Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I think I’m turning Javanese, I really think so.

It’s happening. While the odds of fully escaping the bumbling Brody syndrome are still fairly low, I have had some realizations lately indicating that my perceptions are, indeed, slowly changing. For instance: 

  • Sometimes I fish the ants out of my morning hot chocolate, but most days now, I don’t even bother. 
  • A few weeks ago, I was watching a movie, and I experienced a slight feeling of disgust when Jennifer Lopez was scarfing food in an unrefined manner with her left hand. Left hand usage is usually a “no no” considering the bathroom situation, and, after 7 short months of conditioning, I was surprised to catch myself physically jerking at this sight.
  • I felt embarrassed for a guest speaker who recently came to talk to volunteers and was wearing a low-cut dress. After half a year of barely showing my collarbone, it made me feel uncomfortable, and I finally had a glimpse of what it must be like for conservative Indos to see Westerners prancing around tourist attractions in skimpy attire.
  • It is almost impossible for me to make any decisions more than 8 hours into the future. In the beginning, I was supremely agitated over not knowing the full story of things. I would get in a car with no idea where I was going. I could be in that same car for one hour or seven. You could never really tell. Somehow, along the way, though, this becomes OK. Or you learn to deal with it. In my case, I seem to avoid any comprehension that time will continue to exist after an 8-hour period. This works for me. 
  • When I first came, I wondered why my family didn’t just put a couch in front of the TV as that is where they always congregate, but now I’m also partial to squatting on the floor mats and mattresses or plopping down right on the cool, linoleum tile.  
  • Today I went the whole day without ever using an electric fan, and on a visit back to my original training village, I couldn’t stop remarking how cold it was. Not that anyone ever discusses actual temperature, but it was probably around low 70s back in Malang. I would guess it is usually high 80s and 90s at my site during the dry season. I think. I am usually sweating no matter what - so, after a certain point, it doesn’t really matter anymore.
Aside: Here lies another difference between Indonesians and Americans: the topic of weather in casual conversation. In Indonesia, it’s hot or cold or sumuk (humid). It may be mendung (about to rain) or hujan (raining). And that’s about it. Temperature never comes up, and it has only struck me now, after being out of my own country for almost 8 months, just how much time is devoted to the topic of weather in America. I wondered exactly how many people are employed with researching and reporting weather on a daily basis there, and I found that meteorology as a career was identified by US News and World Report as one of the top 50 best jobs of 2011. Heh. I don’t how many people would be employed with such pursuits here. Maybe a handful? What’s to report? It’s pretty much always hot. During rainy season, it rains. During the hot season, it doesn’t. Not much to discuss. Although, a weatherman’s odds at being correct sure would be a heck of a lot better here.
  • Perhaps the greatest indicator of my progress in integrating is my ability to successfully insert the straw into the commonly-used Aqua water cups. I started out with a poor success-rate, maybe 3 out of 10 tries punctured the straw through the seal. The other times I had to have fellow teachers, principals, religious heads, or their wives come to my aid, usually causing a ruckus during important meetings. Now, I am looking at about an 8 out of 10 success rate. I’m doing it! 
The successful puncturing of my 1023rd Aqua water cup. My measure of success in Peace Corps service.

Oh right, and here are pics from my host sister's wedding this past weekend: 

The make-up room. LOTS of make-up.

There is a make-up team who brings all of the clothes for the ladies helping serve food and receiving guests. You grab out of the suitcase like a game of dress-up and pin and sew to make it fit. I had nothing else going on, so I joined in.

My sister and her husband. They were actually already married in the house back in September with around 200 guests, and this is at the reception this past weekend with about 1000 guests invited. I am still foggy on the separate wedding/reception as it doesn't seem terribly common here. I will keep you posted. Here, my sister is preparing to ceremoniously wash her husband's foot.
My sister flanked by my bapak and ibu.
My bapak leads the bride and groom to their place on the stage.

Some of the awesome kids in my extended host family who traveled in. We played lots of Pig and Hangman the night before. Oh, the whole family also got to wear matching batik made especially for the occasion. I was pretty jealous I did not get to join as I live for any reason to dress in matching attire.

Many items to comment on here. Not sure what is more disturbing - the 8 layers of make-up, my Johnny Bravo hair-do, or the fact that I look about 45 years-old. I also enjoy this for the standard blank stares of my fellow teachers and the completely frightened look of my counterpart's daughter. Awesome.

With pals, Bu Yani, my counterparts Bu Olif and Pak Saiyfu, along with his daughter

Extended fam from Jakarta

My best bud, Adit. We played about 100 rounds of Rock, Paper, Scissors. He's my biggest fan.

The receiving line. So, guests basically just line up, shake hands with the parents and bride and groom, get their picture taken, shuffle off to eat food while listening to other guests sing along to dangdut music (no dancing), and then leave. 

That bowling alley wedding dream is looking pretty spectacular about now. 

Yeah, perhaps I'm not as Javanese as I thought.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Al Adha: Death, the Meaning of Life, and Bubble Wrap

I was staring at the fidgety cow that, in a matter of hours, would be cut up and divided into black plastic bags and delivered to each family in the village. I wondered if he knew. Did he know he was about to die? And, if so, what was his take on it? 

It got me to thinking of an episode of Scrubs. Not the one where Turk dances and lip syncs to Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison”, although I do enjoy referencing that one from time to time.  I was remembering the one where JD has to tell a woman she is going to die, and he is astonished when she takes the news calmly and says she is ready. She tells him she’s done everything she wanted to do. He proceeds to make a list of dreams she probably hasn’t fulfilled to try to convince her to fight (go to Asia, learn a foreign language, go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, etc), and, it turns out, she has done them all.   

It may surprise some, but I think about death a lot. A lot. Not merely because of my phobias of confined spaces, deep water, heights, heavy winds, angry geese, or a more recent fear of being sideswiped by a truck or motorcycle while riding my bike. I often use it as a litmus test to determine if I am satisfied with my life. Would I be content with the way I leave things if it were to end now? Usually, I find I am. No matter what recent scrape I’ve gotten myself into, what lows I may experience, or what deficiencies I still possess - generally, I find I’m happy. I’ve had a pretty good run - thanks to some special folks along the way.  

I watched two cows and two goats bite it today, on the Muslim holy day of Idul Al Adha, or Eid-al-Adha. While it got me to thinking about life and death, it also made me wonder at the surprising similarities that spring up between the religions. Al Adha signifies the end of the Hajj season (see Glossary), but, really, it commemorates God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son to prove his obedience. Abraham had committed to fulfill God’s wish, and as he was preparing to kill his own son, God revealed that Abraham's sacrifice had already been fulfilled. Abraham’s son would be spared as Abraham had proved his love of God superseded the love of all others, even that of his family. 

The story is roughly the same one shared by Jews and Christians, although I think the name of the son changes. It was the same story that always freaked me out as a kid, and I found it compelling that this same story I learned in my religion was the basis of a holiday for a faith that, for most of my life, has been totally foreign to me. It got me to thinking about how much we really share. Like, did you know the Koran also has stories of Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, etc, although the take may be slightly different (based on my poor level of theological knowledge). These stories are shared by three of the world’s major faiths, and, from what I can see, it would seem these three faiths all worship what appears to be the same God. Zooming out and taking a look at what a mess things are today, you’d think this shared history and common commitment to God would really get people holding hands and singing that Coke commercial song around the world. Alas, more often than not, it divides. 

Obviously, I am oversimplifying a bit. But it still seems worth it to take this opportunity and reflect on those things we share in common. In the words of Sargent Shriver: 
"Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us."
In my short time, I have certainly been confronted with many differences between the two cultures, but here are some fun things I’ve found that Americans and Indonesians share in common: 

  • Everyone likes ice cream (South Africans named Susan excluded).
  • Justin Bieber evokes strong responses in tweens.
    • Assembling wedding invitations is tedious in both cultures.
    • Dads cry at their daughters’ wedding.
    • Grown men look like little boys right after they get their hair cut.

    • Bus drivers all seem to know each other and wave as they pass.
      • We love popping those plastic bubbles used for packaging. See my host ibu and niece enraptured below:

      Similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s pleading to “look to the (black and white) cookie” as a means of eradicating racial tensions, I say – let’s look to the bubble wrap, people. Relieve that tension therapeutically - not violently!

      I think back again to that cow before he died. I guess a cow doesn’t lead much of a life – or, I dunno – maybe grazing, eating grass in the open, Indonesian sunshine could be viewed as a pretty good existence. But maybe the fact that this cow represented a religious sacrifice of my community and would provide food to a hundred families is an important purpose also. 

      His death also served to teach me how sheltered we keep ourselves from some of the gruesome realities in life. I’ve eaten hamburgers and steak for years, and this was the first time I was seeing what has to happen for my Royale cheeseburger or meatball parm sub cravings to be satisfied. And the killing, cutting, hacking, skinning – all of it was being done by my fellow teachers and students. They all knew what to do, and I just stood there looking on dumbfounded, getting in the way. I mean, in this day in age in our American service society, who even knows how to kill their own dinner anymore? Come a natural disaster or nuclear fallout, where will be without our pre-packaged ground beef and chicken nuggets?

      Yes, I learned a lot from that cow. I like to think he felt content at that last moment before I learned that real animal blood looks fake - like bright, red paint as it spews forth onto the ground. I hope at the last, he knew he was serving a higher calling. And I thought of his life on this earth and his greater purpose fondly as I ate fried bits of him for dinner.

      Your memory lives on, my friend.  
      Some of my students and the cow with many lessons to teach. I only posted before and after pictures and refrained from showing any pics of the actual killing to keep it PG.

      The cow and goat getting prepped in the woods behind our school.

      How the "h" did I miss out on learning to use a machete before reaching high school?

      All of the students pitching in to help cut up and divide the meat.

      Bu Yani and Bu Anis weighing the portions to make sure the meat is divvied up equally.

      More students helping to bring in more meat to be cut.

      Final goodie bags to be delivered to families in the area and to the poor.