Monday, June 27, 2011

In a Barbie World

There are a few words I generally learn very quickly when I am traveling for work, one is the word for foreigner (bule - BOO-lay - in Indonesian) and others are the words for white and pretty (putih - POO-tee, and cantik - chan-TEEK).

So first they call me a foreigner. People everywhere call out to me, people I know, people I don't know. Not in a mean way, just as though to point out to me that I am different. But then I talk a bit more, often with pre-teen and teenage girls, in rural and urban areas in a variety of countries. They like to touch the skin on my arms, they point to it and say "white", followed closely by "pretty". They are simultaneously amazed and disgusted when I show them how you can see the veins in my hands and arms, and tell them that the lines they see are blood. But then they often point to their own skin, and call it black or dark. They motion rubbing it off, they stick their tongues out, they say it's ugly.

When I was young, my parents tried their best to keep me away from Barbies and the like, until at some point I imagine it was inevitable with birthday parties and being surrounded by other children and mass media. I remember asking my mum about why Barbies weren't a good idea, and her telling me about how they create ideas of what we're supposed to look like that aren't real. Everyone has heard that various parts of Barbie's body are disproportionate to her height. In fact, her proportions have been changed since I was a kid, although her feet still point downward at that frightening angle... but if Barbies were bad because they give unrealistic and unnecessary expectations and can put irrational demands themselves and peers about womanhood, then what about girls who don't look even a little like Barbie. What about the girls who call their skin dirty, using endless whitening products and carrying umbrellas and wearing long sleeves in the rice paddies to keep their skin from getting "uglier and darker"?

What is it about girls that leads them to focus so intently on their looks at such a young age? Where do they learn that what they and other women look like is the first thing to be noticed, commented upon, and changed about themselves?

What about the 15 year old girl I met who was 8 months pregnant. She marveled at my nose, touching it then touching her own. She told me that she hoped her baby would be born with my nose instead of her ugly nose. She was beautiful. But all she saw was that her nose was different from mine and she didn't look like any of presentations of beauty she saw all around her on billboards and tv, where models are thin and rich and happy, and look just a little bit Asian, but not too much, and whose skin is impossibly white.

What about the man who told me that all the women in his Latin American country are ugly because they are short and their skin is dark? What about the way he scoffed when I told him that Western constructions aren't the only measure of beauty? What about the girls who giggled when I asked them why they wanted to marry Westerners? Answering that in part, they wanted their babies to be half white, because that was better than being fully of any local ethnicity. What about the girls who grow up believing the skin and noses and lips and legs will never be good enough or pretty enough because they aren't Western or Caucasian or white enough? What about when those girls turn into mothers? Can it be any wonder what they will tell their daughters?

When will we start teaching girls that they are more than their appearance? And when we do discuss their appearance, when will we stop telling them to look like someone else, and start telling them to be who they already are; to pursue something deeper than a small nose, more profound than straight hair, more lasting than smooth white skin. Imagine all the time, energy, effort, and pain that goes into these things; imagine what the world would be like if that energy and passion were redirected.

Lisa Bloom hits the nail on the head in How to Talk to Little Girls, if we call them smart instead of pretty, tell them they look like astronauts, engineers, authors, and artists instead of ballerinas and models, it just might be a step in the right direction.

(I've been wanting to write about this for quite a while, but organizing my thoughts and finding a way to say all this has been a bit confusing, so you'll have to excuse me if this comes across a bit muddled, I did my best, and as always, look forward to hear what you all have to say about it.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My first day in Muekek

Little did you know the title of this post actually rhymes. The name of the sub-district is pronounced like muh-keh or meh-kay, the k at the end is silent with a glottal stop before it, according to my learning indonesian podcast. Anyhow! I just got back from about 9 days in the field. Here's a little bit about my first day in a rural village where we stayed for 5 days. Less deep thought and more "what do you actually do?"

After about a 45 minute drive from Tapak Tuan, we arrived inMeuke, stopping at an intersection in the road to ask which way to go, to findthe house where we would stay. Although the town appeared small, the roads werepaved and there were power lines visible.

We entered a very large home of the friend of one of ourresearchers, who is also the elected government representative for thisdistrict. Despite the fact that he is in Medan for work currently, his wifereceived us warmly, offering coffee and a drink made from raspberry syrup.Trying the coffee, it was incredibly sweet, if it had been cold and had haddairy in it, it could have been coffee ice cream. The researchers explained tome that not only to Acenese prefer things to be very sweet, but also if ahostess serves a drink that is not very sweet people will think she is stingy,because offering very sweet drinks is equated with being generous and also withshowing that you have the money to give lots of sugar.

We then settled into our rooms, I am sharing a room and abed downstairs with the other female researcher.  Our room is windowless and contains a bed, a small vanityand a large armoire, full of clothes and other things. The lady of the housemoved a fan into our room to help cool us during the coming night (for the parts when the electricity was on).

We then decided to go for a walk around the community to tryto get to know people. As we walked around we were greeted by many people ofall ages, with a few children wandering along behind us. I saw coffee, nutmeg,and beetlenut laid out on cloths to dry in the sun. The other female researcherand I were soon invited into the home a woman we were chatting with. Sheinvited us into her formal living room where she served us something thattasted like Tang with extra sugar. We chatted and found out she was a teacheras well as a bit of a leader for the women in the community. She offered tohelp us organize a gathering of women so we could discuss some of our researchwith them and conduct a focus group.

Our new friend then walked us the Gacheik’s (village leader)house, where we greeted him and let him know about our plans for the 4 days wewill be here. He agreed to help us organize a gathering of men so we could alsoconduct a focus group with them, and ask for their help finding informants forinterviews.

The family we are staying with is providing us three meals aday, as is customary here, so we returned for lunch and were served two kindsof fish (as the village is close to the ocean), green beans, shrimp chips, andwhite rice. That afternoon I watched as the researchers conducted the focusgroup with women from the village, asking them to brainstorm ideas aboutchildren who do not live with their biological parents, but instead with someother family, often relatives. The group was made up of women of various ages,most of whom were eager to participate in the conversation and also seemed usedto participating in group activites.

Once we had finished the focus group I had plans to go for arun, but was happy to walk along with the other female researcher, and ourfriend who was a teacher to see a bit more of the community. We walked pastrice paddies that were in bloom, which left the scent of flowers along theroad. This village is very near large mountains, where coffee is grown, butwhere (I’ve been assured) there are no tigers. As we walked many people greetedus, curious about what we were doing and where we were going. Children shouted“Bule!” or foreigner as we passed. We reached the edge of the village, markedby a small bridge, and while my two companions turned around and started back,as it was 6:30 pm and the sun was setting, I picked up my pace to a jog. Icontinued on through the next village, greeting people and smiling or waving asthey tried to speak to be in Indonesian or Acehnese. I turned around and mademy way back, passing my former walking partners, and continuing on. At onepoint a man and woman on a motorcycle who spoke a bit of English drove alongbeside me asking where I was from, if I spoke Indonesian, where I was from, andwhere I was staying. I arrived back at the house where I was staying, andquickly bought two bottles of water from the small stand in front of the housenext door, as it was still at least in the 80s, despite it being dusk.

As I was stretching and the other female researcherreturned, the village leader arrived at the house, looking for either of themale/Acehnese researchers, who were currently out dropping our driver off athis house. We called them, and the village leader informed them that the policewould need copies of our identification and permission letter from theorganization and university sponsoring us, however, this was only necessarybecause I was with them. Later we all met up at the village leader’s house,where we made photocopies and met with a member of the police, who are obligedto report the arrival of a foreigner within 24 hours of his/her arrival.

As we went back to the house where we were staying, Icommented to the female researcher that I was glad I’d chosen to put on a scarfand wrapped it around myself like a shawl or pashmina before going, consideringthat both the police and the village leader were there. I also mentioned againthat if I was ever wearing something where she thought I should be coveredmore, she should tell me. “Well actually,” she said slowly “As you wererunning, someone told me to tell my friend to cover her head. I didn’t knowwhat to make of it, but the woman we were with said it was very rude to havesaid it.” I explained that I was happy to cover my head if it would be morepolite or respectful. Our walking companion had suggested we ask the wife ofthe house where we were staying. When we returned from the village chief’shouse, the wife and several women appeared to be balancing the finances forsomething, and we politely interrupted, to see what they thought about themcovering my head. The female researcher translated the response as “It’sbetter. If you want to.” But I realize that the mean of that sentence changes,depending on where the pause is placed: “It’s better if you want to.”Regardless, I decided that I should follow their suggestion.

At breakfast the next morning, the two male researchersapproved of my head covering, although it does not look Indonesian. They said Ilooked like I was from Turkey.
One then said “From now on I will introduce you as Turkish;this will get you more respect, I think.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thank You for Smoking

As I went to get dressed this morning I had a bit of a surprise, as I went to put on a shirt, I caught a whiff of something reminiscent of a night out in Atlanta during college, when it was still legal to smoke indoors; my shirt reeked of cigarette smoke. Not just a little, I could smell it when I was holding it. But I don't smoke, in fact women in Aceh aren't allowed to smoke. My clothes smell just from being around so many people here smoking all the time, inside, outside, while eating, while riding motorbikes, while loading and unloading trucks. All the time.

I don't think I have ever been to a place where so many people smoke. It's rare to meet a man here who doesn't smoke, and if he doesn't smoke currently it's likely he did but quit for a specific reason. You can smoke indoors almost anywhere, for instance in my hotel my hotel room smells like cigarette smoke (and mold and room freshener and mint strangely enough) because you can smoke in your own room and in all public spaces of the hotel, so the smell seeps in.

I have found that many men here are what I would consider polite about their smoking: if they are with people who do not smoke they may ask first or move to another table before smoking. On the other hand, it's pretty inescapable, should you want to escape. Also, people here smoke local cigarettes scented with nutmeg or other spices, in addition to your average Marlboros.

I have no grand conclusions about the smoking here, I imagine that launching an anti-smoking public health campaign would be equally as difficult as it was in the United States, given that tobacco is grown here, and I can only imagine that the owners of local cigarette companies have some political power, or at least some pull.

What interests me about smoking here, is that engaging in a hobby that causes chronic diseases, is a bit of a second phase health problem. Indonesia hasn't found its way entirely out of infectious disease outbreaks, but things like lung cancer and emphysema are a far cry from cholera outbreaks. This is an interesting step in development, where a lot of people now have the expendable income to buy cigarettes daily. In India and China the consumption of beef has increased markedly as income has increased. As people's income increases, they do not necessarily make healthy choices with that money.

No grand conclusions today, more of a response to all the people who ask me "what's it like where you are?" "what's different?" Well compared to the US, the only place I've been in Indonesia where I've been told explicitly that smoking wasn't allowed was on an airplane. That's a first step I suppose.

If you're interested in learning more about smoking in Indonesia and how culturally ingrained it is, look no further than the 2 year old boy with a cigarette addiction who made the news recently. A 2 year old can use a lighter?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Not all those who wander are lost

All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. - J.R.R. Tolkein

What is it that draws us to new places and fresh experiences? What is it that makes the desire to experience the unknown stronger than the ease and comfort of remaining in the places and with the people we know? I'm honestly not sure. Maybe it's a natural curiosity or maybe we are seeking the little rush of adrenaline we get each time we are somewhere entirely new and must find our way through, adapting and learning through experiences. I also find that I'm always struck by how similar people are regardless of how they or the place they live or their expressions of culture may appear at first glance. I also love how every place always has the ability to surprise you, if you'll only look and listen, instead of imposing your expectations upon it.

I went to a gym with one of my research team members after work the other day to try to relieve our stiff muscles after a week of sitting and sitting and sitting. At first it was as I expected: the majority of the gym was free weights or weight machines, with men lifting weights wearing shorts and t-shirts and often without shoes on. There were six or seven treadmills with about four women and two men using them, about half the women wore headscarves while walking or running, while the others did not cover their hair but wore pants and t-shirts or long sleeve shirts. It was probably 85 degrees inside, with a few air conditioners on. The music blasting was the choruses from American hip hop or pop, intermixed with techno and Bahasa Indonesian singing. After an intense and hot workout, we went back to the women's locker room to collect our things.

My first thought when seeing that you had to cross through a room where classes took place to get to the women's locker room was that women attending the gym may have been an afterthought. The gym and men's locker room were built first, then women showed interest and a locker room was added on the back of the building. As we opened the door into the room for classes, a dark brown curtain, covering the view of the room from floor to ceiling met us. Thumping music and a wall of heat met us. As we crossed through the curtain we saw the room full of 30 or 40 women in an aerobics class. But at first glance these did not look like Acehnese women. None wore headscarves. Many wore shorts. Some wore shorts and sports bras only. All of them were dancing and sweating, two things I'm not sure I've ever seen an Acehnese woman do (not that they don't, I've just never seen it in public). In many places there are women's groups in the community that one must be initiated into and that are an integral part of participation in community life. What happens in these groups is not spoken about publicly and can range from spiritual to social to rites of initiation. And here I felt we had found something slightly similar, only in an urban setting. A place women come to where men are not invited and they are free to dress and act and speak as they choose. On the other hand, perhaps I was particularly struck by this contradiction to local culture, because it seems to move away from tradition and toward Western practice, rather than towards more traditional practices, which is a difference I might not notice. Thought provoking if nothing else.

I'm on the road again as of Monday. During my last project where I had the privilege of staying with a friend in her beautiful home and moving around to different parts of Jakarta for data collection. This time we've got a bigger data collection team so we'll be splitting into two smaller teams, each of which will depart for the far reaches of this district bright and early on Monday.  I'll be going to Aceh Selatan or South Aceh. The research I'm currently involved in is looking at traditional community child care practices, and given the ethnic and cultural diversity of this district, we're conducting 3/4 data collection periods in very rural areas where members of minority groups live. From what I've read and heard from researchers (all of whom are Indonesian,  and all but one are from Aceh and speak Acehnese as well as the national language of Bahasa Indonesia) is that the area is relatively rural, but also very beautiful as it is by the ocean. Also, it is an area of Aceh that was not hit by the tsunami because the island of Simeulu protected it. I'm excited to get to know another part of Aceh, because on my last work trip here I worked exclusively along the North Aceh coast, which was beautiful and enjoyable, but much of it has a similar culture.

Happy weekend to everyone and fingers crossed for great internet while I'm in the field!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Selamat Datang Kembali

My Bahasa Indonesian is improving slowly but surely, and each time I mention to someone that I would like to learn more the response is "Oh you should! It's so easy!" Oh really? You think it's easy to speak your language, interesting. In fact Bahasa is relatively easy, there are no verb tenses, there is no masculine-feminine for adjectives, and to make something plural you simply say it twice, for example child = anak, children = anak-anak. So on that note, the title of this post means welcome back.

I'm back in Indonesia after a short two week trip back home. The occurrence of two back-to-back projects in the same country is partly coincidence, partly to do with partnerships involving the group I work for. Regardless, I am now somewhere entirely different from Jakarta; imagine conducting research in New York City, then conducting research along the gulf coast. I'm in Banda Aceh, again. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will remember that I was here in the fall of 2009 as well. Banda Aceh was the inhabited location closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This time I'm here to do research rather than an evaluation and it has now been 6.5 years since the tsunami, so there are many less expatriates but many more trees.

If you were to google Banda Aceh you would probably come across articles about the tsunami first, but if you were to keep looking you would find information about the civil war that ended in 2005. You would read that Aceh is a semi-autonomous region, a concession of the national government in the peace treaty, and as part of that semi-autonomy Aceh is governed by Sharia law (Islamic religious law) rather than secular law used in the rest of Indonesia. We could talk for hours about whether the law in each region is really religious or secular, to whose benefit each type of law is, and who was really involved in the decision making to implement Sharia law here, but let's save that for another day. Right now let's talk about the practicalities of it.

Aceh recently made headlines for tightening the letter of the law and its enforcement relating to women's dress. Previously the law simply said that Muslim women had to be covered: ankles, wrists, head (hair, neck, ears, not face), and everything in between. However, some women, particularly younger women from my observation, were dressing in covering clothes, but they were very tight, imagine skinny jeans, a tight top and a headscarf tucked into your shirt so it isn't very noticeable. There are "Sharia police" who enforce religious elements of the law, ensuring that women's headscarves do not show any hair, making sure all Muslims are at the mosque on Fridays, and on and on. In response to women's reinterpretation of the dress code, the law was then changed to explicitly state that women must be covered and their clothes may not be tight or explicitly show the outline of her body. In addition, the enforcement of this and other religious laws was increased, with the punishment for the first one or two offenses being a warning, whereas the punishment for multiple offenses is public corporal punishment. You, a long stick, and a man in a hood in front of a crowd, and yes, women are included.

Last time I was here there were more expats. Last time I was here the law was less strict. Last time I was here it was my first time working in a predominantly Muslim place (I had visited the Middle East). And so this all begs the question: Should I wear a headscarf daily? Here are some things to consider: Sharia law technically does not apply to me because I am not Muslim. It is HIGHLY unlikely Sharia police would ever even speak to me about covering my head, otherwise I dress very conservatively. I have scarves with me that I have used in the past to cover head or shoulders when entering a mosque or a religious school. A researcher on our team who is Muslim and never covers her head in Jakarta, put on a headscarf before we got off the plane today. I have lots of complex and mixed feelings about forcing women to cover themselves. But my personal feelings aren't up for debate here. I'm on the job. So what should I do?

It's amazing how much time and thought I spend considering how I dress when I work. I walk into places expecting that people watch American movies and associate me with how women are portrayed in them. Usually people ask me questions that confirm this assumption to be true, so I'm already fighting back against people's assumptions in order to be taken seriously, and respected as a professional, despite the fact that I am female and young. And you thought you had trouble getting dressed for work in the morning.

Selamat Datang