So it’s been more than a month since I last attempted to write a blog post, and I’m a little disappointed in myself: my original goal had been to update every week, and I had been doing so well until this point. Actually, however, the fact that I haven’t been driven to write lately may be a good sign; things that happen are somehow less note-worthy in my own mind as they’re slowly but surely becoming standard in my life. Things are… normal. I’m still an outsider, still consistently met with stares and uncontrollable, uncomfortable or giddy laughter, requests for selfies and the ever-present shouting of “Mau ke mana, Miss?” I am still not fully used to the food, and crave a Fuddrucker’s burger, a Chipotle burrito, and a Taco Bell gordita more than I ever thought possible, but… I’m adjusting. Things are pretty good overall.
In my head, I know that a lot has happened since my last post, but I’ve been struggling to remember everything in a way that will make it possible for me to write about these things in any detail. I’m scared of losing memories, so what follows is going to be an attempt to reign them all in, more for myself than anyone else; I really want to document this trip as best I can, and lately I’ve been failing at that.
I guess the biggest change happened fairly soon after my last blog post: my neighbors, the owners of my house as well as of several bakeries and a restaurant around Kendal, arrived back home from Mecca: Bu Laela, a former English teacher at MAN Kendal (she retired this year due to health problems) and her husband, who speaks just a tiny bit of English but is just as kind as she is. Their huge, beautiful house is right next to mine (which was intended as a guest house, as far as I can understand), and has both an inside and an outside waterfall, complete with a giant catfish in the pond below. The picture on the right of this blog is actually of the their home. Since their three children are all away at school – two of them are studying abroad (in Turkey and Germany) and their younger daughter is enrolled at a university in Semarang – Bu Laela has stated that I’m like her new daughter. I have officially been invited over for breakfast every morning, and, since they own bakeries, this includes a great selection of pastries and muffins. It’s almost too good to be true, especially considering that I already receive dinner gratis from Bu Supartinah and doorstep lunch delivery from the school. I’ve even been able to make peanut butter and jelly, which comforted me more than I expected it to when I was feeling a little low. The couple has taken me to dinner, on a tandem bicycle ride (my counterpart and I on one bicycle with them on another), driven me to visit family in the mountains, taken me to a wedding (two more are planned for this weekend), and plan on showing me a nearby beach soon as well. I am extremely grateful to have them.
I will forever cherish the memory of kneeling on the ground, scooping a mixture of mud and sawdust into my hands, and plopping it into the plastic mold used to form bricks; my hands were coated in the gloopy stuff, and I was encouraged from the sidelines (and recorded) as I attempted to smooth over the surface with my palm and lift the mold to form a perfect rectangular prism. Behind me was a waist-high collection of hundreds upon hundreds of recently-formed bricks drying in the sunlight, and on the ground were just as many that were too wet to stack. What took me a good few minutes took the tiny matriarch of the family who lived there a mere few seconds – and she did it better than I did. All of us then retreated to the small house on the property to drink es kelapa muda (coconut milk) fresh from the trees outside. Surreal? Most definitely.
We had come to a property in the rural outskirts of Kendal that was also owned by Bu Laela and her husband on our long tandem bicycle ride. The family who lived there lived off of the plentiful resources the land had to offer, as well as sold the bricks that I had attempted to make. It was certainly one of the most memorable days I have experienced in Indonesia.
There had been a slight little incident the day before that, as – upon returning from Mecca and checking on the house I currently live in – the cleaning standard I had ascribed to thus far was not quite high enough. This was told to me quite gently, in the setting of a meeting they arranged with me one evening, but it still made me feel pretty awful. They were understanding of the fact that the house was probably too big for me, got dirty easily, and acknowledged that they knew I tried… there was kind-hearted laughter, even, and the constant reassurances that they weren’t angry, just trying to help me. The reality, however, was that my house was expensive, recently built, and a point of pride for them; proper maintenance is incredibly important. And they were right. Of course they were. Having not yet properly met these people, though, I was crushed that their possible first impression of me was of a lazy American who didn’t like to clean (despite having no evidence that this was their viewpoint, it was hard not to feel that way). The comment that I was a princess and therefore my skin was too white and beautiful for hard work didn’t help me to feel better, though later I realized that the remark was actually serious rather than sarcastic.
It was decided that a cleaning crew would come every morning to keep the house in order, and that’s actually been a weight off my shoulders. Because I really had been trying, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I probably wasn’t doing well enough. The mop I had bought just a few weeks before had literally broken apart in my hands the day prior to the sit-down meeting, as I had tried to scrub away the dirt on the kitchen floor, and I had an angry red blister on my finger from gripping the handle too hard (this, I believe, is what sparked the comment about my white and beautiful skin). It really was too much for me to handle, and it took me a while to realize that this fact was nothing to be ashamed of. “You’re there to teach,” my dad reminded me, “not to be a maid. They know what kind of a person you are.” The other ETAs were similarly supportive after I vented to the Facebook group, but I still felt twinges that I should have tried harder, done more to dispel stereotypes against Americans. That’s partly why I’m here, after all. But the great bicycle trip with Bu Laela the following morning really proved to me that neither she nor her husband thought anything of the sort; they were happy to have me there, and treated me with forgiveness and generosity. There were even a few well-meaning cleaning jokes made at my expense (“Maybe if you pedal faster, you will also clean faster!”) Well, I had it coming.
I guess the next big bit of news is that I went to Singapore. The best part of the whole experience was, of course, finally being able to talk in person with the nine other ETAs stationed at madrasahs; it was cathartic to discuss things that had been on my mind and things I had experienced, and also fascinating to hear their perspectives. The incredibly sweet Anna gave us all personalized letters and a box of delicious little pastries that she made herself… forgive me for forgetting what they’re called right now, Anna, but thank you again!
The next best part of the trip? The food. Or just having the option to eat the food I’ve been deprived of, really; I think I miss general availability and freedom of choice more than the actual tastes, as it’s torturous to crave a burrito and have no possible way of getting one. Singapore is a fascinating mixture of cultures – Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, and Malaysian being most prevalent among them – and the plurality of languages on all of the signs was something I never got tired of seeing. English is an official language in Singapore, and it was quite a nice change to be able to confidently order food at restaurants and talk with shop owners. Also, aside from being absolutely stunning, Singapore has got to be the cleanest place I have ever seen. There are harsh fines – and even punitive punishments – to enforce such order and cleanliness, but these measures definitely work.
It was also so, so, so nice not to be stared at. Singapore is comprised of foreigners… that’s sort of its main appeal, what makes it unique. We didn’t stand out amongst the crowds, and that’s the exact kind of invisibility I sometimes wish for in Indonesia. It makes seeing the sites and exploring a lot less intimidating.
I enjoyed a quesadilla at an outdoor promenade at night, drank some cold beer, strolled around Chinatown, ate a Chinese lunch (reminding me how much I’ve missed the food there), bought a ton of oleh-oleh (souvenirs) for my fellow teachers at MAN Kendal, ate a brownie sundae at a restaurant on Arab street, and just lounged around and talked with the other ETAs. All in all, it was a great reprieve. What was funny and surprising to me was just how scandalous I felt the whole time. I felt like I was looking at my surroundings through the lens of a conservative Muslim woman: everyone was exposing so much skin! I wore shorts! And a tank top! And felt oddly self-conscious the whole time. It’s incredible how quickly your environment can mold your thought process, and it sheds a little bit of light on cultural adaptation and the need for patience when it comes to reaching a mutual understanding. Two months was all it took for my perspective to shift.
The purpose of the Singapore trip was for those of us placed in madrasahs to obtain a Socio-Cultural VISA, which we would later be able to convert into the more permanent KITAS to last the remainder of our stay. As of right now, my VISA situation is all but completely sorted: all that’s left is one final extension request, as the KITAS expires on May 10 rather than the 30. It’s only taken 3… or 4… 5? long, traffic-jam laden hot car rides to Semarang’s immigration office, but I’m finally a legal bule.
I previously mentioned that I bought oleh-oleh – more than 50 assorted keychains/other small gifts, as well as colorful handbags for the four main ibus in my life. It was gratifying to see the excited smiles of the teachers as they chose their preferred souvenir from the bag, chatting to one another as they decided what they wanted and occasionally nabbing an extra for one of their children. It’s Indonesian tradition to bring gifts home for friends and family after an extended trip, and I wanted to show that I was aware of this aspect of their culture as well as thinking of them while I was away. It seemed to be appreciated! The fancy lighter I bought for my counterpart Pak Sigit was stolen out of my suitcase (which I checked for the sole purpose of not having the item confiscated as a carry-on), but he was understanding. At least he knows I tried. “Use a lock next time,” said the wife of Eliza’s counterpart. “Things are often stolen in Indonesian airports.” Lesson learned.
There’s simply too much else that’s happened to detail, I guess, so I’m going to attempt a quick bulleted list of some of the highlights of the following weeks:
1) I went to Jakarta for Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s Residence, and met 90 or so other American teachers, most of whom were with the Peace Corps. Hearing their experiences was amazing, and just being surrounded by so many other Americans – as well as other ETAs I hadn’t seen since orientation – was incredibly comforting. And the food? Delicious. Pumpkin and pecan pie were definite highlights, as was the wine. Also? I got to go to Chili’s. There’s actually one in Jakarta. And I finally got my burger. (Side note: I’ve now eaten at Chili’s in Ecuador and Indonesia, both of which are places I never expected to find one, and both times it was a perfect taste of home.)
2) I booked my vacation for the end of December! I’ll be in Bali from the 22-25, which means Christmas at the beach (!), and then I’m headed to Flores to visit the dragons on Komodo Island for the next two days. I’ll be with fellow ETA Grace for the duration, as well as hopefully acquire a few tagalongs!
3) I discovered that there’s a pretty cool swimming pool just a short walk from my house, and was able to go last weekend with a new friend and her young son. I wore yoga pants rolled to the knee and secured with a safety pin as well as a baggy t-shirt – American bathing suits wouldn’t exactly be appropriate. The atmosphere, however, was the same as it would be at a community pool back home, and I really enjoyed myself.
4) Teaching continues to be a highlight of my time here, but I still have less influence than I am used to in the classroom; as an assistant, I do a lot of listening to the main teacher, try my best to refine the material included in the curriculum, and lecture the best I can in English that the students can understand. I think it’s good that my experience has largely been with first-graders, because I’m in no way embarrassed to act things out or make a fool of myself to demonstrate a point, and the students seem to enjoy it. The other day, I accidentally ran into the door frame in an attempt to act out the idea of “storming into” a room. The laughter was initially embarrassing, but then it made me smile… if I can make them smile and enjoy English class, then that’s a victory.
I love my English Conversation Club, because I can control what I do during class, and the students have a chance to practice in a low-stress setting. Many of them are still too shy to volunteer on their own, but they’re slowly coming around. I did a brief lesson on Thanksgiving and shared some of the foods we traditionally eat (they’re baffled by the cranberry sauce!), have sung songs and analyzed lyrics, had a student come to the board and draw a picture that she couldn’t see while her friends used English to describe it to her, had them fill-in-the-blanks in a paragraph about my life with a grammatically appropriate word, compose sentences with individual word cards, participate in a two-teamed English competition using a Powerpoint presentation filled with questions, and other fun activities. I’m still trying to find my footing and get the kids out of their shell, but it’s been great so far.
I’m looking forward to implementing the regional grant idea next semester: AMINEF divides the ETAs into small groups based on region, and challenges us to come up with a project idea to implement in our schools that a) requires the students to actively use and practice English, b) produces some sort of tangible product, and c) has the potential for sustainability; i.e., it’s likely to be repeated in future years by other ETAs, or by the will of the students themselves. I can’t take any credit at all for the idea we seem to have settled on (the date sort of snuck up on me, and I was initially unclear about the division of the groups), but my teammates have proposed creating a video that includes student photographs of parts of Indonesia that are important to them, as well as their thoughts on their home: what do they want people to know about their country? It will be interesting for the students to see how their perspectives may differ from one school to the next; even though we are all in Java, Indonesia is rich with diversity. I hope that implementing this project will instill some pride within the students, actively engage them with English, and encourage open discussions about cultural differences.
I’m sure there is so much I’m forgetting to write about now, and I apologize for that. I will do my best from this point on to update more often. Sampai jumpa, teman-teman!