When we first came to training, the volunteers in our village speculated our host families were all calling each other in the evenings to compare, “What did your American do today?”
With a very small bit of language under my belt, I can now understand that most of the conversations my host mother has about me with neighbors or passers-by who are befuddled by my presence, are mostly about my meals. “What does she eat?” I get a real kick out of this because it’s as if I am some exotic pet. “You have a pet pterodactyl? What on earth do you feed it?” I get a bigger kick out of my mom responding proudly, “She eats everything! She even likes pedas (hot food)!” Depending on how much she wants to get into it, my host mom may also add, “Mbak Erin doesn’t smoke, and she doesn’t have any tattoos either!” This is a particularly great triumph for shattering the bule (white) stereotypes presented in the American movies popular here. Thank me later, America.
Anyway, I find it funny and enjoyable now to hear these exchanges because I know my host mom loves me and is proud of me, and I find myself imagining what my own mom in America would do if she had an Indonesian living with her. I would guess it would be more of the same because, in general, Indonesians simply do not know much about Americans, and, generally, most Americans do not know much about Indonesians.
Sometimes the pet phenomenon also brings on some new restrictions that I am not used to. At times, food is placed in my bowl at an amount that is not of my choosing. At times, people come to my house to gaze at me and maybe feed me a couple of English phrases. At times, I am latched onto and paraded around leaving me feeling a bit like the family cocker spaniel. I have even been forced to take naps. At first it felt a bit odd, but if presented with the option of living in a world with forced naps and a world with no naps at all, I think we all know what I would choose.
I embrace all of these things because I have already had a taste of the possibility that the novelty may one day peter out (at least for those who see me every day). My limited vocabulary can only get me so far, so I have exhausted the extent of my small talk with the neighbors. I can already tell the greetings from the motorcycle drivers at the end of the street have lost a little bit of their luster from a month ago when they used to exuberantly yell out as I passed. The steps of the village kids also don’t have quite as much spring in them when they start running upon sight of me - either toward me or away from me, depending on the day. Some days I am even fishing for a “Hey, Mister” or “Bule” just to know I haven’t lost my touch.
And now I have to break in a whole new village and begin again. I figure I have a good three month-shelf life in my new digs before the novelty begins to wane and I have to deliver something more substantial. I sometimes wonder if it is even possible to reach a day when I feel I have passed through from novelty to actual human being. But I realize attempting to make that happen is all on me. I’m just going to have to step it up and expand my bag of tricks and language skills to attempt to get beyond the pet phenomenon. I fear there is only a small window to do it before village folks lose interest altogether. Luckily, I think my family knows me a little bit now, and I am sure they will hand me to my next family with detailed instructions for my care: Feed excessive amounts of food at least 3 times daily. Must bathe at least twice a day, if not more. Beware of odd behavior and excessive laughter.