Random Observations

While I really would prefer to be blogging something a touch more substantial, I’m overloaded with The Freelance Project That Refused to F*cking Die. So, while I’m a little tied up with that — and unable to dive into the fiction-writing project I thought I’d be well into by now — all I have time to post for today are a couple of random observations about stuff in Indonesia, in the vein of my earlier mention of rock star styles here.

One is that I was watching Indonesian TV for a little while this afternoon while having lunch, and was shocked by the utter weirdness of some of it. There’s a show that seems to be called “Online” — good luck confirming that on the Internet! — and from what I could tell, it was sort of a TV talk show, vaguely like the old Regis & Kathi Lee show. (Yes, I’ve been overseas a long time.) Well, the significant differences were that both guests were heavily made up and in different stages of maternity — one was pregnant, and the other had a baby in her arms — and one of the hosts was dressed up like a lady clown, wandering around talking in a kid voice. I’m told that this clown lady does the clown character part-time, the rest of her day being taken up by her practice as an MD. From what we could gather, the clown lady may be talking in a kid voice, but makes pithy observations all the way, which must account for her truly immense popularity here.

Another observation that has to be made is the undeniable impact of Korean “dramas” (what we Westerners would call “prime time melodramas” — a weird sort of prime time version of soap operas, and the dominant form of mainstream TV in Korea). The stylized dialogs (full of pauses that seem awkward to Westerners, but merely pregnant silences to at least some Korean viewers), the fashion, the use of setting… it was strangely like watching scenes taken from Korean drama, but with Indonesian faces and language swapped in digitally.

Thirdly: goat meat isn’t so bad, even though I have to wonder about how much lead and other heavy metals there are in goat. I mean, they eat everything, and the pollution here is inescapable. I read that in the 90s, under Suharto (or, in Indonesia, Soeharto) the government issued a warning to people to avoid consuming too many vegetables, in order to keep down the lead poisoning. Gaah! Scary stuff.

Fourthly:  Wow, speaking of the pollution. It’s rainy season, and my asthma is going nuts. Seriously, the pollution feels almost worse than Delhi (ca. Jan/Feb 2004) sometimes. Little wonder: the buses are especially frightening as they spew thick, oily black stuff out into the air at a constant rate of way too much per second. I hesitate to imagine what it’s like in dry season, when there’s little or not rain to scrub the smog out of the air. I expected it’d be rough, but wow.

The main form of transport here in Depok (and in parts of Jakarta) seems to be the mini-scooter, for those who have gone and gotten some credit, or for everyone else, mini “buses” that look basically like very small vans with the rear passenger door removed. You hop in, ride till you get where you’re going, hop out, and hand the driver the pittance each ride costs. It’s 2000 rupiah, which is somewhere around 22 cents American, according to today’s rates. Microcurrency transfers of this kind seem vitally important to the Indonesian economy, which blows one’s mind. To eat food that a foreigner can subsist on costs three to five bucks a meal; a bottle of potable water is between 30 cents and a couple of bucks, depending on how acclimatized to the local bugs you plan on getting (and how much you’re willing to risk a week of the runs on the process, or how poor you are since I imagine some have no choice but to drink the tap water, probably after boiling and straining it); taking a taxi across town can be ten bucks American. But these mini “buses” scoot around town by the dozens, if not hundreds — seriously, at least four or five pass in a minute at peak times — collecting only 22 cents per passenger, and it’s enough to pay the keep of the drivers.

It makes you think. It makes me think, anyway. One thing I think about is, how much would it cost to increase fares to make up for the cost of using unleaded fuel, and implementing better emissions standards? And I think it would be more than the system could bear, for most places. How does development happen in these conditions?

Fifthly, since I’m near the University of Indonesia, there are lots of Koreans here. Some are cool, but plenty of them are just as doofusy about Westerners here as they were in Korea. One girl was staring at me with wide eyes and jaw hanging open, just this afternoon. I thought maybe she was an acquaintance of Miss Jiwaku’s, but she wasn’t.

“That’s so rude!” Miss Jiwaku said.

“But when it comes to non-Koreans, a lot of Koreans seem to think Korean etiquette seems to be suspended, not applicable…” I replied, giving her a didn’t you get the memo shrug and a smile. And it’s true

Sixthly, speaking of Koreans behaving badly, to about six or seven wives and girlfriends who were left back home in Seoul, Busan, and wherever else you are: I saw some of your husbands and boyfriends at a live music club on Saturday. They were hammered, louder than the live music, and very intent on capitalizing on their exotic, socioeconomically and politically elevated position vis a vis young, scantily clad Indonesian girls. They were not quite social enough to make more than the minimum effort at conversing in a shared language — mostly they shouted at one another constantly in Korean — but then, for these guys it seemed the shared language of the night was hands on body, so-called sexy dancing.

So for all you netizens out there who get pissy about foreigners in Korea? Remember: Koreans who go abroad are foreigners too… and some of them are just as badly behaved as the white frat boy-like men in Korea you hate so much.

Seventhly: the live music scene here saddens me immensely. The audience is very multicultural, the musicians are invariably at least talented, and sometimes qiute skilled. But it’s a hell of a thing to look into the eyes of the guitarist playing the solo from “Hotel California” and see the same deadness that you expect to see in an assembly-line worker’s eyes; to see the expressionless face of the woman mechanically singing backup on “Billie Jean” turn to a half-frown when it comes time for her to sing the bridge. Meanwhile, the crowd in the bar is busy dancing, roaring with laughter, or, in the case of a surprising number of the white guys, drinking the cheapest beer available, mulling over which half-assed story to sell to Reuters next, and staring out at all the “young people” (people under 45) having such a “good time.”

(Okay, I don’t know that they were reporters selling stories to Reuters, but they had that look about them. A couple of scenes from the cinematic version of The Quiet American came to mind very vividly, as I looked upon that scene.)

On the positive side, there are plenty of gigs for people who play music, and one imagines a hell of a lot more people here make a living (however meager) playing music than in a lot of places. (One also suspects there must be places where after-hours jam sessions go on, with mostly Indonesians in attendance.) In fact, the arts in general here seem to have survived the dictatorships of the twentieth century much better than in Korea (where economics seems to shove all other concerns aside) or China (where several artforms were gutted for political reasons). Yes, the arts exist in a heavily internally colonized form — most paid musicians seem to be singing Broadway showtune jazz, and American Top-40 songs of yesteryear — but culturally the act of listening to live music or looking at visual art doesn’t seem quite so alien to people as it seems to have become in Korean society. If and when Indonesia’s economy and standard of living do vault up high enough for more musicians to do what they want, I suspect you’ll have a society quite interested in its homegrown music and not just in the cruddiest manufactured boy/girl-group. There will be an appreciation of visual and performing arts established already, unlike in Korea where that seems to be something that is yet to be really established beyond a very limited range.

Eighthly: I know, I know, we were exactly the same way until not so very long ago, but really, truly, I think the dichotomy between “developed” and “developing” nations might well be not-completely worn out. We visited a zoo, and had our hearts broken a few times by the conditions in which the creatures we saw were living. Most heartbreaking were the orangutans, who had a whole clear begging routine, and the gorilla, whose eyes all but screamed, “I have no point for existing besides sitting here for you to watch. Shoot me now.”

Ninthly: People are really friendly here. I’m now accustomed to strangers, when meeting, frowning and/or ignoring one another as a rule, after my many years in Korea and especially the last few years spent in Yeokgok. I only realized how deeply ingrained this expectation has become after wandering around Jakarta for a few days: people keep being randomly friendly, striking up conversations, chatting in elevators, smiling and asking questions from the next table over at cafes and restaurants. My instinctive reaction now is to wonder what it is they’re really after, because usually back in Yeokgok any stranger who is friendly to me is doing it because he or she wants something — except it seems most of the time they’re not after anything but a little pleasant conversation. It’s weird, and nice, and it reminds me of how much I miss random politeness and friendliness from people who aren’t selling me something or trying to practice English with me.

Tenthly: Yes, this is a Muslim society. You never get a chance to forget it, as the mosques blast their calls to prayer at constant intervals throughout the day. (Though last time I was here, during Ramadan, it was all day long in some areas of town.) This translates to a rather uptight (no public displays of affection!) society in some ways, but in others, people seem quite laid-back. I saw a woman the other day at a posh mall, covered head-to-toe in a burqa… but then, she’s the only such individual I’ve seen waring such a thing in over a few weeks here. Lots of headscarves worn by women here, but a surprising number of those headscarf-wearing women (who also wear long-sleeved shirts) happen to be scooting about town in tight jeans. Huh, and I thought the headscarf was supposed to be a reminder of the expectation not to appear in an externally arousing garb.

That, plus the large number of women not wearing headscarves, suggests something not just of the diversity but also the flux which is going on in Muslim observation and practice here. This makes the task of imagining a future Indonesia quite fun, really… how will these patterns and trends continue, reverse, shift, or impact this society over the next thirty or forty years? Mix in some technical advances, and voila… cognitive estrangement!

Finally: if you find a good place to eat, you tend to return because the alternative may well mean a few days or a week of sickness — or more if you’re unlucky. Weirdly, one of the better places near my apartment served rice with a few stones still in it. Yes, this was a better place. Good, clean food, nice nasi goreng. The worse places, you don’t even want to imagine. The best places within a twenty-minute radius of my flat in Depok are a Chinese restaurant in the Margo City Mall (which is handy because there’s a great coffee shop nearby with sorta-free-with-minimum-purchase internet available), and a grubby little satay place a few minutes walk down the road. The satay place is the sort of place I’d hesitate about, except they’re grilling the living hell out of everything they serve, and all the people studying Indonesian around here eat there semi-regularly and don’t get sick from it. There’s an okayish place for nasi goreng nearby too, very nice outdoor ambiance and service is great, but there were pebbles in my rice, which I luckily caught and picked out.

The posh shopping malls in town — the sort where guards actually carefully check the bags of everyone walking in, and the trunks and undersides of cars that pull up to the door — are a different story. I’m not one for malls, but the food is beautiful and cheap, and mostly seems at least hygenically enough prepared to enjoy without much through of the risks. (Even if, yes, I suspect the soup at one place in a very nice mall was what gave me last the worst day of the last few months: most of the mall food I’ve had has been good, inexpensive, and relatively quite safe. And I’m now old enough to, yeah, worry about that sort of thing, as food poisoning gets expoentially less fun the older one gets.)

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