What We’re Reading

Part of trying to prepare ourselves for life overseas means doing research, learning history and other things that could help us make better sense of where we’re going. I don’t know about y’all, but Southeast Asian history was touched rather lightly (ie not at all!) in my education. Even my undergraduate studies in history never got east of Italy, really. So I have a lot to learn.

My first foray in this regard is an unusual little book called Smiles in Indonesia. Published in 1974 it’s a fascinating collection of short essays from an observer of the changes in Indonesian culture – as well as some of the things that didn’t change when the Dutch relinquished control in 1949 as well as in the political upheavals of the 1960’s. The topics are varied, the tone light and somewhat self-deprecatory. It is a book that above all cherishes those nuances of Indonesian culture that might terrify or confuse others.

But it isn’t a history book, nor is it very contemporary in observations. So I’ve moved on to another book I picked up a short time ago at a used bookstore, only to find it after the fact it was highly recommended to my wife by another foreigner living in Indonesia. Indonesia, Etc. : Exploring the Improbably Nation was published in the last decade by a woman who has lived in the country off and on since the 1980’s. Similar to the first book, the author clearly loves and marvels at the intrepidness of this upstart nation, but is trained also to be critical and analytical, and is not afraid of sharing her opinions, observations, interpretations and experiences even when they may be less than flattering. However this is always done in the larger tone of love for the country despite the flaws and shortcomings it suffers from.

Her writing style is engaging and certainly different from the bemused generality of the first author. She starts off with a good overview of Indonesian history up to the early 2000’s. Again, her style is engaging and she teaches in broad brushstrokes so you don’t get lost in the minutiae. Whether her interpretations are accurate is something I’m not able to judge yet, but I appreciate her for offering them and hopefully giving us (Gena is reading it as well) some deeper insights into this country we may soon be calling our home!

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