Hi, I'm Megan. I am a writer, a photographer and an international public health professional. After a year-long research project in Indonesia, I'm back in my hometown, Chicago. It's great to see white snow again, but I miss the fresh coconuts that machete-slinging street vendors would chop open and sell to me for a mere 50 cents. Currently looking for ways, other than hibernating in a hat and gloves under my comforter, to stay warm. Please contact me at mmryan1@gmail.com to pitch your ideas. (FYI - I already tried hot potatos in my pockets, an old Irish tradition)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Typology of a line cutter

This post was partly inspired by a conversation my friend, Aaron Connelly, and I had about categorizing bureaocrats. Aaron, Andrew (Aaron's friend visiting from Seoul) and I were at a bar and Aaron began to talk about what he called "the typology of beaurocrats". Andrew remarked that it was a potential thesis topic, and I thought it was funny, so the topic was still on my mind on my way home.

While waiting for the Transjakarta (the special bus-system in Jakarta), I felt beads of sweat begin to roll down the grooves of my spine on the back of my neck. My new friend that I made while traveling in Indonesia, Claustrophobia, appraoched me. "Where was the bus and why were people in the 'line' standing so close to me?!" I grumbled.

In my discomfort and impatience I thought about how lines in Indonesia (or lack of) baffle me. They baffle me because 1. they don't usually form - people just mash into each other and 2. When there is an attempt to make a line, people either cut in front of me or are oblivious to it. I was in the second situation.  In the Transjakarta bus shelters, there is at least an attempt to make people conglomerate into a line-like formation. The city even recently posted signs that say "laki-laki" (man) and "perempuan" (woman) to create order and separate men and women. But that doesn't mean people actually listen, or that the rules are enforced.

There I was, still waiting after 15 minutes, and people began to cut in front of me. Instead of getting annoyed, though, I decided to change my perspective and have fun with the situation.  I started paying attention to the people in the bus shelter. I observed how people cut in line. I tried to pinpoint their tactics: did they use distraction, brute force or a sweet smile? What made someone a more successful line cutter than others? I realized that, indeed, line cutters have strategies! Within a matter of 10 minutes I had already identified two types. This was getting interesting.

1. The opportunist: This is a person who sees an opening in the line and just goes for it. Nothing else matters. It's just about getting as close to the front as possible. If someone calls them out on cutting, this person will usually shrug as if to say "what, man? I saw a space and I took it. You've got to go for it if you see it". This is a 'survival of the fittest' kind of attitude.

2. The aloof 'bystander': This person usually has something in their hand, such as a phone or a newspaper, to appear busy or distracted. That way, people think of them as innocent bystanders, minding their own business. But that's exaclty what they want you to think. In fact, they are line delinquents! Eventually they inconspicuously slip into the front of the line, and go unnoticed because they appear to have been there the whole time. Perhaps he is just a straggler or an outlier people think to themselves. This is the more sophisticated type, as opposed to the opportunist.

Since playing this little game while in line, waiting has become much less burdensome to me, and even intriguing as I find ways to analyze the people I'm waiting with. I've realized that, contrary to what I used to think, line etiquette does exists in Indonesia, but it's different than in America. I just haven't figured out the nuances of the etiquette yet...

Then again, when I think about my days of living in New York, Jakarta's 'line system' doesn't seem so foreign. The Jakarta bus shelter conjures memories of hot summer days in the subway. Often during rush hour, the New York subway gets so crowded that I imagine people sticking their limbs out the windows as the only way to make more room for passengers at the upcoming stops (because New Yorkers know that people will find their way in the car, no matter how crowded). People often try crazy things just when the subway car is at the apex of impenetrability, such as squeezing themselves, their baby AND its carriage into the train car. Usually a purse, a jacket or the baby stroller wheel will get caught in the door as it's closing. The door continues to open and close until the person either pushes their way in (while people shout "take the next train!") or gives up and gets out.

Perhaps this chaotic mass of people, the pushing, and the lack of lines while waiting for something is a phenomenon of all people in large metropolises. Either way, whether it's characteristic of Indonesia or big cities in general, I'm still confused about the concept of 'waiting for your turn' in Indonesia. Meanwhile, I guess I just have to embrace the madness, or at least cultivate an expertise in identifying line cutters before they make their move!

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I realized that in my last post "Obsessed with White" I may have made it seem like all Indonesians want whiter skin, as if this desire were somehow more deeply embedded in Indonesian society than, say, other desires in other places, such as the desire to be thin in America. I still think this mindset(whiteness is better/more beautiful) is widespread, but I don't think that all Indonesians care about the shade of their skin, nor do I think that all Indonesians believe people with whiter skin are more attractive, or superior.

I do think that this idea prevails because of images in the media (that use airbrushing to perfect a model's skin), because of years of colonial rule by the Dutch and because some people think dark skin is a symbol of "working in the field" and by default also a symbol of the working class, as opposed to the elite. Some of my friends in Indonesia might say they think white skin is more beautiful, or that thy wish their skin were lighter, but would also say that a person's skin color cannot measure his or her worth.

However, this is not necessarily representative of Indonesia because most my friends are well-educated and kind. There are huge gaps in education and different families teach their children different things about diversity. I think the idea that white is inherently better is an idea that prevails among people who don't have the opportunity to learn about, or for whatever reason, refuse to understand the horrible ramifications of racism on people throughout history.

Whew. I apologize if this seems unnecessary. Some people cautioned me that my post might not be taken well, so I want to clarify that my last post was not meant to generalize all Indonesians. Here is a shout out of love to all my Indonesian friends, mwah!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Obsession with White

When I use the word obsession, I often use it to describe a positive state of mind, one where I constantly think about something because it fascinates me. I will say "I'm obsessed with this new song" and listen to it on repeat because it gives me a lift and gets me moving in the morning.

Yet, I misuse the word. The true definition of obsession "a persistent, disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling" connotes something more negative. Obsession is more than fascination. It is a compulsion to do or think about something because of some sort of delusion that you must, and the definition implies that it might get in the way of "living life".

So we are human - we get obsessed with things, often irrationally, because we have emotions - so what? The real question is: why do we get obsessed with things that are insignificant and that are counterproductive to society? In my opinion, personal obsessions often stem from social norms that delude us to think that certain lifestyles and ways of being are ideal. Media and mass marketing are often the culprits, encouraging people to achieve an image without thinking about whether it is actually achievable or right for them.

What I want to talk about here is an obsession that I've noticed ever since I set foot in Indonesia: the idea that the whiter your skin, the better you are. I first had this thought while perusing the aisles at Circle K (a 7 eleven-type store) for sunscreen and only found one option for sunscreen within a sea of skin whitening products. I was overwhelmed by these products; faces as white and smooth as sandalwood stared back at me from boxes that said "white beauty".

In Jogjakarta (the city where I live) there is even a salon called the "Michael Jackson Skin Whitening Center". Need I say more?

As a very pale American, Indonesians often compliment me because I am so white and therefore beautiful in this culture. My initial reactions were usually to feel surprised and then flattered. "Wow, someone thinks I'm beautiful!" In the US, I was used to being made fun of for being so white. In the summers, I envied my best friend because her skin turned a golden brown and I remained a pasty white or turned lobster red. The first time I went to the beach each summer, I blinded people as I walked along the shore. But now when people comment about how beautiful my white skin is I get frustrated because it says nothing about me as a person. I want to exclaim: What about my thoughts and the work that I do?! It scares me that skin color could be like suits in a deck of cards; white skin is like the trump suit, more powerful than our true values and motivations.

I know, I know: to say that being white in Indonesia is like trumping in a game of spades is exagerating, but there is some truth in that analogy. For example, I attended a hip hop concert in Yogyakarta (a city known for intellectuals and higher education). Three of the performers were of African descent and one was caucasion. At the end the MC, trying to get a rise out of the audience says:
"Hey people out there, which one do you think is the best?! I like the white one!"

The audience squeeled with laughter. Of course, I thought, she would pick the white one, without mention of how they actually performed. I laughed at the explicitlitness of what we would call rasicm in the US. As I imagined how an American audience would react to this comment, I pictured people gasping and angry people storming out of the auditorium. If this happened at a hip hop show in New York, local newpapers, communities and public figures would vociferously critisize the MC, and the organization that she works for. But in Indonesia, people laughed it off. I think it's precisely this attitude - that people simply think white is better - that allows rasicm to thrive in Indonesian society.

Even in Jakarta, an international city, this attitude prevails. I met an African American man from New York who lived in Jakarta for one month. I asked him how he liked Jakarta:
man: "I like it alright, but the city feels opressive to me"

me: "how so? Is it too religious, or are there too many rules?"

man: "Well to be honest, the whole desire to be white freaks me out. I see it everywhere and as a black man, I don't feel accepted. I had a woman tell me I was ugly and dirty because I'm too dark. At the mall accross the street, Ponds is promoting a new skin whitening cream, giving out free samples to the public. The people are loving it."

This obsession with being white is not based on logical reasoning or justification such as, for example, wanting to stay out of the sun to avoid skin cancer (otherwise there would be a larger sunblock selection in stores). The "beauty of whiteness" is ubiquitous in the media, in daily convesations and in my interactions with people. And although I don't have scientific proof that Indonesians believe "white is better", my experience living here is evidence enough for me.

My next question is whether the "idea that whiter is better" is counterproductive in Indonesia? My answer is: absolutely. This idea creates an environment for racism to grow and florish, which if it doesn't cause ethnic conflicts, certainly doesn't help resolve them. Perhaps income gaps in Indonesia persist between people of different skin "shades".

In America, I don't think that we've become a post-racial society like some people claim, but we certainly don't have as many explict messages in the media that tell us we should whiten our skin. In fact, I've never seen a skin whiteing cream in a store in America, and more often there are tanning oils that people use to get darker. Perhaps years of affirmative action and the promotion of diversity in education and the work-force is why there is less of a yearning to be white in America (I'm not denying that racism still exists in America). Looking at the progress America has made in terms of tolerance of diversity, I can't help but be optimistic that Indonesia will eventually develop a "blindness" towards skin color, despite how deeply embedded the idea of "white is better" is.

Here is a blog entry by a friend of mine about her personal experience in Indonesia. It's an example of how conscious Indonesians are of skin color : Don't Judge a Bule by her Color.

Does anyone have examples of this "desire to be white" in Indonesia? What about in America? Is America a post-racial society where people are "blind to skin color", or is that an overstatement? Please share your thoughts!