By Reuven Pinnata | Staff Writer
I must confess that studying—not just studying, but living—in the United States had always been my childhood dream. I dreamt about and longed for that time to come; I idealized it and turned it into a point of reference. Every time some unpleasantness happened—studying a subject I never cared for, hearing one of my friends remark that reading fiction was useless because none of it was true, having a heated argument with my family—I would direct my mind, hope-bound, towards this dream. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I painted myself an enchanting picture all the same.
Perhaps it also had to do with the language. My mom was an English teacher, so English was a part of my childhood. She was the one who taught me all the grammatical rules, but I think it was those books I read which enamored me at first. Dickens, Lewis, Woolf, Joyce, Nabokov—these authors made me see the English language the way a grammar or a composition class never could. And my native language itself is to me a painful instrument to communicate with. Unlike English, there is a gap between the formal Indonesian language and the everyday colloquialisms people use, and I have never been comfortable expressing myself with them. The former sounds too stiff and affected; the latter is for me just too bland to actually mean anything without sounding ridiculous. I waited for the day I could talk as freely as one of the characters in my books did.
It was obvious that I left for the States with leaping excitement, but I didn’t leave without some (both literal and metaphorical) baggage. Everyone kept telling me that I should go home as soon as my studies were over; everyone kept telling me to be really careful because I would be a foreigner in a foreign country. I think one of them predicted that it would be exactly one week before I skyped home crying. But none of those things happened. The first day I got here, I knew I’d been right all along—it was like the most satisfying exhalation.
I went along with the exhilaration until something stopped me in my tracks. One of my friends from Indonesia called, and we had a conversation. He talked about identity, and he told me: “Don’t forget. You’re still one of us.” I know that that should have been a nice thing to hear, but it greatly disturbed me—what does it mean that I’m “one of us”? I told him, yes, I never would change, just because I didn’t want the conversation to turn into an argument. But as soon as we hung up, I found myself endlessly turning that phrase around in my head. What does it mean—what makes me an Indonesian? Surely not my passport and certainly not my language. My ties to my family? But they could be living in Switzerland, and I’d still be a part of them. What is right and what is wrong? But I’m a Christian, and Indonesia is an Islamic country. After all, I believe that morality is not geographically determined. What then?
At first, I thought that perhaps I was just too young to be thinking about this; I had never encountered financial hardships—I was too lucky. But soon I realized that I was just being evasive. If privilege, or lack thereof, can determine me, that doesn’t mean it should; if anything, I shouldn’t let it do so. And that age thing is just nonsense; I remember a really wise man telling me once: “Don’t ask at 82 the question you were asking yourself at 22.”
But I must say I still haven’t found the answer. Whatever comfort or pleasure I have right now can disappear at any moment—I’ve been training myself to always keep that in mind—and I can always change my mind. But if I haven’t found the right answer, at least I have crossed out one wrong answer, although it may be an answer some of my fellow international students think I shouldn’t have crossed out: wherever I come from does not determine who I am.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.