Photo: tslphoto.uk Model: me
Now that I have been here in Jakarta for over a week the word expat has been used quite a few times with reference to me. Sure, I am not a tourist here - Jakarta would be a strange tourist destination anyway, people pass through it but are usually keen to get out of here as quickly as possible. However, the area where I now live, Kemang, is full of expats, with shops that reflect this demographic, fancy supermarkets that sell pricey goods, including pork meat and Australian wine.
'Expatriate' denotes someone who does not live in his native country. I have been an expatriate for decades, ever since I moved to London from my native Italy. But somehow the 'expat' label has never been used with reference to me in England. I guess in England expat is more generally understood to mean someone not from the EU. People from the latter are known as migrants if moving from one EU country to another, though in more recent times many people have begun to confuse migrants with refugees and refugees with migrants. But that's another story.
I am not new to Indonesia, this is the sixth or seventh time I have come here. Let me immediately clarify, in case you believe that my remarks about Jakarta apply to the country as a whole, that Indonesia is an incredibly beautiful country, with a rich and diverse culture and I have fond memories of Sumatra, Bali, Lombok and West and East Java, not to mention the beautiful Yogyakarta in Central Java. It is only Jakarta that is definitely not beautiful largely because of the traffic and pollution and the incredible rate at which it grows. I will say it upfront that have never liked Jakarta, always avoided it if I could help it, so coming back to Indonesia to stay here, of all places, requires a lot of grinning and bearing. But Jakarta is the major fashion centre of the country, it is the capital of Indonesia and I had to be based here if I wanted to work on my project.
Jakarta trafficPeople are very polite over here, but during rush hours tempers can be somewhat frayed. It can get tricky. I have experienced a surprising outburst from a taxi driver because I did not warn him in time that he had to take a particular turn and we went past the street I wanted and then we got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam that just did not move. He could not turn back and eventually had to get into a maze of backstreets to take me to my destination. He did not like it a bit and I know enough Indonesian to catch his swearing and his abruptness did not go amiss. Sure, it was my mistake, but when you think about it, it 's not that he was giving me a ride in his car out of the goodness of his heart, I was paying for it, including waiting time. But as I said, things can get tricky during rush hours. I also tipped him enough to bring a smile on his face.
A good friend who now lives in Thailand and knows Jakarta rather well suggested I should go and visit the old Jakarta port of Sunda Kelapa. For the record there are interesting things to see in this city, it's not just malls and busy roads. But the heat is quite overwhelming at the moment, for me anyway, and the thought of braving the endless traffic jams does not appeal at all. I will, however, make an effort. I have been already here for several days and have not even once used my camera, only my iPhone camera, and that is so very unlike me.
Yesterday I resolved to walk around my area, learning how to cross the main road when hundreds of motorbikes and cars seem to be coming at you non-stop and no traffic lights or zebra crossings can be spotted anywhere - it requires some confidence, basically you just start crossing very boldly signalling to everyone to let you go. It works, people do stop.
I discovered two dance studios within walking distance from my new home, one of which teaches RAD ballet, so with some trepidation, fearing I would be the only adult surrounded by many cute little girls in pink tutus, I walked in and asked whether I could take a trial class. The man at reception said 'bisa' meaning it was OK for me to join. So I did. I found myself in an intermediate ballet class with young women preparing for some Grade exam. They were learning steps from Raymonda - after the barre and stretches (splits etc). I nearly fainted, I am just an amateur and am still struggling with basic technique. Oh it was extremely tough to be among them, but it was truly, truly enjoyable. Afterwards I negotiated some private lessons with the teacher, to catch up on technique (my pirouettes are wobbly and pas de chats are, ahem, not light enough).
I am mentioning my ballet experience because, unbeknownst to most people, who only seem to be aware of ballet in China, Japan and Korea, Jakarta has a very strong tradition of ballet learning that goes back to the time of the Dutch. Standards are very, very high. I was later told that the Kemang Dance Center where I have enrolled is one of the very best in town. And it is so nice to be in a ballet class where regardless of the language, the steps are known by their French name, so a plié is a plié everywhere in the world.
Kemang Dance Center
Ok enough personal stuff. Let me tell you a little about what I am actually doing here, as it is clear by now I am not holidaying.
I am working, as mentioned, on a project about fashion. I have begun to contact all the people I need to interview. I plan to attend Jakarta Fashion Week which will take place next month and aim to interview a wide range of people involved in the fashion industry, before and after JFW, including bloggers.
Why so? For quite some time, ever since I began my involvement in fashion as a model but also as a writer and commentator, I have been intrigued by how fashion impacts women of all ages globally and how, through media and advertising, it is linked with issues of body image and issues of representation. This impact has been debated and contested widely, but the discussion is only ever about the more affluent countries of the western world.
Fashion in Asia is a major industry whose influence is growing so perhaps it's time to discuss fashion and its related issues in relation to Asian women too, what it means to them and to note what they bring to the table. I am also very interested in the challenges of ageing in Indonesia. It will help me to put in perspective the 'going gray' movement as we know it from affluent first world countries.
I decided to begin my research in Indonesia only because I know this country slightly better than other Asian countries and this prior knowledge of the context is helpful, when beginning a project which I suspect will keep me busy for quite a time.
I guess I could have stayed home and feel comforted by the seeming openness of the fashion and beauty industry to older women, which I view with some scepticism, as to me it remains hugely tokenistic, despite everything, as I discussed in my Guardian article about being a mature model. But I could not help myself wondering whether this is a fundamentally euro-centric discourse. So here I am. I know I am going to be challenged over the next three months but this is why I came. I like being challenged (and who knows, I might pick up a few steps from Raymonda in the process, since the teacher said I was most welcome to be in the Saturday morning class!)
Look out for my next post where I will begin to talk more in depth about the project.