Escape Velocity

Headed to Indonesia again. On these pages, I haven’t even returned to the States yet.

In fact, my life in the US is sometimes worth writing about, but it tends to happen in a crowded multi-tasking sort of way that doesn’t make for good blogging. The American academic life doesn’t allow for much reflection. This is odd, since the thing that attracted me to it in the first place was that reflection seemed the main goal. Of course that was nonsense. As far as I can tell, the main goal is actually a particular kind of dance, carried out on paper. The dance is a way of being obsequious to a few government funding agencies, and pretending to agree with their unreasonably narrow definition of worthwhile pursuits, in order to get funding for the thing one really wants to do. Anything adventurous or worth jotting down, I do mostly as a way to distract myself from some kind of paperwork, the constant presence of which keeps me from giving this blog the attention it deserves.

The galling part is that both the stated and actual goals of academia are incomprehensible to almost everyone, even well-educated people, and of no consequence or utility to them. The results of successful research become known only to a few other members of one’s exclusive little club, expressed in needlessly excessive jargon. No wonder people don’t like giving their tax money to the NSF. This is not the kind of thing one likes to write blog posts about, though. Right now I just need to build a bridge between the Indonesia trip of two years ago, and the one I’m about to embark on now.

After spending some time in Jogja, I returned to Bali and met up with David. Bali seemed so easy to get around after all the other places I’d been. The ride from the airport, that had reminded me I was back in the developing world after we touched down there the first time, was now routine enough not to look out the window at, and I spent most of it talking with the driver. We spent another day in Ubud, and by this time I had become comfortable enough with my Indonesian to bargain for souvenirs in the ritzy stalls on the village’s main drag. The food in Ubud’s restaurants tasted very Western. It was a good way to decompress, and prepare for life in the States again.

When I got home, Sandra said that I talked in Indonesian in my sleep. This was especially odd, because I had never talked in my sleep before. I had strange dreams as well, in a mixture of English and Indonesian and a language that I imagined was Chinese, although I do not know Chinese, so it was probably just gibberish. The dreams occurred in terribly clean, well-lit spaces, not too different from the Taipei airport. Female Japanese punk rock stars shouted at me. This must mean that I’m truly a Global Citizen, a long-held aspiration that I have somehow failed to become cynical about.

I was back in the First World and I would have to get used to it. The drivers in Seattle were less reckless, and more oblivious. I preferred the predictable, attentive aggression of Ambon’s drivers. The Seattle summer I descended into wasn’t too different from a good day on Bali, minus the droning kites in the air and the all-pervasive smoke. I attacked all the American foods I couldn’t get in Indonesia: pizza, wine, artichokes, martinis, veggie dogs, ice cream. I could have anything I wanted on ice; that was a miracle. All these luxuries made up for the feeling that everything here was rather sterile, and designed to protect people from their own clumsiness, at the expense of efficiency and good taste. Objectively, this doesn’t make sense, as, though for different reasons, efficiency and good taste are conspicuously absent from most aspects of Indonesian life as well. Nonetheless, I felt much of the time, just after I returned, that I was living in a very large padded cell.

I returned to my job at the Burke Museum, and then picked up the academic routine again, with a FLAS fellowship that allowed me the luxury of time to be enslaved by my professors. I spent the next summer doing CRM work around Washington, and preparing for my Comprehensive Exams, which I passed without too much trouble. Having got my master’s degree, I began to agonize over my dissertation proposal, and this process continues today. The trip to Indonesia for which I leave on Monday is a way to confirm my ideas for a proposal, and at the same time to collect material for what I envision will be the dissertation’s final chapter. I’ll provide some detail about that in the next post.

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