When friends point out my addiction to nasi (rice), my apathetic interpretation of tardiness, my need for a thick sweatshirt in 80 degree weather, or my tendency to do Indo-baby-talk, I begin to realize… I have been here for a long time. In fact! My time is almost up! As I come upon my last 2 weeks of work in Indonesia I am busied with thoughts of the country’s most obvious systemic component—the one thing that has really shaped the people and their place in the world, the thing I wake up to at 4:30, wade through diurnally, and fall asleep with again at 10—religion. I sit here with the feeling of truth slowly unveiled during a long process of inquiry. Maybe similar to a feeling an old man might have when reflecting on chess; the game he has played since he was 12. It is a feeling that comes when you quite understand something while remembering how you didn’t quite understand it before. That is not to say I have a complete understanding and my process is over. I bet some new chess strategy will come about that will make the old man’s jaw drop. It only means my process has come to the forefront of its existential purpose; the satisfaction of knowledge. Yet, knowledge is not the end of the means. Rather, it is the required foundation. In that sense, there is no end, and only now can a real pursuit begin.
Today, after a US Embassy funded weekend in Jakarta, honoring the national “WORDS” competition (not to mention bowling and dinner at the Ambassador‘s house with Agnes Monica and 42 high schoolers), we visited the national monument. Not unlike my country’s national monument, Indonesia’s is phallic and tall—meant to give some masculine hope and pride to its citizens. After reflecting on the growth and independence from Indonesia’s colonial inhabitants, we walked from the monument’s park, out toward the bulbous building on the horizon. 20 minutes later, I stood betwixt two symbols of the world’s greatest and most conflicting religions: Chrisitianity and Islam—the largest, most impressive mosque in SE Asia and a beautiful, old, gothic cathedral. There they were, erect, and proud…standing in a peaceful faceoff. This faceoff started before my parents were born. The two buildings are magnificently suspended in their own space, but separated only by a pedestrian garden zone. Looking into each other’s eyes like two old friends, they are close and still somehow distant, but comfortable. At the country’s famous mosque, (the same one Michelle and Barak visited on their short stay) we learned that a Christian man was its architect, that there have always been a consistent number of words in the Koran, and that we, as Christians, Buddhists or Atheists were welcome so long as we removed our shoes.
During the 30 second walk from the mosque to the cathedral is when everything came full circle, when that truth hit me like a train might. This was the moment when my two years of contemplating the phrase “Unity in Diversity” (Indonesia’s motto) became clear. Giving it more than brain space…here it was…a physical…blatant reality. Indonesia IS the most religiously loud, yet religiously peaceful country ever to exist and everyone ought to learn from them. I used to think (because it is how my country is) that they dealt with one another in a manner that seemed peaceful, while they quietly built racist infrastructures accompanied by underlying hate and intolerance. Yet, after seeing the foundational-nationalistic symbol of brotherhood reaching across religions in the form of architecture, after walking into the national mosque while holding a conversation with an Atheist friend about better ideas for Zen meditation, and then taking a group of high school Muslims into an old cathedral during Sunday service, I came to a newer, better understanding, with a sigh of relief. This time around I acquired more than a motto for citation.
For a country that forces you to choose a religion, for a country run by the Ibu because she comes after the Prophet in importance and before the father, for a country that bows down to Saudi rites and culture, for a developing country, it is nothing less than extraordinary to witness such beautiful roots of tolerance at its nation’s capital. It is awesome, in the outlandish sense of the word, that I as a pagan-buddhologist-hindu can live within the walls of EXTREME religious devotion for 9 months and receive nothing but absolute tolerance and acceptance by its permanent inhabitants.
I have now reached the part of my process where I can see the ‘what’. However, what I want to take back with me to California is the ‘how’, but I might have to be patient because I am not quite there yet. When I get home and I get into the first conversation where I am on the defense of Islam how will I find the knowledge and patience to teach my country’s people to be more tolerant? More understanding? When I go to church with my aunt or get in a Palestine-Israel debate, how will I slow it down enough to help people adjust to a less American, worldlier opinion? I honestly do not know, because it really is just the beginning. And despite moments of great realizations and truth I will always be at the forefront of my process, with little droplets of satisfying bits of knowledge to fuel me on my way.
If you wish to learn more about what the Fulbrighters were doing with the Indonesian students check out this website and article: