"So if I am able to preserve this writing of mine…I would like you to give it the title 'House of Glass.'"

Autonomy: A Younger Break in Java

There are so many things I want to share with you about Java.

The teenage years in American culture are a mad search for autonomy. It comes in milestones: the driver’s license, a few opportunities and technical changes at 18, followed shortly by college. It is granted to children sparingly and comes in large, inevitable doses later.

This restriction of autonomy at a young age is not universal. Jared Diamond – famous for Guns, Germs, and Steel; the World is Flat; and Collapse – has written a new book about differences, with some attention to childhood autonomy, between his homeland of the U.S.A. and his his research domain of New Guinea. Some of the stories he told in a recent radio conversation could have come from Java. The most striking example was of a twelve year old boy who volunteered to be Diamond’s guide through the jungle for a week long trek. The boy offered his services because they were needed, informed nobody of his plans, and did not bother with preparations. He was competent and nobody fretted over his whereabouts. I often picture my reader as my mother, so I imagine the words “irresponsible” or “horrifying” currently come to mind. I am a twenty-five year old American male serving in the Peace Corps in Java, and my mom still ends some of our conversations with, “Call us or e-mail us when you get there,” etci. You can see the contrast.

The point of this post is not to argue that degrees of autonomy in one particular culture are better than another. I’ll let Jared Diamond provide that analysis and discuss how it relates to child-rearing practices. What I do want to do is share an example of how autonomous the youth can be in Java. There is so much I haven’t shared with you about Java. There are so many observations I take for granted now. So many things that I once found strange. So many things that are now normal.ii I could tell you about kids with fireworks or mobs of children roaming streets unchaperoned; but instead, I’ll share with you the life of a Javanese student.

Javanese students break away from their parents long before U.S. students. It’s not uncommon for kids to study at high-schools and even sometimes junior high-schools thirty kilometers or more from their parents and spend the school week, which is six days in Indonesia, at a boarding house. Sometimes the boarding house is a part of the school. It might also be referred to as a pondok or pesantren, which indicates that there is an extracurricular emphasis on Islam. My school is currently building a pondok on our campus. Other times, the boarding house is just a family with empty rooms. The culture is so prevalent that you’d be hard pressed to walk down a street in this country without seeing a sign that says, “Terima Kost,” “Kost Putri,” or “Kost Putra” – all of which would be equivalent to “boarding house” signage in English. There are several unmarked homes in between these that also accept boarders. My house, for example, has no such label yet has accepted me and a student at my school as semi-permanent residents. The kost culture is quite convenient when I have to explain my living situation to people in Indonesia. Saya tinggal sama keluarga kost, and it’s instantly understood that I didn’t bring a family over here, and I didn’t marry into an Indonesian family. I’m a boarder.

One of my students, for example, has been a boarder since junior high-school – seventh grade. She lived with her aunt for three years as a junior high student while attending a school that was about forty kilometers away – over an hour in travel time here. Now, as a senior high-school student, she lives in a boarding house thirty kilometers away from home. For the past six years, she sees her parents once a week – at most. I asked how often she talks to her parents, via call or SMS. The answer wasn’t hard to anticipate: “Oh, no Pak Jay, never.” There are many, many other students like her.

The only chance I ever had of living with my aunt during junior or senior high-school was if both my parents and all of their close friends died tragically. One student at my own high-school was from a couple of hours away but lived locally under his elder, married sister. His experience was looked at as somewhat extraordinary. It was also born out of unusual circumstance. Another friend of mine who moved to Ontario in fifth grade attended a school that required high-school seniors to live on-campus as preparation for the college transition. It was not the norm.

At one point in time, I was shocked by the geographic spread of my students. What? You’re from where? Glenmore? Tegaldrimo? Pesanggaran? Aren’t there schools there?iii To clarify the legal setting, there are no school districts to restrict students to certain political areas. The system is just different, but the real root of the kost culture is the autonomy granted to children. My students still feel the pressure from and responsibility to their parents (at least my aforementioned student does); they just don’t live with them.

Jared Diamond argues this sort of culture amongst other examples makes kids here better decision makers. I wont comment on this; I don’t have enough evidence or feeling to say if I believe that or not. But I can’t stop thinking about the first night I moved into Humbert Hall as a freshman in college. My dad was there – some 2,000 km from home, like a good American, I guessiv – to help me move in, and we were greeted by another freshman stumbling drunk down the staircase. It was the kid’s first chance to be ‘free’ (presumably), and he didn’t make it to the end of the first semester.


iLove you, Mom!

iiNice writing by Tim.

iiiIn some cases, you could argue there ‘aren’t’ schools. There’s always a non-relgious high-school available, but a Madrasah education is growing more and more popular in Indonesia. New Madrasahs aren’t opening at a fast enough pace. Thus, a kid in Glenmore that wants to go to a Madrasah has no local options. Then there’s the issue of quality, which parents might not be satisfied with locally.

ivThanks Dad! Wouldn’t have made it there without you.


4 responses

  1. Sharla

    Once again an interesting and educational read. Sharla

    2013 February 6 at 14.08

  2. John Wellik

    Interesting and insightful commentary. And, you’re welcome.

    2013 February 6 at 15.51

  3. Love you too, Jay! Be careful, have fun!–Mom

    2013 February 7 at 04.52

  4. Karen

    Ditto to Sharla’s response… another great post. Karen

    2013 February 7 at 16.41

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