How Can These Winding Streets Be My Own?

Winding through the narrow alleys and twisting streets of my neighborhood in Indonesia, it’s strange and beautiful to feel a sense of belonging. With my Ayah (my home-stay father) bicycling in front of me, there’s a thread weaving me into the community in a way never before possible to me as a surface-level tourist. It’s as if his smiling face and our bikes in tandem open the gateway to a new way of experiencing this early Saturday morning.

sun-filled alley with a brick wall to the right and greenery to the left

Mongo. Ngeh. Pagi. These calls jump between neighbors and strangers as we pass, resonating with the calls from the caged birds outside every doorstep. Sometimes only a head-nod, sometimes an explanation of my origin in the local language, but always recognition of fellow residents and travellers through this world. We ride through the past, visiting the middle school where my Ayah used to teach Islam and stopping to greet his old neighbors.

The energy feels different from the friendly but more private suburbs I’m used to at home. Here in Kotagede, it’s both a sprawling city and a never-ending village; alleys that hug your sides suddenly open to paddy fields kissed by the horizon. Long-legged chickens that make their Jurassic ancestors easy to discern cluck through the constant revving of motorbikes. Intricate neighborhood and local city economy all rolled into one.

There’s a saying here for local vendors: “you don’t make money, you make friends.” Where markups sometimes barely or negatively cover shop costs, social capital becomes much more valuable than economic capital. Getting to know people’s faces, names, and stories, and knowing they’ll be there if you ever need help building your house or taking care of a sick relative, trumps exponential business growth on these streets. A practice that, while standing in stark contrast to the typical Western business standard, feels to naturally connect to the other side of human nature: taking care of each other.

alley with trees to the left, motorbikes parked, an awning to the right, and building in front

Every ride through Kotagede feels like a merging of past and future, tradition and change. The deep roots of culture that hold this place together in a tight-knit web are both grounded and ever-growing. Fertilized by ideas from overseas, changes in culture appear. Changes that, witnessed up-close, make it easier to question the influence and traditions of the places I come from. I note the American pop songs in shops, the omnipresent ads for skin lightener, and the marked-up, Los Angeles-branded hoodies and hats.

Even my sudden sense of belonging comes into question. There’s something precious and dangerous about a sense of belonging to a place you enter from the outside – a path to connecting communities, but with countless sinkholes of judgment, power structure, and cultural influence. My very presence here adds yet another piece of foreign influence; uncomfortable calls of cantik (beautiful) that hold up problematic beauty standards and selfies with strangers make me feel like I’m contributing to the selling of my country’s soft power.

Even though this world I’ve entered feels so familiar to me, I can’t let myself skim along the surface level of comfortable naivety and experience. I know there are so many hidden factors affecting life here that I am as of yet unaware of. My only constant goal is to dig deeper into that discomfort. To not willingly overlook the actors with lightened skin so I can more easily enjoy the T.V. shows, or the English in the songs that allows me to sing along and feel more at home. For if I come from a far-away land, missing understanding of the complexities that make up this place where I now live, how can these winding streets be my own?

street, buildings to the left, car parker, cloudy sky above with telephone wires
cloudy day, brick alley with white wall to the right and stained white wall to the left
Lilia Burtonpatel