Homeward bound

Emma Roberts (far right) with fellow students from left: Matilda Gillis, Maighdlin Doyle, Anna Rhodes.
21 September 2013
Emma Roberts (far right) with fellow students from left: Matilda Gillis, Maighdlin Doyle, Anna Rhodes.


From learning to live in ‘rubber time’ to crossing busy roads using her hands, undergraduate EMMA ROBERTS has returned from Indonesia with not only new skills, but a new place to call home.

My recent trip to Indonesia forced me to contemplate a difficult question – did my trip mean that I was leaving home in Australia, or returning home to Indonesia?

This is a question which I still don’t know the exact answer to, but what I do know is that when I stepped off the plane in Semarang, Central Java, everything instantly felt familiar.

This was my second time completing language study at Satya Wacana Christian University (UKSW) in Salatiga, Central Java. The first time I studied at UKSW, from January to February 2013, I arrived in Indonesia with no language skills whatsoever and no idea of what to expect. However, within six short weeks my host ibu (mum) felt like a real mother and Salatiga had become a second home.

I felt confident conversing in Indonesian while buying fruit at the market or directing a taxi driver. I’d begun to adopt Indonesian habits such as crossing a busy road by just walking in front of the cars and waving my hand at them, or arriving at my appointments half an hour late in accordance with the local conception of jam karet (rubber time). Life in Salatiga felt new and exciting, yet somehow also so natural and familiar…until it was time to return to Australia.

At first it was very difficult adjusting to life back in Canberra. Everything seemed so expensive and ordered compared to Indonesia, and learning Indonesian exclusively in the classroom felt so dull after being able to practice by going on a shopping spree or planning weekend trips at the travel agent. I eventually managed to re-familiarise myself with my Australian surroundings, but nevertheless I decided (with three other participants from the January-February course) to return to Salatiga in June-July this year and continue my language studies. I couldn’t have made a better decision.

My arrival in Indonesia this time was very different to my first-time around, because I now had some understanding of the language, culture and people of Indonesia. It was much easier not to get ripped off by the airport taxi drivers (speaking Indonesian means you are not a clueless tourist), and the initial discomfort of having to wear long sleeves in the hot weather was much more bearable. The chaotic traffic on the way to Salatiga seemed almost normal (I didn’t flinch each time we had a near-miss like I had at the beginning of my last trip) and I no longer felt the need to hide from Indonesians secretly ‘whitesnapping’ (photographing) us, a regular occurrence. Most importantly though, it was great to be back!

I stayed in the same homestay family that I lived with during my first trip, specially requested because of my host mother’s amazing cooking ability (and kind heart). The food in Indonesia was definitely one of the highlights. As a vegetarian, during both trips I absolutely fell in love with tempe, a soybean product similar to tofu, which unfortunately it is not sold in Australia. My house was located about a kilometre from the university on top of a big hill, which meant great views and an easy walk to uni; but a bit of a hike back. Fortunately, ojeks (motorbike taxis) were reasonably cheap so this seemed to be my option most of the time.

Emma, with her hostmother 'ibu' (centre) and fellow student Ellie Wallis.

The language classes themselves were great! The teachers at UKSW are so passionate about making learning as interactive as possible and consequently class excursions – which ranged from casual café visits to interviewing local fishermen about the effects of swamp water hyacinth on the environment – were definitely no rarity. We generally had three blocks of language tutorials per day, with a coffee and lunch break in between. Sometimes we’d also have a culture-class in the afternoon. Although the workload was heavy in the classroom (and homework plentiful), I still much preferred only having to focus on one subject  and made use of the opportunity to also practice my Indonesian after class and on the weekends.

In addition to language study, we were required to research and write a field report about any topic relevant to Indonesia, and I ended up writing two. My first report was about a very light-hearted topic; why Indonesian cats don’t have tails. But with my second report I chose to focus on a topic I am quite passionate about – women’s rights.

My specific topic was about how the law on domestic violence restricts women’s rights, and suggestions on how to improve the legislation or its implementation. Through researching this topic – by interviewing police officers from the Women’s and Children’s Protection department and reading Indonesian domestic violence legislation – it became apparent to me that there are still many loopholes which allow for the violation of women’s rights and dignity in this area. For example,  there is a much lower penalty for ‘domestic violence causing death’ compared to any other charge of murder. I really feel this area is one that still has much potential for further research, and I would value the opportunity to look deeper into women’s rights and the law in the future.

So back to where I began; my dilemma about whether Indonesia or Australia is home. Though I have lived in Australia for most of my life, I experienced a feeling of fulfilment and purpose in Indonesia which I have not felt in Australia. I can definitely see myself returning to Indonesia in the foreseeable future for the Year in Asia study program; but also later to build a career, possibly in the area of women’s rights.

And while Australia may be home now, I am almost certain that Indonesia will be my home sometime in the future. I am so grateful that my in-country study has inspired me to come to this realisation, and cannot recommend in-country courses enough to my fellow students. You will certainly enrich your language skills, but you may also, like me, find your calling. Sampai ketemu lagi, Indonesia!

Emma Roberts is an undergraduate student in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She won an Ethel Tory Scholarship to complete in-country language study at Satya Wacana Christian University in June and July this year.

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