It feels like yesterday: LAX welcomed me on January 8th. It was a lovely warm evening for someone arriving from a Belgian winter. I rented an Airbnb for a week to look for lodging until the end of my 4 months program, late April. A few weeks before my departure from Brussels, I already searched online for an apartment near UCLA Campus and found a very interesting place.
I proceeded with the required steps until the payment moment, but there was something strange. The account number showed the name of an individual instead of the leasing company. Google did not provide me with any information regarding that name being related to the leasing company. A friend in the US called the company, checked the place, and confirmed that this was a scam. The Craigslist ad was flagged and I was saved from losing some thousands USD as a “deposit”. During my Airbnb stay, through a Facebook group “UCLA shared room” I finally found a room in a very nice house of a really lovely family, with another tenant studying at UCLA. To find lodging, it is best to visit the property directly or with a live video call. Compared to Brussels housing which I thought was already pricey, the rent in LA is really jaw-dropping!
It feels like yesterday: my first time in Los Angeles and I had an immediate crush. The wonderful trees and plants! The blue sky and sunny days! The beautiful UCLA campus! Not to forget the hallmarks like Hollywood with its legendary Whisky a Go-Go, also the handsome Getty Center which admission is always free. The “Hi, how are you doing today?” accompanied with a hospitable smile. Having heard about superficiality, I experienced the opposite; I loved those American greetings! When descending from the bus, people say “Thank you” to the bus driver, who replied kindly. Taking Uber or Lyft provided me with an interesting exchange of stories with the driver and fellow riders. Oh, and American customer service: exemplary.
Despite having grown up in a tropical country, LA days could be hot for me as well. Yet, I never had to worry about getting dehydrated. Water fountains are easily found and available for free, just as toilets. Another very remarkable aspect was the street name signs: such high visibility with an indication of the house numbers. Does this sound normal? Well, this is not something regular in many places in the world, not even in the heart of Europe!
Counting my blessings
I can picture myself taking the elevator in Bunche Hall, my nice office is on the 11th floor just neighboring Ann Kerr, the Coordinator of Fulbright Visiting Scholars. I was lucky to join the Sunday meeting in the FAME Church where Ann organized a meeting lunch with the church’s wonderful youngsters. The beautiful music and some really great voices, I felt like I was in a movie about the young Aretha Franklin. (She used to sing in that very church! You would get the same goosebumps as I did).
Besides working on my research project, during my Fulbright stay, I also joined some classes in the Department of History and Department of Arts. In The Center for South East Asian Studies (CSEAS) I made a presentation about my artworks and about the research I was assisting, which is a historical photography book project of Prof. Geoffrey Robinson (Department of History). Next to that, I was also invited by Prof. Elizabeth Drexler, a former Fulbrighter herself, from Michigan State University’s Peace and Justice Studies to do a participative performance about the Indonesian kidnapped activists in the late ’90s, who are still missing until today. These opportunities were very enriching for me, especially thanks to the discussions with the participants and other students, from which I learned different perspectives and feelings about my performance and other visual artworks.
The abrupt end
It really feels like yesterday, when I had the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with some very friendly and interesting people: scholars, students, artists, taxi drivers, my landlords (a lovely mixed couple, racially and ideologically), fellow coffee shop customers, et cetera; when I learned to accept that fried chicken is matched with waffle or donut; when I was mesmerized by LA’s golden hour,… It feels just like yesterday.
Then countries across the globe started shutting borders: COVID-19 is raging. During the stay-at-home period, I saw rather empty Sawtelle streets, supermarkets ran out of food and cleaning products, my landlords waited 3 hours to enter Costco. A friend came to bring me some food and toilet paper, we stood at the trottoir at 1.5 m distance. When the Belgian government strongly advised Belgian citizens temporarily in the US to return home and have received a supportive response from the Fulbright Officer and from my UCLA Supervisor, I hesitated no more. It caused me sadness to leave so suddenly and to abort my program. My to-do and to-visit lists were still very long! However, I can continue working on my project remotely even after the end date of my program, an opportunity which I can’t thank Prof. Robinson enough for. I am now also working with an LA musician I met during my Fulbright stay, to prepare a sound piece for an exhibition in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights early next year, per invitation by the museum and organized by the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (NY).
My Fulbright stay was very short, I will definitely look for another opportunity to continue it one day. Having to return early was an unfortunate event, but I am now richer not only by the memories of my stay and the professional experiences, but foremostly I am richer by having new friends and family who I am absolutely going to visit again once this crisis is over. Meanwhile, I am sending a little prayer for America in these precarious and tumultuous times.
Elisabeth Ida Mulyani is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Visiting Scholar in Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Born in Indonesia, based in Belgium, Elisabeth graduated in 2010 from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. Elisabeth does interdisciplinary work and uses various media including video, installation, and performance. She has exhibited in Indonesia, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, and the USA. Her first book “Inside Embassies” (2015) captures the presentation of identity of countries, seen through their embassy offices. Her recent artistic work and research handles the subject of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide and its succeeding brainwash, which is partly shown in “Artivism: The Atrocity Prevention Pavilion” during the 2019 Venice Biennial.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State