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)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On reverse culture shock

After a year of living in Indonesia, I'm back in the US and experiencing reverse culture shock, BIG time. I realized adapting to the conveniences of a developed country would be difficult my first night back, when I used an oven to cook a pizza. I no longer had to dread turning on the oven in fear that I might light myself on fire. Where is the thrill in that? *sigh*

To my horror, there were no buckets to wash myself with freezing cold water; I guess warm water and proper shower heads will have to do. *groan*

What's that you say? Don't be a baby?

Hold on. It gets worse.

My first night out with friends in Chicago I was overwhelmed with all the choices of beer compared to the two in Indonesia: Bintang and Carlsberg. From the sweet woodchuck hard cider, to the classic Bluemoon, to the Chicago brewed 312 urban wheat Ale I was blinded by all the options.  It was enough to make my head spin!

I'm telling you, I don't know if I can handle the abundance of everything I could ever want.

In all seriousness though, yes, life is pretty easy here. But that doesn't mean I'll adjust the moment I set foot on American soil.  Reverse culture shock happens. Even though America is a culture that was once my own,  Indonesia is now also. Even though I'm coming back to a familiar place, I am also leaving one behind. Sometimes I miss Indonesia and the simplicity of white rice, very very much.

At the end of the day, it's easy to recount the uncomfortable things to which I need to adjust in America: putting on socks, eating cold breakfasts, going through withdrawl from coconut milk and learning how to stay warm in cold weather. But these are mere peas and carrots compared to the meat of culture shock. What really gets me is that there is NO ONE here that understands what it's like to live in Indonesia. That's what culture shock really is. It's that you feel completely different than everyone else around you.

So what's the cure to reverse culture shock? Perhaps eating burgers and watching a lot of American Football will help me. Nah, America is more than burgers and beefy athletes. However, I do feel out of the loop when my friends pull out their fantasy football plans (then again, I always have). My best move will be to explore the city, reconnect with old friends and meet new folks. Perhaps I'll go looking for the 500 or so Indonesians living in the Chicago Area.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Learning the art of linguistic shamelessness

Since the day I imagined becoming a polyglot in my first Spanish class, I noticed that one thing might get in my way: my torpid tongue. Plainly put, for me, the Spanish “r’s” never seem to “roll off the tongue” like they do for others. I envied my old Spanish teacher's linguistic agility. I was jealous of anyone who could make the pur-like sound with their rs. I remember walking down the hall, repeating words like arriba and parrilla softly, hoping my tongue might just start to roll like a motor. It never did, and I never told anyone that I felt so insecure about my flat Spanish rs. To this day, my tongue and the double r have never gotten along.

Even if this idea was just a seed I planted in my own head to begin with - that my tongue isn't agile - it grew into a self-fullfilling prophecy. I felt shameful when a spanish word clumsily escaped my lips, and so I became shy to speak. I dreamed of having a perfect Spanish accent and I thought studying Spanish in Ecuador for five months might make that a reality. Five years later, my r is still as flat as ever. But what I did learn from living abroad was how to let go of the fear of sounding like a novice. I also learned that the art of speaking a foreign language lies in being shameless. 

I often think about whether I allow the fear of making mistakes or sounding preposterous stop me from expressing myself in Indonesian; I wonder whether I'm applying what I learned in Ecuador about shamelessness and language to my language acquisition in Indonesia.

Looking back on the past 9 months here, I don't think I have. Sometimes I self-censor my sentences (to avoid saying something that's not perfect) and in doing so I miss opportunities to make mistakes, be corrected and to learn from them. I'm a grammar nazi, a perfectionist when it comes to word choice. But my vocabulary in Indonesian isn't sophisticated enough for me to be such a stickler with Indonesian words. If there isn't a dictionary or a thesaurus laying around, I end up saying nothing. 

One hurdle I encounter in learning Indonesian language is one that I never did in Spanish: words that start with ng. In English, words don't begin with ng, they end with ng; for example, gerunds. But in Indonesian, many words start with ng. So the struggle of my tired tongue wanting to be nimble continues, not only when I say words with r (In Indonesian there is a slight role of the r also) but in forming the sound ng at the beginning of a word. But I'm trying to be an optimist. I believe that if my tongue gets the proper amount of exercise I might be able to say words like "nganggur and ngangtuk" unstrained one day. 

Fortunately, I have gracious Indonesian friends to exercise with. And I'm fairly certain they don't mind listening to me practice my pitiful pronunciation. Case in point: for twenty minutes my two Indonesian friends, along with my articulate and patient American friend Colin, listened to me try to say ngantuk - which means sleepy in English - over and over again. It was an ironic moment. I was between tongue and roof of mouth with the sounds that form the Indonesian word for sleepy. I couldn't help but feel like this word "ngantuk" was mocking me. My friend Merio tried his best to explain the difference between the right sound for ng, and the sound I was making. I swear there was no difference. I began to think that maybe I was tone deaf. 

Although I felt rediculous and everyone at the table was laughing, I continued trying to say ngantuk. On my way home, I imagined my friends forever dubbing me as the "lidah ngantuk" (sleepy tongued) American and never ask me to hang out again for fear I might find another word to practice on them for hours. To my surprise, a few days later I received a message on Facebook from Merio's friend. She asked me how my "ngantuk" was sounding and ended it with a little wink ;). Perhaps what I thought was a weakness, what I thought would make Indonesians disinterested in me, is actually something Indonesians find endearing. It just took a bit of shamelessness to figure out.

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!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Archipelagic Gaps: Challenges in Access to Maternal and Child Health Care within Indonesia’s 17,000 Islands

After months of stumbling on my words and the embarrassment of excessive sweating, I've finally learned how to enter and exit conversations without being socially awkward and to keep my clothes dry. Oh yeah, and I've made some headway on my original research project. For those of you who still have no idea what I do here, I have a little story for you.

After receiving a Masters of Public Health in international health from the University of Michigan, I decided it was time to break from the ivory tower of academia. I was tired of reading about epidemiologic theory and disease prevention and craved the opportunity to investigate a real public health issue on my own. The Fulbright scholarship was an opportunity to do research, but also to “get a little dirty” and find my way in a new culture outside of classroom walls.

I applied to Indonesia as a Fulbright Scholar to study the impact of decentralization on maternal and child health care. I chose this topic because, from my experience in graduate school, I believe governments can reduce maternal mortality if and only if they prioritize health education and improve access to medical care. I chose Indonesia because maternal mortality has remained stagnant in recent years. Also, within the context of a huge political change such as decentralization in 2001, I could analyze the relationship between good governance and maternal health.

My Fulbright experience in Indonesia began with listening. Each person I talked to revealed a new kernel of truth that deepened my understanding and led me to new insights. I will always remember Dr. Joedo, a doctor at an NGO that started out as a maternal and child health organization, and his poignant comment about decentralization in Indonesia.

We sat in a meeting room at a shabby wooden table stained with water rings from coffee cups. A flimsy wall divided the meeting room from employee cubicles. The office I sat in was quite austere compared to the glamorous malls in Jakarta I passed on the way there. He told me, “Decentralization in Indonesia has been like going through withdrawal from medication. The provinces and regencies lost their decision-making support and suddenly became responsible for planning public services. It all happened so fast”.

The decentralization laws split Indonesia into 33 provinces, 349 regencies and 91 cities. The regencies gained autonomy, and thus the ability to decide how money is allocated and the types of programs to implement. Some regions prioritized short-term development projects over long-term ones like health, creating regional inequality in health care.

Imagine the potential for disparities in access to health centers between regencies that prioritize spending on health and those who don’t. Imagine how difficult it would be to attract trained health professionals to work in remote regions if the local government doesn’t have an incentive program to bring them there. Now think about a woman who lives in a region where the nearest hospital is hours away and the local government lacks education programs about what do when her labor is not going well. Some local governments in Indonesia are creative in finding solutions, but it takes dedication from each regency to close the access gap.

Decentralization, however, is not all bad. In fact, the intention of the process is to allow local governments to tailor their budgets to the particular needs and contexts of their district without constraints from a central, often uninformed power. The fact that each region has different demographics - average age, geography and education - means each region needs a unique public health program. Local political environments that are prepared for the responsibility to develop health programs might be more successful than if the planning happened in Jakarta.

In a decentralized Indonesia, I’ve realized that it is essential to get decision-makers to care about the important things. The money saved from forgoing a plan to build another upmarket mall in Jakarta could probably contribute to making health care more affordable for the urban poor. It is important to find leaders who realize that long-term development means investment in the health of Indonesians.

The handicap that bureaucratic ineffectiveness places on health care is not just an Indonesian problem, but also a worldwide concern. For the past seven months I have been fortunate to live in Indonesia and to study how maternal and child health challenges manifest in the Indonesian political, economic and cultural environment. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that it takes a deep understanding of these elements to be able to begin to find solutions.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Thoughts about Indonesia and the Israeli-Arab conflict

One day my Indonesian friend and I chatted about life abroad and I asked her to tell me about her most "shocking" experience in the US.

Me: What was your most unexpected discovery about American culture?"

Friend: That Jewish people still existed.

Me: What?! You mean you didn't realize that Jews existed in the US?

Friend: No, I mean, before coming to University of Wisconsin I didn't realize that Jewish people existed, at all. I guess in Indonesia the education about Judaism and Jewish culture is poor.

Me: So how did you come to realize they did?

Friend: I met Jewish students at school and in my first job I worked for a company owned by Jewish people. I became fascinated with their culture because, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by them and I realized that the Jewish culture and my own Chinese Indonesian culture had commonalities.

Me: Like what?

Friend: Well, for example, that we both have overbearing mothers, haha. Also, that the Chinese and the Jews have diaspora communities all over the world and have great work ethic, often starting from nothing, to create good lives for themselves.

I had no idea that my well-educated friend, who obtained a bachelors deree from University of Wisconsin and worked in New York for four years, thought an entire culture that in fact exists, didn't. Suddenly I wanted to find out what Indonesian high school curriculums teach their students about WWII, the Holocaust or about the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. While listening to Yuyun's example about her culture shock in the US, I was in fact having a moment of culture shock myself. As an American woman who grew up in a largely Jewish town, I now live in a country where education about the Jewish people is inadequate at best. Perhaps my surprise was naive. I already knew that Indonesia didn't recognize Judaism as an official religion.

The reason I mention this story is because I'm interested in the Indonesian response to the recent raid of the flotilla. As soon as the news broke, almost a dozen of my Indonesian friends posted opinions about the conflict. Most were expressions of concern for the people involved, but a few were strongly pro-palestinian remarks, with almost violent tones. One particularly stongly-worded one went something like this: "Israel, you missed your target. Next time look in the mirror!"

I started to think about the fact that most Indonesian people probably support the Palestinans not only in this particular situation, but always. But my point is not that Indonesians should or shouldn't be pro-palestinian. What I am concerned about is the origins of their beliefs. Do most Indonesians have reasons for this support other than a shared religious faith? Is this support based on a true understanding of the facts and a subsequent independent belief, or based on a blind following of their Muslim friends and family members, without much concern for the context.

My questions might sound provocative and over-simplified. I'm sure there are a diversity of stances in Indonesia about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuanced explanations for these opinions. But given the fact that Judaism is not an official religion in Indonesia, that education about Jewish history is poor and that there is no voice for Jewish people in Indonesia, I doubt many Indonesians are exposed to the Israeli side of the conflict. The fact that Schindler's list was banned under President Soeharto illustrates the points of the prior sentence. This is upsetting to me. I am not pro-israel or pro-palestinian, but I'm a supporter of historical education about the conflict and working towards a solution that prioritizes human security over religious-right.

I don't yet have a solid understanding of the public's opinion of the conflict or religious education in Indonesia. But this is an important topic because Indonesia is involved. There were 12 Indonesians aboard the Marmara. The Indonesian government was very concerned with those passengers, and the Jakarta globe followed the state of the Indonesian passengers in a few articles:

Still No Concrete News on Indonesians Aboard Ship to Gaza
One Indonesian Injured, 11 Others Detained After Israeli Military Attack on Aid Flotilla: Government
Yudhoyono Confirms Release of 10 Indonesians Aboard Ship to Gaza

As far away from the Middle East as Indonesia seems, it's important to remember that countries like Indonesia play a role in the conflict. If there is to be any movement in the direction towards peace, leaders in the conflict and in the mediation process should take this into consideration. I would personally like to see a movement to include accurate historical education about Jewish history and the formation of Israel in Indonesian schools. The fact that Indonesians are generally uneducated about Jewish history doesn't bode well for progress.