Nora is a beautiful tiny butterfly of energy and smiles. She is from a small town in Sumatra and comes from a devout Islamic family. Lim, one of the Chinese-Indonesian English teachers, took her and I to this eclectic hole-in-the-wall cafe in south Jakarta yesterday afternoon. The cafe is lined, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of thousands of books. Books written in Bahasa Indonesian, books written in English, in French, in German; guidebooks, cook books, comics, sci-fi, popular young adult literature, books from my childhood. It was an outstanding place.
The three of us sat at the cafe sipping coffee and tea and eating peanut butter toast for about four hours, them telling me about the history of Indonesia and what it was like under the colonization of the Dutch. They told me of the different parts of the islands, what to expect where, what the people are like in Bali, in Papua, in Sumatra, teaching me different parts of Bahasa Indonesian. Nora told me of her family, how she is the oldest and is called “Kaka” (spelling might be off, there) as a sign of respect from her siblings.
We talked of traveling, the different places in Southeast Asia that Lim and Nora have travelled to, what it’s like in Sydney, Australia, and how it’s a different world from Indonesia. I told them of my time in Morocco, in Bosnia, of using HelpX to meet amazing people.
Nora told me of tsunamis and earthquakes that wrecked her town and collapsed half of her house in 2009. Lim told me the long history of tension between the Indonesians and Chinese-Indonesians. I told them what it was like to grow up in an American high school.
And as we sat in our little United Nations booth, nestled against the window of the top floor of this bookstore cafe, surrounded by books and the scents of coffee and the distant lightning, I couldn’t help but practically buzz from happiness.
The three of us brought such a variety of experience to the table and also such a curiosity that the conversation never lulled, never got boring, never dull. We talked about things we cared to hear and there with this electric energy shared between us.
I was nervous about making friends. I thought, before coming here, what if we don’t have anything in common and they aren’t interested in me? What if all the teachers are married and uninterested in befriending a hopelessly ignorant single girl who seems to have an inability to commit to anything longer than a few months? What if they have better things to do than be friends with me?
The safe thing for me, the comfortable thing, is to be alone. To explore on my own. To spend hours upon hours writing and reading. I enjoy being alone. I enjoy going at whatever pace I set for myself. This is safe zone.
But I don’t learn as much from being alone as I do when I am with people. Especially about the culture I am in. You don’t learn these things from guide books, you really don’t. You can read the history books, you can read blog articles, you can read expat accounts…but I couldn’t have learned this slice of Indonesian culture like I did talking to Lim and Nora.
I was nervous about making friends, but I was even more scared that I wouldn’t even try.
I wouldn’t even try to connect with the other teachers, with the other Indonesians and expats that I meet. I was nervous that I would just resort to spending my days alone, traveling around and going at my own pace, never getting out of that safe zone. I thought it would take weeks and weeks to get to the point where I could ask to have dinner with some of them or share experiences outside of our teaching environment.
But. As the three of us talked, practically draping ourselves on the table in our enthusiasm, I remembered that having things in common isn’t what makes a conversation. Isn’t what makes friends. Nora and I have grown up in perhaps the most opposite of environments.
Her family is devoutly Islamic, mine is more of a chill Christian. Respect is one of the highest values in Indonesia. Independence is one of the highest in America. Her parents are strict relative to mine. My parents are rather absentee relative to hers. And then you factor in Lim! Lim who also brings an entirely different experience than either of us.
And Nora and I would routinely tease each other than we are the same person, separated at birth, that it’s like the parent trap and perhaps I should go home to Sumatra and she can go home to Kansas for a time. We can reconnect our parents because obviously, the four of them simply lost each other in this vast wide world.
It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
My introverted tendencies usually renders my people-interaction at a max of five hours. After that time, I get tired, antsy, a bit eager to be alone again and digest the conversations.
That was not the case yesterday with Lim and Nora.
We spent from 2:00 p.m. until midnight together, moving our United Nations group from the cafe to this gorgeous Javanese restaurant (pictured above) that reminded me of my time working as a hostess at Harry’s. Lim and I had Australian wine and shared a tempeh vegetable dish and Nora had rice and eggs with the famous Indonesian sweet soy sauce.
It wasn’t having experiences in common that connected us so electrically. It was that we were curious about each other. Curiosity goes so much deeper than shared passions and preferences. Through this curiosity we found that we have much in common at a human-level. We wanted to spend our lives giving more than taking. We wanted to hear other people and cultivate empathy. We are explorers.
This post is an ode to the welcoming friendliness of Lim and Nora, for adopting me and accepting my ignorance and my plethora of questions. For my exclamations and gasps. For tolerating my horrid Bahasa Indonesian accent.
I am so grateful for curiosity. For dialogue. For diversity. Which connects people together far more quickly than having a common background.