Summer Community of Scholars

Who's immersed in other cultures?

Peter Gray


Academic and Research Interests

Ever since I read an amazing novel set in colonial Java for a first-year class on modern Asia, Indonesia has captured my imagination. With no access to Indonesia-related courses at Clark, I turned to the internet, where I found a surprisingly large number of resources to help satisfy my appetite for information. As I started to incorporate Indonesia into my class projects and assignments, my depth of understanding increased – but so did my interest and curiosity. I badly needed to visit in person. But how?

Under the guidance of Professor James Murphy (and, unofficially, Professor Paul Ropp), I used a Clark University Steinbrecher Fellowship and a travel grant from the U.S.-Indonesia Society (USINDO) to travel to Indonesia . I spent two months living in hot, dusty Central Java, where I worked on a field project. My research focused on cultural landscapes and the interplay between economic and cultural use. What happens when an important cultural landscape doubles as an economic hub for a community? How does this affect peoples’ perceptions of the area’s cultural authenticity and importance? What (if any) conflicts arise, and how are they mediated? These were the questions guiding my research. For my site, I chose Parangkusumo Beach on the southern coast of Central Java. This beach, steeped in a vibrant body of folklore and magical intrigue, is one of the major centers of spiritual pilgrimage in Java today. This important cultural aspect of the beach exists alongside a more basic, economic function: the beach attracts hundreds of visitors on certain nights, providing an important source of income for the nearby community.

Over time I learned that a deeply entrenched shadow economy exists at Parangkusumo Beach, based around the practice of prostitution. Hundreds of women from other parts of the country live there or visit regularly to do sex work, and local entrepreneurs make money by renting out rooms for sex transactions. It was even more amazing to see spiritual rituals and sex work coexisting side-by-side without any hint of public conflict. (I later found out that the sex work was a controversial issue, but that most discussions and disputes over it took place behind closed doors.)

Highlights of my research included interviewing a Javanese royal prince at his palace, using a medium to speak with the ghost of an ancient Javanese king (kind of creepy!), and hearing some of the heartbreaking personal stories of sex workers at Parangkusumo Beach. Outside of my research, I made friends with some of the local students and had a great time exploring Central Java and experiencing the warm (and delicious) hospitality of the people there. I also got really sick for a couple of days, which I guess was part of the full experience.

Other interests

My major is in Asian Studies, and I currently serve as the Vice President of Clark’s South Asian Student Association. I plan to continue my study of the Indonesian language (it’s so simple – you should learn it too!) and to pursue a M.A. in Southeast Asian studies. This semester I’m studying abroad in Perth, Western Australia, taking classes for my major including Indonesian. I’m also going to be volunteering as a classroom tutor in high school Indonesian classes here in Perth, something I’m really looking forward to. Basically I’ve just been trying to use the options I have to pursue my personal learning interests while I still have the flexibility of college life. I’m so thankful that Clark has taken an interest in my work and given me the amazing opportunities I’ve been offered so far. Soon I’ll be off into the "real" world!


2008 Steinbrecher Fellow

2008 Wisniewski Undergraduate Award for Academic Excellence and Creativity