My friend Katie Nuss sends me songs though email to keep my spirits up and includes some new hits so I won’t be completely left out when I come home. Then I share them with Christine.
Boys, boys boys…
We like boys in cars.
Boys boys boys…
Buy us drinks in bars.
Boys boys boys…
Hairpray and denim
Boys boys boys…
We love them!
“Well,” I said and looked over at Christine, “it’s official. Lady Gaga has zero relevance in our lives.”
She nodded somberly. It’s more like, “Water water water… I wish I had some to drink nowwww.”
It was one of those nights when we didn’t have any water. Those are rough nights. We washed our feet, faces, hands, and teeth with a couple bottles of water.
I have—get ready for this—an entire four weeks off of school. The students get two weeks off for testing (for a total of eight half-days of finals), and then they get two weeks off for a break between semesters. So I took off and spent a week with Christine in Depok, near Jakarta.
The differences between where we live are incredible. On the surface, they’re very similar: the cities are about the same size and our houses are comparable. But Christine has something I don’t have—Jakarta. And that has made all the difference.
People in Depok speak much better English than people in Palembang. Christine’s casual friends are more fluent than the English teachers at my school. She lives in an area with a few restaurants and shops, she has a maid, and she’s a few hours from Jakarta. I live in a neighborhood with nothing. I am a few hours from nothing. I am my own maid.
Although, the maid thing might be a blessing. Christine’s maid steals from her, which is apparently just a given here. People tell me Christine should be grateful her maid only steals food, dishware, and makeup. The American couple Mike and Debbie had to fire their maid after she made off with hundreds of dollars worth of stuff, and another couple had their laptop stolen. At least my grimy hands are the only set on my 13’ macbook pro.
We had a wonderful week just relaxing and basking in the happiness that is having a friend nearby. Chris did a good job planning out activities for us each day—
We went to the Taman Safari (Garden Safari), where no regulations means animals come right up to the car as you drive through. I petted a zebra and fed him three carrots. The ornery llamas blocked the road until we diverted their attention with more carrots. We rolled up our windows when we saw the lions.
We spent a day in Jakarta with Pete, another ETA. Pete has a really cute story—his family in America hosted an Indonesian foreign exchange student when he was in high school. She wound up falling in love with and marrying Pete’s cousin, and now Pete lives just miles away from her family… which is his family now. So he stays with them most weekends and they showed us around town.
We went ice skating in a huge Jakarta mall and sat on an Indonesian Santa Claus’s lap. I wanted him to ask me what I wanted for Christmas in Indonesian, but he didn’t. I guess not all dreams come true.
We visited the elementary school where Obama was a student when he lived in Indonesia! That will go down as one of my favorite Indonesian memories. The school is VERY nice, better than any I’ve seen, but we heard it got that way only after Obama gained popularity in America. Nearby, there’s a park where they just dedicated a statue of Obama as a little boy playing with a butterfly.
Obama means so much to these people. He only went to that school from 1969-1971. A friend told us that after the controversial Indonesian elections over the past decade, television reporters would head downtown and interview the bejaj drivers (who reside on the lower rungs of the transportation ladder). The reporters would ask, “Do you know who won the elections today?” And the drivers would say, “Who was running? There was an election? When?”
Last November, though, the reporters found drivers and said, “Do you know what happened today?” And they said, “OBAMA! OBAMA!” Some of them don’t even know their own president, but they know Obama won an election halfway around the world.
I haven’t read Dream of My Father yet (though I’m anxiously anticipating its arrival from half.com), but I can’t wait to read about his years in Indonesia. I’m not complaining, but it’s hard to be a White woman here. I can’t imagine being a Black little boy thirty years ago being raised by a single mother. I’m also really curious about his religion. Indonesia is so extremely Muslim; his mom was an atheist. Hmm.
We ate at good restaurants, including a pseudo-Mexican one run by an American. As my new friend Gary said, “It’s not good Mexican food, no, but it’s the best you’ll get here.” That’s good enough for me. The salsa tasted like salsa, so I was a happy lady.
More about Gary. He’s from… wait for it… Bucyrus, Ohio. (Though he went to my rival high school, Wynford, which sits outside the city limits. Boo!) Gary completed two terms with the Peace Corps in Malaysia in the 70s. Now he’s living in Jakarta with Nina, his wife of 25 years, who’s from Yogyakarta.
I was especially curious to find out about Nina’s visits to Bucurus. I’ve been walking around thinking, “People in myyyyy city wouldn’t shout and grab at a foreigner like this” to make myself feel better. Nina and Gary are delightfully honest about American and Indonesia, and they’ve traveled practically everywhere else in the world, too.
“So, you’ve been to Bucyrus?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I know all about Bucyrus.”
“Did people… harass you there?”
I said a silent thank-you prayer when she said they didn’t. Nina wears a jilbab, and I know I’ve never seen anyone in Bucyrus wearing one. She said adults ignore her for the most part, and sometimes she notices little kids spying on her behind trees. I can handle that. Thank you, Bucyrus.
Now, anybody who knows anything about Bucyrus knows about the Bratwurst Festival. We are the Bratwurst Capital of America. I have a sneaking suspicion that might be a self-proclaimed title. Eh.
“So, have you been back for the Bratwurst Festival?” I asked.
She hadn’t, sadly. I suppose a jilbab would get awfully messy in the cream-puff-eating contest. Gary said, “You know, I don’t eat pork anymore. I’m a good Muslim.”
That’s about the definition of irony, isn’t it? A boy who grew up in the Bratwurst Capital of America who gave up pork? But he and Nina assured me they enjoy the veal bratwurst.
Chris and I also went to the Botanical Gardens in Bogor, where I continued and miserably failed at my perpetual quest for the elusive Rafflesia flower in bloom. It doesn’t seem elusive to anyone but me, but dang it if that flower doesn’t close up the second it senses me entering a town.
We ate tons of rambutan. I adore rambutan. Indonesians tell me that you can’t use the word “love” for an object, you only “like it very much.” So I can “suka sekali” a fruit, but I can’t “cinta” it. Well I cinta it anway, thankyouverymuch. The relationship is bordering on inappropriate.
It was also really fascinating to see the differences in the way Chris’s friends and teachers treated her. I suppose a greatest ability to communicate goes hand-in-hand with more drama.
Let’s take the wedding. Chris was given a spot on the wedding party of her school’s former vice principal’s son’s wedding. Got that? No, she’d never met him, but that’s the way things go here. When they heard there would be TWO “bules” in town, they made me an honored guest, as well. Sadly, they ran out of yellow tops. So they put me in a green one. The only green one. I tried to politely decline being in group photos, but they insisted. See for yourself:
My school was thrilled when I wore a jilbab. Chris’s school wouldn’t let me wear one to the wedding, and honestly, they couldn’t understand why she was. “Why would you want to wear that?” they would ask.
Her friends also sort of fight over her. There are definitely two groups: the cooler, richer group who drinks and stays up late (Group 1) and the working-class, younger crowd who keeps it clean (Group 2).
Group 1 is clearly just excited to be around white people. Even when we’d go out to dinner, they’d spend the whole time taking our pictures and telling me I looked like Britney Spears (which I didn’t really mind). But it’s not hard at all to see why Chris hangs out with them—they really know English, they do fun things, and they have excellent transportation.
Group 2 doesn’t do as much, they have to work, but they’re true friends. They love playing Uno and strumming out chords of American songs on the guitar. But even they’re a little racist: “We used to make fun of John (from Group 1) because he has Chinese eyes.”
One night, we were supposed to play a highly-anticipated game of Uno with Group 2. We cleaned up Christine’s house, put on comfortable clothes, and invited them over. We knew right away that something was wrong. Two of the guys came over and stood awkwardly near the door.
Chris: “Is something wrong?”
Friend: “I just… feel bad being in a woman’s house after dark.”
Chris: “…but we’re playing Uno. And there are four people here.”
Friend: “Yes, but it feels wrong. People will think I’m bad.”
Chris: “So you won’t stay and play?”
Friend: “Please don’t make me.”
Well of course, we weren’t going to force them to stay, and it was clear that they were uncomfortable. So we went to a nearby restaurant where one of them works and played there. After, of course, they told us not to come outside with our cloth shorts on. It’s frustrating. Sometimes you just want to play Uno. No funny business, just some serious +2s and +4 wild cards. Not here.
And he warned us in about the coolest way possible: “There… is a parental advisory… on your knees.”
All in all, it just felt good to be around a friend. We listened to Christmas music, ate ourselves stupid on tempe (which comes from Indonesia!), and watched enough Top Chef episodes to convince me I can open a five-star restaurant.