First Impressions

By Prodita Sabarini | 2013/14 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

September 24, 2013

It’s been three weeks since I left the smog filled Jakarta. I am staying in the quaint New England city of Cambridge, but I first landed in Washington, D.C.

As I step into America’s capital, at once felt a sense of gravity in the city. As a journalist, I try to not be easily swayed by prominence. Famous people are nothing more than human beings; famous things are nothing more than objects, I often say to myself. I take pictures of people I interview, but very rarely — I think I can count only two or three occasions — where I take pictures with them, however famous they are. But, as I walked past the White House, with the American flag flapping on a pole on the roof, a sign that Barack Obama is in the house, I have to admit, I felt excited to be in the same city as he was. I couldn’t resist; I took a picture of myself in front of the White House.

It must be the foreign factor. The White House and the American president are more exotic for me than the Presidential Palace in Indonesia and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Indonesians love to believe that Obama is one of us (he likes sate and bakso) given his three-years of living in a Jakarta neighborhood in the late 60s and his mother’s Stanley Ann Dunham’s work there, in the end he is still the president of a superpower that often believes that international law need not apply. The sheer amount of power the U.S. President holds in the international arena is beyond any other head of States in the world. I would be dead-inside if I was not a bit affected by the fact I am in the capital city of United States of America.

Now I am in Cambridge, just next door to Boston, the old historical city where the American Revolution started. I sit in classes in MIT and Harvard, trying to get my head around politics of religion and finding the best method for my research.  A writing class with star writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has felt like an indulgence. Reading and analyzing essays in class is like being in one of my favorite podcast, The New Yorker fiction podcast. Although the subject matter is non-fiction rather than fiction, the way Ta-Nehisi helps the class dissect the essays feel similar to what Deborah Treisman and whoever writer is on the show that month.

But the most eye-opening is walking down the streets, exploring the neighborhood and seeing the difference of one street to another. There is a change in style and color of people walking down Main Street that leads to MIT and Windsor Street that leads to the housing projects. Massachusetts Avenue is more “cosmopolitan” with people dressing nicely to go to the pub called Middle East walking side by side with people asking for small change.

Once in a Saturday mid September, a Caribbean Carnival was in full force. The thumping of percussion, accompanies girls dancing in skimpy glittery costumes. The smell of barbecue in the air enticed those who are not even hungry. I hear a foreign language here and there, and an accent, probably Caribbean, among the crowd. Far in the corner are heavy set police officers who seem oblivious to the joy of the carnival. Arms folded, legs spread. The disconnect between people of one city can be seen on the long faces on the pale white cops watching over the joy and laughter of black Americans.