(Alternatively, this could be titled Accosted by Indonesian Journalists.)
A few weeks ago, I was trying to catch up on some online activities at an outdoor internet café close to my town’s main square. I spotted a nice empty table to sit at, next to a large group of men, smoking and a single, lone woman without a hijab. Oh, how I would regret ever choosing that table.
I sat down, acknowledged them with a Selamat Pagi, or good morning, a nod and proceeded to set up my laptop ready to engross myself in a virtual world. That was successful for about ten minutes, when the men began their conversation.
Them: Berasal dari mana, mbak? / Where are you from originally, miss?
Me: Saya dari Amerika Latin. / I am from Latin America.
Them: Gah, dari Pakistan? Kamu sama orang Arab./ Not from Pakistan? You look like an Arab.
If I had a dollar for every time Indonesians assume me to be Arabic or Indian, I’d have a lot of rupiah post conversion. I suppose it’s only logical since they haven’t been exposed to too many Latin people in this side of the world.
Me: Bukan, saya orang Amerika Latin, dari negara Ecuador./ No, I am from Latin America, from a country called Ecuador.
One of them: Ah, Ecuador! Ada permainan futebol dari sana, tapi mareka orang hitam… /Ah, Ecuador! There’s a soccer player from there, but he’s black…
He looked at me as if to ask, why aren’t you Black? Annoyed and without the language skills to explain I just said:
Me: Mungkin dia permainan paling bagus, tapi ada banyak orang seperti saya. /He’s probably the best player, but there are a lot of people who look like me.
Another one of them: Obama presiden Ecuador? / Is Obama the president of Ecuador?
Me: Bukan, Obama Presiden Amerika Serikat. Ecuador lain negara. / No, Obama is the president of the United States. Ecuador is another country.
This is a conversation I find myself having a lot. I proceeded to explain the United States is one country, and that Ecuador is another country in South America. Still, they looked confused, so I continued to explain that South America consists of Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Chile, etc. As I mentioned Brazil and Argentina, all the men understood much better, since these are well known countries for their soccer teams and that is of importance to Indonesian men.
Them: Presiden Ecuador siapa? / Who’s the president of Ecuador?
Me: Namanya Rafael Correa. / His name is Rafael Correa.
Finally, the conversations seemed to wind down. All the questions (and many, many others that are not mentioned) had been answered. I tried to look busy, so they would get my subtle hint that I didn’t want to talk anymore. Naturally, that did not work.
They rose from their table and came to sit at mine. My irritation spiking…
Another one of them: Kami journalists.
I doubted it at first, since I would assume journalists to have a better understanding of basic geography. Yet, they produced press like passes and told me about some event going on across the street at the town hall.
It was extremely fortunate for me that they mentioned this fact at this moment. I was very close to losing my patience and leaving, but the last thing I want to do is give the press of my community the wrong impression. I continued to small talk with them—though some of the interactions were beginning to get slimy—draining every last drop of patience and sweetness from very deep parts of my being, especially for what came next:
Them: Mbak foto! Foto! Foto!
And this proceeded to a lengthy photography sessions with every man there. They even whipped out their cellphones and brought them close to my face and asked me to smile! Some even took videos of me. At this point, other men showed up on their motorcycles and the cyclical conversation began once again. A few of the journalists attempted to retell my story to the new arrivals and kept insisting that I came from Mexico, while I stared in disbelief that even in Indonesia, any Latin American is assumed to be Mexican.
I restrained my rising anger and finally said in the sweetest tone possible:
Me: Saya bukan orang Mexico, saya dari ECUADOR. Selasai, ya? Silakan berhenti foto. / I am not from Mexico, I am from Ecuador. Finished? Please stop.
They finally seemed to get it, admired their photos and said:
Wah! Cantik! / Wow! Beautiful!
Which is exaggerated, but flattering, of course—and certainly unwanted.
They finally went to interview what I understood to be the governor of Bondowoso, but not before several requests for my cellphone number (which I refused), invitations to go places including their houses (which I pretended to not understand) and shakes of my hand (including kissing of my hand) that I wasn’t really happy giving.
The Peace Corps warns all volunteers about the unwanted attention we will attract as foreigners, but before this incident I had successfully avoided anything too extreme thanks in large part to my dark hair and eyes. This situation lasted nearly three exhausting hours. I could have gotten up and left at any time, but I really wanted to avoid being rude and I didn’t want to let them intimidate me. Though I was severely annoyed, I never felt unsafe and also, I was busy and trying to do my thing online. When I discovered the men were journalists, I was compelled to make a good impression—and I sure hoped that worked because it was really difficult to feign a lack of annoyance.
Needless to say, next time, I will be infinitely more careful when choosing a table to sit at.