My first North American spring

The trees were full of flowers all over the ends of their branches – as if they were blooming. Each flower had soft petals. The trees that lined up next the to garden’s path had petals that formed layers of soft fuchsia. I thought they were cherry blossoms, but they were prunes. Some had four white petals for each flower. These had a funny name: dogwood.

The leaves of the Ginkgo Biloba trees were light green and had tiny dangling curls, also the same colour. I thought ginkgo was a root like ginger, because people market it as herbal remedy for stamina and memory enhancer. But it was a tall wood tree, like an oak.

There was the occasional red Japanese maple tree. The leaves had red triangles, like the Canadian flag. It was the colour of an arid ground just after a shower. When the light falls on it, the leaves becomes almost translucent.

I took the subway from Chelsea to the Bronx to visit the New York Botanical Garden. I read that New Yorkers complain about the subway. Coming from Jakarta, I find them convenient, and also cooling. The air inside the subway is cold. Taking the subway is romantic – for me, a quintessential New York experience.

I arrived in New York from Jakarta, via Houston and Boston. Before Houston, I had to stop in Tokyo and Dallas. I was stopped in Dallas and had to go a special security screening. Before leaving for the US, I had been worried that something like this will happen.

I had been racially profiled in the US when I was there four years ago. I found out that I had been profiled months after, when I was already back in Jakarta. I read an article about racial profiling at department stores in a feature article (either in the New Yorker or New York Times) and what happened to the people in the story was similar to what happened to me. I was oblivious at the time when it happened. Finding out that you had been racially profiles a couple of months after the event is still unsettling. My ignorance saved the rest of my stay that winter.

But this knowledge now made me worry that something bad like that might happen again. Perhaps I worry myself to much that it came true. The airport security officers at Dallas airport placed me in a corner, fenced with elastic bands, like a cow in a coop. A South Korean guy was placed in my coop too and we waited twenty minutes before they took us to the next security gate. Two women did a full body search on me by patting me on the legs, stomach, chest and arms. Then two old white men began taking out the contents of my bag. My laptop, my bag of cables, my toiletries. Lucky, I packed neat. They ignored me and talked to each other most of the time. They discussed about how best to swab the contents of my bag. They had a small paper that they swiped in every thing on my bag and put the paper into a machine which reads the chemical contents that are picked up by the paper. They looked for explosive materials. They took their time. And one by one the paper didn’t detect anything, until they swiped my toiletry bag. The paper beeped. I had to wait for another 15 mins, because these guys, didn’t know what to do. The guy who came later cleared me and let me go. But it was too late. My flight had left and I had to wait two more hours to take the next flight.

There was a conference about journalism in Asia in Houston. Historian and journalist Janet Steele gave the keynote speech. I loved that I was in a panel with the co-founders of the feminist online magazine Magdalene, and that my panel was all women. Another panelist is a reporter based in Washington for a Chinese TV station. We spoke about how culture affected reporting in Asia. The convenor, Moniza Waheed is a lovely Malaysian who did a really good job as moderator for both my panel and the one with academics, which talked about how the changes in journalism has affected the curriculum and teaching process in the class.

I stayed in a nice hotel across the Museum of Fine Arts that has a free shuttle. When I hear shuttle I think about a van. But at Zaza hotel, it was a black shiny SUV with two long horns on the front hood of the car.

I visited a butterfly garden at the Museum of Natural History in Houston. The air was warm and humid like a nice day in Bogor. Ferns, orchids, ephyphetes, palm, different kinds of strangling leaves were in the green house. And gossamer wings, red, black, white, blue fly above and around you.

I went to other museums too in Houston. My favorite was the museum of fine arts. I saw a 3,000-year-old Aztec carpet that had embroidery of 90 deities eating the head of humans. There was a large section of Indonesian gold that showed jewelry from everywhere from Nias, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, Flores. The European masters Mattise, Soutine, Braque, Picasso. But down in the lower ground, the photography of Raghubir Singh took me away. He took colorful pictures of India, capturing the daily lives of the people in South Asia. Five mustachiod men sat on the sandy ground with pink popsicles in their mouths. Masculine and fragile at the same time. My heart hurt for them. I googled Singh after my museum trip and while there were rave reviews of his exhibition that I saw, I found an article that a group of artists staged a #MeToo protest at his exhibition in New York. An artist said he assaulted her.

After Houston, I flew to Boston. Mikey picked me up with his girlfriend’s car. I slept in their guest bedroom. I didn’t want to be alone in a shitty hotel room in Boston. I was happy to be around friends. Katie is a speech therapist and Mikey now works full time as a teacher. They lived in a nice cosy house with a small backyard with rabbits as pests.

I did a lot of things in Boston: watched a documentary about native Americans trying to deal with the truth about their kids being taken away from their families and weren’t allowed to speak their language. Had drinks and dinners. Met with John Tirman and Ethan Zuckerman. Hung out and worked at TC Boston office.

But New York was my favorite place to be. In Boston, I felt a tinge of homesickness. I missed Jakarta. I felt this when walking from Harvard Square to Magoon Square at Somerville to catch up with Damian. The streets were empty and rows of New England style houses – wooden planks as walls, pointy rooftops – were standing next to New England style trees. The type that turns golden and red in the fall. It was idyllic. Yet, I was uncomfortable with that contrast to Jakarta.

New York is alive and pulsing. The brick colors of the zigurat style buildings with the light green leaf buds of spring, and the array of people walking on the streets were energising. It has tall buildings and lots of people like Jakarta. But better weather and better foot paths to walk on. And a subway, which people in NY complain about, but for me it’s luxury.

I hear a lot of bad stuff about New York. The way people interact socially and use status as currency is sickening. I perhaps wouldn’t love it if I was lonely and without friends or anything to do. But last weekend, it was my paradise.

Indonesians in Queens Are Beginning to Learn About Film on Genocide

 

A prayer meeting at Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times
A prayer meeting at Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

Every Friday afternoon, Mas Pratomo, 83, sips tea at Fay Da Bakery on Justice Avenue, in Elmhurst, Queens, and catches up with fellow Indonesians. He never forgets to list the day’s attendees in his journal.

 

Having left his home country four decades ago, the teatime ritual is his way of connecting with his roots, as he and friends converse in their native Indonesian.

 

On a recent Friday, the conversation turned to “The Act of Killing,” the recent documentary film about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide.

 

The film, released last year, features two notorious figures in the mass killings discussing and even re-enacting some of their actions in the anti-Communist purge. The killers’ boastfulness has shocked some viewers, and the film has brought new attention to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists across the archipelago nation in Southeast Asia.

 

But in Indonesia, where the anti-Communist campaign remains a sensitive subject, defended by some powerful figures, the film was not widely seen or embraced. And in New York’s small but growing Indonesian enclave in Elmhurst, word of the film has spread slowly.

 

Photo

Joshua Oppenheimer,  the director of “The Act of Killing,” participated in a discussion after a recent screening of the film in Brooklyn. CreditKatie Orlinsky for The New York Times

 

Many of the estimated 7,000 Indonesians living in the city came to the United States hoping to make a new life here after the bloodshed of 1965 or the upheavals of the late 1990s.

 

For Mr. Pratomo, the film awakened him to the brutality of the killers and the scale of the massacre. “I was appalled when I found out about the truth,” he said.

 

At the time of the anti-Communist campaign, he was living in the capital, Jakarta, while much of the bloodshed was carried out in small towns of East Java, on the Hindu island of Bali, and in North Sumatra, where the film is set.

 

A year later, in 1966, he encountered a hint of the violence. An architect, he went to Bali to manage a hotel project. But he could not find workers, he recalled. In hushed conversations, he was told that all of them had been killed.

 

It was a fearful time in Indonesia. Government propaganda had demonized the Communists, who were alleged to have staged a coup. Many Indonesians accepted the government line or were too scared to challenge it.

 

Mr. Pratomo left for New York a year later and he had put that era behind him, he said, until friends told him about “The Act of Killing.” He watched it on Netflix with his wife.

 

“How could it come to this — murdering people as if it were a feast?” he said.

 

For some among his generation, the film evoked difficult memories about the years leading up to Suharto’s rule. For some younger Indonesians who have come to New York, the film has been an eye-opening window on a period still shrouded by fear and trauma.

 

Among those living here, word of the film has spread slowly. Many Indonesian immigrants working busy blue-collar jobs have little time for films.

 

At Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens, none of the congregation members at a recent prayer meeting had heard of the film, except for the church’s leader, the Rev. Sutoyo Sigar, 65, who was a witness to the bloodshed.

 

The two-year-old church is one of the 32 Indonesian churches that have sprung up in New York in the past decade, partly to accommodate the influx of Chinese Indonesian immigrants that followed the upheaval in the late 1990s.

 

Anastasia Dewi Tjahjadi, 45, owner of Java Village, an Indonesian restaurant on Justice Avenue, was not aware of the genocide. “I heard from my parents that a lot of our relatives returned to China at that time, but we didn’t talk much about it,” she said.

 

Curious after hearing about the film, she played it a couple of days later on her restaurant’s big-screen TV. But she found herself struggling to watch it while attending her restaurant, she said.

 

Mr. Pratomo said the film had helped him realize how much his homeland was scarred by the events of 1965, and he hopes it spurs a search for the truth and justice.

 

“There should be a tribunal, there should be reconciliation, there should be an apology,” he said. “And the apology should be accepted and everyone can continue to live together side by side.”

 

MARCH 27, 2014