a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent

I’ve been looking back through my posts and feel disappointed by how little I write about daily happenings and day-to-day realities. I must commend Diana again for her diligence and fortitude in capturing so many small details and giving her friends and family back home a clear sense of what life is like in Indonesia. She’s great! A supreme being of power and heart! A blessing for all!

I bet I could give you a description of my daily life, to start. There’s so much that’s complex about life here; I’ll start with what’s easiest and hopefully progress to something more nuanced and worth knowing.

Lately I’ve been rising at 4:30 am to take a walk up toward the mountain, among the rice paddies and trees. There’s a quiet road that leads away from the village, and it takes me about half an hour to go up to the next village and back to my house. My walk is always lovely, sublime—peaceful, quiet, pre-dawn, full of sounds of the earth waking. Sometimes the frogs in the rice paddies are so loud I have to turn my head so their voices aren’t hitting my ears directly. Sometimes it’s densely foggy, and sometimes the sunrise is more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen. This walk in an abundant source of joy.

Once I get back, I have a cup of coffee on the porch and read before taking a mandi, eating breakfast, and changing into my school clothes. Each day I wear a different uniform, usually batik and black pants.

Bu Heri picks me up at 6:30am and we walk the 500 meters to school together, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet. We talk about her family, our teaching plan, our cultures and countries, language, the schedule for the day. If it’s clear, I always say something about how beautiful the mountain is (it’s hard to imagine being less than incredibly aware of and sensitive to the beauty of a place just because you live there and have lived there; I hope I never stop feeling mesmerized by that mountain).

Every other day it’s pasar or market day a the “big” intersection in the village, and old ladies wearing traditional sarongs greet us and give us their toothy—toothless—smiles, red-lipped and -gummed from chewing betel, knit caps covering their silver hair. They sit on the ground with tarps on which their goods are displayed—green vegetables, red chilis, tempeh wrapped in banana leaves, krupuk, bananas, coconuts, garlic, shallots. Ladies in pajamas and housedresses buy their groceries for the day as kids zoom by on their motorcycles, heading to school. I can always tell which of the students go to my school based on their uniforms; the seragam sekolah are all different and range from coral pink to red or green plaid to blue and white patterned batik to scout uniforms. The girls who go to madrasahs wear jilbabs and floor-length skirts and many of the boys wear kopyah, small black felt hats, colorfully lettered and embroidered.

The walk gets interesting once we hit the school street, which is always hectic with motorcycles, angkots, and bodies. The elementary, middle, and high schools are all right next to each other, so the kids that say hello and shout “Good morning!” as Bu Heri and I walk by range from kindergarten to high school. There’s usually a throng of little ones buying sweets and popsicles from motorcycle vendors in front of the elementary school, and the boys love to say my name as the girls peek meekly from beneath their cotton jilbabs—you can’t imagine how sweet these little girls are. The ones who know me aren’t afraid of saying hello, usually including Lia and Putri (my darlings!).

Once we hit the school, it’s a greeting extravaganza. Kids saleem and say good morning and teachers salam everybody individually—shaking hands and not infrequently having a “Good morning, how are you?” exchange in English (great!) Everybody shakes everybody’s hand, no matter what the other person is doing. If someone is busy or doesn’t notice that a greeter has extended their hand and is expecting a handshake, the greeter will poke them on the shoulder or arm until their hand is noticed and clasped. It’s an interesting exchange, one that frequently makes me pause and remind myself of metta, loving-kindness: don’t get impatient if someone appears not to care that you’re in the middle of doing something important that involves both hands! It’s culture! They just want to say hello! I like that everyone greets each other individually and takes the time to acknowledge everyone’s presence in a substantial way. It probably doesn’t sound like anything drastic, but shaking thirty or forty individuals’ hands each morning can be… taxing? Repetitive? Annoying? Refreshing? I have such mixed emotions about it, still—it drives me nuts but sometimes I feel so grateful for it (it’s a nice little human connection that feels different than the exclusively verbal greetings we practice in the States, and I need human connection). Regardless, it’s a part of the morning ritual.

Kids and teachers start the day by sweeping the floors in the classroom and teachers rooms. The canteen is open and folks grab breakfast: another aspect of Indonesian culture is that everyone pays very close attention to who has eaten and who hasn’t—people remind each other incessantly to eat, ask each other if they’ve eaten, and talk about what was eaten and by whom. I think it’s a phatic language thing, or people just trying to be nice or considerate of the health of others, but as an American, this is extremely annoying. Sometimes I’ve already eaten and have told everyone I’ve already eaten but am still commanded, multiple times, “Samantha, EAT!” Luckily, this is getting easier to deal with—I just remember that nobody can physically force me to eat and if I ruffle feathers by eating by my own schedule, so be it. Ha!

So, once the school is swept and the bell has rung—it rings at a different time everyday because it has to be activated when the main computers are booted up—classes (or whatever semblance of daily activity there is that day) finally begin.

This is my morning routine six days a week out of seven—events after this point in the day are usually delightfully unpredictable and frequently fun and exciting.


Last week, our daily schedule was disturbed by mid-semester tests. I feel so bad for the students, especially the seniors: seniors spent the better part of three weeks doing nothing but tests all day. While the underclassmen were having their last week of classes, seniors studied during the day for their “practice exams” in preparation for the national exams, coming in May/June. They were privileged to stay after school an extra two hours each day to do their practice tests, and I was privileged to proctor.

Once semester exams started for everyone, classes stopped; students took an average of three two-hour test each day for eight days (with one day off, on a Sunday). The tests had been dropped off from Madiun in a pick-up truck and were sorted and prepared by the teachers: since the students are mixed by level and grade during exams so as to deter cheating, each classroom’s tests had to be arranged and counted based on topic of study and grade and class (track). Unfortunately, the poor kids are tested on the twenty or so school subjects they study each semester; unfortunately, the poor kids study twenty or so school subjects each semester.

I proctored three exams each day; only fifteen teachers proctored each testing session, and the rotation was supposedly designed so that people didn’t have to proctor all day long for the entire testing period, but I wasn’t so lucky. But that’s ok, at least I had something to do and felt like I was serving a purpose—I’d rather proctor and have my eyeballs melt from boredom than not, given that there is a fairly serious cheating problem at my school (and from what I can tell, at all of my friends’ schools, too).

I only ended up confiscating five or six tests over the course of the twenty or so exams I proctored. The kids didn’t fool around too much. I had them rearrange their desks—which are two-seaters—so that they were seated on the far ends, back to back with the next fellows over, instead of right next to one another. This put about four feet in between each kid and gave me an easy time seeing if a kid was craning her or his neck to see someone else’s paper. I told them that if I saw them cheating once I’d confiscate their paper, which I did, once I felt absolutely confident that a kid was cheating.

I have a lot to say about this cheating issue, which is a big one for us as PCVs since we are at schools where cheating is frequently seen as a big problem but is not ever stopped by teachers or principals. Teachers don’t want kids to cheat, but do little to prevent or discourage it. In fact, as far as I can see, cheating is encouraged since it’s viewed as “working together”: kids work together on virtually all of their class assignments and homework and have very little individual accountability though the assignments are supposed to be completely independently. Teachers don’t encourage kids to do things on their own, nor do they discourage students when papers are handed in with the exact same answers. This does not foster learning or retention of material, critical thinking or efficiency, competence or independence (though it reflects students’ ability to achieve a common goal—everybody completes the assignment—and to do so collaboratively, which is good; I don’t see the same level of competitiveness in Indonesian students as I do in American students).

So, the kids are thrown a big curve ball when exams come and they’re supposed to do the work alone. I feel doubly bad for those kids who had me as a proctor because I was not the norm. I disturbed the system, but I don’t feel bad enough for them to regret it.

The system itself is highly Westernized, if it’s fair to say that standardized testing at the end of semesters of instruction based on a national curriculum was a practice developed by the West (I could be wrong on that one). The teachers and principals of these village schools are out of synch with national education goals, which is why we’re here as PCVs. That’s not a judgment, just a fact; city kids and teachers have a lot easier go of it. I’m willing to bet that the cheating rate is lower in more affluent city schools because the educational system has already started shifting from teacher-centered to learner-centered: kids are learning, which means they are also developing independence and critical thinking skills.

There is not supposed to be cheating on the semester exams, in the cities or the villages. Even though working together is part of the school culture at my school and Indonesian culture itself is essentially cooperative and community-based to a high degree, the national exam must be an exception to this trend, maybe for an even more radical reason than just that cheating is inherently wrong (based on the Western system after which this one is presumably modeled): the kids cheat and their scores are inflated, so the departments of education and religious affairs in the cities see the village schools as performing higher than reality. This may have a negative impact on allocation of resources for schools, teachers, and principals of these village schools.*

Plus, the kids know they aren’t supposed to cheat. They wouldn’t be so sneaky about it otherwise. Sending kids mixed messages is the worst thing a teacher can do: allowing cheating—rather, not enforcing the no-cheating rules—is dangerous since it doesn’t help students learn how to do things independently. I’ve talked to teachers about it and have heard the same thing: we know it’s wrong, but we feel bad about taking their papers. This is understandable, I guess? But we can’t reward behavior we want to eliminate. Allowing cheating might as well be praising it. Most of the kids I proctored were seniors: they know what’s expected of them. They’ve been raised in a strict religious environment dedicated to teaching them right from wrong, and I know that they know cheating is wrong.

To make a long story short, in comparison to folks like Diana, I didn’t have too many kids cheating. I teach all of the seniors and juniors and visit the first class kids frequently, so they respect me. Plus, I had the advantage of being a teacher before coming here, so projecting the teacher persona and getting kids to take me seriously is easier since I’ve had practice (anyways, just sending of Mom-vibes works, too. My mom’s tough). And they’re good kids, really. They cheat because they aren’t given the opportunity to become proficient on their own.

Mostly I wrestled with the principal of being strict on my no-teaching policy when other teachers are more laissez-faire… especially because this means other kids in the same grade and same school had more of an advantage than the kids I proctored. If anything, I’m hoping the kids see their scores and realize they’re actually an honest representation of their skills, for once. I bet the kids felt better, too—kids want and need structure and clear boundaries. Isn’t that a basic tenet of child psychology?** I’m always thankful when someone stops me from doing something I’ll regret later and I’m trusting that that’s a human feeling.

*Though if it’s anything like our American system, failing schools will just have their resources slowly stripped away. Thanks, NCLB.

**But psychology may be hogwash, so.


“The Apology”

“The Apology”

Think me not unkind and rude,
That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not, laborious band,
For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery,
But ’tis figured in the flowers,
Was never secret history,
But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
Which I gather in a song.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

winning comments

From end-of-semetser surveys:


“Don’t give me many homework because it’s make headache.”

“What I want to change about English class is be on time, because I always late come to school and than I got the law. What I want to change about English class is the law.”

“Miss Martin usually give many homework and it’s make me borried.”

“What I like the game and discuss because method teach Miss Martin and Mrs. Heri is different from other teachers in MAN Panekan. They make students happy and spirit study English. Miss Martin and Mrs. Heri are good teacher. Miss Martin usually give many homework because sometime I am tired, I want to slept but I have many homework.”

“This semester was different for me because my English teacher come from USA. I like the way how my teacher teach us. Here, I feel so comfort when she explain the lesson. Moreover with interesting and enjoying games, which make us happy to study the lesson. With games, difficult lesson can make easy and understand. Now I more understand how to speak English. I think English is enjoying lesson now, because before this I felt that English was scared lesson. Maybe now the most difficult lessons are physics and chemistry. These lessons make me confuse and crazy. But next semester I will try to be a good student and better than now.”




The Day You Mistook Devendra for Me, Or: The Right to be Cheesed

If you haven’t been reading Diana’s blog, you certainly should. She just wrote a great entry about why cultural differences make us so agitated:

“On culture shock: the idea of culture shock entails the idea that it will end. Something which is shocking is only upsetting for a moment, and then things go back to normal. Even when studying culture in college, the entrance to another culture like that which I’ve done was called “culture shock.” I was reading a book intended for teachers like PCVs who immerse themselves in other cultures, and the author described the situation as more of “culture fatigue.” I find this a much more accurate description of the cultural transition. The first time you stand in front of your house for over an hour waiting for a bus while being bitten by mosquitoes, swarmed by flies, stared at and heckled by every third person on the road, you are shocked. The first time maybe you say that it’s a “cultural experience.” I’ve realized in coming to Indonesia how much of a buzzword that phrase is in America. Whenever I talk about something frustrating, the poor soul listening back home says “what a cultural experience.” “Cultural experience” also has the connotation of brevity. I thought that after I had lived in Indonesia for awhile, Indonesian ways of doing things would become a literal second nature and would seem normal and thus not terribly irritating. But let me say that the 100th time I stood in front of my house for over an hour waiting for a bus while being bitten by mosquitoes, swarmed by flies, and heckled was not any bit better, more normal, or less irritating than the first time. Quite to the contrary, the knowledge that the irritation with busses is not transitory – the knowledge that it’s going to take this much time and effort every time I want to go in to the city for the next year and a half makes it even more irritating. Thinking it will get better provides a goal of cultural tolerance toward which you can work. Recognizing it won’t get better frustrates you with the whole system. Thus, cultural fatigue encompasses the idea that you’re “tired” WITH the culture; with the set of beliefs and attitudes which were established long before you came and which will continue long after you leave. The fatigue is more than just mental though – this job is utterly exhausting. Constantly working to understand, to be polite, to be competent, to be understanding, to not rip someone’s head off is so much harder than anything I did in America. I get 8 hours of sleep each night, but by 7pm, I’m wiped. I actually noticed this first in Bali. The ease of communicating and existing for us in Bali, both in Kuta while surrounded by Indonesians who spoke English and were accustomed to our culture, and later with the other PCVs, left us a ton of energy. Sam and Luke were awake for almost 3 days straight. We all stayed out multiple times until 4am and got 4-5 hours of sleep and were good to go like that all week. It was really weird.

This is a tough time in the PC cycle for a variety of reasons, and is a period of increased “cultural fatigue.” There are a lot of ways in which we’ve acclimated to living in Indonesia. The heat doesn’t get to me much anymore, and I’m a pro with the bug spray bottle. Food is good, I can wash my clothes by hand, and the teaching is getting easier. Some things still piss me off from day to day though.”

Travis and I have been understanding our lives in terms of our newfound bipolarity; we both feel that the cultural roller coaster we thought would end or at least slow down has in fact done neither (roller coaster is still the only way to accurately, albeit cliché-ly, describe it). The emotional insanity of PST of which we thought we’d eventually be free has become an hourly reality in our lives at site. No more smoothly transitioning day-to-day or week-to-week series of ups and downs. We thought that was rough…boy were we in for it.

Sometimes I get so angry or depressed before school that I don’t recognize myself. Then snap! I’m elated to meet my students and tell jokes with my counterpart. Snap! I’m furious because someone has (by American standards) absolutely appalling manners though doesn’t seem to care or register my discomfort (because it’s no big deal in this culture). Snap! I witness students and teachers practicing English independent of my encouragement and feel joyously proud. Snap! I get disgusted with my inability to speak Javanese and my consequential alienation from teachers’ room banter. Snap! I have a blast hanging out with the neighborhood kids and practicing English with them. Snap! I’m harassed into a rage about not eating enough rice for dinner. Snap! I feel like a jerk for regaining weight I lost during Ramadhan and for being called fat for it. Snap! I watch something funny on my computer and feel uplifted (even if artificially). Snap! I find myself in tears because I can’t fall asleep despite my exhaustion.

There are many ‘problems’ in my life that I thought would get better as time went on, and realizing they won’t change is making me anxious. As much as I tout cultural adaptation being a two-way street, I’m starting to accept that my Indonesian friends not only won’t adapt to me in certain ways but that expecting them to do so would be unfair. I’ve got to be the one to take the extra measure to be more sensitive, calmer, and more tolerant.

And it pains me to recognize that I’m a lot more uptight and impatient than I thought I was.

The only people I can be comfortable around and whose company I truly, unconditionally, and absolutely enjoy are children, specifically my kid friends. They accept me, they don’t laugh at me; they seem much more mature than most of the adults. They make an effort to explain things I don’t understand. They teach me things, take me places, and give me hugs. They are excited to see me because I’m me, not because I’m different or strange or an attraction, a spectacle. They rely on me and look up to me and I can see that I inspire them—by paying attention to them and helping them learn and grow, not by being a foreigner or a village celebrity.

I hang with these kids every single evening. Looking forward to it and meeting the kids keeps me from becoming a hermit and helps me remember that I’m valued and needed (what PCV doesn’t want to feel that?).

I think we’re all having such a rough time because though we were requested by the Indonesian government to fulfill a need in these village schools, some of our counterparts do a good job of making us feel unnecessary or expressing their ambivalence to our presence. In my case, my counterpart’s needs and my skills do not perfectly match, though it’s no fault of either of ours; I feel needed and appreciated but I could be doing so much more, intellectually (if I was needed in that way). The amount and type of change my counterpart is looking for doesn’t align with the amount and type of change I was hoping and expecting to be a part of. This isn’t a problem, it’s just a reality that I’m having to face. I’m needed, but not as much as I’d like to be, and I’m not trying to sound vain or narcissistic or whatever—I really wish my services and skills were being put to better use because my counterparts wanted to get as much out of me as they could before my time is up. I want to give as much as possible, but you can’t give what won’t or can’t be accepted.

But what’s becoming more important to me as I begin developing and refining the reality of my service and its future is that giving my energy where it’s needed and wanted is what’s going to help me finish my assignment most honorably and what’s going to help my work sustain once I go home. I can’t spend two years expecting to create sustainability by pushing people to change things that are culture, things that are misunderstood and easily misinterpreted by me. [An example: I try to set an example of what a teacher’s role ‘should be’ by erasing the white board myself, but this action actually makes my students feel guilty, uncomfortable, and disrespectful. I can’t change and I don’t want to waste my time trying. Another example: I won’t change the fact that my counterpart will use the LKS workbook (the error-filled English practice book) as long as the school forces students to buy it, no matter how much I bring in outside materials and better, more authentic and correct texts. I can teach her how to supplement her curriculum content and I must help her develop strategies for working within the system that isn’t quite ready to change, though it will eventually, and drastically. Using the LKS helps her feel that she’s honoring her students’ purchases, conforming to school culture standards, and doing her civic duty as a federally employed teacher responsible for working within the state curriculum.] What I can do is help people change what they’re ready to change, what they’re capable of changing, and what is culturally realistic for them to change. These changes may be small, and that may mean I don’t feel as needed as I’d like to be.

But my little kids need and want my energy, every bit of it. And it takes all of my energy to make sure I give them enough of the right kind of attention and support, help raise them well, and help them make enough gains now so that when I’m gone they can continue succeeding. This is vain: they need to interact with and learn as much from me while I’m here if they’re going to survive the school system here and manage to learn as efficiently as I know they can (especially about English and thinking critically). Giving them a leg up or a head start is the best thing I can do for them—the daily interactions I have with them are part of my service, even though I gain just as much as I’m hoping they do; feeling needed is what makes dealing with the cultural fatigue of the rest of my life manageable.

I know that no matter how stressed or frustrated or pissed off I am, I can walk around the corner and be with my best friends: the cultural fatigue evaporates. They’ve always got time for me and are always happy to see me. I don’t feel any of the strain or “cautious uncertainty”* that I do when I interact with teenagers and adults or any of the guilt I feel when I take ‘too much’ personal time alone in my room. But I’m not using them for my own happiness: by being with them, I can perform my service in its most pure and natural sense: spending energy with people I love and who love me, helping them grow and learn, actually exchanging energy, and savoring every second of it. I think the instances when I feel that I’m not doing work because I’m a PCV but just as a person helping other people are the best, most genuine moments of my life here and the truest manifestation of what I want to do. Mutual benefit is always win-win. I feel these things most acutely when I’m with my little friends.

Basically, we volunteers have the right to be cheesed. We’ve got the right to feel anger and frustration, even if daily. We don’t have to apologize for something outside our control: the exhaustion, the daily grind of being a stranger in a strange land, the cultural fatigue. But we’ve also got the right to bliss: something that keeps us going, helps us get through the day, reminds us why we’re here, something that makes us full of love. We’ll still be rollercoasting all over the place for the majority of the hours in a day, but our memories will be rose-tinted; I already know that what I’ll remember most about this country isn’t the things that drive me crazy, but the kids and the community and respect I feel with and for them. All of their Spirit and Love.

*E.M. Forster

things and things and things

quick rundown: visited two hindu temples with andy and a friend from school, anis (as well as her husband and kid). both temples are up on gunung lawu: candi cetho and candi sukuh.

beautiful sunrise this morning, enjoyed it while walking with putri.

kids at school had a market to raise funds for their classes. it was great and delicious fun.

lahron are still on the attack, swarming the house and porch during wet evenings.