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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Bittersweet Calculus of Changing Countries

Seville orange marmalade with rind,
invented 1797 in Scotland
(courtesy Wikimedia)
While everyone else was stocking up for Christmas at the Union Square greenmarket last week-end, I was on a quest to find a humble jar of marmalade, as we'd just run out. It took a while, but at last I ferreted out a candidate amidst the dandelion, garlic raspberry, and other exotic jellies at the Berkshire Berries stall. Just to be sure, I asked the vendor: "Is this regular marmalade?" To which he instantly responded: "No, it's the best there is!"

Me: "Well, I wouldn't know. Even though I lived in the UK a long time, I never acquired the taste. Too bitter!"

"Don't be afraid to try this one," he urged. "It's made with Florida oranges, not Seville oranges."

"How very clever of you," I told him, "to come up with a New World version!"

But as I walked away, I thought to myself: Is the New World any less bitter than the old nowadays? At best, this past year has been rather bittersweet for us U.S. citizens. But I imagine our sufferings and disappointments are as nothing compared to those of newly arrived immigrants, who've given up everything to come to this country — the ultimate New World destination — for a fresh start.

Recently I had occasion to ruminate on the plight of immigrants to the United States, after making back-to-back visits to Little Indonesia in Philadelphia and Indonesia itself.

Several thousand Indonesians have emigrated to South Philadelphia in the past ten years or so. I was envisioning their having set up a vibrant neighborhood, rather like Indonesia itself, but the scene that confronted me in late October was rather desolate: one level up from a slum. Philadelphia's Little Indonesia consists of a limited grid of narrow streets lined with pokey row houses. There are several hole-in-the-wall restaurants and nondescript shops carrying Indonesian goods. We tried the food: it is decent enough. And the shops, though cramped, are reasonably well stocked with Southeast Asian staples, everything from cassava chips to jackfruit (in cans).

I have since learned that the majority of these immigrants are Christians from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. They fled to the United States after attacks were made on their churches in the late 1990s. A significant minority (something like a quarter) of Little Indonesia's residents are Muslims. And, whereas the Christians have been integrated into the local churches, the Muslims have to make do with any space they can find. The nearest mosque is in West Philly, and, ironically, during Ramadan they have ended up borrowing space from a Mennonite church where the pastor is an Indonesian Christian.

Would these Little Indonesians — particularly the Muslims — have been better off staying put in their native land? Bear in mind that their prospects have most likely worsened since 9/11, which ushered in an era of racial profiling and, as evidenced by the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, xenophobia.

Even the Christians — many of whom I suppose are ethnic Chinese — may be wondering if their children might have done better in the Indonesia, where the economy has been growing strongly despite the global financial crisis and recession and, amazingly, reducing debt at the same time. This year Indonesia achieved a growth rate of 6 percent, and pundits say it could have been even higher — 10 percent, easily — if only the government had made some headway in overcoming abiding corruption and structural inefficiencies (democracy hasn't solved these problems just yet). Thanks to real economic activity and bullish expectations, the stock market is up by 50 percent — one of the best performers in the world in 2010.

A couple of weeks after my trip to Little Indonesia, I took off for Indonesia itself and saw this emerging economic miracle with my own eyes.

I had last visited Jakarta in 2004, when it was still shell shocked from the Asian financial crisis and had not found solid democratic footing after dictatorship. The entire city had an air of foreboding about it. The Indonesians I met then seemed defeatist as well about their future economic prospects, particularly as compared to China's.

This time around, there were signs of an economic revival. Don't get me wrong: Jakarta still deserves its sobriquet of the Big Durian, and you take your life into your hands when crossing the street. But one of the first things I noticed is that there is now a Starbucks on virtually every major street corner. As we New Yorkers know, whenever Starbucks moves in, gentrification can't be long behind.

I also witnessed many Indonesians beginning to partake in this new-found prosperity. The first Sunday after my arrival, we visited Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, a luxurious new shopping mall anchored by Seibu and Harvey Nichols. The basement cafes and restaurants were buzzing with customers; parents and kids packed out the indoor playland featuring a kid-sized train; and young people were queuing up for tickets to the mall's 11-screen cineplex.

All of this leaves me with the bittersweet sense that, while something is always gained from moving countries, a great deal is risked. Reader, I leave you to ponder all of this with the help of some photos from my two "Indonesian" trips:

1) STANDIN' ON THE CORNER: Would you rather hang out in front of a faceless grocery in South Philly, or at the entrance to an exclusive supermarket chain in a posh city mall?
Corner grocery: Little Indonesia, South Philly
99 Ranch Market, part of a California-based chain:
Grand Indonesia Shopping Mall, Jakarta
2) PRACTICING ISLAM: Would you rather worship in a makeshift way in a country that fears Muslims, or join the throngs reciting prayers in Southeast Asia's largest mosque?
Hand-written sign on row-house front door: Little Indonesia, South Philly
Worshippers at Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta
3) SEEING ELEPHANTS: Would you rather contemplate grease-stained elephants while waiting for takeaway in your neighborhood's lone Thai restaurant, or be welcomed to a museum celebrating your nation's history, by a Thai elephant statue?
Thai take-out:
Little Indonesia, South Philly
Bronze elephant statue donated to Indonesia by King Chulalongkorn of Siam in 1871:
front of National Museum of Indonesia (also known as Elephant Building), Jakarta


Anonymous said...

It is the quintessential experience for any visitor to Jakarta or new resident to get lost and disoriented in Grand Indonesia shopping mall.

ML Awanohara said...

@ anon
Yes, they don't call it "grand" for nothing! In fact, aren't all of the world's biggest shopping malls now in Asia? Mostly in China and the Philippines, and also one in KL. The Mall of America (in Bloomington, Minn.) seems puny by comparison, though it's still the largest in the United States and claims to be the most visited in the world. (That claim is disputed, however, by several malls in Jakarta, albeit not by Grand Indonesia.)

Interestingly, while mall shopping is declining in America--according to an article in Forbes, malls have been squeezed by the "big boxes" (Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target)--Asian shoppers are flocking to malls, the bigger and ritzier the better. Is this because more people now own cars, and they like having a destination to drive to? I noticed the Jakarta traffic is even worse than it was six years ago--which suggests there are more car owners these days.

In any event, I think that Grand Indonesia qualifies as a symbol of Indonesia's thriving economy--which stands in sharp contrast to the conditions Philadelphia's Little Indonesians are facing...

Thandelike said...

you've captured some good examples of the sad disconnect of immigrant life, ML ...

ML Awanohara said...

@ Thandelike aka Anastasia of Expat+HAREM

Thank you for recognizing that this story is applicable to more than just a group of some 4,000 Indonesians in Philadelphia. To some extent, I think it's also a parable for long-term expats, though the starting point for such people (I was one of them once) is far more privileged than it is for most immigrants, who are escaping persecution, harsh economic conditions, etc. I have a theory that all expats are escaping something, even if it's just inside their heads!

Keith said...

Interesting story. There was also an article recently in the Jerusalem Post about a Jewish community in Surabaya which has now largely emigrated to Israel seemingly for the same reasons - though in this case they were Jewish before coming to Indonesia. What will be interesting is if current trends persist and Indonesia remains a hot performer will some of these and other expatriate Indonesians start returning home as we have seen with Indians and Koreans where the trend at least in some cases is reversing from the flow outward to US.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Keith
Your story reminds me of a New York Times article that appeared in November, reporting that Indonesia now has a 62-foot-tall menorah, possibly the world's largest. It's on a mountain overlooking Manado, a city in the province of North Sulawesi, where there had long been a community of people with Dutch Jewish ancestry. (Indonesia's only remaining synagogue sits in a town just outside Manado.)

Historically, Manado was a strategic port for European traders sailing to and from the spice island of Maluku. To this day, the town is mainly Christian (of which the majority are Protestant, owing to the long Dutch presence).

Two years before the menorah, Manado erected a statue of Jesus on top of a hill. At 98 feet, it is three quarters the size of the one in Rio and claims to be Asia's tallest Jesus Christ statue.

I find it reassuring that not all Indonesians are rolling over and playing dead as Jemaah Islamiah (responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002) and other radical Muslim groups wreak havoc. On the contrary, they are taking positive steps to reclaim Indonesia's centuries-old tradition of tolerance and moderation. If the moderates prevail--and they include a huge number of Muslims--then perhaps the Indonesian Christians and Jews who've fled the country--or, more likely, their descendants--will be able to consider repatriation.

susumu said...

After visiting Little Indonesia in Philadelphia, I too wondered if some of the Indonesian immigrants may change their plans and decide to go back. But then we took a trip to Jakarta and I was pretty convinced that it would take an awful lot -- something extraordinarily good in Indonesia or the opposite in the US happening though I can't guess what these might be -- to trigger a reverse migration of Indonesians. I say this as an admirer of Indonesia.

Of course, some Indonesian immigrants and their offspring may return to Indonesia to avail themselves of the more favorable job opportunities the country offers, but they're likely to be travelling with a newly-earned MBA, an engineering degree and possibly a US Green Card (or better, a US passport). They would not be giving up on the American Dream entirely. I'm sure most Indians and Koreans go back to their countries like that, from a position of strength. Some may be offended if I compare America to spoiled fish but somehow the oshogatsu (New Year's) season conjures up the Japanese saying kusattemo tai: sea bream is sea bream even if it's spoiled. Even in decline America is a great country.

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