Cool and Fun with English

Apologies in advance for the delay in updates. Enjoy!


“Operasi Kuku”

My counterpart, Bu Heri, was handed a pair of nail clippers by the teacher from next door, who quietly whispered “Bu Heri, operasi kuku!” as she handed them over. Bu Heri looked at the students, thought for a moment (maybe about the fact that the kids were in the middle of their national biology and sociology exams), and walked to the first desk. The kids displayed their fingernails, and Bu Heri clipped them. She particularly struggled with the boys’ nails, which are normally grown much longer than the girls’, even girls’ in the States. The students were giggling nervously and trying to hide their hands. She clipped the nails just uncomfortably jagged enough that the students would have to clip them down at home, later in the afternoon. Operasi Kuku: Sukses.


Bought a bicycle today. It’s a gold and white cruiser with a huge basket in front. Definitely crappy compared to my old Schwinn, but I’m sure it’ll do. Sweet!

Riding through Turi for the first time was quite hilarious. As I rode, helmet and all, everyone stopped whatever they were doing and stared. I smiled, people smiled, kids waved and were freaked out; it was funny. I was grinning like a madman because it was the first time in more than three months that I had independent transportation other than jalan kaki (walking). Wheels!!

I had a mission from my host parents, Ibu Mama and Ayah, to go out into the village and find the kepala desa’s house (the head of the village, also known as Bapak Lurah). I rode down past some rice paddies until I met some ladies who were gardening; I asked them where Pak Lurah lived. They told me to backtrack and ask someone else a little further up the road, which I did. On the way to Pak Lurah’s house I heard my name being called from across the street; Bu Lurah (the wife of the kepala desa) was hanging out at a toko. We chatted; I told her I was out on the town looking for her house. She laughed, harassed me a little bit because I had rode by her once without stopping or even noticing she was there, introduced me to everyone, and sent me on my way, saying I could come over later. Maybe a quarter mile down the road from the toko I ran into Pak Lurah. He asked me to come over. He hopped on his motorcycle and I rode my bike behind him the 500 ft. to his house; Bu Lurah came home shortly after and had a good laugh.


Did I ever tell you about that time Andy and I made speeches in front of 200 uniformed Indonesian teachers, all from madrasahs in the greater Magetan area? With a microphone? On a stage? In bahasa Indonesia? And then held a bilingual Q&A session? For an hour? What about that time I spoke to all of the fifteen or so village officers and their wives in the kantor desa in Turi? In bahasa Indonesia, on the fly?
The great thing about these (admittedly surreal) events was that I wasn’t terribly nervous. Everybody’s so excited, American and Indonesian, that there’s no reason to be. We’re all so happy to be together and equally imperfect at speaking each other’s languages that there’s really nothing to worry about. Pelan-pelan.



I know that for the first few months here in Panekan I’ll have to focus on the small, daily successes and victories to prevent myself from unnecessarily worrying about whether I’m doing my job, whether I’m being a “good” volunteer, or whether I’m making a difference (or whether I am actually capable of making a difference or even differences should be made, or whether teaching English as a foreign language is an ethical endeavor, or whether the act of worrying about the potentially imperialistic nature of the Peace Corps is itself Orientalist or at least condescending because we’re responding to requests for assistance made by the free will of the government and people of Indonesia, people who are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what they’re needs are in terms of foreign assistance).

Anyways, small victories. Yesterday: Organized a meeting for the English teachers for next week at my house (and tomorrow I plan to invite the principal); went to rehearsal for the event on Tuesday…still not sure exactly what the event is, but I’ll be going dressed in Javanese traditional clothing and meeting-and-greeting on behalf of my Kapubaten (Magetan); remained patient with Ibu Mama.

Today, so far: rode my bike to school, unaccompanied, for the first time; showed the bahasa Indonesia counterpart/principal manual to a coworker who eagerly began to read and eventually asked to photocopy it for the entire staff (maybe folks will finally get a clearer explanation about why I’m here—my broken bahasa Indonesia has not been sufficient thus far); actively informed my host mom that I need to go to the post office, buy a new bag, and get some bug spray; had a great conversation about pronunciation, stress of syllables, and lesson planning with Pak Agus, one of the three English teachers at PAN Panekan; remained patient with Ibu Mama.

Ibu Mama has been told that my home stay is still considered by the Peace Corps as a “trial period.” The PC told the host families that if after three months we (the volunteers) want to move, we can. They told us that we could move after three months if there was a serious problem. Accordingly, my Ibu Mama, who has already told me that she’ll cry if I leave after three months, is bending over backwards to make me happy. I appreciate it, of course, but I don’t want her to go through so much trouble as she is.

I don’t want her to wash all of my dishes, prepare special meals, or do my laundry. I don’t want her to buy me new curtains and bed sheets, a new clothes rack, or special bread from a bakery in Madiun. I don’t want her to wait on me, or give me a special table for my food and utensils, or buy me new plates and bowls, or find me rides everywhere I go. I understand where she’s coming from but I feel terribly guilty. I haven’t even been able to convince her that I will, indeed, be paying a monthly “rent,” the first installment of which I would like to pay as soon as possible.

Of course it will take time for her to adjust to my presence…but I agree with Bart: I’m feeling more like a boarder (freeloader?) and less like a family member. I don’t think it would be as big of deal if I hadn’t just come from an almost entirely ideal set-up in Tlekung (though they always say that PST is a cake-walk compared to Service, capital S). It’s very difficult, starting over; I was just starting—etc.


I hope I haven’t seemed down lately. I suppose I have been—leaving my friends and family in Tlekung was very upsetting. Adjusting to a new situation is always stressful. Losing the everyday face-to-face support system I had in Malang is difficult; some of my friends back home know how loony I am and can imagine, I’m sure, the nature of the self-doubt I’m currently experiencing. It’s not true self-doubt, though… it’s mostly a feeling of helplessness or stagnancy because I’m starting over and the progress I made in Malang has little to no weight here in Turi, even my language ability (people have an incredibly hard time understanding my accent and “special” form of bahasa Indonesia whereas folks in Malang and Tlekung were accustomed to interacting and speaking with me; I also had a talk with Ayah about differences between Malang accents and Central Java / Magetan accents, which are apparently substantial).

School…I’m ready to start working…but I know that I can’t yet. I don’t know enough about the school, my students, the teachers, or the way things are done here—and everyone here knows too little about me—for us to work together and create anything lasting, as of now. That’s the thing, too: my goals are all irrelevant, really—I’m here to help the school and teachers achieve their own goals, which I haven’t discussed in depth with anyone yet.

Really, though… getting to know people is fun. Doing research and thinking about possibilities is even more fun. Watching everyone gawk as I ride my bike around town with a big stupid grin on my face is fun.

Plus, did I mention that my village is absolutely beautiful!? There are tons of rice paddies, fields and fields of corn and chili peppers, a huge mountain (Gunung Lawo) that’s even bigger than the one in Tlekung, and some amazingly vast, open fields with scattered palm trees, grazing goats, and minimal garbage—perfect for biking. I can’t wait until I’m allowed to walk in the early morning so I can go watch the sunrise (I miss my balcony in Tlekung!).

The folks here are great, too. The kepala desa and his wife are hilarious and they’re related to me (my host aunt and uncle), so I get to see them often. My co-workers at school are very excited to have me here. The Ibus that sell vegetables on the corner like saying hello to me in the mornings.

Fun Fact: Even though west East Java (Central Java) is supposedly more halus or sopan (polite) than the Malang/Batu area, men still fart. Real loud. In front of me. Even my darling old Ayah.


I’m 95% sure that my host parents will never accept my “rent” payments, which I receive monthly from the Peace Corps, directly deposited into my bank account here. I tried to broach the subject with Ibu Mama three times over the past few days, to no avail. I asked my counterpart and Bu Lurah for help explaining the situation to Ibu Mama, to no avail. I’m probably going to end up spending the money on goods for the house since she’s so far insisted on providing all of my food (and we’ve got a beras supply to last a year). I’ll definitely be able to afford some excellent batik for her and Ayah when I go to Jogja later this month.

Today: biked to my Bu Heri’s house and met her parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and children (she was shocked that I had biked the 2 km there all by myself; her husband insisted on following behind me on his motorcycle for my trip home, just in case I missed the one turn I had to take—unnecessary but very kind, rather charming, and certainly hilarious for lookers-on); helped my Ibu, Bu Lurah, and a couple of other ladies get ready for tomorrow’s shindig by stemming the most deliciously aromatic lemon basil plants ever; got a few good laughs from Ayah and his guests by shouting “SUGENG RAWO!” (welcome, selamat datang) to Pak Lurah as he walked up my porch…that’s boso Jowo kromo inggil, the high form of Javanese; proctored a national exam without the help of my counterpart and nobody cheated; got Ayah to talk about Dutch people in Indonesia—the Dutch burned down his grandmother’s house and tried to steal her jewelry but she scared them away…this led to a story about how his horribly hunchbacked and dilapidated tailor grandfather could thread a needle until the day he died, and another story about how back in the day, before motorcycles, he (Ayah) had to bike 18 km to school, on dirt roads; traded L2 alphabet recitations with the vice principal; stayed up until 9:00 pm without drinking my afternoon coffee.


I was not too thrilled with life this morning. I had some really strange dreams about the lake (as in Up At The Lake), Brady, high tides, inexplicably large populations of monitor lizards, tigers, and angry blondes with handguns roaming the woods of upper Mid-Michigan. Thanks, malaria meds.

Yesterday I had a bit of a stressful meeting with some of my teachers at school. Probably I was misinterpreting what was happening but it felt like an intervention. Bu Tri made it clear that her main agenda was to find out why I haven’t been teaching the English course for the teachers yet… like Andy. Gah! So it begins!

Of course, I wanted to start this week but couldn’t; I need to have an out-of-school formal meeting with the English teachers and some of the other staff to solidify that we’re on the same page and to discuss my goals and theirs, but when I tried to schedule it early last week, everybody said they were unavailable until next Saturday (now tomorrow). So, though it was later than I’d have liked, I agreed to the Saturday meeting time…then was gently nudged by the teachers to get going, though the meeting hasn’t yet happened (and there’s not been any time at school to get everyone together in the same spot and discuss things); I can’t do things on my own, nor do I want to.* Just trying to open communication… I need to make sure that the school knows I’m not here to work for them but with them, which I feel, as of now, is an idea that is not yet fully understood, i.e. it’s my vision to help the English teachers at the school develop and execute an English course for the other teachers, not teach one solo (though that’s definitely an admiral and brave venture—props, Andy!). Also, they wanted me to create a schedule for Friday, the last day of school, for everybody, all by myself! That’s not how it works!! Explaining that my purpose is not to enter the school and immediately identify and fix problems but to help the teachers identify and find solutions to problems was also a difficult task (my counterpart was in another meeting and we didn’t have a translator). So anyways… I got worked up after the meeting and felt like people were mad at me or worried that I wasn’t going to do my duties….gah. Typical Sam paranoia.

I chatted with Bu Lurah about it later yesterday evening and she confirmed that taking things slowly is much better and agreed that I still need time to adapt to the new situation and study the school culture. She helped me calm down, a lot. She’s great. Whew. Thank goodness!

So, though I felt a little worried that the teachers and I were having a miscommunication I was still excited to go to school this morning to watch Pak Agus teach a remedial English class scheduled for 7:00 am. Remedial classes were supposed to be held from 7:00 am to noon…really, I was excited to see lots of different teachers in the classroom. However, after Pak Agus finished his class, I was asked to have a “dialogue” with the students on the lawn, not directed to the location of the next remedial course open for observation. As it turns out, students who aren’t scheduled to take remedial classes are still required to attend school…and today they didn’t have anything to do.

I agreed to run the “dialogue” but only after a few minutes of negotiation. Of course, I want to get to know the kids and I want them to get to know me, but they hardly understand what I’m saying because they’re not used to my American accent; I explained that if I was to teach or make a dialogue or whatever, I’d have to do it inside, where I’d have whiteboard access. Pak Yazid said that would work and proceeded to split the entire student body up into five groups, to be sent to my classroom one at a time. The others would wait in the courtyard…with nothing to do. Sigh. Nobody had planned anything for the day other than “Let’s have Samantha run dialogues.” It’s great, but…what if I had declined? What if I had gotten sick this morning? There was no back-up plan, nothing for the kids to do.

Luckily, the “dialogues” turned out to be fantastic. I had alternating groups of boys and girls, about 40 students per group. On the fly, during the first “dialogue,” I decided to do the questionnaire we had developed in Malang; asking them to just chat with me wasn’t working—they were far too shy. During the questionnaire, Bu Heri helped with some of the translating. We got to practice reading, listening, writing, and speaking (a little bit), plus the students had the chance to ask me all sorts of questions (Are you single? What do you like about MAN Panekan? What’s your favorite food? When’s your birthday? What are the names of your parents? Do you have a boyfriend? What is beautiful about America? Are you following the World Cup? Etc.) and interact with me. It wasn’t a planned lesson by any means but it turned out to be interactive, informative (especially for me—they know much more English than I thought, they’re just very, very reticent in fear of making mistakes).

Afterward the students and I did our bit, which lasted about 45 minutes, Bu Tri or Bu Heri explained a little bit about the Peace Corps and why I ride a bike (and wear a helmet). I took a few final questions and sent the kids on their way. Some of the kids saleemed me as they were leaving—both boys and girls. That was pretty crazy: I’m still not sure how to react. I do know, at least, that the kids did it voluntarily and with big smiles on their faces.

At the end of the last “dialogue,” Bu Heri and Bu Tri were in tears. They told me how wonderful my teaching was and said they hoped to Allah they can learn how to teach. I tried to say that I couldn’t have done it without their help, but I’m not sure if they heard me. I don’t really know what to say… it was fairly distressing for a variety of reasons, most of which I’m still figuring out but will certainly try to write a little bit about later…lots of the discomfort stems from the fact that many of the teachers at my school have idolized whatever American model of teaching they’ve seen or heard of (or concocted?) and seem to want me to transform their school into an American school because, they seem to think, that’s the only way to succeed as highly as Americans—a very weird situation that’s still being processed inside my puny brain (thanks Noel and Bart for being so supportive).

Overall, it’s been a whirlwind couple of days. I’m looking forward to finishing up the week on Saturday with the circumcision party for the head of the Department of Agama’s teenage son directly followed by the teachers’ meeting at my house.

Fun Fact: Diana’s blog is stellar and her most recent entry contains an absolutely amazing description of the pasar tradisional or traditional market (though I disagree with some of her sentiments about the meats) as well as info about the Madrasah uniform culture. Check it out at (Uniforms are almost the same at my school, except instead of an all white W/Th, my kids have lime green plaid tops and forest green bottoms…and the girls have “MAN Panekan” embroidered on their jilbabs!). Diana, I’m so glad you are happy in Tuban!

Today: made a neat “Meet Miss Martin” poster for the students (and teachers) at my school by printing photos in the computer lab and gluing them to some horribly gaudy (totally rad) rainbow construction paper. I can’t wait to hang it up tomorrow; paid the school back for my bike; talked to Ayah about the “rent” payments and, now that I’ve demonstrated my ability to withdraw funds from an ATM, I’m fairly sure my host parents will accept the cash; almost finished my site locator form; washed, dried, and ironed my laundry (all in one day!! We’ve got an electric clothes spinner. Score!).

*Not in any way trained, certified, or experienced in the teaching of English as a foreign language (though I can design activities like nobody’s business; once again, however, “activities” do not equal “teaching”).


I love birthday surprises, even teeny tiny ones. A couple students, teachers, and I surprised Andy at his school today. We sang. I gave Andy a pack of Emergen-C. Basically, a great time. Happy Birthday Andy!

Today: Met some neighborhood kids during a walk about the village, including some students of one of the two state elementary schools (sekolah dasar, SD) in Turi…amusingly, the kids already knew my name, where I’m from, and what I’m doing here; was flagged down during my walk by a lady I didn’t realize was one of my many host aunts—she invited me into her house wherein I met my host grandmother (90+ years old, precise age unknown! Possibly the tiniest little old lady I have met in my whole life!) and another host aunt; wrote a questionnaire for the teachers’ meeting tomorrow, including my goals/needs/ideas for my school; finished the utterly awful but sufficiently distracting Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (I’m only three months in but I can tell that my tolerance for terrible fiction has already increased substantially); took a mandi before it got dark outside; decided that the cockroach that lives in my desk is a friend, not an enemy…but only because I know it’s never going to leave and I’d rather not freak out every time I see it.

I had a very interesting fruit for breakfast today. It was very similar to kiwi but brown and with just a few big seeds. It tasted like maple sugar. Sweet maple kiwi! Great! For lunch I ate the best curry I’ve ever had, hands down, ever, ever, ever…cooked by the one and only Ibu Mama. It even beat the yellow curry at Little Tibet. Don’t worry, I’ll get the recipe!

Fun Facts: Indonesian cucumbers are extraordinarily delicious and Dylan was right about Reverend Gary Davis.


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