Last week I visited my friend Seth at his apartment in southern Vermont. It was Friday morning and we would have gone out for breakfast at the neighborhood diner. But he’d come down with a cold the night before so we stayed in, drinking coffee and talking about the things that we usually talk about: music and movies, basketball, Massachusetts, writers, weird travel (Seth’s term), interior decor, and the various knick-knacks and diversions with which we’d filled the rest of our lives in an effort to stave off boredom and/or anxiety. While the coffee was brewing, he showed me the fish tank he’d acquired the previous year. There was a reclining-Poseidon figurine in it and his freshwater snail, Oberlus, was inching down its thigh. Across the hallway, a gnarled, prehistoric-looking Euphorbia cactus (a gift from another friend) glowered beneath a purple gro-light.
He poured me a cup and we sat down in his living room. The ensuing conversation took a few, meandering turns through my ongoing MFA application process (which he was supporting with a letter of recommendation) and recent drama at work before settling on our respective, Boston suburbs. Within the preceding three weeks, we’d visited each other’s childhood homes for the first time. I was killing time alone in mine, since my parents now spent winters in Arizona. And he had been kind enough to invite me over to his for Thanksgiving.
“I love an old, suburban strip mall” Seth was saying. “The one at the end of my street in Sharon is called ‘Heights Plaza.'”
“Every town has one,” I added, nodding.
“Or a few,” he continued. “Like the ones along Route 1. There are multiple Route 1’s in Massachusetts, but the one I grew up next to lives in my mind. Just lined the whole way with real, dirtbag shopping plazas. I love it.”
We traded stories about the Asian-Polynesian fusion restaurants in our towns (faux wood everything, greasy pupu platters, mai tai’s that were 90% canned, pineapple-orange juice, etc.). Mine was called Makaha and, as I discovered later that afternoon after Googling it on a whim, had closed over the summer after 50 years in business. His was called Tahiti and was somehow managing to stay open. “My parents went on a date there in the 70’s,” he said.
“What is it about these strip malls?” I asked. “Why do we love them?”
“I don’t know. I can’t quantify it. You know how there’s always that one shitty restaurant that gets a new owner and name every few years? How it can’t ever be anything else because it would cost too much to renovate? I think it has to do with the fact that east coast suburbs are just older than the ones in other parts of the country. They’ve just been around longer.”
Seth’s right about that. I’m writing this from Chandler, the Phoenix suburb where my parents now spend at least half of the year. There’s hardly anything else here besides wide boulevards, commercial parks, and shopping plazas. But they’re hardly the run-down, dirtbag types that live in Seth’s mind (beneath overcast skies, probably, with muddy snowbanks rimming their parking lots). They’re not like Heights Plaza in Sharon or the one in Hadley that he recalled hanging around as a student at UMass: “I think it was called ‘Mountain Farms Plaza’ or something like that. But my friends and I just called it the Dirt Mall because that’s what it looked like.” No way. The ones around here are newer, with stucco facades and white trim beneath the lettering. They have fitting, celebratory names (The Shops at Pecos Ranch, Chandler Festival, Paseo Lindo) that bestow a finishing air of comfort and grace. There are palm trees and statuettes out front. Families push their shopping carts and drive their SUV’s past little manicured patches of lawn, beds of beige landscaping gravel, manmade pools, cacti in bloom.
I’ll go to these plazas for cereal or to see the optometrist, just as I would back home. But it’s a different emotional experience. (Less brooding, maybe? Sunnier, both literally and figuratively?) Do I feel for them like I feel for a Heights Plaza or a Dirt Mall? Does Seth? I’m not sure. Probably not. I don’t know these places well enough—haven’t visited them often enough. I’m still taking it all in. I’m still floored by how they’re just, well, there, in all that desert emptiness. I’m still noticing how beautiful they look, lit up in neon at dusk.
One of the ways in which Indonesia and America differ most is the extent to which daily life happens on the side of the road. The degree of difference certainly depends on where you are in Indonesia and where you are in America. But in general, Indonesians lead a much greater portion of their lives streetside than Americans—often in liminal spaces that are not quite inside but not quite outside either.
A typical example of this transitional space is the warung, a kind of ubiquitous eatery that exists somewhere in between a food stall and a diner. Some are little more than tents or shacks. Others are free-standing structures with four walls, windows, a roof, and a doorway. But even at this latter sort of warung, one feels much closer to the street than at a traditional restaurant. The tables and stools are dusty. The flies are buzzing. The floor, whether tiled or concrete (like the floor of your garage), is level with the ground outside. Put it this way. If you can forget about whatever’s “outside,” it’s not a warung. If you can’t—if your meal feels more like a continuation than an interruption of the goings-on all around you—then it is.
Another reason that the warung experience feels so connected to that of the street, apart from physical proximity, is that even though your meal is served quickly, it retains its personality and human touch. A plate of, say, nasi or mie goreng (fried rice or noodles) takes about five to ten minutes to prepare, from the the first egg being cracked to your first mouthful. That’s slower than your typical drive-thru. And yet it somehow seems faster when you get to watch a teenager wearing ripped jean-shorts and flip-flops nonchalantly toss the ingredients around in a sizzling, glistening wok, occasionally jettisoning a morsel of meat or noodle that a scrawny cat proceeds to scarf shamelessly in front of you. Bastard, that’s my food, you fume silently to yourself. But only long enough for the cook to finish topping your pile of saucy, piping hot, carb-goodness with some krupuk and cucumber slices and plating the whole thing up. This kid is as practiced as any fast food worker. But he’s actually cooking a meal from scratch, as opposed to assembling a part of one. Also, when you hand over a wad of crumpled bills and sit down to eat while he smokes a cigarette, his toddler sister runs around the place squealing, and his mother peels garlic over a plastic tub, you remember that your meal supports more lives than just your own—a fact that having a happy meal and a plastic toy thrust through your car window helps you forget.
Depending on the warung, however, much of the food could be prepared ahead of time. Many proprietors start cooking in bulk at daybreak and then display it all in the front window: pots and basins full of rendang and fish soup and stewed or stir-fried vegetables, mounds of fried tempe and tofu, platters of chicken wings and drumsticks and hardboiled eggs stacked on top of each other—often into pyramid-like structures that resemble the target of a carnival knock-down game. The effect is at once “grandma’s kitchen” and “barracks canteen,” both of which, if you think about it, are variations on what I’m guessing is the bigger theme they’re going for: “plenty” (as in, the taller the tower of eggs and deeper the basin of stew, the more you’re supposed to want to eat there). Still, there’s no such thing as an all-you-can-eat warung. Mealtime “rushes” aren’t really discernible either. Customers trickle in throughout the day and can pick whichever toppings they want to go with their scoop of white rice and dollop of sambal. But they still have to pay by the plate and the proprietor dictates the portion size. (If you only want the stewed meat, you might get two pieces. But if you want the fried tempe too then expect only one piece of meat.)
It’s not the amount of food that makes dining at a warung so rewarding. It’s not just what you get and how fast and for how much. It’s the recognition that you’ve contributed to somebody’s livelihood and not just their business. It’s the total absence of corporate excess and the uncontrived simplicity that somehow always intensifies pleasure. It’s the sense of having met in the middle, whether for a cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal.
In the end, I think that’s what defines street life: the immediacy of contact with other people and the lack of forces and agendas any bigger than those of individuals. I also think that many posh urbanites judge societies based on the extent to which daily life has abandoned the street and the sidewalk for the concrete wall and the institution. And yet, many of these same people fetishize and sentimentalize the street—suspect, at times, that they’re missing out on the “real” life happening outside of their own bubbles and ivory towers. (After a quick reread, I see that I’ve committed that sort of sentimentalization in this very reflection). The inconsistency shows, at worst, that we’re classist hypocrites, and at best, that we’re confused about our values and where they’re actually located in this world. If we could cast a generous and complex look beyond the dust, the flies, and the plastic toy alike—if we could define dignity and worth more capaciously—maybe we’d find the authenticity we really crave more universal than we thought.
Yesterday, during the daytime, it was blazing hot. Today it is hot again and cloudless. But early this morning it was overcast and yesterday evening it rained for the first time since March. Not a heavy rain, but enough for the neighborhood to start steaming and the dirt alleyways to bloom with petrichor.
It is mid-August as I write this. I have gotten most of the way through my first proper dry season in a part of the world where dry season exists. I am told that we still have another two months of scorching heat left before it starts to rain with any regularity. But in my mind, yesterday’s preemptory shower marked some kind of turning point nonetheless. It was the first time I can ever remember the coming of clouds and rain feeling like the return of an old friend. And when they did, I felt sort of wide-eyed—like I was waking up to or reentering a world that I hadn’t realized I’d drifted away from in the first place.
Every morning at 5am, the family next door blares music from a Christian radio station over a loudspeaker. The music has a tinny, carnival quality and is audible throughout the neighborhood. It is as reliable as an alarm clock, at any rate, and inspires the same trance-like quietude and feeling of monotony.
The rest of my host family usually wakes up at around this time. My two host sisters, Desy and Evin, and host mother, Mama Emy, start doing chores: washing the previous night’s dishes, cooking breakfast, sweeping and mopping the floor. My host father, Bapak John, lounges around in his underclothes before taking a bath, getting dressed (on a school day), eating his breakfast, and brushing his teeth. If he has no class to teach, he may leave early on his moped and come back at mid-morning with vegetables and fish or, sometimes, a live chicken for the girls to slaughter. On Sundays and occasional weekdays, my host parents leave early for mass while my sisters stay behind to finish up the cooking and cleaning (they attend afternoon service, along with the other children and young adults of the neighborhood, at 5pm).
Desy and Evin are now second-year accounting students at the local public university. Their school year lasts longer than mine, but their breaks are longer too, so we are somewhat out of sync and have had the opportunity to observe each other at leisure from the vantage point of business, and vice versa.
My guess is that from their perspective, my frequent comings and goings seem like a lot of effort—a curious form of restlessness that can only be explained by the fact that I’m a foreigner. On a typical weekday, I’m up early with the rest of the family so as to squeeze in some writing and at school from 7am until 1pm, sometimes until 2pm. Besides that, I am frequently out of the house at track practice (five or six times per week from 4pm until 6 or 7pm) or puttering around the city for better or worse reasons (running errands, trying to overcome restlessness or jumpstart productivity through a change of scene, watching the sunset, parting ways with my money, etc.). It is only on the weekends that I am at the house for hours at a time and even then, I spend a good number of them holed up in my room, fooling with my books or laptop, probably trying to make up for all the sidetracked hours that I felt like I wasted during the week. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t leave home all day.
Desy and Evin, on the other hand, only leave the house regularly to go to church or their college campus. When classes are in session, they leave at mid-morning and come back by early afternoon. Occasionally, they may attend an evening prayer meeting or chorus practice at a neighbor’s house. Otherwise, they are at home, doing chores, chatting, listening to music, or watching Korean dramas and Javanese soap operas on television. Like me, they drink coffee frequently, but have no taste for frequenting cafes and paying for “ambience.” They take their coffee at home and in the afternoon, often with a batch of fried banana or cassava chips. Mama Emy, a housewife, is a holy woman to whom a steady stream of guests come everyday to receive consultations and be prayed over. When Bapak John gets home from school, he changes back into his undershirt and sarung and plays chess on his phone for hours at a time and with unshakeable focus.
At one point during my first few months in Kupang, I asked Desy and Evin why they didn’t go out more often to spend time with friends and do whatever it is that I imagined young people should do. In retrospect, this was an insensitive question, asked before I had fully grasped the local reality: that as both women and the youngest members of the household, it is considered their job to be ready at a moment’s notice to meet the needs of the other adults. They cook the meals, do the family’s laundry, sweep and mop the floors, tidy up the yard, and make tea for the guests. They also have to do their homework. It’s not that these responsibilities take up too much time. It’s that they are done (with the exception of the last one, and even that is debatable) in the service of others and must be spread evenly throughout the day—that they are responsive to the schedules of others.
“Do you want there to be food on the table? Or do you want us to go out?” That’s what they should have thrown in my face. Instead, they smiled sheepishly and said, “Kami malas saja“—”We’re just lazy.”
Late afternoons in TDM (Tuak Daun Merah—the name of my neighborhood on the east side of Kupang) are a magical time. The midday heat relents. Shafts of sunlight slant in low over the roofs of houses, bathing streets and yards and alleyways in a warm incandescence. There is usually a light breeze blowing, which further helps with the heat and sets the banana leaves and palm fronds a-waving and a-rustling. The usual cast of characters passes my host family’s front gate: schoolgirls and schoolboys weaving lackadaisically home with their ties loosened and shirts untucked, adolescents on motorbikes zooming by at reckless speeds, helmet- and khaki-clad civil servants coming home from work and rounding the same corner much more conservatively, young mothers with toddlers in tow, old grandmothers carrying bags of groceries, the vegetable cart man ringing his bell and pushing his cargo along.
As of two months ago, a new pangkas rambut has opened shop across and fifty yards down the street from us. These tiny barbering outfits abound in Kupang. I could have started going long ago to one of many that dot the surrounding neighborhoods and line the main street—could have saved myself a good deal of time and money and probably gotten a better haircut to boot. But old habits and haunts are hard to take leave of (especially in the grooming department—visiting a familiar barbershop is like going to therapy) and for months I kept trekking twenty minutes up the hill to the first place I ever went to in Kupang—a “real” shop with a “real” storefront that charges about 15,000 rupiah too much for a cut but that seemed safe when I was still afraid of the side of the road.
With a new shop now just a thirty second walk away and not even on the side of a busy thoroughfare, I have no more excuses. So last week, after getting home from school one afternoon and deciding that it was about time, I went down the street to have a look.
Most pangkas rambuts are tiny things—about the size of a tool shed. This one was also exceptionally clean, on account of how new it was. Its walls were constructed out of sheet metal and freshly covered in A5-sized print-outs of barbershop-related clip art and quotes (“Be the kind of barber whom a client needs, not a barber who needs clients.”). And aside from tufts of black hair, the concrete floor was still bright and spotless. Out in front was a small wooden sign, spray-painted gray with black lettering, that read: “Pangkas.” Inside were several colorful, plastic chairs—one in the center for the customer, one pushed up against the wall, which was occupied by a student of mine who lives in the neighborhood, and another by the door, which contained the barber himself. When I walked in, they put their phones down and grinned at each other as if to say, “He’s here!” My student, who was shirtless, looked a little bit embarrassed too.
I have never seen a female or older barber at a pangkas rambut. They seem to exclusively service and be serviced by males between the ages of eight and twenty-eight. I am not sure if this is the reason for or result of another fact, which is that the average pangkas rambut is a sort of hangout spot for the young men of the block—a kind of communal front stoop where one drinks instant coffee out of a glass cup instead of beer out of a can in a brown paper bag. There is often a thicket of mopeds parked in front of the pangkas and perched on top of them, or in the aforementioned plastic chairs, are the adolescents and twenty-somethings, smoking cigarettes and playing multiplayer first-person shooters on their smartphones. At night, somebody is either strumming on a guitar or blasting dangdut remixes from portable speakers.
It was still too hot and too early in the afternoon for there to be much of a crowd when I went for my haircut though. I sat down in the chair in the center of the room and showed the barber a picture of what I wanted: a high-and-tight with the sides and back nearly shaved down to the skin and the top buzzed to number two. It’s about as simple of a cut as you can get, but as I watched him in the mirror, I noticed that he was much more skillful than the barbers at the other shop—that he paid much more attention to detail and approached the cut much more sensibly (he tapered the transition after finishing with the number two on top, instead of before). At the end, before trimming my sideburns and neck with a straight razor, he dabbed on some shaving cream, which felt astonishingly cool on my skin.
I paid 10,000 rupiah for my cut, or about 70 cents. The thing about a pangkas rambut is that, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t really exist to make the barber money. There are way too many of them for that. And they all rely more on frequency and volume than on charging a premium for any sort of “experience,” the way a fancier outfit might. In this way, they’re like the city’s bemos, which only charge a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah (30 cents) for a ride of any length, but which do so much business that breaking even is never a question.
Unlike the bemos each pangkas rambut also has to stay put and rely on the loyalty and the restlessness of the young men on the block. Earlier I said that the need for frequent rejuvenation in Kupang is less acute than it is where I come from. I stand by that statement. But now that I think of it, it’s also true that sitting at home on a cool night has never cut it anywhere, anytime, and that the side of the street has beckoned to us all, like a lightbulb to a moth, since time immemorial. Haircuts are just a front.
School break is much shorter in Indonesia than in the United States. Technically, we only have the month of June and half of July off. But boredom sets on more quickly here. Locals seem to agree too, even without having the same standards of comparison as I have. I have been asked several times when I will be going back to work. “The middle of July,” I say, “but who knows when classes will really start.” They nod knowingly and invariably add, “Aduh, lama sekali” (“Wow, lots of time”), or something along those lines.
Still, I think my restlessness and that of the locals have different sources. Mine comes from a creeping, ever-present awareness of what I cannot help but consider to be the ultimate uselessness of my presence here. Theirs stems from the way they have been conditioned to spend and perceive time. I feel like I am just pointlessly taking up space in somebody else’s country while simultaneously wasting my own countrymen’s dollars. Locals probably just feel like we’ve all been sitting at home long enough and are ready to fall back into line and habit.
These two forms of restlessness could be similar if they were both rooted in anxiety about productivity. But I doubt that my Indonesian counterparts share that particular concern with me. In my mind, “work” is intimately connected with and validated by its results—by whatever one has to show for the time and energy invested in said “work.” And a lack of results (or of tangible feedback to suggest that results are on the way) bothers me whether I like it or not—a bother that is only intensified by the very theory of being a volunteer whose ostensible purpose is to be useful. Many locals, including, say, the teachers at my school and a good number of other civil servants, think and behave differently. To them, “results” or “progress” are not really the point and haven’t been for a long time. Day after day, they don their khaki uniforms and pin on their name tags as a way of announcing, “Here I am, doing what a good citizen is supposed to be doing, doing my part to keep the wheel of civilization turning.” And if I momentarily and perhaps inexcusably ignore the incalculable amount of sweat that is wrung out of communities like these for the creature comforts of civilization in other, more smug parts of the world, then indeed, on any given day, it seems that not much has to be done by any one citizen to make the wheel turn here. That effort is spread thinly and evenly across time and the community and rarely ever reaches a fever pitch in any one pocket of society or another. And because there is no need to push very hard, there is no need to rest very long either.
Let me address head-on the tired but inevitable questions it must seem like I am dancing around: are these differences in attitude and thinking attributable to fundamental differences in culture? Is one (attitude, way of thinking, culture) better than the other?
The answers depend, of course, on who one asks, on how one interprets “better,” and, most significantly, on the intentions of the asker. I sometimes ask these questions of myself. And sometimes I respond in the predictable, self-pitying way, falling hastily into the role of the well-meaning but frustrated volunteer who throws his hands up at local reticence and inefficiency and privately judges these as cultural shortcomings. Such episodes are frequent. But they are also short-lived. They end abruptly when I realize that I am merely venting my own minor inconveniences. They end when I remember that culture is arbitrary and progress relative. They end when I remind myself that the same, annoying phenomenon happens frequently enough in my own country and that both Indonesia and the United States are much too big and much too diverse for the aforementioned questions to have meaningfully generalizable answers. They end when I acknowledge that I am actually not very interested in having answers in the first place.
Meanwhile, my counterparts and I will continue to think differently. We will continue to work together, in starts and stops, wondering what to make of each other. The wheel will keep turning, slowly now, faster later, constantly and imperceptibly shedding baggage and rebuilding itself across the long arc of history. I will make my morning cup of coffee, teach one word, write another one, remember to take my malaria prophylaxis and smile.
The island of Semau takes twenty-five minutes to get to by one the wooden skiffs that depart several times each day form the port of Tenau on the west coast of the island of Timor. Three weekends ago, I accompanied the woman who is now my girlfriend on a short trip there. She was technically traveling for work, I technically for leisure, and both of us to see if we couldn’t also find an excuse to move things along.
The island of Semau takes twenty-five minutes to get to by one the wooden skiffs that depart several times each day from the port of Tenau on the western tip of Timor. Two weekends ago, I accompanied the woman who is now my girlfriend on a short trip there. She was technically traveling for work, I technically for leisure, and both of us to see if we couldn’t also find an excuse to move things along.
Anchored halfway across the narrow strait between the two islands is a Chinese fishing boat—the Fu Yuan Yu 831, abandoned since its interdiction in late 2017 and now covered in rust and seagrowth. Since returning from the trip, I have done some research and learned that illegal boats like these are quite common throughout Indonesian waters, risking similar fates for a chance at a lucrative catch. At the time of its seizure by Indonesian authorities, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was reportedly carrying 35 tons of fish, including hundreds of protected tiger sharks. I saw a picture of the carcasses online, piled high with their bellies slashed open and entrails oozing out. The image itself didn’t hit me especially hard, but the mere thought of the smell that must have smacked the photographer square in the face made me sick to my stomach.
Apparently, Indonesia’s minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, had previously and famously ordered all confiscated foreign vessels to be blown up or burnt. In 2016, 23 were accordingly disposed of by the Indonesian navy before the practice was retired in favor of just letting the damn things sink. I don’t know if Mr. Susi himself had ever set foot in the dank cargo hold of one of these vessels. But if so, then I can imagine at least one reason why he gave that splashy order: maybe he felt that only fire could purge the stench.
I also learned from my research that the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was caught carrying the flags of six different nations—an attempt at evading fishing regulators and other maritime watchdogs. This strikes me as a particularly futile and laughable move, seeing as there are enormous Chinese characters, along with the words “Fu Zhou,” emblazoned on the stern of the boat. I don’t see how flying, say, a Vietnamese flag could fool anyone about its origin. Maybe I just don’t know enough about how the fishing and maritime worlds work. Maybe these ships are built, named, and slathered in paint by the Chinese before they get shipped off to crews in other countries. Maybe there is something to the flag trick. But it clearly wasn’t enough to keep the Fu Yuan Yu 831 and plenty of other illicit craft from meeting their watery ends.
I knew none of this backstory, though, passing by a shipwreck-to-be in a little fishing boat on a fine morning in mid-June. The water was calm and blue. A light breeze was blowing and my girl was wearing sandals and squinting and struggling to keep her long hair out of her face. At the time, seeing the ship still above water, decrepit and grimy, gave me a creepy sensation—as of something obviously outcast, even cursed, slowly but surely poisoning otherwise clean and pure environs. The crew of the skiff didn’t just steer clear of it either. We pulled up alongside of it—so close that I could have climbed up a rope dangling over the side of the ship’s hull—and spent several minutes just idling there in the shade and staring up.
The rest of the weekend was nothing but time-effacing purity: small villages, Sunday service, beehives and honey, coconuts, the shy tenderness of newfound companionship, coral, campfires, sunburns, sand, seawater up the nose. In the meantime, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 sank, and quickly too. After more than a year and a half of mouldering in the strait, it began to rapidly take on water this past month. And by the time we passed it again at dusk on Sunday, this time from a distance and without stopping, the water level had crept a good ten feet up the side of the hull so that the the telling Chinese characters were at last beneath the surface—at last hidden permanently from view.
Last week I had my first-ever sparring match. It was a trainwreck. The technique I had been practicing for the preceding few months went up in smoke and within a round, I was completely out of control. I couldn’t figure out how to deliver a clean combination against my taller opponent. Nor could I muster up the energy and presence of mind to defend or counterattack effectively. Instead, I spent most of the three rounds frozen inside of the “danger zone”—the range where he can reach you with his longer arm but you can’t reach him—and ate many withering punches to the face and body. In the days immediately following the fight, with the exception of my ears and the bridge of my nose, my head felt surprisingly pain-free. The left side of my torso and upper abdominals were a different story though and for at least 48 hours, coughing, lying down, and sitting up were agonizing ordeals.
Everything I’ve ever heard about getting hit in the body now strikes me as true in the way that only personal experience can make it so. I believed it all before. But now I know it. In amateur boxing, knockouts resulting from clean shots to the chin are flashy but rare. Pounding away at a man’s liver and guts, on the other hand, is a slow but surefire way to crumble him.
Most of the bout is a blur in my mind. I hardly remember anything that happened during the three rounds and think this is probably due to the nervous, frantic state of mind I was in. One moment does stick out relatively clearly though. It was the moment at which it actually dawned on me that I was underprepared and very much struggling—when any remaining illusions I might have harbored about my readiness to apply what I’d learned and box with a semblance of legitimacy dissolved before my eyes. Hours after the bout and out for some celebratory (or perhaps compensatory) drinks with friends, I described that moment as one in which I felt suddenly overcome by a feeling of “pointlessness.” I’m still not sure that’s the right word. It’s not like I forgot what my purpose was inside of the ring. Nor was it the simple agony and desperation you feel at the end of a workout that brings you to the very edge of your capacity and forces you to look over the edge into the abyss. I’ve had those and the sparring didn’t get me there—at least not fitness and conditioning-wise.
I guess what getting punched and struggling to return fire in a calm, efficient manner does to your mind and body is a little different. Well before it actually puts you down and out, it intimidates you and infects you with fear. It suffocates you with a feeling of unpredictable, looming danger that mere fatigue never produces by itself. Other sports involve human opponents, physical contact, and psychological warfare and intimidation too. But in those sports, the specter of live resistance gets filtered through the “game” itself—through balls and nets and lines and protective gear and the sense of having an objective besides the literal felling of your adversary. And this somehow imparts a sense of safety and distance.
Put it this way. If I am getting beaten in a sport that isn’t boxing, it usually only means that I’m not as far along as my opponent in achieving a common goal that exists outside of us both. And in an attempt to regain my footing, I can try to focus on this goal and everything else that isn’t the other human being trying to beat me. Boxers are also buffered and protected by the rules and regulations of “sport,” the most obvious of which is the wearing of gloves for the express purpose of minimizing damage. But still, if I am losing a boxing match, then I am quite literallybeing beaten with my opponent’s fists, which, gloved though they may be, are still meant to cause me physical pain. In the meantime, there is nothing for me to focus on except this threat in front of me—the very person who is trying to hurt me before I can hurt him back. Indeed, a boxer’s skill is largely measured by his ability to “ignore” this violence and pain to whatever extent possible and treat the purposeful, human threat in front of him as mere, mechanical stimulus—to respond equally mechanically and efficiently (thus the art of counterpunching). But an inexperienced fighter will clam up instinctively when he realizes what is actually happening to him and thereby turn into a punching bag. (Actually, this happens to experienced, skillful boxers too. Less frequently, perhaps. But a fight is still a fight and it is only a matter of time before somebody succumbs).
Therein lies the pointlessness—in the juxtaposition of proactivity and passivity, in the ridiculous impossibility of outrunning a storm that you are already caught in the middle of. The boxer on the offensive is indeed a kind of storm. Escaping him is a lot like trying to escape a tornado that is already upon you. And like that tornado, he does not have to or know how to stop, allow for a change of possession, get back on rule- or protocol-mandated defense, or give the other side any kind of fair chance at scoring or even breathing. He is a natural and inevitable phenomenon. And all he can do is ramp up the onslaught while his paralyzed opponent descends further within himself, experiencing all the feelings of helplessness and futility that punching bags probably would if they could feel.
In 2019, the best part of dating somebody who doesn’t share your native language is the way that this nullifies all the unspoken intimations of text-speak—all the nonsense about punctuation and timing and tone that usually feeds overthinking. When a language barrier forces you to talk and be talked to like a five year-old, you remember all over again that most what you and your partner have to say to each other isn’t that complicated after all.
Today I watched a video on Youtube of eleven established writers giving advice to young writers. One of them said that writing simply has to be the “most important thing in your life,” ahead of “money,” “friendships,” and “all other pleasures in life.” Ahead of those three particular things, I can understand. But I guess I am still in trouble, because last week, I sat down and tried to regularize my daily schedule and very deliberately decided that I would always do my chores before sitting down to write in the morning, out of the simple conviction that nothing will ever be more important than household routine.
I am adamant about this. But that famous writer seemed adamant too. It may be that in fifty years I will look back and realize that I gave up a writing life for a clean floor and a made bed.
Kupang’s primary form of public transportation is the bemo. I know locals who have not ridden one since grade school, having opted for the ubiquitous scooter as soon as they were old enough. Still, just as many depend on them to get around in a reasonably timely manner. The bemos thus ply a brisk, daily trade, transporting people and goods, young and old, and, on occasion, unoffending animals. I once rode alongside a chicken who happened to be resting in the crook of a man’s arm, clucking contentedly away.
In the same way that a Christmas tree starts out as an immature evergreen in the five to ten-foot range, a bemo is, at bottom, a gutted-out, low-riding Suzuki minibus of 80’s vintage. I mean that the real fun is in the ornamentation and decoration. Most bemos are green or white, though I have seen yellow, blue, red, black, and pink ones too. Many have a shiny, oversized Mercedes emblem pasted to the front bumper and all bear some kind of name or callsign—stenciled on in a garish, technicolor font or stickered to the windshield. These do not tell you what route the bemo belongs to or where it is going (that is the job of the light-up numeral that perches diminutively on its roof). But they do bestow a lot of character and a little credibility. The louder and more attention-grabbing a bemo is, the faster I seem to get to my destination. I don’t want to overstate the difference. I’ll get on any bemo that comes along. But some do seem to try a little harder, get a little deeper into character, want it a little more.
As far as character is concerned, bemos can be categorized according to a few themes. There is the religious bemo, which proclaims, “Jesus Christ,” “Bapa Yesus,” “Jesus is my Superhero,” or, more straightforwardly, “Jesus.” Some of these have elaborate tint- or sticker-jobs that obscure one’s view out of the passenger windows but look like stained glass from the outside. The playboy bemo, on the other hand, probably couldn’t be too explicit without turning off certain passengers. But it is suggestive enough, with its girly decals (exclusively white, with long, flowing hair and full lips) and coy quips like “Otomatis Romantis” (“Automatic Romance”). I have yet to see it with my own eyes, but a fellow volunteer who lives on the far west side of the island informs me that one regularly passes by her front door, flashing, in big, bubble letters, “BOOBS.”
Finally, there is the stud bemo, which I could further divide into distinguishable sub-groups (hustler, punk, pretty boy, angsty teen, footballer, happy-go-lucky, Napoleon complex, etc.) but which seems to cohere better as a catch-all category for the preponderance of bemos that, more than piety or lust, broadcast some flavor of heavy-handed masculinity. One claims the title, “King of Kings.” Another calls itself “Boss Kici” (“Little Boss”). One reminds us, in English, that “Time is Money” while its cousin confesses to being the “Money Hunter” himself and drives home the point with dollar sign stickers. “Bajawa Bro” shows its class with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and a rocks glass in its back window. I usually ride the number 6—a sprawling fleet in shades of lime, turquoise, and jade. It sometimes whispers in my ear as I pass through its door, “Cinta diawali dengan senyuman tapi diakhiri dengang kesedihan” (“Love begins with smiles but ends in sadness”) or, “Uang bukanlah segala2nya tapi segala2nya butuhkan uang” (Money isn’t everything but everything needs money”), or, pensively and again, in English, “I am just an ordinary boy.”
It’s clear, at any rate, that the personalities of bemos reflect the tastes and personalities of their crews, which are always male and frequently adolescent. A bemo, like a cab driver’s cab or a mailman’s truck, is its sopir’s (driver’s) charge—the steed he depends on for a living. But more than this, it is his sanctuary—the den in which he spends many hours between each sunrise and sunset and the literal backdrop against which much of the drama of his youth and manhood necessarily unfolds. It’s no wonder that bemos end up as four-wheeled bulletins of desire and insecurity and swagger and yearning and whatever else occupies the minds and hearts of young men.
Apart from the price of a fare (a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah for adults and 2,000 rupiah for children, though I have seen more than these sums paid unwittingly and less paid without issue), the city of Kupang does not regulate bemo operation at all. Crews set their own schedules and routes and outfit and pilot the vehicles however they see fit. Some speed recklessly along, swerving slalom-style around slow-moving traffic, screeching to sudden halts, accelerating like startled horses, and tumbling their passengers around all the while. Others putter slowly up the street, pausing at and peering down every alleyway so as not to miss any potential customers. Some crews blast their USB-contained playlists of C-list pop and EDM remixes at such earsplitting volumes that they are audible long before and after they are visible. Others put on the Indonesian equivalents of Michael Bolton and Phil Collins and keep the crooning and wailing down relatively low, by which I mean that I can almost begin to hear myself think. Some festoon every square inch of exposed dashboard space with grimy, dust-caked blankets and dangle so many plush toys from suction cups attached to the windshield that you wonder how the driver still manages to see out of it. Others leave it all bare so that you can see the loose bolts and rusting shafts and exposed wires, and wonder instead how something that looks like it’s about to fall apart is managing such a breakneck pace.
In the end, however, such differences are only differences of style and degree. If you are paying attention (and it is impossible not to, so in-your-face and, at times, comical, is the queer miracle of the bemo), you will notice them. But let yourself begin to embrace the routine and the necessity of the daily ride—to think of the various routes, collectively, as a system of public transportation—and all of these minor variations begin to blur together into a single, uniform texture and experience of transit-by-bemo. Certain features of the ritual remain constant from ride to ride. Unspoken rules and protocols exist. There are no designated stops. If you want to board, you wait by the side of the road with an expectant look on your face. If you want to get off, you clap your hands or clink a coin against the handrail attached to the ceiling. If you have baggage (a sack of rice, a plastic bag full of meat or fish, a bunch of cassava leaves, a load of laundry, a cardboard box with a flat-screen TV inside of it, etc.) you stow it right behind the driver’s seat. If the bemo is crowded but more people have somehow been persuaded to get on, you shift forward, towards the open door, and let the newcomers clamber past you towards the back. (If you are that newcomer, it is always acceptable to support yourself on the knees of other passengers.) If it so crowded that not even this dance is possible, then you just wait for somebody to fall into your lap.
The main terminal is right next to a famous beach in the old, coastal heart of the city and serves as an endpoint for almost all of the different routes. A sopir’s job is to navigate the free-for-all that is Indonesian traffic and react in a timely manner to stop requests. A konjak’s (hawker’s) job is to sit or stand in the doorway, handle the cash, call out the bemo’s direction (“Kupang! Kupang!” if it is inbound, heading towards the terminal, or the name of the neighborhood at the other end of the line, if it is outbound) and flag down or be flagged down by potential passengers. These drivers and hawkers wear the same flip-flops and cut-off jeans and graphic tees, crouch on the same raggedy crates and stools and upended buckets, sport the same haircuts, chain-smoke the same cigarettes (bought three at a time from kiosks along the route), shuffle and fold stacks of bills the same way (always lengthwise, never along its width), taunt and laugh at each other with the same hyena laughs, loiter and nap and change shifts in front of the same warungs (roadside eateries) and bengkels (roadside auto-shops). In the past half-year, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have bumped into somebody on a bemo whom I recognized from a previous ride. Even so, my fellow passengers hardly seem varied or diverse. Sitting on the same, parallel benches and facing each other, are the schoolboys in their too-short pants, the schoolgirls whispering in each other’s ears, khaki-clad civil servants with their tired expressions and shoulder patches, nonas (young women) on their way to campus, nyongs (young men) on their way to work, middle-aged mothers with babies in tow, toddlers smushing their sticky cheeks against the windows, wrinkled ibus coming back from the market, grizzled, old bapaks chewing betel nut and staring into space. Yes, they are all unique individuals. But in the back of a bemo, I find that I can no longer tell them apart.
Even the vehicles themselves, when thought of en masse, hardly seem so different from each other. Just like the teenagers and twenty-somethings who operate them, bemos are simultaneously all unique and all alike. And if I have said much about the distinctness of their personalities, it’s only because I’m trying to describe something that I already take for granted in clear and imaginable terms—in other words, because I’m paying attention. Colors and themes and decals and routes aside, a bemo is and will always be a rustbucket—a trumped up, goofy rustbucket with a nightmare horn, busted-up seat cushion, and amateur operator, solving for Kupang the problem of connection and mobility that subways and buses solve for bigger, richer cities and making up for a lack of infrastructure with sheer pluck and nerve. At six in the morning, a quiet bemo carrying two other passengers besides yourself takes you to work. Twelve hours later, a loud one filled to the brim and piloted through rush-hour traffic by a sixteen year-old nearly sideswipes a motorcyclist, who then gets off his bike just to punch your scrawny driver through the open window. It’s true: no two bemos or bemo rides are exactly alike. And yet, it is this very unpredictability that leaves you no choice but to believe in the highly predictable outcome of you getting to wherever you need to go, this very inconsistency that somehow points consistently forward, this very jankiness that seems to say, reassuringly, “If I’m running today, I’ll be running tomorrow.”
By 7pm, any bemo you see is probably on its last or second to last circuit. And by eight o’clock, the streets are usually clear of them.
Until recently, I couldn’t be certain where the bemos and their crews went after hours. At one point I imagined a central garage somewhere in the hills outside of the city that they all withdrew to at dark and came charging out of at first light. Maybe a sopirs’ and konjaks’ “barracks” to go along with it. It was pure fantasy and I knew it. But it was a lively image.
Then, late one night, I walked through an unfamiliar neighborhood and stumbled across my answer. There, parked in the driveway of a perfectly average house, was a white, number 2 bemo with its doors shut and engine quiet. This particular neighborhood was actually quite out of number 2’s usual way. No matter. A member of its crew lived here. And after dropping off his last passenger, he had simply gone home like anybody else.
It all seems perfectly obvious to me now. But in that moment, the thought of a hundred bemos dotting Kupang’s labyrinthian, residential complexes, parked in cramped lots and alleyways, proved irresistible. I paused, walked up to the number 2, peered through its window, and did a double-take. Inside, sitting where their passengers usually sat, were four young men, each one staring intently at his phone. Only their faces were illuminated by the pale glow of the screens and in the surrounding darkness, they looked like four, ghostly, disembodied heads suspended in midair, bowed in communion or prayer.
A dog barked in the distance. More joined in. Behind the bemo, apart from a single, naked bulb shining weakly above the front door, the house stood dark and empty. I backed slowly away before they could notice me and hurried onward into the night.
Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of Scott Elledge’s biography of E.B. White from a graduate student friend of mine at Berkeley who had found the volume at a used book sale. Actually, he wrote me at least a month ago to ask if I’d be interested in having the book and it arrived here in Kupang at least two weeks ago, but I’ve simply been procrastinating. The day before yesterday, I finally mustered up the energy to go pick it up from school, where the package was being held for me. But the administrative office was empty by the time I arrived at noon.
“They’ve all gone home already,” one of the other teachers explained. “Come back tomorrow morning at nine or ten o’clock,” she said before pointing at my forearm and adding disapprovingly, as she does every time she sees me, “You’re getting as dark as a local!” It’s a silly remark that gets less innocent the more often it’s repeated.
I did as I was told and retrieved the book yesterday morning at an earlier hour. It’s now finally sitting on my desk where it belongs. I knew what I was getting all along. But opening the package and handling the object inside filled me with a totally fresh and unexpected feeling of glee and anticipation. It was as if I were getting excited all over again about something that had been custom-made for my personal enjoyment.
For one thing, I didn’t know until I looked at the inside-back flap of the book jacket that Elledge had himself been Goldwin Smith Professor of English at Cornell University—my own and White’s alma mater too. This link between the three of us—subject, biographer, and admirer—feels fortuitous and makes me believe that I will have recalled to me certain feelings and memories, both happy and sad.
The blurb on the inside-front flap reads: “In this book, which contains previously unpublished letters and New Yorker ‘capsule essays’ written by White, Scott Elledge describes the writer’s childhood, his undergraduate career at Cornell, and the often difficult pre-New Yorker years when he struggled to find himself as a writer and a man.” I myself am struggling to find myself as a writer and a man and hope to derive some solace from the story of one who wandered that same path years before—some sense of being watched and guided from above.
It really is comforting to me that White’s early life and writing are separated from mine by almost a century. Time lends credibility. And these days, as I read The New Yorker that he helped found and other “smart” publications, I sense only the despair of a fragmented, polarized world and the anxiety that follows from our cultural obsession with the extreme and the sensational. It often seems like we no longer have a choice but to obsess over this insanity—to explain it, lest we lose our minds. But I still think White would be disappointed with where we’ve placed our attention and our values. Few still seem to write as he once did in his “Notes & Comment” column, or in the essays for Harper’s that would go on to comprise One Man’s Meat, or about the same things, or in the same way. Which is to say: tenderly and reverently about daily lives, physical objects, and seemingly trivial scraps of information and experience. I don’t know yet what is meant by a “capsule essay.” But I know that I am always hungry for more of White’s humble wisdom and eager to have him remind me of what is simple and good and true.
But perhaps what is most tantalizing about this object that I have received in the mail is its very physical presence. Its being here, on the opposite side of the world, not just as a book, but as an artifact and capsule of meaning and memory. It has a navy, cloth-bound, hard cover and a rough-cut, deckle edge. The jacket is a similar dark blue, with bold, off-white, serif-font lettering and worn, fraying edges. On the first blank page, in the bottom-left corner, is “2.50” in pencil (the first book sale). On the last blank page (a later book sale), “7.50 bio-White”—also in pencil, but less shaky and smudged. And at the bottom of the title page, scrawled at a slant: “To Afton, Merry Christmas ’94, Love, Bob & Joan.” I have never wanted to know so desperately who three people were and what became of them, never wished so fervently that I could transport myself to a time and a place and see for myself the circumstances under which certain acts of giving and of leave-taking transpired. I cannot remember the last time I was so fascinated by the moment-to-moment history of a thing in our midst, so overcome by wistful longing for the retelling and preservation of it story, so aware of and enthralled by the passage of time, the colliding and interconnectedness of worlds.
Some secrets this book will never give up. Some things I will never learn from its pages. It promises other worlds though—just as rich and full of personality. It has begun to immerse me already, without my even having to open it or read a single word. On the front cover is a picture of the man himself, busily typing away in the boathouse that he kept docked in Allen Cove. The picture is clearly from a series of environmental portraits that the photographer Jill Krementz made—he is wearing the same shirt as in one of the other, more famous photographs from the set and the lighting matches too. But in this one, which is taken up close and from a front-facing angle, I can see more of White’s face and figure and in greater detail—the barely-thinning hair, the wrinkles on his forehead, the criss-cross of his Gingham button-down, the watch, the glasses, the expression of concentration, the blur of his hand as he lifts it to type another word, or perhaps to slide the carriage-return lever back across to the right. I can hear the typewriter ding. I can smell the wood and the water. I can see my friend on a Berkeley street corner, scanning spines and titles and stopping at one. I can imagine him tearing a strip of packing tape and stepping out of the post office. It’s all right there on the desk in front of me, half a world away.
The papaya tree in the alleyway outside my window, where my host family hangs their wet laundry to dry, is now nearly as tall as the neighbor’s house. It appears to be still growing too—at the tip of its not-quite-wrist-thick trunk stands a confused cluster of miniature, celery-green branches and leaves, all of which are still tender and pointing straight up and in each other’s way. The base of the trunk, on the other hand, is at least two wrists thick and already brown and scaly. The thing really is a tree now and not just a shrub.
When I arrived in Kupang, it had not yet appeared above ground. It was in the middle of December and the onset of rainy season over the next few months is what jumpstarted the germination process, I guess. One day around late February or early March, it suddenly appeared—first as a shoot that I could have crushed with a single misstep and then, within a week or two, as a spindly weed that I could have easily yanked out by hand. I gave some thought to doing so (it was more or less directly beneath the clothesline and seemingly in the way after all), but it was growing fast and my host family didn’t seem to mind, so I let it be.
Now, in early July, it is a tree. And we would have to take a machete to it if we still wanted to fell it, which none of us do. The clothesline, which it missed by about an inch, is still only a foot and a half away from the wall of the neighbor’s house. So the tree is still seriously hemmed in. Some of its early branches grew straight into and were stunted by the wall, their leaves yellowing and riddled with holes from bugs that had an easy time crawling directly off the plaster and onto the living green (branches just as old but growing away from the wall are not so severely damaged). The branches further up have a little more space. It really is an awkward place for a tree to be growing and I often wonder how the seed ended up in that cramped little alleyway in the first place—how long it had lain there dormant in the sandy, gravelly dirt before it broke ground and became what it is.
I love this alleyway. I love this tree and the thought of it bearing fruit. I love how my host sisters, out hanging the Sunday wash, have to duck beneath its branches and in and out of its patchwork shade as they pass to and fro. I love its tenacity and gall and the way it jostles for breathing room with the trappings of man—the way it presses itself up (patiently, unyieldingly) against bras and tank-tops on one side and plaster and concrete on the other, promising in the meantime to exceed them all.
One morning several weeks ago, as I walked through the front gate at school, I noticed one of my students, Albert, loitering by some parked scooters about ten feet to my right. His class was starting in ten minutes. I was on my way to retrieve a whiteboard marker before going to it. I knew, however, the instant that I saw him, that he would not be there, and passed wordlessly by.
Of the three boys in that class whose attendance on any given day is a toss-up, Albert is the most boisterous, liable to crow the first words in English that come to mind, whether relevant to the situation or not. Yanus has only ever said to me, “I lapar” (“I hungry”) and, on one occasion, something about “banyak cewek” (“many girls”) which I did not understand fully but which seemed lewd. And Godris, I have never heard say anything. On the days that he comes to class, he sits in the back of the room with a quizzical smirk on his face, as if after five months he still hasn’t decided what to make of this bule trying to teach him English. Or he just falls asleep.
Another day, not long after the morning I saw Albert by the front gate, I lost my patience with the class, cut the lesson short, and asked each student to write down on a slip of paper what he or she really wanted from me. Godris wrote that I should be more tegang (strict) and further explained that if I was too easygoing in the classroom, then the students would be too. At the time, I didn’t know what “tegang” meant, so I pulled him aside after class and asked him. But before Godris could answer, we were interrupted by Ibu Fauziah, my counterpart, who smacked him shockingly hard across the backside with a ruler and sidled out of the classroom, muttering something that would translate roughly to: “Strict my ass…”
I never got an answer from Godris and later looked up tegang on my own. Both my surprise and my relief upon learning its meaning were immense. I should have been able to figure it out simply based on context, but hadn’t the presence of mind to do so. I’d been so sure—so dreadfully afraid—the moment I read “Mr. Riley harus jadi…” (“Mr. Riley should be…”), that he was about to tell me to relax.
Describing his daily routine when in the thick of writing a novel, Haruki Murakami said that “the repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism” and that this mesmerism allows him to “reach a deeper state of mind.” He also noted that “to hold to such a repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength.” Murakami’s repetitive, mesmerizing routine evidently consisted of getting up at 4am every morning, writing for five to six hours, running 10 kilometers or swimming 1500 meters (or both) in the afternoon, unwinding with some reading and music in the evening, and dropping off to sleep by 9pm.
I have been thinking a lot about Murakami’s routine and how elegantly simple it is. About how it seems so tailor-made for doing just one particular thing—writing a novel (at no extra cost to his health and sanity)—and absolutely nothing else. In an age of ever-increasing distraction and anxiety, this kind of focus holds an irresistible appeal.
I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to be able to commit to a routine like that. Strength, for sure, just like Murakami said. But that can’t be it. Strong enough or not, he had to have decided at some earlier point that writing a novel (and staying healthy and sane along the way) was in fact the only thing that he wanted or needed to do for at least six months to a year. And I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a decision like that—a decision as single-minded and seemingly oblivious to the simple realities of earning a living, being a social creature, and navigating the unpredictables of daily existence, as that.
I have been thinking about these things partly because, at times, my task here in the Peace Corps feels similarly single-minded and oblivious to reality. I am ignoring Murakami’s acclaim and a whole host of other resources and conditions that probably conspired to make his routine much more reasonable than it sounds out of context. That said, there is still one key difference between Murakami’s literary task and my pedagogical one that remains constant, no matter the circumstances: Murakami can cut himself off from others and work alone if he wishes, while my job as an English teacher and teacher trainer is collaborative by definition. This difference explains why I cannot singlehandedly defy reality and accomplish my task through sheer willpower—it is not only my decision to make. I am not the only party facing ludicrously unrealistic national standards, a pervasive culture of hierarchy and shame, widespread apathy and bureaucratic graft, and a near total absence of opportunities or reasons to use English outside of rarefied or strictly academic settings. My teaching, and my counterparts’ and students’ learning English, depend on our joint readiness to surmount these realities. More than that, they depend on our having comparable interpretations of these realities and of what ostensibly common goal lies beyond them.
What does it take to stick to a strenuous routine? It takes mental and emotional readiness and a sense of purpose and trajectory—in a word, motivation. And motivation, in turn, requires no trivial amount of thought and effort and experience to muster up in the first place. Strength, along with the curious and intoxicating mesmerism of repetition it enables, comes later.
There are two pieces of paper taped to the wall above my desk. One of them reads:
– Get into graduate school.
– Intern in a newsroom.
– Get published.
– Win an amateur boxing match.
– Leave something tangible and useful behind in Kupang.
Contrary to what he said in March, Pak Hermensen, the boxing coach and former Olympian, has nobody for me to spar. But as of two weeks ago, he has given me permission to attend practices with his Team Indonesia squad at their training camp in Kupang.
The “gym” is airy and cavernous and reminds me a little of a conference room at a cheap hotel. Red and white banners have been stretched across the ceiling lengthwise and metal posts line the walls, spaced apart at intervals of about twenty feet, a heavy bag dangling from each one. The floor is made of white tiles, which become dangerously slick after a few minutes of shadowboxing and sweating. To help with this, hard, foam mats have been laid underneath all of the heavy bags and over half of the floorspace (the other half remains bare). In the middle of it all is a regulation-size boxing ring raised three feet off the ground, complete with a stretched canvas surface, ropes, and red and blue corners.
All the athletes—even the ones who are local—are being put up in a hotel down the street from the gym until December. This much seems to prove just how official the whole outfit is and how much money and sway Pak Hermensen has at his disposal. Nevertheless, like many other “official” proceedings I have observed in Indonesia, this one displays a curious commingling of sloppiness and attention-to-detail. There is the tile floor, for one thing—an obvious sign that the space was not originally meant to be a training facility and was simply converted into one due to its size and proximity to the athletes’ living quarters. Behind the heavy bags (brand new) hanging from their posts (sturdy and installed especially for the purpose), long lines of ants march across pale yellow walls and smoke from trash fires drifts through glass window slats (some cracked). On sparring days, the referees, who I assume must be licensed, arrive and referee the matches dressed in graphic tees, jeans, and leather slippers while throngs of local children crowd in to watch or attack the heavy bags. The athletes themselves certainly look the part, bedecked in official Team Indonesia gear and working up a sweat beneath polyester track suits. One day after practice though, Libertus, a soft-spoken light welterweight, took his trainers off and walked back to the hotel barefoot, his shapely, rock-like calves glistening as he tip-toed nimbly around broken glass and litter and the market’s fly-bitten refuse.
There is no better demonstration of the juxtaposition of the professional and the amateurish, however, than my very presence at practice—than the fact that they have allowed a foreigner and complete novice to flounder alongside them while they try to give Indonesian amateur boxing a name.
Earlier this month, I accompanied a colleague from school and two of our students on a trip to the district of Amfoang Utara, right on the border with the East Timorese enclave of Oecusse. One of the students is originally from that district and her parents still live there in a beachside village that she last saw three years ago when she moved away to attend high school in Kupang. It is no more than 60 miles away from the city, as the crow flies. But the circuitous, inland route there, which, for much of the journey, constitutes nothing more than an unpaved donkey path over mountains and involves multiple river fordings, takes 14 hours to traverse. At times, the bus must groan along while tilted ten or twenty degrees to one side or the other, forcing the flip-flop-clad, betel nut-chewing baggage attendants to climb up onto the roof and sit on the opposite side in order to provide counterweight—so rocky and uneven is the ground underneath. Even when the bus is upright, the way is so bumpy that you are constantly banging your head against the window or against the head of your fellow passenger and being jolted out of your seat and your sleep. During the rainy season, the rivers flood and the road becomes impassable, leaving the coastal villages almost completely isolated.
We stayed with my student’s family for three nights. On one of them, I snuck away from the house with a flashlight and my camera and jogged 400 meters down the path to the ocean. I was in search of a man whom I had seen passing in front of our gate at dusk with a bucket, headlamp, and spear, and had assumed was going night-fishing.
The moon was bright and the tide low, revealing a wide swathe of craggy boulders and mostly-dead coral, stretching at least 100 meters out from the edge of the beach and into the shallows. There, I found him with his spear raised overhead, approached tentatively, and asked the obvious: “Bapak memancing ikan?” (“Mister is fishing?”) He replied in the affirmative and gave something in the water a couple of quick pokes before moving onto the next big rock. I pocketed my lens cap and metered for exposure by shining my flashlight at some exposed coral and focusing on it. In my viewfinder, everything surrounding that one, glistening spot of squishy, green-gray sponginess (it looked like a brain) was pitch black. My own eyes fared little better.
I kept up for what felt like hours. Him—wading steadily and methodically along, poking and probing with his spear, illuminating patches of sandy seabed and nooks and crannies in the coral with his headlamp. And I—20 feet further ashore, taking a couple shadowy, underexposed photographs (except for a lamplit foot here, a ghostly hand there), splashing awkwardly after him, trying to stay abreast. The water, though shallow, was not calm. It was lapping restlessly against the boulders and was murky with sand and silt. I glimpsed a couple of crabs slinking out of the beam of my flashlight and a few minnow-sized fish darting into crevices. But besides these, there was no trace of anything big enough to spear and eat, which I assumed, given the time of day, was the man’s objective.
At some point, I stopped deliberately trying to anticipate his next move and angle myself into position for a decent composition. Instead, I let my instincts take over and my mind wander. I would hop precariously from one slippery ledge to the next, looking only at where my feet were going and listening only to the whoosh of the waves. When there was a pause in the sound of his sloshing, I would pause along with it, raise my camera to eye-level, and press the shutter almost immediately after finding focus, content to let luck, the camera, and whatever, hypnotic sense of synchronization I had achieved with the man and with the night itself capture whatever they wished to capture.
In the meantime, I wondered. What was there to catch among these boulders? Was this a good night or a bad night? Was he feeling patient and clear-headed or as fuzzy and benumbed as I was? How late would he stay out? How often did this man go fishing? And for how many years had this been his nightly or weekly (Could it be less frequent?) routine? Was he, by local standards, skillful at what he was doing? And if so, how long had it taken him to achieve this level of skill? Who, if anybody, had taught him? How many times, along the way, had he returned home with an empty bucket? And what then? Would he or his family go without a meal? Did he have a family? Were they waiting for him right now? With an open flame and empty stomachs?
I was startled out of my reverie by a sudden, violent movement in my periphery and a hollow thunk. The man was now crouching waist-deep in the water and had plunged one arm beneath the surface, reaching for something. With the other, he gripped the shaft of the spear tightly and drove it downwards. Then, having gotten a firm hold with the reaching hand, he relaxed the other and stood up. At the end of the spear, pierced straight through its fleshy mantle, was an octopus—pink, wriggling, and as big as a soccer ball.
As he proceeded to remove it from his spear tip, I clambered forward for a better look. He was trying to pry the octopus’s tentacles off of his forearms. Once he had gotten them all off, he gathered the tentacles in a bunch, swung the octopus around like a sling, and bashed it several times against the rock he was standing on. It was still writhing, so he pinned it down and struck it between the eyes with a sharp piece of coral, before finally dumping it into his bucket. This last step he performed by the light of my flashlight, for his own lamp had slipped off his head and gone out while swinging the octopus. I was sure that it had gone out for good and offered to light the man’s way home. But he simply plucked the lamp out of the water, gave it a couple of whacks until it flickered on again, and waded back out into the waves.
Presently, I noticed three more lights approaching us from the opposite direction. Their up-and-down, bobbing motion indicated that they too were worn on the heads of fishermen. Feeling spent, I watched, but did not follow, as the one light and the three lights crept closer towards each other, met haltingly, swiveled this way and that, and then, all together, continued bobbing and pausing, bobbing and pausing their way down the beach.
I stood still in the enveloping darkness, feeling the waves licking at my ankles. A light breeze was blowing and I shivered a little. I watched them for a long time before turning back—watched them recede into the distance, twinkling and fading like stars.
I have spent the better part of the last three months trying to figure out how to accurately describe local school culture to an American audience—trying to think of some metaphor that will singlehandedly account for every class missed, ear twisted, uniform tucked, speech delivered, and empty hour wiled away in a breathless classroom at midday. It is hard to sum up. The school I work at is not like a poor, rural high school in America, transmigrated to the tropics. Nor is it like a big-city high school in China or Korea, minus the rigor and facilities. It is not college prep by default, or a pipeline to anything or anyplace else in particular. (Students enter and graduate and go off to do whatever it is that they or their families had intended for them to do.) National exams and the threat of accountability loom large, but academics seem to be few students’ or administrators’ top priority. Here in West Timor, school means as much or as little as one cares for it to mean. It fills the rest of the social, emotional, and intellectual space in a young person’s life between the stalwarts of family, church, and work. On some days, our school has more in common with a day care or a second-rate cubicle farm than with an educational institution. But each day always reminds me that there is a wide range of possibility between a job well done and a job not done at all and that most of life is necessarily spent floundering somewhere in the middle.
Technically, my job is to teach English to students and to train local English teachers to be better at their jobs. Between doing it well on any given day and not doing it all, I tend to lean closer to not doing it at all, especially if you factor in class cancellations due to testing, holidays, official business (mine or somebody else’s), or totally random, unforeseen interruptions. When I do get to spend time with my students and colleagues, I find general study skills so lacking and the classroom dynamic so unfocused as to make sustained, meaningful language acquisition nearly impossible. A few of my more driven students are going to learn how to read, write, and speak English some day. But the bulk of their learning will take place after they have graduated from high school and in spite of a scarcity of opportunities to practice consistently.
All of this begs the question: what am I really doing here? Realistically, what can come of my presence in this community? I just got back from my first Peace Corps-sponsored conference in Surabaya, which seemed to be a way of saying “Maybe a plushy week of hot showers and hotel food will help you figure it out.” The food and showers did help a little with morale at the same time that they managed to make me feel guilty. The pedagogical sessions themselves were a mixed bag. One of them, about the use of games in the classroom, stood out to me though. There was nothing theoretical about it at all. The fellow volunteer who facilitated it simply walked us through a sampling of games that he’d found to be particularly effective in his own classroom. One of them, called “Marble Race,” literally amounted to us screaming encouragement at a four-minute long video of some colorful marbles rolling down a channel in the sand. Of course, all the cheering had to be done in the target language, so before the game started, we reviewed a few basic words and phrases in Bahasa Indonesia: colors (corresponding to the marbles) and equivalents for “C’mon!”, Faster!”, and “This sucks!” or “This crap is rigged!” I imagined my own students playing this game in English and the thought of them yelling “This crap is rigged!” at my laptop screen made me laugh involuntarily.
This session stood out at least in part because of how much more fun it was than all the other sessions—how much less canned and stuffy it felt in comparison. Indeed, by purporting to have no point besides fun, it actually managed to drive home the most important point of all: that our students remember not what we tell them but rather how we make them feel in our classrooms. I had definitely heard that before. But I had never had a chance to yell myself hoarse at a bunch of marbles rolling around on screen, or to feel sheepish about it afterwards. The other obvious takeaway is this: humor and enjoyment can make anything worth doing. If you want somebody to expend effort learning or working on something—especially if he or she isn’t personally invested yet—then fun is as good a source of motivation as any other. I did not always find this idea to be so self-evident. In fact, it has always been a difficult one to swallow for somebody like me—for somebody who grew up believing that learning and fun had little, if anything to do with each other.
My parents were immigrants, which meant that most of what they did in between arriving in the US and my early childhood years was driven more by a sense of responsibility and paranoia than by the promise of reward and fulfillment. Growing up, I managed to turn this frank reality into a personal value system. I came to believe that work isn’t supposed to be fun—that work is what you do because you have to and fun is the break you earn for having worked hard and long enough. If I went to school, or took piano lessons, or volunteered at the hospital, or did anything else remotely “productive,” then I did it because it was the right thing to do or because self-betterment demanded that I do it. If I happened to have fun in the process, then I was either extraordinarily lucky or, more likely, not working hard enough. And if I felt like I needed fun in order to get through something, then I was a bum. To this day, I feel a wave of disgust pass through me when students tell me that they find the material “uninteresting” or “unrelatable” or when they act as if their learning depends on their enjoyment. “You don’t have to enjoy everything in life.” I want to sneer. “You can do it just because you have to.”
That’s just the thing, though. The idea of “having” to do something is completely relative. I never had to do anything in the same way that my parents had to. Which is to say, I never had to do anything just to make ends meet. The truth is that I’ve been more or less free to choose what I want to do with my time and energy. And the fact that I was able to pretend otherwise—to pretend that my studies and extracurriculars were do-or-die responsibilities—says more about the culture and privilege I grew up in than it does about any innate capacity of mine to work hard. My current students don’t have the luxury of being able to pretend like that. They can’t pretend that their ability to lead happy, productive lives in their own society depends on their ability to learn English (it so, patently doesn’t).They can’t pretend that achieving and sustaining a basic level of conversational English is anything more than an aspiration. And they certainly can’t pretend that it’s their “duty” to come to my class everyday and study English like their lives depend on it.
What I’ve come to accept is that under such circumstances, a bit of fun can actually be the more realistic, grounding, and accessible source of motivation than so-called “productivity”—the difference between doing any part of a job and doing none of it at all. It’s just odd though: not having a better—or at least, a more pressing—reason for showing up at work than the fun that might come of it. I’m sure my students won’t have a problem with that though. On Monday, it will have been three weeks since I’ve seen my them. I will come to class and explain to them the meaning of “This crap is rigged!” And then we will cheer for marbles rolling through the sand. If I know them at all, they will laugh and scream and turn over a couple of chairs. We’ll see if we can’t get any further than that.
Since arriving in Indonesia, I’ve made a point to ask all my students and local counterparts about their motivations for studying English. They almost always answer that English is a “global language” and that speaking it makes one more “competitive.” This makes perfect sense. But after hearing it so many times, it can start to sound canned. A few nights ago, over dinner, one of the English teachers at my school rephrased it rather pointedly though. “English is money” Pak Narsy said, through a mouthful of grilled fish and rice. “English is a better life for me and my family.”
He proceeded to tell me a story. Many years ago, before he’d gone to college and become a high school teacher and civil servant, he’d worked as a janitor at a hotel. One day, an Australian tourist came down to the lobby to inquire about a piece of lost luggage. When the tourist discovered that none of the receptionists at the front desk could speak English, he became irate. “What’s wrong with this fucking country?” is what flew out of his mouth, according to Pak Narsy. “Why can’t anybody speak English?”
As it happens, Pak Narsy, janitor, could already speak a little bit of broken English. He approached the tourist, offered what help he could, and by the end of the afternoon, the tourist had been reunited with his luggage. Apparently, the hotel manager fired the other receptionists and promoted Pak Narsy on the spot. English is money, alright.
So far, Pak Narsy is the only person I’ve met who’s been willing to come right out with this simple truth. Never mind that “What’s wrong with this fucking country?” and “Why can’t anybody speak English?” seem to perfectly encapsulate how English, and Westerners, for that matter, generally announce themselves as they spread. People still have to live with reality and the local reality is that English is more than just a “global language.” It is a privileged commodity and a status symbol.
This is a reality that I, as an “English Teacher and Teacher Trainer” in the Peace Corps, confront every day. I confront it in every giggle of embarrassment that follows every “Hello mister!” squealed from around a corner. I confront it in the sullen, stone-faced look given to me by a boy in the back of the classroom as I peer over his shoulder at a blank worksheet. I confront it in the hoots of laughter that reverberate around said classroom after every spelling or pronunciation mistake. I confront it in the revelation that the other English teachers bickered over who was going to work with me this semester, because working with me meant looking bad in front of students. I confront it in the revelation that some of my best students risk being considered sombong (arrogant) simply because they speak to me outside of class. I undoubtedly confront a number of other unrelated cultural realities in these experiences. But they all still remind me that my mother tongue is a source of pride and shame for locals who can and can’t speak it—a currency whose value never depreciates.
You have to try to forget all of this, of course, the moment you walk into the classroom and open your mouth to say something to the students who bolt upright and chant, in unison, “Greetings, one, two, three: good morning, teacher!”
About a month ago, I decided to start boxing again (tinju, in Bahasa Indonesia). The last time I boxed was in college, four or five years ago, when I took a beginner’s course for a PE credit. I was starting from scratch then and can still remember feeling shocked at how draining a few minutes of punching could be, at how counterintuitive and mind-numbingly repetitive the basic movements and techniques were. Adrenaline makes you tense and jumpy though, so beginners always end up expending a lot of unnecessary energy. Learning to box is largely about learning how to override your instincts and intuitions—learning how to stay cool under pressure and move towards, not away, from danger.
Several factors went into my decision to pick the sport back up. A stint in the Peace Corps just seems like the right time and place for experiments. I also knew that I wanted some kind of athletic outlet while abroad and suspected that compared to track and field, my primary sport over the last decade, boxing would be more popular and accessible here in Timor. Not everybody understands how much finesse and control boxing requires. But most people can get excited about a good fight.
Recent experience has borne me out. I made one inquiry, which set off a chain of inquiries on my behalf. And in a single afternoon, I managed to locate a boxing coach without even having to search online—Hermensen Ballo, a former olympian who represented Indonesia at the Sydney and Atlanta games. He is originally from Kupang and lives in a neighborhood twenty minutes up the hill from mine. If you threw a tarp over the pile of boxing gloves on his porch and took down the heavy bags he had installed in front of his house, you’d have no reason to believe that this otherwise sleepy alleyway was where he put on a come-as-you-are boxing clinic every weekday afternoon for a ragtag bunch of neighborhood kids and now, one bule. We stretch and do ladder drills and run laps around the block for about an hour. And then we shadowbox and pound the heavy bags while stray dogs and chickens scurry around our feet and withered old ibus shuffle up and down the street with their bunches of coconut and cassava and corn for sale.
Former competitive boxers-turned-trainers always seem to have a certain patience and tenderness of affect hidden somewhere on their persons, clinging faintly to them like a smell (maybe a natural counterbalance to the intrinsic violence that surrounds them, or maybe just tiredness). My coach in college was a soft-spoken, silver-haired man in his late forties who never said any more than was necessary and never seemed to break a sweat either. He fit the mold. Pak Hermensen, on the other hand, is short and stocky and never stops talking, grinning, or spitting (a constant, rapid-fire sputter reminiscent of the way baseball players eject sunflower seed shells onto the dugout floor). He barks his commands when simply saying them will do, and his idea of a joke is to startle some eight year-old schoolboy zig-zagging sleepily down the alleyway out of his daydream by bellowing, just as he passes, “Oi, mo pi mana?” (“Where are you off to?”) Now that I think of it, Pak Hermensen acts and carries himself rather like an overexcited bulldog, and I almost wonder if he was one in his previous life or if he will become one in the life to come.
Still, it’s clear that Pak Hermensen is a well-respected member of the community—beloved by children and adults alike, and not just looked up to because he once represented Kupang and Indonesia on the world stage. If he suffers from some excess of spirit, it’s because he still brims with whatever fire drove him to come out of nothing and become a world-class boxer in the first place. If he can’t help but inflict this spirit on the people around him, then it’s because he has to find an outlet for his passion besides traveling the globe and competing at the highest level—because he has seen how unforgiving the way up can be and cares to shake people out of their complacency.
Therein lies Pak Hermensen’s well-hidden patience and tenderness. And I have found that the easiest way to strip all the bluster away from it and get it to show on his sleeve is simply to give him what all teachers and coaches have ever wanted from their pupils—a little hard work and a lot of faith. Last week, I ran a fast mile for Pak Hermensen. “No sprint, but fast,” he’d said in broken English, to make sure I understood. At the end of it, I bent over to catch my breath, but suddenly he was in my face, his arms around me, his coarse hands reaching up to my throat. I tried to push him away. “No, no, stand up, quiet,” he said, feeling for my carotid artery. I stood up. “Breathe now,” he instructed. When he found my pulse, he looked down, started his stopwatch, and began to count.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way a boxer’s entourage seems to manhandle him during the rest periods in between the rounds of a fight—by the flurry of hands probing and dabbing and wiping at the fighter’s swollen face and limp limbs. The exchange between coach and athlete in that breathless moment seems so private and so intimate—like an exchange between midwife and mother, or medic and wounded. It’s certainly just as bloody and sweat-soaked. And to be covered in somebody else’s bodily fluids is to breach some fundamental threshold of trust and intimacy, no matter how businesslike you happen to be going about it.
I have yet to get my blood on Pak Hermensen (maybe the opportunity will come—he told me that I can spar some of his other fighters). But I did drip sweat all over him and breathe hard in his face while he wrapped his fingers around my neck. It didn’t matter that I was a bule, or that we had only known each other for a few weeks, or that in the end, all he needed was my pulse—some numbers, some hard data. I was his fighter and he was my trainer. It was my job to trust him. And it was his job to put his hands on me—to convey calm and care through physical touch.
I’ve thought of another reason for why I’ve decided to box again. The sport is a wonderfully rich and instructive metaphor for life itself. As a novice, there is a constant temptation to throw all your technique and poise to the wind and just charge forward, bull-fashion. This temptation has got to be resisted, both inside and outside of the ring. Not every punch can be a knockout punch. Boxing helps me to remember this—to practice staying grounded and patient.
Within the past three weeks, I’ve swum in the ocean twice and gone to sit by it at least four times. One of these trips was book-ended by an hour-long bike ride up and then down a mountain. Another, I had to fly twenty minutes to get to and ride two hours on a boat to come back from. The sand at both beaches was fine and white. At the former I ate barbecued chicken with friends and taught a burly Indonesian man the concept of American football. He caught on quickly and blocked me viciously. At the latter I shadowboxed in the sand for five rounds while the sun set behind me.
I also drank beer at all of these beaches and ate bakso from a vendor next to one of them. The “beach” at which I ate the bakso is not really a beach at all, but rather a thin, hundred meter-long strip of rocky, garbage-strewn gravel that the waves lap at on one side and the food stalls crowd on the other. But it is only fifteen minutes away from my house in the city and both the people- and stray cat-watching are excellent. (I witnessed a lean, old tortoiseshell spirit her prize away from a fishmonger, only to be unable to fit it through the chain-link fence that separated her from safety).
I’ve never really been a beach- or ocean-goer, even though I’ve been a coast-dweller for most of my life. I lived in Honolulu for a year after college and a stone’s-throw away from some of the best beaches in the world. Even then, I hardly ever went and was probably oceanside as many times in one year as I have been in three months here in Kupang (I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself this stupidity). I never disliked beaches outright. But I also never really knew what to do or how to be at one. The few childhood memories I do have of beach trips are somewhat fearful and awestruck—are of strange smells and even stranger textures and of the constant sense of exposure. My parents are not maritime people either and, if an adventure is in order, generally prefer to drive farther into the woods or up the mountains—almost always a greater effort than simply rolling on back towards the water.
It takes a certain frame of mind (or at the very least, a willingness to enter the correct the frame of mind) to be able to appreciate the beach. An obvious example: one has got to be willing to take his or her shoes off and go barefoot in the sand without thinking twice. A person who is unwilling to do this much will never get acquainted with the ocean. And now that I think of it, the few times I have seen my parents set foot on a beach, they have done so with their shoes on, striding stiffly along, well clear of the creeping tide.
Oceangoing demands surrender. You cannot expect to know the ocean and keep it out at the same time—not with distance and not with your shoe. You must risk stepping on a sharp piece of coral, getting water up your nose, tracking sand into the car, being touched by kelp’s slimy tendril. It is this consent to entropy, this letting-go, that I have gotten better at in recent years. Even so, I doubt that I’ll ever be interested in living next to the ocean or capable of becoming a weekend beach-goer. I feel that there is a limit to the amount of entropy I am willing to let into my life and that too much time spent at the beach—in the interminable, time-effacing sound of the waves—has an unwelcome, hypnotizing effect on me. The image of the all-American family, bronzed and shiny with sunscreen, laid out on towels beneath an umbrella with cooler and volleyball and polaroid at the ready, has always struck me as one of abject passivity—the sort of position in which I’d wait for the world to end. It isn’t for me. And to this day, I still find that all the excitement is in the initial sprint from car to water, in the first big wave to knock the breath out of you, in the darting of fish and the pinch of the crab: in having your senses sharpened, not dulled, by the astringency of the salt world.
In high school, I asked a Vietnam veteran-turned writer who had come to speak if he had ever killed a man in battle. My teachers and classmates were aghast. I don’t remember what the speaker’s response was. But I do remember its tone—a little reproachful and mostly weary.
The memory is mortifying and I have all but pushed it out of my mind. It did not even resurface last Fall, when I was reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with my own sophomore English class. In one chapter, titled “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien describes in searing detail the mental and emotional contortions that result from having killed an enemy fighter. The chapter makes painfully obvious (if it was not already) why you should never ask a veteran such a question unless he clearly wants to talk about it.
Why, then, wasn’t this simple code of conduct obvious to high school me? What was going through my mind when I asked that question?
I think there are two explanations, both of which contain some truth. The harsh explanation is that I was an ignorant kid who was trying to be edgy for any number of pathetic, attention-seeking reasons. The forgiving explanation is that I wanted to better understand an experience that is famously difficult to understand. In other words, I wanted to strike hard and fast at the truth and thought I might to do so through provocation. Recently, I read something from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Do you know what a twerp is?” that gave me some perspective on the whole ordeal. He wrote it only a few years before he died and it is refreshingly wry and crotchety:
Ernest Hemingway wrote a story after the First World War called “A Soldier’s Home” about how it was very rude to ask a soldier what he’d seen when he got back home. I think a lot of people including me, clammed up when a civilian asked about battle, about war. It was fashionable. One of the most impressive ways to tell your war story is to refuse to tell it, you know. Civilians would then have to imagine all kinds of deeds of derring-do.
But I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff. You’re not expecting it.
Of course, another reason not to talk about war is that it’s unspeakable.
Whether or not it was my place to go digging for the truth in that moment (and it almost certainly wasn’t), I did so, in the most ham-fisted, insensitive way possible. But I also didn’t realize that even if I could have corrected my approach towards the truth, sometimes there just aren’t any words for it.
I tell people that I’m from Boston, but I actually grew up in the suburbs, thirty minutes outside of the city. And it’s the suburbs that I involuntarily recall sights and smells from when I think of home. To most people the distinction is inconsequential. But when escaping that sheltered suburb and making it out in the “real” world has always been a point of honor, the distinction matters. I say “Boston” not only for the sake of convenience, but also because that is where I want to be from.
I do have many childhood memories of being in the city. Watching Barnie in my grandmother’s apartment, say, surrounded by potted plants. The smell of boiled cabbage, oil paints, and incense inside of that apartment. Shafts of afternoon sunlight slanting across the green line’s pleather seats. Prodding crabs in buckets at the Super 88 grocery in Chinatown. Standing transfixed before John Singleton Copley’s, “Watson and the Shark” at the MFA. I treasure these memories. They are as real and vivid to me as every memory of my quieter, daily life in the suburbs. Still, they are the memories of a visitor and not of a city-dweller. They smack of anxiety and romance and excitement and, to this day, bear none of the tarnish that comes with habit. Such is the difference that thirty minutes can make.
Last February, I was living and working in Vermont but started driving to Boston at least once per week. At first, out of a desperate need to escape and soon, to see a girl. She lived in a neighborhood that I’d rarely visited as a child, and I appreciated the opportunity to see a new part of the city. Driving so many miles each week was also a unique pleasure and I did so with nerve and verve—like a true local. Boston is a notoriously convoluted city for drivers. But I relearned the streets and highways and tunnels with an ease that my parents never came by. Never mind that I had a smartphone while they had only had a spiral-bound book of paper maps. (I can still see them hunched over it in the front seats, tight-lipped and white-knuckled). I felt proud of my newfound familiarity and hogged the driver’s seat all spring and summer long. My girlfriend didn’t mind. She drove out of necessity and actually quite liked staring out of the window. I drove, on the other hand, to feel more like I belonged.
What I didn’t realize is that while she stared and I drove, we were still experiencing Boston together. As much as I was reacquainting myself with the city, I was also sharing it with somebody else. Boston became our city. Every place that we went to became one of our places. And just as we became inseparable over the course of ten months, the city became inseparable from our relationship. I hadn’t realized this by the time I left for the Peace Corps in late September. I hadn’t realized this by the time we broke up three months later, on Christmas Eve. And I only gradually began to realize this during the following months, when pictures of Boston on Instagram began to fill me with sadness—when I found that I could not look at them without imagining her face at the windows or her footprints in the snow.
I trust that this sadness will pass and that at some point in the future, I will again feel eager to belong. But now, halfway around the globe and very much out in the “real” world, I feel only a neurotic revanchism. I realize that I have little ownership of the city that I tell people I am from. And like any human partner, it haunts my dreams and memories and taunts me with its steadiness, its beauty—with the thought of its life without me. The end result is that I am constantly looking backwards and wrenching myself out of the past and back into the present. I have also grown wary of the very yearning and eagerness that I hope to restore—afraid of the pain that it exposes me to. I think what I have learned is that it is not always a sign of mediocrity or stagnation to have few expectations. That routine and habit can be gifts and solitude and loneliness blessings. That to truly know and love a place is to demand nothing from it and to merely coexist with it—to become as much a fixture of it as its air or its soil. And until I have felt such solitude and routine and habit and loneliness in Boston—until I have learned to expect nothing from it but my daily reality—I will always be its heartfelt, awestruck visitor.