My 7 month ex-patriate anniversary has come and gone. I can’t believe that it’s been that long since I left the US in November. With all the positives of living in a foreign country, especially in Asia where travelling to different spots is just a matter of the amount of vacation days you can cajole your boss into letting you take, obviously come negatives.
For a while I was enchanted with all things Indonesian: the streets potholes, the nightly burning trash fires and smell of burning plastic in the air, the bugs invading my room, the fried foods, the traditional music blaring in the streets for weddings. None of it could bother it because everything was so new, everything was an experience. I would pose for photos with strangers all the time and feel like a celebrity.
But as we know with fame, it’s just a matter of time until you pull a Britney and shave all your hair off in a tearful rage after discovering what the public really thinks of you.
There have been various big drops on the emotional roller coaster of living in a foreign country that serve to remind me that I am a foreigner. No matter what I do to adapt to the culture and dress appropriately, the color of my skin and the structure of my face will always mark me as a foreigner and as a rarity. To be from the opposite hemisphere of the world in a conservative place where people are not highly educated about other cultures can make you feel like a commodity, and a spectacle, you will feel like you have a money, sex and drugs tattoo on your forehead at times no matter what you do to fit in.
As a foreign woman in Indonesia, I am often playing a game with the men here. This game is called “Disrespect me just so slightly that I don’t understand what’s going on and when I do, I won’t have the words to stand up to you anyway” It’s played in honks and calls from trucks, or a barrage of un-replied to text messages trying to hit on me in broken English because I stupidly thought it would be smart to give my phone number to one of the security guards at my apartment when he asked. Or some old man pressing the side of his body against mine like the bus is more crowded than it is while simultaneously pretending to be on his phone, for 15 minutes straight taking photos of the crescent of my visible face that is turned so far away my neck feels as if it could break. The feelings invoked by racism, sexism and disrespect are stronger than I could have imagined, even in response to the relatively mild degree that exists here.
I had just gotten back from a trip to Surabaya and got off the main bus to get an angkot bus home to my apartment. I was wearing a pair of jeans and one of Shane’s loose fitting shirts that I had borrowed. I came up on a man with a motorcycle on the side of the street. Many motorcycle taxis do this so when he asked where I was going I told him and decided to splurge on a fast ride home after my 2 hour bus ride.
I get on the bike and a man probably in his late 30’s leans his arm on my knee in an easy and friendly way like we were old friends and once again asks “Mau ke mana?” then inquires about a hotel. Classic being mistaken for a tourist: I repeat Apartment and we are on our way. Several more times I was asked about a hotel all the while I would repeat apartment and tell him that I live here and am a teacher, not a tourist. Where am I from? “Dari mana?” I reply “Dari America” he nods and a smile spreads across his face. He then decided to make a stop at his friend’s motorbike garage just to mention that I am from America to his friend. They exchange nods and I’m back on my way, a little annoyed that I’m once again the trophy, hindering my return to my house. But most people have never seen someone foreign and so it’s an honor, super special and blah blah blah. Whatever. I’d never seen an Indonesian before I came here either and I’m not freaking out over it.
So we turn onto my street and I can feel myself getting excited to be home. Until a huge atomic bomb is dropped on my mood: out of nowhere the driver turns back to me and inquires, “Free sex?” What the f*** did I just hear come out of this guy’s mouth? I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know English based on our recent communication struggles. “Umm…What?” Again, “Free sex?” Is he asking me about American culture? Is he propositioning me? What alternate dimension of dirty did I just step into? “NO, no, no. Tidak tidak!” I’m so annoyed by uneducated narrow view of women based on the media’s portrayal of western society. Thanks Hollywood. (eyeroll)
Then the bomb is detonated and the radioactive blast of fire and smoke that blast the flesh off living things and shakes everything in its path to the core: “Berapa?”
This guy just asked me how much. “HOW MUCH?”…Yeah because I really came to a 3rd world country to sell my body. It seemed like a great business venture you know, the whole conservative , Islam national religion thing really just screams gold mine to an American prostitute. Screw Vegas, buy me a one-way ticket to Indonesia. The economy is so bad that outsourcing is affecting every industry these days, you know. On another note, how did you spot my disguise? You must have a real eye for whores, a rare talent really. A baggy shirt hanging about as low as my butt and some jeans stretched out by 2 hours of sitting really were obviously the clothes I chose to show off the goodies. “How much?” More than it would cost to bribe a cop into overlook your castrated body in a gutter. That much (please excuse me).
Now you’re waiting for my epic moment where I make a stand for myself and women everywhere and tell this scumbag something, anything that would make him die of shame. Draw the velvet curtains, here it is: “NO.” My body shakes with anger and the frustrations that I can say nothing more. If I concocted a lengthy and scathing curse towards him it might have made me feel better at least, but I simply say no and ask him to stop the bike. I say I want to walk the final block to my apartment.
Then comes probably the only other phrase in the driver’s limited English vocabulary: “Money.” Cool. So guess I get to pay a toll for being a victim of sexual harassment and racism today. Here’s my moment to slap him, kick him over on his bike, maliciously pepper spray him like he’s a Berkeley protester, a steady stream right into those greedy black eyes with my pepper spray disguised as a perfume spritzer. Unleash some good ol’ fashioned western justice on him. Instead my shaking hands fumble for the zipper on my wallet. 12,000 quickly changes to 20,000 as I open it. I am so stupefied and hurt that I give him the larger bill and walk away with haste that could win me Olympic gold in speed walking. Get to my apartment. Ascend 4 stories with heavy feet clicking on each rising step. Close the door and begin to sob.
The truth is, you never anticipate how much something like that will hurt you. Martin Luther King Day tells us that racism was some evil thing that happened to some people at one point in history. High School history tells stories of women fighting for equality, but no one tells their personal tales as second class citizens. The anger I felt when I was able to process what had just happened to me was the strongest that I hope to ever feel. I thought of taking my credit card and going home to a place where it’s clear that I don’t sell sex and if a man is being a pig I have more than enough words to tell him so. I thought of how just a day ago I had been different for not having experienced this kind of discrimination and rage.
And then I thought of the women who can’t walk out of their houses, drive a car or show wrist ankles or faces without being considered a whore. I thought of the women who have no say in their future, no say in what will happen to their bodies from day to day. The women who are beaten for wanting an education, the women who are outcast from society, or persecuted for being ‘witches.’ All over the world there are things that are happening to women that are a lot worse than some idiot asking a dumb question, sending unwanted texts, or acting as a bus paparazzo. However, those events somehow serve to bring me a depressing degree closer to understanding the women of the other world, the one that you can learn about in anthropology, sociology, or history and never be able to relate to.