People are often surprised to find out that I am an international student given my American accent and general knowledge of American culture. “Wow, I never would have guessed you were from Indonesia,” they say. Typically, I resort to the usual “I went to an International school” excuse. While I always shrug it off, it makes me question, “What makes one Indonesian?”

This is precisely the question that Elizabeth Pisani explores in her new book, “Indonesia Etc.,” in which she seeks to capture the essence of “Indonesianness” and figure out the “benang merah,” the “red thread,” that binds the many cultures of the world’s largest archipelago.

Pisani, a 50-year-old former journalist from England, was a reporter in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Indonesia, and later came back as an epidemiologist working with Indonesia’s Ministry of Health in the 2000s. In 2011, she took a sabbatical from her job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has “wandered, loved, and been baffled by for decades.”

Given that her book only portrays a tiny slice of Indonesian society, she resorted to the core principles of random sampling.

“If I got out there and looked through the eyes of enough people in enough places, I would be able to piece the fragments together into a portrait of the nation as a whole, to understand better the threads that tied the glorious disparity together,” she writes.

Given Pisani’s ability to strike up a conversation with anyone and her commitment to “just say yes” to any opportunities, she was able to dig up rare anecdotes of people from all facets of Indonesian society, from teachers, farmers, bus drivers, to politicians in the country.

The lengths to which she went to see as much of Indonesia as possible – trekking 41,000 kilometers (25,500 miles) by motorbike, bus, boat and plane – allow the readers to get a sense of the diversity of the country, especially stories of those who live in some of the most remote islands. Pisani eloquently tells of her experiences having tea with the Sultan, joining a wedding procession, visiting a leper colony, sleeping under a tree with a family of nomads, to even eating dog for dinner.

Pisani’s book is a welcome read for foreigners wishing to know more about Indonesia, though it is just as precious of a read to Indonesians who are curious to know about life in the other parts of the country.  Nonetheless, trying to understand the “red thread” that binds the country’s population of 250 million coming from a huge variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds seems quite an impossible task. In her attempt to piece together anecdotes from various parts of Indonesia, Pisani tends to overgeneralize the experience of the people she met and oversimplify the current socio-economic and political conditions of the country.

She concludes that the strongest Indonesian identity is collectivism – this red-thread web of mutual obligation that links families, villages and islands together, offering a sense of security. While the idea of family and community does extend to the hospitable ways that Indonesians treat one another, Pisani neglects to note the rise of individualism in the more industrialized parts of the country.

This is mainly due to the fact that she purposely avoided writing about the island of Java, which makes up 7 percent of the country’s landmass yet is home to 60 percent of the country’s inhabitants. She contends that most foreigners’ mental image of Indonesia comes from Java, as it has historically monopolized major institutions in the country. As a result, she failed to accurately represent the fullness of what Indonesia is. It is as if someone is writing a book about the United States, but purposely avoided writing about California or New York.

What it means to be Indonesian is a very subjective experience, influenced by the histories of the country’s many cultures. The experience of a few people whom Pisani happened to have met during her journey can never adequately represent the fullness of what Indonesia is, or what makes one Indonesian. No matter how many eyes she looked through during her travels, she was not complete in piecing the fragments together into a portrait of a whole nation.

The next time someone questions my “Indonesianness,” I will gladly share with them my version of what being Indonesian means to me, carefully noting the diversity of experiences of other people in the country which I can never hope to represent.

(Written by Glenys Kirana, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Dec. 10, 2015)

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