Category Archives: Peace Corps Culture

One month left & too many thoughts to organize

(June 2, 2015)

The newest group of Peace Corps Indonesia trainees are swearing in tomorrow, marking their first day as Volunteers and the start of their leave-taking as they transition from Batu-Malang to their individual permanent sites. My grant period ends in a little over a month, and my fellow Fulbrighters (Sarah and Grace, both English Teaching Assistants) have departed now that their grant periods are over. Maria is heading overseas to travel a bit since she graduated from her Darmasiswa language training program. Other friends here are moving on to new jobs, getting ready to graduate, getting ready to move to new cities, finishing up their work contracts, having babies, accepting positions in new countries, getting ready to take the necessary exams to start studying abroad…family and friends in the US are having babies, getting married, graduating, accepting new jobs, finishing dissertations, transitioning to new work situations, etc etc. It’s a time of transition, as all moments actually tend to be, even the ones that seem still (like the moments one finds oneself at home alone on a federal holiday, no plans, no adventures, no running around town).

Thinking about going back for the summer before starting a new chapter here in Indonesia has prompted reflection, of course, and I think the fires of it have been stoked by connecting with the Peace Corps trainees. Life in Malang this year has been incredibly different from my life as a PCV in Magetan. When I got my assignment to serve in Indonesia in early 2010 and finished service in 2012, I had no idea I would come back here so quickly or decide to stay longer and try to make the expat/immigrant life work for myself here. Honestly, I thought I’d be closing the door on full-time life in Indonesia, perhaps studying Indonesia a little bit in graduate school to see if it ‘fit’ as a research interest (since I had already invested so much time and energy learning the language and a little bit of the culture and history of this place), promoting Third Goal activities Stateside, maybe connecting with Indonesians in the US every now and then (and definitely reconnecting with my fellow ID4/5 Volunteers). I applied for the Fulbright thinking I had a chance but probably wouldn’t get it; doing another Fulbright application would be good professional experience, I figured. I accepted the Fulbright with doubts about my ability to return and be emotionally/mentally healthy, avoid depression and anxiety, not develop another pattern of disordered eating (and constantly fluctuating weight and self-esteem), and find positive strategies for self-care and relaxation that didn’t make me feel guilty about avoiding engagement with the community and “wasting” time abroad.

There are a few things about life in Malang that make living in East Java immeasurably easier now, as a city/campus-based Fulbrighter, than village-style living. It was blatantly obvious to me that living alone (or at least with same-aged peers in a housemate-type situation) rather than with a full-time host family would make a huge difference, as would being able to take and use motorcycles. Living with constant access to Wifi, indulging in my first smartphone, and making my own schedule also help, as do my current “work” situation (research and writing on my own schedule vs. teaching high school) and being surrounded more or less by same-aged peers with similar interests and experiences rather than high schoolers, little kids, and adults/grandparents (in my village, people my age were either busy raising their children or off in a bigger city studying rather than hanging around the village, and so I had…well, no friends my age in my village who could just hang out).

I suppose the major point of reflection on this line of thought is the inadequacy of blanket/zero-tolerance Peace Corps policies for nurturing Volunteers to be the best they can be. There are two major benefits to motorcycling, for me: (1) engaging with the community is much easier when transportation options aren’t limited, meaning cross-cultural communication/interaction is boosted, one can attend and participate in more cultural events, and it’s not a burden to community members to organize special transportation, and (2) I’m in control of myself, and I can remove myself from uncomfortable situations very easily when I control my own transportation, i.e. didn’t ride in someone’s car to an event. Plus–obviously–there’s greater independence, meaning I can do things like shopping and going to the gym without having to waste time doing public transit, even though the downside of that is there’s less engagement with people on public transit. But honestly… that was always really trying on my patience, anyway.

In terms of housing, I realized once I was able to step away from Peace Corps life after finishing service that I had been putting excessive amounts of pressure on myself to engage with people, especially my host family, because I felt like shutting myself in my room–even though it was the only way I could get private, personal, re-charge-the-batteries time at site–was a bad thing to do. Imagine berating yourself for two years straight about taking me-time. I think the mentality of PC being a 24/7 job is really detrimental, and constant pressure–even if it comes from oneself–to engage and be active and “on” can be totally damaging to one’s ability to serve and be the best PCV possible. For me, “best” here means healthy, mentally and emotionally resilient, well-rested, positive and outgoing and open-hearted, and loving. I need to note here that the 24/7 job thing is actually part of the swearing in oath that PCVs take when they start their service. Why do we think that’s an okay thing to agree to?

I wasn’t my best self when I was a PCV, and I think it would have been totally different for me if I had my own place and my own transportation in my village. The reason we do host families here is because it fits cultural norms and provides a great community support system for Volunteers’ safety and security, and the reason we don’t do motorcycles is because of the liability issues and difficulties of getting injured Volunteers to hospitals with Western standards (PCVs in Indonesia with serious injuries must be medically evacuated to Bangkok, Thailand) on top of the expenses and risks of transporting seriously injured Volunteers. I know I signed up for Peace Corps and all its rules and regulations, but I think it’s a shame that the program can’t be more attentive to nurturing Volunteers rather than helping them survive (emotionally, mentally, and literally, i.e. health-wise). I think Volunteers develop the habit of blaming themselves for their adjustment issues, although in some cases a few simple environmental, i.e. external, tweaks could work wonders for the PCV and their communities.

That’s all for now– some fun and pic-filled posts coming soon! The gang and I have been doing a lot of adventuring as we try to make use of our last precious days together, so I want to share about that… next time. I also want to write some more posts of substance, and I think that having more time this summer will allow for that. Who ever dreamed I’d still have summers “off” at nearly 30 years old? Score.

And in closing, I need to say: so sorry for the scatterbrained posts lately! I feel like there’s not enough time to organize my blogging as much as I’d like, but I’d rather share something than nothing, even if it’s pic-less and messy. Hopefully you can get something, and at the very least I like to get my thoughts out, though there’s hardly time to reflect on my own reflections. That’s lame! Life just never slows down… and that’s sublime, in its way.

Thanks for reading, as always!


little nerdy updates

Hello, beloveds!

It is Thanksgiving day, and I am enjoying some coffee and Childish Gambino, trying to catch up on tasks, emails, chats, posts… it has been a hectic week or two, and my hard-earned few hours’ of morning work time (and last night’s sleep) is helping me re-center. This is a good thing, since my research project, whose activities and time commitments ebb and flow, is about to demand another dedicated stretch of time and effort from me.

I suppose I will start with research updates. The best and biggest news is that thanks to the help of my darling friend Miss L of the UMM International Language Forum, I have a crack team of over-achieving English and International Relations undergraduate students transcribing and translating my recorded interview files! This is a huge help to me and actually a necessity, since I can’t spell Javanese words and often can’t even distinguish individual words in Javanese; most of the older participants responded to my interview questions in Javanese, evenly split between high and low forms of the language (which are distinct languages and mutually unintelligible, i.e. if a younger person knows only the low form, they generally can’t understand the high form. Funny side story – slash – example, the son of the owner of my gym didn’t know how to respond when I asked him a question in high Javanese! Yes indeed, he’s Javanese, but he only speaks the low form of the language). Once I get the transcripts, I can review the translations and begin preparing questions for a second round of interviews. I think the second round needs to be completed before the end of December if I’m to maintain a reasonable timeline for writing, and I should probably start writing up at least my methods section this month, if not a decent part of a literature review section. Nerdy!

Last week, my colleague and friend Mbak K and I attended an international graduate student and scholars conference in Jogjakarta, home of the famous Borobodur and Prambanan temples and the city of the strongest remaining sultanate in Indonesia. I had been there a couple of times during Peace Corps service, and my parents also visited during their stay. It’s a popular tourist destination due to the temples, and it’s a large city because of the sultanate, its bursting arts and culture scene, and the many, many universities located there.

The conference, at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), was on spirituality, local wisdom, science, and global issues in Indonesia and other countries around Southeast Asia and, in fact, the globe. The primary focus was environmental issues, indigenous peoples, and the relationships between government, land, indigenous knowledge, and religious/spiritual conflict and how such conflict impacts policymaking and lawmaking in Indonesia, and there were some very interesting and relevant panels and plenary sessions that I found personally useful for my current project. Delegates (graduate students, professors, lecturers, NGO leaders, and policymakers) from around the world were in attendance: Thailand, Iraq, the Netherlands, the USA, Australia, all over Indonesia (of course), Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Germany, Guyana, Australia…and more, I’m sure.

We had a great time and learned a lot, plus we got some good food, found some great souvenirs, and took twice-daily advantage of the lovely high-pressure showers in the hotel. What was arguably the biggest excitement of the week was visiting Martha, a fellow Fulbright student researcher currently completing a language course in Jogja. I hadn’t seen her since September, and it was so nice to hang out and chat (over beer and Mediterranean food!). I also met another Fulbright researcher from UC Boulder working on a very interesting project about the relationship between chronic communicable illness, economic immobility, and sustainable resource extraction. Overall, the conference and trip resulted in lots of provocative chats with interesting and intelligent people dedicated to Southeast Asian studies, including many novice Indonesianists like myself. (Yup, I’m taking on that label. It’s official.)

A secondary purpose of the visit was to meet some of the folks at the cross-cultural and religious studies center at UGM, whose faculty once included Dr. Mark Woodward, a scholar I’ve been interested in due to the parallels between his work and my current project. One interesting thing about doing research on Indonesia as a Western scholar is the inaccessibility of large bodies of literature that for whatever reason either haven’t been digitized or translated from Javanese or Indonesian or Dutch into English; the people at the center have a vast library of materials that can’t be accessed anywhere else or through any other means but in-person. In addition to being able to collect primary data directly, another advantage of the Fulbright program is being able to access this literature by being here in person to make trips to library collections like these. So I visited the center after networking like a boss at the conference, meeting several people who work there, including the director (who also chaired the steering committee for the conference). I wasn’t presenting anything about my project since I’m just not ready, so my primary purpose there was to network and visit the center; mission accomplished. I am going to try and go back to UGM next month to peruse the library at the center, and they invited me to give a talk at their weekly Wednesday speaker series sometime next semester. It was such an amazing place; in addition to the great library and experienced faculty, both visiting and home-grown, they are very progressive and have close ties with the social, political, and environmental activist communities in Indonesia. I dug it, bigtime. If I come back to Indonesia in the next few years for dissertation research, I may try to base myself at UGM. I definitely felt a strong attraction, and one has to trust one’s nerdy intuition on these things!

…Why does Devendra Banhart have to be so great? He’s so pretentious sometimes, but seriously, that voice. I’ve switched music now and my second cuppa is nearly finished; I need to finish this blog up and head to the office soon! But I really need to share some exciting news from earlier this week. In my crazed little mind, a historic and inspiring event transpired on Monday in the American Corner of UMM. The event had been relatively long-awaited and thoroughly planned; snack boxes were prepared, as were certificates. Travels plans were arranged and powerpoint presentations were prepared. Rooms had been reserved and microphones were ready to go. What was this amazing event? A day-long collaborative English teacher training workshop sponsored by the American Corner at UMM and featuring two Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, Sarah and Grace, and two currently service Peace Corps Volunteers, Camille and Nahal! Plus me, Fulbright researcher (read: not ETA; another level of collaboration between programs) and RPCV! As far as I know, although Peace Corps has been up and running for almost five years (!) in Indonesia and the Fulbright ETA program has been running for longer than that, there hasn’t yet been a formal collaboration between the two organizations. The American Corners program is funded by the US Dept of State, so it was great to have AmCor UMM facilitating and sponsoring the event as well as coordinating all of the logistics and technical details. It was a glorious trifecta!!

I delivered a talk on the communicative method of language teaching and learning, ultimately choosing at the last minute to deliver half in Indonesian. The talk went well; I felt confident and comfortable, and I really think that speaking on the fly in Indonesian in public (with a microphone!) is really helping me in my constant, unending struggle to overcome my anxiety about public speaking, for which there is really no reason whatsoever. The ETAs delivered a talk on tech integration in the classroom, and the PC ladies discussed interactive classrooms and demonstrated some games and activities. I think we’re going to host a similar workshop next month for high school teachers, and there’s definitely room for improvement; we lectured all morning and only really involved people in the afternoon sessions, which is balanced, but I think we all felt that more engaging activities throughout the entirety of the workshop would be better, especially since there are language barriers despite the fact that the participants were all English teachers. So, we’ve got some goals for next time and plenty of time to work on achieving them. All in all, we felt great, and the participants seemed to enjoy themselves. I love being able to maintain my volunteerism, and I can’t stress enough how tickled I was, and still am, by the collaboration!

So, that’s it from me for now; I just wanted to share a little bit about what’s been keeping me busy over the past week or so. I’m excited to get my transcripts this evening and take myself out for a little self-care pedicure (thanks, Kate!). I’m sure in another week or so I’ll have something to share about the research project, and perhaps even a cycling trip I’m trying to join next weekend with Camille (Blitar to Malang!!). Gotta find a cycle and perhaps some padded-booty shorts.

Be well, enjoy the holiday, and take some time for self-care!

*For those with more experience in Indonesia: the Jombang MGMP for MTsN and SMP requested a workshop from AmCor only secondarily as an excuse for a guru-guru study tour to Batu, so we of course said please come along. Half of them dropped out and we invited some Malang teachers to take their places. My CP from PC days attended too, and it was the first time since May, 2012 that I got to see her. We had a sweet little reunion, plus she really enjoyed the conference; I am planning to go back to Magetan and MAN Panekan next month.

influence, influence

something new: i’m tutoring a college sophomore in English, at my house. he’s an amazing kid from the next town over from my village. he wants to become a veterinarian in korea or the states, so his tefl scores need to be high. luckily i can help him out… for free.* to protect the the innocent, i’ll call him the kid.

when i first arrived here, lots of students came by asking for private English lessons. they’d hear a rumor that a foreigner was here and assume that i’d be offering or selling lessons. at that time i was very averse to the idea; i was so busy adjusting and working on lesson planning for school that i couldn’t afford to spend time that way. i couldn’t see the efficiency of working with one or two students for even a few short hours a week—i was focused on giving group lessons or starting English clubs so that i could reach more kids.  plus, i needed evenings to myself, for downtime.

but now, things are different. this kid, my student, showed up one evening at my front door. he requested lessons for the months of his summer vacation from college. he didn’t use any Indonesian during the conversation—something the others didn’t do—even when he had to struggle a little bit for Norm to find the file. he had a specific idea of what he wanted to study as well as a clear idea of why he needed to improve his English. he came to my house three times before he caught me at home.

this was back in June. since i knew Ramadan was coming and the lessons would be temporary, and because the kid seemed very with it and motivated,
i agreed to teaching the private lessons. i had been looking for a way to fill my extra hours since extra-curriculars hadn’t yet started at school (still haven’t). i had also come to realize that working one-on-one with somebody isn’t any less valuable than working with a group, though it may not fit the ideal model of sustainable development in the pc sense. i agreed to help, acceding that a few hours a week of extra English practice could open some very big doors for this kid.**

the kid rides his motorcycle over to my house a few days a week, in the afternoons, and we work on conversation, grammar, and vocabulary. we use the grammar bible—azar—and I share magazines, science articles, and books. it’s been lovely getting to know him. his English is already great; besides the English teachers at my school, his language is the best in town. we’re learning lots and i’m getting the chance to teach some higher level grammar stuff (noun clause? let me look that up real quick).

it’s so strange to think of myself as occupying a big place in a young person’s life, which i’m sure i do being for many of them the first foreigner they’ve ever met. even stranger is to think of how i’m (potentially, negatively, positively) influencing these kids. of course, as teachers, we do indeed make impressions on our students, but teachers with whom we have very close one-on-one relationships are all the more influential. my two flute instructors, Stephanie and Carmen, were a couple of the most influential people during my adolescence; they taught my private lessons. i can confidently say that if i hadn’t known Stephanie, i would not have moved toIndiana. that’s a huge amount of life-changing influence. those two ladies had an enormous impact on me in other ways, too,, more so than most if not all of my high school teachers (and my teachers’ influence was considerable).

it’s hubristic to think that i’m influencing this kid in the same way as Stephanie did me, though nice to think that there’s a possibility of it, or a possibility of having a small fraction of that type of positive influence. i know the value of having in your life an older person who’s a young adult, not too much older than you, who’s a good role model, a source of inspiration, someone different than you to help expand your mind. someone still relatively young and hip.*** given the range of our topics of conversation—colonialism, pop culture, plastic surgery, American and Indonesian history, love and marriage, genealogy, religion—i’m sure he’s learning more than just English.

peace corps volunteers can have huge influence. that’s undeniable. one of the pcvs in my group, luke, met a pcv in his small village inPolandwhen he was a child. luke moved to the states when he was fifteen and always remembered that pcv. now, he’s a volunteer himself. of course, that’s a horribly abridged version of the story, but you see.

so, i wouldn’t have moved toIndianaif it weren’t for Stephanie. back to me and the kid. what if this kid gets a motivation boost from me, studies English until he’s nutty, passes the tefl test with flying colors (because he’s only got a short way to go before his ability is high enough for this to happen), goes to korea to study and work, and then says he wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for me? even the possibility of that happening—however slim or great—is a huge motivation for me. i know how amazing it is to achieve the dream of working and living abroad. if i could help one kid do this, or be the final push he needs towards ensuring that he makes it happen for himself, i’d consider this pc service a job well done.

of course, that would be a very concrete piece of evidence that i have influenced my students. thinking about the tiny ways in which i influence them, especially
the very young ones, is strange. like, realizing fifteen years after the fact the ways that babysitters or older cousins positively or negatively influenced me, or remembering the sense of loss when one of them faded out of my life. and what do i remember about them? i told lauren once about how i remembered a lady named sandee, a college-aged supervisor at my elementary day care. i remember she had short blonde hair and wore grey sweatshirts a lot, and could make neat sound effects. weird, huh? but i remember her being very positive and loving, a good force, a cool role model. did i aspire to be a blonde, sweatshirt-clad voice actor? obviously no. there was something more subtle, something less easy to pinpoint.

what will the kids i teach here remember about me, after i disappear from their daily lives? will any of them end up doing something great and saying—like i do
about Stephanie—if it weren’t for sam, i wouldn’t be where i am today? or will they remember me as influencing them in more subtle ways? either way, that’s sustainability, creating positive change that lasts long after i’ve gone. this is why the relationships i have with these kids are the most important part of my life here. of course, it makes me feel like i’m working all the time and pressuring myself to perform, to go outside and interact when i want (and sometimes need) to stay in and relax, but… in the end, what’s better than hanging out with kids all day? it’s good for the kids and good for the soul, and it’s the real path to sustainable change.^



*i did take the new harry potter off of his computer, though. and requested that he help me teach les to the little kids. promoting volunteerism! excellent!

**some of the kids who came to my door back when i first arrived could barely speak any English. i wonder what the ethical debate would look like about refusing to spend large amounts of one-on-one time with students who have studied for years but have no grasp of basic English versus jumping at the chance to spend large amounts of time with someone who has advanced skills in the language. of course, very big doors could be opened for any Indonesian kid who becomes proficient in English, and i’d like to help them all. but based on the pc framework, i don’t have to give private lessons, and anyways, can tutoring one student be considered sustainable development work (it is direct skills transfer)? does this fit into the project goal of working with youth to help improve their employability? does it count if it’s one kid? i can probably get the kid closer toward his absolutely achievable goal in the short amount of time i’m here than if i was starting with someone else from square one, someone who may be less motivated or capable to continue studying on their own once i’m gone, someone who may want to work abroad but would need to put more work into their English than a couple extra hours a week. is it justifiable for me to have turned the others away but to have accepted the kid as my student? if the others had shown up again now that i’ve adjusted and have extra time, would i teach them? maybe. bottom line: tutoring him is better than not tutoring him, and my time is available.

***i wear chucks now.

^coming soon: what is change, who’s changing what under whose terms, what are the positive and negative changes i’m making and experiencing, and who says what i’m doing is right at all? i’m still not convinced that this peace corps thing isn’t some weird sort of neo-colonialism or feel-good political insurance policy. stand by!

bat sauce!

i didn’t eat any bat sauce. it’s just been an awful long time since i’ve written anything. mostly i don’t feel the need to anymore so i’m getting lazy; i mean it’s not necessary anymore to write about my experience to feel sane, at least write in this public bloggy way.

lots of things have happened this month; march was uneventful until the end weeks, mostly full of extremely fun teaching times & most adventuresome after-school lessons with the little kids, who are now “brave” to come over since my host mom is out of town (we’re closing in on five weeks—she’s been visiting her kids and grandkids in sumatra and Jakarta, host dad too).

mom and al came to indonesia for a week! it was a nerve-wracking blast of travelventure and whirlwindery, an exciting but exhausting romp through east and central java with stops in my training village, current site, and Jogjakarta, the cultural-arts metropolis of indonesia. i highly recommend forcing your parents to visit you at site if you are a pcv or basically anyone living in a foreign country for a length of time. they will drive you fairly insane but it’s so good—someone besides your fellows has got to understand what you’re experiencing. mom said that nobody—none of her friends, that is—will be able to really “get it” about indonesia, and i agree. we pcvs are all sort of worried about not having anyone but each other to relate to once we get back in the states; peace corps says one of the hardest things to deal with upon return is the fact that you’ve been away so long and it’s impossible to relate everything to everyone. but it’s great that my folks were here. having them meet people in my life here was really a treat. they probably met 500 people, including all my students… i bet they were as exhausted as i was; i slept for two days straight after they left. translating was fun but draining. i felt like i suddenly had two babies to take care of…very opinionated babies. but they were superstars, eating with their hands, trying everything put in front of them, buying lots of batik, renting real nice hotel rooms for us in Jogja, hanging out with my cool host cousins and eating lots of amazingly delicious duck for real cheap. thanks for coming to indonesia, my parents!

i had two hellish days of impatience and anxiety between the day my exhaustion finally wore off and the day of the newbies’ arrival; the impending hangings out with friends in surabaya (read: with ice cream) are always terrible in their propensity to make me want to hurt most everyone i see. we had a nice reunion and celebration of our one year anniversary of arriving in-country (actually it’s been almost 13 months now) and welcomed the new kids with a nice party with the staff in the office. the new group seems very cool and experienced; i can’t wait to see who’s placed near me (their swearing in is in June and a nearby city is supposedly getting four volunteers). good luck with training, pcid2/5!

the only downer over the past month or so has been diana’s really awful situation. unfortunately, she’s heading for surabaya tomorrow to do her medical check-out before heading back to the states. a big bummer.


apologies for the silence. i’ve written massive amounts of poetry over the past five months and it’s been consuming my writing time; blogging is definitely taking a back, way-back seat.


oh the tender things
slipping in beneath the clouds,
quiet with pretty eyes,
young skins and pretty crimes;
walking can be done
in the night and sunlight,
taller and with sinews,
breached and behind rested;
we were once children
of our own country,
placed and shuffled.
now we are made of lines,
fogs, any type of liquid.


brothers, hold your arms


Sitting in the dark listening to Biggie, the electricity is dead. I sat on the porch and thought about how great it is to have no power and said thanks to the half-full laptop battery when I realized I was over it. I enjoy sitting with my host dad when the electricity is out but he is eating in the dark so I’m going to write a little bit of storytime.

I could just soliloquize about my students for this entire entry. We’ve been having a grand time—or at least I have, and for that I thank them. We spent most of January getting our package prepared to send to Laura at Northside. My students were so dedicated and excited to share… everything. This past few weeks has been our expressing love unit; we listened to a Stevie Wonder song and read and wrote some love poetry. Their poems are very teenaged and extremely titillating. I’m hoping to have some of them on the Right 2 Create blog in the next couple of days. If you end up reading them, please help me out by leaving comments (it will really encourage my kids).

PC Indonesia had a nice visit from our regional director and country desk officer last week. I’m on a committee of volunteers that went to Surabaya to welcome the guests, though the guests themselves picked me up at school. They had two giant white SUVs and quite a gang of folks, Indonesian and American. Unfortunately—fortunately?—the vehicles pulled into the central courtyard of my school. Hoosiers got nothing on the rubbernecks in Turi.

We’re all getting ready and excited for the new group to arrive in April. They’ve been having quite a lot of labored discussions on Facebook about preparations and expectations. We had five weeks to prepare and no resources in-country (no volunteers) and this group has a couple of months and very easy Internet access to us. Comparing experiences will be interesting.



These days are never what I expect them to be. I went to school this morning and my counterpart told me that one of my students had been in a motorcycle wreck yesterday and was still in the hospital. The class I was to teach first this morning is the class that the kid is in. Since the kids stay in the same class all day, they get really close as friends; the kids were real sad, as was I, and my counterpart.

I scrapped my lesson—which was on expressing sadness—and we made get well soon cards for the student. After my second and last class of the day, I went with a four other of teachers and four kids from class to visit the student in the hospital. He looked okay. He wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time of his wreck but fortunately didn’t have any severe head injuries; one of the bones in his right forearm was broken clean in half and he had had surgery yesterday. Who knows when he’ll be back in school or able to write again. Bummer. Brought back some bad memories of visiting one of my middle schoolers in the hospital in Indianapolis last year… a kid I had spent most of the year bending over backwards for put himself in a coma goofing around on a four-wheeler.

Anyways. My student will be okay. I sent a text message to Travis, who’s had numerous kids in wrecks this year, not all of which have been non-deadly. This was the first serious wreck a kid at my school has had, luckily; considering the way people drive in this country and how enough kids don’t wear helmets while riding their motorcycles, I’m extremely grateful and a little surprised that we made it almost through the school year without a serious injury (I’ve had kids coming to school bruised and bloody from motorcycle wrecks, but none of them have landed in the hospital until now).

Strange day. Get well soon, kid!

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

o little cheese head

We traveled to Jakarta this past week because of the Presidential visit. I left Monday a half an hour before school was over to catch a bus to Surabaya; we flew from there to Jakarta on Tuesday morning, all together again, staying at the same hotel that we stayed in way back in March.

Tuesday was spent buying a birthday cake for Sara and Erika, meeting with a principal from a very successful franchise school in Jakarta, and greeting former PCVs and government officials from the education and religious ministries at a dinner on the rooftop of the hotel. At the end of the evening, the vice consul from the Jakarta embassy met with us to discuss our plans for Wednesday: our meeting with the First Lady.

We had found out about two weeks ago that we’d be having a meet and greet with Mrs. Obama as part of the Presidential tour of Asia and attendance of the G20 summit in South Korea. This was the third time we were told we’d be meeting with an Obama—the first time was in March (and was the reason we were hurried into this country with only five weeks to prepare to leave the States) and the second time was earlier in the summer, but that trip was cancelled because of the disastrous BP oil spill.

During IST, a two-week training we had in early September, our country director confirmed that the Obamas would be visiting Indonesia at long last. He wasn’t sure if we’d be pulled out of site and transported to Jakarta because the visit was to be abbreviated and the Peace Corps meeting might be cut from the agenda. Lucky for us, Mrs. Obama’s only planned activity on this trip outside of the President’s schedule was meeting with us!

Our meeting with the vice consul was very strange—a briefing on protocol and etiquette. We were not to shake hands unless the First Lady initiated, we were not allowed to bring gifts of any kind, we were to call her “Mrs. Obama,” and the whole event might have just been that she walked in the door, said nothing, snapped a picture, and left. Nobody really knew how the visit would go. During the meeting, our departure time for Wednesday morning kept changing as the vice consul received text messages—5:15, 5:30, 5:15 am. The Presidential speech was set to begin at 9:00 am.

We woke on Wednesday at 4:00 am to shower and put on our fanciest batik dress shirts. The bus left the hotel at about 5:30 am. We arrived at the university and, with the help of Mrs. Obama’s personal assistant, cut everyone in line to go through security—lots of dudes and ladies with sunglasses and suits and those spirally earphones…secret service agents, a lot of them. The First Lady’s assistant and the vice consul shuffled us through the complex where the speech would be held and off toward the rear side of the building, to a small tent with a sign that said “Peace Corps Event.” We waited, with our country director and the vice consul, for a little over two hours, taking a few minutes with the assistant to arrange ourselves on risers for the photo and killing time with twenty questions and nervously smoothing our batiks and arranging our nametags.

When we got word that the motorcade had arrived at the university, we were asked to take our positions and wait for the “principal” to arrive for the photo. There was a small gap between the tent’s door flaps, and we saw the president after about twenty minutes of standing waiting for the First Lady. We watched him greet a couple folks and thanked our lucky stars that we had a chance to see the President, even if from afar. Meeting Mrs. Obama, certainly right behind the President and soon to walk into our tent, would be amazing. The President walked by the small opening of the tent and we laughed nervously…we saw Obama!

All of a sudden, the flaps of the tent opened and in he walked. “What a good lookin’ group, in your batiks!” he said, smiling.

We were speechless, grinning like fools and shaky at the knees, all of us. He went down the line, greeting each of us, asking how we were, our names, and where we were from.

Lauren and Gio did a good job describing the feelings: Obama is a mesmerizing person and we’ve never felt such a strong physical reaction to someone walking into the room. I’m sure you can imagine he’s got quite a presence and charisma—he’s real good at making eye contact and as corny as it sounds makes you feel real special by paying the perfect amount of individual attention to you, even if it’s just for thirty seconds.

He talked to us as a group for about five minutes, asking about our work and expressing how proud he is of us and how important our service is in Indonesia. We snapped some pictures and the President was about to leave when he realized Ken hadn’t been in the photo; he grabbed Ken and we took a few more pictures.

The whole meeting was about ten minutes long, which is a huge amount of time when you consider whose it is. We filed out of the room and into the hall where the speech was to be held—we had reserved seats off to the right of the stage and we realized that the entire audience was already seated and waiting and had been while we were meeting with Mr. Obama.

We listened to the speech—about democracy, development, and religion—and snapped more photos from afar. We got some explanation from Ken that the vice consul had received a text message the night before saying that the First Lady wouldn’t be able to make the event (his heart dropped) but that the President would fill in for her instead (whew!) and that it was to be a surprise (Mrs. Obama was exhausted and went ahead to the G20 in South Korea since their third event of the day had been cancelled because of its proximity to Mount Merapi). Ken had found out about an hour before the meeting that it would be the President…we didn’t find out until he was in the tent with us. Amazing!

The speech was a crowd-pleaser, just as it was intended to be. The President dropped some Indonesian and Arabic words and phrases, reminisced about his days as a kid in Jakarta, talked about his favorite Indonesian foods, and spent a lot of time stressing the need for Indonesia’s advancement on the global stage and its success as a new democracy and pluralistic majority-Muslim society.

We had a great time. Of course, our placement here is directly related to Obama’s win in 2008 and is highly political given the relationship between the US and the Middle East. Some people may feel that we’re tools of the State first and PCVs/people-to-people peace workers second, but meeting the President was a nice way to pacify those anxieties—the government does need us here and it’s nice to be gratified and applauded given the importance of our work and the difficulties we’ve faced.

A lovely, extremely memorable few days. Thanks again, taxpayers!

(I don’t feel any more special or anything for having met the President, but the experience and the reaction I had to meeting someone like that was pretty great.)

A few photos: Ayah searching for lahron in our front yard– to be fed to the fish, though they are often deep fried and eaten by humanoids; trip with the teachers to a waterfall up on Lawu, on the way to Solo for a day of shopping; morningtime pictures from this weekend’s 4:30 am walk with the gals. Enjoy!