This is Water Too

Many of you have been asking me what it is like to live here, in Indonesia. What is like to be in Indonesia? This is a question that encompasses so many aspects of life and requires so many details that I may not be able to provide through writing alone. In my prose about my experience I am showing you a snapshot of Indonesia. However, what I write, and what other’s write is just a snapshot and never the full picture. In fact, it doesn’t matter how many blogs you will read, or travel magazines, or news articles, you are never going to get the full picture. I also know many of you are aware of this as I do not want to insult your critical thinking skills or ability to discern that my experience is one view of many. Even if you put them all together, it will still be incomplete because in order to truly experience Indonesia, you will need to come here. Likewise, in order to truly understand Indonesia, you will need to be Indonesian. I’ve only been here for 5 months and I do not feel like I am qualified to make any comments about the culture other than observations/sans opinions. The only thing I can say with confidence is that Indonesia is different; and different does not mean better or worse.

In the past month or so, school has started but it has been fairly slow. I have been observing my counterparts until last week when I have tried to work myself into the lesson. It is going to be a challenge to co-teach and to find the strengths that compliment each other in the classroom. I have to continually remind myself to be patient, but it is very hard. All I wanna do is teach teach teach, no matter what!! I started playing badminton with my teachers to add to our schedule of playing tennis together. I also started playing soccer (futsal) with some girls at my school and that was so awesome. I definitely am not 16 anymore, that’s all I have to say. I still run in the afternoons, and I have added Summer Heights High, Dawson’s Creek, and New Girl to my past 7pm me-time schedule. Unfortunately, I ran out of oreos on Wednesday of this week, so I was out of snacks.

English club has 42 members!!! WOOO HOOOOOOO. I can’t wait to start our short film making!

Someone said to me once that being here was not hard. I do not know what they mean by that, but for me, being here is not “hard” but some things have been really hard to adjust to because my culture and the culture that I am currently in are fairly distant (culturally distant) from each other. The following are the adjustments that have given me the most strife:


I am working and living in a pre-dominantly Muslim community and the dress is moderately conservative in my town. Most women wear the hijab and wear clothes that cover their arms and legs at all times. In the home, I have seen some women wear t-shirts and capri like pants, but it is rare to see a woman wearing shorts, or a tank top. It is on average 98-100 degrees here every day. I come from a culture where in the classroom and office there is a dress-code, but you can wear skirts and shirts that show your collarbone if you please. Most people in America, on their free-time, where whatever they want; which can be a good or bad thing (just watch Fashion Police with Joan Rivers). The heat is incredible here and wearing pants and long sleeves in a building with no AC is what it is; miserable. When I am at home I wear shorts and a t-shirt, because I am at home. When I run, I wear shorts and a t-shirt as well, and for anyone who asks why, I say that it is very hot and in my culture this is appropriate. The compromise is I wear what I want (almost, I don’t do tank tops) on my time, and I wear what is culturally appropriate to school and school functions. I make it sound really easy, but it’s not. On the weekends it’s not like I can throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and go to the market, no. I have to think about what I wear, more so here than I ever did in America, and for that reason I sometimes just stand around naked in the comfort of my own room.

Food: I swear I like rice.

After I had Dysentery, I was afraid to eat anything. Granted, it is impossible to know where I got it from, so avoiding foods is impossible. It’s also not to make any comment on Indonesia; it is just a fact of life. Being from America where the bacteria are different and we have different methods of farming and different foods altogether, my body was not used to the change Indonesia presented it with. If you come to Indonesia, you will most likely get a parasite/some kind of stomach issue, but for the reasons listed above and nothing more. We got a shot to avoid Typhoid and we take medication to prevent Malaria, but preventing food borne illnesses can be trickier since we are not always in control of our food; especially during travel.
The question of whether or not I like rice, comes up in most conversations with people that I am just meeting. The answer is simple; yes, I love rice. I like to eat rice at dinner and maybe lunch, but not for breakfast. Rice is a staple of the Indonesian diet and I respect that. As I cook breakfast and lunch for myself, I make the choice not to eat rice. So, there’s that.

On a side note, most of the teachers at my school and my host family are totally aware of what I love to eat and they like to treat me if I am not already treating myself to these delectable delights:

1. Noodles (mie) – also known as Haurgeulis Spaghetti by my bapak and is a favorite food for my host niece, Lala, to feed to me.
2. Chicken: fried/baked, I love me some chicken.
3. Sweet Iced Tea- I’m from Virginia, okay.
4. Bananas – all kinds; banana chips, fried bananas, banana bananas
5. Oreos
6. Chocolate milk- Indomilk is the best brand
7. White Kopi- the best instant coffee in the whole wide world.

My background has never come up more than it has in Indonesia. I am fine with that. Sometimes, after hearing the same questions about myself over and over again wears at my patience. It would in any context and in any situation. Yes, I am white. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am American. Did I choose to be white? Did I choose to be a woman? Did I choose to be American? There is more to me than the obvious and I really would like to be looked at as an individual. I think this is an excellent opportunity for me to say yes, I am this but, actually, not all Americans are anything close to who I am. Yes, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I encourage you to look at us as the separate entities we are. Just as I am sure that an Indonesian would not like to be pegged in a category and had their individual characteristics erased to conform to preconceived notions of a prototype that they may or may not (most likely, may not) fit. We are individuals. Just as Americans are individuals bound by cultural norms and geography, so are other citizens of the world. Erasing the characteristics that make us unique is Erasure. We engage in erasure every time we describe individuals by the group we think they belong. ‘Typical American’ and ‘privileged people’ are two examples of categories that we use to describe persons that erase the individual characteristics of the person and thus reinforcing the stigmas and stereotypes associated with such a classification because actually in the aim to be specific, we actually have blurred the lines even more by avoiding to truly define what we mean by such a classification and solely relying on the implications of the term to define it for us. It is lazy thinking. I hope to not to give an impression of a typical Indonesian, because 1. That notion is unreasonable and 2.I cannot make that claim because I myself am not a member of that group. So instead, I will write about the individuals in my life here in Indonesia. The individuals are just as brave for hosting me as I was brave to come here.

As my days here are filled with moments unplanned and schedules often interrupted, it is hard for me to gauge the significance of me being here. Sometimes I wonder if I am doing enough. If holding steadfast to teaching with a counterpart and not by myself is truly productive. If I am spending enough time with my host family. Am I asking the right questions? Am I giving the right answers?

Then there are moments where I am with one of my counterparts (he is also my host brother) and I see his dedication to teaching and teaching English. I really enjoy working with him, and although I haven’t taught a lesson yet with him, I believe we work well collaborating on lesson plans. I hope his students realize what an awesome teacher he is, although I suspect they do.

Or, moments where I read what the students in the school have written about me, a project that the counterpart I mentioned above, started. The students were so genuine with their responses thanking me for coming, and sharing they wanted to learn more about me, America and English. All things a feat within themselves, but a challenge I would like to accept and my gratitude is reciprocal.

Or, the time where my host dad, a man who has worked on passenger ships and been to Germany and Holland and then became a Principal before retirement, took me up on my offer to try ketchup on his kentang (potatoes). He seemed to enjoy it and then tried it on his tofu, which I admit, that probably does not taste as good. My host niece also tried a banana, peanut butter and chocolate smoothie that I made and loved it. Just being able to share that with them was satisfying enough. As many times as I find things to be fascinating here and often, I admit, weird (when applying my own cultural lens) I remind myself that I am also probably very peculiar to most (see the post before this one).

Times when I can hear the kids down the street call out for Harry (the cat I “adopted” as my own), or play on the hammock I bought for myself but am much too big for. Or when my IBU sat on the exercise ball and bounced with excitement, to both mine and my host niece’s enjoyment. I feel okay. I feel open.

I feel open when I am teaching kids to sing. Today we sang, Justin Timberlake’s Mirrors. We learned the first half today and are going to learn the second half on Wednesday. It wasn’t until I had written the lyrics out that I realized what a beautiful song it really was.

As Justin sings about finding his other half, the other half who not only is a separate entity in itself but also reflects the other person (himself), I too wonder when that day will come. I recently read posts from my cousin and a friend of mine who are also grappling with transition and solidarity; then more recently from one of my best friends here in the Corps sharing the same sentiments.

I know very well that Justin is talking about finding the other person. Isn’t it true that you need to find yourself first? Or at least be at peace with yourself. To realize that the anxieties and insecurities that you have will not be remedied by your location, is the best blessing I have received thus far. I am making peace with myself and who I am, something I haven’t necessarily avoided, but never made the time to do. I am realizing what water is.

Well, this is water, and this is how I discovered it.

It had been a particularly hard day the other day. I couldn’t fall asleep the night before because I had visions of grandure in my head. I had turned on the light maybe twice since it’s intial switch off, to scribble ideas in a notebook that had odd quotes for success at the bottom of each of its pages. One read “to be a winner, all you have to give is everything”. Still not sure what that means, but anyways, the next morning, in a Benadryl induced hangover, I got up late, went to school late, and I did not get to teach that day because lesson planning didn’t go as well as I thought it would the day before. So, that left me sitting in the back of the class, in my tan polyster-blend body suit, sitting in a pool of my own sweat and trying to stay awake and keep myself thinking positive about the teacher I was observing even though all I wanted to be doing was teaching the lesson myself.

I came home and headed straight for the mandi to stand in all my glory (and to my relief) to dump buckets of cold water on myself. I turned on my computer and went straight to facebook . Being a sucker for all things inspirational, I saw a friend had posted this video of an adapted commencement speech at Kenyon University in 2005. The late David Foster Wallace gave the speech, This is Water, which later was made into an essay in his book Little, Brown and Company. You should watch the video if you haven’t seen it, I’ll provide a link here, but in sum, the message is that we are sometimes so consumed by the automaticity of life and our natural default to think egocentrically, that we ignore the common links between us all, and thus loose our compassion for others. The ability to choose on how to look at others and their possible strife, and to have empathy for them, will help us discover the living in life. The analogy that life is water is where the title comes from. And just as the young fish in his introductory anecdote didn’t know what water was, I am also beginning to realize what it is myself.

I am guilty of dismissing some people here as being dumb, half-witted, and incredibly slow. All I want to do is take an angkot home, why are we waiting in the heat for 45 minutes with the ankgot on and the fumes filling the vehicle if we are not going to leave? Why do we have a flag ceremony every Monday morning and every time we have at least 4 students faint from the heat? Why do we have meetings during class time? Why would you tell me the post office opens at 9, say you called at 8:30 and were surprised no one answered? The point being here is that I am only thinking about myself and my comfort and ignoring the other people who I share the world with.I am not thinking about the other passengers on the angkot who are just as frustrated and maybe needs to get home to a dying child or husband who is ill. I am certainly not thinking about the angkot driver who maybe only makes 5 dollars a day or less and whose income depends on the passengers who he is waiting for. Perhaps he turns the angkot on to attract customers because it seems like he is leaving? Perhaps another PCV has had an awful week where they had to move houses, they broke up with their significant other and they just need a hug from their mom and the last place they want to be is here? Like Wallace says, improbable, maybe, but it is not impossible. And yes, like Wallace admits, I tend to get wrapped up in these sorts of things and I lose my patience. If I choose, though, to look at the situation and the individuals and their feelings, I can walk away knowing greater patience and compassion. This life is certainly mine, but my life is not all about me.

Of all the incredible gifts (lessons) one can have from being in the Peace Corps, discovering what true compassion for others is and the living in life, is probably the most useful and hard lesson have received.I hope to treat my fellow PCVs, family, friends, Indonesians, and all individuals I meet with the compassion and patience that they deserve. You cannot have social justice without compassion and humanity. I may just now realize the water all around, but I am glad I know how to swim and that I am able to choose the direction I will go.


4 responses to “This is Water Too

  1. I always have things to say and then I forget them by the time I’m finished reading 😛 ,
    As for the conservative dress, I’m lucky that Turkey is not much of a stickler for enforcing it on everyone, but I still don’t wear tank tops either (if I do, I have a cardigan on)

    New Girl ls an awesome show 🙂

    Luckily the ‘priviliged American’ thing doesn’t enter into the picture here because I teach at a private university that by local standards is pretty pricey (the dorms alone cost 4,000 bucks a year!) 😛

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