Survivor’s Guilt

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 almost always had it easy. With no intentions to brag whatsoever, 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 many 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 share their pain, but also some 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? Don’t even let me start with poverty and inequality.

I have been learning to make peace with this guilt for sometime now—I’m still not quite there yet. Maybe one day.

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.

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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?

On Marrying Your Black Swan

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[Captured by Ben Laksana, July 23rd, 2016.]

Nobody thought I would’ve tied the knot at age 24—yours truly didn’t either. It seemed too early, rather rushed, and surprising. But as Nassim Taleb points out in The Black Swan, regardless how much we’d like to suppress it, unlikely events take place all the time and almost always, they are the ones that yield in massive consequences. It also observes that, upon discovering an outlying phenomenon, humans would tend to frantically search for a simpler explanation—a rationalization that would ease their anxiety about what weird thing just happened. Love, fate, momentum? And yet when you look closely, it really is just a random occurrence. Our wedding was, in itself, a personal-scaled black swan.

Translation: I did not see it coming.

The universal formula had always been that girls with ambition wouldn’t—shouldn’t—settle down so early. The less universal formula is that there’s a laundry list that has to be ticked and unless a perfect match is found, one shall never stop looking. Being in our early 20s, we still had a long time to go, and Wikan hardly fit in my then set of criteria, but here we are, married—for 20 good days.

The truth is: we figured out early on, that we’re not huge fans of being away from each other. Especially when it involves a distance of over 23 hours of cross-oceanic flights and 12-hour difference, which was what would’ve happened had I started my master’s program next month alone. We’ve heard the opposing arguments: temporary separations could make hearts grow fonder, and if anything, it would’ve been a legit test to how strong our feelings were.

Nonetheless, we’re also aware that it would result in humongous, unnecessary pain and loneliness. Some can work out long distance relationships, but why do we have to go through the same agonizing drill for two solar cycles when there’s an obvious remedy in front of us?

Not to mention the imminent the risk of growing apart—had we led separate lives, every day we would’ve met different people, exposed to potentially conflicting values, and constantly develop new understandings that might not be as easily synchronized the way we are able to do it today. Sure, Skype calls could help, but there are obvious limitations.What if your other half is facing a hard time and you couldn’t be there for them? What if you stop caring? Naturally, if there’s a way to mitigate that, we just had to take it. Now we’re legally bound to live together, to move across continents, time zones, and languages—nobody could forbid us to.

For any two people who just want to be there for each other in any possible circumstances, who dream of not only growing old but also growing up side by side: getting married feels like being granted the ultimate visa. You simply win more by obtaining it sooner, not the other way around.

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As for the checkboxes, Alain de Botton writes this eye-opening essay about why we will keep marrying the wrong person, which basically sums up the story of how Wikan has drastically changed the way I looked at relationships and, well, marriages. That it is more about making the effort to meet halfway than hunting for the person who is already sitting on the right spot from the beginning:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

Lastly, there is also a good chance that both of us slightly see this whole marriage thing as, the way Ben Laksana put it, a ‘rite of passage to freedom’. That signing three times on the sacred pages of ‘marriage book’ would disarm our parents and family from the kinds of justifications that they could use to govern our lives, or force their values onto ours. Don’t take it the wrong way, however; we love both our parents and they are great, but being able to decide for ourselves and gaining more independence to do so is one of the things we look forward to. Please go read the entire piece for more on that topic.

[In case this is not what you’re looking for, the also-honest-but-more-romantic reason is parked on another lot. Hahaha.]

To be continued to Part II for more thoughts on the procedures and weddings themselves.