Indonesia

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 6: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Nani 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 6 Nani explains how poetry led her to anthropology.

Nani: Through Kyger’s influence I started reading Snyder, who’s a big advocate for anthropology. His work taught me the importance of knowing where people came from, how they live, and why different groups of people live in such different ways. It felt like foundational knowledge to me. That summer at Naropa I also took a class with Joanne’s friend Peter Warshall. His class also had an anthropological perspective. He took us to a sewage treatment plant to understand how we use water and deal with our waste. He wanted us to think about how our society has evolved to the point it’s at now.

Sarah: Were those experiences what gave you the idea of formally studying anthropology?

Nani: Yes. After a year and a half working full-time at the Learning Assistance Center, I spent a semester at San Diego State, taking prerequisites with the intention of applying to their master’s program in anthropology. But I quickly realized San Diego was not San Francisco. In retrospect I realized I went to San Diego to get away from a relationship that I was trying to end. After six months I returned to San Francisco and started my master’s at SF State.

Grad school was intense. For my thesis work I was drawn to one of the most controversial subjects in anthropology (at least at the time): the repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural artifacts. That exposed me to the ugly side of academic life. I was so surprised that individuals with PhDs could be so wedded to their own view that they would get downright hostile toward each other. The fight was primarily between archaeologists and physical anthropologists on the one side, and cultural anthropologists on the other. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists study the past by examining human remains and cultural artifacts, while cultural anthropologists study the present by working closely with present-living peoples, such as Native Americans. Because of their beliefs, many (though not all) Native Americans oppose the study of their ancestors’ human remains and cultural artifacts. One of the primary issues in the battle was that the two groups adopted polarized stances even though actually, even within each group, there was a range of perspectives and opinions.

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Sarah: How did you cope with the situation?

Nani: I tried to be diplomatic. Even now I still see both perspectives—although I lean toward cultural anthropology, because if you look at the history of physical anthropology, it’s pretty ugly. The physical anthropologists at U.C. Berkeley, including the renowned Alfred Kroeber, took some deeply problematic stances, from saying that the brains of Anglo Saxons were more powerful than those of other ethnicities, to removing Native American artifacts without permission. They excavated something like 2,000 remains of individuals—that’s still in contention to this day.

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I learned so much about the history of various Native American cultures. I hadn’t even known that Native Americans were the original inhabitants of North America. I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s the truth. That narrative was never presented in Indonesia, given the suppression of critical thinking I described earlier. The Indonesian government didn’t want indigenous Indonesians to be aware of struggles by indigenous populations in other parts of the world.

Ultimately three factors led me to decide to not pursue a doctorate degree. First of all, I didn’t like the politics of the academic world—though I later learned that every field has politics—I just needed to learn the skills to cope with it. Also, as someone who is not Native American, I felt a little out of place speaking about Native American rights and traditions. And finally, I saw the pressure to be a good academic, strive for tenure—for example by writing papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Next: You Just Need to Find a Good Husband

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 5: Poetry Has No Rules

Nani 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 5 she describes her discovery of poetry.

Sarah: I think you started studying poetry writing with me right after you began working full-time at the Language Acquisition Center.

Nani: That’s right, we met in the fall of 2002.

Sarah: What drew you to poetry?

Nani: I’d read Charles Bukowski in one of my undergrad classes. Back home in Indonesia, poetry had all kinds of rules. When I read Bukowski, I was surprised and impressed that poetry could look and sound like that. “Wow, you can include cuss words and write in free verse about daily stuff!” I saw a flyer in the campus library about your poetry workshops and consultations. I was curious. When I first started working with you, if you remember, I didn’t join a workshop—I was too shy. You had put on your flyer that you also worked with people one-on-one, and that appealed to me. Then after you told me more about your workshops, I realized it would feel safe—I didn’t have to be somebody already in order to join.

Looking back, I can see that being in the workshop was such good practice in terms of learning how to express myself in a more public forum. I also paid attention to how you taught the class. All the students were working in different styles, writing different kinds of work. The course readers you put together introduced me to a lot of different kinds of poetry as well. I remember you had us read a poem about Frida Kahlo and you pulled a biography of her off your shelf; it had lots of reproductions of her work. You introduced me to Joanne Kyger’s work too. I was attracted to it for the same reasons I was drawn to Bukowski—the frankness, the dailiness, no rules. I wanted to write like that.

My undergraduate studies in English literature and Language Studies were more externally oriented. That’s where I first realized that people can express their individual visions and others might read that work. Coming from my culture, that was such new, exciting idea. Then in your workshops I was looking internally at what I had to say. The two approaches went hand in hand.

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Sarah: Tell me about becoming friends with Joanne Kyger.

Nani: After you introduced me to her work, I decided to attend Naropa’s summer writing program, which she taught in. A lot of students wanted to hang out with her but it seemed like they were mostly curious about her personal life and her marriage early on to Gary Snyder. I didn’t feel the need to ask about those things. She told me that she really appreciated that I just wanted to talk about her work. For a while after Naropa we wrote postcards to each other. Then she gave me her email address, and then she invited me to her home in Bolinas. From then on, I visited her about once a year.

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I felt our deepest connection came mostly in relation to poetry—I appreciated her work, and she appreciated mine. In person, we were very fond of each other, but I now wish we had a deeper in-person connection.  At one point she invited me to stay overnight at her place and I didn’t do it. I feel a little regretful knowing that I could have formed a deeper friendship and mentorship. She was very encouraging about my work. She published one of my poems in a local Bolinas newsletter.

Next: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 4: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Nani 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. Part 3 of our conversation concluded with Nani attending San Francisco State University and feeling connected to her academic studies for the first time.

Sarah: You were also holding down a job, right? 

Nani: Yes. I became friends with other Indonesian students and they helped me look for jobs. My first job was working as a barista at the university’s Café 101. I was really into it. I loved making the perfect coffee drinks. And I liked the public-facing aspect. I felt cool working there. 

Then I got a waitressing job at a burger joint called The BullsHead, near my brother’s house in West Portal. It’s owned by Korean-American family. I had no experience in waitressing but they accepted me. It’s a very popular restaurant. Suddenly I wanted to be the best server. I even told my dad that my goal was to be a classy waitress at a fancy restaurant. 

A colleague at the restaurant told me that a great server is when the patrons don’t even notice you’re there. I learned so much about that. For example, if patrons are having an intense conversation, there are ways to interject without intruding. 

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I wanted to move up in the restaurant world, so I left Bullshead and went to Olive Garden, next to SF State. I learned how to pair food and wine, which was fun. But it was a very corporate environment, not at all like the mom-and-pop world of Bullshead. You had to show up when they opened at 11am. They could dismiss you any time between 2–4:30pm—but you had to be back at 5:30pm for the dinner shift. 

And the waitstaff were expected to compete with one another. I remember there was a prize for whoever sold the most desserts. I learned to cajole customers using witty comments—“Oh it’s OK, you have room because dessert goes to a different stomach.” I did get into trouble once. I was serving an older white American couple and I kept saying “you guys.” The gentleman gestured to his partner and said, Look at her—do you think she’s a guy? I apologized but then I repeated the term—it was just automatic for me. The second time he was pretty unhappy! 

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Even with the competition to sell, I was making less money than at The BullsHead. My performance started to slip—I didn’t want to be the best server in the world anymore. The store manager said, Nani, when you started you were getting 5+ stars but now you are only earning 4 stars. I didn’t last long. No regrets, though, because I learned a lot about workplace politics. 

Sarah: When I met you, you were working in a tutoring center run by the university. How did that come about?

Nani: When I first arrived and was taking basic English, one of my teachers was a French-American woman. I liked her vibe and felt comfortable with her because English was also a second language for her. A few years later I ran into her on campus and she said she was working at the Learning Assistance Center, which provides free tutoring to students. She encouraged me to apply.

I had my doubts. How could an ESL student tutor native and non-native English speakers? I didn’t think I did well in interview. But I was accepted for the position.

Then I wanted to be the best tutor.

Sarah: Tell me about wanting to be the best at everything you do.

Nani: I remember you once said, Nani, when you want something, you want it now. I tended to move fast and I wanted to be the best, but then if I wasn’t stimulated enough, I lost interest.

I learned a ton working as an English tutor. I felt my managers were more confident in me than I was in myself. Sometimes the director would pair me up with students who had learning disabilities. After a session I would have no idea if the student I’d worked with had gotten anything out of it. But we received training and the managers did sometimes observe.

I worked part-time there, tutoring students in reading, writing, and study skills. When I graduated they offered me a full-time position as an office manager with time built into my week to do some tutoring.

The director of the Center was one of the best managers I ever had. She expressed a lot of confidence in me, and she was compassionate and empathetic. For instance, she noticed that I liked to swim. She said, if you go swimming at lunch and you take a little more than an hour, don’t worry about it. I learned so much from her about how to be a good manager.

That position was a great match for me for a while, but over time I got frustrated by the manual system they used for scheduling appointments. I had learned that you could schedule using computers, which made it much more efficient. I offered my recommendations and was told my thinking was sound, but they were not ready to make the shift. I didn’t realize (and wasn’t patient enough to figure out) that in public institutions, things don’t happen swiftly. It’s not like once you identify a problem and a solution you can solve it overnight.

 Next: Poetry Has No Rules

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

Nani 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

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 2: Such a Bad Kid

Nani 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 2 of our conversation, Nani describes how a car crash almost kept her from emigrating to the U.S.

Sarah: What led you to come to the States?

Nani: That choice was influenced by the fact that I had two siblings who were already living here. In 1985, when I was five, my brother, who’s 14 years older than I, left to attend college in Connecticut. My sister moved to the US in 1992, also to go to school.

Anyway, fast forward to my teenage years. I wasn’t happy, wasn’t finding my niche. I was such a bad kid, very rebellious.

Junior high.

Junior high.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Sarah: What did “bad” and “rebellious” look like?

Nani: I tried smoking several times—I didn’t even like it but I wanted to be cool. I was skipping school—not a lot, not even every month, but it was a lot by the standards of my milieu. My biggest form of acting out was coming home at night later than the agreed-upon time. I remember coming home at 10:30 or 11 and my dad would be waiting outside, very angry, ready to hit me.

At that time in Indonesia, and maybe even to this day, domestic violence was considered a normal part of family life. Husbands hit wives; mothers and fathers hit their children. Not all families were like this, but my family was, and I knew many peers whose families were the same. I forgave my parents for their part in all that a long time ago. Life is complicated and I believe they did their best in the only ways that they knew.

High school.

High school.

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

Sarah: How old were you when you came to the States?

Nani: Seventeen, after I graduated from high school. My brother who was already living in San Francisco advocated for me to attend university here. My dad later told me more recently that his response to my brother’s suggestion was, Well, this kid is not doing well here; if we send her abroad, she’ll either continue on that path or thrive. They both took a chance on me.

Sarah: What was your mother’s opinion?

Nani: In the back of her mind she was probably thinking, How could Nani ever thrive in a whole new country? Just before I was supposed to come to the US I crashed my parents’ shiny new car, which I’d driven without a license. My mom said, I don’t think we should let her go. I was desperate to leave and I really thought I’d sabotaged the whole thing at that point.

Besides the car crash were other factors that could have kept me in Indonesia. At that time, in 1998, the Indonesian economy was in terrible shape and there were lots of protests. The president stepped down; the US embassy closed. The dollar was three to four times higher than it had been, so studying in the US became way more expensive. I had friends who decided not to go because of that. But my brother had a good job and was prepared to pay for my tuition, have me live with him, give me pocket money.

Sarah: You ended up attending San Francisco State University. Were you already accepted there before you left home?

Nani: No. All I had was an acceptance letter to an intensive eight-week summer language school at the university called the American Language Institute. My visa was only valid for that period, so I could have been asked to go back to Indonesia. But I took the TOEFL at the end of the eight weeks and applied to the university. I met the criteria and was accepted.

Next: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 1: The Pressure to Be a Certain Type of Girl

Nani 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. This is the first in an eight-part interview I conducted with Nani.

Sarah: What’s your current position?

Nani: Currently I manage localization marketing projects for LinkedIn— primarily for the European and Latin American markets.

Sarah: Can you explain what that entails?

Nani: My team, the localization team, partners with marketers in various business units to localize their marketing content and campaigns. That means we translate and localize marketing communications into local languages. Localization requires sensitivity not just to language but also to cultural factors.

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Sarah: Help me understand the nuts and bolts of what you do.

Nani: My job comprises two major elements: active project management and relationship building. On the project management front, I make sure all the localized content is delivered on time—I build timelines, coordinate with marketing partners and vendors and manage tickets for all the projects in progress as well as our backlog.

The other part of my work is to drive strategy and plan with our partners. Localization is often thought of at the end of a marketing project, but really it should be planned for up front. Most of the content creators are based in the US and are still accustomed to thinking in terms of a US audience. But once a marketing piece—let’s say, an e-book with a really nice, polished design—has been produced in English, it’s challenging to go back in at that point and figure out how to create a parallel version in German. If the content creators are planning for localization from the beginning, it’s a lot easier.

So I engage with them early in the process and say, OK, it’s going to be hard to localize this image of San Francisco during the World Series for other markets, because it’s so specific to the San Francisco Bay Area. Or, this quote by Tori Amos might not be relevant to people in Germany or Spain. I’ll suggest they find a more globally relevant example. I’m not the final decision maker, and some teams are more receptive to feedback and changes than others. But I work hard to build relationships and stay engaged with our partners, especially the content creators.

Sarah: I’ve known you for most of your adult life, and you’ve explored a number of interests over the years. It hasn’t been a linear path. Yet looking back, it all seems to support what you’re doing currently. I see this conversation as a chance to trace your path with you. Let’s back way up. You grew up in Indonesia—where exactly?

In West Java, in Bandung, the third largest city in Indonesia.

Sixth birthday.

Sixth birthday.

Sarah: Were you thinking one day you’d move to the States?

Nani: As a child, I resisted a lot of the norms, customs, and rules around me. I couldn’t find anything to feel passionate about. I grew up in a community of Chinese Indonesians where people knew each other’s business and talk amongst themselves about the latest thing that so-and-so’s son or daughter has done.

Sarah: Were you insulated from non-Chinese Indonesians?

Nani: I went to the same school from kindergarten through high school—14 years—and about 90 percent of the students were Chinese Indonesians. I did have a couple native Indonesian friends. But as kids, we never explicitly addressed racial issues.

Seventh birthday.

Seventh birthday.

Sarah: Was there a sense in the Chinese Indonesian community of needing to stick to their own due to discrimination by the wider culture?

Nani: That’s a narrative that is real for many Chinese Indonesians. But I also think Chinese Indonesians tend to use that narrative in order to hold ourselves apart. The discrimination is real, it’s there—but sometimes, like many racial issues, the perception of discrimination is tied up with lack of openness to one another.

Maybe I was naïve, but it was very rare that I was directly discriminated against for being Chinese. That might be due in part to the fact that my skin color is darker than that of many Chinese Indonesians. Once a cousin of mine, who like me has darker skin, was out with her friends, who were all Chinese Indonesian. They were mugged by a native Indonesian. When he got to my cousin he stopped and said, I’m not going to do this to one of my own people.

Sarah: So it sounds like you didn’t feel like an outsider so much in terms of the larger culture, but you did feel that somehow you weren’t connecting. Can you tell me more about that?

Nani: I felt like I had to conform to what was expected of me, but I didn’t want to. I did very poorly in my first decade of school; I just wasn’t interested. The subjects emphasized in the Indonesian educational system are life sciences and math. I felt pressure from my parents to be like some of my cousins, who excelled in those subjects.

Eighth birthday.

Eighth birthday.

I also felt pressure from my peers and family to be a certain type of girl, very feminine and materialistic. People were wearing a lot of American brands—Guess, Esprit—they were eager to catch up with all these Western materialistic obsessions.

On the other hand, I loved watching and imitating English-language TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and a Canadian series called MacGyver, about a resourceful guy who gets himself out of crazy situations. The emotional language is so different—Indonesians don’t speak about their emotions the way people do in North America. I’d hang out by myself in my bedroom and practice talking like these characters, saying things like, “How do you feel?”

Next: Such a Bad Kid