It’s hardly ever as terrible as you suspect.

Salutations from Balikpapan–one of the major cities in the province of East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Some of my first blog entries were on being in Indonesia and doing fieldwork here. (Ah, memories!) But this time the fieldwork has reached phase two. I am armed now with more knowledge about the literary works being written here (compared to last year, which was pretty much ‘not any’), connections to helpful people active on the arts and literary scene, a digital recorder for interviews, a clear sense of what I need to dig up in the official province library, and a stronger sense of purpose. I even planned ahead: I booked hotels online, I let people know I was coming, and everyone seems really friendly and willing to help. And now I’m here, apart from the fact that I miss my husband something fierce, it’s all okay. It’s not as terrible as I feared it would be. In fact, it’s been pretty fun and very productive, apart from the spouse-missing. I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of really interesting people, and hope to make a large dent in the archival research component once I get to the capital city of the province, Samarinda.

It wasn’t always like this. The weeks leading up to this trip involved feeling consistently  anxious, reluctant, and unsettled. I don’t really know why. It’s probably a combination of having had to travel so much already during the past few months and really wanting to just indulge the strongly granny aspect of my personality and not meet new people or go to new places or try new things. I also came here directly from a conference on sustainability in Hiroshima, where I co-presented a paper with an environmental policy and management scholar from NUS–Dr Jesse Hastings. As it turns out, he’s my brother-in-law, and the paper we presented is one we’re in the process of submitting to journals. I was also terribly nervous about that: as someone whose work on the environment is more humanities-oriented, I was particularly worried about turning up at this conference and discovering it was a bunch of people in the hard sciences and the social sciences who would declare me a humanistic fraud and jeer at me. But again, it wasn’t as terrible as I suspected. It turned out that Jesse and I did know what the hell we were talking about, and we received a lot of compliments on our presentation.  

Of course, the conference wasn’t all sunshine and roses–the presentations were a mix of the really excellent all around, the poorly presented, the very boring, and the completely unrelated to sustainability. There were also parts of the conference where it felt like groupthink: everyone was vigorously agreeing with everyone else and being assured that their way of thinking was truly right. It’s these things that leave me wondering whether conferences are actually useful in terms of fostering real discussion. It’s probably just too exhausting to actually have a conference where heated debate and exchange take place (I know I feel pooped just as the prospect of such an event!). But all in all, the conference and the experience of presenting were not as horrible as I suspected they would be. Whether it was worth the hundreds of dollars I paid for conference registration fees and plane fares because I’m not entitled to conference travel funding under my current contract terms, I’m not so sure. But seriously, presenting turned out to be fun, and the conference was not bad.

It’s hardly ever as terrible as one suspects. This seems to have been consistently true for me regarding things I feel reluctant to do, but know I should do. As odd as it may seem, I think I take solace in this. It’s the slightly more pessimistic sounding version of the exhortions one finds throughout the Old and New Testament to trust in God and rest oneself spiritually instead of worrying oneself to bits about potential disastrous things that really can’t be averted by worrying at all.

Of course, I am fully aware that there are indeed very terrible things out there, and often things do happen that are indeed even more terrible than one ever imagined. For example, at the sustainability conference, several people’s presentations emphasised that there are not enough resources left and unless consumption is drastically reduced or the population stops growing, the world is headed for imminent collapse and chaos. That sounds very terrible.

Less terrible, but depressing nonetheless, job prospects for my kind (i.e., humanities academics) have been in a steady decline for the past few decades, with a sharp decline occurring around the onset of the global financial crisis. This is not necessarily very terrible per se, but I sort of wish I had steeled myself for it more, and I wish that it didn’t mean that so many of my good friends are having incredible difficulty finding employment.

Then again, it’s hard times like these when we may need platitudes more than ever. So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and remember: it’s hardly ever as terrible as you suspect.



One Comment

  1. I’m your biggest fan!

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