth above my head, D. growing visibly upset and M. shooting me a ‘this isn’t going to be good’ raised eyebrow.

The guards pushed my friends back, as I pressed forward. “What’s going on??” I asked D., who, voice rising with every word, shouted back that they couldn’t get in without paying a rather exorbitant- and effectively cost prohibitive, given the average monthly income of most locals- entrance fee that was only imposed on Balinese. “Shit, SHIT!” D. said, as we clamored back down the stairs. “This is SUCH shit!”

What had started as a little light hearted fun to burn off the rest of our post-gig energy had gone terribly sour in the matter of seconds. As we walked, my friends in various states of anger, hurt, and embarrassment, I grew ever more mortified and upset. I had actively been enjoying the fruits of the tourism industry, staying in nice hotels when I first arrived, enjoying inexpensive spa treatments, and reveling in the sun, thinking myself sensitive to the disparities in wealth and privilege between me and my subjects simply because I had familiarized myself with feminist warnings on ethical research. The sense that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing here- research wise and more generally in my partaking of tourism offerings- overwhelmed me.

D. grabbed my hand, eyes wide and reflecting a deep angst and pain that I can only best relate to the look I have seen on the faces of parents searching for a child who has strained off. “This [excluding Balinese] is the culture here Beth! Research this! Write about this! This is our culture!”

The first day of class Degung said, “What is ‘culture’? What is ‘tourism’? Same answer.” The profoundness of this reverberated in my head as D. pleaded with me to write about what I had just seen (which I would have done regardless of his desire for me to do so). Starting back in the early 1900s, Bali became the hotspot for tourism drawing off the romanticized version of “Balinese culture” presented during Dutch colonialism. This ‘culture’ presented was really an idealized, hacked version of the actual traditions and ceremonies meaningful to Bali, pornographic (in that it’s exaggerated representations of what the actual traditions are, presented in a manner for public consumption) and crudely commodified for the enjoyment of tourists. The commodified ‘culture’ was further institutionalized by the likes of Walter Spies and Margaret Mead, who canonized their version of Balinese ‘culture’ through their respective ex-pat and anthropological adventures in Bali, a process that has become known today as the ‘Balinization’ of Bali.

The present day fiesta of all out pimping of Balinese 'culture' was ushered in during the rise of Soeharto’s New Order regime, when international investors were allowed into Indonesia en masse for the first time. As actual- ie, not manufactured- tradition holds one does not live near the beach for various spiritual reasons; coastline property in Bali was cheap for the getting when Soeharto opened the floodgates for international investment. Today, many Balinese cannot even access the beach for the important rituals that must, according to actual tradition, take place there throughout the year because the property has been privatized to the point that locals are unable to access the space. That ‘traditional’ rituals have played such a vital role in propagating the 'Balinized' version of culture meant to attract tourists has actually prevented expression of genuine traditions is ironic. That many Balinese welcome ever increasing amounts of tourism thinking it is vital for the economy- despite the fact that most investors are foreign, pay limited taxes, and pay locals an average salary well below US$100 monthly- is the saddest example of symbolic violence I have seen yet. As M. said to me the first time we went to Kuta, “people don’t realize we’re becoming slaves on our own island.”

Leaving Bourdieu behind and returning to our angry stumble away from the club….D. spent the next several minutes grabbing the arm of any white tourist who would listen to what just happen. A white couple about our age handed him two VIP passes to the very club we had just gotten kicked out of. “That’s not going to do shit for us,” I said, throwing in a quick (not so heartfelt) “thanks anyway” while the guy of the couple tried to explain to D. that the reason I could get in for free was because I was a woman, not because I was white. “If I owned a club, I would do the same thing, man…let the girls in for free, the guys will pay to get in! I only got in free because someone was passing these [VIP passes] out on the sidewalk.”
Yeah. And the only people they were passing them out to were the ones that looked like you and I, my blond headed Caucasian pal.

The five of us continued our hurt, ranting meander towards the beach, each of my friends cursing and muttering while I stewed inside my head. Knowing a bit about gender roles, I can’t help but think that in addition to feeling deeply embarrassed, angry and hurt, my four male friends also felt a bit emasculated. Here they were amongst a bunch of drunk men wildly trying to rub up against drunk women, and they- all of whom were perfect gentleman respectful of the fact that I was engaged and NOT interested in ‘grinding’- had been tossed out of a club in front of (excuse my narcissism) a cute female friend for not being the ‘right’ kind of man. Yes, a Balinese woman would have probably also gotten the boot had she walked in with a bunch of Balinese friends, but I do wonder if a solitary cute Balinese woman on the arm of a buff, drunk Australian would have been shown the door. Last night I saw first-hand the sex tourism that happens in the back alleys of Kuta, and I am dubious that the strict ‘no locals’ door policy extends to the Bali woman offering company to a well-paying tourist eager to keep her happy by buying rounds of shooters from the horrific mega clubs lining the streets of Kuta.

Our walk of shame took us to the main road lining the beach, and D., still angry and a bit buzzed, pointed at M. (who has a U.S. ID card and speaks perfect English) and demanded, “take her to the beach, show her where she’s allowed to go- we probably aren’t even allowed to go out there!” I passed on the 2:30am tour of the beach, knowing that the suggestion had been made simply to further illustrate the chasm of privilege separating me from my friends. Looking to appropriate a tourist space as a quasi-form of asserting ourselves, we plopped into the cushy outdoor furniture of a restaurant that had closed for the evening. In a weapon of the weak-esque move, we joked that we should stay there until a security guard came to kick us out, since none of us (my grad-school stipend self included) could ever afford to sit there when the joint was actually open.

“No future! Bali has no future with this kind of shit!” P. said. “Bali has a future,” M. replied ruefully, “It’s the Balinese that have no future.”

There were flowers, these beautiful little white and yellow ones that are ubiquitous every tourist place I have been near, strewn across the sofa where M. had plunked himself. Tucking one behind his ear, he turned to me and said, “You should wear one like this…then you’ll be traditional Balinese too!” He grabbed the flower and flung it away like something rotten. “This thing is bad luck. Shit. Bad luck flower.”

I was confused. Nothing I had heard about to this point involved bad luck flowers, especially as these ones were everywhere you looked, including on my fingernails from the manicure I had at the tourist beach my first day in Bali.

“Bad luck flower?” I asked.

“Yeah. Because everything they get put on brings us bad luck.”

Oh. Right.

The feelings that this experience brought up for me, as both a graduate student in sociology with a commitment to ethnography and as a (mostly) decent human being are really, really complicated and very uncomfortable. I ventured out on a limb, sitting in the relative quiet at 4am while draped on the café chairs we had appropriated, to ask what the experience had felt like for my friends.

M. turned to me, looked me full in the eyes and said, “It’s like being raped.”

Now, M. knows full well my personal experience with rape, as well as my scholarship on the subject, and did not make the comment lightly. I actually think it’s a rather apt metaphor: at its most basic level, rape is an appropriation of one’s ability to determine what, when, and with whom one does with one’s body. It’s a subjugation of the self, the very core of who you are and your right to determine your actions. It’s the rapist asserting power over the raped for the purpose of increasing the rapist’s power. For these reasons, rape fits as a framework for understanding the evening’s events and the larger structures of tourism operating here in ‘paradise’.
First off, the industry is feeding off the labor and resources of the island, squelching the ability of Balinese to determine what is right for their future(s), and limiting their ability to make decisions as natural resources and land become ever scarcer and ever more expensive. Moreover, the tourism industry has evolved here in such a way that it only increases the power of those at the top- generally international investors- while undermining the power of those being asked to give their labor and natural resources to support the industry.

I’m not relating this story to you to get you to decide to never visit Bali, or to always double check that your hotel pays the busboys and room maids a living wage (although heck, why not?!), but rather to raise the issues laid bare in that moment of denied access- identity, economy, gender, and that ever nebulous concept of ‘culture’- up for larger discussion. Things are not always as they seem, even in paradise.

The contrast between there at the club and now, lying in my bed typing at 6:00am while hearing the sounds of early morning chanting at the temple, is jarring. I’m here in a place billed as tourism heaven, but the emotions stirred up by the night’s events have made me angry as hell.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Author's note re: use of names

On recent posts you have probably noticed that most people are listed simply by a single initial. I wanted to give you a quick note on the reasoning behind this. Much of the program I am doing here in Indonesia focuses on the fallout of the mass violence that took place in 1965-1966 in Bali and Java, where between 500,000-1,000,000 people were killed from October-December 1965 with killings continuing into 1966.

This violence is still seen as legitimate in many circles, as it was carried out under the ostensible justification of 'cleansing' the country of communism. The specter of communism is still raised to this day to squelch myriad forms of advocacy, from environmental organizing to calls for responsible tourism investments that don't exploit local labor and natural resources. Talking- much less actively informing a bunch of American students- about the circumstances and challenging the dominant discourse around 1965 is very, very dangerous. Military intelligence officers frequent the hangouts where my friends congregate, even the spaces contained within the walls of a family compound because a small 'park' is dedicated to promoting discussion about 1965 at one of my friend's family homes.

Because of the dangers and possible consequences that come with speaking out against injustice around 1965- and being critical of the government more broadly- I have choosen to give people pseudonyms or list them simply by an initial. As Leslie and Degung have published broadly about their work related to 1965, and out of respect for their advocacy and public scholarship, I will continue to use their names and link to their work when appropriate.

Friday, July 15, 2011


It has taken me over a week to put together this post, trying to wrap my head around the different meanings, symbolism, and implications for cross cultural fieldwork brought up by my experiences over the three days during the Balinese holiday of Galungan, which started last Wednesday. I woke up Wednesday to the sounds of chanting, bells, and the smell of (very, very strong and slightly unpleasant) garlic-y spice wafting into my window at 8 in the morning. OK, well, I actually woke up around 5 to appease my bladder. Stumbling sleepily to the bathroom, I saw S., my host mom, dressed in full ceremonial garb and putting together an elaborate tower of fruit for an offering for one of the many ceremonies of Galungan.

Despite having an hour lecture on critical perspectives on Galungan, and P. explaining while Leslie filling in with translation as necessary, I still don’t understand the entire meanings and symbolism of the holiday, but the basics are that Galungan , which literally means, “When the Dharma is winning," celebrates/commemorates the conquest of the indigenous Bali Aga by the Javanese (the island next to Bali). So, kinda like Balinese Columbus day. The ubiquitous tourist explanation, however, is that Galungan is “Bali Christmas”. Everyone that is not part of our little group of research assistants and professors providing critical perspectives tow the line on this. One of my flip-flops bit the dust Tuesday (seriously, never by Tommy Hilfiger sandals, bought two pairs on clearance and both blew out in two months) and when I was buying new ones the shop owner said, “tomorrow my Christmas”. When I asked her about the explanation I had gotten, she smiled, shaking her head, “no, like Christmas.” I’ll go into this construction of ‘culture’ for tourism discussion much more in depth over the next couple of weeks, but for now I’ll stick with reflecting on what I took away from the two days of Galungan events.

First off, I do see the Christmas reference from a ‘holy shit we have to do a lot of work to prepare for this’ holiday standpoint. One of the general gender disparity things I have seen here is the burden of ‘culture’ that gets placed on women. The women in Leslie’s extended family worked day in and day out- like, from 3am-midnight for three days- making offerings for the temple ceremonies both in the village temple and in the family temples. Each family home, which traditionally is a compound in which several nuclear families live in their own little homes, consists of between one to four rooms (kitchen, bedrooms, living space). The little homes are all located within the same complex, which can range from having three to seven or more nuclear families all within a very, very small area, far less than an eighth of an acre. Each compound has three small temples within the grounds, where the spirit of the ancestors of the family reside during ceremonial times.

Women walking to temple with their offerings.

While the women are making offerings for the temples, the men are making a penjor, a large ceremonial pole displayed outside the family home, which is a symbol of Mount Agung, where the gods reside. I mentioned that I saw gender disparities in regards to the prep work expected of men compared with women. Yes, the men make the penjor, which is hard work. But in every case I saw of the several penjor I witnessed being made, it was a group project, and just one singular penjor. The offerings made by the women, however, are often made solo, and hundreds of offerings per nuclear family. I was at one of the other student’s homestay family’s house, and we went to put a bottle of water in the fridge and the entire thing was packed with offerings. Wall to wall of little, intricate, painstakingly made offerings to be placed around the temple at home and in the village temple.

Alison and I dolled up for temple.

The ceremonies in the family temple started around 7am, and consisted of inviting the ancestors to come reside with the family for the celebration. Around 11pm, S.,my house mom, M., my house sister, and Alison, fellow PhD student who is staying in the same homestay with me, and I walked to the Kesiman temple (famous for the upcoming Ngerebong ceremony). This was such a surreal, beautiful, and short journey (our house is about 500 meters from the temple). Walking with hundreds of other families all dressed to the nines in sarongs, beautiful scarves around their waists, elaborate hairdressings, there was a quiet buzz of excitement that grew with intensity as we approached the temple. Hearing the harmonies of the gamelons coming from inside the temple wall, sounding clear and crisp over the sound of the temple priest chanting to welcome the gods, I felt both a deep sense of gratitude that my host family was willing to invite me to share in this experience, and also a sharp fear that I was furthering the cultural pillaging at the hands of tourism that I have witnessed over the past two weeks. I tried to avoid standing in a clump with the other American students that had come with their families, mindful of Leslie’s heads up that this really, really was not for tourists. So much of Bali culture has been comodified for tourist consumption, and I was leery to tread the line between student interested in post-conflict culture and ‘intellectual tourism’ (it’s debatable that this distinction actually exists, if I’m really honest with myself).

For the purposes of eschewing incorrect explanations of the myriad meanings behind elements of the ceremony, appropriating aspects that really aren’t up for public consumption, or not being able to give enough context and thus open my explanations up for vast misinterpretations, I am going to stick to just a few snapshots of the things that most struck me throughout the ceremony. The first thing I was really struck by was the dichotomy of modern and ancient. I sat with my homestay sister and her cousin for the first part of the ceremony, and the cousin- along with about thirty other people I saw- was texting throughout the ceremony. Looking to my right towards the pavilion where the gamelons were being played, an older gentleman playing up front was using both hands to play while a cigarette resting between his lips poured smoke into the dark night above him. I was also moved by the sheer beauty of the ceremony. At one point all of the women temple priests, all dressed in white, move slowly in a large circle around the perimeter of the inner part of the temple, meditating and dropping in and out of semi-trance. The sounds, the chanting, and being surrounded by members of Leslie’s extended family that have so, so generously welcomed me into their fold made the hair on my arms stand up as I watched these women moving gracefully through the incense filled night.

The most memorable thing to me, above the beauty and the gratitude for acceptance (if only tacitly by the curious community members wondering what the f’ck these tourists were doing at their temple at 1am) I had, was the moment when people started going into trance towards the end of the ceremony. The gods and spirits of the ancestors come to be embodied during the ceremony, and as a handful of individuals throughout the temple fell into trance what struck me most in this moment of something so, so foreign to me was the caring offered to the people in trance. When someone fell into trance, those around her/him would hold the person up, assist them towards the high priests or the Barong, and literally help keep them on their feet. This outpouring of compassion and assistance when the person in trance was being overwhelmed by a spiritual experience bigger than themselves and had to be supported by others struck me as very universal. Hindu, Buddhist, Christan, Atheist, and everything in between, we all have experiences with that which we don’t understand, moments when we are consumed with circumstances beyond our ability to comprehend. In those moments of complete incapacitation, if we are lucky, we are caught by those around us and supported until we can once again stand on our own. This moment of shared humanity in a night of the utterly unfamiliar was tremendously poignant to me.

The plane ticket to come half-way around the world to have the opportunity to recognize common humanity in us all is a complete bargain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pictures are up!

If you've been following my travels for the past few days (thank you!!) the depressing lack of photos has been remedied. If you're interested have a look back over some of the posts from the past two weeks, now new and improved with pictures!

Home sweet homestay

One of the best things about my time in Indonesia thus far, especially in contrast to the time I spent in Cambodia, is staying with members of Leslie's extended family. I am getting a much better idea of how people in Kesiman, Leslie's 'urban' village, actually live then I ever could have. A lot of the fun of this trip has been the mundane things- going to the market early in the morning (well, early for me...not so much for the women who have been up since 4am making offerings), hanging out on Leslie's living room (which, like most homes in Bali, has no walls around it and is open to the garden) making up lyrics to go with M. and D.'s banjo and guitar blues melodies, having lunch at Taman '65 (the park in Leslie's extended family compound), and, of course, the fun of taking a cold water dipper 'shower' (mondi, in Bahasa Indonesian) each morning. Here are some pictures from my homestay to give you a good idea of where I am staying and my host family. Sadly, the pictures simply can not do the beauty of my house justice, but at least you have some idea of what an upper-middle class family compound in urban Bali looks like.

Alison, fellow PhD student and homestay 'sister', and I in front of my bedroom. The living room(also open sans walls) of our house is doubling as the classroom for our class meetings being facilitated by guest lecturers.

M., one of my homestay siblings (there are three others as well) and S., my homestay mom, with Alison and I right before we went to temple for Galungan.

The entrance to my family compound.

Just inside the front gate of my family compound. The house on left is shared by the younger two children in my hosts' immediate family, and the television room/bedroom and bike storage/laundry room of two extended family members of my host family.

About five yards inside my family compound. The house with my room in it is the building on the right, far left is outdoor sink and pavilion (the one with thatched roof peeking out from behind trees on the left) where ceremonial offerings are prepped by older women in the extended family. Usually all women in family participate in these preparations, but my host mom is a police woman, and works during the day (very, very hard) and purchases some offerings and makes others. The building straight ahead in the distance (behind the trees) is where, traditionally, the oldest son stays with his immediate family. Building to the right of that is an open pavilion for ceremonies. There are a lot of ceremonies that take place within the family compound. New baby? There's a ceremony for that. New car? There's a ceremony for that. New chicken basket (single chicken 'coop'-type thing)? There's a ceremony for that. Kind of like 'there's an app for that' but much, much more complicated and time consuming for the women.

Head on view of the pavilion where many of the ceremonial offerings are made, and the woman in the extended family who is responsible for making many of the offerings. Making the offerings and prepping for ceremonies is so, so time consuming, and mandatory from what my friend P. referred to as the 'currency of guilt' standpoint: women that do not want to participate (because they want to work outside the home, because they are sick, because they are pregnant) are pressured by seeing the other women having to carry their share of the burden. Also, pressure comes from the younger women's husbands,who want to mitigate any tension between their mothers and their wives. The mothers feel/are obligated to make the offerings and maintain the temples, and then want/need their daughters-in-law to help share in the work. The sons then feel the need to put pressure on their wives to keep relationships good between himself and his mother, and his wife and his mother. This plays out in several ways. My friends T. and I. have been engaged for awhile, but are reluctant to actually tie the knot because it would obligate I. to start making offerings (an all day long process), despite the fact that I. is Javanese and not even Hindu, and the fact that she wants to continue working outside of the home. The 'culture of guilt' has tied their hands; family pressure trumps religious affiliations or personal desires. It also plays out on women's health. Leslie's computer got a nasty virus the other week right before Galungan, which involves three days of intense ceremony, and the computer tech that came over to fix it was talking about how his seven-months pregnant wife was having bleeding because she had been on her feet for so many hours making offerings with his mother. They had moved back to Bali from Java, where she did not have/feel pressured to make offerings, and he was lamenting wishing they had the money to move back because then she would not need to make the offerings, and he is terrified she is going to have a miscarriage.

This f'cking bird wakes me up every single morning at 4:30am. At least it's beautiful.

View from porch outside my bedroom.

Temples inside my family compound where their ancestors reside during Galungan.

View from my next door neighbor's balcony at sunset.

An innovative idea in peacebuilding