An Indonesian Writer Who Knows Her Roots
They say the people who truly love you are the ones who constantly urge you to improve. Jakarta native and award-winning writer Jennie S. Bev embodies this. Though she has lived in America for more than a decade, Bev writes exhaustively on Jakarta, its people, its activism and its future.
Bev, a Chinese-Indonesian, maintains a strong connection to her birth country, while at the same time identifying as a member of the Chinese diaspora. Bev moved to America in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis to attend graduate school in California and ended up making it her home.
While Bev lives in California, she has not forgotten her Indonesian roots. Her connection to Indonesia goes deeper than simply missing home; it means actively continuing to be part of Indonesia’s future by constantly striving for social progress here.
Bev’s writing on Indonesia ranges from topics such as gender equality to poverty, but they all share the same theme: the pressing need for reform. Her writing is at once tender and critical. Bev delves into the manifold reasons she chose to leave Jakarta — racial discrimination, political censorship, traffic jams — yet her work displays a deep belief in the city’s potential for change.
To date, Bev’s output includes two compilations of published articles, close to 100 e-books on how-to business topics and nearly a thousand opinion articles on Jakarta and Indonesia and various other social and business topics. Her work has appeared on the Forbes blog (United States), Forbes Asia (Indonesia edition), Strategic Review and Cosmopolitan.
She has received several accolades for her writing. In 2003 she was an Eppie Award nominee for excellence in electronic publishing; in 2007 she received a Pesta Blogger award for her contributions to the Indonesian blogosphere (www.jenniesbev.org or www.jenniesbev.typepad.com); and in 2009 she was named a Partial Peace Writer by the Institute for Peace and Justice in San Diego. Bev has also taught writing classes at Western Governors University, a nonprofit online school.
The Jakarta Globe interviewed Bev by e-mail and talked about her relationship with the capital.
Your articles display a complicated relationship with Jakarta. On one hand, they are highly critical. On the other hand, the fact that you write so much about Jakarta displays a deep love for the city. What is it about Jakarta that you can’t let go of?
I spent my first 20-something years in Jakarta. It is my hometown. I will always care about Jakarta even though I no longer live there. My relationship with Jakarta is like a first love. I always remember it, but many things have become obsolete and it is time to move on with the current one, the one that fits better.
Since leaving, I’ve traveled to many places, I’ve made comparisons. I realized that I love Jakarta but this city has been mismanaged. I would love to see Jakarta progress in various dimensions, particularly city planning and more meaningful civic activities.
What it is that keeps you in America?
I moved to the United States in 1998 to go to graduate school in California. At that time, Indonesia was suffering from the Asian financial crisis and there was a backlash against the ethnic Chinese. I wanted to find a place where I could stand tall without bending, meaning I could be my own self and optimize my skills without having to worry about things that are supposed to be handled by the government, such as safety, security and a safe environment for creativity, intellectuality and artistic endeavors to take place.
I know what I can change and cannot change. I cannot change Jakarta on a large scale. Thus, the most feasible thing for me to do is write about Jakarta and its social and environmental issues with a hope that someone with a good conscience and the power to change certain conditions would read and be touched by my ideas.
America, by far, has provided me with a certain level of freedom that I couldn’t find in Jakarta. Of course, such social, political, economic and cultural freedoms enjoyed in the United States aren’t free. It comes with a high price: high social responsibility and high taxes. Such a high price, however, is worth it as I can enjoy relative safety and rules of law in a democratic country despite some discrepancies and inequalities here and there.
What do you think Americans can learn from Indonesians? And what do you think Indonesians can learn from Americans?
Americans can learn to slow their pace down a bit and be less capitalistic. Indonesian culture is more social and considerate. I think Americans can learn from Indonesians to be both more artistic and less mechanical, while Indonesians can learn from Americans to be more industrious and disciplined. It would be a great thing if both could learn from each other and transcend differences and labels, like ‘Americans are too liberal.’
People confuse ‘liberalism’ with ‘no boundaries.’ Liberalism comes with strict boundaries, such as strong social responsibility. It is actually my dream to see Indonesia more accepting of multiculturalism, in which an element of liberalism is present. We cannot truly accept those who are different from us unless we have freed our mind and are aware of the responsibility that comes with it.
How has Jakarta changed in the years since you left?
It has become more crowded in terms of space, traffic and civic activities. While many lavish new skyscrapers were built in the last few years, poverty is still very apparent. Class inequality is rampant and we can easily observe it on the streets, where a Bentley and a Lamborghini stopping at a traffic light are approached by street kids asking for small change. We can also see that behind towering skyscrapers around Jakarta’s financial district, there are slum areas where poor people live in cardboard boxes.
How do you feel about moving back to Jakarta? What factors would influence your decision?
I may move back to Jakarta if I get an offer I can’t refuse involving business, professional or activism reasons. I would also love to see more concerned Jakartans who are key to changes for a better Jakarta. Perhaps the key word is humanism. We need more humanists among residents of Jakarta.
I would like to contribute what I can to Indonesia. I may have been out of Indonesia all these years, but no one can take Indonesia out of me.