Joining Worlds

Yogya Fellow Cory Rogers reflects on concepts of authenticity and privilege

Inside joke: American musician working abroad tells locals he is ‘obviously Indonesian’

Cory Rogers with his freshmen English Literature students at UGM.

Cory Rogers with his freshmen English Literature students at UGM.

This article was written by Cory Rogers and published January 12, 2013 online at newobserver.com

Cory Rogers, 24, of Chapel Hill, graduated in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in jazz performance from Oberlin Conservatory and history from Oberlin College. He is on a Shansi Fellowship to Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where he will be teaching English for two years. This is from his blog, which appears at potsandpangaea.tumblr.com.

I often joke with friends that I am orang Indonesian. Part of a brainstorm for getting the locals discount at markets reluctant to bargain with foreigners, the joke became something like, “ No No, pak, saya orang Indonesia, pasti. Boleh kurang?”

Translation: No no, sir, I’m obviously Indonesian. Can you go lower?

While brimming with absurdity, in my thoughts the joke held a drop of water: My two-year KITAS visa says I’m a “semi-permanent resident” of Indonesia. This means I’m allowed to stay in country for two years without having to hop out to Singapore or Malaysia to renew a temporary tourist visa. I like to imagine it also meaning that I’m a kind of semi-permanent citizen of Indonesia, with all the privileges that follow.

This first occurred to me about two months ago when, realizing the magic of the KITAS, I giddily sidestepped the tourist queue and breezed through the “locals line” at Borobudur Temple, not even trying to hide my mirth as the long line of tourists stared ahead with eyes that glared, “Hold on, that guy’s cheating!” But I wasn’t; I’m just KITAS istimewa.

Translation: special.

It’s easy to feel istimewa when ancient temples treat me as an insider, and when friends take pains to involve me in their activities, or accompany me in mine. This kind of treatment goes a long way in cultivating a sense of belonging, making one feel as if he is where he is supposed to be, doing what he was meant to do, and consequently, that maybe in some parallel universe, he really might be orang Indonesian. Ludicrous? Definitely. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to start taking this kind of treatment for granted, and it can warp one’s sense of reality. Like, for example, when I find myself scoffing at the hordes of aimless backpackers wandering along Malioboro Street only to realize that I just bought the same knickknack from the same souvenir shop for my dad.

Yet unlike the tourists, I’m not in Indonesia on vacation. I’m not seeking a tropical getaway (though, I must admit, the two-year deferment of student loans is a welcome postponement of reality), nor hastily consuming culture and arts for its entertainment value. On the contrary, I am striving to digest those arts, to integrate them into my life and music-making.

But does that make me better? Or istimewa? Does it make my experience more authentic? No. And here’s why.

Chasing authenticity

First, and most obviously, it’s silly to look down upon travelers who merely didn’t have the privilege of attending Oberlin and seeking out the Shansi Fellowship. I could easily be like them, seeking adventure abroad without the perks of long-term work accommodation.

Second, while I am forming meaningful artistic partnerships, that does not make me special. I give myself credit for reaching out, taking risks, going for it. But in some place like New York City, the same outlook and ambition would likely bear less fruit, and I could easily drown in the flood of idealistic 20-somethings without a job or a stage. In Jogja, Indonesian artists are as curious to learn from me as I am from them. We benefit from that mutual appreciation of one another’s distinct artistic heritage. And it helps that I’m one of very few American musicians in the city.

Most important, I’ve come to realize any feelings of istimewa do not reflect my true beliefs in the value of cultural exchange. Not only because they ignore my good fortune as a Shansi Fellow, but also because they betray a preoccupation with assessing the authenticity of experience (both mine and others’), which I reject.

As a friend once said to me, seeking authenticity is like chasing a rainbow. You can’t ever really find it because it exists only in the imagination as a caricaturized portrait of culture. Seeking to separate the “authentic” from the “assimilated” – even in an effort to celebrate cultural difference – imposes forms of conformity that can limit the potential for community growth and self-determination. In the same way that individual people constantly reinvent and redefine themselves based on exposure to new ideas, communities of people ought to have free license to borrow, adapt and evolve, too.

But a concept of authenticity can also work to describe a dynamic between tourists and local, and as an American in Indonesia, I deal with this type on a daily basis. To the extent that an outsider is embraced as an “insider,” he or she can be imagined as having a more “authentic” experience: He has become part of a community whereas others can only look on from a distance.

Inclusion a privilege

For months, I’d been waiting to see the Ramayana Ballet because my friend Zoe would be dancing in it. While she tried to procure discount tickets through her dance troupe, it was reasoned that since I was bule (white and/or foreigner), I couldn’t have one.

I felt somehow betrayed. Couldn’t they see that I was different from any old tourist? Couldn’t they see I was better? I even privately wanted Zoe to lecture her fellow dancers on the virtues of tolerance and acceptance.

Then, I started to think about this as a small window into what it was like to be excluded on the basis of identity. And while it didn’t feel good, it was illuminating to feel the sting of that insult.

I am lucky to be included and accepted most places I go. Despite the recent spate of anti-American sentiment in many corners of the Muslim world, I feel more than welcome. And, more often than not, as if I belong.

But being included is a privilege, not an entitlement, and doesn’t lead to real belonging, nor becoming – however ceremonially – orang Indonesia. Inclusion is based on trust and interest that can be freely given and inexplicably withheld. That is the nature and risk of cultural exchange.

I guess it’s important to experience rejection to properly appreciate acceptance. That’s real life. And in real life, I’ll never be orang Indonesian, even if I might idealize the potential to build meaningful relationships with orang-orang Indonesia. And truly, I don’t want to be. Nothing makes my stomach churn more than seeing two people compete for who can be, for instance, “more Balinese;” who can be invited to more events, or share in more of those private cultural spaces. I also learned I’m not istimewa. I’m just lucky to have good friends.

Behind every joke is a little truth. And my little joke had a grain of truth to it that I could only recently – with the help of a small, if troubling, rebuff – glimpse. Ironically enough, I ended up going to the show anyway, for free through the sponsorship of The Faculty of Cultural Sciences at UGM, where I teach. It was beautiful.

Perhaps my inside joke with will never be, ahem, truly inside. But it’s still funny.

Either way, the joke’s on me.

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