Tuesday, December 16, 2008 2:03 AM

Crossing Cultures
The Jakarta Post | WEEKENDER
Sat, 12/13/2008 | Two of a Kind

Sisters American expatriate Laurel MacLaren's first encounter with Indonesia was as an 18-year-old high school exchange student in Jakarta. There were ups and downs during her year here, but the experience changed both her life and the life of her Indonesian host sister, Yustine Sari. Bruce Emond reports.
    The child of liberal, progressive former Peace Corps volunteers, Laurel MacLaren had a more encompassing worldview than many of her peers during the insular Reagan era of the 1980s. But the suburban St. Louis native knew next to nothing about Indonesia when she was sent here as an American Field Service student in 1985.
    "I thought I would be sent to Greece and party for a year," says MacLaren, who describes herself as an independent and socially conscious teenager. "I didn't even know where Indonesia was. I knew it was somewhere near Vietnam."
    She was placed with a family in the capital. Her host father, Ignatius Soetarto, a former journalist who headed Antara news service during the tumultuous 1960s, was a fervently nationalistic government employee who had fought in the Independence War. The three children - two daughters and a son - in the family were older than MacLaren, who became closest to the youngest daughter, Yustine. It was a matter of necessity at first: The two teenagers shared not only the same room, but also the same bed.
    That closeness grew and the sisters are firm friends today. As fate would have it, they also work on the same USAID project and spend time together out of the office. On a balmy Friday night, it is lasagna and salad night at MacLaren's cozy four-story home on a quiet side street near Blok M. Her two children from her marriage to an Indonesian play easily with Yustine's daughters and a nephew. It feels like family without too many complicated dynamics - there is the warmth, intimacy and humor of people who have shared their lives together. The idea to host an exchange student came from Yustine, who was in her first year at the University of Indonesia. The Soetartos dreamed of having their children study abroad, and knew that English proficiency would be key. Yustine jokingly describes the decision to host an exchange student as "jumping into the deep end".
    "We were very nervous, especially my mother, because she was in charge of the food. But we were told that we didn't have to change anything, that the student would eat the same food, that we didn't have to change the bathroom," she says. "We didn't even have a shower, just a simple bathroom ... But I was so excited to be able to speak English."
    There are phases to an exchange student experience, many former students say. The initial "honeymoon" excitement of getting acquainted to a new family and surroundings is often followed by homesickness, cross-cultural misunderstandings and family issues, before the final "euphoric" phase, when a student feels more comfortable in the society and is ready to leave for home.
    The two women recollect the now humorous initial misunderstandings that were a big deal at the time, such as the tow-haired student putting her feet on her chair and wearing a T-shirt and thigh-high shorts to bed. The family was confused by the American's Unitarian religion - Yustine recollects they thought it had something to do with vegetarianism because she mainly ate eggs and tempeh.
    Many exchange students to Indonesia (the United States no longer sends students here in the AFS program) were housed with affluent families, some of whom were more interested in the novelty value of having a young foreigner in their home. In contrast, Ignatius Soetarto was employed in the then Telecommunications, Post and Tourism Ministry and the family lived in a middle-class housing complex in Rawamangun, East Jakarta. MacLaren was given Rp 300 in daily pocket money and was expected to help her sister clear the table.
    "I'd say that our families were very different but our core values are very much the same," MacLaren says. "Like them, we're very close-knit, firmly middle class and we also upheld traditions. And we have that sense of pride. Yustine's father was so proud. Almost every weekend we would be meeting people, going to museums, cultural sites, and he was teaching me to love and appreciate Indonesia." The young American and her host father - her "bapak", she calls him - would have long discussions. She would pepper him with questions about Indonesian politics or the economy, or argue why she should be allowed to go to the movie theater with a male friend.
    It was a revelation for Yustine, who had been taught never to question her parents.
    "At first I thought it was unfair when my father approved her going to the movies with a boy, because before I hadn't been allowed to do it. So I asked my father why, and he said she gave an explanation that had logic and reason. From then, I knew that everything should come from logic and reason." She would use that argument to her advantage a couple of years later when she wanted to live in a boardinghouse. Her parents had never allowed her older sister to do so during college, but Yustine had her reasoning ready: She wanted to be independent, to know how to organize her life so one day she would be ready to go abroad.
    "So my father said yes and let me live outside our home, even though my parents came by every two days or so," she jokes.
    At the beginning of MacLaren's exchange program, much of the family's concern centered on "taking care of Laurel", especially when she started attending state high school SMA 68 in Salemba, Central Jakarta. The family would wait anxiously if she was a little late returning home from school or meeting her 6 p.m. curfew, only for the student to wander in, nonchalantly explaining that she had decided to walk part of the way home.
    "I wasn't being rebellious, I was just being myself," MacLaren says of her independent streak.
    "I had already worked for a couple of years in high school, had my own car." "My father told us to learn her way of thinking, but only take what was good and discard the rest," Yustine says. "But he was a Sukarnoist, so he wanted us to show them that we can be as proud of them ... My father said that Laurel could eat bread at first while she adjusted, but later she would eat rice with us. We were saying to her, 'this is us'."
    Yustine suddenly had a replacement as the youngest child in the family, which gave her greater freedom. She was no longer required to make the weekend rounds with her parents with the American now in tow, and she was included in family decision-making on what the younger woman should be permitted to do.
    MacLaren encountered problems, including sexual harassment on public buses and, most humiliatingly, having an opposing basketball team chant "free sex, free sex" - the stereotypical expression for "Western promiscuity" in the 1980s - during a school game. Toward the end of her year in Indonesia, she became very ill and remembers little of that period.
    She says the drudgery of high school, and trying to make copious notes in a language she barely understood, was particularly hard.
    "The incredible part that I still feel makes the experience so different from many expatriates, even the ones who have been here 10 or 15 years, was spending that year in school behind that little wooden desk," she says. "Because you can really understand Indonesians, even well-educated ones, and their thinking. It was all that rote learning, copying things down from the board ... you understand why people have such difficulty in critical thinking even today."
    She returned to the United States and studied anthropology and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, known for its strong Indonesian studies program.
    One of her professors was the Indonesian sociologist Parsudi Suparlan, who was involved in an NGO affiliated with Planned Parenthood. She jumped at the chance to return to the country and work for a social cause.
    It was also her way of putting her earlier experience in perspective. "I remember saying to my parents that I'll go back and make peace with Indonesia and that I need to figure out my experience ... It's only later that I've come to appreciate what my experience of living with Yustine's family meant to me. But if you told me when I was 18 that I was going to be here for 15 years, I would have said 'crazy, no way'."
    She worked among sex workers in Yogyakarta, returned to the United States to get her master's in public policy at Harvard and then came back here as an expatriate hire. Despite her Indonesian ties, there is no waffling on about confused identity issues, for she says she is becoming more aware of her American nationality as she gets older, especially in raising two transnational children in Indonesia.
    But Yustine says with a laugh that sometimes colleagues realize that the office bule, with her proficiency in slang and knowledge of Indonesia, knows a bit too much for comfort about their country and society.
    For her part, Yustine married her high school sweetheart and has moved around the world for her husband's work in consumer products. Her parents and her older brother are now deceased, and her family lives in a shared compound with her sister. She credits her opinionated teenage American sister of all those years ago for opening her eyes to what the world had to offer. And to the value of logical and rational arguments.

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