I Swam

“Indonesian social interaction consists of boxes of utmost rigidity: either you’re in or you’re out; either you belong or you don’t. There is no overlap.”

ITB's swimming pool
ITB’s swimming pool

Yesterday I went swimming.

It was a beautiful morning and my blue velvet Creative Zen Stone Plus MP3 player was thankfully playing upbeat, cheery tunes. Consequentially my head was bopping to-and-fro as I strolled the chapped pavements of Bandung streets. The piercing rays of early sun were wispy; partially barricaded by the nodding formation of tree leaves and branches above. Dust hadn’t taken its toll on the air; still faint remnants of the dawn’s dew.

Approaching the courts of SARAGA, the sound of blaring dangdut music perforated my humble headsets (despite the volume of my Zen Stone being set at 70%). A pack of white-shirted folks were doing communal physical exercise – or, senam, as we Indonesians call it; always identical to that of Friday mornings and the chime of phrases (especially that of Suharto’s and Megawati’s) like gotong royong or kebugaran jasmani rohani. People with tattered army-green jackets seemed to fence the exercising crowd, while the gesture leader at the front part of the pack chose the precise moment when I walked approaching the pack to kick up two notches the dangdut feel of the music. Which meant the beginning of a song thumping at the depths of Ciburuy, no longer a fairly-more-civilized Tegallega. The exercising people shouted (or, perhaps, forced to) a slightly slurred form of ‘asyik’, as their hands gibberishly moved in unison into multiple semi-dancing poses, trying to follow the lead of the ‘mantab’ instructor upfront. Laughter flickered from time to time, I guess targeted at their own clumsy géols. At this point, I was climbing the long and slippery staircase leading to the 2nd-story swimming pool, shedding the t-shirt and the jeans towards only sporting black, elongated swimming trunks, and approached the terrace of the pool to get a better bird’s-eye-view of the people exerdancing awkwardly down below.

By the almost-lethal choice of their exercise music, I would’ve had guessed that the bunch I had seen earlier were people from a random nearby public office, trying to make-believe that they had do something worthwhile in their morning by shedding baked perspirations a droplet of two – because of morning warmth, I’d tell ya, not the moves. Some office like TELKOM or Dinas-whatever with gossip-mongering packs of ladies-in-veils, their semi-obese figure wrapped in cappuccino safaris; alongside a troop of boisterous, flabby men sporting outdated moustaches that you can never talk professionally with. Pardon my description. That was my earlier guess. Apparently, the white-shirts at the dance-exercise belong to and worn by young ITB students of 2008. The tattered army-green jackets are himpunan jackets, worn by the department’s students of earlier classes. The sport-like activity (which in that case barely managed to twitch any muscles, I presumed) was a part of department orientation (ospek prodi) normally commenced at this time of the year.

At the pool’s terrace, my viewing was momentarily uninterrupted as my gaze was fixed on some cuties, and I ended up witnessing the very end of the ‘exerdance’ scene. After four minutes, however, the abhorrent song ended (bored faces and even more uninterested movements were vivid anyway after several repetition of the song’s chorus, which sounded mostly like ‘Aduh, abang cakep banget…’). As expected of this sort of seniority-display, the strain of command started. It all went from a ‘take your bag!’. Then a ‘move it!’, which is a weird order since the last order had just been given two seconds ago. How do you yell a ‘move it!’, which supposedly indicates that the pack is moving too slow, when it had just been two or three seconds of taking bags? Then a classic ‘line up in 6 lines!’. I think the strain of ‘exchange’ – briskly put – that commenced afterwards was an interesting item to observe, albeit the classic nothing-new-about-it.

Instructor (an army-green-coated senior): “How was the exercise?”

Juniors (white-shirts, black trackpants, films of sweat on their skins; some were gulping mineral water through bottles, some were fumbling with their bags’ zippers): *a choir of sheepish chuckle*

Instructor (in a clever, practiced, irrefutable, flamboyant-yet-subtle scoff): “It was fun, wasn’t it?”

Juniors (their scoffing-back hushed as their mental eyes leered at the omnipresent wall of jacketed, sour-faced, seniority-glazed guardian forces surrounding them): *cooing uniformly* “Yeeeeeees…”

Instructor: “Great. This is for the sake of your own good.”

And then the instructor continued with the babble about all the ordinary blah stuffs: class-cohesion (put down-to-earthly: ‘kekompakan’), group’s effort (read: ‘kerjasama’), the future of ITB students. These talks over a ragged sound-system were all over the air, painting an obnoxious graffiti in blood-red. The pack was dismissed with minimum drama, the raven-haired cutie left, and I plunged into the pool water with lemon-green swimming goggles equipped.


“If you wannabe my lover,
you gotta get with my friends!”
Spice Girls

Under the chlorinated water, my head spins. I was bedazzled at the extent to which ospek is so much a comfortable, inherent part of student’s life. I have never been a big fan of seniors yelling at their juniors, and I never come to comprehend why it is so popular. Yesterday my non-peasant friend Pandu told me that a student died post-ospek. The mortality was apparently not directly caused by the activity nor the system applied in the ospek. What I’m marveled at is not the direct/indirect causal link, but at the close proximity in which harm and ospek stand side-to-side. Amid breaststrokes, I tried to reason. Why is ospek such a socially important thing to exist? Why is it particularly favored in Indonesia but not in places with strong academic culture? Does ospek contribute to uni student’s excellence?

Perhaps the answer for the last question is no, and the question itself bears such a huge, abstract scope of which measurement will be tiring, if not failing, in accordance to acknowledging the massively multifaceted aspects of ‘excel’. What would be an important part in analyzing ospek would be the concept of identity: how is identity formed in the psyche of an Indonesian society. During my third-year, I took a pre-thesis Seminar class which resulted in a semester-long analytical paper about Spice Girls and the gravitation of personal identity within their collective state. What I understood from this study is how individual identity and collective identity are two sides of the spectrum, magnetizing each particles into either fronts.

Spice Girls is a very unique collective entity. They are one of the few groups that empower the individual/personal identities of each personnel through nicknames, video-clip plots and designs, vocal character, and their songs’ lyrics. In reflection of ospek, and, more generally, Indonesia, fighting for individual identity is a losing battle. Individual identity consists of one’s power to set up their own sets of trait and to pursue an acknowledgement as such. The power of self-defining is ideally reciprocal with the society’s capability of recognition and positive interaction. When it takes two to play, then in Indonesia obviously a massive and dominant part is incapable of participating. Beings are defined by their labels, and there’s always a set of role assigned to each labeled individuals. Worse, usually these labels take the most obvious, visual, and simplified forms, and these labels are as much confining for the objects (although many fails to see its confining bars and concurs with the whole process) as they are taken for granted. Like animals, ‘male’ (defined as a jingle-jangle crotch, a diamond-shaped, fruity horn on their necks [rather baritone], flat-chested; with its derivatives being ‘men’, ‘boys’, and ‘husband’) have to play the patriarch: the economic spine, the physical shield, the non-emotional, the short-haired, the ‘macho’; just like dogs are supposed to bark and bite. Like cattle, ‘female’ (defined by a hearty bosom and curvy figure; and derived into ‘girls’, ‘women’, and ‘wife’) are demanded (and at many stupid instances, demanding themselves perceived) to be the weaker: the protected-for, the paid, the ornamented, the crying; just like cats are supposed to purr. Someone ‘Islam’ would be expected to go to mosques, pray, wear Arabian attire (gamis or veils), looking a bit like an Afghan every single day with the beards and all. This hasn’t even begun in a description of what race you are a part of (you are expect to wear kebaya or do siraman in your wedding if you are Javanese/Sundanese; a glittery, 5kgs of palace over your tiara if you’re Sumatran).

What is important, at least from what I saw in my Indonesian life, is to acknowledge which group you are a part of and then behave the way the group demands you to. In a group of Muslim people you have to believe in prayers (and it is very important for the group to actively oust you when you shed a doubt about it). In a group of Sundanese family you have to believe in processions of lamaran and all (and it is very important for the group to actively oust you when you even consider not doing it, accepting you back only if you agree back). In a group of public office, you have to believe in mismanagement (and it is very important for the group to actively oust you when you refuse to communally corrupt). In a himpunan, you have to believe in seniority (and it is very important for the group to actively oust you when you even dare to speak up on the values of meritocracy). Indonesian social interaction consists of boxes of utmost rigidity: either you’re in or you’re out; either you belong or you don’t. There is no overlap. It is amazing to see that there is nothing such as personal identity or collective identity. There is only one identity: that of your group’s. Violation means ostracism.

Collective identity takes its toll not only towards the behavior of the dominant, but also towards a very vast area of education. In primary schools, students who speak up are stigmatized by peers, and incredibly worse, by teachers and facilitators, as a big-mouthed showoff. I recall an incident in my primary school. A student stood up and asked the teacher why the reading assignment was 20-pages long. The student commented that it was too long. The teacher furiously called the student upfront, shouting to the fearfully-standing kid how indolent he was, and smacked the kid’s hand with a ruler. My sister told me another story of a Geography teacher who ordered the students to form groups and make, in a course of two days, PowerPoint presentations about a specific Asian countries. The requirements for the presentation were quite heavy: it has to envelop details like economic activity and growth, independence history, even including the country’s arts and modern culture. When the assignment’s due, the teacher nonchalantly announced that the assignment would not be taken and marked as it’s supposed to be European countries, not Asian. Obviously, the class was furious as they spent energy and sacrificed many late-night hours to finish the ornate PowerPoint slides. One of my sister’s classmates stood up and said that it is unfair. To her surprise (and mine and yours too, I presume) the teacher considered the accusation as so rude and disrespectful that she decided, not only to dismiss a classful of PowerPoint slides, but also to ban my sister’s friend from forming groups for her European country presentation and awarded her with some minus point on her scorebook. These two stories sounds perfectly similar to the antics of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series.

Sadly, there are many Snapes in Indonesian schools, families, or any other places. These stories invite us to snicker and laugh at how unbelievably stupid these teachers are. However I find ospek perfectly similar. If someone stands up and claim that the assignment’s too heavy or one treatment/punishment is unfair (let alone opinionating something like ‘I think what we’re doing is ridiculous’); three or more seniors will come approaching intimidatingly and start bombarding the standing kid with shouts, mockery, and twisted logic. At the terrace of SARAGA pool, viewing a pack of juniors standing stupidly, I imagined what would happen if someone said that the dancing was stupid or pointless. I imagined what would happen if one kid stood up and said that it wasn’t fun. I believe what would happen was that that kid would be pulled aside and ‘terrorized’ by seniors.

“Masih anak bawang aja udah belagu!”


A perfectly skewed horizon at Saraga, ITB
A perfectly skewed horizon at Saraga, ITB

“I don’t need your authority
Down with the moral majority
‘Cause I want to be the minority”
Green Day

Why are speaking up and asking logical questions hated in ospek? How come I never witness a culture of ospek that positively encourages and invite participants to discuss things and speak up? The reason might be because speaking up means differentiating yourself with the rest of the bunch. It is not collectively cohesive: other people stay hushed while you’re blabbering.

What’s interesting is how precise ospek reflects the larger picture of Indonesian society. My female friend describes herself as a bitch. Thankfully not for ill, sex-invested reasons, but rather because she doesn’t like beating it around the bush. If she disagrees with something, her verbal expression empowers no censors: word-guns like ‘you’re such a hypocrite’ or ‘I don’t need to explain. You’re not smart enough to understand anyway’ spew regularly from between her lips, under her stoic gaze. The consequence of being straightforward is that my friend has to suffer some sort of ostracism from the female friends: my friend is not being ‘nice’ enough. And this is relatively mild. A Muslim saying ‘I don’t like to pray’ would receive horrible amount of judgment and negative rejection coming even from strangers at large. The harsh admonitions and judgments fall because all of these are higher authority: morality, religion, social norms. There should never be statements of overlapping things; there should never be questions asked towards higher authority. Being rebellious is ‘not cohesive’ and thus destructive. And as this goes, the idea that the rebel of mind sometimes lead towards the best changes and the most influential progress struggles, as it is drowning, to even breathe air above surface. The fear of rebellion and championing higher-authority too much is perhaps one of the more prominent factors why Indonesia is so resistant to changes and tolerance towards ethnic and religious minority is very difficult to spew. If Ahmadiyah speaks up about their rights, it’s a disruption. If brave-hearted movie makers create something challenging like ‘Perempuan Berkalung Sorban’, it’s a moral corruption (perhaps even without challenging the ground of morality: whether it has been obsolete or not). Judgment (that something/someone is morally corrupt, destructive to the higher authority, and rebellious beyond belief) falls quicker than understanding. Just as in ospek, judging an outspoken kid as ‘tengil’ or ‘belagu’ comes much quicker than considering whether he/she really has a point or not.

I actually have another point regarding race, but I’ll refrain for now. The last cosmic talk I relished throughout the time I spent in the pool is when I stood near this swimming couple and heard this exchange:

Boy: If we have a very big swimming pool…
Girl: *nodding vigorously* uh-huh…?
Boy: Like, a veeeerrryyy big one!
Girl: Okay…
Boy: A very big one that can fit planet Neptune in, Neptune will be afloat, since Neptune is a gas planet that has a smaller density than water.
Girl: ……

Me: *flabbergasted, freestyled forcefully away from that side of the pool.


Today I swam too. Too bad it wasn’t as interesting and mind-evoking as yesterday. The only thing I got from today’s swimming is sunburns, some gallons of tang-flavored pool water accidentally gulped in, consequentially some terrible choked coughs, and shower stall curtain being brushed into exposure by reckless strangers.

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