My body might have breathed, moved, consumed—but not quite lived. I have simply been walking down the most obvious pathway that the universe revealed. Born to an average Indonesian family, I grew up into a typical first daughter whose main mission is to make her family proud and exceed expectations, got one opportunity after another that piled up into a wonderful-but-very-much-expected career, and married the very first person who asked. When interviewed about my biggest failure a few years ago, I barely knew the answer, because if I’m being honest, I never really failed, not in a way that mattered anyway, and mostly because I never took a risk—not in a way that mattered.
This year everything changed.
It started with the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced, one that I didn’t think I was capable of stomaching. The person I (used to think I) loved the most decided to leave, practically in a blink, and at the worst possible moment—although perhaps there’s no such thing as a good time to end a marriage.
The first couple of months was the worst: the titanic pain seeped from my chest down to my torso, limbs, and all corners of my physique. Sometimes I literally couldn’t move out of the bed or floor had it not been for the kindest souls who kept me company. Even then, I was still lost for a little while longer, reaching for worldly things that I thought could help ease the pain. I was too clever to fool myself that they would cure my open-flesh wound of course, but back then I’d take anything just to survive another day.
I’m not quite sure how (perhaps writing my feelings down, talking to my friends, and regular check-ins with my therapist) but slowly and eventually the hurt subsided.
Once that happened, came this long and deafening quiet where I was left alone with myself, bewildered at the sight of an almost completely new person. Something told me she had gone through a war and came back stronger. I could sense that her emotional container expanded, reaching new depths capable of understanding and empathizing better—more so a gentler heart that forgives fully.
It’s the kind of bloom that could only happen through passing seasons.
It came with a brand-new, crystal-clear sight, so sharp and spot-free it’s almost like I never saw before in my entire life (even some things I thought I already knew):
Being with someone is not a prerequisite to, nor an assurance of, happiness. If anything, I learned that loving is all about sacrifice. If you are not ready to let go of a certain degree of comfort and compromise on more than a handful of things, let me remind you that being single has its perks. I was pleasantly surprised to remember the refreshing feeling of making my own decisions and owning the consequences, in lieu of having to reach a consensus with another human being every single time.
Being with someone shouldn’t mean losing yourself. Entering a relationship often means colliding two previously separated worlds, and when you let it unfold on an auto-pilot mode, soon enough one will be completely swallowed by the other. That will almost always lead to a certain feeling of loneliness or isolation. I finally understood the importance of friendship beyond the one with your partner (even when they’re your best friend) and having your own little territory—literal or figurative—like an activity or circle where you could anchor the self you were before you met them. Remember that you are responsible for taking care of yourself before anyone else.
We are bound to project our ideals on our partner, and it takes courage to see what is real. Our deepest urge to be happy often means deflecting our glance from the person in front of us, to a much prettier reflection of them on the pond. But once we rid of that fear and allow ourselves to be honest, both about who they are and who you are, that is when you could truly decide whether you would continue to love—and love fiercely—or not. It is a truly rare thing, to see someone naked in their entirety (literally and figuratively) and still love them as a whole.
Compatibility is the work you put in, but there is such thing as a minimum threshold for it to work and self-awareness is a necessary tool. This might not be exactly scientific, but I find this framework quite useful to assess (and therefore achieve) compatibility in a romantic partnership. First, compatibility is comprised of five separate ‘tanks’: intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and material (not necessarily in that order). Having one of your tanks full is not enough if any of the other tanks are empty. Intellectual compatibility doesn’t mean being in the same academic field, spiritual compatibility doesn’t mean sharing the same faith, and material compatibility doesn’t mean coming from the same socio-economic background. They simply mean understanding and appreciating each other intellectually, having a similar attitude towards faith, and somewhat corresponding visions about worldly possessions. That being said, above anything else, being at the same level of self-awareness is critical. Even when you’re complete opposites in certain areas, having the language and toolbox to talk about it would help a lot. Without it, even the most earnest effort to make it happen is likely going to fail.
It is with these new tenets, that I am starting 2022, whether by myself, with a partner, or something in between. I have promised myself to not just let myself be but actually make the mindful (often difficult choice) every single day, meaning my every ‘yes’-es and knowing when to say no. Listening to my guts and newfound conviction about the kind of fulfilling love I actually deserve.
And with that, I wanted to thank him for leaving, for giving me the once-in-a-lifetime chance for a radical start-over. Today, I am the happiest I have ever been, completely engulfed in the kind of contentment that I would never have discovered had we still been together.
Today, I am taking charge of my own life and actually start living.
“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.
What would my 18-year-old self think had she met me today? Would my somewhat inflated vanity disgust her? Would she take me as a superficial woman who is not sophisticated enough to deserve her respect? Which parts of my life would she approve and others she despise? But more importantly: why should her opinion matter?
Several days ago, I came across Mbak Ayu Kartika Dewi’s video about the importance of ‘auditing’ your friendships. She asked the audience to list down 10 names of the people they interact the most with on a daily basis, and identify which ones make you feel good vs. bad about yourself. Based on this information, restructure some of those relationships strategically—basically cut off those who have been toxic to your well being.
Beyond auditing friendships, what the post effectively did was prompting me to evaluate my entire life instead, which sent me only half an inch away from spiraling into a whole other level of anxiety on whether I have the life that I wanted. This post is an attempt to regulate and put some of those thoughts into perspective.
First and foremost: I’m married, have been for almost four years. I remembered being adamant about exclusively marrying my twin flame when I was younger (used to have really looong conversations with Diku about this), but I also remember tweeting a lot about Alain de Botton’s ‘compatibility is an achievement’ tenet. I must say, if twin flames are what twin flames supposed to be, I did not end up marrying my twin flame (although Wikan doesn’t believe in this astrological nonsense). Wikan and I are almost exact opposites in many ways, and while we therefore balance each other almost perfectly, sometimes it will take a lot of work for us to meet in the middle. One thing I never had any doubt on, however, is that we love each other (the kind that runs way too deep to ever change regardless of the circumstances; the kind where I will still love him even if we ever get separated), and that we are both committed to make this work. Over the past four years, we get better and better at post-fight making up, and to quote de Botton again—he’s the only person with whom I could “negotiate our differences intelligently”. Wikan is the rock that gave me the strength to soar, to grow, and to become who I am today. We may not have the same topical interests (books and research vs. music and filmmaking), or communicate in exactly the same way (lengthy written words vs. oral and visual) as spiritually connected twin flames but we share the same taste, we care about the same things, and we both have strong bullshit radars. So yes, he might not be my twin flame, but he is exactly what I need and I’m grateful that we stuck together. So yes I’ll take some credits for that.
That said, I think I have phenomenally failed at being a good friend. Or any kind of ‘friend’ for that matter. I even lost a few of the closest friends I had at the beginning of the decade. Poof. Sometimes there’s a clear stopper: roommateship that didn’t quite work out, one confrontation that did go where it should have, and a move to a different city for school or work. But others are more elusive: it wasn’t quite clear what happened, or who did what. I often resort to blaming my two years in Cambridge as the reason why I lost constant contact—as an introvert who feels really uncomfortable about picking up calls but has no time to write long emails, no facetime almost means like a death sentence to the friendship. I used to think that I could pick it up right where we left off—but maybe it’s not that simple, maybe you could also grow apart. It also applies the other way around—now that I’m back in Jakarta, it’s been hard to maintain connection with the family and friends from Cambridge time.
These days, there’s been a lot of second-guessing what the other person feels about our friendship, how they already have much cooler friends now, how our conversations did not spark the same way it used to. It is possible that I don’t enjoy some of these friendships as much as I used to, as I’ve become more obsessed with work. Although maybe, I have been distracting myself with work just so I didn’t have to face how lame I am to my friends? Does it have anything to do with the fact that I’m married? Has my complete vulnerability to Wikan effectively disabled me from being emotionally available to others? The possibility is endless. Recently someone I considered a best friend even told me that I didn’t care about him as much as he did about me, that I did not make time for us—and the part that hurt the most there was maybe the fact that he’s right. The truth is, I miss my friends, but I also know that it will never be the same as our lives have fundamentally changed. Maybe I should accept that the things I could afford—like periodic Instagram DMs and modest lebaran hampers—is what friendships in my late 20s look like, and that it’s okay. I should say though that my younger self—who was all about grand gestures and treasuring friends—would probably say that I could do a lot better on this aspect. Point deductions for me here. Sorry, self.
Next, career. I feel like this is one area where there’s no clear benchmark and hence there’s no way that I would let my younger self down. I know 18-year-old Afu would think that working where I am would be just as respectable as anywhere else, as long as I do what I love(d) doing: tinkering with knowledge—its creation, transmission, and more importantly finding ways to use it to drive impact. I know that some people really have strong opinions about the institution I decided to work with: some think it’s the best place to produce robust research and influence policy, others think we have some hidden agenda to advance capitalism. Let me just say that I’m fully aware that it’s not perfect: there are trade offs between working for a massive international organization with the government as your direct client vis-a-vis working for a smaller civil society organizations. It’ll take working for both to really understand how complex it is. What my younger self should probably be proud of, however, is the fact that I know myself enough that I turned down the temptation of trying out the private sector when I finished grad school. I am one heck of an indecisive mess, but at least I knew that I would probably despise working just to sell products (even when the products ought to improve lives).
On a slightly related note, I also just realized how I keep doing the same thing in the past 10 years: use my extracurricular time to build organizations that empower young people with knowledge—it used to be Indonesian Future Leaders (2009), Indonesia IR Students (2012), Parlemen Muda Indonesia (2013), Podium.ID (2015); none of them quite made it but they also lead me to where I am now, and I have a good feeling about this one. All those other products that allowed me to learn enough about what we did wrong, about unfounded conceit. With Think Policy Society, I will now take my time, which is only possible because I have amazing people who to build it together with. So stick around, self, as we are barely at the beginning.
One thing she will perhaps be deeply disappointed about is the fact that I have stopped writing in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, I write every day at work and publish papers, but I don’t really blog (except for these personal journaling), and I don’t share my authentic voice on printed media anymore. What she might find hard to accept, is that I know that people don’t really read these days, and that it means I have to choose a different medium to say the things I would’ve said in a written form: speaking forums, video essays, and podcasts. I hope she finds solace in the fact that quite a handful of people see value in my content regardless of its forms. She would probably have mixed feelings and told me that they’re different, and that I written thoughts are irreplaceable, that I should write anyway. “And what about that book you’ve been trying to publish since you were 18?” Well, between making a home, excelling at work, being a mediocre friend, building an organization, and speaking up, I only had a little time left to write. And frankly, I wonder if at this point publishing a book is just fulfilling an ego to see my name on a shelf of Gramedia or actually getting my point across to reach as many people as possible. Because if it’s the latter, I really should just keep making videos with Wikan, shouldn’t I?
I want to close this reflection with some thoughts about my family, and how I have been as a daughter and sister. I put this last because it’s the most difficult one, the one I’ve been trying to avoid. I am not sure how I could be a better sister and daughter. There, I said it. I know that my parents want some things I could not give them. I realized that I don’t check up on them often enough. I tried to make time for my little brothers but we never really open up to one another that much. Even though I know we love one another in the family—I’m still one lousy daughter and sister by regular standard. I warned myself that I might be stuck with this label for a long time. As I traced back, I realized that I’ve been an outcast since they put me in boarding school when I was 14. It’s possible that I left my nest way too early to have roots that grounded me. I’m the only third-culture child in the family—when my brothers left for college, they went to schools with similar values (I’m the only one who took liberal arts and spent another two years in the US). I’m a chameleon who could fit perfectly at home, but with the painful awareness that I could never really connect at a much deeper level with them the way some siblings or families do. I’m sorry, self.
With that, I’ll maybe give myself a score of 2.5 out of 5? But my baseline is somewhere in the minus area so I’m actually doing pretty well? Regardless, I have thoroughly enjoyed this self-audit and think that maybe I should do this again in 5 years. What about you? Where are you guys in terms of self-audit score? Feel free to share on the comment section if you feel like it.
Between feeling grateful and undeserving, I have spent this year subconsciously waiting for someone to give me the permission to be happy. On the surface, it may seem like I have quite accomplished a lot in 2019: (1) an unexpected promotion to a dream title, (2) a brand new home we get to call ours, and (3) a community where I found purpose. Underneath, however, lingers layers of guilt—mixed in a bowl of sadness. Apparently ticking certain boxes others define as ‘success’ does not mean that you’re protected from a different kind of pain that comes with adulthood.
2019 is the year with many good byes. One of my best friends moved abroad indefinitely. He was a non-judgmental confidant and a competitive board game partner, although we still couldn’t explain why or how we ended up as friends. We still chat regularly slash respond to each other’s Instagram story with an emoji, but it’s not quite the same. I’m just glad that we got to say an intimate good bye that I still cherish to this day.
Just a couple of months later, my mentor-friend followed his lead, although not to the same country. He was an office neighbor who used to stop by just to talk about animals, and from time to time invited Wikan and I for dinners. After he left, I effectively lost the anchor that had allowed me to not just survive, but actually navigate the new habitat I moved into. I hope he knows that he trained me well, because I have made a home out of the winds blowing my ship to various directions since he left.
Other than these two, at a different scale but still very much felt, I had to bid farewell to an officemate from whom I learned a lot (one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever known), two passionate environmentalists slash boss women I look up to who took me under their wings and opened doors for me, and an old friend who’s now conquering New York as a law school student.
Meanwhile, the two best friends who actually came back home to Jakarta this year, I feel like I keep failing to reconnect with. Maybe it was because I worked too much, or they worked too much, or both. But truth be told my biggest fear is that maybe in the three years we stopped hanging out, we simply grew apart. If that’s true, I hope they know that I still love and wish the best for them regardless.
All in all, it’s been a relatively lonely year. There are glimpses of moments when I got to hang out with friends in one-on-one lunches/coffees/dinners or big groups, and I cherish those deeply.
It is also an important year when I’ve tried to figure out what being a ‘married daughter’ means. As my dad got diagnosed with parkinson’s disease, I started wondering about what that would mean to us as a family, how we could be the support system that he needs us to be (or not to be). Reading journals and watching videos helped, as I understand that other families have found ways to make sure that their diagnosed loved ones could still have a full life. But even after all that, I still couldn’t settle down with what counts as enough. My worldly ambitions had defined who I am, but they now seem arbitrary in comparison.
That said, just last weekend (last of 2019) a good friend reminded me that maybe my parents’ happiness stems from mine, so as difficult as it is, I still want to pat myself in the back for several good (great?) things that actually happened to me this year. They mostly come in the form of ‘homes’—some more literal than others.
The first ‘home’ began with an Instagram story that grew into a group of over 100 passionate individuals and growing. It was an evening after the head of International Relations department in my alma mater asked me, “If we were to invite you (to guest lecture), what exactly would you like to share about?” Her question helped me realize that what I really want to teach about is public policy—i.e. the art of creative problem-solving in the public sector.
Since she obviously wouldn’t let me do that in her classrooms (and perhaps it’s my way to cope with rejections), I decided to just create my own classroom. One thing leads to another (including a nagging, amazing old friend who showed up to actually drag me to do it), and suddenly almost 600 people applied to what was a pilot series of 12 classes (we had to select 30 of them). From then on, one by one more people have come forward to kindly say that they have faith in this movement, and by doing so gives me the conviction that we have to move forward. 2020 will be an exciting year full of possibilities. Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton puts it best: just you wait.
The more literal home, however, was slightly more planned than that. For so long, Wikan and I had known that we wanted our very own house, as homemaking has always been our favorite project as a couple. After busting our asses off and saving up for the past few years, we finally had enough to make a downpayment and signed a mortgage for the perfect house in May. As a nomad of a little over 13 years (4 of them with Wikan), finding relative permanence was a great deal of blessing.
We moved to the outskirt south of Jakarta in October, and since then we have been mostly occupied with the business of homemaking. Between dining table and bedsheets, the highlight for yours truly had been the three white bookcases that we won’t have to knock down in twelve months, where I could take out my books from their boxes and organize by genre/author. At the end of 2019, after three stressful-yet-enjoyable months of figuring out furnitures and layouts, we finally arrived at a place where the building felt like ours.
We now have a 5-10 year long mortgage and commutes are much longer now, but hey, we don’t have to worry about not getting security deposit back if we nail the walls. What I do worry about, however, that having a home will start a sequence of much bigger changes we don’t know yet about.
When I thought two were more than enough, the universe surprised me with one last trick up her sleeve—maybe because good things come in three (although maybe so do bad things). On September 25th, I received a call that allowed me to do what I’ve wanted to do for so long: telling the economic story of the environment. After being a research consultant for a little over a year in the organization, I finally was offered a term position as an environmental economist. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first (and perhaps still don’t until today) but one thing I do know is that it allowed me to finally belong. A new team I get to call home.
Since that call, there has been a lot of figuring out to do: as the new girl I did something wrong without knowing it, did something knowing it would have consequences, and sometimes they’re both a little mixed up. In the beginning I felt lost, unsure whether they’ve made the wrong decision (especially since they rejected me at first), but it always helped to remind myself that so many women before me doubted themselves after they asked for more, but with hard work and the right support system, they made it work. So will I.
Finally, 2019 was a year of many first times. Beyond the ‘three homes’, it was the year when I joined my first (and second) public protest in Jakarta: the first one was on plastic waste, and the second was one of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. On both, I was moved to see how some people really care, but more importantly, I was reminded that taking up public spaces matter. I always feel like it was an experience taken away from me during my undergrad, because I was too focused on the academics.
It was also the year I got to be on podcast interviews, which turns out to be quite enjoyable. I especially appreciated the interview with a friend on public policy, and one with another one on critical thinking and privileges. The hosts of both shows have helped me realize that good questions come from a place of empathy.
Among the many speaking engagements I had this year, one stood out. It was when I visited Semarang and met one of the most charming, kindhearted young women who called herself an admirer. I was moved by just how pure her intentions was, how genuinely she expressed her appreciation, how she hugged me, how I felt seen because she’s read almost everything I’ve written online. It’s the first time I feel like I’ve affected someone’s life so deeply. At the end of our encounter, she gave me a long letter she’s written, which I promised to treasure.
Too many MRT rides (one of 2019 highlights!) and evening showers were spent thinking about whether I deserve any of it at all. Sure, I’ve worked hard for it, but so has everybody. Having an awareness about ‘the system’ and the socio-economic constraints that come with it, I know that none of these accomplishments are mine alone, and if anything they’re reminders for me to give back as much as I could. I know that I owe much of them to my parents, to Eyang, to Wikan, and to friends who are one Telegram/WhatsApp chat away. Without this amazing support system I’m blessed with, I would’ve crumbled down into pieces.
I wondered if this guilt/undeserving feeling had anything to do with my childhood and upbringing, how my dad never quite allowed me to be proud. If I came home with math score of 90 he would’ve joked, “Maybe it was a typo!” When I won a gold medal in a nation-wide math competition, he brushed it off with, “They must’ve mistaken you for another Andhyta!” Looking back, I think it trained me to never take my achievements for granted, and to never feel entitled. Or maybe the guilt had to do with my being a Sundanese, with my tendency to over-empathize, with my bring a confused human being.
It would’ve been a lie to say that 2019 has not been a good year. Feeling guilty about the good things that happen might be a “non-issue” for some of you or, borrowing a friend’s line, “a good problem to have”. I am grateful—immensely so—but it’s still a dissonance that occupies my mind.
For 2020, I wish to stop being apologetic, I wish that humility will stay a company, and I wish to finally find a way to be both a good daughter and a woman with ambition for myself.
Last year had been a lot of things: humbling, elating, upsetting, overwhelming—sometimes all at the same time. It was also one of the most formative years of my life, one where I felt like I became a fuller human being with a little bit more compassion, self-awareness, and less anger. Against my wish, however, the moments kept fleeting before I could properly imprint them in my memory (taking pictures helps, of course, although it often gets too interruptive and energy-consuming).
[Disclaimer: this post is about me and my experience throughout 2018. If you want to know what happened in the world (including the unfortunate series of disasters in this country that broke our hearts multiple times), I recommend this 5-minute video by Vox instead.]
Quite a large number of strangers seem to learn about me for the first time this year and to you, I’d like to say hello. Surprise: my thoughts and I had been around before I started studying abroad or made video essays with my husband. This blog had been home to those thoughts for almost eight years now, and if I hadn’t said this already: welcome.
(Oh and yes, by the way, I use more brackets, em dashes, colons, and semi-colons than your average writer.)
That said, if you’re part of the smaller crowd who were here last year or the many years before, here goes another one of my annual reflections. As you’re probably familiar with, there’s a pretty big chance that it won’t be relevant to your own lives, but if it somehow amuses you, read on: 2018 seems like as a humongous bag of lessons, and this post is a peek inside.
1. Fulfillment: A Dream Degree and Generous Friendships
Given my unhealthy obsession with completions, this year’s highlight is the fact that I finished my master’s program. (And with a distinction grade for my capstone analysis on village fund too!) Although it was pretty heartbreaking to leave the quiet city that had become home, I am mostly grateful to have had two years packed with learning not just about public policy, but also myself.
I tell friends that I wouldn’t mind another semester at Hogwarts—which is true—but at the same time, I’m also glad it went the way it did. I did not get all straight As, but I get just enough to prove that I tried my best, while also spending an ample amount outside the library to make some of the greatest friends in the world that I will forever treasure.
2. Confidence: A New Medium to Braindance
Ever since Wikan and I started Frame & Sentences in August 2017, we have had an insane amount of fun. While I loved the space that writing had provided for my ideas, it is pretty exhilarating to be able to share my thoughts to a significantly larger audience just by switching the medium. With op-eds or blogposts, roughly a thousand-something people (?) would take the time to read each piece, probably not thoroughly either. But thanks to Wikan’s videography and editing skills, now I get to reach over 20 times that number for each episode.
It’s not the same, of course, but I ended up enjoying writing video essays a lot.
Having known that many channels had to work really hard and produce regular (almost daily) content to get where they are, we are blessed to have collected over 108,000 views and almost 6,000 new subscribers from just uploading four videos this year. F&S also got interviewed by Indonesia Mengglobal and Magdalene, which is pretty cool. We are behind our own production goal, of course, but considering the significant transitions in our personal lives, I’m thrilled that we did at all.
People’s reception to the videos we make—especially from our closest friends (you know who you are)—has allowed me to enter a new level of self-assurance that what I have to say matters somehow. That there are people out there who care enough to watch every second of our 12-minute-long video.
That it is crucial for us to keep making them. (And, probably even more importantly, for us to not let this inflate our ego!)
3. Voice: A Stage to Speak Up
Beyond the screen, the second semester of 2018 was also full of in-person sharing: thanks to the invention of electronic calendars, I could track that I have been to exactly 23 speaking/teaching/moderating engagements before roughly 2,500-3,000 people spread throughout four islands—Sumatra, Java, Lombok, and Papua. It took almost all of my weekends, which means that I probably need to slow down and rethink my priorities in 2019, but for now, I’m just pleased to have all these opportunities to give back.
From all these talks, the pinnacle was my TEDxUIWomen speech (video coming soon!). It was one of the best 10 minutes in my life, and I am deeply thankful to have been given the stage to share my genuine thoughts with the world, highlighting the need to talk more about gender-based issues in professional settings. I summarized it here.
I’ve also rediscovered my joy in leading classrooms—this year I conducted several half-day workshops on argumentative writing and fundamentals of negotiations. Above anything else, what I always look forward to is when, at the end of each session, my students snuck up and told me that they learned something new. That specific moment made it all worth it.
4. Responsibility: The Expectations to Live Up To
Apparently, probably thanks to point 1-3, I now get noticed by random people in the unlikeliest places—during a lone stroll in a museum in Makassar, a Ramayana ballet dance in Yogyakarta, cafes, cinema studios, and concert halls in Jakarta, even on a deserted beach in Lombok. While I should probably be cooler about this, these encounters always leave me awkward, unsure about what to do/be.
It is very flattering that people (usually young girls) approached me and said that I am their role model, someone they want to become when they’re older, that I have inspired them to study or work harder. (I always tell them that they shouldn’t want to be ‘like me’, because fixating your eyes on a single path might lead to oversight on other opportunities from the specific quirks that only you have).
At the same time, however, when the same conversation is repeated dozens of times, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of duty that prompts me to be more careful at what I say and do as it might affect these people more than I think. Furthermore, although it is wonderful to receive these messages, I worry that people will be disappointed when they find out that my introverted self is not as welcoming to small talks or spending time to share wisdom 24/7 in real life. While I try to practice kindness as much as I could, I’m also generally impatient and not the friendliest person.
That said, I almost always, always appreciate long, thoughtful messages through direct messages or emails—which I have been showered with throughout 2018. If you’re one of the people who did this, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
5. Peace: To Forgive Ignorance
Needless to say, putting your thoughts out there also means that people will disagree with you, and people have disagreed with Wikan and me at least a hundred times this year through F&S’s comment box :)) Of course these dissenting opinions take many different forms: some are genuine questions I was more than happy to answer, some are good counter arguments founded with logic and data (my favorites), but the hardest ones to deal with came from people who were, for whatever reason, triggered and didn’t have any agenda other than channeling their own furiousness.
When F&S received its first thumbs down in 2017 or any time someone completely misunderstood our point in the past, I used to be outraged: “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST AGREE? HOW CAN YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THIS SIMPLE IDEA?”
Throughout 2018, however, fundamentally thanks to the adaptive leadership course I took at HKS, I have effectively stopped being angry at ignorance. This shift is rooted in the realization that we are all just products of the environment we were raised in, which informed our loyalties and the ‘voices inside our head’. The people who leave condescending, thoughtless comments might have done so without the awareness of why they believe what they believed, let alone the impact of their words. So why should I be triggered by these trivial responses?
I consider this as my biggest achievement of 2018 and have made it my personal goal to keep making content that will bring people to the same space.
6. Anxiety: An Abundance of Choices
Another low point of the year is the fact that I wasted 70 good days of 2018 in limbo: I put my life on hold just because I could not quite resolve about how I want to pick up my post-grad school career (and have written about this at length, so I won’t talk about this too much here). If you watch The Good Place [mild spoiler ahead], there’s a character whose biggest problem is his indecision, such that he made the lives of the people around him miserable. I was that guy in 2018.
In addition to my inability to choose a professional trajectory among all the available options, I realized that people have invited me to speak/moderate/teach on hardly coherent themes: sometimes it’s climate change, sometimes it’s gender, youth, education, peace building, the list—if anything—only gets longer over time.
I consciously picked the path of a generalist, but having been trained in public policy analysis, I can’t help but worry about all the opportunity costs from all of these identity ambiguity. When people ask me, “What should we put as your title?” I always end up stuttering because I’m not quite sure myself. I am sometimes a research analyst, sometimes content creator, sometimes youth organization co-founder; never consistent.
Maybe I should embrace this as a strength instead of weakness because it allows me to be more agile in joining many different activities. That said, it might simply be a symptom of my cowardice to bear the consequences of making a choice, something that I want to work on in 2019.
7. Courage: A Jump Into the Unknown
My first attempt to stop being afraid of leaving the fence is by actually making a decision (face your fear, etc.). So in August, I finally made the call to join an old, massive international organization. The nature of my new workplace is the opposite of where I had always been before: small (and therefore agile) organizations at the early stage of their growth.
The rationale behind this verdict was simple: I didn’t want to be the smartest person in the room. I feel like two years was not enough to learn, and my thirst for growth prompted me to look for places that will give me the steepest learning curve.
In the beginning, this made me nervous: I wasn’t sure whether I would be useful (or how), and there were adjustments in expected coordination and overall process. Although I knew most of it already from my research about the culture and have been here for over four months now, there are still many things I have to learn.
A good friend told me to make decisions that are driven by hope instead of fear. This was a wake up call because I almost leaned into decisions because I was afraid of missing out, of not working with the same familiar faces, of being left by the train, but I’m glad that at the end of the day I chose hope (to build an expertise in something, and to continue to learn).
For 2019, I pray that this courage will stay with me.
8. Conviction: The Ability to Say No
Flash news: I’m Leslie Knope (from Parks and Recreation)—or at least that’s how I think of myself. In one of the episodes, Leslie sat down with her boss Ron Swanson, who reminded her to ‘never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing‘.
While I don’t know if I could ever ‘whole-ass one thing’, this year I have accomplished the difficult task of reducing my urge to ‘multiplieth-ass tons of things’ to just ‘whole-ass two (three at most) things’. Had this happened in 2017, there’s no chance that I would be able to say no to a free trip to Israel, to several speaking engagements, and to a number of paid buzzing opportunities (unless the companies’ values align with mine).
In quiet, underneath my newfound ability to decline invitations, I can hear the vague sound of conviction that I recently discovered. This might be part of growing up or my training in school of government, but I can now give people advices with significantly more confidence than I ever had.
9. Patience: The Fortitude to Wait
The first five years of my post-college-life had been very full life-changing events and instant affirmation. I got an offer to my first job before I even finished college, helped the institute grow more than four-fold, led a national movement of political education for youth, got accepted in my dream school, got married, and already got a second degree under my belt. All of this conditioned me to a certain pace and somehow hungry for immediate gratification.
Because of this, last year I forced myself to have more patience. By choosing an organization where people take their time to perfect their work, I have come to see the beauty and sound of silent growth, day by day. I have also understood how not knowing could open doors and that, even when nobody’s looking, you know you’re growing and that’s enough.
This year I aim to invest my hours in slowly building my expertise and to specialize in certain skills that make me an even more effective generalist. I want to learn more about macroeconomics and fiscal policy, I want to become fluent in both languages of development and environment.
If I’m lucky, I might find just the right way to marry them.
10. Guilt: The Pressure for Presence
Although Wikan and I had been married for 2.5 years now, this is the first time that we are in Indonesia as a married couple. At the same time, 2018 was also the year that my little brothers left home (one for work and the other for college), making my parents’ home emptier than ever.
The theme of separation—especially between children and their parents, including the story in Ralph Breaks the Internet—always ruined me. I think it’s one of the saddest tragedies in life, and I wish it never had to happen to my aging parents. But of course it did.
The year had partly been about making peace with the fact that I could not always be there for them. At the same time, it is also a year of doing my best to be a good daughter, despite my shortcomings.
11. Love: The Forever and Ever
Above anything else, however, I am grateful for all the love that I received throughout 2018. From the daily dose of companionship and understanding from Wikan, to my family’s patience about us not wanting to have a child yet, to kind words from F&S subscribers, the colleagues and mentors at work who forgive my uninformed comments as a newcomer, over and over.
Here’s to 2019 filled with even more love and lessons. Onward!
P. S. I’m considering to resign from Instagram for a little while. I believe that this will allow me to look at life in a picture much bigger than simply a stitched sequence of story dashes. Should you need to reach out to me, please consider Twitter direct message or email instead.