Every morning when I walk from my home to the program house, I pass through the courtyard of Masjid Besar, the main mosque of Kotagede. Usually I pass by at the time when elementary students have their PE class. There are about 50 kids around, tossing balls, skipping ropes in big and smaller groups, cheering for their friends. Their liveliness sharply contrasts my languid stroll at 7:50am.
Back home I’d have to be cautious not to get hit by a ball because I cross unnoticed. Here, quite the contrary seems to be the case: many of the kids pause the game just to observe as I’m passing by, and usually a few will even greet me with a “Hello Miss!” or “Hello Mr!” My presence is exciting –I can hear it in their giggles after I’ve acknowledged them, smiled, and waved back. Here, it’s hard to be invisible.
Although within a few minutes of conversation one can understand that I’ve been here for some period of time, this doesn’t make me any less of an outsider. I look different, so inevitably I stick out and receive the kind of attention a tourist would. Usually, this comes in the form of a request for a picture (a selfie). We all get this request quite frequently. It happens on the streets, at social events, as well as in the comfort of my own home, whenever my family has guests over. It even happens at the gym when you look all sweaty and gross. Sometimes I feel commodified, a bit like an exhibit. For the most part, it’s become a fact of life by now.
As much as I am used to this extra attention and the practice of picture taking, on every occasion questions come to mind that are impossible to push aside. The adjective cantik (beautiful), seems to emerge almost instinctively as they greet me. Is it my features, or my skin color and mancung (pointy) nose that they find attractive? Could this simply be a matter of people being compelled by what looks different? Yet, even though tanning products back home are no less popular than whitening products here, people back home would not typically see a flat nose and consider it ideal. To what extent, then, could these people here have adopted the mindsets that outsiders have of them? I am aware that I could be wrong in assuming that power and racial dynamics play into people’s pursuit of taking pictures with foreigners. However, reading Edward Said’s Orientalism while encountering these phenomena makes it increasingly difficult to abandon or ignore such assumptions. Don’t get me wrong –I don’t mean to complain for getting compliments! Yet inevitably, I am compelled to wonder what the grounds of these compliments are, and their implications about how these people see me, and themselves.
Spotting my bias in trying to understand different views: is what I understand a result of what I actually hear? To what extent am I hearing a confirmation of what I originally thought? This is one of my biggest challenges here.