I am the most ungrateful child you will ever know. I grew up with all the comfort and all the fascination of travels around the world and have lived life extraordinarily. But most of it changed when I started higher education.
When I was a kid, my first dream was to become an astronaut, as I always dreamed of landing on the moon, but my mom axed that dream away. She told me only boys could become astronauts.
When I met my kindergarten teacher, I soon idolized her and wanted to become a teacher. Again, my mom shattered my dream and told me that teachers were underpaid and got little respect, especially in Indonesia.
As my family used to travel and lived in different places, and because I was used to watch the news, I started dreaming of becoming a journalist. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was my favorite journalist, and I used to watch her reporting from the war zones. For the third time my parents killed the dream, saying being a journalist would not make me settle down, because I would always be on the go.
Since then my parents began to shove the idea that I should be a doctor or a dentist. They told me that being a doctor or a dentist provided a steady income, as there were always going to be patients in need of help. It would also make me respected, thus easier to find a suitable husband.
I had no idea what I wanted to be even during the final year of high school. My parents were so secured that I would get into a medical or dental school, and they had saved up all their lives for the school. I rebelled a bit and found myself becoming fond of designing clothes, so I showed them my designs, but they kept killing my dream until I finally gave up.
By then I did not know what I was interested in, so I went along with what they said. With my report card from high school, I secured myself a seat in one of Indonesia’s prestigious yet expensive dental school. I did not try doing any other university entrance examination, as I had no clue what other majors were out there. My parents had indoctrinated me and practically closed all my options. They did not even think about letting me explore or have a discussion on what interested me the most. They wanted me to become a doctor and so I had to be one. I chose dentistry over medical.
Dental school was boring and hard. I never got good grades. It was embarrassing for me, though I finished my dental bachelor degree in time.
And it was then that I witnessed my younger brother having the opportunity to choose and change his major from mechanical engineering to electrical engineering in university. My parents let him do it and took care of all the complicated campus admission.
I felt betrayed. I felt as if my voice did not matter. I felt as if what I would ever choose was never going to be right. I felt like a human being who was stripped of her rights. And I felt an injustice in every way. My parents did not value me as a human being but as an objectified woman who needs to be elevated by social status. I was a woman for sale to get a better husband.
By then I was already in the middle of my dental professional degree that follows dental school, in which graduates of dental schools are trained in clinics under supervision to certify them as a practicing dentist.
Dental school costs a lot of money. Since it was hard to get dental patients for certain of cases, we had to pay certain brokers to find us patients, mostly lower income people. We pay the dental patient to come in as well as the broker – the case is then admitted to the dental teaching hospital, and we pay the semester fee. Not to mention the living costs, the laundry, the meal, the rent, the gas, the formal clothes to wear while at work, and so on. I bet my parents have spent around 500 million rupiah to keep me in school.
What’s frustrating is that sometimes the patient does not always come in time, on the scheduled hour that we’ve already made to match that of our appointed teachers’. Sometimes the teachers also make it difficult for the students to discuss the cases, as they can only be caught in between meetings or class session.
There are perks of being a dental student, of course. Yes, the respect that I get from people was nice. I felt privileged. But I did not feel that I love what I was doing. So I rebelled.
I found myself getting involved in youth activism. I took part in an NGO’s youth training program. The training opened my eyes about social activism. As my major was dentistry, I implemented dental health education. I also founded the Indonesian Youth Health Ambassadors with other health students and made small acts to increase the awareness of maintaining health in general. For a year or two within my studies I focused on it.
A friend from the university who became the president of the students’ government appointed me to head one of his ministries. I held the department of information and communication and founded the students’ government’s website. There were only two ministries that were held by women in his cabinet.
I was also selected to go on a youth training program for 25 days on a navy ship from Jakarta to Komodo Island, representing DKI Jakarta. On the ship I met 300 youths from all over Indonesia, from Sabang to Merauke. For someone who is a travel snob and who had been in some parts of the world, it opened my eyes to Indonesia’s rich culture and I got in touch with my roots and became fonder of the Javanese culture. Not long after that, I enrolled myself in a classic Javanese Surakarta dance class.
That was the start of my rebellious moment. I did all this even in the middle of the dental profession program. Since I knew a lot of friends, I invited them over to the dental teaching hospital and gave them free treatments like scaling and restoration.
Guilt vs Passion
But it was not enough. It did not fill my passion or life. It did not set the fire in me. The stress in dental school grew and I couldn’t take it anymore. At some point I had to take the equivalent of Prozac. I did not want to become dependent on drugs so I continued studying Javanese culture and social activism. I also started to learn how to draw. It was like meditation. It was also my sweet escape on weekends.
It is very stressful because I was caught between feeling guilty and trying to be an obedient daughter and longing to live out my own passion. I felt trapped and awful. I felt as if my parents did not value me, unless society was going to accept me with its backward standards.
I ran away again for a month.
I went to Thailand for a meditation retreat and to have time for myself with friends I met in the previous dental student congress. I also met many interesting people who helped me grow my self-confidence and led me to a better understanding of feminism. I also met the famous Wimar Witoelar (Indonesia’s former spokesperson to President Abdurrahman Wahid) who was also known as a feminist ally.
I escaped to Myanmar and was amazed by the country. It’s a beautiful, charming and interesting place to be, but the government was similar to the time of the Soeharto regime. I met a lot of activists, journalists, teachers and so on, and that was my favorite circle to hang out with. Once again it opened my eyes about politics, government, policies and regulations.
When I got back home to Indonesia, I saw the mess and a society’s that seems to be going backwards (especially when it comes to judging women) and I realized that some laws and regulations are facilitating the people in power to take control in the name of religion, though what they do is actually not religious. These include oppressing religious minorities or communities based on their sexual orientation, justifying child marriages, and allowing rampant deforestation.
I realized that I wanted to do so much for my country and the society. I want Indonesia to be more progressive. Since then, my passion grew for public policy, safe public space, culture, health, environment, education and all that are linked to women empowerment. I became vocal and that’s the only way for me to let go of the stress of dental school. Scrolling down through the Facebook news feed is my favorite thing to do as it feeds my hunger for information and knowledge. My circle in Jakarta also involves journalists, social activists, NGO workers, feminists and people who want to make Indonesia a better place.
My journey to realize what I wanted to do in life took a lot of rebelling, contemplation, money (obviously) and emotional roller coaster. As I said: I am the most ungrateful kid. I realized that a lot of people would kill to sit in a prestigious dental school. But when I found out it was not my passion or it was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, all I did was rebel.
As the stress and emotional burden piles up, I am also not sure whether I’d survive, as I sometimes have suicidal thoughts. There are times when I feel like crashing my car or even cutting my wrists. These are usually the weakest point that hit me every time I get a breakdown.
I understand that all parents want the best for their children, but what mine did was pressuring me, trapping me and torturing me in my logical and emotional senses, mostly to abide by the norms of a marriageable Indonesian woman, as set by the patriarchal society. Patriarchy is deeply rooted and it has affected every aspect of my life, from how I was raised to how I am presented as an acceptable woman.
Right now I still feel as if I’m trapped but I still need to survive to finish half of the requirements left for the dental school so I can fulfill my parents’ wishes. But my hunger for a meaningful vocation and my passion is always going to be there, as it is the only thing that keeps me alive.
Dea Safira Basori is a Javanese feminist beating all odds to find her true passion, life and love. Her Facebook account has been reactivated (at least for the moment).