Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Trump talk over ginger tea

Just an hour before our Friday evening plans, the text came through that he was suffering from a bout of food poisoning. Having already spent the day sightseeing alone, my extroverted self was uninterested in a quiet dinner. Deflated, I decided to continue my research into Sumatra on the communal rooftop prior to seeking out sustenance. As circumstances typically unfold in Indonesia, the solo dinner never took place. Joe, an Australian currently talking a break from teaching bahasa Indonesia to high schoolers, was also looking for a dinner partner. After bonding on the roof over our mutual love of the country and desire to eat all the street food, we made our way to a glorious hole-in-the-wall resto. Having finished dinner, although no longer having an appetite, we couldn't resist taking in the sights and smells of Malioboro street. On the first night of the Eid Al Fitr holiday weekend, the biggest celebration in the Muslim world, the road was pulsing with live pythons, street performers, plastic-wrapped clothing and every type of sweet javanese cuisine available. Standing at an appropriate distance from the seemingly docile pile of snakes, we met Anton.
A first generation Indonesian immigrant to Texas, Anton was dutifully visiting his family in Yogyakarta. One of only a handful of visits he's been able to make over the 16 years he's lived in the USA. Anton was initially concerned that I wouldn't believe that he was an American; maybe because he looks like an Indonesian, maybe because he's used to convincing his fellow Texans of his citizenship. Despite his heritage, Anton feels like an outsider here. It's good to visit his aunt and sister, but Java isn't home anymore. He works in the criminal justice system in Texas and is worried that the United States won't be able to compete globally with China or India while incarcerating a huge number of young people who should be contributing to the economy. He thinks that Trump will fix this. Or not necessarily this problem, but that he's certainly the best man for the job. He doesn't think Trump's hate speech regarding Mexicans, many of whom he works with, women, one of whom he was previously married to, or Muslims, which he identifies as, is sincere. Anton doesn't always agree with Trump's statements, but he thinks Trump's bold character is what the country needs. Anton represents another important part of the far right movement. Besides white men, first generation immigrants make up a significant portion of parties favoring a closed door policy in Europe and the United States. The last people to benefit from the open immigration of a country seem to be amongst the first to rapidly close the door behind them. From my conversation with Anton, his desire for closed borders rests on economic insecurity and a real fear that he will be left without a job. After he finished apologizing for his support of Trump, which he did a number of times throughout our discussion, I told him that I respect his opinion and that it's good that he's putting thought into his vote. As a young woman in the States, I refuse to vote for a candidate who has normalized hate speech towards huge portions of the population, including myself. That Trump's policy is non-existent, that he's a failure of a business man and his speeches promote violence and bigotry. While I'm not in love with Hilary Clinton, I don't have to be. Even though I don't want to have a beer with her, I believe she is over qualified for the job and will be a measured, stable president. She's unlikely to start a third world war and may even prove to be a fantastic Commander - in - Chief if we can stomach the idea of a woman running the country. Anton and I discuss the role of the media in this election, the vitriol present in political discourse. We agree that America has a lot of problems, but support different methods for how to best solve them. Most importantly, we talk about the polarization of politics and the fact that in a normal election cycle, neither of us hear or engage in many intelligent conversations with the opposing side about the state of the country. Perhaps if we spent less time criticizing the backwards ideas of the 'other, ' we might be able to form a consensus. In my distant memories, I recall learning about the importance of listening and compromise, in politics and life. Neither Anton nor myself are sure about where those values have gone. 
Now the three of us, an Australian and two Americans, continue down Malioboro street. Pivoting from politics, Anton tells us local stories of pet snakes fasting so they can eat their masters and the supposed healing powers of drinking cobra's blood. Vitality! Virality! Kids cuddle up to characters from Transformers while other children choose to wrap a python around their neck for a photo. Yikes. 

Anton asks us questions about our travels in Indonesia. Do we feel safe? Are people nice to us? Do we get cheated by the local bus boys? How about the spicy food? He says that Americans feel scared of Muslims in Indonesia and in the States. That his co-workers are accepting of him, but have more complicated feelings about Islam. Eager to try a ginger tea with unknown jellies and other added sweeteners, I look to the street vendors for options. Taking a more conservative approach to the local food, Anton insists on an inside venue. Just off Malioboro, we find a small coffee shop and music venue. It's just past 11pm and the chairs are filling up quickly. Anton insists on ordering the drinks for us in case they try to charge us extra. We take the hot ginger milk tea and locate a table near the band. Despite numerous attempts to pay him back, Anton stubbornly refuses stating that we are his guests in Indonesia and he is responsible for us. While I sip the incredibly sweet tea, the band finishes tuning and starts off their set with Hotel California. Apparently everyone in Indonesia knows the song and a genuine sing-a-long begins. Conservative university students take selfies while older women in revealing shirts start to dance with their husbands. Quiet families watch the ordeal from the side tables and the wait staff grooves in the back. The band pivots toward sone popular Indonesian music and the crowd goes wild again, dancing and singing late into their Friday night. 

Listening to the band play Indonesian pop mixed with American classic rock, I started to wonder about my fellow Americans. Having only met three during my first month of traveling, it does seem like we are an underrepresented group of backpackers in the country. The Germans, Dutch and French are everywhere. You find a Spaniard, Brit, Aussie and Canadian in most locations. Considering the size and wealth of the USA, we are not equally present in Indonesia. This is purely anecdotal, but I hear the same observation from many of my fellow travelers. In the eyes of the world, Americans are scared of Muslims.

It's a simplistic conclusion, but I think Americans are being taught to accept easy answers to difficult questions. Who took your jobs? Immigrants. Who are these terrorists? Muslims. How do you stop gun violence? A good guy with a gun. When we are fed a story of a black and white world, it becomes challenging to see the countless shades of gray. And how would Americans react to the  the diverse religious environment in Indonesia? It's by no means perfect, but conservative areas with sharia law exist near tourist beach resorts. Hijab-clad women sit next to their sisters in shorts. There is no monolithic Islam practiced here; just as Christianity encompasses hard-line Baptists and tattooed millenials who don't believe in heaven or hell. Seeing this level of diversity in a religion forces us to think deeply about our own prejudices, the roots of extremism and our own fears.  If we are truly a nation that fears Muslims, what is the larger consequence of this fear? What experiences do we miss and what conversations do we avoid? As stated by the wonderful Bob Garfield of the 'On the Media' podcast,  "You are more likely to be killed by a white Christian, your spouse or your bathtub than by a Muslim stranger." We spend so much time worrying about a small group of extremists that we allow the dark parts of humanity to win. Xenophobia, prejudice and bigotry start driving us rather than a nuanced view of a complicated world. 

The band continues to rock, but the ginger milk tea is putting me to sleep. Stepping into the street after midnight, we say goodbye to Anton, thanking him for his hospitality and company. Although our paths may never cross again, we'll always have this Friday night in Jogya where we ate, drank and celebrated what unites rather than divides us. 

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