By Josefina Lara Chavez
Aug. 15, 2017

I’ve been in Indonesia for about four months now. I haven’t yet experienced homesickness or separation anxiety from being away from my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. 

There have been times when I ride my bike through smells that remind me of my mother’s cooking, and I think for a second of eating one of her delicious meals, but the moment is brief and fades away. It fades away with such ease as I pedal into the grandeur of the orange sunset. The sunset blankets everything around me, magnifying all that it hits; the rice paddy fields, the commuters on their motorbikes, the people bathing in the river and doing laundry, the children playing, and the women asking me, “ke mana” (to where?). At the moment, I am content, I enjoy my solitude and full heartedly welcome this immersion.

The truth is, being in the Peace Corps is an incredible privilege, one that has allowed me to immerse myself into another culture without undergoing the same hardships as the people I live amongst. A privilege that carries weight and is welcomed; it is a newfound privilege for me, one that I never thought I would experience. I compare this transitory experience to that of my childhood, when my family was forced to flee Mexico and begin a life in the United States. As a child I was an immigrant; as a Peace Corps Volunteer I am an expat with a humanitarian mission. As an immigrant child, I faced that unwelcome, segregation, fear, anguish, discrimination, economic depravity and racism that certain immigrants and refugees face when fleeing their birth countries. Yet, now I find myself with this newfound privilege. The privilege to represent one of the strongest governments in the world and what that bestows; I enjoy health care when I fall ill, language and cultural training for facilitating integration, a team of Indonesian national Peace Corps staff that will go above and beyond to support and give me anything I might need, the option of returning to the States and even money.

My days are simple and pleasant; I enjoy the luxury of having a job and the flexibility to work by myself and projects that align with my passion. Life is good in Indonesia; it is that simple for me. I have my challenges at times, but life is not perfect. This moment I am living right now, though, it’s close to it.  Indonesians have welcomed me with arms wide open, ready to give me some nasi goreng (fried rice) if I am hungry, give me some es teh (iced tea) if I am thirsty, a roof if I need shelter, guidance if I am lost, find me a dukun (Shaman) if I find myself possessed. They have been gracious, kind, patient and empathetic to me in ways for which I can’t thank them enough.

I am learning a lot about their way of life and their worldview. Through the people around me, by reading about their history and the lives of those important figures that have helped shape their nation; people like President Sukarno, novelists Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Ayu Utami, and heroine educator and activist Raden Adjeng Kartini. Indonesia is vibrant, rich and multidimensional in many aspects. One of the most fascinating, and ultimately, one of the reasons I was drawn to Indonesia is their faith and spirituality. Its influence on the nation, the day-to-day, and its language-in a gentle, yet powerful way.

My days are simple and pleasant; I enjoy the luxury of having a job and the flexibility to work by myself and projects that align with my passion. Life is good in Indonesia; it is that simple for me. I have my challenges at times, but life is not perfect.

Josefina Lara Chavez, 2017

One of the words that I am intrigued by and have become very fond of is the word belum, meaning “not yet”, in Bahasa Indonesia. Belum is a response of humility, possibility, resistance to the uncertainty of the future and a respect for God. It is interconnected to the concept shared by Muslims InShaAllah, meaning “God willing.” When it comes to projecting the future, Indonesians are generally wary of absolutes, a yes or no may be too definite. The idea that we have control over the future can at times be deceptive and feeds into our overly inflated egos. To answer so definitely with such certainty, is a bit extreme. Answering in such way doesn’t leave any room for fluidity and might be a bit arrogant. After all, we aren't God and since everything is possible with God, we don't know what the future might bring. During my time here, I’ve caught on. Indonesians often correct me and now I correct myself when I answer in a yes or no. I think twice. Have I been to Antarctica? Am I married? Do I want to have children? Have I been to Bali? Have I met President Obama?

[Necessary side-track] By the way, Indonesians LOVE President Obama! President Obama is often brought up in conversations, especially when meeting Indonesians. Conversations about him are held with such reverence, admiration and pride. President Obama, one man who they feel understood by, the president that makes them feel included, and their shared skin tone and commonality makes all the difference. To see a person of color lead one of the most powerful countries in the world, hold so much grace, intellect, charisma, be funny and so COOL is admirable, but much more than that, he is inspiring and connects with many. He makes everyone who has felt excluded feel a part of something great and possible. They are proud of him even if they don’t personally know him. Of course, that feeling is not held exclusively to Indonesians.  I myself feel like I somehow have contributed to his success. That’s just the way President Obama makes people feel. That’s why Indonesians love him, at least why I think they do. Heck, that’s why I love him. One shared experience that Indonesians and Americans have is in sharing their favorite Obama moment. Indonesians will laugh, smile and, at times, have glossy eyes when sharing that President Obama lived here and that his favorite Indonesian food is bakso.

Back on track, I can go on and on about President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I do just love them so much!

Belum, I respond. I’ve embraced the word and added it to my response pattern and my thinking process. It serves useful in moments of doubts about the future and its uncertainty. “Not yet” have I figured it all out, but it’s okay; I will walk my path wherever it may lead.  For now, I will pay tribute to my parents who have worked very hard in order to support me in every way they can, and I will honor the privilege that I now carry and very few have. Thank you, Indonesia, for the warm welcome, the lessons, the embrace and for sharing this space with me.  I look forward to the next two years.

Josefina Lara Chaves