Racism, Rihanna, and the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia

I haven’t written on this blog much since moving to Indonesia. The short answer is because I’ve been busy and low-level depressed (when I’m sad I don’t really write). The long answer is because I’ve come to fully realize that I’m not a fan of Indonesia. I was raised to not say anything at all if you don’t have anything nice to say, so I figured that extended to an entire cultural experience too.

Then, something happened last night that made me say f*** it. I’m going to write, and let the cards fall where they may.

Indonesia, you have some work to do. 
Let me start at the beginning.

A co-worker and great friend invited me to the Java Jazz Festival back in August. After she blocked my attempt to cancel on her at the last minute, I found myself in an hour plus cab ride across town. We arrived at the venue and watched two female performers–Michelle Walker and Candy Dulfer–perform amazing sets  that left me bubbling with excitement and gratitude.

“Thank you for having me come,” I kept saying to my friend as we walked around sampling sets, looking at the merchandise for sale, and just enjoying that Jakarta had something to offer besides traffic and pollution.

In my mind, I was already crafting the blog post that would be convincing people to attend the Java Jazz Fest. I was already raving to my friend and fellow blogger Sojourner’s Sojourns. I was already planning my return for next year.

My friend and I sauntered outside to hail a cab that would not try to take every last rupiah we had in our pockets (i.e., a Blue Bird Taxi) when it came from a group of men around my age.


I turn. My black body in a black dress is facing the men.

“What did you say?”

Silence greets me.

“What happened?” my friend asks, appearing at my shoulder. She had been walking ahead of me and didn’t hear a word.

“They said banana. As in the fruit. As in monkey. Stupid ass motherfuckers,” I snap loudly as we walk away.

We continue walking, and I begin to doubt myself. Could it have been something else? Did one from the group really just try to insult me in my own damn language then go dead quiet when I called the coward on it? 

And this is what racism is like now.  People aren’t KKK-bold nowadays, and that’s a good thing. A great thing. A necessary thing. Let me be clear on that.

What people do now is wait until you’re the only one who can bear witness to your experience to hurl something at you. Then, when you try to explain it to others who are non-white, non-OTHER some quibbling, qualifiying, hemming and hawing  occurs.

Maybe they meant…

Maybe you heard…

Maybe they just…

I get stared at here too.

I’m a foreigner here just like you too.


I heard banana.


I’ve experienced the stares, pointing, and laughing while you’ve experienced the stares of awe and veneration.


I’ve had pre-teens run and scream yelling “Black.”


I will not keep explaining away other people’s ignorance any more.

I will not accept that a group of men who have the audacity to sit outside a festival celebrating a musical genre that my people created, jazz, then have the audacity to turn around yell something racist at a Black person who is not performing. 

My blood bubbled, and I dreamed of flipping over tables, throwing drinks in faces, cursing the group out loudly in English and not giving a damn about the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman.

Sometimes She needs to arrive in Full Glory.

Instead, I walked away and cursed because I’ve never been an aggressor; because I know that the odds are stacked against me when attacking a local in his country; because I know I’m dealing with a highly corrupt police force and government; because I can’t speak the language.

So what could I do?

I could go home and wash my face and lie in bed and decide to call my mom in the morning about it all because I needed a night to process it on my own. I could continue with my refusal to learn the language as a defense mechanism against whatever taunts (and compliments) that are tossed my way on my daily walk to and from school.

At 5 AM I was up and on the phone with my mom.

And what I’ve come to realize as Trump embarrassingly wins my country over with his vitriol and racism is that the Myth of the Model Asian Minority has people shocked when I say I’m not having a good time here.

Model Asians are respectful.

Model Asians do well in school.

Model Asians keep their heads down and work hard.

Model Asians are always polite.

So what do you mean you don’t find the people friendly and respectful? What do you mean you enjoyed a Latino country that’s on the brink of imploding more than an Asian country that’s on the brink of entering the world stage?

What do you mean to not allow the Model Asian minority stereotype to blind you to the reality of what it is really like to be abroad in Asia?

Model Asians are Asians who are people who have egos just like you and me.

Model Asians don’t want to feel like they’re at the bottom of the totem pole just like the poor White redneck stereotype from the US doesn’t want to either.

And just like that Redneck, Model Asians have learned to turn up their noses at the Black Body.

It’s why White men can repeatedly admit to me here that they can see the White man is God here while Black women look at me to reaffirm my own humanity.

I’m done pretending.

I’m here to pay off my student loan debts, save for a sizable down payment on a house, and increase my professional opportunities.

I’m done with trying to be open.

I have friends back home encouraging me to remain open. I’ve never been the one to act like a colonizer with the “I’m living here but I am not of here mentality,” but it’s hard.

My physical body is out more here in Indonesia because crime is low, but my spirit is shut up tight. I guard it with a fierceness that surprises me. I wear The Mask.

And, finally, I’m willing to admit that publicly.

My book club’s amazing discussion about Between the World and Me has encouraged me to do so; Donald Trump’s ascent in my home country has encouraged me to do so; my pride, my people, my history has encouraged me to do so.

So, expect more posts from me soon.

People may want me to feel like my Black Body does not deserve to be in certain spaces, but I am here.

I am planning my future trips because I will not allow discomfort to keep me from seeing  the world’s beauty.

I will return for two nights to next year’s Java Jazz Festival, and I will be me.

Until then, I keep braiding my hair and allowing my hair dresser to add beads (which I never did in the States) to mark my tresses’ and my own presence. I will blast Rihanna’s latest single “Work” while running on the treadmill and dare someone to accept my race’s performers and all the contributions we’ve made to society but not me.

I will be bold.

I will be unapologetically Black in all of its myriad of manifestations because America has work to do, and Indonesia has work to do, and humans have work to do.

And I’m here to work.


10 thoughts on “Racism, Rihanna, and the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia

  1. I stumbled upon your blog by accident. I’m truly sorry that you have to experience that. I have to admit that most Asian countries are still very racist, including Indonesia. Their obsession about whiteness can be seen every where. It is absolutely unthinkable at this century. They are even discriminating their own people who have darker skin. I was told once if only I was lighter I would look pretty. I’m not kidding! Thank God my parents were educated about that kind of stuff. I’m hoping that your stay in Indonesia will be beneficial to others knowing that you are beautiful. Greetings from Minnesota.

    • Hi Sastri, thanks for coming to the blog. I appreciate your honesty and openness about the obsession with whiteness that can be found in many Asian countries. I was and am still floored by that. I remember landing in Hoi An, Vietnam where the airport restroom had soap with bleaching agents in it. I’m happy that your parents did know more than to teach you that darker skin was somehow less than. Colorism issues like this happen in the Black community too, so we as people of color still have some work to do. Thank you for hoping for my beautiful stay here in Indonesia. I wish you the same in Minnesota!

  2. Thank you for sharing such an honest post. Teachers are too often expected to only say positive things, but I’ve always preferred the truth. I really hope that the rest of your stay there will be free of assholes like that and that you can find more fun events like that jazz fest to keep yourself occupied while you save your money. Hugs from Venezuela!
    -Amanda at https://teachingwanderlust.com

    • It’s true! We as teachers have to be too-PC at times. I’ll avoid publicly criticizing my places of employment (at least while employed there anyways), but this??? Something had to be said. I do have some other trips around Jakarta that I’m looking forward to, so I’ll keep my head up. How’s everything in Venny?

      • Oh Venezuela! The exchange went above 1100, now malls are closing early if they don’t have generators because we are trying to conserve electricity, they raised the gas price so now you need to pay 200-300bs to fill your tank, and it seems like teachers are losing water and electricity more often. Same old, same old.

  3. Reading about the repeated indignities and blatant racism you have had to deal with since you arrived in southeast Asia has changed my view of that part of the world considerably. It’s also go me worrying about you a lot! While the anger you express in this post is probably more positive than the depression you’ve mentioned in earlier ones, it is heartbreaking that an experience that should have been exhilarating has included so much negativity.
    What I find so captivating about you and about this blog is the pleasure and comfort you are able to find in nature, art, and a good meal! Your strength and resilience are truly inspiring. Please keep writing about the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. I will keep reading and worrying!
    Sending love and NY attitude – Maureen

    • Hi Ms. Meltzer! Yes, I’ve never felt like such an Other more than I have in this region of the world. It’s really Indonesia. I felt better in Cambodia and Vietnam (which I’m sure has to do with Black US Servicemen being in the region with the Vietnam War). Once I finish my time here I highly doubt that I’ll ever choose to come back to this region of the world again.

      The support, love, and NY attitude that you and others send my way help the sad times to not be as deep and the happy times to be even better! It’s weird because I’m getting a huge cultural experience with a very rich and complex culture (like ours all are), but I’m just…keeping a distance too. I have this dichotomy where I can’t believe I’m living such an incredible opportunity that will definitely affect how I live when I return to the States, but there are its caveats.

      You are absolutely right though! Nature, art, and food make me smile every time! I’ll keep writing, Ms. Meltzer, and you know we’ll be in touch!

  4. Wow. This was powerful. I don’t know jack about Indonesia but I do know that idiots asshikes and racists have no borders. Sorry you had this experience but glad you are able to be reaffirmed in your blackness and stand tall despite it all.

    • I love your phrasing because you’re absolutely right. Idiots and ignorant people have no borders. I’m glad I’m still moving forward too. I need to continue to document my experience while abroad because more of us need to travel. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  5. Pingback: I’m Back… | (Im)Migrating with a Purpose

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