The Bilingual’s Balancing Game

I was 16 when they sent me to compete in this Turkish language olympiad. At the end of our final training day, oğretmenim jokingly told me I wouldn’t be able to win unless I could dream in Turkish that night. I guess it would signal that my mind had stopped translating for me and instead started to think in the once-foreign language, designated it as the ‘primary’ one. The next morning, I woke up vaguely recalling our (short) Turkish conversation in my sleep, and a week later, I flew back from Istanbul carrying a gold medal.

I haven’t been dreaming much Turkish these days, but between Indonesian and English, I could sense that my mind has been struggling to figure out which channel it should let take over as the alpha.

I used to compartmentalize them into my ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ languages. English was simply a language for writing emails at work, for tweeting ideas, for presenting research findings, for thinking about complex frameworks that Indonesian does not have a word for. Meanwhile, my (obviously self-proclaimed) funnier personality was a lot more accessible in Indonesian—I could relax and make deadpan jokes all day long. It was not difficult for me to switch between one track to another; my environment would cue me in and like a chameleon, I would have eased my way into one track.

This line began to blur when I moved to the US and have to also use English to socialize with fellow students. Underneath all the interactions, my English brain has been stretching herself in an attempt to enter an unknown territory and transmit sentences I have never delivered in English before like, “Can’t believe winter is just around the corner!” or gossips about certain professors.

My first semester of graduate school, therefore, had been slightly more exhausting than I expected it to be. I talked to people but felt like I could not fully express myself, such that initiating friendship became futile. The struggle was so real I made myself read a spoken word poem entitled “To the Phantom Jokes that Never Got Out of My Mouth” in front of a school-wide talent show. The first sentence of that piece read, I wish people knew how funny I am in Indonesian.

(By the end of that semester I have made four close friends thanks to negotiation class’s final memo assignment and I have been much happier at school now that I have my support system, but that story deserves its own blogpost.)

I would say that I had been much better at ‘informal English’ today compared to 15 months ago—but it also means that my mind has been thinking a lot in English and I could sense that I would have a ‘reverse struggle’ going back to Indonesia. Not to mention that I had been studying all these cool new theories, frameworks, and concepts for public policy in English. Already, I could feel my brain muscle pulling itself to translate phrases like ‘administrative and political feasibility’ or ‘behavioral nudge’. While living with Wikan helps in maintaining my ‘informal Indonesian’, my English brain has become much smarter than my Indonesian brain, and I worry if she couldn’t catch up.

This winter break, I am going back to Indonesia to do field research for my final policy analysis, which would require me to talk to dozens of Indonesian officials and staff in local organizations. The way I see it, it could be the perfect training lab to help my mind’s Indonesian channel readjust before I come back to Indonesia for good in June. Wish me luck.

P. S. If you happen to be a subscriber to Frame & Sentences video essays (setengah #kode), you may notice that I had been primarily using English. Again, it’s not because I haven’t tried, but the few times that I did, it had always been a nightmare for me to try to convey the same ideas in Indonesian. (We literally have to take 5 times as many shots because I kept making mistakes.) I don’t think it’s because I don’t love my country etc., but because my mind couldn’t access the same depth of thought process in Indonesian. I am working towards changing it, but thank you for understanding. Hope the subtitles help!

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A Blazing Summer

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The past three months had been overwhelming: I finished an internship at the UNFCCC Secretariat, made new friends, and most exciting of all, launched a video essay YouTube channel with Wikan. We named our little brainchild Frame and Sentences because that’s what we think we’re respectively (somewhat) good at: taking pictures and putting words together. If you’d like to know more about the channel, we shared our background story through an interview with Swedian from Dialogika Podcast.

There are times when I feel like life has given me too much I might explode.

That said, August also marks the month that I left Indonesia last year. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I’m not sure if I can say the same about this damned country of mine. Now when I say that, it never means that I’m not going back home. In fact I’m very much looking forward to dipping back into a sea of problems that is my nation and try to discover a little space where I could make a difference.

For now, my home is Cambridge/Boston. Despite their ruthless winter, they have become a city of comfort. A place where people are warm anytime you’re in need of companionship, but provides caves of privacy when you need some lone time.

Speaking of home, last weekend Wikan and I took the train and bus to visit Göttingen, a city my family used to call home in 1998-1999. Things did not change that much; they simply shrank. The playground I used to hang out a lot at is now too small, though my elementary school somehow looks exactly the same.

I’ve come to like Bonn, too. The city’s weather never stays for more than two days, but maybe it’s just looking for our attention. It’s kind of cute, if you think about it.

Oh we visited Rotterdam and explored it on a bike, too. It was lovely.

Overall, it’s been such a rewarding and lessonful year. I look forward to what the next cycle has to offer.

On an unrelated note, I love how seasons come in four, and with this fourth blogpost, I have come to complete my seasonal blogpost series. I look forward to communicating my opinions and ideas visually, whichI’ve come to learnis a completely different animal.

I surely hope that this does not mean that I’ll stop writing, though. Video essays are the new cool guys I’ve been hanging out with, but I know my first love will always be a long, pictureless, sometimes structureless, good-old blogpost (just like this one). Onwards!

A Glimmer of Spring

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[A stone’s throw away from home.]

Sometimes I pause and wonder about what I have done to deserve everything that I have today. I’m never the most hard working student in the classroom, not the best friend/protege/leader, not the most devoted daughter at home, and my husband is definitely the better half in our partnership. And yet here I am, attending a ridiculously expensive university without paying a single penny, accomplishing almost every plan on my list, and supported by a family with unconditional love every step of the way.

Other than a few romantic heartbreaks, I almost always get what I want—friends, grades, schools, organizations, awards (not necessarily in that order). I have heard and sympathized with stories of failures before, of course, but the magnitude of how it shapes a person never really hit me. For so long, I have lived in my privileged bubble and remained clueless about living any other kind of life.

Until I get to know my husband, and with him his past failures that I have come to admire.

When he first opened up to me about the failure after failure after failure that he experienced, I was in denial. How could it be? He has passion, infinitely talented, and not only dares to dream big but also works hard to accomplish it. Compared to the indecisive me, he knows what he wants. He could be so certain about what he wants he decided to quit college. Yet across the table, sat me, almost taking all of my achievements for granted.

I thought, he must’ve been perceiving these events under the wrong framework. Maybe what he thought were failures are simply smaller-sized successes that help him learn. Like when he did not make the cut to the city’s baseball team despite training for months, it just meant that he was finally good enough to be in the semifinals. Or when we could not fundraised for our little short film, we could’ve focused on the fact that we got more than a handful donors that trusted us with their money.

Only later I realized that taking your failures into such perspective takes not just a discipline mind-training, but actually knowing that you will succeed at some point. I came from a position of privilege to be able to tell him that his pain is temporary, that it will pay off someday, as long as he keeps trying. It’s like telling violent crime victims that he/she was going to be okay—they might be, but what just happened would stay with them for a while.

Over time, I also learn the possibility that the only reason I haven’t truly failed (in a way that matters) is because I have avoided all the scary fights. I have told people I wanted to be a published author practically forever, but I have not finished a manuscript until this very day. I very rarely take a chance in anything that has even a glint probability of rejection. I never run as a president of anything in my life, and I only led projects when I know I have the resources and capacity to deliver.

On my wedding day, I told everyone how Wikan keeps me grounded, and I meant it. He reminds me every day how whatever I achieve in life is nothing but a privilege, allowed by the never ending support from my family and the people around me.

Here’s to growing even taller in the summer.

A Breakdown of Winter

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[Maybe listen to Wikan’s wonderful playlist while you’re here.]

“So, after a semester, did you feel like you’ve grown, Afu?” Was a question from my good/amazing Bangladeshi-American friend that caught me off-guard during our small-group dinner a couple weeks ago. My instinct—which I followed—was to answer yes. But when he continued with, “In what ways?”, I had to think it through.

Indeed, when you’re over a quarter-century old, what would constitute ‘growth’?

I told him, now I don’t worry so much about being liked.

During the early months at grad school, my energy was put into making sure that my counterpart enjoyed talking to me. I was determined to show how great Indonesians are. I would tackle every awkward silence with a random topic, laugh at the unfunniest jokes, and look interested in the most boring subjects. Lately, however, I cared less about putting these extra efforts. I realized that not every two people are meant to click with each other. If the other party does not bother to make conversations, I won’t. It doesn’t mean the end of the world. I sure hope that it doesn’t mean that I’m becoming a mean person, either. I hadn’t given up completely on trying, I’d like to think I just understand better when it doesn’t work.

Finding genuine friends that made Boston home definitely helped.

Perhaps, I continued, it was because I finally discovered a comfort zone comprising of a few really good friends whom I know I could be real with. These people probably don’t have a clue how much they mean to me, but strong connections are rare, and I deeply cherish the one we share. To be able to talk about things that matter to you with people who give a damn and don’t judge is truly, truly life-changing.

Never did it occur in my head that I would make friends again at the age of 24. Thought that game was over years ago, but—again—never doubt what the universe had hidden for you in the right time. Our group spent the rest of the night talking about languages, Harry Potter, and a bunch of other stuff, but at home, I continued reflecting on how—if—I grew.

Maybe I grew because I lost, and lost, and lost, and sometimes—won.

Boston winter is teeth-grinding cold. I later figured, however, that underneath the weather, lies the even colder truth: becoming the first is tough, and I more often than not am just an average. Which was hard at first, but in retrospect made me very glad, because:

If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.
Confucius (apparently)

To date, I have got more Bs than As, more internship applications rejected than accepted, and lost more competitions than actually winning them. The most exciting part is that I honestly thought I was good enough, and learning that I hardly am. In short, proving myself wrong. Again, and again, and again.

Wikan always told me that external affirmation does not matter when I have given my best, and I wholeheartedly knew that he was right. Another good friend shared an awesome quote which basically says, “Bs prove that you have learned something in the classroom while still enjoying life”. Could not agree more.

Plus, when you occasionally win, it tastes much, much better.

This last bit, I think, had been the highlight of winter (and the entire semester) for me—not that spring had been anywhere near Boston. Other than that, perhaps the Hogwarts Homecoming trip that Wikan and I did last ‘spring’ break. Tee-hee.

If you’re reading this from Indonesia, please go outside and enjoy the warm sun for me!

A Synthesis of Fall

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[Click here for suggested background music.]

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.

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:

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 is about anyway.

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.