Being a tourist in one’s own hometown

hometown

 

A few minutes before the plane landed in Kuala Namu International Airport, Medan, I saw from the window myself dim, low-wattage light dotting blocks of streets, with cars and motorcycles – seen from the sky as tiny as moving ants – rushing in and out of those streets.

“Gee”, I whispered to a friend sitting beside me, “is this place having power ration again?”

“Hasn’t our hometown stayed almost the same since we last left?”

Having studied in Hong Kong for a year (literally without any summer breaks or holidays), this counter-culture-shock was already the first thing I experienced – all the while even before I touched off the ground, of the place I was born and raised for over 18 years, this city – goddamn Medan – that I have called it home since the beginning.

Truth be told, I only have my holidays once a year – and as though a ritual, I have been back home once a year, for approximately one month. My first time, it was December 2013 – it lasted 37 days. Fast forward to December 2014 (all the way from Chinese New Year), it lasted 40 days. And there came another 10.5 months of time-space, filled with the same pattern of courses, research projects, killer exams, and other school activities, and there it is, December 2015. This time, I will be home for over 42 days – almost one and a half month. Assume that there are not many changes next year, my next holiday in Medan will be in December 2016 (and also definitely the last time I can afford such a superbly long break).

Every December I sojourn back home, I have to be very admittedly honest that I have this repetitive cycle of ‘culture shocks’. Old wisdom (I don’t know which grannies say that) explains that one’s personality totally changes after exploring a brand-new place, and adapting to these unexpected circumstances out there. Well, my life story ain’t that fascinating like what Frodo (and his friend I crushed my brain to remember the name, not Gollum) faced in The Lord of The Rings, but the reality is that this problem becomes apparent once I arrive in the city I have called it ‘home’ since 1995.

First thing first, there are all these dim-lighted streets over the city.

I have been to Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Denpasar (it’s the capital of Bali), and I could tell you that the streets are so glitzy and brightly lit, especially if one lives in the capital. Medan, being Indonesia’s fourth largest city after the first three cities I described above, with population almost approaching 1% of Indonesia’s total (if you don’t know the answer: it’s one-quarter billion people), is still grappling with electrification. Blackouts are still regularly scheduled in some districts, and street light is mostly dim. That was the same thing I have observed, over and over, since the first time I revisited in 2013. If you take airport express right to the city center, which takes approximately 30-35 minutes, I bet you the first 25-30 minutes you will see almost nothing (as though one were traveling inside a black hole). There are wooden houses and huts beside railway tracks, but there’s no electricity. Even when one sees light (and it’s approaching city center), it’s still very dim, unless one is only a few hundred meters away from the train station. Anyway, I took the airport express back in 2014, and it was really convenient, all the while worth an almost 8 US$-equivalent single-journey ticket.

Another unique thing, meanwhile, is the fact that the airport is completed first before the connecting highways are constructed. As I reached Medan only by last Sunday, there has been substantial progress with the highway construction. Still, going out of the airport area, one can imagine massive traffic jam, and further out, dim street lighting again. Your cars are even brighter than traffic lights, I bet.

Closer into the city center, there are signs of ‘repair projects’. Indeed, all the way back to my childhood, these ‘repair projects’ have always been existent, while at the same time the road quality, I assume, seems worsening. Everywhere we go, there are all these cute little ponds scattered across the streets – years-old potholes that are yet to be fixed. Why the heck don’t these projects manage to fix these little ponds? Because these projects are mostly random patchwork, and some people have rumors that these year-end projects are simply to use up the remaining annual budgets already provided to the city government. Just cover the holes with cement and some sand, and you get the impression that these roads are smooth. The analogy would be you put a very thick makeup to cover your pimples.

We have not only little ponds, but also eternal pipe-implanting projects. A lot of people have experienced this: for some periods of time, drainage in front of houses will be scraped, leaving piles of sand, mud, and other ‘stuff’ scattered across those streets. The problem with these projects, however, is nobody has a goddamn idea when they are going to be accomplished. Sometimes pipes sit idle on street corners, waiting for someone to implant them underground. Wait, you have to consider these piles as well! When raining season comes, and nobody comes to fix them, these piles will flow across the rainwater, causing flood, diminishing the quality of existing roads and streets, and voila!, there emerge all these cute little ponds. The only exception is that you don’t see waddling ducks (though some people plant rice paddies as acts of protest).

See, even I already sound like a ranting First World traveler? Apologies for stereotyping.

Some things are changing, too, especially in the circumstances surrounding my home. One example is mushrooming number of tower cranes. Apartments and shopping malls are being built on my hometown like a boom; in my vicinity alone, I count at least 10 tower cranes (simply because I live in the city center). I haven’t conducted any mini-research, but all I only hope is that the increase in use of tower cranes does not correspond with the parallel increase in the number of potholes or number of four-wheeled vehicles hit by motorcycles, which oftentimes becomes a classic taboo.

Hmm, guess like the only thing is changing is that there are more tower cranes? Probably so. I haven’t been back in my hometown for almost a year, so it’s inevitable I lost count with most things happening not only in Medan, but also in Indonesia. See: in 2013 I still ‘cared’ a lot about news from this country, by 2014 I still did so, but by 2015 my attention has been significantly diminishing. You get this feeling when you talk the same thing to your friends or other acquaintances, over and over. Corruption, crime, pollution (and then this haze that awards Indonesia as the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter), infrastructure problems, illicit drug trade, etc. I feel like a 50-year-old heavy-smoking guy whenever I talk about it (and I used to talk about it), so I simply suppress my interest in discussing these matters.

That’s where I switch to gossiping. Regardless of its fact that it is a major sin in virtually any religion (I’m not sure with Spaghetti Monster), gossiping with old friends you haven’t met for more than 2.5 years is a ‘blessing’ for me. Some have gone on to study in top-notch universities in Singapore, Australia, US or those in Jakarta and Bandung, while the rest stay faithful to the same hometown. Mindsets may have changed, but our gossiping habit puts them aside. Some friends’ friends have switched either boyfriends or girlfriends, while one has gotten married (and she’s just 20, for the sake of mom’s spaghetti!). And, well, some have also become mothers (same age), one of whom got MBA (married-by-accident), a code-word for one doing premarital sex. I won’t touch in details about it.

Still, the gap in mindsets by itself can explain that prevailing counter culture-shock.

“People’s mindset here is so simple: you finish high school by age 18, go to a local college for 3-4 years, and after graduation, either your parents give you some money to set up a business or you work for a few years, then you get married, buy a house, have some kids, and get them to the school you were in before. Your life is so stable, but at the same time it’s flat.” That’s what my parents say. Indeed, that is precisely because of what they (and most of my close friends’ parents) had experienced in this life cycle.

“That’s why, after consulting in a local temple, your ultimate fate is to go outside to succeed.”

Hmm, this begins to sound like an adventure movie plot again (apologies for stereotyping), but indeed, what my mom and dad said were really accurate. Go outside, explore the whole world, and return home as an entirely different person. Physically, I’m still short, a bit bellied-up (though I already do some workout), but in regard to my mindset, it’s been completely dissimilar. My Indonesian accent has changed a lot (becoming almost Jakarta-like), and it sounds awkward when I converse to some people here in Bahasa. My mindset differs a lot from my own parents, and to be honest, it’s quite a process to bridge our differences. Still, as uneasy as it is, Medan remains my own hometown. 18 years living here before I embarked on university education, my identity as someone from this place remains irreplaceable. It’s just that the ways of thinking have shifted. My worldview expanded from what was only my hometown, into the whole world. Befriending people from different parts of the world has debunked some prevailing prejudices in my mindset.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if I become a tourist in my own hometown. Well, my holiday becomes more enjoyable at least (with spicy food accompanying my meals almost everyday).

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Strange Encounters in Medan by a Singaporean

medan

 

Picture source: RT11 RSPO

 

A Singaporean expatriate shares his good-and-bad experiences of living in Medan, Indonesia’s fourth largest city (literally, my hometown). Read his full story on Living in Indonesia.

 

Excerpt (this is the most interesting part, which often reminds me of how my mom usually drives):

If you can drive in Medan, you can drive in any place on earth! Fortunately, my company provides me with a car and a driver who chauffeurs me daily to work from home. Driving in Medan is probably the most challenging place to drive on earth! A Malaysian colleague told me that Singaporeans classify Malaysian drivers as ‘too bold and aggressive’. But Malaysian drivers are just “kittens” compared to Medan drivers. Driving in Medan follows the rule of “First Mover Advantage”, i.e., whoever reaches a spot on the road first has the right of way. I was amazed that my driver, who was turning right from a road junction, got into the middle of the opposite road and blocked the incoming vehicles from the opposite direction. He would probably have gotten beaten up in Singapore if he did that. But in Medan, they waited for him to pass without any sign of anger.

Trying to beat red traffic lights is also a common sight here in Medan, even in full view of the traffic police observing the whole event. I could see the traffic policeman shaking his head, but he did not give the motorist a summon ticket. When I asked my local friend why the traffic police did not issue a summon ticket, his candid remarks were, “Why would he want to do more work without getting any extra money?” I have never met a more “practical” traffic policeman! Despite all these crazy road behaviors, there seems to be no traffic accidents at all!

Another outreach. Completely done.

 

Call it a sequel of my previous note about our third outreach. We still headed to the same subject (orphanage), of the similar background (set up to accommodate many children from Nias who fell prey to 2004 Aceh tsunami), and of the same religious denomination (Christian), but exactly of a distinct location (though quite near), different owners, and undoubtedly for sure, different name. This time, we paid a visit to Yayasan Terima Kasih Abadi.

The outreach held on 29th April was perhaps the most rumbustious one compared with the others. In average, in every session that we conducted, the maximum number of participants ever involved was no more than 30. But this time, it was at the point of 50. Unfortunately, our coach, Pak Supian ‘the motivator’, was not able to make it given that he had been invited to give a fundraising speech in the church he is used to doing his hebdomadal visit. Thus, as a resolution, all the tasks he was supposed to complete were substituted by Evando, a newly-appointed head of Project Division.

 

 

This time, quite many participants in this outreach were non-SEALNet members. Some of them had recently been faced with National Exam, some others are my classmates, while the rest are currently studying in University of North Sumatera (thanks to JA’s – nickname of Jesselyn Angellee – efforts in persuading her friends to join with us). In addition, it also appertained mentees from Tuesday class (fewer mentees from Tuesday class join our outreach as frequent as those of Saturday’s).

The orphanage itself we visited gathers approximately 115 children and teenagers, from various places in Nias, and some rural areas throughout North Sumatera. Talking about gender, the people out there are dominantly boys and young men (83 versus 32). From the age perspective, almost half of the populace are currently Primary-class students, while the rest are in Secondary levels. Around 4 of them are at the moment collegers.

Anyway, let me describe further about what we had experienced almost the whole day, before, during, and after the outreach.

 

 

It started with a minor problem: school gates, through which we were supposed to gather, were intentionally locked. Eyeing through the keyhole, we found out at least 4 security guards were sitting, perched on their chairs, listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, and playing chess game. I knocked the door, and the guard refused to open. My dad, at the same time carrying carton boxes of Yeo’s Chrysanthemum tea, called upon the guards. 5 minutes had passed, and still the gates remained stiff. Two drivers whose buses we rented for the sojourner also helped us in continuously knocking on the gates. Probably having succumbed to the loud rataplan, they did happen to unlock the gates. There was some minor debate, though, but having explained to the guards that our teacher-in-charge, Pak Supian, was not coming, and again having shown them his phone number, they allowed all of us to get in, but only in the school’s front areas, while only me and the duo drivers who were permitted to come to one of our mentors’ class, to carry some behemoth cardboards, all stuffed with hundreds of school textbooks, and second-hand clothes (matter-of-factly speaking, one of the donators bequeathed mini-skirts). The Gummizeit soon followed. Originally scheduled to have hit the road at 12 pm, we instead managed to make it half an hour later.

The trip was fairly smooth, but as we approached nearer to the orphanage, I was distracted by the exact route into the location when asked by one of the drivers. How poor my memory storage was. Having surveyed the place 3 months prior, I was almost completely oblivious regarding the position. After 15 minutes of itinerating throughout the surrounding roads, we managed to reach there (and I remembered vividly that coping with a very narrow gangway was a struggle reaching it, but I had forgotten exactly where the gangway was precisely). Time showed 1.10 pm when we boarded off the buses, 10 minutes behindhand the scheduled time.

 

 

We came into the orphanage. Almost all the people there were present, including boys and girls, kids and teenagers. And a fierce-looking lady with a rattan wood on her right hand, organizing the rows and columns of populace being seated on the marmer floor. We were offered seats on the chairs, facing the kids directly. I asked myself: wow, must it be that formal? We are not government officers, nor are we over-the-top businesspeople. Having sat only for a while trying to figure out what we would do during the outreach, we decided to divide them into three groups: one aimed for primary-class students, another for junior-high-school students, and the rest for senior-high-school ones, and university students. We played one different game for every group. The most junior team were seated in a circle, over the chairs, together with mentees, volunteers and mentors, and they played fruit salad (more friendly version of Jumanji game (to know further, please read ‘the days I had in SEALNet’). At around 2.15 pm, we stopped the games, and distributed drinks for the buddies out there. Originally, we intended to hand out snacks as well, but given that students from SMA Sutomo 2, all third-graders, were also present at the same time and had previously dispensed each of them with a colorful pack of snacks, all of a sudden we decided to allot them only after we had accomplished everything in the outreach.

 

 

Having stopped the games and rested for a while, we went on with doing activities, at a more serious pace. Firstly segregating all the persons into two groups, one supposedly for primary-level students and the other for high-school- and university-equivalent, each group was afterwards given a different activity to do: all the juniors would be asked to draw their future in the papers we had distributed, while the seniors had to answer the questionnaire given in so-called ‘interest quiz’, sort of.

What the high-school students and collagers aspire to be in the future sound fairly good, as told by one of the mentors supervising the test, Lily. All of them, in general, do seem to embrace quite high expectations, such as of being a successful entrepreneur, well-known fashion designer, critically-acclaimed novelist, reknown poet, professional, over-the-top accountant, et cetera. Quite many of them opt the former, on being able to employ rather than to be employed. Talking about reality, nevertheless, seemed to be overtly burdening for them to overcome. This is the fact, though this might be pain-staking: in spite of the superb facilities they offer, ranging from projectors to musical instruments to the well-built multi-function hall, they even had not enough numismatics to pay for these students’ registration fees for selection tests to state-owned universities (Seleksi Nasional Masuk Perguruan Tinggi Negeri, abbreviated as SNMPTN). Out there, it was almost raining cats and dogs, before the sky again turned out plain white. The rain was like a brief, metaphorical reminder of the difficulties facing the populace in this building.

 

All of the teenagers were trying to figure the interest-quiz well.

The next activity was some kind of IQ test, hosted by Nico. As shown in projector, he presented all the questionnaire, one by one. It took more than 30 minutes, before Evando proceeded the schedule by hosting a motivational speech. Throughout the motivation session, we filled the time interval by playing out 5 videos, one about a Mongolian orphan singing in full commemoration of his deceased parents in China’s Got Talent, another about a blind beggar, the next about handicapped athletes, and the other two about Nick Vujicic, the miracle-man, who without hands and feet, could still be able to set the world on earthquake, through his magical, invisible, and sizeless limbs.

 

Evando

 

Nico

 

We ended the overall outreach by singing a Christian-themed song (only to entertain the buddies). As the sky ended up darker than before, we rushed by quickly handing out all our donation to the staff in charge of the orphanage. As the wind blew more boisterously, all of us swiftly made rows, and we had our last moments captured in front of the cameras.

Honestly, we do not expect the next outreach to be visiting another orphanage. As Mauren, one of the mentors, had told me: we had had it enough 3 times of visit to different orphanages, but the feeling remains the same.

What if we make a forest trip our next outreach?

Briefly explained. Our third outreach.

Panti Asuhan Kasih Indonesia

 

One of my friends (also a mentor and secretary in SEALNet Medan Chapter @ SMA Sutomo 1 Medan), Adriana Salim, posted a video in Youtube about our outreach to Panti Asuhan Kasih Indonesia we visited on 15th April, Sunday. As you could see in the video, there was laughter, there was fun, there was motivation, there was singing, there was a brief noetic strike, and there was everything. Some of the parts included me teaching English (that would be present tense), and some others included self-contemplation speech, prepared extemporaneously, by our dearest CCA’s coach, one of our school’s most beloved and stand-up-comedian-alike teachers, Supian Sembiring. You could see the children laughing, gamboling frantically, complete with their innocent, angelic expressions.

But, personally, as I had to confess, all the exhilaration that you saw was merely, with no intention to show that I am a pessimist, tip of an iceberg. In addition, I even wanted to say that what our seniors had done (kudos to Edric Subur, Winnie Illona, and the rest of our mentors) was myriad times much better than what we had made. Perhaps this might sound humiliating, but all I could conclude from this third outreach was a bit ‘epic-fail’ episode.

 

 

Straightforwardly, perhaps I had to explain why I could dub it so. This began from our consensus, of all of us, that we would teach them basic English skills, given that their English scores are deteriorating as time passes (that’s what we heard from the founder of the orphanage, whom we refer to as bapak panti). Afterwards, having been procrastinated more than 2 times from February to April due to rescheduling of school exam, the children having vacation in Berastagi to celebrate the birthday of their largest contributor, and fear of fuel-price hike protests, we managed to conduct it, complete with all the materials to be taught, including past, present, and future tenses. I myself had even prepared grammar exercises for the teenagers, while another mentor of SEALNet, Elvira, also had had a large poster containing pictures of fruits with both English and Indonesian names.

 

Adriana (left) and Elvira (right)

 

In full contradiction, our assumption was totally wrong. It is true that the bapak panti, known as Mr.Zebua, owns 2 orphanages, one of which was our destination on that outreach. Around 47 individuals, mostly primary-class students, are registered in the database of the orphanage we visited. When we reached there, it turned out to be almost exactly 102. Everything we had set and had planned very well was originally intended only to fit 47 persons, but this became our Achilles’ heel when we found out the name tags were already empty (we wrote down all the 102 children’s names in the name tags, with aim to keep the rest – those who stay in the other orphanage – assume we visited theirs).

At the same time, I only printed grammar exercise suited for 20 teenagers, while in fact, it turned out that more than 30 others were also present on the time we visited it.

I taught present tense in front of all the individuals. Deep inside my heart, I conjectured that instead of educating human beings, I was more like bragging in front of statues. Most of the individuals had no comprehension what I was talking about (and so did the mentors and the mentees). Some said that I was more of a ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ type of mentor, leaving them in much confusion – and certainly – tedium. Only few were willing to listen, mostly the girls. The primary-class students stared at me with blank expression. Mr.Supian later told me that these kids had even never been taught pronounciation of English words in their school. Some teenagers had, in fact, been taught such tenses many times in their school. What I could conclude from this statement: okay, I’m a dinosaur.

 

Pak Supian is a superb educator.

 

Our outreach succeeded largely thanks to Mr.Supian’s assistance. Without prior preparation, he spoke so well that he reminded me of the way a priest talks in front of the congregation. That quite helped in spurring their gusto. He led the prayer, the cantillation, and the carol-singing session. I couldn’t help but wonder, while I recorded his talk: how many thousands of outreach sessions had he ever undergone in his life? Mine is perhaps simply one-thousandth of his.

Somehow, it was better to have a ‘half-baked’ outreach, whose execution in reverse bore no resemblance with the timeline we had set altogether, than to have null-and-void at all. In the end, we sang songs altogether (mostly Christian-themed songs with we-know-what lyrics), and we handed out some drawing books, notebooks, unused books, Kuark science magazines, school textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, snacks, drinks, and a long list to go.

 

 

I thanked everyone (especially those tagged in the note) who had paid total concentration on their efforts to make the outreach succeed. Particularly to Adriana. She has had multitudinous talents that I hardly possess. She’s magnificent in drawing out the posters, she’s superb in photography, and she’s able to make and edit videos as well. But my deepest kudo goes to Mr.Supian. Given the fact that we are not that financially able to hire such salient motivators like Andrie Wongso or Mario Teguh, he’s been very enough for us to provide satisfaction to these buddies.

By the way, on 29th April, we are still having another outreach session to go. Expect ‘the motivator’ to come back. Be very curious.

 

Both these posters are nicely designed by Adriana (except the future tense, thanks to the help from my classmate, Jesslyn Calosa). Thanks a lot!

Don’t be afraid of the masses

 

Recently, within two weeks, and on the same Friday afternoon, two massive demonstrations had been eructating in front of a 4-star hotel named Emerald Garden. More than one hundred civilians, all of whom are members of hard-line Islamic groups, protested what they alleged of the hotel’s management having toppled down a mosque. I did not check out further whether the hotel had really compensated it with building other ones or not (some remarked that the management had done so, and I hope so), but the main thing that I detested from these protests were of the racist remarks they put on certain ethnicity, particularly those of Chinese descendants. Personally, I myself felt uncomfortable with their words.

One of my friends changed her display picture in Blackberry Messenger with the one showing how the protestors carried out anti-Chinese posters, menacing that ‘one more mosque down, a thousand Chinese homes singed’. Another poster impended the Chinese, what majority of the hard-line Muslims here acknowledge as neo-liberal capitalists, to get out of this country. She told me that she stayed home all the afternoon, while anticipating any unfortunate spate that might any time happen. Meanwhile, another one of my friends, who is used to having English tuition in a house belonging to a Korean-American woman in close proximity to the hotel, was told by the woman not to come across the location.

To admit it honestly, no matter how unnice it is that everytime we hear any racist epithets pronounced by many of the denizens, there seems to be no other way but to accept them, no matter how these words might hurt, assume you were the one who’s in the minority. I myself personally confess that in general the ethnic Chinese are capitalists, but we must realize that it has been long taught in all the economic textbooks, that not all economic systems are entirely of evil concepts, and neither of them is considerable as being ‘the ultimate, the most sacrosanct’ ones. Every economic system, even capitalism itself, does contain itself its own advantages and disadvantages. In addition, I can’t comprehend what on earth is actually underlying their subconscious minds; they have ultimate belief that all Chinese people are demons. I certainly give a credence that all religions or forms of faith in this planet, including Islam, never teaches anyone to put excessive hatred in someone only because of their racial backgrounds, or only because they are not Muslims. They never promulgate messages of waging wars against those they consider opposed to what they take into their heads in, but it is usually the men themselves who have misused all the essential values of their religions to merely garner benefits for their own sake. And that’s what I always have been convinced with.

 

 

Here is my main concern: will this spark another worse-than-1998 riot? The improbability itself is neither too low nor too high, but that does not indicate it is entirely impossible at all. Even after the tumultuous period in 1998 had slipped by more than a decade, relationship between the bulk of ethnic Chinese with so-called pribumi, or indigenous Indonesians, remains largely brittle. Social gap remains indisputably large, though not as high as that triggered during Soeharto’s rule. Even if it is cognizant that approximately 100 million Indonesians have themselves elevated into the middle-class status, it hasn’t exhibited a considerable improvement of inter-ethnic relationship in Indonesia. But the probability itself is majoringly diminished by the en masse democracy majority of us relish. Besides, unlike in the past, when most of the time people were not granted rights to monitor their own surroundings, now they grab the bigger chances to observe the societies, largely thanks to the fluorishing appearance of mass media industry, enabling more people to speak out and assess the current events taking place in societies, even though oftentimes, what they speak out is not necessarily linked to the topic discussed. Lastly, the economic situation in 1998, compared to that in 2012, is a matter of 180-degree reverse. 1998 was a catchphrase for economic malaise most of the Asian countries, when tens of millions of people were out of job, but on the contrary, 2012 refers to the momentum for Asian emerging markets. In general, most of the emerging markets do face the similar situation: unconducive environment as a consequence of high insecurity and uneasy legal protection. But, the miraculous axiom is their over-the-acme economic revival.  Leastwise, the good news is that majority of Muslim Indonesians, after further survey conducted by multitudinous television stations and social institutes, oppose the existence of such hard-line organizations, albeit not all of them do have positive attitude towards ethnic Chinese.

It never takes a day to heal all the wounds imprinted for many decades. At times, the conjunction between the two communities are often at unease. I myself realize that such stigma would prevail for a long time, and flipping over it is like building a castle in the air. The hard-liners are planning to turn back, preparing what they claim ‘a larger demonstration than ever’. What will happen after, I ain’t a prophet at all.

But I know they may (probably) have to think twice, in minimum, before they really wish to scorch all the thousand Chinese houses. I envisage the ones who will fight back would be the servants and the drivers.

Medan, as recalled from its culinary riches

 

My far-flung cousin, Novi, always has an unusual sesquipedalian to-do list everytime she returns to Medan after having much time spent studying in Hong Kong: she has an unbearable craving for food, or much to say, culinary scenes in this metropolis. Once I asked her why she missed the chow here exceeding that in Hong Kong, given that the semi-state has more to offer in all terms of dishes, she would simply reply, “Missing the culinary affluence makes me miss every single piece of memory of this city.”

As a matter of fact, she was actually born here, and raised here until the day she turned 14, when she decided to pursue further studies in Hong Kong in 2003. She occassionally returned home, in average one month for every sojourn. Hunting for eateries prevails her cardinal, essential priority aside from gathering with her old friends. But it’s not only my cousin who always does it. Honestly speaking, it’s been the onus of almost everyone having migrated overseas for a seemingly infinite epoch to pursue higher education, or better dreams.

There are not as many people in the world who recognize Medan as they do to other major global cities, particularly Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, etc. I even dare to bet that, say the least, half of the world’s population do not realize that a metropolis inhabited by almost 3 million souls in the northern part of Sumatera does really exist. Statistical figure may bolster the evidence: no more than 50,000 foreigners visited this mecca in 2010. The situation of this city was terribly unimaginable that it even sparkled complaints by many tourists paying a visit here. Some of the roads are filled with potholes and badly tarnished. The drainage system is overwhelmed with trashings. There are few bus stations, so public transport buses park themselves anywhere they like. Traffic is painstakingly time-wasting, as people prefer either driving sedan cars or riding motorcycles to taking public transport system. Worse, there is even no urban railway system available here. Blackouts still take place in certain places. Criminals threaten the night, fully equipped with weapons and a full dose of audacity. But, all things change when it all comes to food. Street-side cafes, Chinese-style so-called kopitiams, or those splurge dining venues emerge into a form of alternative escapism, of all sorts of commotion coming ahead of us.

 

Selat Panjang

 

Kampung Keling

Of all the dining places, kopitiams and street-side cafes seem to possess an enigmatic force no other places could have. I myself do not know what sort of sinew it precisely is, but I do feel it everytime I see how these guys, young or old, quinquagenarian or quasigenarian, stew the dishes with gusto. An old septuagenarian, despite slender body and dim vision, still tirelessly swings both his hands, stir-frying a boiling wok of rice noodle. A middle-aged lady is seeping a lump of noodle from a boiling steel pot, while her husband pours sauces, pepper, little pieces of chopped pork and shallot into the bowls. A moustached Minangkabau cook is stirring a gigantic wok of amounting spicy fried rice. Another old lady is pulling a lengthy piece of sweet roasted pork from a hanger (or as we know it in Hokkien, cha sio), and chops it into smaller pieces, before she places them over the top of cooked rice, and squirts some sweet sauces onto it. If you happen to stop eyeing your beloved gadget for a while to spot the slightest piece of hustle and bustle they are experiencing everyday, you begin to realize what makes these localities so vibrant is all what they are doing to serve the throng, who have been sitting and waiting patiently for these dishes to come.

 

 

Back to my cousin’s story. When she and her mother came back home in June, I recalled one event in which we brought them into a Batak restaurant named On Do. We ordered saksang – marinated pork with spices and sauces made from pig’s blood, roasted salted pork (the main favorite menu in this eatery), and ikan tinombur (grilled pomfret fish with local, unknown spices from Toba). Truly speaking, all the combined spiciness of these menus could make your stomach broiling, like you are going to defecate in no time. But, still, she told me as I remembered it, “Whenever I’m returning to Medan, I will not forget this restaurant! The menus are excellent and satisfactory!”

Indeed, there are too many steadfast eateries in Medan I would like to recommend. To paraphrase, let me just make it direct to the main point: it is strictly recommended that you pay much more attention to all those kopitiams (they are abundantly available in Selat Panjang, Kampung Keling, Jalan Sumatera, Jalan Palangkaraya, Jalan Asia, Jalan Jose Rizal, Jalan Semarang, Jalan Surabaya, Jalan S. Parman, and so much more) than the eateries available in shopping malls. It’s an option you can take whenever you insist your budget remains on the shoestring.

Medan would not have been that alive were there not such omnipresence.