Stevie discusses the importance of travel, love, and the importance of prioritizing family.
What did you imagine the United States to be like?
As internationals, we only know what America is like from TV and movies. I imagined that all of America would be like New York with fancy buildings and a luxury lifestyle where we would have fun and make a lot of money just like the movies. When I came here, I saw that there are parts of America that are not like New York and that even have the same conditions as my country. They are kind of similar.
You've lived here for one year. So far, what's your opinion of Birmingham and also the country as a whole?
When I first came to Birmingham, I was a little bit disappointed because I arrived in San Diego first and it's pretty amazing there. That is the America that I saw and wanted to experience in the movies. While I was there, they had a Comi-Con event, and that was so amazing too. But when I came to Birmingham, I was shocked that it wasn't what I expected. I found that this place is nicer and the people are really warm. It's like in my country when we meet each other on the street, and even when we don't know each other, we ask how the other is doing. It's easy to open a conversation here. They understand that we are internationals and don't have very good English. People here help us and try to understand what they say. The campus at UAB is very helpful to international students, and I love it here.
The one thing that I don't like about living here is the public transportation. It's very hard to go everywhere, but if you make friends, they will drive you wherever you need to go.
I've learned that not everything in the movies is true. I've traveled to places around the country, but for example, when I went to the Golden Gate Bridge, I realized that it's just a bridge. We have those in Indonesia, but we don't expose it like America exposes it in the movies. I've been to national parks like Yosemite, and they are amazing.
You've traveled so much more than I or even most Americans have in the short amount of time that you've lived here! Have you always been adventurous or is it more because you want to soak up as much culture as you can while here?
I make a lot of friends, and so it's really cheap when you share the costs. It's an experience to see how they make the national parks so accessible and how they keep them safe for the animals and visitors. It's very good.
I've always been adventurous. My previous work in Indonesia required me to travel a lot. I would go from one island to another, and each island's culture is very different from one another. I think it's very different here, but not very different because you have the English language. In my place, we speak many different languages. I like traveling, hanging out with different people, and exploring new places.
Do you plan on staying here?
Not permanently. I have a scholarship, and my J1 visa permits me to stay here. On this kind of visa, you have to go back to your country for two years before you can apply to become a citizen. I honestly don't want to stay. I just want to have an international experience. That is why I want to stay for a while.
So you're only the second person that we've talked to who has said that you don't want to stay here. Why do you want to go back?
Because my family is back there. I was engaged before I came here and I will get married next year. As an Indonesian, it's very hard to be away from family. We have strong family relationships so living far from your family isn't good. I'm planning on applying for a Ph.D. here because I think that it's an opportunity for me. If I go back and wait two years, it will be too late for me to apply.
Here, our society is very individualistic. What was that transition like coming from a place that's so focused on family?
It's very different. To make friends with Americans, I won't say that it's hard, but it takes time. From my perspective, Americans want to make sure that a person is not harmful and will wait three or four months. Not all, but some. Matthew is not like that. We became friends immediately.
What is your outlook on trust? This project has in many ways forced me to ask myself why it's so hard for me to make and keep friends. Trusting doesn't come naturally for many. I feel like it's much harder to gain trust here than other places. I wonder what separates the Matthews of the world from the rest of us who take so long to establish friends.
I don't know, but I think that many Americans just have such a different culture from internationals and it just takes time.
We have a lot of crime where I'm from. People like to call you from the phone and ask you for money telling you that you won a lottery, but you must pay a fee before they will transfer the money [laughs]. It's common all over the world.
What's life like in Indonesia?
Here, everything is very easy. You can do everything online. You don't have to go in line for some government administration. Over there, you spend a lot of time in line, and we still have corruption. It's different.
From the culture, we have tight family relations. Back in my country, we talk a lot. We can spend the whole day talking. In the afternoon, we take coffee and sit in someone's home and talk. Here when you're around the neighborhoods, you see that all the houses are empty and very quiet.
We are a big family. My father has nine siblings, and my mother has eight. I have one sister. She's in Australia getting her Masters degree. My parents are experiencing the empty nest, but we are very close. They are really proud of us and happy that they don't have to pay for our education.
I don't know if it's true, but I hear that in America, children must leave when they turn 18. In Indonesia, you cannot just abandon your family like that. Back home, we usually have a family meeting every month where we meet and talk.
How has being involved with the International House on campus and other activities impacted your transition to life here in the States?
We usually hang out and go to the movies. There are a lot of people that I go to church with who are from my country. One of my friends is part of the international ministry at the church, and he usually asks a lot of us to hang out and go eat. At the International House, we go to places like the state park or the zoo so that we can get to know each other.
In the midst of what's going on currently with the immigration ban, would you say that it has brought the members of the International House closer?
Yes. The International House is very sad. The staff has had to remind students from those countries not to go back and that the policy has been updated for international students. They've been very helpful during this time.
What has been your best experience while living here in Birmingham with other people?
I would say the church. I've been going there since I moved here. In the church, we have lots of conversation and fellowship. We pray together. That's a new experience for me. I'm a Christian also in my country, but being Christian there versus being Christian here is very different. The majority of people in Indonesia are Muslim, but my area in the Eastern part is mostly Christian.
So you're getting married when you get back. Is your fiancé going to come to the States if you get into a Ph.D. program?
Yes. I want to share the memories and experiences with her. She has to experience the American life. She's 28 also, and she works at a motorcycle dealership for almost a year. She's excited about coming here, but she is nervous about speaking the language. She's never been outside of the country.
Does dating kind of work the same way as it does here?
Yea, it does. We've been dating since high school. There's a lot of early marriage in Indonesia because of early pregnancies and things like that.
Our parents met before I came here and we decided to get engaged. Marriage in my culture is way complicated. You have three ceremonies: a traditional ceremony, a church ceremony, and then a party. It's a full week of ceremonies- not every day, but you prepare everything six months before. With strong family ties, you have to get your family from all over the country to come. That's a lot of things to do.
It sounds expensive.
It is so expensive. I'm saving all of my money here. The bride will pay for most of the wedding, but it still costs. We want to go as cheap as possible, but the family says, "Oh no! It's once in a lifetime! You need to show off!" [laughs]
Do you speak to your family often?
Yes, almost every day. With the technology now and the internet here being really fast, it's much easier. The slow internet will be the first culture shock when I go back to my country [laughs].
Is there anything that you wish people knew about your country?
Indonesia is very beautiful and a great place to vacation. The people are very warm and will treat you well.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I plan on going into the academic field and becoming a researcher. I was a research assistant before as an undergrad. With higher education, I'm hoping to get more involved in a research organization or at my university back home. We have poor health access in Indonesia, and I would like to do research on health policies, hospitals, and how to manage things better.
Do you think when you go back you will have a different outlook on life?
Yea, I've seen people here from all over the country. I think that I will be more compassionate towards internationals and more patient with Indonesians. In my country, we are very quick-tempered especially because it is so hot. Here, you must be respectful to others, and also the police will come and get you [laughs].
What would your life look like for you to consider it successful?
I would say getting married, having children, and finding a job.
That's such a simple response. I feel like in America there's this pressure to keep up and chase dreams. Would you say that you are a content person and is that a reflection of the culture in Indonesia?
Many Indonesians like to save up all of their money and hold it. They don't spend it, and when they die, others come and fight over it. They don't even get to enjoy what they work for.
What's the point of having all the money in the world? As long as I'm happy and have what I need, I'm fine. The more you work, the less time that you will have for family. I want to get married, have children, travel to see other cultures and enjoy life.