A Nice, Modern Gentleman

7.12 and 7.13

Refusing to play the game is what has gotten me in trouble in the past. Numerous times. In numerous arenas.* Now that I’m in the Peace Corps and living in a foreign country, I don’t have an option to not play the game…but as of now, I’m still not exactly sure what that might entail. I’m talking more in terms of assimilation/adaptation (different, I know, but we’re doing a little of both, especially considering the host family setup) than in performing my duties as a PCV, the details of which seem fairly easy to grasp and hopefully as easy to execute. Tied up in the mix of learning a new language, trying not to offend everyone, adjusting to constantly being in the spotlight or at least given copious amounts of undesired attention, and missing the comforts of home and family is the strange predicament of becoming an Indonesian daughter.

My host family has repeatedly told me that I am just like one of their children, anak sendiri, still single and livin’ at home. In Indonesia, unmarried children live with their parents, regardless of age or their desire to marry (even if they express wanting to pursue a career instead of marriage, they will still live at home if unwed). I’m having to adjust to this role, as are my fellow volunteers, I’m sure. I’ve come from six years living on my own far from any relatives and now I’m surrounded by strangers who know me and folks who worry about me more than I worry about myself…probably even more than my mother worries about me.

It’s all at once strange, aggravating, endearing, infuriating, and sweet. I’m put through the ringer if I want to travel anywhere alone, I can’t go a day without being reminded to take a shower, and my host parents tell me how worried they are about my reading too much. Still, I asked for help putting up my mosquito net and Ibu Mama and Ayah both jumped at the opportunity and had it up within minutes, Ibu Mama took care of me when I was sick** and Ayah was horribly worried, and I never have to worry about missing a meal or not having enough time to do laundry (which Ibu Mama would do in a pinch if I needed her to, like I did when I was ill). But then, I’m not allowed to sweep or wash dishes as much as I’d like to, Ibu Mama is developing a strange habit of watching me eat, and there’s still that damned special food table right outside my bedroom door. Then again, Ibu Mama pays particular attention to what I eat and don’t eat and manages to figure out what I don’t like when I’m too shy to tell her I don’t like it, she buys my favorite fruits at the market when our supply runs low, and Ayah worries about me forgetting my afternoon tea and asks me for help with his cell phone troubles.

Luckily for all parties involved, the good outweighs the bad. It always does. I’m adjusting to being more pampered in some ways than I have been in years and reconciling this state with the (romantic?) image of The Hard Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and what I thought my life would be like here, what I had prepared myself for…I’m figuring out how to navigate problems I never anticipated I’d have as a PCV. It’s not that I’m not enjoying the experience. It’s just so different than I thought it would be.

Because I’m already starting to love my host parents, I’m starting to feel a willingness to take on the role they expect, relax a bit, and play the game.


Well, I just made a pretty thrilling start-of-the-school-year speech to the incoming class of tiny adorable MAN Panekan people. The big news: I gave the speech in bahasa Indonesia and wrote almost all of it by myself! And I think the kids understood most of what I said! Here’s the translation:

//Good morning and welcome to MAN Panekan! Today I would like to talk to you about how you can study better and how you can become brave and intelligent students.

Firstly, the most important thing, don’t be shy with the teachers and staff here. If you have a question, ask it! If you have difficulties in your studies, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are confused, don’t be silent. Our duty as your teachers is to educate you, and your duty as a student is to ask for help if you need it.

Secondly, you must study diligently and help your classmates. If you are in class, participate. Bring an open mind and don’t be afraid to speak your thoughts; if you have a good idea, share it with your friends and teachers. Moreover, don’t be afraid of mistakes. You must try; the mistaken one is the student who is always afraid of trying. If you study diligently and read your books and materials before and after they are taught, you prepare for class with sincerity. If you give help to your friends and follow your teachers, you participate with sincerity. And if you study hard and speak with bravery, you honor yourself and everyone at MAN Panekan.

Lastly, practice English and Arabic every day in class and at home. For your future, try to study your languages until you are fluent. Remain serious with your studies but always remember to be happy at your madrasah, MAN Panekan.

Forgive me because my bahasa Indonesia still has many mistakes. I wish you the best of success in becoming good citizens of the world, citizens who are useful to your community and your nation. Thank you! //

That last bit about becoming useful citizens of the community and nation was added by Ibu Mama this morning when she reviewed my speech; I’m not sure how I feel about that idea, but Indonesia is an exceptionally patriotic country and proud of it, so expressing this sentiment is appropriate given the context.

This was definitely an Indonesian-style speech…I’m getting real good at writing speeches that tickle Indonesians, young and old. There’s a fairly standard technique for giving speeches in this country and certain expectations about what should be said and how; I think I nailed this one because I met the Indonesian standards for speech-makin’ and added a few things of my own (mostly the stuff about being brave, sharing your thoughts, and being open-minded).

I was charged with “motivating the students”; the vice principal encouraged me to tell them to study like American kids and describe the successful study practices of my students back home. I went this route instead because I agree with Noel—my job here isn’t to transform this school into an American school. There are practices here that could be improved and some that are working just fine; I’m here to help the teachers and students here develop their strengths and assets, not transform the school based on what I think is best (which, at this point, I don’t know. Nobody does!! It’s a shame that some of the folks at my school think a. the Americans know what’s best, and b. if we become more like Americans, we’ll be more successful. That’s not what I think!).

Anyways, I loved giving my (super cheesy!) speech and I hope the kids felt “motivated” in some way. If anything, it gave them a chance to listen to me speak bahasa Indonesia, which is good—they’ve got to get used to my accent, both in bahasa Indo and English, and my insane grammar constructions in bahasa Indo, and any chance they get to listen to me speak takes us a step further toward being able to communicate effectively with one another.

Fun Fact: During the speech, the students were wearing homemade construction-paper crowns with their names written on them. Brown pramuka (scout) uniforms and the enormous paper crowns shining in the morning sunlight while perched atop jilbabs and pecis coupled with me speaking broken Indonesian made for a very surreal Apel Pagi (or Morning Apple, the daily harangue). I should have used the megaphone.


After the speech I sat around for three hours with nothing to do. I read the newspaper, chatted with a couple of teachers, sent a couple of frustrated text messages, and managed to pry some information out of Pak Agus regarding the schedule for this week. It consists of “walking around campus” tomorrow for the final day of orientation, nothing on Thursday (“there’s no schedule”), and “playing games” Friday and Saturday. Seeing as the teaching schedule is still being written and finalized, there are no classes this week…but every student is required to come to school anyways.

Fifteen minutes before I was supposed to start the afternoon activity, I started chattin’ up Bu Puji about my schedule. I noticed she had signed me up to supervise the extracurricular graphics design course, to which I promptly objected and explained that I needed time for English Club. After a few minutes of holding my breath and feeling beads of sweat gather on my forehead as Bu Puji organized the schedule, we had solidified my extracurricular activities!! My eyeballs turned into sunshine and all of the teachers spontaneously broke into song and highly choreographed dance, singing praises to the glorious scheduling gods and sprinkling jasmine blossoms on top of my head. Snack boxes rained down from the balconies and Pak Noor called Travolta in for a cameo. Now that’s cultural sensitivity!

I’ll be leading an English newsletter club on Monday, teaching the Advanced teachers’ course on Tuesday, spending Wednesdays in English Club proper, joining Pak Agus and the volleyball team on Thursdays, teaching three English classes for teachers on Fridays (one Advanced section and two Regulars), and helping the scouts (Pramuka) on Saturdays. Sweet!

I was about to ask Bu Puji for some insider info about my class schedule when Pak Yazid came into the teacher’s room and told me it was time to start the afternoon activity. I had planned a scavenger hunt for the new students to do that involved interacting with their new teachers in an informal fashion. Yesterday I collected interesting facts, most of which turned out to be what hobbies the teachers preferred, and planned to give the students time to write down the facts before having them match the teachers with the facts, obtaining names and signatures in the process. The kids had to write down the facts one by one as I read them over the loudspeaker because we don’t have a photocopy machine. I explained to the teachers that they would have to remember their fact and not tell the students anything but “yes” or “no” when asked about it by the students (I didn’t want teachers saying things like, “No, I don’t like baking. My hobby is playing football!” and letting the students off easy). The kids had to ask the teacher’s name and find out what their hobby was, completing their task when all hobbies on the list had been accounted for (I’m sorry for that fairly horrible description…my brain is made of noodles today).

It didn’t go poorly. In fact, it went rather well. Some of the teachers, however, totally missed the point of the activity so didn’t feel like it was as much of a success as I did. In my mind, the purpose was to get students interacting with teachers. The students are so shy and nervous (or at least appear to be) and I was hoping to encourage them to have some face-to-face interaction with the teachers they’ve seen roaming around their new campus but probably haven’t said anything to. During the activity, students were chatting with teachers, learning names, and having fun. So were most of the teachers! However, after the game was over (ended prematurely for midday prayers), some of the teachers were givin’ me guff about the students cheating, asking their friends about which teachers had what hobbies, and following their friends around in a group and completing the task that way. Frankly, I didn’t care much about how they got their answers—when all was said and done, they interacted with their new teachers and peers, which was the point of the activity, in my mind. If the kids were too shy to ask teachers questions directly, they at least had to face a teacher, hand their paper over, and ask for his/her name and signature. Most of the teachers were doing a good job of requiring the kids to ask about the hobbies and most of the students were following the rules. Is it a mistake to not expect all 130 to follow directions precisely and be engaged and honest? Especially considering the brain-melting amount of cheating we’ve seen during the national exams? Do I automatically sell them short by being realistic? Does always anticipating 100% honest participation set me up for disappointment? If the teachers didn’t understand the purpose of the game, am I to assume the students took nothing from it because they didn’t understand the purpose either? So many questions. Today was the first day I really wished there was a fluent English speaker at my school (my relatively fluent counterpart is out of town).

I suppose I’m a little bit defensive because I was asked by the vice principals and heads of class to come up with a game for the incoming class and teachers to play together. I was asked to do this by myself. It’s hard work, coming up with a game for 150 people, the majority of which are 15 year olds whose language I don’t speak fluently! (Whine, whine, whine, right?) Pak Agus seemed to like it and see its flaws with perspective. He said he could envision himself adapting it to use when teaching vocabulary, so score. Plus, I was brave enough to speak to the entire group of students and teachers with a microphone attached to a loudspeaker. Score again.

Next time, I’d have them pair up and use one piece of paper. The poor teachers did have an awful lot of papers to sign. I’d also write out specific step-by-step directions so that the explanation was as clear as possible. I didn’t realize the teachers who helped me explain the game would have as hard a time as they did; scavenger hunts are thoroughly foreign here and it’s hard to empathize because scavenger hunts are so “normal” to me. Next time I’d like to have prizes, too!! I had intended to make it a race but backed out on that idea when I realized I had forgotten to get prizes (really, I had forgotten to decide definitively about whether to buy prizes or not; I’ve finally decided that I am not going to buy anything for the school because that won’t help in the long run, though I desperately want to buy twenty class sets of scissors and markers and could probably afford it with my settling allowance). Lastly, I’d remember to include myself in the game. I completely forgot to add my hobby to the list! Whoops!

*I suppose this is contextual or relative; I am happy and fortunate for the way my life has gone thus far and troubles haven’t led me anywhere but here. Temporary troubles that deliver opportunity and positive change are always welcome. The universe provides us with what we need whether we realize we need it or not.

**Sorry I didn’t call you, Lyn. I didn’t have a temperature. Masuk angin.


Last night I went with one of the neighbor ladies to a house up the street where a cow had just been slaughtered. In Indonesia, especially in villages, the slaughtering of a cow is a pretty big event. There’s usually a party the day after it’s killed; one cow can feed more than a thousand people, according to the ladies I spoke with yesterday.

The carcass was behind the house and the ladies and some of the men were cooking and chopping meat in the large traditional kitchen inside. I brought my camera and everyone was excited to have me take pictures of their handiwork. It was pretty gruesome but I wasn’t bothered; I think if I had seen the slaughtering I would have been substantially overwhelmed. Lots of the guys wanted me to take pictures of them holding up parts of the cow (ribs, legs, the head) and the ladies who were chopping papaya leaves encouraged me to photograph the various processes going on in the kitchen, including meat-chopping, ketan preparation, and getting side dishes ready to be packaged for the big party. I was interested in helping but got distracted by the cow’s legs, hanging from a bamboo rack, muscles still twitching way more than you’d imagine two-hours-dead muscles would twitch. The ladies gave me some delicious dodol and some of the younger girls took my picture before I went home for the evening. I’ll be going back later for the party, which starts tonight and lasts two days.

In other news, I will be teaching 10th graders at MAN Panekan this year!! It’s as final as things get in the world of Indonesian scheduling. Pak Yazid wanted to divide my time amongst all of the 11th grade and 10th grade classes in such a way that I would only see each class once a week for two hours but I gently (re)explained the counterpart set-up and my philosophy about how teaching a fewer number of students more thoroughly is more ideal than teaching many students just a little bit.

Also spent some time talking with a nice teacher, Bu Tarti. It was great. She started the conversation by asking me why I don’t like chatting. I explained that contrary to popular opinion, I don’t speak Javanese (people are usually surprised when I tell them this because I can say “yes,” “no,” and “good morning,” in the language of the land, which somehow translates as fluency). So, we chatted in Indonesian. She told me lots of interesting fun facts about Indonesian history and Javanese people…I may start to rival Bart with my new wealth of unverified cultural tidbits:

Javanese people, for the most part, like foreigners who wear Javanese clothes and sing in or speak Javanese because it confuses the adolescents—who are less plugged into the traditions of their culture as their parents would like them to be—and makes them question why they don’t know more about their own heritage than a foreigner. It’s reverse psychology for cultural preservation!

Before independence was gained in ’45, most people didn’t go to school. The majority of the educated adults of today were the first people in their families to go to school. Before, women stayed at home and men were laborers for the Dutch.

Also before independence, people in villages in Java ate mostly cassava and goods made from cassava flour. They didn’t eat rice with every meal; it was cultivated but largely exported. Rice as a staple food is a relatively new development, at least in the smaller villages and dusun (neighborhoods).


Defying Stereotypes while Shaming the Peace Corps

This is a story about a cockroach. In Tlekung, I was fairly brave about bugs whether they flew, crawled, or jumped. You may remember that I was turning into an insect-killing ninja, fearless and catlike. However, yesterday proved that I left those skills in Tlekung and regressed into my regular old bug-fearing self.

I was sitting on the kitchen steps chatting with Ibu Mama when I saw a cockroach crawling on the shelf near my head. Unfortunately, my first instinct was to scramble up and dash to the other side of the room. Ibu Mama grabbed a broom and tried to find the cockroach, but it scrambled off the shelf and started running across the floor, directly towards me! Bravely, I ran away. I stood at the top of the stairs and watched as ninja Ibu Mama sprang into action, grabbed a broom and ran after the cockroach, slapped it silly and crushed it to a gooey pulp with her flip-flop. She just laughed and said “You’re big! What’s the problem? He can’t do anything but run.” I said that I didn’t want him running on top of my feet or crawling up my leg (of course! Ugh!). Those things move fast and they’re not small.

I don’t feel too bad for being afraid, though it was very un-PC behavior. I’m sure there are Volunteers in Africa and the Middle East who deal with camel spiders and other unsavory bedmates and they’d probably pop me in the nose for being such a wuss. Oh, well. I learned that some things never change and that Ibu Mama is faster than a cockroach, so I still consider it a positive affair…unlike the cockroach, I imagine.


Surprises from Australia

I wrote Kang Guru and asked for a subscription about a week and a half ago; Kang Guru is a Bali-based collaboration of Indonesians (students and educators) and Australians which publishes an English language magazine specifically for Indonesian high school students. I figured I’d get a copy of the magazine to look through and consider ordering for my classes. I looked through the online version after requesting a subscription and was tickled to see a little story about the Peace Corps program reopening in Indonesia for the purpose of providing high school English teachers.

I thought I’d receive an email back from Kang Guru about my request for a subscription—I told them I was a PCV working in East Java—and that maybe they’d want to collaborate…or something! I don’t really know what I was expecting. They have a radio show that’s broadcast throughout Indonesia and I wouldn’t mind getting in on it, helping out somehow, or talking to the Kang Guru folks about their experiences teaching English here and getting some advice. But a week went by with no reply. I was bummed until yesterday, when a large package from Kang Guru arrived for me at school.

Kang Guru had sent me a teacher’s package! I got two class sets of the latest issue of the magazine, a bunch of stickers and posters, a few folders of lesson plans and accompanying CD’s based on mistakes frequently made by Indonesian speakers of English, a teacher’s guide in English and bahasa Indonesia with lots of activities and suggestions for working with Indonesian curriculum, and a book of lesson plans and accompanying CD’s and cassettes based on curricula for each grade level. For free! I haven’t quite finished looking through the whole kit, bit it seems pretty swell so far.

I found out that Kang Guru will send this kit to any teacher of English in Indonesia who writes and requests it. In fact, they come out with two teacher kits a year (and four magazine issues), which they mail out for free. The organization is a part of the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation and the Australia Indonesia Partnership and receives funding from AusAID. Excellent!


Oh, no!! My schedule is changing again!! Slightly irritating! The principal wants me to teach BBI Classes (Bimbingan Belajar Intensif, Guided Intensive Studies) for the 12th graders, which sounds great to me, but I wish I had my schedule finalized. I mean, school started three days ago. I’m probably going to have to give up volleyball and/or Pramuka to accommodate the addition of BBI. That’s a big bummer. I was looking forward to some non-English language related socialization with the students, but alas…hopefully chatting outside of class will be enough non-academic socializing to make them (and me) feel more comfortable interacting.

Anyways, did I ever tell you about the uniforms I’ll be wearing at MAN Panekan? They’re pretty amazing(ly hot and polyester and boxy). Monday/Tuesday is olive green pantsuit day. Wednesday is canary yellow blouse day. Thursday is long-sleeved T-shirt day, Friday is fuchsia and blue bamboo batik day, and Saturday is green batik day. At least I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to wear to school…or wear a jilbab. I’ve had a hell of a time with Ibu Mama’s tailor; I don’t even want to go in to the details of how I came to acquire these garments but suffice it to say: 1. I’m a giant in Indonesia, 2. thinking about wearing the polyester long-sleeved pantsuit to teach in ninety-plus degree weather in open air classrooms is a fairly bleak activity, and 3. our tailor in Tlekung really knew his stuff.


One thought on “A Nice, Modern Gentleman”

  1. This was a wonderful post dear girl! I can make beautiful pictures in my head while I read which is a rare gift of a great writer! Please explain about “that damned special food table”. I love you and hope you are feeling better after your non-feverish illness that was referenced but not explained.


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