Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Regular Marcus Brody

I can already start to see that integration may not be a possibility - at least not in the way I thought before I came here. I hoped that after two years, I would be fluent in the language and feeling a part of the community - almost as if I had grown up here. Or, I envisioned I’d embody Indiana Jones’ description of his friend, Marcus Brody, to the Nazis in The Last Crusade:

“He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again.”

Obviously, my white, white skin poses some significant hurdles to this prospect, and as each day passes, I am not sure that is exactly what I am shooting for anyway.  It is more likely that, from here on out, I will more accurately mirror the true Marcus Brody comically displayed when the movie cuts to the next scene: MB in the middle of crowded fair in the Middle East, wearing a ridiculous outfit, looking like a bumbling fool as he loudly asks if anyone speaks English. "Or maybe even ancient Greek?"

Yes, that feels about right. 

The fact that I stand out does present its fair share of challenges. On a walk with a fellow PCV in Malang, I commented how hard it would be to live here without having a somewhat healthy self-esteem. With the constant exposure, comments, laughter, and stares, at times, the ol’ self-image can certainly take a beating. For instance, at the time of writing, I am currently being stared at by my host niece. Her face is about two inches from mine, and I don’t think she’s blinked in four minutes. And I am curious as to how many pictures are out there in the universe at present of me performing such exciting activities as eating corn on the cob or trying to cross the street. My school has already made three separate banners with my image that I know of to display on various buildings. Exploitation or awesome? It’s a fine line I will straddle quite a bit in the next two years. 

As a result, I am beginning to appreciate why celebrities get rushed to the hospital so often for exhaustion. I am somewhat honored to be feeling the effects experienced by so many greats: Demi Lovato, Wyclef Jean, and, more recently, Selena Gomez. Processing the constant attention, frequent picture-taking with strangers, and invariably being treated as something other than the real person I am is enough to make one require frequent naps and a sufficient amount of alone time to keep sane. 

I swing on a pendulum of being swarmed by people one minute and being avoided by everyone the next because I am such an oddity. My friend, Betsy, from home has a 3-Question Rule. After asking a person you just met three questions about themselves, if they fail to ask you one question about yourself in return, you move on; it’s not worth it to continue the conversation. Implementing this standard here would be impossible. Sometimes, if I didn’t drive conversation here, there would be none as people are not quite sure how to handle me at times. Sometimes, I just opt for the silence. 

Yes, I can already feel the ups and downs this celebrity life brings. One moment, I will think, “Ugh, why does everyone need to talk to me?” And in moments where I am surprised not to get any attention, I can experience a sudden, desperate yearning for it. “Why doesn’t anyone want to talk to me?” No wonder these celebrities are crazy. I finally understand! Brittany, if you are reading this, give me a call, and we can swap tales. 

However, being the modern-day Marcus Brody I am and owning the fact that I stand out can also be used to my advantage. 

  • Aside from always getting front-row seats at events or having strangers hand me boxes of cakes on my runs home, I am often told how beautiful I am. I am told this even when I am drenched in sweat in my 10-lb khaki military-style uniform, and I know full-well there is no possible way “beautiful” would be the word to describe my appearance. 

  • I also get to try my hand at stand-up as I am frequently called upon to be the center of attention and make speeches. I have the added challenge of having to make jokes in a second language, but I really think my delivery is improving. When all else fails, I throw them a little Javanese phrase, and I can really get an audience rolling. I am the funniest girl ever here. I could never get these kinds of yucks in NY. 

  • I also like that I can say hello to everyone and walk up to them even if it is weird here. Yesterday, on a bike ride with my posse of 7 to 11-year-old friends, I stopped to talk to some folks who had called out to me the day before. I chatted with them for a bit, much to the confusion of my riding buddies. After we biked on, my 11-yr-old best friend asked me who those people were, and I told her I didn’t know. Seeing her bewildered look I tried to explain that because I am different, sometimes it is better to meet people so they won’t be afraid like she was in the beginning. She seemed to accept that.  
So – integration? Not so much. Yes, I want to be fluent, and, yes, I want to be a part of the community. But I am OK with being somewhat separate and being considered something else. I like that not all of the rules of the culture apply to me because I am a foreigner.

  • I like that I have privacy, and I have my own space. 
  • I like that I don’t have to wear a jilbab when it is 90 degrees outside. 
  • I like that even though this culture considers it impolite to smile in pictures (Noel said she was told it was considered “flaunting your happiness”), my host ibu says it is perfectly OK for me to continue smiling like a dufus because I am not from here. 
  • I like that I can walk/run places where Indonesians would never dream of going without riding a motor cycle (which is anywhere further than a 2-minute walk), and I like that I do these things by myself even if that is not something normally accepted.

  • I like that even though I hope to join and experience puasa (fasting) throughout Ramadan alongside my fellow teachers, students, and village, I have already been told I should eat or drink if I really need to. While I fully intend to ikut (follow), it’s nice to know there is an out, and I won’t be shunned. 
So, instead of blending in or disappearing into my new culture as Indy described, I am ok with sort of just resting atop it for awhile as a hopefully welcome and enhancing addition - a nice, bright red, attention-grabbing cherry atop an already delicious hot fudge sundae, if you will.

Oh geez. The clock hasn't even started on the season of fasting, and the sundae analogies have already started. We'll just have to see how this thing goes.

Selamat Berpuasa everyone!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Suka dan Duka

We were handed some words of wisdom during PST from the current PCVs, and a fellow newbie was immediately drawn to the phrase, “Peace Corps sucks sometimes”.  

Disclaimer: obviously, this statement refers to the challenge of Peace Corps service and in no way reflects on the organization. 

I know I am relatively new to this whole thing, but I already know these words to be true. In fact, at times, it can suck so hard that all I want to do is cloister myself in the comfort of my princess bed with a sleeve of Oreos and a marathon of 30 Rock. 

  • Sometimes, this feeling comes after a 5-hour meeting in Indonesian that I am about 87% sure was not entirely necessary (but on the flip side did include a performance of the chicken dance).
  • Sometimes, it comes after being told I am going to a wedding after I had already been to a sunat (see glossary) and another function earlier the same morning.
  • Or, at times, it can creep up more slowly after days of feeling a little pimped out, perplexed, or persistently being on display.
Yes, one can certainly hit the point of saturation quickly. This is the duka, or the downs, as translated from Indonesian. Obviously, I choose not to focus on the duka for the likes of this blog and for your sake. It’s not my style. And, anyway, it doesn't take long for something magically awesome to happen, causing me to hit the suka, or ups. Something like the following, for instance: 

The first day of school brought with it the first flag ceremony which occurs across Indonesian schools every Monday. It is militaristic in nature with marching, singing and recitation of the Panca Sila (fascinating blog post forthcoming on the topic of Panca Sila). The highlight was they had a group of students run into the center of the school yard toward a tower that had been constructed, and one student was carrying a torch. Already, I was intrigued. He then lit a long rope which, I am guessing, had been dipped with lighter fluid. As I watched the flames rise in orange and red like the decals on an ‘80s hotrod, a few questions excitedly bounced about in my head. 

Torch coming in from left

1.    How long will it take for the balloons decorating the side of the torch to be overpowered with the heat of the nearby flames and start popping?
2.    What are the odds that the tower wrapped in a highly flammable gold wrapping would not also ignite?
3.   Was anyone concerned for the safety of the students and teachers already baking in the sun and now feeling the added heat of an open, uncontrolled flame? 

The beauty of Indonesia is none of these questions would be asked beforehand. Someone had a dream of a torch, and, by golly, there would be a torch.  

Also, I wondered if this was entirely for my benefit. If it was, it was probably the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me – risking the lives of an entire high school so that I could be temporarily entertained.

Anyway, I didn't have to wait long for my initial questions to be answered. The balloons started popping about 4.3 seconds after I wondered when they would. The paper surrounding the torch caught fire and the entire structure burst into flames. This occurred about the same time I realized the top of the torch was also full of firecrackers that haphazardly exploded and darted in many directions into the crowd. 

It was a thing of beauty. 

And like latent Orville Redenbacher popcorn kernals, more firecrackers continued to explode long after initial detonation, so that whilst the principal was giving a speech, the entire tower was aflame, shooting out explosives. 

Note that bottom right corner of tower has caught fire
The fire caught too fast and furious to photograph, but you can see the latent firecrackers and that the tower scaffolding is now bare. 
The suka. It can be your host dad bringing you home a hamburger on the 4th of July or a PC pal sending you an internet link to watch the recently released Harry Potter movie. It could be aerobicizing with fellow teachers as seen below:

Or it could be a splendidly dangerous pyrotechnic display that will forever be etched in your brain because, even though you’ve seen the Macy’s fireworks up close, this display had spirit. This one had heart.This one brought suka.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beji Community Project

A little less exciting than the Giripurno Community Video project, and some countries were wiped out in the painting process. Nonetheless, here it is: 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

How I almost sang the “Golden Girls” theme song to a crowd of Indonesian teachers

Please do this:
Right now - think of any songs to which you know all of the words. All of the words. By heart and without musical accompaniment. As you do that, let me continue on with my story, and, as we used to like to say in the insurance biz - we will circle back. I think you know where I am going with this. 

A couple of days ago, I went with the teachers from my school and their families on a trip to Sarangan Lake. In the evening, we ate dinner, which was followed by a lively karaoke session. The line-up was only Indonesian songs, of which I know none. I was being violently prodded to perform in front of the crowd of about 50 people. I would have done this gladly, but the music was provided by a live keyboardist. In addition, there were no lyrics available.

This brings me to your assignment. What songs do you know all of the words to? In the crowded basement with Indonesian karaoking occurring at a decibel just beyond what is comfortable – I was nervously racking my brain to try to think of what I could deliver effectively on such short notice. Not only did I have to remember the words, but it had to be in a reasonable range for my horrible singing voice. I was wishing I could get my hands on that master catalogue of crowd-pleasing karaoke songs that Trish carries around with her at all times. Here is the list I came up with under the gun, and I was appalled at the results:  

  • Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice
  • Various selections from Radiohead
  • The soundtracks of Newsies, High School Musical (1 and 2, still a little rusty on 3), Les Miserables and Rent
  • Like a Prayer by Madonna
  • More Than Words by Extreme
  • Various TV theme songs, none of which are from this decade

Unacceptable. I mean, no Michael Jackson?! I am ashamed of myself. I could probably muster something up in mid-chorus, but, on the spot, I could not, for the life of me, remember how any one song started. I blame all of the years of cramming my brain with insurance jargon and calculations. I successfully pushed out all of the good and useful knowledge I once possessed – how “Heal the World” starts, for one. 

So I asked what songs in English the keyboardist knew, hoping that would provide me with some direction, and I received an answer that I never in a million years would have anticipated: “Maybe you can sing something by The Scorpions?”

Hmm. I love a nice version of Wings of Change as much as the next guy, and Rock You Like a Hurricane brings back enjoyable memories of the uncomfortable reaction from wedding guests in response to my brother Michael’s dance performance to that song. However, I certainly couldn’t successfully execute either song with no lyrics handy. 

Ruling out those, along with Justin Bieber and Westlife (does anyone know this band?) as the only other English music the keyboardist knew, I was at a loss. 

So, I resolved I would get up there and do something short, something I knew from beginning to end, and something that was in a non-Peter Brady voice-croaking range. The “Golden Girls” theme song was going to have to be it. I knew “Growing Pains” or “Laverne & Shirley” would have a more applicable message, but with my slow brain competing with the racket of other people singing, I couldn’t remember how those started.  “A Different World” just wouldn’t fit, and “Perfect Strangers” was way too advanced vocally. 

Prepped to dazzle with my ode to the glamorous gals of Miami Beach, I was completely deflated when the head of the office of religion from Surabaya showed up, and all karaoking was ceased.

Readers, I don’t have many regrets in life, but this is certainly one. Let this be a lesson to us all that we must seize these moments as they present themselves. We must stand up and be heard when it is asked of us. We must ready our minds and hearts and voices for that day when someone needs us to sing a song from their favorite Canadian or German singer. We must prepare ourselves for the time when we need to start a chorus of “Send Me an Angel” as a way to honorably represent America. For, if we linger too long, these precious gems of opportunities can tragically pass us by. Our country is counting on us, and one thing’s for sure - next time, I sure as heck won’t let her down.

Congratulations! It’s a 32-year-old American girl!

Stepping into the car, I waved good-bye to my PST host family as I was about to move onto my new village.  I felt a bit like Michael Landon as I hummed the “Highway to Heaven” theme song to myself and looked around for signs of an Indonesian Mr. Edwards. However, different from the popular television series, I didn’t actually help anyone at all during my village stay like Jonathan would have done.  I mostly just ate their food, confused them with my beginner’s Indonesian, and left behind sheets that needed laundering. At the time I was departing, I was also awkwardly carrying a PC-issued bicycle helmet and a Garfield pillow given to me by my host sister, so that also slightly detracted from any Messiah-like departure. Nonetheless, I survived the 5-hour car ride home with my principal and counterparts and have moved onto the next episode.  

My first day in my new village was promising as I could understand most of what my principal said in Indonesian, and I heard ABBA’s “Fernando” beckoning from a house as I walked to catch my first site of the Solo River. The first day I arrived, I was bombarded with 15 or so people in my house, most of whom I am sad to say I may not remember if I saw them again. You will be happy to know my new family introduced me to someone they hope to be my future husband. His name is Norman, and he works at the local bank. So I’ve got that going for me. 

I spent the first few days meeting extended family, local village leaders (RW and RT), the village head (Kepala Desa), heads of Police, Regional Head of the Office of Religion, 200 students, 350 parents, 30 teachers, 1 local religious leader, and countless bewildered village folk. As a result, I took a lot of naps.

Here are my new digs: 
My street
My house
My bedroom. It is awkwardly the largest and nicest room.

Please note Care Bears laundry basket. This was here when I moved in. A sign that my new home will be a good fit.

Living room
TV room and where I eat my meals (I didn't take a picture of the table in the corner)


Kids who arrive on my doorstep each day wanting to play
With teachers at my school

The parents of the students at my school. I had to give an unscripted speech (in Indonesian) to them as well as to the students and teachers in separate sessions before this one.
My counterpart, Ms Olif and I at an event at the masjid. I love her. I am pretty sure there is a wild side deep in there somewhere, and I have two years to find it.
Some of my family. Ibu, Bapak, my niece, Ila, and her mom. Still working on getting a picture of my sister.
Solo River - a 2-minute walk from my house

Ayu and Ratih - two of the village posse who sometimes run with me
Across this bridge is Central Java. I run here most mornings.

On run home