The International Writers Magazine:Dreamscapes story about
Bruce E. Pohlmann
'Being alone is being alive, being alive is being alone
Paul Theroux, My Secret History
just another tourist, honey." Those are the first words that
I can clearly remember my father saying to me. It was during my
fifth birthday party at our family home in Singaraja, Bali. My
mother was hosting her yearly gala party for me. Of course, my
sister, Charity, was there, along with all of my cousins, aunts
and uncles, and my maternal grandparents. That crew in itself
totaled twenty-four people. But my mother really enjoys a good
party, unlike Dad who is happiest sitting in the patched up blue
dingy that he's had since I was three drifting in the coral reef
in front of our house.
So, in addition
to the family, there were all of my friends and quite a few children
from the neighborhood whom I barely knew. At least that's the way my
father tells the story. My mother insists that she only invited my very
best friends, but if I had fifty friends when I was five it was the
last time in my life. I'm a pretty friendly person, not the recluse
that my father is, but I'm not the social butterfly that my mom and
Charity are either.
Well at this party, I still remember this like it was just yesterday;
one of the kids whom I didn't know said to me, "Who is that big
white tourist?" I've always liked tourists so I turned around and
said "Dimana?" This kid, Ketut, pointed at my father and said,
"Him!" I hissed back, "Stupid, that's my dad, that's
not a tourist." Well, this kid just looked at me like I was the
one who was really stupid and said, "He's a tourist." Dad,
leaning against the whitewashed kitchen wall taking photographs of the
affair, overheard the conversation, gave the camera to my uncle, walked
slowly out of the house, and stood peering in the window at me for a
few minutes. I just stood staring back at him like he was an alien.
First he smiled in a way that I now would call bittersweet, and then
he came back in, hesitantly, tentatively, took me by the hand and led
me up the white ceramic stairs to his study, and that's when he said
those words to me. Those words pretty much changed the way that I've
viewed things since then.
In fact, they really changed the way my dad saw things after that as
well. I don't actually remember how our conversation progressed after
that, but my father has told me the story about a hundred times since
then. He actually wrote several articles about the cultural construction
of the way people see color not too long after that incident which made
him slightly famous for a short time in the anthropological community.
I insisted he was a brown person like me, actually, I didn't even have
a solid idea about skin color then, but Dad says that he told me "Look
honey I have white skin and you have brown skin. Tourists have white
skin too. I can't be an Indonesian if I have white skin. Your mom is
Indonesian, and I'm an American." I insisted that his skin was
the same color as mine and that started him on his cultural construction
of color studies which lasted, like most stuff does for Dad, until he
felt that he had solved the problem and then he just dropped it, even
though for years after he had published his articles anthropologists
who were working in Bali would show up at our house and want to discuss
his work. Dad would just shrug his head off to the side and say, "That
was then and this is now. Been there, done that." One of the favorite
sayings of my dad.
After that, Dad started teaching me English with a passion, and how
to play the old piano that he had imported from the States, and how
to recognize different instruments in Western orchestras, and how to
cook Chicago style hot dogs. I can still remember Peter and the Wolf
from those lessons, especially if I smell hot dogs and raw onions. The
familiar, metallic rhythms of gamelan music stopped dancing out of my
father's study up on the second floor of our large white house that
stood like a sentinel overlooking the Bali Sea. Opera, symphony music,
rock and roll, and blues tapes took over the section of Dad's bookcase
reserved for music. He had entered his American renaissance period.
"Amanita," he'd say, and then take a drag off a Marlboro that
he always had in his mouth, clenched between his teeth Franklin Roosevelt
style, "you're a smart girl and you have the hard but exciting
task of learning two cultures, and I'm going to show you how to live
in the Western one that you've inherited from me. Some day you'll go
to Berkeley and you'll need to know all of this esoteric knowledge that
I'm going to teach you."
None of this made much sense to me then; I had never lived anywhere
except in our house in Singaraja, and no one ever spoke anything other
than Indonesian and Balinese in our house, even my father except when
he swore. The films that we watched were made in Indonesia or India.
I had never even heard of America at that point in my short, protected
life. Dad stopped wearing sarongs and started wearing long pants when
he went out and shorts when he was home working or just hanging out
playing with Charity and me.
Well not too long after that day, Dad got a job teaching second grade
at the Jakarta International School, and we all moved to Jakarta. I
was enrolled in school and began my long struggle through the world
of the international schools. When I first entered school, I could barely
speak any English. I could count to ten and name the primary colors
and ask for food and to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but that was
about it. I have to admit that I was never a very good student at the
international schools that Dad taught at until he pulled Charity and
me out of them and started teaching us at home. I was always shy around
the white kids who spoke English like it was a durian - just gliding
off their tongues so liquid, smooth, and velvety. I've always struggled
with English, unlike Charity, who speaks it like it was her first language.
And she doesn't even like durian; she calls it "that smelly, disgusting
We lived in a three-bedroom white stucco house with a large round swimming
pool in South Jakarta. Dad's friend, Buck, shared it with us. Jakarta
was a whole new physical world for me to explore and it dovetailed into
the new emotional world that I found myself situated in. The thought
that kept occurring to me over and over was: if my Dad wasn't who I
thought he was, maybe I wasn't who I thought I was either. The move
to Jakarta brought all of that out in its worst form.
Jakarta was a lot different from Singaraja. Singaraja back in the early
1980's was just a sleepy former colonial capital. We didn't even have
sidewalks then and this was in the second largest city on the whole
island. Dokars were still more common than private cars, and while we
would occasionally see tourists down on Jalan Diponegoro, they almost
never came past our house on the beach blanketed by palm and jambu trees.
The beach road hadn't been built yet and the only way to get to our
house was to walk down along the rocky beach or squeeze through the
Even at the age of five I knew almost everybody in the neighborhood
as well as most of the merchants along Jalan Diponegoro. Jakarta was
a pulsating, throbbing, dirty city that seemed to go on forever and
ever. The ride from the airport to our new house took long enough for
Charity, and me who was only three then, to fall asleep in the back
of Buck's new Kijang. My clearest memory of my entry into Jakarta was
thinking how would I get home if I got lost.
My entry at JIS was traumatic enough that the school's counselor called
on my father and mother after the first month to discuss my seeming
inability to speak. I sat stone still on the ring-shaped vinyl couch
in our living room while this lady with whom I'd drawn pictures in her
small, cramped office, told my father that I seemed to have a learning
disability as the only thing that I had told my teacher was that I needed
to go "potty."
My father was dressed in his white slacks with sharp creases and a new
brown batik print shirt. His face flushed like it got when he and Buck
would sit around on the weekends by the pool drinking scotches. "Well,
I told Marilyn," he said so quietly that I thought he might be
whispering so that I couldn't hear, "that Amanita doesn't really
speak English yet. She's perfectly fluent in Indonesian however - well
for a five year old, that is." My mother just smiled and pulled
her skirt down towards her knees. Mom always smiled when people spoke
English because she didn't understand anything they were saying. "They
sound like birds," she often told me as I was growing up. "Don't
worry, you'll get it. You talk to your father all the time in English
at home, just don't be shy with the foreigners." Thats what
she called anybody who wasn't Indonesian - foreigners. And that's where
the second part of my problem came in. If foreigners were English speakers
and my dad spoke English, then he was a foreigner. But Mom always called
me and her and Charity Orang Indonesia. But if we were Indonesian, then
where did my father come in?
Charity, for her part, never seemed to have these problems. She had
light brown hair like my father and big brown eyes like my father and
two dimples like my father and mocha-colored skin that was the color
of my father's after he spent a summer at our family house fishing every
day in his dinghy. I have my mother's short nose, chocolate mousse complexion,
and large black eyes that hint at my Chinese maternal great-grandmother.
It wasn't until years later, when I was a student at Bali International
School that I met someone who could relate to the way I felt. Her dad,
an American, was famous for his writings on Balinese art. Dewi's mother
was from Peliatan, a village of dancers, musicians and artists. Next
to my mother, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Plus
she had this grace around foreigners that I really envied. Dewi definitely
did not have this grace. She was as awkward and self-conscious around
white kids as I was. She's just starting school at Yale now as music
major. Dewi saved me, but that really is another story.
Eventually it was decided to keep me in regular classes and get me extra
tutoring in English which my Dad ended up doing himself in order to
save money. During the four years that I went to JIS I only made one
friend and that was the daughter of our gardener who came to work with
her father every day. Ratna and I would sit out in the back by the pool
playing with the collection of teddy bears that my father always brought
home for Charity and me when he came back from a business trip out of
the country. When Ratna wasn't around to play with, I'd help my mother
in the kitchen and ask her how many more days until we had a vacation
and could go home. When Dad returned each afternoon from school, he
and Charity and I would go into the living room and he'd teach us English
using charts of vocabulary words illustrated with funny pictures that
he'd draw at night just before we'd go to bed.
I did learn English during those years in Jakarta but unlike Charity
who would then go and babble English to anyone around, I would save
my precious English words for my conversations with my father. I always
felt like I was speaking to someone else, someone different from me,
someone other, when I spoke to the white teachers and kids at school.
Dad was still Dad even if he was a foreigner. Our conversations were
always held in English, except when we had a non-Indonesian speaking
guest and Dad was mad at Charity or me. Then he would scold us in Indonesian
in a really quiet voice that told us without even having to listen to
what he was saying that he was really upset.
After Jakarta, we moved on to Suryabaya for a few years, and then a
few more years at Medan in Sumatra, and finally on to the international
school in Bali where I completed eighth grade. As there was no high
school in Bali, my father was left with the dilemma of what to do with
me. He had already sailed past the age when he had always said he wanted
to retire, but Charity had only just completed sixth grade and tuition
at Bali International was expensive. Dad decided to put in two more
years so that Charity could finish eighth grade there. He enrolled me
in a home schooling course through an organization in California. After
Charity finished eighth grade my father retired from teaching at the
age of fifty-five and devoted himself to giving Charity and me the best
high school education possible. My friends all thought that it was great
that Charity and I didn't have to attend regular school classes, but
we knew the real story. My father not only taught us the required courses
as set out by the home schooling organization, but he also taught us
his own required "electives" as he called them. So in addition
to Math, English, Science, and Social Studies, he also taught us courses
on Anthropology, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Drama, Marine Biology
and Computer Science.
Our friends wondered why we spent more time studying than they did when
we didn't even have to go to school, and it was hard to explain to them
just what my father was up to. For that matter, sometimes it was hard
for me to figure out what he was doing. The transformation from whom
I had been to what I was going to be had already taken hold; I just
didn't know it yet. Charity reveled in her difference; she'd flirt with
Indonesians and foreigners. I'd stay in the background quiet and watchful,
never wanting to be noticed for being someone different.
When I arrived in California to begin my studies at Berkeley, it was
hot. The intensity of the heat surprised me and made it seem even hotter
than it actually was. My aunt picked me up at the airport and drove
me out to her house in Albany, a little town filled with university
people just to the north of Berkeley. Aunt Virginia had a small two-bedroom
ranch style house just north of Solano Avenue. The streets were wide
and drenched in sun. Each yard was neatly trimmed with bright green
grass and small, sculpted trees. Street numbers were stenciled in black
and white on the curbs in front of each house. I wondered how my father
felt living here in this orderly town for so many years, and how he
survived the leap to the disorder of Bali. When my mother came back
from her first trip to America with my father, I asked her what it was
like and she just used one word rapi (orderly).
I hadn't seen Aunt Virginia in the five years since she and my cousins
had come to Bali for a visit. When I stumbled out of the customs area
at the airport, I staggered right past her like I was trapped in a dream
even though I could hear her calling, "Amanita, Amanita!"
I'd expected her to look older than she did, but she had this veil of
serenity like life hadn't fazed her at all. I thought that it's very
Indonesian, and as I was thinking that, I was wondering what is "Indonesian"
anyway. Am I "Indonesian" or is my sister who never says a
sentence that doesn't have at least one English word in it, or is my
mother who has the Imeda Marcos shoe fetish and goes to Singapore every
July for the sales on shoes and then sits out on the seawall in front
of our house slurping up bakso in stiletto shoes and a sarong?
My week with Aunt Virginia is pleasant but enervating. Every morning
there is a huge breakfast with eggs and toast and fruit (she must think
that we all eat like tourists in Bali), she takes me on drives to check
out interesting sights in the Bay Area. We go to campus to check on
my dorm room (which will be ready and available on schedule - I'm sure
not in Bali anymore), and I stand in line to sign up for courses. I
sign up for Anthropology 3 - Cultural Anthropology - taught by one of
my father's old students who is now a famous anthropologist. I wonder
if he would remember my father who taught him once almost twenty-five
years ago for a semester. My aunt asks me why I've signed up for an
anthropology course since I'm planning on being an architect, and I
tell her that I just wanted to see what the course would be like. Of
course she knows that it has something to do with my father, her brother,
the reclusive intellectual, but she lets it slide and I feel really
good about her then like I could share some things later on and she
would probably understand them.
The week passes quickly, and I move into my dorm in Barrington Hall.
Even though I've been there three times with my aunt, now that I'm alone
waiting for my roommate to show up, the place seems tired and depressing.
The tan walls need to be painted and seem dull compared to the brilliant
white of our walls in the beach house in Singaraja. In spite of the
Lysol odor drifting in from the corners of the room, I can smell the
scent of the last inhabitants. I wait anxiously; pacing, opening and
closing the two small widows, until midnight, but my roommate never
does show up. I drift off to a tense sleep; this is the first time in
my life that I've ever slept in a room by myself. I wake up at three
a.m., and then again at five a.m. I miss the surf pounding on the sea
wall in front of our house. Later, the alarm wakes me up at seven, and
I shower and put on my new jeans and the rainbow tee shirt that Dad
designed that says SINGARAJA, BALI, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. I stride over
to Kroeber Hall for my first lecture in cultural anthropology. It's
warm already even though it's only eight o'clock; clusters of students
lounge around the fountain in front of Kroeber Hall guzzling coffee
out of large Styrofoam cups. I push open the two glass doors and head
for the lecture hall.
The class is slow, the professor is overly witty, and most of the time
is spent dealing with the details of the course. I glance at the syllabus
that has been passed out at the start of the class. The reading list
is extensive, but I only see the name Robinson: two articles on the
construction of color on the island of Bali. The other readings fade
into the recesses of my consciousness. Only later do I see Mead, Bateson,
Geertz, Boon, and Barth. My father has mentioned all of them, and I
have read most of their works on Bali. I have my first section with
the graduate T.A. immediately following this lecture. I'm panicked.
Should I go, should I drop the course now and see if I can sign up for
beach volleyball? My father's voice is there pounding: play out all
I shuffle out of class with the other three hundred students and make
my way to the discussion section that is also held in Kroeber Hall.
A tall, angular man, probably not much older than me is standing nervously
in front of the class. He coughs a few times and smiles. He is blond
and Nordic; silky corn yellow curls ring his tanned forehead. Charity
would go crazy for him. It seems as if I have seen him somewhere before,
and I puzzle over this as he calls off the names of the students in
the section. They all respond. It's an automatic thing. When he reaches
my name, he pauses for a second, looks around the classroom, fixes on
my tee shirt and stares at me. It's more than a second, and everyone
else in class looks back at me slumped in the last seat in the farthest
corner. "Amanita Robinson," he says slightly confused. "Yes,"
I answer, blushing madly. He pauses for another moment, and then finishes
the list. He launches into his beginning spiel. His gaze continues to
fix on me; he seems to be speaking purely from memory with no thought
as to what he's saying. The other students keep glancing back to see
what hes staring at. My tee shirt feels damp, and I want to be
back on the beach in Singaraja where I know Charity is sitting with
my cousins eating bakso and gossiping about boys, enveloped in the coolness
of the midnight sky; a heartful of stars punctuating their dreamy talk.
"We'll be spending a lot of this course discussing the island of
Bali in Indonesia. I know no one has had time to read the literature
for the course, but has anyone any comments that they'd like to make
before the course begins." His gaze becomes even more intense than
before. I sink lower in my seat, continuing to blush madly with the
strains of Peter and the Wolf and the smell of Chicago-style hot dogs
overwhelming my senses.
© Bruce Pohlmann Ph.D.
few words about myself. I am a teacher in an international school in
Sumbawa, Indonesia. I was originally trained as an anthropologist many
years ago. I have been living in Indonesia and Pakistan for the past
15 years. I have been the editor of The Papers of the Kroeber Anthropological
Society and Iteachnet magazine (an ezine for educators). I have published
several travel articles for Escape from America magazine.
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