OF THIEVES AND CITIES by Natasha Hertanto

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My response whenever my parents mentioned the words “family vacation” used to be “ughhhh.”

My younger brother, sister, and I were almost always relieved to reach the hotel after a day of sightseeing. My mom would get angry because “we did not come all this way to watch awkwardly dubbed TV shows and eat McDonalds.” My dad would take way too many pictures – the easiest way to provoke our inner monsters. I would want to stay in a museum for an extra hour while everyone was just done with the dead artist trivia. We argued on what to eat, where to go, what to do. Sure, we’d come home and fill our albums with perfectly posed photographs and (semi) bright smiles. It was a petty move to fool our family’s future selves, really. Because we knew what went down.

Our trip to Japan last year changed the game for all of us. Our grandma tagged along and rode two roller coasters with us at Universal Studios and Tokyo Disneyland. Her screams and happy tears made us dizzy with laughter. We made wishes at Ginkakuji, completely missed out on the Shinkansen bullet train experience because we fell asleep, randomly bought VIP tickets aboard a cruise that took us through a Jurassic World-esque strait, and took a bearable amount of selfies in front of different temples.

Two weeks later, we flew back to Jakarta, our home base, before I left for Melbourne. After a year and a half of living alone, I was hit by homesickness for the first time. My days were spent listening to the Barbie’s Princess and the Pauper soundtrack because my sister had had it on loop during our trip. The nights were filled with gentle rips of tissue, whines stifled by pitch black.

I fell back in love with Melbourne eventually. Its moody weather, knacks for coincidences, art festivals, and of course – COFFEE. It was then that my sister started toying around with the idea of going to university in Japan. Gaming animation in Tokyo, to be more precise. While I sensed her excitement from thousands of miles away, our parents were to say the least, flabbergasted.

As my mom and dad attempted to navigate a whirlwind of anxiety, my sister’s plan slowly  morphed into reality. She took Japanese lessons and received a conditional offer to the university of her choice. My family went to Japan again at the beginning of June this year to secure her living space, meet potential roommates and go on a tour of her university. Meanwhile, I could only watch from the other side of the screen, desperately filling in the blanks from our family’s group chats.

Today is my sister’s 18th birthday. She’s set to leave for Tokyo by the end of September.

Today I wonder, how did this happen?

While we were busy deciphering Japanese characters on neon lights, staring at people with anime costumes, and stuffing boxes of Tokyo Banana in our luggage, Japan was busy winning over my sister’s heart.

How did that happen?

When did that happen?

At what point during our “game-changing” family vacation did she stop seeing Tokyo as a drop-of-a-pin destination and instead, as the backdrop of her future?

I don’t want her to leave our 9-year-old Pomeranian behind. How would he survive without anyone to play and cuddle with? What about my little brother? Who told me he hates school again and again. Who’s surrounded by so much homophobic and racist mentality and would grow up without anyone teaching him otherwise. My mom, who lost nearly 6 pounds when I moved? Who said that she used to curl up in my empty bedroom and cry when she missed me. My dear-ol’-dad who’s clueless on how to show how he feels about scary changes like this and resorts to brooding silence?

But then I remember how I felt when I first arrived in Melbourne. How it stole my heart with hot air balloons floating on the break of dawn, Phillip Island and its 98km/h winds, and oh, trams! Those noisy train wannabes. I was intoxicated by the fresh anticipation of forging a new life. The idea of becoming anyone I wanted to be.

With that realization, my anger slowly folded in on itself, tightened into a fist in my chest. I did not, even once, think of how my family would feel when I left. Why should my sister?

Today is her 18th birthday. I miss our home base.

I count the days until I can come back, but maybe I don’t want to come back. Not to my sister’s empty room. What’s to stop me from curling up and crying there?

I’d rather cry here, in my city, which is struggling to console me with its silly antics. Pausing the rain. Introducing me to talented strangers. Making sure I have an abundance of eye-candy wherever I go. And of course, COFFEE.

I have to pull myself together within the hour. Before my family and I sing happy birthday, let my sister cut the cake, make a wish, blow the candles.

It’s the last birthday photo with just me smiling on the screen.

Hertanto birthday


 Natasha Hertanto is completing her Arts degree in the University of Melbourne. She’s a lover of pizza, Taron Egerton, and the color green. You can find her doing weird (and sometimes cool) stuff on Twitter and Youtube.



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