Oberlin Blogs

Winter Term in Southeast Asia

March 8, 2023

Ilana McNamara ’24

Winter Term is one of my favorite parts about Oberlin. For a month in January, all students get off of school to pursue any project that they want, which could be in Oberlin, at home, or abroad, related to their major, or completely different from anything they’ve ever done before. It’s not seen as something distracting from our learning, but as an integral part of our college experience, and every student is required to do at least three Winter Term projects in order to graduate. Over the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty cool things during my Winter Terms here at Oberlin.

My first year, I traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota with my string quartet, and we rehearsed, performed, and received coachings, which you can read more about in my blog here. The next two years I didn’t do a formal Winter Term project per se, but in my second year I lived with some of my best friends from summer camp in a house in rural Vermont, which I think was possibly the best thing I could have done for my mental health during the intense COVID lockdowns. While in Vermont, I did a no-credit virtual practice intensive with other members of my studio. 

During Winter Term my third year, I stayed with my sister, who is going to school in London at Trinity Laban Conservatory for a major in contemporary dance. I loved getting to spend a whole month with her, even though we were in pretty tight quarters. Although I didn’t really have a project or agenda, I enjoyed just picking a new neighborhood in London every day and walking around. One of my favorite things about a major metropolitan city like London is the anonymity that you have when being in public spaces - I could quite literally be anybody, which is very freeing and beautiful. 

However, not doing a project for the past two years means I was a bit behind on my Winter Term credits, so it was time to start planning what turned out to be the coolest Winter Term project ever. No offense to Oberlin in January, but it’s really cold and a little bit dead, so I knew I had to go somewhere else. As a double-degree student with specific requirements to comply with, I won’t really be able to study abroad ever, so Winter Term and summer break are kind of my only chances to do some serious traveling during college.

My dad posed the initial opportunity to me - he was going to Indonesia and the Philippines in January for work, and would I want to tag along? My dad is a Professor of International Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and he is in charge of multiple grants from the US State Department that bring people in from other countries to study in the US (which is another example of weird American soft power abroad, but I’m not going to get started on that right now). 

I decided that if I was going to go to Southeast Asia over January, I would create for myself a whole Individual Project based around things I was interested in and do that instead of just following my dad around all the time. I spent most of my fall semester this year doing research, reaching out to people, and writing grants for this project. In the end, my Winter Term was entitled “Traditional and Contemporary Music in Indonesia and the Philippines,” and that’s exactly what I studied for a month. I am very grateful to have received some generous funding through various grants at Oberlin, so I was able to subsidize a good portion of the costs of this incredible experience. 

After spending Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s with my family, my dad and I embarked on the (extremely long) journey to Southeast Asia. After about 36 hours of flights and transfers through four different countries, we arrived in Bali, Indonesia! The climate of a tropical island is quite different from what I was used to at home - it was so nice to be in 75°F weather for a month, and the natural scenery was also beautiful.

I have been involved in Oberlin’s Gamelan Ensemble, which is a traditional Indonesian “orchestra” which consists mostly of percussion instruments, and I have learned about the gamelan from other classes, so I was super excited to learn more about the gamelan in the place where it originated. I was really lucky to get to study with Cokorda Raka, a prince in the Balinese royal family and a gamelan master. I got in touch with him through Jamey Haddad, who teaches percussion and world music here at Oberlin. We were staying in Ubud, a city known for its authentic culture, the most well-known of which is the gamelan and accompanying dance. Every day for the week we were in Ubud, I walked to the royal palace in the middle of the city to receive lessons from Raka on the rebab, a traditional Balinese gamelan instrument that has two strings and is played with a bow. 

Raka also was generous in showing us around the island, and we took day trips to mountains, beaches, rice paddies, and even to the workshop where they make most of the gamelan instruments in Bali. The primary form of transport in Bali is motorbikes, and it was a little bit scary to navigate the streets, but I loved the feeling of the wind whipping my face on a motorcycle. We also got to see Raka perform on the rebab at two different concerts where his gamelan group accompanied traditional dancers. The Balinese traditional dancing was super cool to watch, as it’s a lot of small movements in the fingers and eyes, and the dancers are so expressive. 

The traditional Balinese architecture also has a similar style, in that the small details are the most important and intricate, which I found to be really gorgeous. We were staying in a guesthouse next to the Saraswati Temple, and every morning we ate breakfast overlooking the beautiful temple and the water lily pond that surrounded it. The festival of Galungan was happening while we were there, which celebrates the victory of good over evil, and the people believe that ancestral spirits visit the world during this time. We saw many parades for the holiday, and it was really cool to hear and see how much traditional music is a huge part of the lives of the people in Bali. 

While in Bali, I was also fortunate to get the chance to meet Dewa Alit, a composer of gamelan and other contemporary music. I got to see his Gamelan Salukat, a group that performs his contemporary gamelan music, and the instruments were made in a completely new tuning from any other Balinese instruments (gamelans have different scales than in any other traditional music). It was great to talk to him about his compositional process and how he incorporates his culture into his pieces, as well as learning more about the state of contemporary music in Indonesia.  

After an incredible and culturally enriching week in Bali, it was time to fly to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, for the alumni workshop for the Young South East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). This is the program that my dad works on, and I was invited to present a workshop on “Creativity in Leadership” during the session. The YSEALI fellows are all super cool young Indonesians, and are doing really important civic engagement work in their communities. For instance, one fellow is deaf, and is advancing the deaf community in Indonesia through her deaf feminist community, which is not easy in Muslim Indonesia. 

It was an incredible experience just to spend a few days with these important people, and they were very kind and hospitable to me, which I found throughout Indonesia. During my workshop, I spoke to the participants about graphic scores, which are a way of communicating musical information through non-standard notation. We all collaborated to make and then perform a graphic score, and then we talked about how the lessons of improvisation, creativity, and unexpected performance can be helpful in leadership. The workshop overall went as well as I could have expected, and one of the participants even said that they were going to use the skills that they learned about graphic notation to communicate with illiterate people that they work with in their remote province of Indonesia. 

It was fun to explore the city of Jakarta with locals, although I didn’t find the capital of Indonesia particularly easy to navigate or very walkable, due to the macet, Bahasa Indonesia for “congested” or “traffic jam” (a word we heard a lot). We were able to visit the national monument, the Kota Tua (“Old Town”) with Dutch colonial buildings, and we even got a special tour of the US Embassy and we were able to meet the US Ambassador to Indonesia. 

I really enjoyed going out to eat with the YSEALI fellows and seeing what the nightlife was like. There was a street next to our hotel that had a bunch of street food stalls spilling over into the road, and even though I couldn’t eat most of it (I don’t eat meat unless it’s kosher), what I could eat was delicious, and I definitely enjoyed smelling it all. 

One thing that really struck me about Indonesia and Southeast Asia in general was the crazy disparity between poverty and wealth. If you look at the tags on most of your clothing, a lot of it is made in countries like Indonesia because the labor costs are horrifically low. We got to experience this first hand because everything in Southeast Asia was very inexpensive. As foreigners, we were saving a lot of money on food and everything else, but the people weren’t getting compensated fairly. However, because the costs of living are so low as well, generally most people were happy with how much they were paid. It was really weird to know that we were underpaying literally everyone, but they were perfectly fine about it because that’s what’s normal in their society. We of course tried to tip where we could, but there are a lot of people who are never going to be able to survive anywhere outside of the country that they come from (not saying that they need to!). We were also staying in foreign hotels and getting foreign treatment, which was quite a lot nicer than some of the places made for locals. 

After our time in Indonesia came to a close, it was time to head on the plane to Manila, Philippines! It was really cool to be flying right over the South China Sea, and we could see the individual islands that the Allies used to advance to Japan during World War II. This has been an important strategic location for years, and continues to be today, which was cool to at least see from above. We had a layover in Singapore, and I got out to see some of the city, like the largest indoor waterfall in the world. 

In Manila, there was another YSEALI conference for Filipino alums of the program. At this workshop, I gave a performance of solo viola works. I played J.S. Bach’s “Prelude” from the Sixth Cello Suite, “ko’u inoa” by Hawaiian composer Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, “Fragility Etude for Viola” by Filipina-American composer Susie Ibarra, and “Freilachs fun L.A.,” a klezmer song from my own Jewish culture. At the end of the performance, I invited the fellows to share their own Filipino music, and they had a lot of fun showing us karaoke, an important musical symbol of the Philippines. Filipinos tend to be quite good singers, and they will eagerly show this off. Even if they can’t really sing, they’ll make up for it with the performance factor. It was crazy to see such a culture of music, because there were people singing literally everywhere we went: formally in karaoke bars, but also just while walking around or doing mundane tasks. 

I was so touched by the Filipinos' love of fun and laughter, which was very contagious. They were so happy and outgoing, which was lovely to be around. I also really appreciated the different lens that the people that I met on this trip gave me about my own Western classical music. Although I’m super lucky to go to Oberlin and have the musical education that I do here, a lot of what we talk about is improvement-based, always looking for flaws so that we can perfect them. I had the privilege of having audiences who didn’t necessarily have this mindset about music, and could be genuinely moved by my performances. Everyone was so appreciative whenever I played for them, because I think the viola was something generally inaccessible and new for a lot of them, and one of the fellows came up to me after my performance and said that it was so moving that she cried the entire time. This was really life-changing for me, because I haven’t previously thought of my music as something that could really move people emotionally. This trip and the people that I met on it really gave me so many new insights into why music-making is important and how I want to interact with my artistry in the future, which is to help people and convey emotions, not simply play the right notes. 

It was also fun to get to explore the bustling capital city of Manila. I saw the national monument and adjoining parks, “Intramuros” (or “Old Town”), the walled Spanish colonial city (are you sensing a theme?), and other important Filipino landmarks like Jollibee, the ubiquitous fast-food chain, and jeepneys, the blinged-out Jeeps left over by the Americans after World War II that have been transformed into art-covered minibuses. We got to see Filipino revolutionary art at the National Museum of Fine Arts, and learn more about the complicated colonial history of the Philippines. 

I also got to experience another important facet of traditional Filipino music, which is the phenomenon of house bands. A much-loved tradition in the Philippines, most restaurants have house bands, which perform Filipino and Western music, or really anything that you request. It was cool to see how the love of music in the Philippines extended to even the most mundane of situations, and Filipino house bands have gone all over the world to perform.  

After the workshop was over, my dad and I drove out of Manila to experience the beaches of the Philippines, and it was really nice to get out of the city and spend some time swimming, riding boats, and snorkeling. After a few days by the beach, we went back to Manila because my dad had to catch his flight back home to the US. I got to stay on for an extra week because I didn’t really need to be back for anything until the semester started, and I used my extra time to soak up some more sun on the beach. I booked a flight to Boracay, another island in the Philippines known for its white sand beaches. It was so nice to spend some time by myself on a real vacation, because I don’t get that opportunity a lot. I would spend most days just walking along the beach, and come back to my tiny studio apartment Airbnb to practice my viola. I really appreciated this time to fall in love with playing the viola again, because I’ve been having a lot of doubts about whether I actually like playing and if I’ll continue after I graduate. It was nice to know that on my time off when I had no other responsibilities, I really wanted to practice viola, and I hope I can continue to have that love for my instrument even with the hectic schedule that the semester brings. 

To say that this trip didn’t come with challenges would definitely be untrue. Especially when I was alone, there were a lot of complicated things I had to navigate, like the water not working in my Airbnb for the first day or not understanding the language and if people were trying to take advantage of me. I really like being alone, but it can be difficult and isolating to be a solo traveler. I was able to keep my head up, though, and enjoy the beautiful moments.

To round out the trip, I had planned a layover in Seoul, South Korea. When looking at flights, I was going to have a 9-hour layover in Seoul anyways, so I figured why not extend it and go out to actually see the city? I’m super glad that I did, even though it was a huge change climate wise, going from wearing shorts everyday to wearing every layer I could in Korea’s cold winter. I was able to experience culture through visiting multiple museums, and seeing both contemporary and traditional artworks. I got to eat some great food (I even found vegan bibimbap!) and see cultural landmarks like Gyeongbukgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. 

After my stopover in Seoul, it was time to take the hours-long plane ride(s) back to Cleveland. I got back late Sunday night, just in time for classes to start the next Monday! I was a little bit jet lagged the first week, but it’s just syllabi anyway :) I’m so grateful to have had this incredible experience of living into the musical cultures of Southeast Asia, meeting wonderful people, and discovering insights about myself and my own music making. I want to thank everyone that helped make this possible, and encourage you too to create a winter term project that you can use to expand your horizons and discover new things about yourself! 

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