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!

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