Life Outside the Bubble
Survival is inherently dependant on where you are. Every city has its own set of steps and precautions that you need to take to stay afloat. From simple things, like getting an apartment and making food, to secondary things like how to get to work each morning, couple that with the minute details of daily life that you have to consider in order to survive physically and emotionally every day. It takes time to fully engross yourself in these rules. And in the process of assimilation, it leaves you feeling left without a home.
After high school, I left Indonesia to study in Canada for four years. The prospect and reality of moving from somewhere physically and mentally suffocating weren’t necessarily exciting more than it was a relief. From the moment I stepped on the plane, to moving in a shared dorm room, to making friends during orientation week, I wasn’t excited nor scared, but more so relieved about having to survive in a different place other than home.
In Canada, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for my wrongdoings. If I forgot to get groceries for dinner that night, if I got to work 20 minutes late, if I didn’t get the grades I wanted in university. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself. There were no cooked food on the dinner table downstairs ready for me to eat, there were no traffic jams I could make as viable excuse, there were no teachers who could be held accountable. Because it was just me. And this was liberating.
While many would associate the idea of survival with having or establishing a comfort zone, comfort can become stagnating. There is a personal thirst for new adventures that exists outside of this bubble, this bubble with its pre-established hierarchy -- a structure that awfully limits and constricts how I make decisions and even determines my own agency in the things I choose. As almost every responsibility fell on my lap during my time abroad, it gave me endless freedom and taught me to become a functioning semi-adult.
But with that, comes a new, unexpected outcome: I have become a stranger in my own hometown.
At the end of August 2016, I moved back to Jakarta. In the first few weeks, I found myself struggling to merely talk in legible Indonesian and embarrassing myself to a number of Uber drivers. Being absorbed back into this tight bubble, I did not know how to act and had to relearn how to behave. I felt like a toddler who just had her first steps.
As Angie Jenie puts it in her personal essay about moving back to Indonesia after 17 years of living in New York, it is the smallest details that are the hardest to turn into a habit. For example: ”Something as simple as greeting a person required strenuous consideration, such as calling an older person “Pak” or “Bu” or “Mas” or “Mbak”.” In fact, I once completely forgot about this social rule and unconsciously called all my seniors at work by their names (which is rude in Indonesian culture).
This process of adjustment is like being in limbo, an uneasy state that screams to me how I don’t belong anywhere. I learned how to be self-sufficient for the past four years. I cooked food for myself, I knew how to take public transportation, I managed my time sufficiently to lead a fairly balanced life. But when these things are suddenly confined into that previous bubble, I am paralyzed. Simple tasks seem complicated because I realized that I learned to grow up in a completely different, first-world circumstance. It is a paralyzing luxury. But despite all this, it is the warmth of the people and the absurdity of the city that make Jakarta endlessly interesting and inevitably familiar.
As ear-numbing as this will sound, running away to survive somewhere else doesn’t solve anything. If anything, it is nothing more than a form of self-exploration. Home will always be home, no matter how alienated you may feel. In the end, Dwiputri Pertiwi sums it up nicely in her essay about exploring the unfamiliar, she says:
“When we are on a journey, we sometimes discover that the unknown is nothing more than a variation of what we already know — especially when we interact with people. Cultural diversity may have caused major differences between different groups of people, but when it comes down to it, humans are humans, no matter where we are from or where we are going.”