I never had a day when I thought God did not exist.
When I was a little girl, I used to have vivid dreams when I had fevers. The kind that makes you see rabbits jumping through fiery hula hoops and want to jump into them yourselves. Mama said I would be skipping around with my eyes open, looking as if I were fully awake and aware. But all I did was cry and tell Mama, “Mr. Rabbit wants me to go through the hula hoop.” She gripped my hands in hers and shouted in my face, “Iblis, dalam nama Tuhan Yesus keluar engkau dari Brea sekarang juga!” Devil, in the name of Jesus our Lord, leave Brea now, she would say again and again in my childhood, and I would awake. I would stop running around the house. I would stop jumping up and down. Once, I even stopped from hopping like a frog around the living room. It would have been a real funny sight to watch, if you had not known that I was both asleep and aware: fully knowing what I was doing, but unable to stop. Not until Mama shouted that very sentence. Never did I have a day when I thought God did not exist, because I was very aware of what I would not be able to fight without Him.
Indonesia too, never had a day when it thought God did not exist. Ketuhanan yang maha esa, the belief in the one and only God, is inherent in Indonesian blood. I recited the first principle of Pancasila, the official Indonesian state philosophy aloud every Monday morning for all six years of elementary school. Students stood in lines under the scorching hot sun for the weekly upacara bendera, the mandatory Indonesian flag raising ceremony. As our red and white flag waved in the blue sky, we, alongside Indonesian children across the country, recited these words aloud. We reminded ourselves that a world without a God is simply not Indonesian.
Of course, God was not the same for everybody. On every Indonesian’s national identification card, there is a ‘Religion’ category where you can only pick from five choices: Islam, Christian (Protestant), Catholic, Hindhu, or Buddhist. The option to choose ‘Atheist’ is certainly out of the question—blasphemy is after all, illegal. How can an Indonesian even consider a world where one does not worship some sort of higher power?
I’d like to think it was because we recognized the need for a higher power to defend us from whatever may be out there, in the spiritual realm that we cannot see. Indonesians certainly have their fair share of ghosts, and love the idea of battling them too, as proven by the horror movies that constantly dominate box offices. There’s the pocong, a ghost wrapped with a linen shroud, and Pocong 1, Pocong 2, Kepergok Pocong (Surprised by a Pocong), and 3 Pocong Idiot. There’s the kuntilanak, a female ghost that is recognized by her long black hair and red eyes and is said to be the spirit of a dead woman. You can watch the kuntilanak in Pacarku Kuntilanak (My Girlfriend the Kuntilanak), Santet Kuntilanak (The Curse of the Kuntilanak), and Kuntilanak vs. Pocong. Then there’s my favorite, suster ngesot, the nurse-ghost who slides on the floor and crawls closer and closer to your feet. Surprisingly enough, she only stars in Suster Ngesot, but you can also watch Suster Gepeng (The Flattened Nurse) and Suster Keramas (The Nurse Washing Her Hair), more nurse-ghost spinoffs.
When I was on road trips as a little girl, we had to stop by the side of the road to take little ‘pee breaks’ as there were no public toilets on the highway. Mama always reminds me to say, “Excuse me!” before I went.
I asked her once, “Who am I saying Excuse me to?”
“To whoever owns the land.” She shrugged. Because even if you don’t believe in kuntilanaks, you simply cannot go on living in Indonesia without acknowledging the existence of some sort of spiritual realm. Whenever Papa’s company moved into a new office or we moved into a new house, Mama would always invite a priest to pray over the area, so that no bad spirits sent our way may stay to occupy the space. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Just in case, you know?”
Indonesia was never for the logical. When you are feeling under the weather, Indonesians call it masuk angin—you’ve got wind in you. When I get masuk angin, I ask Mama to kerok me. To kerok is to move a coin or a bottle cap across the back, to release the cold winds inside the body. I burp when Mama keroks me, and she says, “See, the wind is leaving the body.” The coin makes red paths along my back, and my skin looks like that of a striped tiger’s, only the stripes were red on my tan skin. If kerok doesn’t do it, then she gives me Tolak Angin—an herbal Indonesian medicine that translates to Repel the Wind.
When I left Indonesia to go to boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, Opa, my grandfather, a respected oncologist, gave me pocket money and some Tolak Angin to bring to America. “This is the one thing you can’t buy there,” he said and winked. Mama came to the States with me and moved me into my dorm room—a small, blue-walled single in McConnell Hall. Before we unpacked anything, she sat down and said, “Let’s pray for this room first.”
America introduced me to the possibility of a life without God. My Indonesian science teacher taught evolution as theory and God as the creator, while my American biology teacher brought in a cake every year on Darwin’s birthday. My Indonesian biblical studies teacher lectured us on the importance of the Holy Spirit, while my American religion teacher taught his New Testament class as a study of the text. My American best friend told me how good she felt about herself when she got her admittance letter from our boarding school, while my Indonesian self replied to her, “I got in only by the grace of God.” She shook her head, not understanding, and said, “But wasn’t it you who worked for it?”
I prayed everywhere. I prayed before I ate my toasted bagel with too much cream cheese as I walked down to class, before I ate my ham and cheese panini for lunch in my room, and before I ate my mystery meatloaf for dinner at Elm Street Dining Hall. Praying was a habit as familiar to me as eating with a spoon and fork, and another habit my American friends found just as unfamiliar as not eating with a fork and knife. While my Indonesian friends would pray alongside me, my American friends asked me, “How was your day?” over my bowed down head and my closed eyes, not realizing what I was doing. “Oh, I’m sorry,” they would say each time, for they forgot the next night anyway. So I learned to pray faster. “Dear God, thank you for this food today,” I would say in my head in a millisecond, looking down to my knees instead of closing my eyes, as my friends chattered away on the dining table.
New international students like me had the option of taking a “Transition into American Culture” class. We memorized the fifty American states, completed English grammar exercises, and read Death of a Salesman, a classic “American’’ play, the teacher had said. The play taught me that mediocrity can destroy an American life, that one’s human weakness—not demons, not pocongs—is the source of an American’s unhappiness.
I should have seen it coming: my unhappiness coming from my mediocrity, my turning American. For I was learning what it felt like to be mediocre in my classes, all of which were discussion based. At first I just sat silent in class, class after class. Then I started to sit silent at dinner, as all my American friends proceeded to talk over each other about their days, dinner after dinner, never noticing that I was not saying anything, dinner after dinner.
To surrender in Indonesian is pasrah. “Pasrah Ci,” my Indonesian Mama told me, when I got frustrated about not being able to speak up. “You have a unique perspective in the class, don’t forget that, as an Indonesian. God will allow your voice to come out, sooner or later.” I hung up the phone, prayed, and went to bed. Meanwhile, just next door, my American best friend stayed up all night studying her Chemistry formulas because she was getting a B in the class.
The New England cold is the kind that seeps into your skin. Even with the aid of the scratchy long johns Mama packed me to wear underneath my supposedly thick sweaters, I still felt the cold infiltrate my layers. It was the chilling reminder that my Indonesian body was not made for negative degree weather. Or as Papa joked on the phone, refrigerator weather.
Outside McConnell Hall, the Tundra awaits. It was what us McConnell girls called the waist-high field of snow that awaited us on our walk to class every morning. I armed myself for the icy morning walk—gloves covering my freezing fingers, stocky fur-lined rain boots on my feet, and floppy aviator hat on my head—yet still I would always feel a pang in my chest at the sight of the Tundra. I’d learn later it was my body’s way of telling me brace for impact.
I drank my first Tolak Angin after spending two nights eating chicken noodle soup at the Lamont Health Center in the fall of junior year. I had originally come in for a dizzy spell, and told the doctor maybe it was because I had just gotten dengue fever two weeks prior to returning from school? I watched her google the disease in front of me. I laughed and explained to her it was a mosquito’s disease, the kind that sucked your platelets to a scary low amount. I laughed because it is the Indonesian thing to do to, to laugh off incompetency, even if it is the incompetency of a supposedly competent white woman. After two nights of not knowing what to do with me, the little lost Indonesian girl, they sent me back. I went back to my small McConnell room, sat on my bed, next to a towering pile of dirty laundry, and felt the pang.
Start crying you are alone start crying you are weak start crying you are a failure start crying, it said to me. Start CRYING. And so I did, and later learned that I would not be able to stop.
A few weeks later, I called Mama to tell her that the school psychologist said I was depressed. “It must be the Devil,” she replied. I told her no, it is an imbalance of hormones that is making me cry so much. I wanted to make sense of the pang: the chemistry of it, to understand the logic behind it.
I went to bed with a high fever one winter night of junior year. I woke up with my left foot out of the door of McConnell Hall, and my right arm being pulled back by Chelsea, a girl who lived next to me. Chelsea had seen me walk down the stairs and open the door to leave the dorm. She told me later that she had shouted at me, “Brea, it’s past check-in!” If anyone left after check in, they would not be able to come back in till the doors opened again at 5 a.m. Chelsea saw my open eyes, my flip flops and the Tundra outside, and had no idea what I was doing. When she finally shook me awake, I could not stop crying. I was awake, but without Mama’s screams telling the Devil to leave, I still felt like I was asleep.
In the spring of junior year, Mama came to America and brought antidepressants Opa prescribed. Then, she marched up to my school campus and told my advisor, “Brea doesn’t need to see a psychologist. She needs to see the school minister.”
Reverend Thompson was known for his hugs. After the first assembly of the year—where Rev would belt Amazing Grace—a line of (most likely homesick) students formed for his hugs. Rev took the time to smile, say the friendliest Hello, and engulf each one in his embrace. It was the only reason I willingly went to the first meeting: to enjoy the privilege of a personal hug from Rev, to be distinguished and known.
Rev loved food the same way I did. During our Thursday afternoon meetings, I’d tell Rev of how the Padang people served all their food at once, how they balanced a pyramid of stacked plates of salted vegetables and curried cows’ brains on their two hands. I recounted how I watched the marvelous way the Balinese would roast their pork—underground, infused with a million spices—and how I would eat it with the spiciest sambal even if it made me cry. His multicolored sash bounced on his black robe as he laughed at my delight. “I think I would have eaten that whole pig too, if I didn’t have my eating disorder,” he would say in between happy, hungry tears.
Little did I know that I would have the privilege of knowing Reverend Robert Thompson—a big, black man, everything the white female psychologist and the white female doctor were not. He was a husband who met his wife on an accidental phone call, a man who once ate too much, and once, even a black boy who felt like he did not belong in a white Exeter too. I loved hearing him tell stories of breaking bread with Jewish students during their Shabbat dinners and breaking the fast with the Muslim students during Ramadan. I was so happy to see this American man practicing Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity, Indonesia’s—the nation of islands, the land of five religions within the largest Muslim country in the world—motto. I told him about one of the first friends I made at Exeter: Zabreen, a Pakistani girl who was just as jet-lagged as I was, whose sleepy eyes widened in surprise when I responded a Walaikum Assalam to her Assalamualaikum, and how I felt more at home with her than Hope, my McConnell proctor who was a Christian from Little Rock, Arkansas, pronounced Arkansaw.
In the summer between junior and senior year, I went back home. I started writing to Rev the words I would not have dared to utter aloud in his office: I love Exeter so much, I wrote, even if it is so hard sometimes, but lately I feel like I don’t belong there. But it is not as if going home would make me feel better too—I realized how different I have become from the rest of my friends.
You are not any old Exonian, Rev wrote back almost immediately. You are an Exonian who is also an Indonesian. I encourage you to reflect on the difference, but not to worry about its larger meaning right now. Your journey is far from complete, and it is helpful to approach the larger issues from a position of faith. That suggests that you do not and will not understand what the larger meaning is until later. That is the reality of walking by faith.
In the fall of my senior year, I stopped taking my antidepressants. I felt things again, or more specifically I felt a lack of things, a presence of an emptiness. I would learn later that it was the absence of the pang. Rev drove me to chocolate shops whenever I could not stop crying and he did not have the words. On one of these afternoons, I went back into my tiny, blue-walled dorm in McConnell Hall. I hugged the box of Lindt truffles Rev had bought me and kneeled down on my bed. “God, I can’t do this, I can’t do this alone,” I cried. “Please just get me through this year.”
Before leaving for college in New York, Oma gifted me with a Jesus portrait. Oma, Opa’s wife, is a watercolor painter. A few years back, she completed a series of Jesus portraits, each set against different colored pastel backgrounds. Jesus looks a little different in each of the paintings, because Pak Mus, Oma’s Muslim painting teacher, wasn’t convinced every time she was done. “This one just isn’t like Jesus enough,” he would say, as he holds up a portrait of OG Jesus, which Oma had bought on her pilgrimage in Israel. “Try again.” Jesus and His fraternal twins now hang on the walls of the Wastukencana house of Bandung. One is slightly rounder, one has a slightly higher nose, one is slightly more bearded, but all of them are looking upward.
Santet, Indonesian voodoo, is the game of orang kampung. Mama always said that only villagers are stupid enough to believe a dukun, a witch doctor, can solve their problems. Many of these villagers travel from their Javanese communities to the big bright Jakarta with their big bright dreams: to become the maids and the drivers of the rich Jakarta families. Santet is, more often than not, a form of revenge. Our driver Imam, for instance, allegedly sent a santet to his brother in law and killed him. Our maid Hermi pulled me aside and said that Imam just had to do it. “His sister sent a santet to him first and got his house on fire,” she had whispered to me one morning, as I was drinking my morning OJ. “So of course he had to send one back to his sister, but for some reason the curse didn’t work and got her husband instead.” Mama overheard and rolled her eyes. “Orang kampung tell such tales,” she said. But a week later, she let Imam go.
Sometimes santet can be a desire for love. Oma, Mama’s mama, had a maid that once tried to santet her. When she started shaking uncontrollably at the house one day, Oma, the oncologist’s wife, thought she was having seizures. Oma brought the woman to the emergency room, only to find out there was nothing physically wrong with her. Oma called the head of the organization she had hired the helper from. “I apologize, Ibu,” the lady on the phone said. “This woman likes to santet her employer, to make sure that her boss loves her the most out of all the other maids. I guess the santet bounced off you and onto her. Your faith must be very strong.”
My Jesus is the postcard version you buy in museums’ gift stores—a photograph of Oma’s favorite Jesus, set against a green grass background, in a lime green frame. Oma painted a different Bible verse above each of the Jesus’s silky brown hair, and the one that hangs above mine says: “Janganlah takut, sebab Aku menyertai engkau.”
The day I packed my bags for Barnard, I grabbed my Jesus and stuffed him inside my black suitcase, battered from twenty-four thirty-hour trips between Exeter and Jakarta. I repeated the verse to myself aloud: “So do not fear, for I am with you.” I think of Oma, who can repel santets like Tolak Angin repels wind out of the body, and of Mama, who tells, commands the Devil to get out of my sleeping body.
It was raining the day we arrived in New York. My parents were staying at the Marriott near Times Square for a couple of days before moving me into my dorm. The windows of our yellow cab were wet with raindrops as we approached the hotel, but the big bright billboard lights blinded me. Bursts of reds and oranges danced on the wet windows, making me wonder just what does this city have in store for me, enchanting my naïve mind: long gone depressed Brea, long gone sleepwalking Brea, long gone little lost Indonesian girl Brea.
In my freshman year, I ate Levain cookies and artichoke pizza and Magnolia Bakery banana pudding and Wah Fung roasted pork belly with rice and Totto ramen and The Smith’s fluffy french toast and Ample Hills’s Ooey Gooey ice cream and BCD’s bubbling hot tofu soup. I ate and ate and ate, to forget three years of oily butter pasta, of slimy pork filets, of stinky Chinese chicken in peanut sauce, to forget the times I texted Mama how there’s nothing I can eat tonight, to forget the freezing walks back to McConnell Hall with a full but sad stomach. I promised myself that my stomach should not have to feel sad again. Every time I felt a sinking feeling stepping into Hewitt, Barnard’s dingy underground dining hall, I immediately opened my list of “Places to Eat in New York” and headed for the subway. I stuffed and stuffed myself until I could feel no emptiness.
Mudik is to pulang kampung, to return to one’s village. Once a year, twenty-seven million Indonesians all over the country return to their hometowns to celebrate Lebaran (Eid Al-Fitr) with their families—the equivalent of homebound Americans returning for Thanksgiving. Millions leave Jakarta—packed in buses, jammed in trains, and perched on ripped motorcycle seats for fourteen straight hours—because you do everything you can do to get home.
Times Square is always eerily empty on Sunday mornings. Only ambitious tourists were roaming to rush tickets for tonight’s Lion King. The big bright lights that once enchanted me in the night dulled in the dewy morning light. Yet, there was still something about its magnitude—the giant, giant billboards, the loud, loud colors, the big, big letters (the audacity of it!) that still mesmerized me even after living here. Publicly I hated Times Square, of course, berated on it like any person trying to prove that she was just like any New Yorker. But every time I made my way to Play Station Theatre on the corner of 44th and 7th, I knew. Not quite a New Yorker, not quite a foreigner, always in the in between.
Horace Cross, the protagonist of Randall Keenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, is a black, gay man living in North Carolina. Horace wants to become a bird: a red-tailed hawk, to be exact. He spends days going through books of different religions to research how to leave his humanity behind, to concoct the perfect formula to a magical spell that would allow him become a bird. “Of course [Horace] was not crazy… his was a very rational mind, acquainted with science and mathematics,” Keenan wrote. “But [Horace] was also a believer in an unseen world full of archangels and prophets and folks rising from the dead… a world he was powerless not to believe in as firmly as he believed in gravity and the times tables. The two contradicting worlds were not contradictions in his mind.”
Play Station Theatre would be full when I walked in on Sunday mornings, the band on stage singing mid-song. You’d think it’s just another concert, if it weren’t for the ‘Welcome Home’ sign that hangs above the balconies, white and bright even in the darkly lit theatre. “Can we call upon the name of Jesus this morning?” the man with the Brooklyn beard and beanie atop his scruffy haircut called out to the crowd. The cheers soared as hands raised swayed to the melody, voices sang along to the words on screen.
Oh Holy Spirit, burn like a fire
All consuming, consume me
As I walked up to the balcony, where the only seats left that morning were, I remembered thinking how strange those words must seem to the rational woman: to ask for a spirit to completely consume her, to leave her devoid of her ability to reason. Why would I ask for my sanity from the Devil as I sleep walk, only to give it up again to the Holy Spirit?
Before Horace is about to complete his spell, he tries to justify his reasoning. “At the moment it was not the world of digits and decimal points he required, but the world of messiahs and miracles,” Keenan wrote. “It was faith, not facts he needed; magic, not math; salvation, not science. Belief would save him; not only belief, but belief in belief. Like Daniel, like Isaac, like the woman at the well.”
I find myself singing along to the words on the screen. Here in your presence, Lord, I surrender. I find that these were the words of my heart. I thought about how I am not that rational woman; I am Indonesian. The rationale of our women—my Mama, my Oma—is to call on His name (in dreams, in painting), to completely surrender. And so, I raised my hands up high: I am pasrah.
I was surprised that I understood Horace, a strange character in a book I read for my black lit seminar. I was not surprised that when the spell fails, despite Horace’s lengthy scientific research and deep belief, a “voice” starts to guide Horace in his mind instead; I was merely saddened. Keenan wrote that Horace “had been possessed of… a wicked spirit” and proceeded to call the voice in his head as “the demon,” who urges Horace to walk around Tims Creek, the small town where Horace grew up in, with his grandfather’s gun. Horace walks everywhere: to First Baptist Church of Tims Creek, where generations of men in his family have been pastors, to Tims Creek Elementary School, where he falls in love with a boy named Gideon, and when he reaches his priest-cousin Jimmy, who tells Horace his love of men is just a phase, Horace stops walking and shoots himself with his grandfather’s gun. I cried out of anguish, for I knew too well of Horace’s pain, of constantly feeling like the Other in a community of white sameness. But I also cried out of immense gratitude, of a funny Savior who allowed a big, black man to tell a little lost Indonesian girl, before she ever reached this point, to keep walking by faith instead.
“I guess that was the only way he could have made sense of his homosexuality,” I said in class the week after. “If it were something external, something that was not actually him.” I felt a familiar pang in my chest as my own words floated in the air. Not because I was actually speaking in class, but because I remembered how both Mama and I did not want my depression to be me. Mama wanted it to be the devil, and I wanted it to be explained through scientific reasoning, through factual logic, instead of just feeling that I did not belong. I wanted to understand that, instead of thinking about how chicken noodle soup just does not repel the wind, how it makes me want to walk through a field of New England snow with my flip flops, and how much I just wanted Mama to kerok me.
My professor nodded in agreement to my comment. “What makes me sad, though, is that he never wanted to leave,” she sighed. “A red-tailed hawk is a native bird of North Carolina. He never wanted to leave home.”
In my senior year, I learned to walk in New York. I found the comfort of the endless stroll. I learned of the joy of walking down streets with Swedish coffee shops, Jewish delicatessens, and French bakeries. I learned to savor the sweet smell of the roasting nuts and the intoxicating aroma of the Halal carts. I learned to peruse unexplored corners and stumble into book stands selling literary blind dates, novels wrapped in brown paper so that its reader does not merely judge its cover. I learned to wander.
In New York, I learned to walk by the water. I learned to recognize when I needed to escape—after a monotonous Economic History lecture or an agonizing session of analyzing a Canterbury Tale in Middle English—and I learned to be okay about my need to escape. Riverside Park became my new version of Rev’s chocolate shops. I learned to pass by the empty piers, sneak into dog parks, and sit on benches engraved for beloved mothers and grandmothers. I learned to always wait a little longer for the magenta skies of dusk after sunsets. I learned to watch the crashing waves of Hudson River, the blur of blues and whites.
I think about how the word mudik originally meant to sail or travel udik (upstream and inland) by the river. I think about how Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” I think about my Riverside walks and how I have learned to be alone. I think about the man singing on stage: Living water / River wild in me.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.