A gift, then a semester abroad, spark a fascination with Indonesia

September 7th, 2023   |   Alumni, Research, SIT Study Abroad

It was an impromptu gift—a book found by a relative on a discount table—that set Finn Meachem on a path that would lead him to a conference this summer to present research on pilgrimage sites in Java.

Meachem was a third-year student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., with a double major in linguistics and religious studies, planning to study abroad on SIT Indonesia: Art, Religion, and Social Change in spring 2023.

There's a lot of rapid social change going on in Indonesia and the voices of those people haven't really been centralized in the classes I was taking or what I had learned so far.

“A relative of mine heard I was going to Indonesia, saw a random book and sent it to me. I read it because I was trying to find out as much as I could before I left, and it completely captivated me. So, reading that and then getting to formulate my own questions and go out there and get the answers for myself was incredibly satisfying. I mean, I've never been able to do that in my life before,” said Meachem.

That quest became a guide for Meachem’s SIT Independent Study Project (ISP) on how the religion of Islam got to Java. To investigate, he took his nascent Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese language skills and traveled on his own to the interior of Java to spend a month visiting several of what are believed to be the burial sites of nine Muslim saints.

Finn Meachem at a Java holy site.

When he completed his research, SIT Indonesia Academic Director Ni Wayan Ariati recommended to Meachem that he apply to present his paper at the 2023 American Institute for Indonesia Studies (AIFIS) annual conference in July. Meachem was accepted to participate on a virtual panel called Unity and Diversity in Citizen Belonging.

“The quality of presentations was incredible. Even within our small group, it was enlightening to hear some of the other things people were talking about in Indonesian studies,” he said.

We talked with Meachem about his research and presentation, his experiences on the program, and what comes next for him as he enters his senior year at Macalester. Following are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me more about your ISP.

My topic was how the religion of Islam got to Java. There are these nine quasi-mystical saints who are accredited with various miracles. The places where they're said to be buried have become sites of pilgrimage. I visited as many as I could. I prayed there and talked with the key keepers of two of them. It's a hereditary position that's been passed down to one of their disciples, and then his son, and his son, and his son.

[These sites] act as a piece of infrastructure. They're like a road or a highway or a toll bridge connecting one world to another.

So, my research was mostly about pilgrimage traditions and what I called spiritualized infrastructure: the idea that we have no proof of anything being at these sites. It's just that they are necessary for a culture's understanding of their own history and their own religion. They almost act as a piece of infrastructure. They're like a road or a highway or a toll bridge connecting one world to another. They're incredibly fascinating places to be. They are open to all, but they’re not really a place where people go. I was definitely not able to use any English for the month that I spent in the central Javanese interior. But it was incredible. I'm very glad I did it.

What language were you speaking?

I was speaking mostly Indonesian and the broken Javanese that I knew, which in general was enough. The dialect changes out there, but the SIT program did a pretty good job of preparing us to use Indonesian. I think it speaks volumes to the success of the program. I'm not anyone special, but I was able to just go out there and communicate my desires pretty effectively. I planned all the hotels by myself, and I planned the trip by myself. Faculty is there to help the people who need it. But if you feel like you're ready, they're ready to let your hand go and kind of let you ride a little bit, which is nice too.

Did you have an idea about your research before you went on program?

I had already had some scholarship opportunities and Macalester is really big on research and how to get approved for research, and the linguistics major also is very heavily focused on a research component. So, I was looking back at some of the old research I had done and forward toward my capstones. I wanted to do something that genuinely interests me and engages me. It would be a shame to work for an entire semester on a project and have it be a slog. So, part of it was circumstance—stumbling on these saints and their pilgrimage sites.

What's the name of the book that your relative sent you?

The book is called The Bandit Saints of Java by Dr. George Quinn, who is an Australian anthropologist. I ended up Zooming with him. He's an incredible person. He's also visited the shrines. I love talking to him because he's kind of the ultimate anthropology/humanities type person. His version of events was really interesting to hear, both as a preparatory thing before I went. And then I called him again after I had gone, to compare our experiences. Because I had read the book it felt so special to talk to him.

Finn Meacham approaches a Java holy site.

When you were looking for study abroad programs what were your criteria?

I knew that I didn't really want to go to an English-speaking country. I didn't have a ton of desire to go to the more common destinations or to see Europe or do something that was in my comfort zone. I was very interested in the multiple destination programs, but I realized for myself it would be best to stay in a place for as long as possible and really integrate myself into the culture and a family structure—to live with a family and learn the language.

I also knew I wanted to go to a place that was, not under-researched, but a place that was ripe for discourse, for things to study. There's a lot of rapid social change going on in Indonesia and the voices of those people haven't really been centralized in the classes I was taking or what I had learned so far.

The wonderful thing about SIT is the ISP component where I was just on my own for a month, and there was a ton of time to really get deep about things that tourists or travelers don't often get to experience.

I had already done a little bit of research on Indonesia. My focus within religious studies is mostly Islam, and Indonesia is the largest Muslim country on Earth. I couldn't picture Java or Bali beforehand, but I just thought this would be a very good way to try and integrate what I've been learning about and what I've been interested in. I just thought: It's the right time in my life to take a leap. And luckily, I think it really paid off.

What do you think drew you to an experience like that?

Before I left, one of the things that really got me excited was reading about the history of civilizations on the islands of Indonesia. There's a really rich history that I just had no access to. I didn't learn that in public school. I think about the Maja dynasty or the great Hindu epics or the classical arts there. And there was this feeling, as the time approached, that I'm jumping into this and I've got a lot of catching up to do. There's so much that I don't know about this world. There were times where, especially when I first landed, that it really felt like another planet.

If I had to talk with somebody who is going next semester, I'd say just embrace it.

If I had to talk with somebody who is going next semester, I'd say just embrace it. It's a very developed, civilized place. If you're thinking about modernity or what you want out of your study abroad experience, you can go to a big city and there are hotels and casinos and big streets. If that's your idea of what civilization is, you can find it there. But there are also places that look completely foreign to us, and they're just as beautiful and in the modern world as the rest of the country. But there's no real preparing for that, at least in my experience, just because there's so much out there.

Structures at one of the Java holy sites.

That's what started to draw me to Indonesian studies: that maybe I should think about this after I come back, maybe I should make this into my life plan. I need to go back. I need to study it more because there's 17,000 islands and each one of them is full of a culture that I know nothing about and is very worthy of study and education.

Do you know where you want to go with that?

This study abroad program helped me quite a bit with that. I think the immediate goal is to find a research fellowship or scholarship to go back to Indonesia because the research I did in Java has had more real-world application than I was foreseeing. I ended up presenting at the AIFIS conference, and I'll be using some of the research I did in Java for my capstones. If there's a way to research lesser-known religious discourse in the world of religious studies, I'd really love that.

Indonesia is also just a wonderful place to be in terms of linguistics. I think it's the most linguistically diverse country on Earth. So, I'm going to hopefully get back there as quickly as possible and study the pilgrimage culture, which for me is this perfect intersection of language and religion.

Were there other things on the program that stood out for you?

Yeah, big props to the entire faculty for being so in-depth and available, and planning such good excursions. There was a wonderful mix of learning and free time to explore and also these planned excursions to important sites.

We had three homestays, but one was by far the longest—our homestead in Bali. I grew really close with my host family—just doing chores and learning to speak a foreign language—there's a very real bond. I still keep in touch with them. If I ever go back, I will definitely visit them.

I’m going to remember the smaller things, like having a slice of cake and singing karaoke with my host families on my birthday.

We had amazing moments that were pre-planned, like going to these large temples. But when I think of spring 2023 and the SIT program, I’m going to remember the smaller things, like having a slice of cake and singing karaoke with my host families on my birthday. Just the small moments like that really were incredible. I'm glad everything was facilitated by SIT in a healthy, responsible way because it gave us the opportunity to connect with people that I never would have been able to connect with.

Did it change you, your experience?

Definitely. I spent Eid al-Fitr, the holiest day of the Muslim calendar, in a very rural part of central Java. I remember being invited to the parade and going and praying at the masjid and doing all of the typical things that Indonesian Muslims do—just kind of being carried along and trying to use the Indonesian that I could. But so many things stick out to me about life in those more rural parts of Java that changed my perspective on a lot of things. Since I've come back it's definitely a little strange, but I feel very much at peace knowing that there's so many interesting similarities in the human experience. And, no matter where I end up, those lessons will be applicable.