Well, it finally happened. I jumped out of a moving car in rush hour traffic to chase a black dude—Dr. Umar Johnson would be proud. But it wasn’t Idris Elba, who is destined to help me breed superhot, superblack superchildren ... sorry, Umar.
I risked life and limb (and my producer, who chased after me) because I finally had a three-dimensional encounter with black people who, after eluding me for the first four days of my visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, stood chillin’ on the side of the road outside a chop shop. It was a knee-jerk reaction, like the way my body spontaneously combusts every time I hear Elba talk about “pounding yams.”
I just couldn’t help myself.
And though I’m fairly certain my unceremonious entrance of dodging moving vehicles and issuing banshee laryngitis screams would have thrown off anyone suddenly confronted with cameras and questions, these men (who were Nigerian, though about half of them identified as Biafrans) were friendly enough to talk smack and take photos. When I pressed them beyond the light banter to ask about their professions, they shut down completely, which I took as my cue to relocate my curious shenanigans elsewhere.
It’s a story I recall later via Skype to Adam*, a private American contractor who has been living in Jakarta since 2015. He laughs at me (which seems appropriate in hindsight).
Having toured Southeast Asia extensively for work in his youth, Adam, now 35, says he was offered the opportunity to relocate to Jakarta to further his career. “Before I started doing business here, all I knew about this place was what I had read in Barack Obama’s book,” he says.
An openly gay man, Adam says he had his hesitations: “I know there’s a lot of debate about the role that homosexuality plays in Islam, but it’s not a chance I wanted to take. I always felt more at ease in Buddhist countries like Thailand.” Adam, who grew up in Raleigh, N.C., before relocating to New York, says he fought for a long time to come out and feel comfortable with his sexuality, and he didn’t want to regress by moving to a country where that would be a taboo.
“But honestly, people here are very nice. I get along quite well, and religion doesn’t come up except for when some of my co-workers go to pray. I’m not even sure they realize I’m gay,” he says.
Now, two years into his tenure, Adam says that he enjoys the perks of living abroad on an American salary. He has a private car and a driver and rents out a modern apartment in the middle of the city for a fraction of the cost of his New York residence. Recent sociopolitical trends have, however, put him on the defense, and he remains wary of entering public spaces with a male companion. “Since the beatings earlier this year, the entire LGBT community here is on high alert … and being black, I’m already under a certain degree of suspicion,” Adam says.
He’s referring to a video recording of faceless vigilantes caning, detaining and degrading two young gay men that surfaced around April. Even though it took place in the semi-autonomous region of Aceh, off the northern coast of Sumatra, he says that there’s a growing encroachment of fundamental Islam sneaking into everyday life.
Shortly after in Jakarta, a gay sauna party was raided by police, and more than 100 men were arrested. “Some of my friends were there,” he says. “They’re still in jail waiting to see their families. It’s awful.”
When asked if this was common practice when he initially moved to Indonesia, Adam shakes his head vigorously and says: “This is all new. Now more people are wondering why I’m not married with children. They didn’t care before, but now the public is being encouraged more to out gay people they know.”
When asked if he was afraid of any scrutiny, he hesitated before saying, “I don’t think I have to worry so much as an American, even a black one, because I have money, I can just buy my way out—but I worry for my friends.
“They have nowhere to go.”
Like Adam, Indonesia is a country in which I, too, had very little interest until I read Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father in college. My first visit there was in 2012, when my then-partner and I traveled to Bali, a region of Indonesia that is unlike all the others in culture, atmosphere and even religious practice. Obama’s words didn’t reflect my experiences there at all, but they served as the undercurrent of my inner monologue regarding much of my experiences in Jakarta.
An emerging center of finance, commerce and trade, and an increasingly popular region for private investment, Jakarta is still a city with a line between the rich and the poor as clearly visible as the Ciliwung River that divides the luxury shopping malls from the impoverished street-cart vendors selling corn off their backs.
Where Bali is a coastal paradise replete with black-sand beaches and dolphin-watch excursions, Jakarta is a concrete jungle complemented by skyscrapers, endless traffic jams and blankets of industrial smog. Where Bali is a Hindu region with daily puja sacrifices laid at the feet of ancient Hindu statues every morning, Jakarta, much like the rest of Indonesia, consists mostly of practicing Muslims—with the traditional call to prayer echoing from mosque towers at all corners of the city.
Despite being black, Adam acknowledges that he is in the unique position of being able to use money to “outrank” his race, which I find perplexing because that hasn’t worked anywhere else I’ve been—ever. In the short time I spent in Jakarta, a city with nearly 10 million people, I saw almost no white people whatsoever—and yet the act of coveting whiteness was such a visceral part of everyday life.
Skin-lightening creams are sold in drugstores, advertised on TV and displayed on roadside billboards. Dark-skinned women in fancy department stores wear thick layers of white makeup and colored contact lenses to turn their dark eyes green or blue. And despite the fact that ethnic Indonesians are mostly dark-skinned, fashion posters depict people who appear more ethnically Chinese or just plain white instead.
Like most postcolonial countries with a history of brutal European occupation, Indonesia has a complex relationship with race, colorism and ethnic conflict. The Dutch East Indian Co. landed on Indonesia’s shores in the 16th century and used imported Chinese labor to build much of the city’s infrastructure before eventually slaughtering them (alongside many ethnic-Javanese people) for resisting government suppression in the 1740 Batavia Massacre.
That crushing defeat is one major reason, says Samira*, why whiteness is still the center of Indonesian beauty standards. Half Indonesian and half African American, she moved to Jakarta five years ago to teach English after being raised in San Francisco for most of her life. “I went from being light-skinned and yellow-boned to black in the most sinister sense,” she says. “There is zero pride here in dark skin—none.”
Samira, 29, says that most beauty products encourage lightness to reinforce East Asian standards of beauty, which are more acceptable by European standards because they’ve done what Southeast Asians have not: “achieved whiteness.”
“Some of the nicest people I know, who help me with my groceries and pick up my daughter after school, repeatedly ask me why I don’t consider lightening my skin. One man said he would want to date me if I weren’t so dark,” she says. “I’m laughing, but it’s rather depressing.”
Despite the light-skinned bias, Samira is enjoying a comfortable life in Jakarta. “There is definitely a degree of ignorance here, but the people are actually very kind,” she says. “I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. My daughter plays with the neighborhood kids, and she’s constantly looked after. We don’t feel unsafe at all.”
Samira says that she has a community there that makes it easier for her to assimilate, though it helps being able to speak the language. “My mother was very insistent on teaching me Indonesian growing up,” she says. “It’s been my weapon against some of the more questionable comments I get from taxi drivers or onlookers when I travel to more remote areas.”
When asked if people who don’t speak the language could make a similar transition, she sucks in her breath suddenly. “Look … no,” she says, laughing. “But it’s not the language, it’s the cultural shift. Free speech and demonstrations and all that—they’re not really a thing here. If you don’t mind, like, toning it down a bit, you could make it work here.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Adam, which is why both he and Samira have requested to remain anonymous for this interview.
“Don’t be surprised that those Nigerian men weren’t completely forthcoming,” he says. “Foreigners get up to a lot of dirt here, but it’s all done in secret because the government is legit harsh,” he says. “The first black guy I met here was a drug dealer, but seeing him was like tasting buttermilk again.”
“Tasting buttermilk or pounding yams?” I ask him.
“Both,” he says, laughing. “At the same time.”
* Their last names have been left off at the subjects’ request.