In Defense of Jasmine Tea, or The Great Crisis of Identity

I won’t say I didn’t feel like I might turn into a whack-evac this week. In PC lingo, that’s someone who’s medically evacuated for reasons of mental instability. Google “Peace Corps” plus “stay sane” and see how many hits you get; this adjusting thing is a lot harder than I thought it would be though I know I’m not the only person for whom settling-in is posing problems. Thank goodness for Mas Andy and his normalcy, ability to take an angkota to my village without a chaperone, and willingness to come over and chat; thanks (to Diana and Bart, too) for listening to the rantings and ravings that I usually reserve for poor Bastin and my crew back home. It’s hard to be a lunatic and a PCV at the same time…though not uncommon (I’m talking about you, Tlekung). Also, sorry in advance: menstruating in a foreign country wherein there are no hot showers and only squatty potties is less than ideal. I know I shouldn’t complain because this whole thing is only temporary, but…indulging my id makes me feel better! Woe is me! O hardship! I wish I had hot water, even if just for one bloody week! So there!!

Now that that’s over with, here’s what happened. The combination of the aforementioned physical condition, still being overly-protected by my host community, being unable to vent frustrations face-to-face with other Volunteers, and the insanity of this weekend led to a near-breakdown! I practically forced poor Andy to come over and visit me on Monday—though, to be fair, I did inform him when we still lived in Malang that I occasionally go crazy and need to be assisted.

I’ve been feeling more shaken up than I thought I would during this settling-in process. I know I’ve said that before, but I suppose some further clarification is in order. It’s been very difficult moving away from Bloomington and then again away from Malang—our lives as PCVs have been upset and uprooted twice in the past four months! We base our identities on not few factors surrounding the place where we live: the culture, community, routines, family and friends, language, places, food, and the earth itself contribute substantially to our identity and the perception of ourselves. Being taken out of the comfortable and thrust into totally new surroundings is a great adventure and an exciting one, too, but this is not traveling for pleasure and it’s not as temporary as a vacation. I’ve got a job here for two years, and it’s a 24/7 job. I’m living in Indonesia basically on my own and if I don’t do things right, I won’t survive: there’s a pressure to make friends, integrate, be active, talk to people, be visible, and start working. This is at odds with the fact that the activities that make me feel normal—those that are part of my identity and that have traveled with me, far from Indiana and my home country*—are solo activities: reading, writing, watching movies, meditating, yoga, etc. These activities are helping me cope with the changes in the short term but aren’t necessarily bolstering my long-term survival rate, which is directly related to my integration into the community. Naturally, I get stressed by thoughts of not doing enough to help my integration but disheartened by thinking of giving up some of the (sanity maintaining) solo activities. I get paranoid about wasting time. I’m not very forgiving when it’s myself involved, either; I’m having to learn to accept truly that I’m going to have to take breaks and be selfish. It will keep me from going mad!**

I’ve also been thinking how the Indonesian “Samanta” will have to be different than the American Sam—already I have to hide my tattoos, had to remove my piercings, change my wardrobe, stop indulging in activities that are not appropriate for young women in Indonesia, not to mention substantially change my language, behavior, daily routines, physical location, job, and make new friends as well as integrate into a new family. And how will the American Sam be effected, two years from now? That’s a long time.

So, story-telling time. Weekend insanity! We had been getting ready for the big party on Saturday since Tuesday afternoon, and preparations culminated in me witnessing the slaughtering of over half a dozen chickens and the ladies making more than 3,000 skewers of chicken satay for the main course. The chickens that were slaughtered were my fat friends who lived behind the house…I was fairly distraught, but it’s okay. Chickens get slaughtered. They were fat and happy (up until Saturday) and they had good lives. It was quite amazing, the amount work that has to go into making a live chicken edible: each was slaughtered, doused with hot water, plucked, cut apart, washed thoroughly, and finally cooked. Not a quick process, but totally worth it…that chicken was delicious! Better tasting and certainly healthier than chicken in the States or from the pasar tradisional (traditional market).

We also spent time preparing the 600 snack boxes we had to make for our guests. This consisted of assembling the cardboard boxes and filling each with a cup of water, a straw, a napkin, a dodol (coconut/sugar/beras sticky brown squares that we made and packaged at the house), a pancake taco, and a little powdered bonbon. Some new ladies came over to help stuff snack boxes and I got real anxious because I had to go though the introductory conversation with each one of them… and I was worried I was going to have to do it 600 more times later in the evening. I was losing my patience. It was a bad scene. The conversation is pretty unbearable; I have to go through it at least a few times every day. It goes something like this:

New friend: Wow, you’re beautiful! And so tall! And big! Where are you from?

Me: America.

New Friend: Oh, America! Americans are big, aren’t they? Yeah, you’re really tall. How long have you been here?

Me: Three months in Malang, three weeks here.

New Friend: Oh, begitu. But you can already speak Indonesian! Did you study it in America?

Me: Nope, just in Malang.

New Friend: Wow, you’re smart! How old are you?

Me: Twenty-three.

New Friend: Do you have kids?

Me: Not yet.

New Friend: Do you have a husband? You’re so beautiful.

Me: Nope, not yet. I want to have a job first.

New friend: Oh! Hey, you should marry an Indonesian. Do you want to marry an Indonesian? You can take him back to America. Do you want to find a Javanese husband?

Me: Maybe. I want to have a job first!

New Friend: Wow, you’re beautiful. Indonesians are so ugly. We’re so black. You’re so white and beautiful. What’s your favorite food in Indonesia?

Me: I like everything except salty fish. Nasi goreng and gado-gado are my favorites. (This always inspires copious amounts of laughter…haven’t quite figured out why!)

New Friend: Oh, wow! So, do you like Indonesia? Do you feel at home?

Me: Yes! I like it a lot. It’s really hot here!

New Friend: What are you doing here, anyways?
Me: I’m a volunteer English teacher, I’ll be here for two years.

New Friend: Oh, I see. Come over to my house sometime, okay? What’s your name?

Me: Samantha!

I appreciate that everyone wants to say hello and find out who I am, but…gosh, I must have had this same conversation a hundred times or more since coming to site. And New Friend always laughs after every response. I’m only so patient. Besides, I get real uncomfortable when I’m asked about finding an Indonesian husband. What am I supposed to say to that? “Actually, yeah, I really want to marry an Indonesian! Do you know one? Have an extra son hangin’ around?” It’s also weird when they rant about how beautiful I am in comparison to Indonesians, who, after listening to these women, you’d believe are the ugliest, most hideous wretches ever to have the misfortune of living. And everyone brings this up. Sometimes, too, I can tell the New Friend is more interested in talking to me because they think I’m weird and strange and novel and something they can tell their friends about later, not because they’re really interested in getting to know me or in becoming my friend. Granted, this has its merits (visibility, contact with HCNs, Sam practices bahasa), but when I’m feeling less than patient or when I’m being forced to talk with someone—when someone wants to play show pony with the American, for example—I get very irritated, very quickly (but I never show it, lest I appear “culturally insensitive”).

Anyways, I had to go through this introductory chit-chat while stuffing snack boxes with the friends of Ibu Mama. Then we ate lunch together…Ibu Mama hovered over me and watched me serve myself, watched me start eating, and her friends all watched, too. I understand that I’m new and different and they’re curious, but sometimes it’s too much! I just want to take my plate into my room and hide away from the staring eyes. So much staring, all the time…not just in my house, either. I get stared at when I’m sitting on my front porch, walking to school, riding my bike, going shopping, coming out of my bedroom in the morning, taking a walk in the afternoon, going into any store or warung, everywhere.

I also spent some time helping the ladies prepare food for the party…but wasn’t allowed to do much, which was frustrating, too. Sitting down, watching ladies do stuff that I’d like to learn how to do, and being told I’m not allowed to help because I might get dirty or hot is just unbearable. Eventually, when Ibu Mama wasn’t around, I snuck in and started doing stuff (cutting lontongs, stirring sambel and dodol), which she later found out about (or saw first-hand), to my pleasure; she’s starting to realize I’m a competent human being. It was very refreshing and soothing to do a little bit to help the preparations.

The party started and, to my surprise, was actually a religious event for the men of the village. All of the guests—upwards of 600 men—were dressed in their traditional Javanese Muslim sarongs and peci hats, sitting cross-legged in the emptied-out living room of my house and spilling onto the front porch and into the side rooms. I wanted to go to bed early, and did so while the men were still performing recitations from the Qur’an. I had to get up at 2 am later that night to leave for Jogja with the kids; I ate my chicken satay in the kitchen and told Ibu Mama I was headed for bed. She immediately grabbed me by the arm and whispered, “I’ll take you to bed.” It was strange—I didn’t realize at this point that the guests were all men and that they were all sitting down in my living room, in plain sight of my bedroom door—I didn’t know why she felt the need to escort me to my bedroom. We walked into the hallway and more than a thousand male eyeballs turned at stared, stared, stared at the white girl! It was weird! I fumbled with the key to my door, hopped inside, and shut the door before turning on the light. I’m still very nervous around Javanese men…I think it’s because I’m so nervous about being polite all the time and offending them with my American femininity; I do enjoy surprising Indonesian people and challenging their thoughts about the capabilities of women/Americans/American women, but I can’t afford to offend people if I want to become a member of the community. I especially can’t afford to offend the men, who have the majority of the political, economic, and social power here. So, I resort to extreme politeness, partially out of nervousness, partially as a strategy for preventing any horrible faux-pas. But hell, I’m nervous around most men…just a bit more so than usual when they’re super-tough farmer-types who speak my new language very, very quickly and expect me to respond just as fast and like to do the introductory chit-chat which sometimes ends up feeling like I’m getting the third degree.

So, I went to bed and woke up at 2 am to get ready to leave for Jogja. I had organized a ride with Pak Haris and thought he’d be picking me up at 2:30 seeing as the bus was leaving the school at three. At three, Pak Agus called me, asking where I was. I told him I needed a ride; I wasn’t about to walk alone to school in the middle of the night, no matter how close it is! So, Pak Haris and Pak Mustofa came over to pick me up… on their motorcycles. By this point, both Ayah and Ibu Mama had woken up. I felt terrible. We explained that I wasn’t allowed to ride motorcycles and Pak Mustofa left for school. He came back about five minutes later with a student, to walk with me to school. Still, both Pak Haris and Pak Mustofa followed on their motorcycles while we walked in front. Embarrassing for me! Inconvenient for many Indonesians!

Arrived at school to find that the busses hadn’t yet arrived. I wasn’t surprised! The kids were all there, though, lookin’ great in their matching trip T-shirts, the girls in angelic white jilbabs. Busses eventually arrived and we departed, most of us quickly falling asleep.

The trip took a little over four hours. Our first stop in Jogja was a recreational park, which was where I saw the waria performance. Waria are men who dress up as women for the sake of performing. They’re not necessarily accepted here, but from what I can tell, Indonesians (Muslim or not) are more tolerant than the majority of Americans are toward drag queens. That may be wishful thinking, but I’ve heard lots of Indonesian men and women talking about waria and they don’t speak of them scornfully or hatefully. On the other hand, though, there was an attack by a radical Islamic group on a conference being held by an organization of waria in Jakarta about a month ago, so. In reality, the reception/level of acceptance is probably equal to that of queens in America…there are so many similarities between America and Indonesia that I wouldn’t hesitate to say this is probably another of them.

After the park we went to an Indonesian military/air force museum, which was great. There were tons of dioramas, old photographs, and probably twenty or so planes, mostly from the World War II era (which includes the struggle for independence here in Indonesia, gained in ’45). Unfortunately, we got stuck in a traffic jam on the way there and only had about twenty minutes to run through all of the display rooms. Interestingly, the teachers didn’t brief the kids before or after they went into the museum. We just got off the bus, ran though, the kids snapped some photos, and then ate meatballs.

The museum was followed by a trip to Parangtritis beach, on the south coast…an hour and a half away from Jogja. It was already late afternoon and we stayed until the sun set. That’s where I ate undur-undur, which I resisted at first! They weren’t so bad, though. Very shrimpy. The teachers were very amused by my initial aversion and were delighted to disgust me further by describing how these little creatures crawl on the ocean floor…backwards. Shudder! I ate one anyways, once I had a plate of rujak (fruit salad with spicy sambel), of which I took a bite directly after eating the undur-undur.

We left, hit the town square and Malioboro street to shop (I bought some much needed T-shirts and a couple of batiks), stopped for dinner, bought oleh-oleh for our families and friends (souvenirs, usually food, always required on trips!), and hit the road. By this time it was 11 pm… we didn’t get back until 3 am. Of course, both busses stopped in front of my house to drop me off. Embarrassing!

I was exhausted when we finally reached home. I slept until 8 am (that would be like sleeping until two in the States—horribly late, horribly lazy), woke up and dyed my hair (with L’Oreal dye bought in Magetan for the same price as it costs in the U.S., which means it’s extremely expensive here but definitely worth it considering the cheap Indonesian dye I bought last time turned my roots red!), met up with Andy at 10 am, took the angkota with him to get pizza in Magetan for lunch, then took the angkota home alone—to the surprise of my host parents—because Andy needed to take a different bus to get back to his place. After that, I went for a bike ride and delivered my oleh-oleh: one for Pak and Bu Lurah, one for Bu Heri (who didn’t go on the trip—she’s got three kids, one of whom is five months old), and one for Bu Nani, my new neighbor friend. Also gave some to my host parents. The specialty in Jogja is a tiny little cake filled with sweet mung bean paste that’s flavored with anything from cheese to pineapple to chocolate. They are delicious! Always a hit!

So, it’s not like I’ve been locked in my room, sitting around all depressed like. Things have been fun and delicious, as usual. Things are infinitely better after Monday’s rescue mission—there’s something terrible about not being allowed to go out of town on my own. I can’t stand to spend my break time solely in my bedroom. I gotta get out of the house sometimes! Plus, hanging out and speaking English with a friend was spectacular. It was refreshing to speak like an adult…my bahasa is still pretty slow and child-like.

Yesterday (Tuesday), was pretty great, too. Hung out with the gurus at school and typed up the proposal for the English course, chatted with Travis, read Angela’s great new blog entry, checked out some sweet pictures of Emilee’s new tattoo and Mom’s 50th birthday party, posted those pictures from this weekend (I feel more sane now that I’m able to post pictures for you…it’s a relief to know that you can see at least some of what’s going on over here! It calms me down, somehow!), and…got mail for the first time since leaving Malang!! I got a big envelop from the States with two letters from my darling old folks and a package from Surabaya with tons of great stuff—another edition of the Azar grammar book, an English forum magazine, The Peace Corps Times (which sounds silly but seems like an awesome resource for community development project ideas), and the PC Indo newsletter. So, so, so lovely to receive mail. So lovely. In the afternoon, walked home with Bu Heri and taught her the phrase “holy moly,” which she enjoyed immensely, worked on my proposal for the World Map project at MAN Panekan, started typing this story, at some really delicious friend tempeh and bananas, took a nap, had a very refreshing mandi, then hung out and chatted with the various guests and family members who stopped by over the course of the evening, including Pak Tris, with whom I discussed the American economy, migrant workers, and outsourcing (in bahasa Indonesia—very broken, but still!!). An extremely productive day…and I didn’t have to eat my weight worth in rice to satisfy Ibu Mama, who seems to be getting accustomed to my foreign eating habits. Breathe a sigh of relief! Listen to Radiohead! Rejoice!

Now, it’s Wednesday morning—Bu Heri’s going to be here in a few minutes and I’ve yet to mandi but have already done laundry, washed dishes, eaten breakfast, had my coffee, and finished this story. Angela was absolutely right about the very high highs and the very low lows we experience as PCVs. The difference between me now, at this moment, and me three days ago, is astonishing. At least I’m on the high end, for now.

I love you.


*Wistful, huh? It’s interesting: I’ve never felt as American as I have in Indonesia, and not only because that’s how others identify me. Being the outsider and learning cultural differences by experiencing them sure reinforces how American I am…my personality, habits, quirks, work ethic, even my neuroses. I say something, think something, or do something wrong here or experience a cultural miscommunication and immediately realize that it’s because I’m American, culturally. Maybe it shouldn’t be news to me, but…I’m realizing that I’m more American than I thought I was when I was living back in the States. It’s like this: I wouldn’t say I’ve never hated on American culture. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to understand how my culture has influenced who I am and how I can get beyond those influences and discover the true nature of myself. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to break down the structures of identity that are forced onto young American people and to live outside of them, developing my own ideals of success, happiness, beauty, faith, love, and family…to go beyond what’s been fed to me by American media, the public school system, and mainstream culture. I’m surprised, is all, by coming here and realizing that though I have come far in my search for an identity that isn’t necessarily completely derived from my nationality and its norms and mediocrities (because I believe that true identities and true selves are outside these things), there are aspects of myself that are absolutely American, and that will never change. I won’t say I’m not charmed by these realizations and I won’t say I haven’t been appreciating my country a little more than before I left. Maybe I’m getting homesick or just feeling nostalgic, but…I’ve been feeling very patriotic lately—unusual for me—because I’m realizing my country and my identity can and never will be fully separated. How much of patriotism is simply adoration of self, then, I wonder? I certainly love the parts of myself that challenges my surroundings and want to analyze and understand what’s going on around me, and if I hadn’t been raised in America, would I still have those impulses, or would they have been as fully developed? Having the opportunity to live the way I want to live and the freedom to identify however I please is one of the luxuries of being American (though our culture certainly tries its damndest to convince us its ideals are our own) and American subcultures thrive because they are relatively free to do so (though certainly not encouraged or acknowledged by the mainstream)…we’ve got a pretty sweet set-up over there, despite all the bullshit. To reclaim a phrase so popular with the military and fanatical types, freedom isn’t free—the price for us is the materialism, consumerism, and greed of a capitalist society, but the freedoms we maintain—by recognizing the things we can change, changing those things for ourselves and our communities, and enduring the less savory aspects of American culture that will never go away—are infinitely more precious. I guess it’s like this: I can put up with Starbucks, Paris Hilton, and advertising executives who spend their lives figuring out how to manipulate me if it means I don’t have to choose between getting married/having kids/cooking food for the rest of my life starting at age seventeen or facing the incessant wrath and daily ridicule of family, friends, and strangers for going to college, getting a job, and staying a single lady. There are pros and cons in every society and every nation, for every unique individual; for the moment, I’m happy identifying as an American…good news, since I’m really feelin’ it lately, what with living in Indonesia and all.

**Lyn, you may be reading this: really, everything’s fine. I’m being facetious (mostly).


4 thoughts on “In Defense of Jasmine Tea, or The Great Crisis of Identity”

  1. Wow, Samantha. What a great entry! It amazes me every time when I’m wallowing in my own experiences and then I talk to another fellow Indo PCV/read your blog and realize that I am not alone! I second your comment about hardly feeling “American” in the U.S., but somehow this fact is inextricable now with every thought that goes through my mind/every action I take! And my version of the unbearable convo with New Friends is that I have to end up justifying that I am American even though I look Indonesian, and letting them know that all I am not a product of a mixed marriage (which seems to be the only reason why I could be American).

    Also wanted to say “Chin up! You’re doing a great job!”

    P.S. If you ever come up with a good answer to the Indonesian husband question, please let me know. My approach is similar to yours — a wide smile and “maybe!”


  2. I love you and often wonder myself how I will recognize you when you return changed. You were changed by the three weeks you spent in Europe. Your blog will help us both get acquainted with the new Samantha and I already know she will be amazing! And I already love her more!


  3. I’m very glad I finally granted myself some time to just sit and read some of your blog for the first time in a while. Great writing! I really feel a glimpse of your life there reading it.

    Your long footnote about being an American is particularly interesting to me. I’ve gone through a lot of that myself, not really wanting to identify with my country, then realizing that it doesn’t make sense to deny it, and that there’s much about that association that I’m not at all averse to. I’d go so far as to suggest that reflecting on one’s pride and shame of association with one’s country is itself a strong point of American culture. Not like everyone here does it, but more than most places I’d reckon.

    I’ve never spent so much time in another country as you are doing now, but now that I’m married to a Brazilian woman, I’m constantly reminded of ways that I’m an American and I live in American society. And, although there’s much about our nation that I’m not proud of, I, like you, have grown to be happy to identify as an American.

    Anyway, probably more than one should write in a comment, but I wanted to let you know that you influenced a lot of thoughts in a mind way back in Bloomington. Hope to read more from you soon!


    1. I’m so thankful for your thoughts and comments, David!!!

      It’s interesting to think about how we may not have developed the capacities to reflect on our home-country associations, especially the shameful ones, if we weren’t supported in doing so by the cultural structures we at times disdain.

      I’m embarrassed to say I thought your wife was German! Eee.

      Happy late 4th of July! Thanks again!


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