Undertaking field study in Bandung, West Java


It was August 13, 2014, and the time had come for me to leave the place I had called home for 6 months for a field study semester in Bandung, West Java. If I am completely honest, it was not something I was looking forward to. For me, Yogyakarta felt like home. I had my favourite local restaurants and hang-out places. I relished the laid-back and friendly atmosphere of the city. I was having a great time zipping around town on my motorbike, knowing that if I ever got lost the sight of Mount Merapi looming in the distance would remind me where north is.

Funnily enough, it was not leaving all this behind that filled me with the most dread. Rather, it was the unknown of what was ahead that was causing me concern. For the first time in my four year degree, I would be left up to my own devices to conduct my own research. In a foreign country. In a foreign language.

I probably should have felt more prepared. After all, I had been studying the Indonesian language for three and half years by that stage (including six months in-country) and had already gotten pretty used to life in Indonesia. I had even for a time worked as a research assistant. But as the time drew closer to leaving for the bright lights and macet[1] of Bandung, self-doubt began to creep in. Would my Indonesian be good enough to conduct interviews? Would I be able to make the right contacts? Would people be willing to help me? How on earth will I be able to write 10,000 words in Indonesian, when I haven’t even attempted that in English? I longed for the comfort of the university classroom and made a silent promise to myself that if a miracle occurred and I had the chance to stay as a student at UGM[2], I would never again complain about kelas kosong[3] or last-minute timetable changes. But alas, no miracle occurred and before I knew it I was chugging off, suitcase in hand, on the trusty Lodaya Pagi[4] bound for Bandung.

One thing I felt grateful for as I embarked on this new adventure was that as a student of the ACICIS[5] program, the difficult task of adjusting to life in a new city was something I did not have to stress over. Having already done an ACICIS program in Yogyakarta the previous semester, I already knew that I would have a lot of help with things like finding accommodation, seeking out the best places to eat, knowing where the nearest hospital was and where to “top up” my pulsa[6]. I felt relaxed knowing I didn’t have to deal with immigration matters (which for anyone that has previously studied or lived in Indonesia would know can be a particularly frustrating experience) and that UNPAR[7], having an already-established link with ACICIS and having hosted anak ACICIS[8] previously, would look after me. I felt relieved that I had a ready-made group of friends embarking on the same adventure. Even better, seven of the ten students that would also be studying in Bandung had been on the same program in Yogyakarta the previous semester, therefore we were already acquainted. This small group of people became my family for the duration of my stay in Bandung. As we were all in the same position and facing the same challenges, we bonded quickly and deeply. I truly believe my study experience would not have been the same without them (more on that later).

Fast forward to four months after this first train ride to Bandung and I was enjoying an end of semester celebration with my fellow ACICIS students. We couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Earlier that week, seven of us undertaking the field study program stood up in front of a panel consisting of 3 UNPAR lecturers, a handful of ACICIS staff and our fellow students to present our reports. We had done it. We had gone out into the field, conducted research, and presented the outcome in the form of a 10,000- word report. In a foreign country. In a foreign language. Was it as scary as I thought? At times, yes. But it was also one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Doing this program gave me the opportunity to experience a part of Indonesian society that people rarely have the chance to see. I was humbled by the people involved in my research, who bent over backwards to make sure I had the information I required. And to put into practice all those years of language learning felt good. Really good. For anyone considering studying in Indonesia, I encourage you to give it a go. ACICIS have a wide-range of short-term and semester-long programs which are suitable for both Indonesian speakers (all levels) and non-Indonesian speakers. For anyone considering one of the Field Study programs, or considering research in Indonesia, I can suggest the following tips[9]:

1) Making contacts and networking

Begin seeking out relevant contacts as early as possible. There are a number of reasons hy I suggest this. The sooner you make contact with people the sooner you can begin collecting “real-time” information about your topic. Start by sending an email or cold-calling (with a letter from your affiliated organisation or university) by way of introduction. Explain what you are doing and why you have an interest in that particular person or company. In Indonesia, relationships are very important. I found that by establishing a rapport with people before diving in to ask questions produced a better outcome than “getting down to business” straight-away.

By making contacts early, you will not only have the opportunity to learn about current perspectives relating to your topic from the people involved, but you will also find out early on if your topic is not viable and identify potential problems, such as difficulty in finding contacts, problems of sensitivity, difficulty in collecting data etc. This gives enough time to adjust your topic to suit the circumstances. Oftentimes, the situation in-country is very different to what you have read from the outside but this may not be known until you are in-country and the research period has already begun. So it is best to start early.

In addition to this, by making this initial contact you also have the opportunity to get involved with any upcoming events, seminars, workshops and conferences. My advice is to go to everything you can, as each event is a networking opportunity, not to mention you can use the event as an opportunity to collect information that is relevant to your research.

Seeking out contacts early also means you will be able to lock in your meetings and interviews as early as possible. In Indonesia, things often run slower than we are used to in other parts of the world and unexpected events pop up. Therefore, if a meeting needs to be rescheduled it can be done at a later date but still within plenty of time before the research period ends.

Lastly, Indonesian’s are very well-connected. Even just by making a few initial contacts you will find before too long you have a whole heap of new contacts. The few contacts I made in the beginning stages of my research were invaluable and made such a huge difference to who I connected with down the track.

2) Use your Bahasa Indonesia!

As terrifying as it is, if you know any Bahasa Indonesia, even just sedikit-sedikit,[10] use it. Even if you think you are no good, the people you are dealing with will appreciate it. If you have only a basic level of Bahasa Indonesia, or none at all, research is still possible but I would suggest taking a translator. Although a lot of people can speak some English, being able to converse in Indonesian does provide greater opportunities to obtain information. Plus, it’s fun. Many Indonesian’s are happy; they love to smile and laugh. Seeing a bule[11] stumble their way through an interview in their own language gives plenty of opportunity for them to do this but it is something they also appreciate. You will often receive comments like “wah sudah lancar dalam bahasa Indonesia!”.[12]

3) Never be afraid to ask for help

One of the things I found tough (most likely a reflection of my character) is that I found it difficult to ask people for help. I felt that people were either too busy or too tired to deal with questions from some pesky undergrad; that I was being an unnecessary burden on them. But many Indonesian’s genuinely love to help and go out of their way to do so. I was overwhelmed with how many people were willing to assist me with finding the information I required, not to mention their patience in my backing and forth missions to clarify information.

In saying that, it always pays to be specific with the information you are after. Indonesian people feel it is impolite to reject someone so will often just give an answer they think is expected rather than the truth. Don’t be afraid to probe (politely, of course) if you feel you need a deeper understanding of the information you are receiving.

4) Choose a topic you are interested in or passionate about

Although this seems obvious and it is cliché in my experience it is so important. Research can be tough and frustrating at times, therefore you need that feeling of purpose when you are conducting the research. In my experience, this feeling of purpose comes from the depth of interest you have in your topic. If you feel it is worth it, the tougher times will be easier to manage. You will also feel more motivated which is important considering the amount of time which goes into research and report writing.

5) Time-management

Again, seems obvious but also important. It is good to make a cut off time where collecting information (being “in the field”) ends and report writing begins. It is easy to get caught up in the field study part but the writing requires a lot of time too especially when writing in Indonesian. Remember, during the writing process you can always go back and clarify information with people you have interviewed previously.

When writing in Indonesian, it is important to figure out whether it is better for you to write directly in Indonesian or whether it works better to write in English first and then translate later. For me, I found writing in English a lot easier and less time-consuming (although I did have to leave a few extra days at the end for translating) whereas some friends found writing directly in Indonesian more useful. Find out early on which suits you and keep this in mind when figuring out your research timeframe.

6) Find a good support network

As anyone who conducts research knows, it can be an isolating and at times frustrating experience. It is important to have a good support network around you: either people doing the same program as you or just other friends or family who you can let steam off with. With a good support network, you can vent your frustrations, study together, share your successes (or failures), compare experiences and just be there for each other. As mentioned earlier, I was lucky to have a fantastic group of friends in Bandung and without them, I believe my experience would have been less rewarding.

It also pays to make as many Indonesian friends as possible, whether on-campus or through extra-curricular activities. Not only to help with your language and getting to know the city but also in terms of report writing. An Indonesian friend I made ended up becoming a really important part of my research by helping with editing, making suggestions (having done a thesis previously he knew a lot of handy tips) and just helping negotiate everyday life in Indonesia. For students under the ACICIS program, UNPAR help to arrange a student buddy.

Relax and enjoy

Finally, relax and enjoy the experience. No one expects you to be perfect. Oftentimes the most pressure we feel is the pressure we put on ourselves. Having the opportunity to research in Indonesia is a unique experience and whether you love it or hate it, it is something you will remember forever.

I was recently reminded by a friend who conducted research in Indonesia a few years ago that I made the comment to her upon her return “Wow, I can’t believe you did that! I could never imagine being able to do that”. Yet here we are, 2 years later, and that’s exactly what I and my fellow ACICIS students did. I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to study or research in Indonesia to take up the challenge too.

For more information about the ACICIS program or to apply, click here

[1] Macet – ‘traffic jams’

[2] Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta’s most well-known university and where the majority of ACICIS students undertake study in Yogyakarta

[3] Kelas kosong – ‘empty classes’

[4] One of the trains that runs regularly between Yogyakarta and Bandung

[5] ACICIS stands for the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies, a non-profit consortium of universities that coordinates study programs in Indonesia

[6] Pulsa – ‘phone credit’

[7] Universitas Parahyangan, where ACICIS’s West Java Field Study semester is conducted

[8] Anak ACICIS – The name students of the ACICIS program are fondly known as

[9] Note: these tips are based entirely on my own experience and are therefore a purely subjective account of conducting research in Indonesia, in and around the Central and West Java area.

[10] Sedikit-sedikit – ‘a little’

[11] Bule – ‘foreigner’

[12] wah sudah lancar dalam bahasa Indonesia – ‘wow, you’re already fluent in Indonesian’

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Tennille Bernhard

I have just completed a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Specialist) at Murdoch University. In the final year of my degree (2014) I had the opportunity to study in Indonesia for two semesters through the ACICIS program. I have just returned to Yogyakarta to undertake an internship at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University.

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