2020: The Year I Lost Myself

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I haven’t read Anna Karenina, but that opening sentence had been stuck with me for a while. Last year (2020) was a mess for almost everyone I know (as I realized while scrolling through reflection posts on the eve of December 31), but perhaps it was messy in slightly different ways for each of us. My mess didn’t even have anything to do with the coronavirus per se, although the pandemic might have exacerbated it.

You see, I think a lot. I think a lot about thinking, about being, about why people say what they say or don’t. I do this in my head, silently, making assessments one observation after another. It’s not a brag, not a call for attention, just a fact. Sometimes the thinking gets in the way of doing, but most of the time it helps me come up with a plan/approach which later makes the doing twice as efficient, compensating for the time lost to thinking.

I think a lot about myself. Not in a self-absorbed way (hopefully), but in a way that I have an unhealthy obsession to put a label or to make sense of who I am, what I’m going through, and what I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do. You might have noticed that throughout this blog-memoir. When I was confused about being both a researcher and a spoken-word amateur, I called myself a nomad. Other times I wrote about what being a bilingual or marrying early means, and about arriving at a state of constant sadness. The first time I read about Hogwarts, I was happy to finally ‘belong’ in a house that appreciates intelligence, at a time when my friends at elementary school nerdshamed me. Not sure why, but I keep having this urge to clarify some sort of ‘scope’ or rules of the game as a way to understand myself.

Last year, however, my brain failed to help make sense of who or where I am in life. The year was challenging for a lot of reasons, but more than anything, I felt lost.


Without warning, I found myself hurt pretty badly at the beginning of this year.

Without going into too much details, I kind of hit a new low in the first few months of this year (way before we all realized a pandemic was coming into the picture). I did not realize I could cry so intensely for a few days straight. And even after that, I cried some more still. I’m not sure if I had properly processed it or I’m simply suppressing something that will bite me back later, but I’m glad I came out the other side. I feel much better now, and while there are some triggers that could put me back there, in most days I simply forgot—it almost feels like nothing happened.

One thing I know is that I would never wish it to happen to anyone. But if it does, I hope they get the help they would need to get through it.


I can’t find my authentic voice and cared a little less.

I don’t even remember when this happened, but at some point in late 2019 (?) Twitter got so toxic that instead of letting me—and many others—learn from our mistakes/translation- and character-limit-related misunderstood tweets—I was ‘cancelled’. I’m still recovering from quite a deep PTSD since then. I now find myself self-correcting more than once, deleting and re-tweeting my carefully drafted sentences, and later just not caring anymore.

Because between the options of being misunderstood or keeping some information/opinion to myself, it turned out I preferred the latter. Perhaps it helped that I have other platforms to share on, be it work or personal projects. But even then, I still felt a little hallow (like a weird limbo) where I’m not allowed to have an opinion because it will only be misunderstood or used to attack me out of spite.

Of course I knew that judgments thrown at you say a lot more about those people(‘s insecurity) than yourself, but your System 1 won’t always remember that. So here’s to hoping that this year I could be a little braver and stronger to be myself again, with all my shortcomings as a human being.

___

I lost my soul a little, trying to do too many things at once.

I’ve always been an advocate for generalists (including multitasking ones). I think each of us could become more than one thing, be it in parallel or sequenced in a lifetime. We are three-dimensional after all, and shouldn’t be confined to one role. That said, this year I have split myself too many times that I kind of lost my soul in the process (much like what happened to Voldemort and his horcruxes).

Between doing research and building a community, I almost constantly feel like I barely got caught up with everything. I kept having panic attack, feeling like I haven’t done enough, haven’t put my best on both. Not to mention that I have done at least additional 4-10 webinars per month (which I would normally divulge in, but given the spreading myself too thin, they then felt a little suffocating). All of this seemed to have happened mainly inside my head because apparently most of my colleagues thought I was doing quite well: “Mbak Afu hebat sekali bisa melakukan A-B-C, gimana bagi waktunya?”*

[*The truth is, I got a lot of help from Lidia, who is also my hero of the year, introduced by Ogi to figure out my schedule and everything. It’s one of the few things I’m grateful about this year.]

But it’s not just about doing well. In the last quarter of 2020, a friend’s IG story hit me: “Between the scale of 1-10 of being busy, someone needs to be at 6-7 in order to have enough mental space to innovate, to make great things happen.” The truth is that I have been constantly at 9-10 this year, if not 12. There’s no way someone at 12 could lead/drive something—I was struggling and did not feel good about doing the work I normally enjoyed. I started looking forward to weekends, something I never did in the past.

Another signal that I have split myself too thin: I dropped balls a few times—missed meetings or deadlines, which again was so not me. At the beginning of the year, I said I was going to help a mentor with her recent political appointment, but I ended up abandoning the team completely, barely had anything left to offer. I also talked to an editor about publishing a book, and again I ran away. I don’t want to jinx it this year so I won’t even try to promise that I’ll finally get it done this year.

Twenty-twenty was also the year I realized I hated being called an ‘influencer’ (whatever that means), and contributing to the toxic culture of trying to get people to buy something that you post. While I tried to keep an open mind and set a certain criteria (sustainable local products, etc.), promoting products without actually presenting the full options because the competitors did not pay me goes against the very value I believe in: agency. As much as I tried to ‘inform’ instead of ‘sell’ in my posts, at the end of the day I don’t have the full liberty to review as though I buy the stuff myself. Here’s being able to stop doing that in 2021.


I have been worrying a lot about my family(ies), sometimes it’s numbing.

As millennials entering their 30s perhaps could relate to, we switch roles with our parents. With COVID-19 being around and them being more vulnerable, I worry about my mom, who is still telecommuting Jakarta-Semarang for work. I worry about (but also am proud of) my dad, who has been making peace with his Parkinson’s Disease. I worry about my little brother who was brave enough to decide about what he doesn’t want to do (and consequentially what he does).

I worry mostly in silence, sometimes through sending stuff home through e-commerce. Some nights these worries could be numbing. I hope that this year I could manage these worries of mine, and simply support and be happy for them.


I was late to realize that staying in touch with art could’ve helped me remain myself. I found a new solace in nature.

Art had helped me process my anger, my fear, and hidden feelings in the past. Back in the days I would write fictions/spoken word poems here. Each time I performed (and listened to) a piece, I felt recharged, I felt that my anger, fear, and hidden feelings were understood. One of the symptoms of my losing a state of balance this year is the fact that my last spoken word poem was from August 2018.

I am grateful, that said, that Hamilton Musical was made available on Disney Plus this year, because I finally get to sing along to Lin and the original cast performing what used to just be iTunes albums I listened to on repeat on long drives. Is it weird that I found myself both in Lin (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?“) and Angelica (“You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.”) Can’t wait for the pandemic to be over so we could organize a Hamilton singalong party soon.

Another special part of this year is rediscovering nature in all its glory. Between long staying at home periods, we took a break and hiked Mount Pangrango. It was over 18 hours of going up and down, overcome major obstacles and at the end accomplished something I never thought I could. Can’t wait to do more hiking sessions next year.


I look forward to rediscovering (if not reinventing) myself in 2021. Cheers.

Confession of an Impostor

A few years back I came across this term—survivor’s guilt—it’s the “mental condition of a person who believes he/she has done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not”. Probably at a very different scale and form, but I think I have been carrying a very similar feeling for a while now—that of being undeserving. I later learned that it’s probably linked to having privileges and another term: Impostor’s Syndrome.

Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome - The New York Times

Not sure when or how it started. Perhaps it was when I was almost the only person in among my SD friends (who came from economically vulnerable families) to make it to Bogor’s best SMP, and it snowballed to where I am, with a dream degree and job. At almost every turn, I feel like I barely worked hard enough compared to my peers, but I always got in while they didn’t. It came with a weird survivor’s guilt too—how do I survive (sometimes thrive) when others struggle, why is the universe kind to me for no reason?

Come to think of it, I almost always had it easy. With no intentions to brag (why would an impostor brag), I listed down some evidence:

  1. On the day I competed in the first round of a national mathematics olympiad for junior high, I came unprepared, having done a sleepover at a friend’s the night before. Yet somehow I made it to the final round, and eventually won a gold medal which led me to a three-year scholarship at an international, English-speaking senior high.
  2. At senior high, I happened to be good in Turkish, went to an international language olympiad, practiced but really was just having a lot of fun, won another gold medal. That, together with another silver and bronze I got from international science project olympiads, apparently can be exchanged with an invitation to go to one of the country’s best universities. I remember feeling deeply guilty, seeing some of my friends at the dormitory studying their asses off and barely made it or did not make it at all. Why me?
  3. During undergrad time, I had so, so many windows of opportunities opened for me—organizationally, competition-wise, while maintaining a 3.8 GPA. Sure, it was stressful, but it also really wasn’t. I looked around and see some friends struggled here and there. How was I fine, barely affected with all the pressure—if anything, thrive? Still unclear.
  4. I stumbled upon my first job, which turns out to be a dream role where I could combine research with impact, and it also happens to pay really well. It was the first time they decided to hire an Indonesian-based intern, and I happened to come across the opportunity and got it, ended up being hired full time, learned a lot for almost two years, before…
  5. I got into Harvard the first time I applied. Did not even take a real course for my GRE. Got almost perfect score on my TOEFL. Sure, the preparation took a lot of time, but also it was fine. I did my best but I also did not want it so badly. There, I got the internship I wanted, approved the capstone project I wanted to do, won things, and overall did quite well.
  6. When I got back, I knew I wanted to explore the World Bank. Apparently someone forwarded my resume from a previous round of application, went through two interviews, and voila. Most people had to wait for a while before they get upgraded from a consultant to a full time position—I got that within a little over a year, for a position/title someone would normally have a lot more years of experience for.

Why does the universe love me so much and why does it bother me???

I have experienced so much joy, I have seen so much of the world, and the only feeling that now left me with is how much I wish I could have my family with me the whole time. I wish my parents were with me when I got to explore the United States. I wish Eyang could’ve visited the Louvre Museum with me. I wish my brothers could’ve seen Hogsmeade with me. After everything they’ve done for me—every single sacrifice—how am I the only one in the family who gets to enjoy all of that???

Sometimes, when a close friend of mine goes through a hard time, I deeply share their pain, but they also come with more guilt. How am I happy and well? Why can’t everyone in the world be? Shouldn’t celebration of anything be banned as long as there’s someone else sad in the corner? Can’t we do something about poverty and inequality once and for all? (Is it possible that I’m simply in denial with my own problems and struggles?)

I’m still learning to make peace with this guilt. One thing that it does is I constantly try to give back—with my time, energy, and resources. But it never feels close to being enough, while I keep feeling burnout in the process. Somebody told me it’s a Messiah complex/first daughter thing?

Anyone going through a similar thing? What’s your trick?

Here’s to Not Being Stuck in the Hallway Forever

Remember that time when the only hard choice you needed to make was between ‘Paddle Pop Pelangi‘ vs. ‘Fantasy Anggur-Jeruk‘? No matter what you ended up with, there were almost zero consequences to the people around you—except for the rare occasions when you caught the flu.

I’m fully aware that what I’m about to talk about is going to sound ungrateful and borderline arrogant. You might say that being able to have a choice at all is already a massive privilege that some people could only imagine. But man, I will be lying if I say that the past two months had not been tormenting. That is, having to pick a path that will shape my long-term career trajectory. Basically, the first steps toward the ultimate destiny of how people will remember me.

Indeed, graduating from a generalist school opened dozens of doors—including some I didn’t even know existed. But with more doors, comes a humongous question of ‘what if’. Naturally, I made lists, tables, and talked to almost everyone I trust to get their perspectives. But the trade-off between choosing one career path over the other is too complicated; my head got so shaken up it led me to multiple emotional breakdowns.

Should I try out the private sector world for a bit or should I stay in the great organization that had brought me where I am? Should I enter the public sector now even though I will have to make some compromise? Or should I make a mediocre choice that does not really make me excited but at least does not have any red flag?

After 70 tiring, winding days of indecision, I’ve finally settled on a door. There had been some casualties on my way there—but it’s the door I opted. I knew I did not want to be stuck in an endless search or got stuck in the wrong place for short-term impulses. Maybe there never will be a perfect option. Now I just have to commit to my choice and deal with any repercussions that come with it.

If you’re one of the people affected by my confusion and hesitation in the past two months: I apologize. And if you’re one of the people who spent time and energy to talk to me: thank you. Not sure what mess I would have been without you.

Now I’m just excited about starting anew.

August 2016 was the month I ditched home to learn in a land of uncertainties, but I guess August 2018 will be the month I make peace with all the uncertainties that come with being at home. Wish me luck.

P. S. To understand the analogy of doors and hallways, watch this very relevant speech about ‘infinite browsing mode on Netflix’ by Pete Davis from the Harvard Law School during our commencement ceremony last May.

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!

Separation Blues

Being the first kid in the family, I had been used to being the one who left. The one who is being dropped off, sent off, or called in from miles away.

My first departure from home took place way back when I was barely 14—it was my first night at the boarding school. I cried myself to sleep; wanting the separation to be over the next morning. I remembered feeling devastated. The darkness made it impossible to think about anything else than the comfortable place where everyone I loved were, where I could sleep with the lights on.

I remembered missing the familiar texture of my bed. I didn’t know then, but I know now that I cried for selfish reasons.

Good for me, I figured out soon that the distance between Tangerang Selatan and Bogor was less than two hours. I figured I could took an angkot every other week. I stopped crying the day after.

When I started out college three years later, I had been smarter. I skipped the crying part right into the conclusion that Depok, too, was only an hour away from Bogor. Going home was a piece of cake.

Fast forward to the time I had to live in Singapore for a while. This occasion, I spent a good hour crying the night before my flight—probably because apparently I was still smart. I knew what living abroad entails: being on your own, making friends with strangers, but worst of all, being away from your family and closest friends—this time by a distance that is much further than mere two-hour angkot ride or one-hour commuter line trip.

My first night at the dormitory, I cried again. Facing the side wall, trying to keep my voice close to non-existent because I didn’t want my new roommate to think I was a freak.

It was not so bad because it turned out my scholarship can cover a round-trip at least every two months. That aside, I’m pretty sure I also cried for selfish reasons.

Yesterday, though—yesterday was different.

DSCF5660-2

Before anything else, it’s probably relevant to highlight that Boston/Cambridge is not exactly close from Jakarta. You either have enough cash to afford a 24-hour flight, or you’re just stuck being away from each other for the rest of your program (20 months, that is).

Knowing how my hormones usually react to separations, I expected myself to wail either several days before, or at the airport scene.

And yet, there were no tears. Wikan and my entire nuclear family members and a couple of our best friends were present—which would’ve been the perfect let-go/crying scene for yours truly—but to my own surprise, we left very calmly. There were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

We waved for the last time, didn’t bother to take a final look, and off we went through the immigration desk to the boarding gate.

Before the airport, there were also farewell dinners. Ones you spent with your work colleagues, best friends, good friends, and intellectual friends. At each one’s end, there were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

It felt unnatural.

Was it because my subconscious perceives grad school as such a significant deal, separations seem like a sensible price? One that isn’t even worth a short, good cry? Was it because I have Wikan—my very definition of home—coming along, it doesn’t really feel like being away?

While I do consider the latter as truth, it still feels wrong not to at the very least feel sad about leaving everything behind. The familiar faces, roads, foods, scents, and rains. But there was nothing.

The answer arrived five hours later, when I broke down at the airplane.

It was midnight when the flight attendants switched the lights off. I put on my eye mask, and leaned to sleep on Wikan’s shoulderif anything, feeling a bit giddy because of the show I just watched.

In complete darkness however, without a cue, my mind floated itself home—playing a scene where my frail father struggled to pick up his mug because his muscles had now began rebelling, my kind mother juggling through responsibilities when she should’ve just stayed home and spoil herself, my grandmother stuck to her bed probably wondering how quiet our house would be when my youngest brother goes to college in a year. There was also my aunt and uncle whose only daughter just got into college—who else would they be taking care of? And just like that, I wailed.

I wailed, this time weirdly not because my family wouldn’t be there for me, but because I wouldn’t be there for them, probably in the period when they need me the most.

It suddenly hit me that without me or my cousin and younger brothers, they would be five old parents, getting even older, while taking care of one another. As much as it would make a beautiful movie story, the thought of it makes me sad.

Banda Neira’s Di Beranda triggered this realization a while back (sent it to my mother when she told me she’d been crying for how empty the house was after my wedding), but tonight it hit me much harder. Maybe because it lacks anticipation. Like a Katrina on a summer day.

Prior to writing this down (which was Wikan’s idea), I finally had the good cry. Partly because I felt sorry, but mostly because I felt sorry about not telling my parents about how sorry I felt, how I do wish I could spend more time with them, how I regret not making enough time for them when I still could.

I know for a fact that I would feel twice as devastated had Wikan not come along with me. But I wonder if that would be another selfish kind of sadness—of wanting to have him around, of not having to be apart, of never having to feel lonely again.

I wonder, if you can only start thinking about someone else when you stop being selfish—or can you do both? Do I start shifting to the other kind of separation blues because I finally have everything I need? Is this part of growing up?