Sunday, September 25, 2011

One-Trick Pony

When I applied to PC, I recall writing in my journal something to the effect of: “But how will I ever relate to anyone who hasn’t been reared on the important moral lessons brought forth from countless youthful hours spent in front of the television.” I worried - would I be able to find a deeper connection with someone in a remote African village who doesn’t get references to Tootie, isn’t familiar with the Disney afternoon, and can’t sing the theme song to the Garry Shandling Show? It was a valid concern then, and here I am, living in my Indonesian world, forced to figure out ways to build bridges with not so much as a familiar catch phrase or common commercial jingle between us. 

Let’s be honest, folks. I don’t bring much to the table here. Now that my initial 3 months at site are up, my figurative sauce has lost a bit of its sizzle. After initial introductions, small talk, and discussions about food, my go-to of identifying pop culture commonalities just isn’t there anymore. I tried immersing myself in Indonesian Cinetron until I realized most of my students live in a pesantren where there is no TV. After going to class all day, they return to a boarding house where they study the Koran until bedtime. Not much material to work with there. 

Yes, yet again, the Peace Corps experience has held its magic mirror up to this pale, sweaty, grinning mug. It has exposed that roughly 61% of my moral compass, life lessons, and topics of daily conversation come from television, movies, and music produced prior to 1999. It is a thorny truth that has been difficult to admit. Yet, there it is. It will remain a personal challenge that I, alone, will have to confront day in and day out. I have to live with the sad fact that not once, not twice - but three separate times this week, I caught myself wishing I had brought the popular film “Swing Kids” with me. While riding my bike or mandiing I alternate whistling “I Got You” by the Split Endz, Radiohead’s “No Surprises”, and the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes. Yeah, it may be time to update and reinvent a little. 

Now that the honeymoon is over, it’s go time. Like a young Marcia Brady eagerly signing up for all of her school’s extracurricular activities, I found myself trying everything these past couple of weeks. I hit the badminton court in the early AM with the guys, I went to the student scouts meeting and failed miserably at all of the games they played, I kicked off the school’s first chapter of an English Club, and I have been building up mileage to route my runs to all of the teacher’s houses to get more face time with them.

And then. A breakthrough. 

I was asked to compete with our school’s Dharma Wanita group. All of the female teachers, staff, and wives of male teachers meet once a month and wear these keen peach uniforms. 

Bu Juadah forgot her shoes, so she paired her Dharma Wanita uniform with some killer sneaks. I think it really makes the outfit.
They discuss issues, hold elections (I am a member of the social and culture committee), sing, pray, have a lottery for door prizes, and contribute to a savings program. Our group was competing against all other Dharma Wanita groups in the desa. Competitions included grabbing coins out of a watermelon slathered in whipped cream using only your mouth and putting on make-up without a mirror. Since I never learned to put on make-up with a mirror and had internal political opinions on the event, I was slated for the coin grab.

Melon, coins, and cream ready for the event

Bu Yanti competing

But then I heard about sepak bola joget. I never played soccer, but I have always wanted to learn. Two additional things grabbed me here. 

1. All of the women playing had to wear sarungs. I have a deep jealousy of all the PC boys who get to lounge around in villages each day in these long, Javanese skirts made in a variety of colors and patterns. A chance for a girl to acceptably wear one was enticing.
Here is my host dad from training and Beji bro, Jay, in sarungs
2. Periodically during the game, music was played, and all players had to stop the game and dance. Again, a pretty sexist spin, but, glory be - dancing! Out in the open! How can I pass up a rare opportunity to move my dance stylings from the confines of a locked bedroom to the world at large? Here is a video of other teams playing: 

So, a quick text to my Beji bro to give me a quick review of the off-sides rule, and I officially switched events.  

In short, I found my special purpose. I am pretty sure we only kept advancing in the bracket because the crowd enjoyed seeing the giant bule do over-the-top dances, which included the Roger Rabbit, the Cabbage Patch, and a couple of “Hey Mickey” cheer moves. I found myself wishing I had had the foresight to learn the worm before coming to Indonesia. They should really put that in the prep information section of the Welcome Packet. Whether our team advanced on merit or pure celebrity factor - either way, really, everybody wins.

Here is our team and our 2nd place trophy. 

After one of our wins

If you can zoom, I believe you will find me doing "the swim" on the left.
We're number 2!
Thus, forthwith springs the joy of finding new room to grow. I now stalk the neighborhood kids playing in front of the masjids and police station to teach me soccer, which adds a new avenue of bonding (and occasional ridicule) to my repertoire.

After further reflection, though, maybe this personal challenge of pigeon-holing myself in a world of 1980's TV for so long could also be my greatest legacy. Maybe the 11th grade in my school will never successfully conjugate or properly use the verb “to be” in a sentence, but there is a good probability some of them will know the Thriller dance before I leave. And, my host niece has already learned the chorus to “Tomorrow” from Annie which makes for some killer duets when I come home from school. Yes, sirree, if I play my cards right, I may have found a course to my secondary project. 

Peace Corps – bridging worlds one outdated pop culture tidbit at a time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

When we were in San Francisco, my brother, Mike, my sister, Colleen, and I were stalking a man on Fisherman’s Wharf. He scares unsuspecting tourists from behind scant branches he holds up in front of him. He then passes a bucket and asks for money from onlookers. It’s hilarious and can easily fill a good hour or two. Unfortunately, an overexcited couple decided to “help” the Bush Man by standing right beside him and idioticly grinning at any approaching target, ultimately giving away his location and spoiling the fun. They just didn’t get it. To this, my brother asked the age-old question: “Why do people always have to make it about themselves?” 

You know - I had no intention of writing anything on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. Discussing anything on this topic has a high risk of being trite, insensitive, political, and/or controversial. In general, I try to avoid all of these things, and I am not skilled enough as a writer to side-step these potential land mines. However, with lots of free time during the Ramadhan break, my mind has been wandering to it these days, not exactly because of the events, but simply because ten years ago, there is no way I would have guessed I would be sitting where I am today - which is eating a fried banana under a mosquito net in my bedroom in the largest Muslim country in the world. So, like the overexcited tourists (and most of my blog posts, for that matter), I'm going to make this all about me. 

Ten years ago I was living at my parents’ house, commuting every day to a job in Manhattan. I told myself I would stay at the suit job working for "the man" for six months only, and I often felt guilty about getting new work assignments as I knew I’d be leaving at any moment (fast forward 9 1/2 years, and I was still there).  Each morning, I’d wake up around 5:30am convincing myself that the sooner I got up, the sooner I could drive to the train and go back to sleep for the hour and half ride into the city. During summer months, I even had a scarf stashed in my work bag that I fashioned into a pillow to make the train sleep more enjoyable.

Ten years ago, I woke up when my train arrived in Grand Central and vaguely heard someone mention something about the Twin Towers. Walking through Grand Central is one of my favorite things – even when battling the illogical patterns of travelers racing across the floor. That day, it was eerie as there were significantly fewer people and those who were there were crowded around TVs at the Hudson Newsstand. Curious, but worried I'd be late for work, I made my way to the subway, taking one of the last 6 trains to 27th and Madison. I got there in time to realize what happened and to see the first tower fall on the many TVs around our call center. 

We still worked. I took phone calls from people worried about their money as I watched co-workers freaking out around me, and I got into a tiff over the phone with an insurance agent who demanded money. “Look, Maam, I’m not sure if you know what’s going on here, but I have no way of confirming for you when the market will open again.” That’s probably about as mean as I ever got on the phone. 

Strangely, I don’t remember much. We couldn’t go anywhere since all transportation was shut down. I remember getting an email through to my brother in DC and confirming he was OK. Phones weren’t working well, but, eventually, I talked to my mom. She said our friends from the neighborhood, the Lalors, were frantically trying to find their daughter who worked in the towers. I also contacted most of my friends who I thought might be close and cleared they were OK.

I went and got a sandwich at one point with a co-worker. We looked out at the smoke towering above the city into the sky and the mass exodus of dazed people walking north - some with remnants of what they had witnessed dusting their hair and clothes. Being 50 blocks and almost 3 miles away, what was happening down there was a totally different world. What these people walking by me might have seen was completely unknown to me.

Eventually when the trains started running, I went to Grand Central, got on a train to New Hamburg, and drove my green go-cart-like car with no pickup the 10 minutes home.
I don’t know what I thought on the train, I don’t know what I said to my parents or to my boyfriend when they were so happy to see me. I don’t think I even had the wherewithal to write anything down. I don’t remember much of anything except for constantly telling people concerned for me that I was so far away from anything that happened. I certainly didn’t need any sympathy, but I think people just wanted somewhere to direct their confusion and sadness. 

After watching plenty of television coverage, we went to the Lalor’s house around the block. They not only confirmed that their daughter, Sue, was not in the towers, but she also made her way upstate to her parents’ house along with her sister, Meghan. It also happened to be Meghan's birthday. The reason Sue had not been at work that day was because she was running late after baking Meg a birthday cake that morning. This has been dubbed the best birthday present ever (Happy 32, Meg!).

We ate pizza as Sue tried to remember employees’ names off the top of her head and write them down. As HR manager, and most likely one of the sole survivors of her NY office, she was communicating with the Chicago office to try to help find who might have been at work that day. I do remember her face when she recalled a pregnant woman who might have been in the building and Sue breaking into tears. Yes, I do remember that. And I remember feeling powerless.

I can’t imagine living in a place where something like this happens with any kind of frequency. The idea of the extent of the loss of innocent life is too much for my mind to handle, which is why I think I have chosen to never really process it all and still feel totally outside of it, as if I was in another country even though I was a short cab ride away.

People have gone to war, more have lost their lives or those of loved ones – I know almost nothing about these things. I like to keep things light because that is the luxury of growing up with the life I’ve had. People have gotten into fiery debates about mosque-building and racial profiling and countless other topics that, again, I am not smart enough to address expertly here. I do buy into the importance of safety; when an Indonesian student asks if she will be attacked if she comes to America for wearing a jilbab, I also feel it couldn’t hurt if we had a little more understanding across the board.

In reflecting on ten years, I haven't changed all that much. I got contacts (which I actually can't wear here), I had bangs for a little while (which I also can't have here - too hot), I've gained some wonderfully enjoyable family additions (nephew, nieces, sister-in-law), I've gained some new phobias, and, hopefully, I've gained a little perspective. Oh, right, and I finally stopped dragging my feet and joined the Peace Corps (I started an application in 2001 - it took slightly longer than planned).

I don’t have a particularly interesting story. I suffer no delusions of grandeur with what I am doing in Indonesia, which these days mostly consists of riding bikes and watching episodes of Party Down. I do not equate anything I do with that of men and women who serve to defend their country. The likelihood of me being near any terrorist cells is slim, and I doubt my playing hangman in class or jogging through villages would dissuade anyone who really wanted to carry through plans of attacking the US or the West. 

But, as I sit here after celebrating the most important Muslim holiday with my Indonesian family who has not only welcomed me into their home, but who every day I grow to love more and more - I do recognize in myself that there is a gap. There is a gap of understanding between my language and theirs, between my culture and theirs, and between my religion and theirs. I hope to bridge these in some small way in the next two years. I hope the line I, unfortunately, still have between "my" and "their" will eventually blur and fade - even if just a little.

As I reflect on the upcoming anniversary and how much or little I've changed in that time, tomorrow’s dinner crows tied up beside my house, and I feel a small sense of purpose and accomplishment from having finished assembling 300 some-odd snack boxes for my host sister's wedding (turns out I am an awesome snack box maker). As my family banters back and forth in Javanese in the next room and I nurse the sores on my fingers from having stapled those 300 boxes, all I know is  - ten years later, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Idul Fitri: Forgiveness and Ice Cream

My friend Diem and I used to watch a movie from the early 80s that she had recorded from TV called “Old Enough”.  The main character was a girl at an awkward age who meets an unlikely best friend from the wrong side of the tracks. The friend also happens to be Catholic, and after the pair shoplifts some nail polish, the best friend assuages the main character’s worries by letting her know: “You just go to confession, and everything will be ok.” 

Diem and I got a real kick out of this philosophy – purposely doing something wrong, thinking you could just go to confession afterward to clean the slate. Not exactly sound theology. Similarly, in a delightful 30 Rock episode, Tracy Jordan has a similar view of confession until Jack Donaghy sets him straight. In addition, he informs Tracy that being Catholic also brings constant, colossal, spirit-crushing guilt. So true. 

So – the theme of forgiveness. One thing I am still adjusting to culturally in my village is the constant formality and requests for pardon. Every speech, most conversations, and even some text messages are concluded with a formal apology in the event anything was said that could cause any offense. As a Westerner trained to tell it like it is and always striving to use time more efficiently, it always seems excessive. As I think about it now, though, as a person raised Catholic, the standard martyr-like confessions and requests expertly-laced with a dose of guilt do feel slightly familiar.  

It only seems fitting that the close of Ramadhan festivities of Idul Fitri, in Indonesia (referred to as Eid, or Eid-ul Fitr in most other countries) is celebrated by a day of visiting everyone you know and formally asking for their forgiveness. This is a tradition particular to Indonesia. Each family waits at their house dressed in their brand new clothes (and sometimes in a newly-painted house) ready to field the incoming neighbors and family with a full supply of snacks, absolution, and some pocket change for the kids. People dispense money, cookies, forgiveness, and gratitude in a sort of bizarro Halloween/Thanksgiving. In short, it’s awesome.

I really enjoyed the idea of walking around the town and just saying “hey” to all your neighbors – or in this case “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin” or “Forgive my physical and emotional wrongdoings,” but I think the “hey” is implied. It’s such a good idea - starting fresh but not in a behind-the-screen-to-Father-Hickey kind of way. This method focuses on maintaining relationships and re-building bridges directly with the people closest to you. Oh, and then you eat cookies, or in my case - ice cream. Sure beats five Hail Mary’s.

My sister Ana, my cousin Yoonie, and me making the rounds to the neighbors houses.

The fam parading to the next house

My cousin Ari asking for forgiveness (and then he got a snack)

Some of my fav neighborhood ruffians going around asking for money

Running into other families from our street making the rounds

Hanging at my aunt Bu Har's place with some of the fam after completing our circuit.

Ice cream man

Yay! Ice cream! Forgiveness never tasted so good!

Here's a round of folks coming to my aunt's house.

And another family leaving the house across the street

If there are not enough snacks, just grab a mango from the tree outside.
Watching my host niece count up her booty, I was taken back to emptying pillow cases full of candy onto my parents’ playroom floor with the Nguyens, Goob, Meg, and anyone else who happened to Trick or Treat in the neighborhood that year. We would then commence high-stakes trading with Nestle Crunch bars, Snickers, and Milky Ways as our commodities until we all were satisfied with our take.

My niece Ila counting up her rupiah

The choice of houses is also intriguing. We didn’t visit every house on our street, and I am still not clear as to why. Is it similar to our plotting to hit the Reynold’s house on Brothers Road because they gave out king-sized candy bars and skipping the houses that gave out pennies and Mary Janes? Do you go where there is more bang for your forgiveness buck? I don’t know.  

Idul Fitri Prep and the Last Days of Ramadhan*
The preparations for Idul Fitri, however, begin weeks before. This is the time some Indonesians paint their house anticipating many visitors. And there is no “eggshell white” or “cobalt blue” in these parts. Oh, no sir. They really go for it. Here is our house freshly painted for Idul Fitri. 

Our house painted orange, green and pink for Idul Fitri.

I finally caught these guys on film the last night of Ramadhan.* This is part of the crowd who would wake up our village at 1:30am each night for Sahur.
Neighborhood kids banging pots and drums through the streets every night of Ramadhan

I think the neighborhood stray cats were hit hardest by Ramadhan. With no food around for full days, there were half-dead cats lying everywhere. Here's one on our porch after he stole a fish from underneath the not-so-secure table cover intended to keep varmints out.
Cucing jahat
In Indonesia, it is also customary for all family members to return to the desas to be with family, so the cities empty out and travel becomes a hellish nightmare, which Indos seem to endure happily. This is called mudik. Below, I am sitting with a cousin who drove with her family for 12 hours from Jakarta to come to my village for Idul Fitri.
Me and my cousin watching the parade of action on the main road.

As we walked down the street, one families’ visitors were getting ready to hit the hay right out on the porch in front of the house. Most of my family slept at my aunt's house nearby.
Sleeping on the floor is where it's at in these parts, and when 5-20 family members come home, it becomes one giant slumber party.
We watched festivities on the main road where there were fireworks, firecrackers, and an entertaining parade of trucks carting around masses of kids blasting music from huge woofers. 
Here are some of the kids crowding into the back of a truck blasting tunes.
This group passing by was our favorite. They shot fire into the air. I am confident every safety precaution was taken.

Here are some of my village peeps. I rarely see them in their jilbabs, but they were donning for the big event.
Rindu Ramadhan
I miss it. I really enjoyed my experience. It got me to wondering if I could do it in the US. Maybe I'll try it one year. OK - adding it to the list. 

And celebrating Idul Fitri felt like home. Journeying to Irish Grandma's in Long Island wasn't necessarily mudik, but occasionally my dad would try to sneak in a Chuck Girard casette making the trip a little less bearable. In the early afternoon, I was sitting around with my Indonesian host family after we were tuckered out from all the repenting and cookie-eating. Jilbabs were coming off, everyone lacked the luster they had earlier when the day was new, and everyone was content to veg out. I was taken back to lounging around the backroom at Grandma's, watching TV with my brothers and sister as I sat in itchy tights on the brown couch that was one notch below what could be considered comfortable. We would fade in and out of naps as we could hear the dining room din of grownups stirring sugar into tea cups as they bantered back and forth. I remember being dumb-founded as to why anyone would enjoy just sitting around talking for so long.

As I was reminiscing, taking in the Javanese chatter around me, someone handed me a tin of cookies. Danish butter cookies. The ones my Irish Grandma would always have at her house even though we only liked two or three of the varieties in those crinkly white sleeves.

And here they were - Irish Grandma's Danish butter cookies...made in Indonesia.

And the circle is complete.

*Idul Fitri Confusion

The close of Ramadhan was accompanied by the same confusion that denotes most events and schedules in Indonesia. Fasting ended the night of September 29th. For my family. But they follow Muhammadiyah teaching. Most of the Indonesian population is NU, or Nahdlatul Ulama. 

From what I gather, NU is a grass roots organization that allows for Indonesians to still follow certain cultural traditions that may not be rooted in Islam. For instance, one of my favorite traditions is the tahlil when someone dies. Javanese come together to celebrate and pray 3 days, 7 days, 40 days,100 days, 1 year, 2 years and 1000 days after someone’s death (I am not 100% on the days as different people have said different things). I really love this tradition as I feel it is such a wonderful way to pay respects and continue to remember loved ones lost. Everyone gets together, prays, and takes home snack boxes. Because this tradition is rooted in Java’s animistic history, generally, Muhummadiyah does not follow it, trying to purify Islam of any non-Islam influences.

Another thing I didn’t know about Islam – because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, Ramadhan ends when the crescent moon is spotted in the sky. This poses some difficulty for modern Muslims as they sort of don’t know when the fasting will end and it can vary from place to place. In America, this is also a difficult thing to explain to your boss when you are trying to take a vacation day to celebrate Eid (whereas, here, the country shuts down for two full days). “Well, the moon wasn’t spotted yet, so can I push back my day off?” 

Imam Khalid Latif, Executive Director for NYU’s Islamic Center explains the end of Ramadhan in his online Ramadhan reflections:  

“Traditionally, most would require the actual seeing of the crescent moon with the naked eye. If the moon was not visible on the 29th night, then the month would extend one more day for a total of 30 days before the new month began. Contemporary opinions have developed that utilize calculations to determine the start and end of the months. Those who follow the latter have set Tuesday as the first of Shawwal, the month that follows Ramadan, as well as Eid-ul Fitr, an Islamic holiday that follows the month of fasting. If you are interested in learning more about it, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a prominent American-born Muslim Scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim College in the USA, has written an excellent book on the subject entitled "Caesarean Moon Births."

So, in Indonesia, for Muhammadiyah - Idul Fitri began on Tuesday, the 30th. NU followed the determination of the Indonesian government which announced late on the 29th that there would be one more day of fasting, making Idul Fitri for them on Wednesday, the 31st. As a result, while my family was eating and carrying on like Ramadhan was over, all of our neighbors were still fasting. My family slept most of the 30th and really celebrated with everyone else on the 31st.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Period Piece

I remember always getting an uncomfortable feeling when Ann Romano insisted on being called Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss on “One Day at a Time”. I didn’t get why she had to make a big deal of such a little thing. In general, I stay middle-of-the-road on gender issues mostly because I am lazy. However, I was pretty bummed when my full fasting experience and possibility of participating in Tarawih prayers were squashed because of female issues. If you refer to my previous post on the “Top 5 Things I Didn't Know About the Holy Month of Ramadhan" or put two and two together on the clever title of this post (stolen, of course), you’ll get my drift. I understand the reasons, and I was assured that female Muslims praying from home receive special blessings that the men do not. Occasionally, though, it becomes difficult not to veer down the road of the privileged, Western white woman with a sense of entitlement/judgement and get to thinking that a lot of rules in regard to women across the spectrum of religions, while they may have historical foundations, are just bullfrak (I’ve been watching a lot of Battlestar Gallactica recently). And sometimes I can see where Ms. Romano was coming from. 

Despicable Confession: In the spirit of my upcoming blog post on forgiveness (stay tuned), I will confess that one or two times times on the subway, I purposely sat next to the Orthodox Jewish guys out of sheer curiosity to see how they would react as they are not allowed to have contact with a woman who is menstruating. Sometimes they would get up and move, but generally, they would stay sitting there.

Note: I never did it when I was actually in my time of the month, and I wouldn’t actually touch them - but this doesn’t make my intentions any less deplorable. 

However, I reminded myself that I am here to learn. And while I am trying to understand the experience of fasting, I am not fully participating as I am not Muslim and do not follow the prayers that go along with Ramadhan fasting. And, let’s keep perspective that I was perturbed because I wanted to continue to experience the practice of starving myself during the day, and I was being told to eat. Yeah. Not exactly persecution. 

This highlights another interesting cultural difference between Indonesia and America. In America, it is generally taboo to mention menstruation. In my village, however, it is right out there as a part of daily conversation. I have had more than one conversation with my Indonesian host dad about menstruation. Current tally of conversations with American dad = zero. I have grown to prefer the openness as it ends up being easier all around (please reference the section titled “Small Talk” in the Culture tab of this blog for more info) even if it still freaks some people out.

But in America, female Muslims, after informing co-workers that they are fasting during Ramadhan, can’t very well point out, “Oh yeah, but I can eat when I have my period.” So, some fake it. They fake fasting. They end up not eating during the course of the work day, just so they don’t have to go through the awkward explanation of why they are allowed to eat. Good glory, people. Reach out and hug your favorite Muslim female today. What a chore. 

Note: This concludes the menstruation section of this blog post for those who now want to open their eyes. 

In a happy ending to my story, even though I was not able to participate in Tarawih prayers, my host dad, seeing my disappointment, welcomed me to come along to the Eid prayer to celebrate the end of Ramadhan.

After begging my host dad, I was able to participate in the Idul Fitri prayers - I enjoyed knowing you are welcome to bring Hello Kitty purses or take a nap as needed.

I was also interested to find it a lot like going to Church. Everyone stands up and sits down at the same time, they say the same things, they shake hands, and there is a long speech from a guy. Also, no jeans or sloppy tops.

This is taken following the prayer. All the women must be fully covered during the motion of the prayer. I had to study with my host mom the night before and borrow my host sister's garb.

I was excited that I may be able to "blend" in for once as everyone would be fully covered. Unfortunately, most women wear white, and my sister's prayer shawl is deep purple. Instead of blending as I hoped, I looked like a giant, four-eyed, white-faced Grimace. I was hard to miss. All photographic evidence of this has since been destroyed.