Managing to Build Bridges - Part 3: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Nani Ratnawati has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 3 of our conversation, Nani describes her initial encounter with U.S. culture and her nascent passion for exercising her analytical skills.

Sarah: What were your first impressions of US culture?

Nani: I was reading an old diary recently and I found observations about exactly that. For instance, I noted that people say “How are you” a lot but, as I learned the hard way, you’re not supposed to pause and really think about how you are—you’re supposed to just say, “Fine.” We don’t say “How are you” in Indonesia so at first I thought people really wanted to know how I was.

I also felt uncomfortable physically. In Southeast Asia, females are supposed to behave in a feminine way, and whiter skin is prized. I’d flunked that test because I wasn’t very feminine and was darker-skinned. Here in the US I had to wrestle with a new projection—I was seen by many as exotic. A lot of people—mostly but not only white men—assumed I’d fit the stereotype they had of Asian women as submissive, weak, nurturing. So I’d gone from feeling unattractive to attractive, but attractive in a way that made me feel objectified, uncomfortable. It took me a long time to develop the vocabulary to understand all that.

On an intellectual level I felt pretty stupid. I remember I went with American friends to see a film and one of them asked me afterward, Well, what do you think? Did you like it? I said, Yes, it was cool. The friend said, Why? I had no idea. My critical thinking skills were still very limited. Under Suharto, critical thinking was suppressed in both the public and private educational systems. You were not allowed to think for yourself. That’s why literature wasn’t offered in schools—literature promotes deeper questioning. Before I moved to the States I had never even heard of the most internationally renowned Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. His books were all banned in my time. After I got to the US I sought out Indonesian literature.

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Sarah: What did you major in at SF State?

Nani: At first I declared marketing as my major. I was still enacting the values of my parents and the world I grew up in. After one or two classes I said, this is so boring, I’m not going to do it. But I didn’t know what to replace it with. I had the same old frustration I’d felt in Indonesia—“I don’t know what my skills are; I don’t know what I’m good at.” I went back and looked at my performance at the American Language Institute. I’d excelled in writing and literature. I thought, maybe that’s what I should go for. I ended up double majoring in English literature and linguistics.

After that, I was able to say why I like or don’t like certain movies! I definitely struggled in the lit classes. But I was dating an American at the time. In terms of our communication as a couple a lot was lost in translation, but being with him propelled the speed of my learning. He would help me even with literature stuff, for example if I didn’t understand something I read or when I had to write papers.

Sarah: Why did you want to study linguistics?

Nani: I knew that breaking down the English language—looking at aspects like phonology, morphology, social linguistics—would significantly speed up the process of gaining mastery, which I very much wanted.

All of a sudden I became a proper student. It just proves that if you’re passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, no one even needs to tell you to be disciplined. You just do whatever it takes, providing you have access to the basics (housing, food, etc.), which I did, thankfully. I often went to my professors’ office hours. I would show up with lists of questions I’d prepared in advance.

Next: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach