PiA celebrates 50 years in Indonesia

By Kerrie Mitchell 

Princeton in Asia alum Jonathan Weiss (1998) still remembers his first moments in Indonesia in the fall of 1998. Another PiA Fellow picked him up from the airport in Yogyakarta on her motorbike. “I’d never ridden a motorcycle before, so I don’t even know how we got my luggage back to the house,” says Weiss, who’s now a health care consultant in Minneapolis. “I remember being on the back of that little moped, flying through the darkness in the tropical heat. It was all very exciting—to be cast into this foreign situation, not knowing much of the language, knowing I was going to be teaching people. I had no idea what I had just gotten myself into.”

It’s a striking memory that many Indonesia alumni might appreciate, no matter when they first landed. PiA Fellows have been in the South East Asian country on and off for half a century now, through some of the more tumultuous years in its history. In all, 111 people have worked in Indonesia through PiA, serving universities, NGOs and businesses in Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Banda Aceh, and Bandung, among other cities.    

As we celebrate the fellowship’s 50th anniversary this year, we thought we’d go back to some of the alums who lived and worked in Indonesia through the decades, to see what brought them there and to reflect on the memories they took with them when they left. They offer a remarkable portrait of a turbulent, rapidly developing country, a Muslim-majority nation that constantly manages to attract visitors with its contradictions, beauty, and diversity. “One reason that a lot of foreigners keep getting drawn back into Indonesia once they’ve gone is because it’s a country that has so many different worlds in it,” says Sean Massa (2015), now a graduate student at Yale. Author and journalist Ted Fishman (1980) echoes the sentiment: “I still feel like I’ve not traveled enough in the country, even though I’ve been to places all over. It’s endless.”

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PiA first sent a Fellow in 1968, only a few years after a violent transition in the country that had seen the overthrow of the first president, Sukarno, and subsequent mass killings that left at least half a million Indonesians dead. Paul Minault (1968) arrived in the fall of that year to teach English at the University of Jakarta as part of a one-year fellowship funded by the Ford Foundation. He had written his Princeton senior thesis on Indonesia, but his real reason for taking the job was a more practical one: Graduation meant facing the Vietnam War-era draft. “In those days, you could get a teaching deferment,” he says. “So when I heard about a teaching possibility in Indonesia, well, that was a double whammy, because I’d studied Indonesian politics, and it got me out of the draft.”

His first impressions were of a country still vibrating with ominous political tensions. “There were army and police walking around town with machine guns, and there were members of the military in the main square in the capital,” he says. “I never talked politics with anybody there—they wouldn’t have given you a straight answer anyway, and you would’ve put them in an uncomfortable position.” He also remembers being struck by the extreme poverty of Jakarta. “On the streets there’d be oxcarts and peddle driven pedicabs, buses, people driving vehicles of all sizes and shapes—it was the chaos of a third world capital,” he says. “I do recall early on seeing people doing every bodily function in the canals, which, you can imagine, were basically open sewers then.” Modern conveniences were limited. “There were so few TVs, that if somebody had one, they would position it so you could see it from the front window, and then all the neighbors and rickshaw drivers and kids outside would look through the window,” said Minault, now a retired environmental attorney in the San Francisco area.

For his first year, Minault lived in relative comfort in housing provided by the Ford Foundation. Other early Fellows we talked to also started off in university or western-style housing, before opting to move to Indonesian-centric kampungs. Josh Scodel (1979), for instance, moved into a boarding house for Indonesian students in Yogyakarta that was owned by an army officer, where he lived with an older Christian man and a younger devout Muslim who didn’t much like Americans. “One of the striking things about Java [the most populous island in Indonesia and home to Jakarta and Yogyakarta] were the variety of perspectives people had,” says Scodel, who’s now a professor at the University of Chicago. “People weren’t necessarily open about their political or religious views. Nevertheless, you got that indirectly.” Michael Northrop (1982) also lived in a kampung for awhile before losing the lease and moving back near the university in Yogyakarta. “We knew absolutely nothing about Indonesia when we arrived except what we’d read in a Frommer’s guide on the way there,” wrote Northrop, who now directs a  sustainable development grantmaking program in New York. “It seems incredible looking back.”

Laura Cooley (1983) valued her living experience away from the expat enclaves in Yogyakarta. “It really made me understand much more about the Javanese and how they live,” says Cooley, who now works in public health at the University of Washington. “There’s this Javanese approach called gotong royong— loosely translated it means mutual cooperation. I remember using a well for the first time, and I was very clumsy at getting water out and my neighbor, the wife of a rice farmer, taught me how to do that. Or if I left laundry out on the line and took a nap during the typical afternoon of rain during the rainy season, I might come out afterwards to find my laundry neatly put into a basket and protected.” Fishman also moved to a nearby farming village in Yogyakarta, into a house with kerosene lamps, bamboo walls, and no electricity. “My Indonesian got much, much better, and my local knowledge got better,” he says. “Eventually I did get one electric socket put in my house because all my neighbors insisted a foreigner needed electricity. The day it was installed, I came back and there were four electric lines leading to neighbors’ houses from my socket—a small service I could provide.”

In those early years, the teaching materials at the universities could be as rudimentary as the living conditions. “I was provided with no instruction materials,” says Minault. “No. 1, I knew nothing about teaching, no. 2, what I knew about grammar and diction was basically what I learned in junior high school.” He ended up buying an English-Indonesian dictionary and a tourist phrase book and cobbling together lessons for his post-doctoral students. “It was a bit of a trial by fire,” says Cooley, who was there 15 years later. “I definitely got the better deal in terms of experiences. I taught advanced English classes and my ‘students’ were all university faculty who were studying to go abroad.” Even into the 1990s, Weiss remembers feeling ill-prepared and useful only as a token native speaker: “Every day, I went in there and just rummaged around a bookshelf, looking through the odd mix of books and papers they had and trying to cobble together something that could pass for a lesson plan.”

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Weiss and his cohorts were actually among the last PiA Fellows in Indonesia before the program took an eight-year hiatus because of political instability. The 1997 Asian economic crisis caused widespread unrest, and 1998 saw the ousting of President Suharto, the authoritarian who’d ruled the country since 1968. Weiss remembers that it was unclear until the last minute that Fellows would even be allowed to travel to Indonesia that year, though they eventually were. “There were all these political demonstrations and that was interesting to observe,” he says. “Yogyakarta was the seat of several universities, so there was a very active political base of students out in the streets.”

While Weiss remembers that these were mostly nonviolent, he and some of the other PiA Fellows got into trouble during the late December holiday break when they traveled to the Maluku Islands just as violent sectarian conflict was breaking out in the provincial capital of Ambon. They ended up stranded on a nearby island with a group of other tourists for about a week after the airport was closed. They were in a peaceful area (“We were stuck on a white sandy beach playing soccer,” Weiss says), and while phone and internet service was spotty, they were able to keep in touch with then-PiA Executive Director Carrie Gordon. Eventually, Gordon arranged for an escort of Indonesian soldiers to accompany the PiA group back to the airport, a journey that involved a pre-dawn boat trip and pit stop at a ransacked hotel in riot-torn Ambon. After they returned to Yogyakarta, “Carrie immediately told us, ‘We can’t have you there any longer,’” says Weiss. “That was disappointing because we went back to Yogyakarta, and it was just business as usual. It felt like being woken abruptly from REM sleep. I think of my students—the development of our friendship was just really starting to blossom, you know? And it ended too quickly.”

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PiA started sending Fellows to Indonesia again in 2005. More recent alumni recall a country that is vastly changed since the 1970s. “All the comforts I have here, I had there,” says Isabel Vázquez (2014), who’s now a radio and podcast producer in Chicago. “This isn’t an exciting thing to say, but daily life was characterized by going to cafés, drinking coffee, and being on a laptop with friends. There’s a growing hipster culture in Yogyakarta where people are into really fancy coffees and cool streetwear and fixing up motorbikes.”

The teaching has also gotten more sophisticated and if anything, more recent alumni admit to being a bit too prepared. “I would try to have a bit of control by having PowerPoints and having a planned lesson plan to the T,” says Massa. “But what I learned was it’s good to be flexible, to find out what the students are interested in and to work around that.” Sanhita Sen (2007) even helped coach the university debate team, traveling with them to a regional competition. She also taught an English lesson at a local orphanage through an Indonesian friend, which led to her brief appearance in the students’ traveling roadshow. “The teaching lesson was pretty limited, but the way they made money was busking, basically,” says Sen, who’s now a lawyer in New York City. “They had musical instruments, and they’d get on buses and collect money. This was a surprise to me, but we were standing by the road talking and a bus comes by. And my friend says, ‘OK, c’mon let’s go!’ And I’m like ‘What?!’ And we get on the bus, and he’s like, ‘We’re going to do songs.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know any songs!’ And he’s like, ‘Just clap, just clap.’ At the end, he’s like, ‘Collect the money.’ He introduced me as his ‘foreign friend.’”

While Sen’s brief busking career might be a first among PiA Fellows, she’s not alone in having a serendipitous experience that helped define her year. Indeed, what unites many of the tales alumni tell is how eager Indonesians were to help visitors experience their country and culture. The examples are many: Weiss remembers that shortly after he arrived, his Indonesian neighbor offered to take him to the Prambanan temple on his motorbike. Northrop fondly recalls every homecooked meal he ate there: “We quickly came to love the hottest chilis and found ourselves unsatisfied with a meal unless our eyelids started sweating.” Sen spoke about getting stranded in a remote town over a national holiday and being invited to spend the night with a boisterous Indonesian family. Says Fishman: “You have this sense that all of these lucky things are happening to you, that you’re running into these occasions by chance, without realizing the hand of your friends pushing you to them.”

If PiA’s Indonesia alumni have that sense of discovery in common, they also have something else: the experience of being young and free, with a beautiful and complex country to explore. “I feel like I spent my 20s doing what I wanted to do, which was running amok in South East Asia for awhile, living a different lifestyle,” says Sen. “I always joke that no one can push me around because worst case, I’ll just go retire in Bali. I think you always have that in the back of your mind—that there is a different way to live.” Among Vázquez’s more vivid memories is just getting on her motorbike and “hitting the road with a change of clothes, knowing you’re going to find a place to stay and not worrying too much about it,” she says. “The drive is stunningly beautiful, and the destination is also usually stunning beautiful. My camera couldn’t capture it, my words don’t capture it. Indonesia is so many variations. I really miss that.”

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