[Red trees and rainy roads—I would’ve probably painted this view if I could.]
If time could have a form, the past three months had been a dense-but-loose, huge-yet-fluffy block of lessons. At the background, stood trees turning into red and cold winds swooshing into the city—in a very Cantabrigian way. I had been stationed at its center, determined to make sense of everything. As my best friend Rocky said, “Back then, we tried so hard to conquer the world. Now, we realize that growing up is about conquering ourselves—and sometimes it takes even much more work.”
This fall had been just about that—falling, punnily enough, into a sea of revelations.
1. The Almost-Impostor Syndrome
I expected my first week at HKS to be filled with the fear of people thinking, “How can she even be here?” Or worse, “She’s probably here as our diversity token—after all, we need more students from Southeast Asian countries.” And there were definitely moments when I questioned whether the admissions office made a mistake by letting me in, and whether it was all pure luck and timing.
They probably read my mind, because the first thing they told us on the first day of our orientation week was literally: “You belong here. You are HKS.”
And just like that, I believed them. While I am fully aware that I’m hardly the smartest person in the room who still gets occasional visits from good-old-friend insecurities, I realized—pretty quickly—that I belonged there, and that I made the right choice.
How did I arrive there? On that same day, we were visited by NYU’s Professor Kenji Yoshino, who gave a lecture about diversity and inclusion in a post-racial/gender segregation world. Specifically, he introduced ‘covering’, which is a way for members of minority groups to hide their identities in order to blend in. It’s not the topic per se (which was obviously interesting) but the way this community actually talked about it—put them in frameworks, questioned assumptions, diagnosed with data, and discussed what we should do about it in the most practical way—I simply couldn’t resist to fall in love.
I grow fonder and fonder of the institution every day, because those four steps remain at the center of what we do; including on the day Hillary had to deliver her concession speech. Here, ‘public service’ is not a mere soundbite but air that the entire campus breathes. (I swear I’m not overselling—although it is certainly not exclusive and would likely be the case in other public policy schools, too.)
Since you’re in love, everything else appears so small. There were tons of assignments and plenty of time-consuming reflections, but like with all loves: you just have to work things out.
2. Adopting an Identity
Some people say you’ll never genuinely appreciate the beauty and/or comfort of your country until you leave them. This is especially true when you had been so spoiled by all-year-long warm weather and now it’s almost always freezing.
Some people say you’ll never truly embrace your identity until it becomes relevant to the conversation. This is especially true in a classroom with 60 extremely well-read, effortlessly critical public policy students—debating about often-cross-disciplinary issues from various corners of the world.
Being an ‘international student’ pushes me to get in touch with my identities—an activity that I didn’t usually bother to, just because it didn’t seem necessary. Being here wakes me up from my quarter-century-long ‘identity numbness’—and realize that I’m an Indonesian woman who was raised in a conservative Muslim family. Listening to opposing political views on a daily basis, I had to put my liberal self out there or I would not have a voice at all.
My identity, values, and ideologies are suddenly put under the spotlight, lurking behind every statement and academic argument that I made. Likewise, I had to be aware of my friends’ identities, values, and ideologies in making sure that what I say does not disregard or discriminate them in any way. This process creates an entire layer of thinking on top of the actual thinking—which had been a novel, challenging, yet rewarding experience so far.
Outside of school, Wikan and I also have the opportunity to learn about what being a minority is really like, from mistakenly assumed as Chinese, down to being told to ‘go home’ just several days before the Election. I am determined to never forget how that made me feel when I fly back home and resettle as the country’s majority.
[Pale roses I got on Thanksgiving Day—completely unrelated with what the rest of this post is about. But click here for suggested background music.]
3. The Freedom to Write (About Anything)
The highlight of the past month, however, would have been how my writing brain had officially been liberated. GAAAAAH. It feels goooood. Sure, I wrote op-eds before—but as I’ve told you before, having a job means you’ll always be restricted by someone else’s (cue: the company/organization you work for) territory to a certain extent in whatever you present publicly. Now, being my own boss, I get to write quite about anything—and it took tons of load off my shoulder.
Indeed, not having the 9-to-5 commitment to spend in the office is also helpful, although it turned out grad school actually takes much more than 8 hours a day—more on that later. With most credits going to Professor Greg Harris who forced me to write every week in his policy writing class—I’ve so far managed to publish the following pieces which made me feel, again, liberated:
- Trump’s Triumph and the Case for Democracy, The Jakarta Globe, November 15th, 2016
- The U.S. Election, Jakarta Protests, and Identity Politics, Rappler, November 7th, 2016
- What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Papua, Rappler, October 26th, 2016
And I certainly look forward to write much more! Wikan had been reminding me about the book draft I haven’t touched for months, and speaking of Wikan…
4. The Not-So-Unorthodox Marriage Life
Legally, Wikan and I had been married for roughly four months. Mentally however, we’ve been husband and wife for almost two years, literally making the most mundane to the most important decisions together throughout. One of the first decisions we made together as partners was the color of my room, which we also painted together (sort of). However, the honeymoon period of our relationship ended as soon as I got my grad school letter of acceptance in early 2015, where we had to risk our still-very-fragile connection then had I left for school immediately. We decided that I stay, and a little over twelve months later—after many self-discoveries and moments of learning about your partner better—we decided that we would like to do this for the rest of our lives.
In case I haven’t properly introduced him: Wikan is way more talkative and creative than me; he’s a dreamer, and a spontaneous one. While we are both liberals who believe in—among others—women’s authority upon their own body and therefore abortion, we are very different in nature. I tend to be more impatient and pragmatic, while he’s all about perfectly-done poached eggs and idealism. While we are united in our love for good design, minimalist furnitures, well-made movies/television series, tech, tidiness, and great YouTube channels (we know a lot), we fundamentally diverge in perceiving—at least in the early stage of our relationship—whether being rational and dismissing the emotional is actually a virtue (guess who’s who).
But of course, we’ve figured that out for a while already. So what’s new?
“Why do we choose partners so different from ourselves? It’s not chance or cliches like ‘the heart wants what it wants’. We choose our partners because they are the unfinished business from our childhood. And we choose them because they manifest the qualities we wish we had. In doing so, in choosing such a challenging partner, and working to give them what they need, we chart a course for our own growth.”
—Jay Pritchett, Modern Family
The fact that he’s pretty much the opposite of me in a lot of aspects means that there will be constant turbulences as long as we’re together, and in a marriage, it becomes our reality every single day. However, it is not necessarily a reality that we deny or despise; instead, we embrace it as a way to challenge ourselves and as Jay beautifully put it—chart a course for our own growth. After all, turbulences only tell us that our relationship is still perfectly airtight. Lack of them, on the contrary, signals that some parts are not intact, or there might be gaps that need fixing.
Hence every now and then, Wikan would—as soon as he detects that something’s wrong—make me talk about instead of suppressing it. He believes in healthy quarrels instead of pseudo peaces. As a result, we had never been silent to each other for more than 15 minutes and I’ve always ended up loving him more after we fight. Having been a conflict-avoider my whole life, this means pushing myself to be more self-conscious about the things I don’t like and finding ways to communicate it constructively; understanding that—after all—we’re there to be the safety nets for each other.
Of course, moving to another country, being on our own, and having to find a new rhythm at home play a great deal in shaping our recently-legalized partnership—but I think it’s pretty much what marriage in itself is.
P. S. Wikan is an incredible cook.
All in all, I have been having the most amazing time of my life. Thought I had passed my most blessed stage long ago but just proved myself wrong. The universe had only been kinder and kinder throughout.
To friends who read this through until this very line, please let us know when you’re in Cambridge! We’d be more than happy to host and give you a tour.