Musings from Indonesia: the beginning of my journey in the improbable nation

To borrow the term 'improbable' from Elizabeth Pisani, I am reviving a blog that I started nearly 10 years ago in Hong Kong and start penning my experiences on the road for six weeks in Indonesia for the field work of my doctoral thesis. 

I have stopped blogging for a while, which was a pity as it goes to show how long I have not really tapped into the creative juices of my brain. I want to do this again, not only to get my mind off the systemic rigidity in life, but also to evoke more inquiries on the existential issues of human life. I start this by keeping a digital diary of my footsteps in Indonesia from February 2017 onwards.

Prior to the field trip in Indonesia, I have constantly reminded myself not to get into the mode of romanticizing everything that I witness in this country. After all, I am fully aware that I have this tendency to glorify and romanticize alien foreign cultures in foreign countries out of complete ignorance, things that may be completely insignificant to the locals. Being duped into a smokescreen that portrays life of the underprivileged as a portrayal of simplicity, potentially masking the real hardships and struggles that they face, is a trap that I want to avoid stepping into.  I am also mindful that every word that I utter whenever I engage with the locals should not inadvertently become a showcase of my relative privilege as compared to people who has to struggle to make ends meet every day.

I have come to Central Java with a pressing mission to complete – getting my interviews with the local governments, health authorities and villagers done – an inevitable step in my PhD journey in order to contribute some qualitative data to my doctoral thesis. This whole anxiety about PhD and fieldwork, a journey that has taken a toll on both my physical and mental health, will always linger in my mind until the day I successfully defend the final product in front of my examiners. I try to be at peace with this, even though it is always easier said than done.

So the intention was clear – get done with the interviews, obtain the policy documents needed, get the interviews transcribed, pack my bags and leave.

But there is no way of keeping human touch and personal emotional experience as separate entities out of the rational realm of a researcher’s mind in an exploratory journey like this. Maybe this journey will not complete if it is merely one that is aiming at fact-finding and logic-seeking. Shutting down personal emotions is inhumane and artificial. The longer I am on the road, the more I come to realise this.

Since day one in Jakarta, I have been blessed with meeting kind-hearted souls beyond SMERU research institute (my counterpart in Indonesia), whom in one way or another facilitated my research journey in Indonesia. I have not counted on them to aid me in any way prior to my trip. I have also thought that this would be a rather lonely journey on the road. The ‘wanting to take absolute control’ genes in me has very little tolerance on uncertainties and ambiguities. I have tried as much as I can to lay down the blueprint of my plan, hired a reliable RA that could help me maneuver with bureaucracy, and researched on the terrains that I will be embarking on. These measures are absolutely necessary. But I have also under-estimated the power of goodwill, metta and kindness from folks that I meet here, that help ease pain and anxiety in a journey that is bound to be uncertain.

It started with the Buddhist circle in Jakarta, whom I incidentally bumped into on a random visit to a local Buddhist temple, and was later warmly welcomed to their community. A few dhamma sisters and brother went extra mile to fetch me around the bustling city clogged with heavy traffics and made sure that I caught my flight early next morning - gentle acts which may seem trivial, but very touching gestures that warm my heart up to this moment. Realising that I am not ALONE is comforting now, even though BEING ALONE is the ultimate state that we have to make peace with when lying on our death beds.

I have met with many other kind souls that I am deeply indebted with along the way. I am humbled by these generous acts. And for this, my heart is filled with immense gratitude for kind people and conditions that pave the way to a smooth start in my research journey.

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