Posts by Andhyta F. Utami

A generalist idea-organizer constantly in pursuit of an answer. I express my thoughts better in writing.

Semester 3

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(An unfinished post written 7 months ago—when my hair was still green.)

Being in graduate school has interfered with my sense of time. The 15 months that had passed since the last time I saw my friends and family at the airport felt like a very long dream that started just yesterday. But in a bizarre way, I’m also very conscious about the 400 days that I’ve spent away from home—almost obsessively trying to store as many new memories as possible in my mind keepsake.

Coming back to school as a second-year student had been a very distinct experience. I was stronger, more intelligent, and somewhat less affected by my environment. Not in an ignorant way, just more resilient. Having a support system, being someone’s support system, knowing what you like, understanding the pace you’re comfortable with. That kind of stuff.

One thing I learned: sometimes, it’s not about you. People have all sorts of baggage and biases. Every now and then, they dump it on you when you least expect it. Being raised as an Asianno, Sundanesewoman, it had been very tempting to think I was to blame. But more often than not, it’s really them.

I ended semester two with a sense of responsibilitywhat am I gonna do with all this overwhelming knowledge? This semester, however, had been a humbling journey where I realized this is not about solving all the problems. Not immediately, at least.

There’s so much more I need to learn and it feels like my time is tight, but isn’t learning is supposed to be lifelong?

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!

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!