Indonesia seems, to me, to be very similar to Morocco. Perhaps this is my Western mind not able to discern non-Western cultures individually and simply lumping them all together, so perhaps this is the cultural ignorance speaking. Like how I cannot discern from which Asian country my teaching colleagues come (Laos from Cambodia from Philippines from Malaysia), when it is tremendously obvious to them.
Or how they cannot tell that Don, who comes from Boston, sounds very different than Kansas Josie.
It might also be that like Morocco, Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, housing the largest Muslim population in the world. So it is also the call to prayer echoing around me five times a day that calls me to make this reference.
It might also be that like Moroccans, the Indonesians are both curious and observant. I understand that I stand out. I am a Bule, Western foreigner, the only female Bule that I have met. There have been a few males—two of my teaching colleagues come from Houston and Boston—and I’ve seen a dotting of older Western men in my explorations of Serpong. But no females.
But don’t you feel unsafe? Isn’t it dangerous to be alone and a female? Aren’t you scared something will happen?
Yesterday I was given the good fortune to meet Arlin, a woman from the University who has been my Indonesian contact for the past few months. She has answered all of my questions (even though, thanks to the time difference, this means responding at 3 a.m. sometimes for her).
She took me to the International School in Serpong, a suburb of Jakarta, and while we waited a few hours for my mentor teacher to finish with her classes, Arlin let me flood her with all of my questions about cultural norms, what’s rude, what’s polite, how to say thank you and hello and how much? in Indonesian and other phrases I should have practiced learning before coming here.
My mentor teacher is this wonderful tiny woman from the Philippines who laughs when she speaks and is so much less intimidating than what I was envisioning. Thus far she has done ample work in welcoming me to the English Department.
The teachers seem to be quite close. Perhaps it is because they, not the students, move from classroom to classroom. Each department has a room where all the teachers have desks to work and plan and grade. Thanks to the proximity of working space, and that they aren’t isolated in their own classrooms, it seems to be a tight community.
My new colleagues at BINUS International School in Serpong, as well as the Indonesians that I have met so far, make me feel very welcomed. They are friendly, eager to share with me, eager to answer my questions, and eager to ask me questions of their own.
And now, to move past the glorious romantic generalizations of how accepted I feel and how everyone is welcoming and everyone is the same person, I’ll attempt to reverse the categorizations that I have placed, those human instinctual efforts of ours to categorize unfamiliar things in order to understand them better. These might make things feel more comfortable, but they limit my chance for understanding a person and a place.
Ms. Tyrine, my mentor teacher, is wonderful. She is a wonderful, slightly awkward, cheerful teacher. She has a heart for travel and adventure, and speaks about how she would like to one day go to the United Kingdom. She comes originally from the Philippines, but she is not the Philippines. I know her, yes, but I do not know Filipinos. I simply know Ms. Tyrine.
Arlin, too, is a beaming, shining, ray of sunlight in my confused little culture-shocked world. She helps bring order to the chaos that is my adapting mind. She walks slowly and speaks gently and encourages me to do the same, I who am used to scampering from place to place as efficiently as possible and speaking with as little breaks as necessary.
She has spent her entire life in Jakarta, but, like me, she gets bored very easily and hasn’t had the same job for more than two years at a time. She, too, like Ms. Tyrine, wants to explore the world and travel to the places from where the International students she helps host at the University come.
She is not Indonesia. I know her, yes, but I cannot use her to say I know Indonesians. I simply know Arlin.
Indonesia is not Morocco. The more time I spend here, the more questions I ask and the more things I notice, the more that becomes clear and the less I rely on my prior categories to understand this present world. And the better.
I come here tabula rasa. I know very little Indonesian (although I have picked up a few words, such as the word for push after I spent a solid 10 seconds tugging on the door of an Internet cafe). I bob my head in little bows in accordance with the way in which I see those around me bow in greeting.
I’m not here to categorize, to collectivize, to comprehend. I am here to learn. I am here to meet individuals. I am here to adapt and to study myself and to study those around me. I want to take the mass collectivized people groups in my mind (Indonesians, Muslims, students, teachers) and see, truly see them as individuals.
One of my teacher colleagues is a Bostonian named Don. Our conversation this morning will live forever in my mind:
“How long have you been in Indonesia?” I asked him. His screwed up his tiny eyes beneath thick frames.
“Too long. Way too long. It’s hell here, man. Hell. I got sucked into this place by my wife, and her family. Met her in New York and hooked up with her and now we’re married and now I’m here.”
I didn’t know how to respond, really, so I just laughed and raised my eyebrows. I had known a few Americans who had spent time in Indonesia, whether as missionaries or as teachers, and when I asked them how it was to live here every one of them had told me these objectively glorious things and how objectively glorious the people were and how objectively glorious the surrounding places were.
Here was someone who was giving me his honest, unfiltered opinion. He was speaking candidly to me without attempting to entice me towards any particular opinion.
“I am moving back to Boston when the school year ends and opening up a Breakfast and BBQ little joint,” he continued. “I’m going to serve breakfast until around 2 and then one speciality BBQ dish in the afternoon. It’s going to be amazing.”
Yes. I thought to myself. Yes! Thank you! Thank you so much! THANK YOU!
He didn’t realize it, and I couldn’t articulate, but Don was handing me a key. The notion that, since I am someone who desires to meet other people and understand things and fit in places and adapt, I must inevitably like everything I come in contact with or I fail as a world traveller. He reminded me that I don’t exist in categories, either. That I don’t have to force myself to love everything.
Of course at the moment I am hesitant to want to stay here forever. First of all, I can’t see myself staying anywhere forever anyways, and there is a little bit of expectation for me (placed there by yours truly) that I should want to stay in Indonesia and beg for a job teaching here. But this is an unfamiliar place to me. I don’t feel comfortable all the time. Not in regards to safety, but simply as it regards to life. I am out of my comfort zone.
Which is the point, of course.
And when you extend yourself out of this little bubble, you are not always innately desirous to stay outside of said bubble. Human instincts.
There is a big part of me that wants to dash away from Indonesia in search of something more familiar to me. Perhaps to go back to Europe, where I know the transportation and the currency and where to access wifi and how to treat the people around me. Or perhaps to go to New Zealand, where at least I can understand what is being said around me and people won’t stare at me as much.
This single conversation with Don reminded me that I don’t have to stay here. And as soon as I reminded myself of that, I relaxed and began to focus on learning about what is around me instead of trying to force myself into immediately loving it all.
I don’t have to make any decisions now. I remind myself of this. And remind myself of this. My task is not to adapt to this culture so that I can live here forever. My task is to simply observe and ask questions and smile authentically.
Ultimately, I am chasing freedom. That’s what I’m doing out here. That’s why I've peaced out of the United States for the foreseeable future, maybe to not return. Maybe to return. I don’t know. I don’t need to know.
By casting categories on my own self, and telling myself the only proper and respectful thing is to love everything about this like all the missionaries and teachers before you, I am locking me in a cage. And then misunderstanding this rebellion within me for just a weakness of cultural adaptation.
I don’t seek to understand, because understanding I think is itself a fallacy. You think that, yes, finally, I understand this place! I understand the culture and the customs! Then you meet someone who does not fit in with your understanding and your entire foundation is undermined by an individual. But the individual makes up the whole, yes? So how can you understand the whole without factoring in this individual?
Everything breaks and you feel disheveled because your foundation for understanding has been threatened.
So I’m not here to understand. I’m not here to force myself to love anything.
I am here to listen to the call to prayer. And to smell the rice cooking in the alley behind my little cave of wonders. To hear the frogs falling head over heels in love with each other. To meet Arlin. To meet Ms. Tyrine. To have a conversation with Don.
To find freedom. To study myself. To learn that I will never reach learned and yet there is no point in not moving that direction anyways.