Semester 4

Manusia terbiasa melihat genap sebagai sepuluh, atau selusin. Tapi mengakhiri di angka empat seperti janggal. Mungkin itu sebabnya aku merasa ada yang belum tuntas dalam hubunganku dengan kampus, dalam upayaku membuat otak penuh. Alih-alih merasa lengkap, benak ini seperti diisi kekacauan-kekacauan yang belum terjawab.

Jika dulu aku titik koma, bukannya menjadi titik, sekarang aku malah menjelma menjadi tanda tanya.

Dalam salah satu kuliahnya, dosenku mengingatkan tentang paradoks ‘merasa tidak tahu’ sebagai indikasi ‘mengetahui’. Suatu ketibaan di pulau ‘ketidaktahuan yang diketahui’ (known unknown) yang tadinya cuma sebuah titik di kejauhan.

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Bukan ingin menyangkal bahwa aku memperoleh 1-2 pengetahuan baru—tentang bagaimana melakukan analisis ekonomi atau kebijakan publik, serta kemewahan memiliki bahasa untuk mengkomunikasikannya—tapi itu tidak ada apa-apanya dibandingkan yang masih kupusingkan tentang bias manusia dan betapa sulitnya mencapai kesepakatan yang menyenangkan kedua pihak di tengah perbedaan ideologi.

Sampai heran, bagaimana bisa aku sempat merasa terbebani oleh banyaknya ilmu pengetahuan yang kumiliki ketika sekarang menjadi jelas bahwa itu semua cuma ‘ilusi keahlian’.

Untungnya, sebagai penutup semester, dosenku yang lain menyampaikan (sambil setengah bercanda dan disadur sekenanya):

Harvard Kennedy School adalah institusi di mana orang-orang dengan ‘kelainan mental’ ingin menyelamatkan dunia berkumpul. Ketika pulang ke rumah masing-masing dengan gelar baru, sangat wajar jika kalian tergoda untuk menjadi orang yang terpintar di setiap ruangan, untuk selalu memiliki jawaban bagi setiap pertanyaan. Tapi kenyataannya, kalian tidak berada di situ selama berbulan-bulan ke belakang. Karenanya selama 1-2 bulan pertama, izinkan rasa ingin tahu kalian untuk memimpin jalan. Dengarkan suara-suara yang muncul. Izinkan kalian untuk lebih sering bertanya daripada menjawab.

Kuliah umum ini menjadi semacam resolusi untukku, dan aku bertekad untuk menahan diri dari dorongan-dorongan intelektual tersebut. Sejauh ini, aku sering gagal, tapi kutulis ini juga untuk kembali mengingatkan.

Belum lagi, aku merasa belum sepenuhnya mawas diri bahwa sekarang aku sudah kembali ke Indonesia. Badanku ada di sini, tapi entah bagaimana sebagian pikiranku masih merasa bahwa aku akan ‘pulang’ ke Cambridge. Mungkin itu pertanda bahwa aku akan kembali dalam waktu dekat. Mungkin juga, itu semacam penanda bahwa kota yang anginnya tidak kenal ampun itu sudah menjadi rumah permanen, terlepas di mana aku berada.

Kata orang, seharusnya aku mulai merasakan reverse culture shock—geram karena orang tidak mengantri, transportasi publik yang tidak nyaman, atau mobil yang tidak berhenti ketika hendak menyebrang di zebra cross sekalipun. Namun, perbedaan-perbedaan perilaku itu sepertinya tidak terlalu berarti untukku, jika dibandingkan dengan besarnya kerinduanku berada di ruang kelas dan mempelajari hal baru.

Perasaan tidak nyaman yang familiar ketika ingin mengangkat tangan untuk bertanya atau menawarkan perspektif tapi takut terdengar bodoh. Ketakutan sekaligus kehausan mendengar opini dan analisis cemerlang dari mereka yang usianya tidak jauh dariku.

Saking tidak ingin lupa, kadang aku memutar kembali sekelebat ingatan dari pengalamanku di sana. Aku seperti ingin meyakinkan diri bahwa itu bukan mimpi, bahwa aku benar-benar sudah melalui semua proses pembelajaran tersebut, dan bahwa itu semua akan menjadi bagian formatif dalam kepribadianku.

Pada saat bersamaan, semakin aku bertahan untuk tetap berada ‘di sana’, semakin lama pula perjalananku ‘di sini’ akan dimulai. Sepertinya, jika ingin maju, aku harus perlahan-lahan melepas genggamanku. Bukan karena menyerah, tapi karena percaya bahwa aku akan selalu bisa kembali. Bahwa komunitas yang sama (terutama teman-teman terdekatku) akan selalu ada ketika aku mulai menjelma menjadi orang yang tak kukenal, atau lupa akan tujuan akhirku.

So here I am, loosening my grip, trying to embrace the new chapter. Let’s see where this one takes me.

 

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Semester 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Blazing Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Glimmer of Spring

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[A stone’s throw away from home.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to growing even taller in the summer.

A Breakdown of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

Finding genuine friends that made Boston home definitely helped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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