My Hometown is Concrete Roads

A few days ago, I finished watching a Studio Ghibli animated film titled Whisper of the Heart. It’s a heartwarming tale about chasing dreams and realizing them. It’s harmless and fulfilling and there’s something incredibly joyous about watching it. I fell in love with the characters of Shizuku and Seiji. Their dreams of becoming a violin maker and a writer respectively still resonate with me. Their ambition and willingness to strive for the future they want truly inspire me. Even so, the most memorable line in the whole film to me does not necessarily have much to do with their journeys. It has more to do with mine.

In the film, Shizuku translates English song lyrics into Japanese for her school choir to sing. She takes creative liberties with them, changing the meaning of the song as she sees fit. Her translations are never literal. She plays around with the words and she does so wonderfully. One such creative translation is the one that she does at the start of the film when she translates the song “Take Me Home Country Roads”. She jokes with Yuko, her friend, and rewrites the lyrics to fit her actual hometown, Western Tokyo. On a bench next to their school’s football field, she and Yuko sing: “Western Tokyo. Tama Mountain. My hometown is concrete roads.” For some reason, the last part of the lyrics sticks with me. “My hometown is concrete roads” applies to me. I don’t have a country hometown. The hometown I have is one filled with skyscrapers and malls and rows upon rows of houses with electricity poles in-between them. It’s not a hometown filled with mountains or picturesque roads. It’s Jakarta, not West Virginia. And I reckon Western Tokyo is more like Jakarta than West Virginia.

For days, I can’t help but think about Jakarta and all its concrete roads. I think this, too, has something to do with me being back in Jakarta due to quarantine and social distancing, staying inside the home I grew up in, and being surrounded by my family and old friends. It all brings back memories and a vivid sense of sentimentality in my bones. After all, sometimes we just fall back onto our memories and find ourselves trapped back in junior high school and high school days. We just reminisce about the times that were not good and yet sweet in our minds.

—–

One thing that I will always remember vividly about Jakarta is the floods. It’s an ever-constant memory, a déjà vu I encounter year after year.

For some people, the flood is a catastrophe and brings bad luck. It’s a thing they await with dread. The adults always worry over it. They estimate which days in the rainy season the flood might barge in. The moment the rain gets heavier than normal, they haul expensive and personal items of sentimental value to the second floor. The TV is constantly on. Family WhatsApp groups suddenly flood—sorry—with heavy rain and flood warnings instead of the usual odd posts.

I’ve become one of those adults. I haul my books up the stairs of my house and tuck them safely into the corner of my bedroom. I check everywhere on the internet and watch videos of the flood entering people’s homes.

I’ve gotten older and, perhaps, wiser? Although some days I wish I could go back to my childhood self who sees floods as a thing that brings me joy and happiness.

Childhood me loved floods and so did all of my childhood friends. It’s our excuse to not go to school or after school lessons. I remember that every time we looked out the windows of our school and saw the rivers filling up, we would inconspicuously text our parents to come to get us. We would wait patiently for school officials to knock on our classroom doors and tell us that one of our parents had come to pick us up. It didn’t matter what the teachers were teaching or writing on the whiteboard. We didn’t care that our parents paid too much money to send us to school, we just wanted out. The floods gave us that “out”.

I remember the one time my parents couldn’t pick me up because the flood was too high that our car was unable to wade through the water. My friend and I were keeping a lookout at the high school’s lobby, watching as the water continued to rise. We talked about wading through the water ourselves, walking through the flood for the few miles between where our school was and where the neighbourhood’s mall was located. She swapped her black shoes and white socks for Swallow flip flops that she brought from home just for this occasion. I took out my metallic purple umbrella but kept my shoes on. Unlike her, I did not bring my own flip flops. We covered our schoolbags with plastic covers and put our belongings into plastic bags, bracing ourselves for the rain pouring down on us.

“Your mom would meet us there at the mall, right?” I remember asking her, slightly worried but also excited. Wading through a flood is a messy business but doing it with a friend is always fun.

“Yeah,” she answered. “Come on.”

And so we set out, holding an umbrella and wading through the water. We walked carefully, making sure to hold onto each other. Her flip flops would slip from her feet and we would grab it with panic written all over our faces. My shoes were filled with water. Other people who were also walking through the flood greeted us, warned us of cars passing through, and creating small waves, told us to walk under the awning of the shops. Sometimes they helped us pick up my friend’s flip flops and we’d thank them. There is a sense of camaraderie on the streets of Jakarta when flood season arrives. We are kinder to each other than we are on the days in which the sun shines brightly.

It’s the beauty of Jakarta and its concrete jungle. Floods are the one thing that binds us together.

—–

My family used to live in an apartment—on the fifth or the fifteenth floor, I can’t remember. What I do remember, however, are the days in which electricity shortages happened.

We’re individualistic people in Jakarta. I never really greet my neighbours even now. Maybe a small smile or the wave of a hand, but never anything more than that. We don’t share. We live our own lives. We keep to ourselves. Being buddies with your neighbours isn’t a thing even though you and the other family lives only a door away.

Even so, on the days of electricity shortages, we’d come out of our doors and crowd around the electrical sockets on the apartment hallways. We left our phones there to charge and our rice cookers on. We took our chairs out and sat in front of our doors. I remember the neighbours sharing their French fries with us and we gave something else of ours. We talked for a while. We discussed and complained about the building management. It’s a brief human contact, always a conversation that never lasts very long, but it’s a connection nonetheless. It’s something.

—–

My high school friends are the most beautiful people on Earth. They were the best of enablers and the worst of gossipers. They still are my people.

We spent our high school days being good kids, getting passable grades and helping our friends cheat on tests they just couldn’t ace, eating lunch and spending weekends at the apartment of one of ours, doing group projects half-heartedly and eating out at the same pasta diner over and over again.

We’d skip girl scouts almost every week because we hated it. It was a nonsense extracurricular and there was no point in being out in the sun practicing lining up in groups. So we just naturally skipped it.

We left our bags inside our classrooms and scoped out exits from the school building. Sometimes, this would mean making an exit from the junior high school or elementary school doors and gates. Sometimes we just ran for it, dashed past the security officers, and into the safety of the stationery store or the Thai tea café across the school. Sometimes we would take the red and blue public transportation cars to the mall just a few miles away. We’d pay our customary three to four thousand rupiahs and enter the mall through Starbucks instead of the lobby doors because we knew the mall security officers would never let us in in our school uniforms. We’d walk around the air-conditioned mall for a few hours until we’re sure that the girl scouts was over before taking the public transportation cars back to the school. We’d fetch our school bags and go home.

We never told our parents that we skipped girl scouts.

—–

Jakarta is a concrete jungle. I was always upset about not having a hometown, someplace that I could go to visit relatives, someplace that I could say I came from.

But after moving from Jakarta to Jogja, I’ve come to realise that Jakarta is my hometown. It’s a hometown of concretes. To some people, Jakarta is stressful and pressuring. It’s an overpopulated and overrated city. We have floods almost every year and the prices here are insanely expensive. To keep up with Jakarta is to always work a nine-to-five job and attend meetings in overpriced cafes that smell faintly of vanilla cake.

Jakarta isn’t an extremely beautiful city. I agree with them. But it’s the only city that many others and I have ever truly known. It’s the city that we come home to. It’s our hometown no matter how crowded and demanding and busy it is. And it has its own beauty too. It’s filled with the people of our childhood, all the familiar faces we miss and yearn to meet again. It stores all the memories of our youth, our school, and diaper days. We’ve spent years living inside its confines, riding cars or motorcycles or public transports from its one end to the other. It holds all of our connections, the people we never really greet, and never really know but occupy a place in our heart somehow. We’ve passed through the same streets and eaten at the same few restaurants. It’s the culmination of our lives.

Jakarta is childhood dreams and concrete roads and a hometown I can never really call a hometown. I’ve loved it ever since I was born. It’s a hometown that is a given. It’s a city of a million people and a million memories.

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