BREATHING IN WILDFIRE

Natasha Hertanto


Rebellion is coded so deeply in my DNA that I can’t even follow meditation instructions properly. ‘Focus on your breath.’ Three thoughts, nothing to do with the other, expand in parallel lines. ‘Let your mind do what it wants.’ Dead silence, peace. A thousand minutes of total meditation time later, Andy Puddicombe, the Headspace guy tells me… this is how a majority of people’s minds function. I should be relieved. But being told I’m just like everyone else burns my ego more than any other explanation.

I blame Disney.

For most of my life, I have defied each and every one of my parent’s expectations and hopes, no matter how well-intentioned. Most of the time accidentally, sometimes intentionally. ‘Be a science kid.’ Becomes a social-science kid. ‘Study something practical, like business or law.’ Gets an Art degree in Melbourne. ‘Be careful.’ Volunteers to Africa solo. ‘Get married.’ I don’t believe in marriage for now. ‘Give birth to kids.’ I’ll adopt them, thank you.

When I first decided I wanted to move to Australia from Indonesia, it was driven by a mixture of anger and longing. Anger for a birthplace that never felt like home to me, and longing for a place that might. Anger is a pure, raw spark that makes me leap out of my skin and act. Longing is less of a choice, but more of a feeling I can’t shake. It drills inward, quietly in the dark, ‘till the next time you look there’s a chasm you don’t know how to fill.

One of the most recent disagreements my parents and I had was about their wish for me to do Honours next year.

I graduated last December with a part-time, turned full-time, dream job that I can’t imagine giving up anytime soon. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen, and eight years later, I get to write six hours a day from my bed, in my jammies. Every day. And get paid. It’s hard to understand the magnitude of those four sentences unless you’re familiar with the writing world (it’s like stumbling across a unicorn on your morning hike). The eight-year climb was hard, and fun, and ultimately worth it. And yes, as Miley Stewart emphasises, much more important than the destination. But there’s a sweet kind of victory when you reach the top of the mountain and are welcomed into a castle you used to dream of as a kid.

Although I know they don’t mean to, sometimes my parents say things that imply my castle is interchangeable, to an extent disposable, and definitely ‘an unrealistic way to live’ in the long run. I see Honours as another hill on my way to getting a PhD – one of the many mountains I aim to conquer – but I’m good with dancing around wearing pretty gowns, in my ballroom for now. That’s a hard concept to grasp for my mum and dad, and it causes frustration for all parties involved.

When they think of worthwhile climbs, they think: marriage, a Masters degree, a ‘proper’ job. They chose those adventures back in their twenties, and now live in a mansion with a job they rock at, a luxurious white Mercedes, a chauffeur, two maids, and of course, a golden retriever called Goldie. Metaphorically and literally. ‘Why do you continually resist this path we’re suggesting you take?’ They tell me stories of people they know who worked for a few years, and decided not to continue their studies due to laziness, a change of heart, other life situations that needed more financial attention. ‘We don’t want that to happen to you.’ That to me, is as good as saying I’ll turn out just like everyone else.

ANGER – the first four years

Yoga. Meditation. Manifestation. The Universe with all its kindness and abundance – those things are my jam. But there’s something about not being heard that makes me see red. Red, the colour of numbers circled on white paper because growing up Asian, you’re expected to excel, excel, excel. Red, because per Chinese tradition, culture is e-ve-ry-thing. Red angpaos from people wearing red cheongsams, people you see once a year whose greetings vary from ‘you’re too thin, honey’ to ‘do you have a boyfriend?’. Red, half of Indonesia’s flag. The banner of construction workers who make me feel the need to bring my phone when I walk Goldie – in case someone decides it’s time to screw the ‘look-(cat call)-but not touch’ mentality.

Where an Uber driver told me proudly earlier this year that he kicked out the two boys before me for holding hands in the backseat. ‘Gays are abominations in the eyes of God.’ Where one of my favourite adult relatives shocked me when she scolded her son for touching my makeup. ‘You’re not a girl, and should never act or look like one.’ And then there are the racist ‘jokes’. I sat on a table as someone told the story of what her acquaintance said earlier that day: ‘Muslim-Indonesian maids must be so terrible at following orders, because they can’t hear under their hijabs. The sun must be boiling their brains in the heat.’ I nearly threw up, cried out, both.

I’m no politician, but I guess it might be difficult to tackle these issues when poverty (a third of the country lives in hunger), lack of clean water (27 million have none), and limited access to education (4.5 million children aren’t in school) still top the national agenda. As perhaps, they have to at the current time. It doesn’t excuse or justify these behaviours, but having lived in a developed country for a while I sometimes forget that open-mindedness takes time, progress and willingness. Now imagine in that social climate of ruling sexism, ageism, homophobia, racism domestic life expectations, fixation on physicality as one’s measure of worth, … thirteen-year-old me decided to write stories of characters who defied each and every one of those barriers. She decided she wanted writing to be her job for the rest of time.

That girl was crazy, and angry, and also intensely lonely.

LONGING – the last four years

I couldn’t have then, but I can write an essay as long as this one on all the reasons why Indonesia’s lovely now. From the people’s raw sense of kindness and hospitality, curiosity and adventurous spirit, our folklores and legends that give Greek mythologies a run for their money, and the indescribable food. (If you’ve had proper martabak, you’ll know what I mean). Different languages, music, traditions, clothing, infrastructure in every city. More than seventeen thousand islands running as a nation.

After limiting contact with Indo to brief, yearly Christmas visits over the last four years, my latest visit was five months as I waited for immigration to call verdict on my Permanent Residency application. The first two months were difficult, but I soon realised that I had to have some semblance of a peaceful relationship with this place. Because although I’ve never considered it home, it’s still home for a lot of people I love.

All countries are flawed. Every city, every place has its merits.

And by some freak chance? Neutral coincidence? (You can roll your eyes) perhaps fate? Australia’s merits, or more specifically Melbourne’s, somehow attune to my sense of self and career. A lot of aspects are at play when it comes to belonging, and I haven’t figured out all of them, but I know safety is a big one. The freedom not just to excel, but to make mistakes. I know being surrounded by people with similar goals, interests, and outlooks on life is another. Good coffee, moody skies, art everywhere – all helpers in filling and closing my chasm.

There’s a reason why Ariel and Remy have always been my all-time favourite Disney characters. They’re not just fuelled by the desire to prove their worth, but to live out dreams in a world that isn’t theirs. The human world is just as flawed as Atlantis or… the Paris sewers? In the movies, neither locations were depicted as utopias. But they just so happened to be where Ariel and Remy felt most at home, and happy, and at peace.

Sometime, people just are the way they are, without a revolutionary story or satisfying explanation. It’s a disappointingly honest statement, I think.


Dearest parents,

My decision to move to a foreign country doesn’t stem from a deep-rooted hated for you. Or how I was raised. Or my old, frankly, very privileged life. It doesn’t stem from hatred towards my birth country – not anymore. It’s not a means of escape, or part of an elaborate plan to sever you out of my life. I’d pack you both up and Goldie and move you to a house in Albert Park if I could. (And that sudden horror you feel at the idea, Mum, is the simplest way to explain how I feel when I think of staying. Dad, I know you’re cool with retiring in Oz, so I’m trusting you to get Mum on board).

We grew up,

grew older in different worlds,

with different dreams,

different challenges

that prompted us to make different choices

of which hills to climb on,

live on,

and one day die on.

(Morbid, but as a hippie… it had to be said).

Your idea of happiness, and my idea of happiness will most likely look nothing alike. But that’s because we’re different people. And that’s okay. It’s okay. It really is. Even when we struggle to find common ground on some issues, we’ll be able to eventually because we love each other, right? So much so, that we’re desperate for the other to appreciate the view from our lovely estates. My firecracker, magic castle. Your affectionate, wholesome mansion.

You were the ones who raised me to be strong, independent, relentlessly driven. To be accountable and trustworthy. So try to trust my decisions the way you would trust your own judgment. Trust me when I say I’m happy, and I love my job possibly more than anything in the world at the moment. And oh my god, yes, I will do Honours! I won’t get lazy, I won’t give up on the idea. I promise. Maybe not when or how you think I should, but I will. You know that words are my currency, and so I treat them with high regard.

Disney’s convinced me I’m not like everyone else – and I believe it ‘cause I’m a sucker for propaganda disguised as cartoons – but I don’t mind continually proving my worth and my dreams to ease your worries. Rebelling is as natural as breathing for me. Though I hope one day you’ll be part of my uprising instead of the ones I’m rebelling against.

Until then, I’ll love you.

But maybe then, I’ll love you, and be better at showing it.


Natasha Hertanto is a remote game writer for Pixelberry Studios and an education assistant at the NGV. She’s a Creative Writing and English Literature graduate from Melbourne University. Enamoured by the world of fiction, she is most comfortable writing novels and short stories. Her experimental piece ‘blackpowder’ was published by Pencilled In, and if given the time, she’d love to write for magazines more often. On a day-to-day basis, you can find her snuggled up with a hot cuppa, conquering her task list, and always mulling over her next project.