Fulbright Scholar from Masardis shares his insights from Indonesia

17 years ago

Editor’s Note: A story about Ethan Perry, a Masardis native who was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship to Indonesia, ran in the July 26, 2006 edition of The Star-Herald.

The son of Stanley and Janet Perry, he is one of over 1,200 U.S. citizens traveling abroad for the 2006-2007 academic year through the Fulbright Student Program. Established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the program’s purpose is to build mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the rest of the world. Perry, a 1998 Ashland Community High School graduate, has been in Indonesia since July 30, and shares via e-mail his observations from the small, port city of Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia where he is spending a year as a high school teacher and cultural.

By Ethan Perry
Special to the Star-Herald
How do you convey the feeling of living in a new but wonderful place to family and friends half a world away? This is the question I ask myself as I sit down to share some thoughts from the small port city of Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, where I am spending a year as a high school teacher and a cultural ambassador with the U.S. Fulbright Program.
True, it is a long way from Aroostook County, but the warm welcome with which I have been greeted, and the rich cultural experiences I have gained have made the transition tolerable, even enjoyable. People from back home send e-mails and ask me: “What are the people like? What is the culture like? What food do they eat?” These are questions that cannot be answered absolutely.
The national boundaries of Indonesia are strictly political, and so they arbitrarily encompass such a wide assortment of peoples, traditions (ancient and new), and socio-political and religious ideas that you might not recognize people from the two extremes of the archipelago as being of the same nationality.
Indonesia stretches from the tsunami-ravaged city of Banda Aceh, at the northwest tip of the island of Sumatra, to the mineral-rich Papuan capital city of Jayapura in the east; this distance is roughly equivalent to that from San Francisco to Presque Isle. Can anyone tell me what the people are like along the lengths of Interstates 95 and 80? I think not. Consider that Indonesia is a string of island pearls numbering over 20,000, and its people speak more than 1,000 languages, and this distance is not merely the breadth of the U.S., it is a world in terms of cultural identity.
Some things can be said with certainty. The nation of Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, and it is home to the world’s largest Muslim population (over 80 percent practice some form of Islam, often of a more moderate flavor than that portrayed on the American evening news). But apart from these simple observations, Indonesia does not possess a single cultural identity. Regionalism in religious views, cultural traditions and sociopolitical ideas is rampant, and as a strait between islands is navigated, a provincial boundary is crossed, or a new village is entered, you are greeted by a tremendously diverse array of new experiences.
Necessarily, I will limit what follows to apply to my experiences in a very small portion of this vast island nation.
Since September, I have had the pleasure of working with high school students and teachers in Padang, a bustling port city with a population of nearly 900,000 people nestled on the Indian Ocean side of the island of Sumatra, the world’s fourth largest island. A chain of jungle cloaked volcanoes (part of the Barasan Mountains) run the length of Sumatra and are linked to the tectonic system building the Himalayan Mountains. The Barasan Range has served as an effective natural boundary to overland communication until relatively recently. The mountains are rugged, rich with minerals, lumber and agricultural opportunities, and have been the basis of livelihood for Sumatran people for millennia.
Indonesia’s volcanoes host rich hydrothermal vein deposits (gold, copper) that are said to be the source of the sultan’s wealth in the ancient Hindu-Buddhist, and the later Islamic, kingdoms. Mineral exploration continues today in many parts of West Sumatra. Logging, illegal and otherwise, is important to the economy. Montane forests (oaks and laurels) are dominant at lower elevations. Scattered pine forests at higher elevations provide the fleeting illusion that I have traveled back to Maine. And sub-alpine environments exist atop the highest volcanic peaks.
Economically valuable rubber and kayu manis (cinnamon) plantations abound. Tenant farmers work the sawah (rice paddies) intensively. The terraced architecture of the paddies allows for the cultivation of two and three crops of rice each year. An abundance of rain (over 2 meters during the rainy season, November through March) nourishes the crops. Fishermen ply the coastal waters and the broad rivers that drain the highlands. The tourism industry is taking baby steps. Like the State of Maine, the region’s economic foundation is built on the smart utilization of these natural resources.
Padang is the provincial capital of West Sumatra, the distribution point for the interior’s resource wealth, and the place where the unique traditions of the highland Minangkabau (Minang) people have blended slightly with Chinese and Southeast Asian cultural identities brought by sea by merchants and laborers through the centuries. Minang people practice Islam, yet maintain a matrilineal family structure. Men marry into the woman’s family.
Minang traditional houses possess steep, pointed roofs that have the quality of windjammers silhouetted on the horizon; this architecture is a symbol of power and intelligence and is tied to an ancient legend (as many aspects of Indonesian life are) of water buffalo from Sumatra and Java islands fighting for supremacy, and the smaller Sumatran buffalo winning because of its wits. The “horned” roofs is symbolic of the revered water buffalo.
Minang people (over 94 percent of the West Sumatran population) descend from the ancient ruling sultans of the Sriwijaya Empire (7th-11th century AD) and control provincial-level politics. Since Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch in 1947, cultural, and the intertwined religious and socio-economic, relations periodically sour between the Minang and the Chinese-Indonesians. Unofficially, non-Minang people are unable to hold public office in the province.
Disharmony (as seen in the late-1990s during fall of President Soeharto when Chinese-Indonesians were
forced from homes in some smaller villages) lingers not far beneath the surface, but the current environment is stable, if tenuously so. In spite of significant cultural differences, I have been warmly welcomed into the region by people of all religions and cultural backgrounds. “Unity in Diversity” is the national motto, and from what I have seen, the people of Padang and West Sumatra achieve this goal remarkably well.
Next time: Ethan will offer insight on Indonesian food and culture.