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


One thought on “The Day You Mistook Devendra for Me, Or: The Right to be Cheesed”

  1. Elegant, and really insightful.

    I’m hoping/expecting to be in the next batch of PCV’s in Indonesia (just waiting for placement).

    Sometimes I wonder what the people in your communities would think or do if they could read and fully comprehend the contents of the blogs. And it makes me wonder how every foreign person I’ve come across in the US and Europe felt living among a population with a radically different culture — how much do we overlook every day?

    Keep heart, and keep writing.



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