JKT

 "What do you think of Jakarta so far?"

I've been here for almost a week now, but I'm still no closer to being able to answer that question than I was when the city first enveloped me in its warm, sweaty hug after disembarking my delayed flight from Tokyo. The only thing I know for certain is that I must tread carefully when I answer.

My friends graciously pick me up despite the late hour and take me back to the three-bedroom apartment we are sharing. We pause at a traffic light near the Fairmont Hotel, and a trio of children selling roses comes and presses their faces up against the vehicle's tinted windows. They are two boys and a girl, dark-skinned, and I cannot resist thinking of Slumdog Millionnaire. I wonder who keeps the money they earn.

Shortly after, we arrive home. A door from the kitchen leads to a small outdoor patio where the washing machine and dryer are located. I notice two other doors opposite the machines and ask what they're for.

"The live-in maid, if we had one." 

She opens them. One leads to a squat toilet. The other - windowless, lacking an AC unit - is a bedroom smaller than the closet in the master suite that is my quarters for the month.  

Our fifteenth floor unit would have a nice view if it weren't for the perpetual haze that clings to the skyline and ensures that daytime is always bright but never sunny. I imagine the layer of grime stuck to the outsides of our windows coating my lungs and wonder if I should be wearing a mask. Noise from below echoes upward, and in another time and place I'd think the building were being swarmed by cicadas. But, no, the source is the neverending, slow-crawling traffic that makes the Bay Area rush hour seem tame; the dull hum of hundreds of engines and throttles punctuated by honking.

Each morning we head down to the lobby around 7am and hail a taxi to take us to the bakery kitchen. Sometimes it can take up to an hour to secure one, but luckily the distance is not so great. My other friend, who lives in north Jakarta, has the worst commute. Depending on the weather and time of day, she could fly to Singapore and back in the time it takes to get between home and work.

We visit one of the coffee shops that our bakery fills wholesale orders for. Inside it's chic, trendy and would not feel out of place in SoMa. Outside, drivers wait with their cars while their employers eat and drink their fill. I think again of the pitiful maid's quarters, and of Downton Abbey; instead of upstairs and downstairs people like they have on the show, here society seems to be divided into inside and outside people.

My middle class upbringing makes me hypersensitive to such blatant socioeconomic disparity, which is perhaps why I find it jarring to be in a place where everyone is either ultra-rich or super-poor. In other words, having grown up without maids, nannies and chauffeurs, it's strange to be in a place where having a full household staff is the norm. As for what it's like outside the home, only in India have I seen such similar juxtaposition of abject poverty with luxury apartment buildings and hotels. The powers that be appear to prioritize feeding the beast of consumerism rather than locking down the infrastructure necessary to get Indonesia off the developing countries list. 

Being a pedestrian in Jakarta is like playing a live-action hybrid of Frogger and Super Mario. Crosswalks are virtually nonexistent and the lanes amorphous, such that you must constantly check in both directions. Sidewalks, also a rarity, are uneven, unlit and often missing paving stones. And in addition to keeping your wits about you, you must hold tight to your belongings - speeding motos have been known to snatch bags just as vans may be used for kidnapping. 

There is no regulated trash collection. Many burn it themselves on the street (a big contributor to the air pollution), or simply leave it for enterprising individuals to root through and re-sell what they can.  (Fun fact: street vendors rely on pre-used oil, generally from KFC).

As a foreigner, as much as I am privy to the class differences, I am also complicit in them. The US dollar is so strong here that I can get manicures, massages and spa treatments - frivolous things that I never do at home for financial reasons - for cheap. I can afford to be driven everywhere and dine out or order in for every meal. It's nice being pampered, to be sure, but it leaves a dull ache in the back of my mind because I know that I'm not experiencing the "real" Indonesia. 

But what is the real Indonesia? Corruption, homophobia, discrimination - CVs must include headshots, height, weight and religion. The people that I've met so far, though, are nice. 

The default social activity here is going to one of the city's many shopping centers. In fact, locals get dressed up for it. Trendy restaurants open in malls like they're rolling out the red carpet down Valencia Street. But when you compare what's outside, the smog, scammers and traffic jams, to the brightly lit, immaculate interiors and cool filtered air, it makes sense. For a few hours, it's nice check your problems at the door and be surrounded by all that is bright and shiny and new in a safe, sterile evironment.

Riding Bikes with Boys

The following incident occurred on my second to last night in Paris, according to the best of my memory. Italicized dialogue was spoken in French. 

*** 

Stumbling out of the bar at 3:30 am, approximately three-and-a-half hours after I was planning to be in bed, I set off in search of the nearest public bike-share station. Bikes were my preferred method of getting home after a night out, because taxis were expensive and I always got too tired to stay out until the metro re-opened at 5.

After passing several empty stations (I'm not the only one who favors drunk biking, it seems), I finally found one just up the street from my apartment. As I swiped my card and dislodged the bike from its post, I sensed someone behind me. Turning, I came face to face with a twenty-something bearded hipster who looked like he came straight off the set of Portlandia (denim cut-offs, plaid button-down shirt, tattoo on his forearm - I think it was an animal - you get the idea) - except he was French.  

He was trying to get home too, and asked if we could share the bike. I knew what he had in mind: one person (me) sits on the seat, legs held out to the side, while the other (him) stands and pedals. What the hell? I only had a short distance to go. 

"Okay," I consented, inching back on the seat to give him more space. 

Although I had seen this done many times, this was the first occasion I'd ever actually tried it. It is probably not the best idea, even when sober. I'm not sure whether my co-pilot was just really intoxicated or whether he expected me to steer, but I recall a lot of swerving and me yelling, "You're going to kill us both!" There may also have been some screaming on my part. Thankfully the early hour meant that the street was empty.

With my face pressed against his back, my field of vision was limited to the narrow gap between his torso and arm braced against the handlebars, but shortly I came to recognize my building.

"Stop!"  

Dismounting from the bike, I realized two things. Firstly, I had no idea where he lived. And, secondly, because the rates are dependent upon the time elapsed since checking out the bike, I could not, in good conscience, leave it with a drunk stranger. But I figured it was worth a shot...

"Can I trust you?" I asked.  

"This bike is under my account. Will you return it to a station?" 

Despite the fact that we had gotten along just fine with Franglish, he decided at this moment to pretend that he couldn't understand me. Fuck. I tried again in French. Still, nothing.

"Ah, you are a tour-eest?" he said, mockingly. 

"I've lived here for a year," I snapped. Adding, for good measure, "I'm not a fucking tourist."

By this point I wanted nothing more than a shower followed by bed; getting into an argument when my money was on the line was the last thing I needed. So, seizing the open bottle of liquor he had placed in the bike's basket, I shoved it into his chest.

"You - take this," I said. 

And, grabbing the handlebars, "I - take this." 

I could tell this was unexpected. 

"You're so aggressive," said hipster boy as he took his bottle and stepped away from the bike. 

By the time I had parked it at the nearest station and returned to the scene of the confrontation, he had disappeared into the night. Probably, I assume, to con someone else into a free ride. 

Adieu

Of all the expats I know, I was the only one who, as the expiration of her visa drew near, was not scrambling to find a way to stay longer. Don't get me wrong - I loved Paris, especially in the beginning, but after a while my feelings started to change.

"It's okay to be 'over' a city," a friend assured me over dinner when I met up with him and his girlfriend back in February.

"But what makes you say that?"

A lot of things, I guess. I previously confessed how upset I was after my phone was stolen, but what I omitted from that account was that I spent the next ten minutes crying on my friend's doorstep as I waited for her to return. As unabashedly attached as I am to my iPhone (0:28 and 0:49 if you're impatient; 0:40 is my dearest brother who tricked me into being on camera) that was just the final straw in an emotional breakdown that had been brewing since my family had departed a day earlier, leaving me with a stronger sense of homesickness than ever before, and since my Facebook newsfeed was starting to feel less like keeping in touch than being constantly reminded of everything I was missing out on at home. I was beginning to feel irrelevant, because no matter how many apps you have you can never be in two places at once.

As I sat there crying in the middle of the very residential 15ème, people kept passing me by with that uncomfortable side glance and quickened step normally reserved for panhandlers and public drunkards. In other words, no fucks were given. (My psychology-expert friend later told me that this is more of a human nature thing than a Parisian thing). Fortunately I had only been pickpocketed, but what if it had been worse? What if I had been assaulted? No one bothered to ask me if I was okay or needed to call the police, so instead I sat there stewing in my own self-pity until my friend came home and made me a cup of tea.

I suppose that marked the beginning of the end of the honeymoon period. In the weeks that followed two of my friends, on separate occasions, were mugged. (And, mind you, they were guys of a stature that doesn't really scream target). I traveled to the Loire Valley, Brittany and Normandy, and for the first time interacted with non-Parisian French people, discovering that they were so much kinder and more generous than their capital-dwelling countrymen. In other words Paris no longer felt as safe or welcoming.

Things that had previously seemed charming became frustrating, like the open-air markets that I admired because they so exceeded farmers markets back home. Yet as the weeks wore on I came to hate Sundays because grocery stores (and virtually all other businesses) were closed, and I was often too hungover to go to the market and shop before it shut down for the day. (Yes, it was my own goddamn fault, but recovering from an all-night bender has the unfortunate side effect of being irrationally angry with the world at large). The Metro, once so friendly and convenient, became less inviting when I began to notice all the men trying and failing to discreetly urinate in the tunnels connecting the platforms. (I'm told that the walls are slightly slanted such that the consequent splashing will deter this behavior, however the persistent stench indicates that the effort is unsuccessful). And the sidewalks dotted with dog poop shifted from a comical nuisance to an irrevocable scourge on the reputation of a city that, to me, was gradually eroding before my eyes.

Oh, Paris, in one year I've only just brushed the surface. If there's anything about living abroad that I might have remorse for later it's that I never really integrated with the local culture; in fact in a lot of ways I cheated. During my first few months I lived with a French girl who occasionally invited me out with her friends, which was a nice gesture but difficult for me because by the time I had thought of something to contribute to the conversation, it had already moved on. Twice. The international student body at LCB introduced me to friends from around the world, and my food truck coworkers, for the most part, likewise consisted of expats. Part of why I struggled so much with the social aspect of my internship was that it was the first time I had spent a significant amount of time around Francophones, and by that point I had become accustomed to living with one foot out the door, so to speak. I knew kitchen vocabulary but I was far from being conversant in the language, which is why during breaks I tended to pull out my phone and catch up on my Twitter feed because even making small talk was a challenge.

Were there things I would have done differently if I had the chance? Absolutely. But I don't really believe in regret, and besides, for all of the little setbacks and disappointments there were just as many - probably more - pleasant surprises and unexpected opportunities.

When I look back there are certain images that will likely forever be branded unto my memory, like watching fireworks light up the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day, opening the door of the food truck for dinner service and seeing a hundred hungry faces already lined up, or biking home in the silent hours of the early morning after a night out. But I think more than any particular thing I did while I was here, it's the people I met and befriended that really shaped the experience. I hope to see all of you again soon, but until then...we'll always have Paris.

À la prochaine, chers amis.

Bisous,

M

Unpacking the Meaning of Objects, Stuff and Other Things

For the past few weeks I've been living under constant fear that my roommate will tell me a prospective tenant is coming by to check out the room (i.e. my current room, but only for another ten days). It's an absolute mess. And not in the "just give me a few minutes while I tidy up" sort of way; no, I'm talking legitimate disaster zone. Because I'm not just packing to leave, I'm also sorting through what I want to take with me on my upcoming three-month trip.

I came to Paris with two large suitcases and two carry-ons - altogether more than my own body weight worth of clothes, shoes and bags. When my brother helped load the car to drop me off at the airport he scornfully said that one should never take more than she could carry by herself. Now, especially since I've accumulated even more things, I'm beginning to think he was right. 

Of course there's always a way to get things somewhere else, but it's a question of how much you're willing to pay. The sender and receiver both pay taxes, for instance, and if you want the parcel picked up at your place of residence that's even more in fees. Filling out forms at the post office this afternoon, I found myself staring at the empty space for "declared value (€)." How much was my box of school recipes and slightly stained chef uniforms worth? Apart from the obvious (I paid a pretty penny for those white jackets and took a lot of notes on recipe procedures), in this instance I think personal value exceeded any remaining commercial value. And yet it still cost me 109€ to send them back to the states.

Towards the end of my college career I took several classes that dealt with signaling theory and its social applications, which got me thinking - why do we feel compelled to accumulate so many things in the first place? I was reading a lot of Marx at the time, and was particularly fascinated by his theory of intrinsic value via commodity fetishism.  

Commodity fetishism is the process of ascribing magic “phantom-like” qualities to an object, whereby the human labour required to make that object is lost once the object is associated with a monetary value for exchange. Under capitalism, once the object emerges as a commodity that has been assigned a monetary value for equivalent universal exchange, it is fetishized, meaning that consumers come to believe that the object has intrinsic value in and of itself. The object’s value appears to come from the commodity, rather than the human labor that produced it. 
- Patricia Louie

Having spent practically my entire life surrounded by middle/upper-middle class America, I was so accustomed to the sort of behavior that commodity fetishism breeds that it took reading Marx, Veblen and other scholars to see the folly of it. Prime example: conspicuous consumption, or rather the acquisition of material goods in order to display economic power. In high school and college I was guilty of "label-whoring," i.e. buying things more for the brand than any other particular reason. From True Religion jeans to London Sole flats and Marc Jacobs sunglasses, you can try to argue that the price is justified by the quality, but it probably isn't. And denim, especially, is susceptible to arbitrary price setting

If it's not about the quality or the little to non-existent intrinsic value, accumulation of material goods emerges as a great symbolizer, sending signals to others about our "quality" (economic power and status, in this example, but signaling theory has many other applications). So why is it that the middle class tends to be the biggest consumers? I suppose it goes back to the old wealth/new money divide à la Great Gatsby. Those of us still trying to climb the socioeconomic ladder feel compelled to engage in flashy, runaway displays of conspicuous consumption while those at the top don't; in fact in some cases the elite prefer not to signal their status.

Now that I'm sorting through everything I brought with me (and the sad thing is that it's not even a fraction of what I own), I find myself wondering why I have many items in the first place. I suppose if I looked hard enough I could find the French equivalent of Salvation Army to donate to, but it would have been so much easier if I had simply not purchased them in the first place. I'm sure I thought it mattered when I pulled out my credit card, but being surrounded by so much stuff leaves me feeling decidedly unfulfilled. 

I felt inspired reading this op-ed about downsizing, not only because I identified with how exhausting it can be just to keep track of all the things you own, but also it's my goal to lead a more meaningful life via experiences and interactions with others rather than filling it with inanimate objects.

My space is small. My life is big. - Graham Hill

For once I'm actually looking forward to living out of a suitcase. 

 

To Bisous or Not to Bisous

In one of our first cultural lessons in French class we learned that the customary greeting is to give bisous - kisses on both cheeks (although its really more like brushing cheeks while making a kissing noise). The textbook also stated that it's perfectly normal for guys to give each other bisous but in reality I've witnessed this occur very few times; guys generally shake hands with each other while bisous are reserved for guys greeting girls or girls greeting other girls.

For the longest time I was in the habit of only giving bisous when the other person initiated it. On the one hand it is a very French thing to do and seeing as I am not French, I would personally feel like a huge tool if I made it everyday practice. Furthermore my impression of non-French people who do this is that it's a cheap trick in an attempt to come off as being sophisticated. (I don't care how many times you've been to Paris Fashion Week, Rachel Zoe, but the fact remains that you are très Américaine). But more importantly I don't particularly like being touched. Think about it. Someone else's face brushing right up against yours, especially if it's a person you just met seconds ago for the first time? For me it's way too intimate. Handshakes, hugs or fist bumps seem more proper, but maybe that's just me.

It used to be that when I recognized someone going in for the bisous I would sort of stiffen, like bracing myself for contact. Thanks to my internship, though, I've learned to adapt.

Whenever anyone entered the kitchen the first thing they did was systematically say, "Bonjour," to each and every person. For 99% of people this also involved bisous, with the one exception being the founder of the pastry shop; he shook your hand, or your wrist if you were in the middle of something and your hands were dirty. And this is perhaps what I found most surprising: that people - even those whom you hadn't officially been introduced to - would stand next to you and wait until you paused, turned, and said hello. This could be uncomfortable at times because certain individuals at work went a little heavy on the cologne/after-shave/whatever scents guys use.

My etiquette was terrible, apparently, because I should have been making this a habit since day one. It's not that I considered myself exempt from exchanging pleasantries, but as a lowly intern I figured no one would really notice or care if I didn't. But one morning after pecking one of my friendlier co-workers on both cheeks, she told me I ought to go around and personally greet everyone. Naturally I was only told this about halfway through my time there. No wonder no one talked to me at lunch; they all probably thought I was antisocial.

Personal issues aside, this custom seemed quite counterintuitive in an environment that placed such great emphasis on speed and productivity but, well, French people. In America I'm pretty sure making eye contact and uttering a simple, "Hey," even from across the room, would suffice in most situations.

The one positive of bisous as far as I've experienced is that some people full on kiss you on the cheek. So if it's say, a hot guy, you can pretend that the gesture isn't completely platonic. Trivial, I know, but a girl can dream, right?