“Home is where my best shoes are,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tongue-in-cheek, once in an interview.
Where is home? Not so simple a question to answer anymore, for many. It throws another shade of complication for those who have left the country of their birth, for one reason or another, and stayed out for a while.
I’ve been thinking about home a lot lately, not only in terms of locality, but also in terms of identity. For home is tied to identity, to personal anchors, to our origin and who we are. It’s precipitated by several things. One, I’m nearing that point in my life where half of it is spent in a country that’s not my origin. All this time, I’ve always called Indonesia home, and America is the place I live in.
I left home when I was 17. But now, I’m almost here for equally the same amount of years, and certainly I’ve spent all of my adult life here. And so it’s come to a point where I’m not exactly Indonesian–in contemporary terms–anymore, since the Indonesia I experience and I imagine is more than a decade old. Yet I’m definitely not American, culturally, although a lot of my neural DNA is probably American by now.
Two, I am now bearing a child who will be culturally different, of a different citizenship, of a radically different time, from me. I suppose this is true for practically every parent–there’s always a cultural gap between different generations. In my case I mean culturally different literally, geographically.
It’s a kind of double identity crisis. Now I have to think about who I am and who this child is going to be. How will this new identity evolve? So far I’ve gotten away with calling Indonesia home even though I’ve married and even owned a house. Yet the saying starts to feel out of place now that I’m becoming a parent, tasked with the responsibility of creating a home, being a home, for another human being.
The truth: I don’t have an answer to Where is home? I say, “I guess, Colorado,” to get people off my back.
Home-longing, is this non-descript feeling, a craving for belonging and kinship. It’s a bit of a nebulous question, and in the search of hopefully-less-nebulous answers, I’ve been drawn to authors who write eloquently about being outsiders, about experiences of being displaced and removed from your people, and about reconciling the experiences that you belong, yet not, to two worlds.
This is sort of a prequel to what I suspect will be a series of articles about identity, home, and belonging. Along the vein of last year’s articles, A Child of East and West. There is no answer yet–one of those “I write to find out the answer” type-thing. But my search and discovery have led me to hang out with these books so far.
Have you ever felt a longing for home and belonging? Have you lived in a different country from your birthplace? What are your experiences finding out what home means to you?
This is the first part of A Child of East and West. This article is the sixth essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth here and here.
On rare occasions, fragments of thoughts and life experiences can converge into a coherent narrative. This is one of those moments. In my quest to understand the world that forms the essence of this blog, I also gain an understanding of myself, my coordinates in this world. My recent exploration of the Eastern and Western mindsets (Part 1: Why They Differ and Part 2: How They Differ) inevitably led to some self diagnosis on who I am and the backdrop of my existence. These two posts serve as the springboard for this personal essay, and I’ll be using the terms Western and Eastern as they have been described in those posts.
As an Eastern living in the West who is nearing a 50-50 split of residency in two cultures, I see myself as a child of East and West. This is my personal story through the lens of these world cultures.
From East to West
I was born to a Chinese-descent family, both sides, who had immigrated to Indonesia for several generations. In simple words, I’m Eastern, even though the term “East” is an oversimplification of the range of Easternness encapsulated in my background. My Chinese heritage certainly bears traces of the ancient Chinese culture described in the Asian and Western Minds posts (Part 1, Part 2), but Indonesia itself is an interesting case of the East, a confluence of cultures from different parts of the world. I grew up being exposed to a plurality of ethnicities and religions, all within the country, which bore an impression on me. Jakarta as a city that attracted people from across the country and Java, an island that seemed comfortable embracing multiple philosophies in its culture, would befit an environment that can be called Eastern. The role of community, the embracing of change and cyclical nature of life, were themes familiar to me from childhood.
Yet even as an Eastern child, my mind and personality had always been Western-leaning. My brain was wired to be fascinated with logic, analysis, categorizations, linear and either/or thinking, which went hand-in-hand with my fascination with science and mathematics. I found the search for and getting the right answer incredibly satisfying, and I subscribed fully to paradigms like the law of noncontradiction, though I did not know it then. I craved clear boundaries and rules and coherent arguments, which, living in the Indonesian society, were often problematic. Rules bent, words were not always exact and most everything was negotiable. My dad used to say to me, “The world is not that simple.” Things were too black and white to me, and I struggled with the fuzziness of boundaries.
At 17, I crossed the world and landed in Boston to pursue higher education. Amazingly, even though home was half the world away, I never experienced culture shocks. In fact, in terms of the intellectual culture of the West, it felt like a homecoming. Sure, there were cultural barriers I faced, such as my inability to participate in class discussions due to my non-Socratic Eastern education. The way I saw it, I should keep my mouth shut when I didn’t have anything substantive to say. Thankfully, my engineering path did not require me to speak in class often, and the nerdy MIT world, where science–the pinnacle of Western thinking–abounded, felt comfortable. Things either worked or they didn’t.
Parallel to my academic journey, coming to the US also felt like homecoming for my faith journey. It was in the buzz of university campuses with the cerebral and scientific approach to everything that I gained footing for my personal beliefs. Apologetics, intellectual arguments for and against the Christian faith, and the dissecting of the Bible to find a coherent system of beliefs, became the anchor of my spiritual path. It was particularly important to me that beliefs were coherent and philosophically sound, and I found this emphasis on reason in the West refreshing.
I often thought in college, why was I not taught this earlier–to reason cogently from the Bible for all tenets of my faith? What was wrong with my home church? Do they not care about theology? Today, I think I know why there were different emphasis in the East and West, which I’ll get to in the second part of this essay.
Given the bent of my personality, I thrived in the West. I felt liberated living as an individual and discovered myself through this independence. I was pleased to not be tied to the pervasive social requirements of the East. This was the way to live, I thought.
Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was also lonely and I missed the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.
Just last week, I was in Gili Trawangan, a small island in south central Indonesia east of Bali. If I could take an elongated personal retreat, this would be the place I choose. You can circle the whole island in a few hours by foot or even shorter by bike. There is no motorized vehicle allowed on the island, so you’d get around by walking, biking, or riding a Cidomo, a horse-driven rickshaw.
It’s a WONDERFUL place to be. I could seriously live there for a few months, living the simple life. Wake up, walk, eat, work a bit, snorkel or dive, and hangout with the locals or the multitude of foreigners who visit or live there. Next day, rinse and repeat.
How to Get to Gili Trawangan
Where exactly is Gili Trawangan, you may ask. I’ll show ya.
These are the islands of Bali (left) and Lombok (right), for orientation purposes. To find Gili Trawangan, we’d have to zoom in to the west side of Lombok. It is one of the three tiny islands just above Mangsit in the picture above. You’d have to take a boat from Lombok to get there, which you can charter for a very reasonable fee. Here they are, enlarged.
What to Do in Gili Trawangan
The water was super clear! It was like swimming in an aquarium, and I dare say, better than Hawaii. Even better was the price – $10 for 4 hour-trip! Shoot. You could go everyday for a week and it would cost the same as one snorkeling trip in HI. Four hours, three snorkeling sites around the three islands, plenty of aquatic life and turtles. On the second day, we chartered a private boat to snorkel for 2 hours. Cost: $50. Heaven. (Except in heaven this type of thing would be free).
When they dropped you off at Turtle Point, you know, the point where the turtles are, some of the guys also jumped in to help you find the turtles and yell out when they find them. Local snorkeling guide – pure awesomeness.
In the pursuit of turtles, we got stung by a million of tiny jellyfish. Maybe not a million, but definitely in the hundreds. You couldn’t see them, but it felt like you were being pricked all over your body while swimming. I felt like Marlin in Finding Nemo.
2. Scuba Diving
There are plenty of scuba dive shops on the island, with an abundance of certified dive instructors from around the world who are living the chill type of live on the island. I tried scuba diving for the first time. Kinda scary. Probably because it was too short: ~30 minute in the pool, then off to open water. I freaked out a few times, especially in the beginning. But then underwater, you just gotta rein in the panic attacks. The biggest turtle I saw was during this dive, but I was too stressed out to savor the sight. But I’d do it again.
Many hotels have bikes you can use for free. I found it really relaxing to bike along the path around the island, with the sunset on the horizon. I loved it! No cars, no pollution, no noise, except for the horses.
4. Enjoy the Island Life
It was just…so…chill…
5. Mingle with People – Local and Foreign
Gili Trawangan didn’t feel particularly Indonesian because there were so many foreigners there. It felt like there were more foreigners in sight than the locals, and thus a bit disorienting. But seeing some of these guys was awe-inspiring. They were the backpackers, the teachers in other Southeast Asian countries taking vacation, the entrepreneurs who could work from anywhere in the world, the diving instructors. A good number actually lives there. In my country! I was so jealous.
Jealousy turned into inspiration. Now my brain is churning ideas on how to live that way too…
In conclusion, Gili Trawangan was awesome. The best part: everything was so cheap, especially when converted to US$! There were vacation packages where you could island-hop all the way to Komodo Island for $30/day. Ridic! Next time, I’ll do this.
Indonesia – most fascinating travel destination on earth.
There are many ways to be a tourist. For example, one can remain in one’s own vacation bubble, as is necessary sometimes for recovery and rest from daily toils, or one can break through and be immersed in the world and culture on site.
I tend to like cultural experiences and usually try to discover the lives and customs of the local people. What is their reality like? How do they think? Et cetera, et cetera… I can’t pretend that I immerse myself completely, like those who would walk on foot and visit neighborhoods, shops, and houses, but at least I can ask questions to the people I interact with and to the local tour guides.
But in Bali, it is very hard to ignore its cultural and religious artifacts, since they are simply in sight everywhere you turn. Temples are ubiquitous, and the locals’ belief system is visibly displayed not just in their Hindu ceremonial precessions, but also in their architecture and daily customs. I would say it even dictates Bali’s economy and weighs in on Bali’s social progress vis-à-vis modernity and secularism.
For example, every morning the Balinese put out sesajens, or small offerings composed of flowers, rice, and salt in bamboo leaf trays all over the place. You would find them by the streets, statues, in front of houses, restaurants, counters… basically everywhere. These offerings, in oversimplified terms, are to please the gods and prevent their wrath upon them.
Every house and building in Bali has its own altar, whether small or big, which is put at the front of the house near the entrance gate. Bridges would have statues of some manifestations of Hindu gods on both sides of each end, to protect the space and prevent evil spirits.
Many statues, poles in buildings, pillars, and even trees would have sashes of a particular kind around them. The motif is called poleng. It is a piece of cloth with black and white squares, a symbol of balance, akin to the Chinese yin and yang. But it’s not just any generic notion of balance; it particularly symbolizes the balance between good and evil. The alternating black and white signifies good and evil that coexist everywhere; one cannot be present without the other.
This concept, it seems to me, is very Hindu, for a lack of a better description. The three main deities that compose the Trimurti in Hinduism (kind of like the Trinity), Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu), and Siwa (Shiva), are the creator god, sustainer god, and the destroyer/transformer god, respectively. The destroyer god is feared the most, but he is not seen as evil, since his work is necessary to get rid of old things and transform them to a newer state.
Poleng around an altar.
Though I do not subscribe to the Hindu belief system, I admire its cohesiveness and pervasiveness in the Balinese society. Believing in something means that their whole lives revolve around it and it’s publicly displayed, even if their motives may be combined with fear of the gods. Their religion is not a private matter. It dictates how they spend their money, their daily activities, how they deal with birth, marriage, and death, and every aspect of life. There is not one thing that is purely secular. Take the economy, the emblem of development and modernity. If every building needs to have an altar, it means that every building project in Bali must needs to budget to build the altar, no questions asked. It is not a small matter, optional, or of a low priority, because in their minds, they simply would not tolerate an unprotected house or building.
It is refreshing to see something that is systematic and consistent in a world that is increasingly subscribing to a buffet style belief system. In a way, this is the kind of integration that I yearn for with my own belief system. I mean, the fact that every house has an altar is so mind-blowing to me. What would it look like if every Christian had the same regard for sacred things in their houses… to see their belief as central and pivotal to daily activities…