Sunday, January 31, 2010
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
My counterpart Yana quit. I shouldn’t say quit, I guess. She passed her exam to become a civil servant (after failing the first three times), which means she's now eligible to teach at a public high school. She says this means “her future is secure and she will never have to worry again.”
In some ways, she’s right. Now she gets paid leave and benefits and retirement. But she just left. She (and another English teacher at the school) immediately quit working at IGM, and she begins her new job in March.
I think it’s actually been a good thing for me. I got a new counterpart Laily, who is a little older, married, and incredibly sweet. She tells me often to pray that “God will give her a baby.”
I love it when people ask me to pray for them here, especially because they know I’m not Muslim. But they value my prayers, too, I guess. Who knows, really, which one of us is right? But I’m grateful, at least, that I was born in a place where I was taught my prayers are heard whether I'm dirty or clean, covering my head or with my hair hanging down, in the middle of eating or drinking or surfing the internet or riding on a motorcycle.
The teachers at my school find it nearly inconceivable that I’m not in a relationship or actively pursuing one. "So you don't want a boyfriend?" they ask. I try to explain that it's not that I want one or don't want one. They say, "Katie is in the middle. Katie is in the middle about a boyfriend." I tell them no boy would like me in Palembang because their pempek makes my breath so smelly. They think this is hilarious.
Yana used to make me crazy.
“Katie, what colors do you want for your wedding? I think I want bluuuuueeee,” she would say, dragging out the vowel on the end.
Anyway, two English teachers leaving IGM meant two new teachers were recently hired at IGM. Enter Ida, a 29-year-old working on her doctorate in education, and Rudi, a 20-year-old MAN (the only male English teacher) who recently scored off the charts on a national English exam.
I went to the movies with Ida last weekend. She got the times mixed up, and we were three hours early to see Avatar. So we opted for Sherlock Holmes instead, and we got coffees in the hour before it started.
I spread out my Bahasa Indonesia notes on the table and started asking her the differences between English and Indonesian commands. She answered politely, and then she leaned forward on her elbows and said, “Oh, Katie. What will your husband look like?”
“I really don’t know, Ida. Can you check and see if I spelled this word right?” She nodded and pouted a little.
But, no. This is a new Katie, one who revels in these differences in cultures and has sworn to – gulp – go with the flow.
“I think... maybe… he’ll be tall,” I offered.
She instantly perked up and leaned forward with her chin resting on her hands.
“Yes! You American girls all want tall, dark, and handsome, yeah?” she giggled.
“Hmm, definitely tall. Handsome would be nice. And I’ll take dark or light or medium,” I said. I was wary of requesting dark, considering she was sizing up the waiter serving our coffee.
“And what will his job be?” she asked.
“Maybe… a businessman. Or a lawyer.” She literally clapped her hands in delight.
(Ida is engaged, although she doesn’t wear a ring yet. She said her boyfriend “promised himself to her.” Hmph.)
“And what colors will you have in your wedding?!”
Sigh. Sigh. She looked at me with hopeful eyes.
“Well, I really love the color pink,” I conceded.
“Yes, how perfect! You should invite me! Promise you will!”
And then I couldn’t believe it. She really started to talk to me. About other things! When I finally relaxed, she started to open up. Hey, this getting-along-with-people thing is more than it’s cracked up to be.
“We heard bad news from our neighbor this morning,” she said.
She told me how her neighbor’s daughter, a 16-year-old girl, had just found out she was pregnant. She knew the father was her boyfriend, who is also 16. I don’t have to tell you that this is bad news in Palembang. This isn’t “life-is-so-much-harder-now” news like it might be in America. This is very nearly “life-is-over-now” news.
She said the very sad part was that the boy’s mother won’t permit him to marry the girl. His mom says he has to at least finish high school first, which won’t be for another two years. The girl, of course, has already been kicked out of school, and she won’t be allowed back.
“Will she work now?” I asked. Ida said no. She’ll just raise the baby once she has it in another six months. “With what money?” Fortunately, her family will support her, though Ida said they are “very, very angry.” The boy won’t be responsible at all, even continuing to go to the very school that kicked his girlfriend out for carrying his child. After he graduates, he’ll choose whether he wants to marry her or not.
SuperKatie, of course, wants to save the world one pregnant Muslim teenager at a time. I wanted to ask to meet the girl, tutor her, give her my clothes when I leave, and be her friend. But am I what she needs? I’m like a celebrity when I walk around the mall here, but I doubt I’d be so popular if I came swooping in on this girl.
And maybe I’m not being fair. Unmarried sex here isn’t what it is in America. Even married sex here isn’t the same. My students were allowed to watch the movie Orphan as a reward one day; the teacher skipped any scene in which the husband and wife even kissed, but they were allowed to watch a nun being beaten to death with the spiky side of a hammer. This young couple had been warned to an exhausting point, I’m sure, about the risks—religious, cultural, and physical—of unmarried sex.
Inexpensive contraceptives are available here everywhere… oh yes, even in cringe-inducing flavors like durian. (Ewwww.)
I suppose it doesn’t really matter now. I told Ida I felt very bad for the girl and that she should let me know if she thought there was anything I could do to help.
Of course, she quickly bounced back to more entertaining topics. “How many children do you want to have?” she asked.
Going with the flow felt like less fun now. I persevered. “I think maybe two,” I said.
“Ooh. Very nice. I think I want to have threeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Before I left Indonesia for my visit home, I was really struggling in Palembang. I love Indonesia. I love all the places I’ve been able to travel. But I really don’t like Palembang. And that’s not to say I haven’t been trying.
I accept any invitation to do anything. Karaoke? Give me the microphone. Dinner at a random food stall? Give me just a second to grab my Immodium. Party of someone I’ve never met? I’m signing the birthday card now.
But try as I might, I just couldn’t convince myself that I liked the city. It didn’t help that all the other places I traveled to seemed so much more exotic and welcoming. Even being in Depok (which is certainly welcoming but not quite exotic) made me want to request a transfer. (No, that’s not really an option.)
I met with a few Americans who were traveling through Palembang a few days before I left for Christmas. They said it’s their least favorite city in the whole archipelago. “You live way out there?” they asked. “You live by yourself? You teach all those spoiled kids at that rich school? No internet? No television?”
One of them told me they read an old guide book about Indonesia, in which Palembang had the esteemed review, “Don’t bother going here.” In my guidebook, even a recommended week-long tour of the island of Sumatra doesn’t include it.
The sweet retired American couple I met at the English Library have become like adoptive parents to me here. They traveled all around Indonesia, which is why they accepted a three-year position in Palembang, assuming it would be like the rest of the country.
“There are days here when I literally search the internet for flights home,” the wife told me. “It is nearly unbearable.”
I was nearly overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. Was I just not trying hard enough? I eat everything they put in front of me (minus more of that fish soup), I go everywhere I can, and I talk to everyone I can. Is is possible that the city just isn’t that great? I certainly can’t be expected to love every single place in the world, right? Aren’t there just some that are better than others? At least Palembang makes me appreciate the other cities in Indonesia that much more, I reasoned. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault, as though if I’d tried harder or been smarter or more adventurous or braver if might be ok.
The new Lonely Planet was released recently, and they revamped the description a bit:
“Sumatra’s second-largest city, Palembang is a manic concrete sprawl with little to offer anyone but the true urban enthusiast… the core industries [are] oil refining, fertilizer production and cement manufacturing, which all scent the air with a distinctive odor you might first mistake as your own funk. Chances are you’re passing North or South if you’re here. While the city ain’t much to look at, be sure to stick around for at least a meal… Palembang fare takes a while to get used to.”
At least we’ve been upgraded from “don’t bother” to “maybe attempt to swallow lunch.”
I returned to Palembang by way of Jakarta from America. I was so upset at the thought of coming back to the city that I stayed with Christine until the day before classes started.
My former roommate Leslie and I have been emailing back and forth a lot, and I told her about how I just couldn’t stand Palembang. She commiserated, and she said how frustrating it can be to be surrounded by other people who LOVE their experiences, who couldn’t possibly IMAGINE being anywhere else, who are simply the HAPPIEST they’ve ever been in their lives. But then she said something else. What would happen… if I just started saying I loved Palembang?
I assure you, this was a thought, not a plan. I have done absolutely nothing different since I’ve been back. I’m exactly the same person… but something has changed. I’m not trying any harder.
This city is starting to grow on me like a fungus. Now buses drive by and spray me with smog or dirty rainwater, and I laugh a little and say, “Gosh, isn’t this place just awful?” The internet company charged me TWICE this month for my internet which DOESN’T WORK. This time, instead of using gentle reasoning and try to make my counterpart my translator, I went in nearly shouting “AKU MARAH!” (I am angry!) They reimbursed me immediately and took lots of happy, smiling photos of me with each of the employees. I’ve discovered that if I pretend the food I’m given was cooked at a clean restaurant with tableclothes and napkins, it tastes immeasurably better. I have found food that I love. Is there anything greater?
Part of the change might be because of my trip home. I was shocked at how far away, emotionally and geographically, I felt from Indonesia. It was a reminder that someday soon this all will be just a memory.
I am starting to love this city in the way I started to love my last name. No one could spell it. No one could say it. No one in the same city ever shared it. But eventually, I realized that it was mine. Sometimes I feel like this ugly smelly dog of a city belongs exclusively to me. No English radio station, tv station, or newspaper? Of course not! This is the real Indonesia. No one wants to visit? Why should they? It’s mine.
Would anyone really recommend vacationing in Bucyrus, Ohio or Muncie, Indiana? No, but I’ve sure loved the heck out of those places.
The title of this blog, “Wong kito galo,” reflects everything I’ve been feeling. It’s written in Palembangese, which is a slightly different language than Bahasa Indonesia, and what everyone speaks here. (And speaks loudly here.) Wong is a slang term for “orang” or person. “Kito” is the Pbang form of “kita” or “we.” And “galo” means “mine.” So literally it means “person we mine.” But people in Palembang use it as a phrase that means essentially “This is mine.” This is my city. These are my people. This belongs to me. Wong kito galo, Palembang.
The woman of the couple from the English Library told me some jokes an old ex-pat friend told her about living in Palembang:
“You know you’ve been in Palembang too long…
…when you hug your toilet more than your spouse.
…when you don’t wake up coughing in the middle of the night.
…when the best part of your week is discovering the grocery store remembered to stock toilet paper.
…when someone says ‘Gee, that smells bad’ and you honestly don’t know what they’re talking about.
…when an Indonesia doesn’t shout something at you or try to take your picture and you say, ‘Hey, buddy! What the hell do you have against me?!’”
Sounds kind of terrible, doesn’t it? And isn’t it just terrific?
Friday, January 22, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Thanks to Dr. Ruebel, I had a list of Ball State alumni living in Indonesia. They were all Indonesians who once studied at the university. Unfortunately, none of them answered my emails. Luckily, before I had to resort to just showing up on doorsteps, I heard from Dr. Caristi. Through a number of different people, he put me in contact with Bagus Hadi, a BSU alum living in Jakarta. After many phone calls and emails, he introduced me to a couple who had both traveled to America on Fulbrights and had both studied at Ball State and lived in Muncie with their three children for three years in the ‘80s.
Props to Samantha and Kristian for sending me some awesome Ball State t-shirts.
It was really terrific to meet them—like a little piece of home. They call the years they spent in Muncie “a dream.”
“Do you know Tillotson Avenue?” they asked.
“Do they still do bed races for homecoming?”
“YES!” I answered.
I think the meeting was as good for them as it was for me. They said they’d spent some time in Ann Arbor, and I frowned.
“I don’t like Michigan,” I said.
“Wait, wait…” said Chuzai. “You don’t like Michigan… because… you are from Ohio. And people from Ohio State do not like Michigan! I remember! I remember!”
They’re both professors at the local university now.
We spent dinner reminiscing about Middletown and McKinley Avenue and chatting about how the campus has changed in the last quarter century.
Cardinal pride extends all the way around the world. Chirp chirp!
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I’m about to do something rash, so brace yourselves. I’m going to compare my year spent teaching English in Indonesia to the children’s holiday movie Home Alone for the second time. You remember how terrified little Kevin is of the furnace in his basement? This is not an exaggeration. I feel exactly that same way about my gas burners.
I even have a gas stove at home in America, so you’d think I’d be better prepared for this. But at home, you don’t see the hose connecting the tiny tanks to your two burners (one of which works on consistent basis).
They’re this lime green color. All the better for lurking just inside my peripheral vision and startling me as I type an email, like these tiny little gnomes of explosiveness. They are always so covered in dirt that they look like they belong more in an antique store or historical museum than in my kitchen.
Four a half months into my fellowship, and I still cannot light the thing without turning my head away from the flame as it ignites. I suppose I reason that if it explodes, I stand a better chance of salvaging my face that way.
Of course, it doesn’t help that my first week in Palembang, someone’s gas tank exploded on Sumatra somewhere. The teachers told me the story with horrifying hand gestures. “BOOM,” they said, their hands and eyes spreading wide open like they were only talking about fireworks.
“Did… anyone get hurt?” I ventured.
“Twenty houses… BOOM!” was the answer.
So now not only was I responsible for nightmares about MY gas tanks, I had to worry about a twenty-house radius surrounding me.
I was eventually lulled into a false sense of security. Those tanks gave me hot water for washing my face. They gave me ramen noodles.
Until one was empty.
It went out for the first time right in the middle of one of three precious packages of alfredo noodles my mom sent me. The fire just died. I wanted those noodles. They were my reward to myself for having endured the bathroom at school twice that day. (I had been very thirsty.)
I decided to go and ask my neighbors for help, since there was a spare tank under the sink. I tried looking up the word for “gas” in the dictionary, well aware that I would probably end up saying something really gross to them in another mis-translation, but the word wasn’t in there. (I learned later that’s because the word for “gas” in Indonesian is still “gas.”)
So I knocked on my neighbor’s door and waited while they shuffled around inside. It was about 7 o’clock, and Indonesians go to bed ridiculously early, since they all get up well before dawn to pray. My neighborhood is completely dark and silent by 8:30pm.
When they came to the door, I said, “NO FIRE IN KITCHEN!” in Indonesian. But what young neighbor comes across the street and wakes you up to tell you that there is not a fire in her kitchen, right?
Naturally, they assumed my kitchen was on fire.
Panic ensued. They raced over immediately, shoving their dozen small children (all right, four kids) out of their path. They were visibly confused and perturbed when they did not see flames in my sink. I pointed to the tank. “No fire.” Ahh.
The husband fiddled around with it for a while and tried the spare tank, which it turned out was also empty. He said I’d have to wait until the next day to get them refilled. I grudgingly thanked him and he went back to bed, taking with him the twenty or so other neighbors who’d come in to my house to see what all the commotion was about.
My ojek driver filled them for me. Even after paying him, it cost me less than $1. But he had to switch the tanks, which, curiously, involves a sharp kitchen knife and many rubber bands.
I watched, peering through the doorway with one eye open and hands covering my face, from the living room. I wondered what would happen if he exploded and whether or not I would be charged with financially supporting a small family in Palembang for the rest of my life.
It didn’t explode. I tipped him well.
Weeks later, two men appeared at my door and told me I had to buy some special hose attachment for the tanks. They said they were from the government, and I demanded to see their IDs. They showed me some papers, which I realized may or may not have been government identification—I had no clue. I raised my eyebrows and tried to look suspicious.
They told me the attachment was a new government policy and would protect me if one of the tanks fell over in my absence. They said all my neighbors had bought them, too. The thing cost $30, which is an awful lot of money here.
I told them I couldn’t afford it and sent them on their way. Then they offered to help me pay for it out of their own pockets. Well, that seemed unnecessary, especially since I was lying in the first place. I forked over the cash, and I’m still not sure if they were telling the truth or not.
If you want to con me, threaten me with those gas tanks. There is no single greater motivating fear in my life right now, which is really saying something, considering where I’m living.
I showed the school my receipt, and they seemed to think it looked ligit, although they’d never heard about the policy themselves. I’m still hoping they reimburse me.
Life was fine again until I returned home from America. I walked in and immediately smelled something funny. I figured it was the standing water in my sink, which hadn’t been moved around in almost three weeks.
Of course, it was the gas tank. Leaking. Thanks, new $30 hose attachment.
I resolved not to use the stove until after I could call someone to come look at the stove. Of course, then the power went out. And it was dark.
I was excited, actually, to use the new battery powered lantern Mom bought me for Christmas. Until, by the light of my cell phone, I discovered that it had somehow gotten turned on during the flight, and the batteries were already dead, before I ever got to use it.
Candles were my only option… candles that needed to be lit with a lighter or match.
But it was either that or sit in the dark. I debated. Then, I got the candle and the lighter and pressed myself against the front door, as far away as I could get from the kitchen.
Sccrrattch. The lighter lit, and I did not explode. There are no small victories in my life these days.
My ojek driver came the next morning, and he confirmed that my gas tank was leaking, and he fixed it. I think.
Tomorrow will be another battle, but I’ll risk my life as many times as I need to for the sweet taste of macaroni and cheese.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
According to my calculations, January 13, 2010 is the exact mid-point of my scholarship. In fact, I’m spending this weekend in Makassar at AMINEF’s Mid-Year Conference. So it seems like an appropriate time to see how I’m doing on the list of 20 goals I made for myself back in August.
1. Take lots of pictures.
2. Learn to speak Indonesian.
This is a toughie—can I communicate all my basic needs? Yes. Can I do anything beyond that? Well, not very far beyond that. It’s hard to practice; everyone I meet just wants to practice English, and it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be much use for Indonesia once I move back to the US, but yes, I could push myself a little more to study at home.
3. Eat lots of native foods, especially fruit.
Check. I like how I thought this needed to be goal. The only things I HAVE to eat here are native foods. My favorites thus far? Pindang, tempeh, nasi uduk, manggis, and, of course, rambutan.
4. Keep up with this blog at least twice a week.
Mmm… check. Except for the two weeks I was home.
5. Read all of the books I brought.
Check. I didn’t read anything during the month of orientation in an effort to conserve, but I finished all 24 in my first three months in Palembang. Don’t worry—I brought back an additional 23 pounds of them.
6. Use my new video camera.
This is one I need to work on. It turns out I forgot the cord I needed to connect the camera to my computer, so that seriously limited my video-editing and video-sharing potential. Mom also bought me this nifty little pocket camera for Christmas that hooks up directly to my laptop, no cords required. I’ll do better this time around.
7. Find an English newspaper in Palembang.
Um, there simply is not an English newspaper in Palembang. That much is obvious. I think there is a really small television station, however, which I only just discovered because I don’t have a tv to watch. I’m going try to visit.
8. Get my nails done.
9. Prepare some authentic Indonesian food from a recipe.
Debate: did the food need to be edible? I attempted nasi uduk (coconut rice), but it was soupy and lumpy and altogether pretty disgusting. I could try this again.
10. Track down the Rafflesia flower.
Grr. Planned an entire trip to Bukittinggi—not blooming, saw the bud. Visited the Bogor Botanical Gardens—no flower there anymore.
11. See an orangutan in its natural habitat.
I’ve seen one at an Indonesia zoo, but I haven’t seen one in the jungle yet. Mission unaccomplished.
12. Ride an elephant.
I also rode an elephant at the zoo, but I had to share with four other people, and I had to pay for all of them. And the poor elephant kept getting hit on the head, so it was a relatively unsatisfying experience. Mission also unaccomplished.
13. Keep in touch with people at home.
This is somewhat harder than I anticipated, since I don’t have the internet at my house and the post office is almost an hour away, but I think I’ve been doing a satisfactory job.
14. Stay up to date on US news.
Uhh. I know all about Tiger Woods—does that count? This is one I definitely need to work on. Phil Bremen suggested I get a short wave radio, so I’m going to find one of those since I don’t have tv or internet. I listen to NPR podcasts, but I can do better.
15. Meet at least one Ball State alum living in Indoneia.
No one answered the emails I sent out from the list of alumni Dr. Ruebel gave me; however, Dom Caristi found a man who lives in Jakarta who knew an alum living in Palembang. We’ve been in touch, and I think we’re going to meet up next week! And I did meet the Bucyrus, Ohio native, which I never thought would happen.
16. Travel to tons of places around Indonesia.
Check. And I will visit more in the next 4.5 months.
17. Bring back special souvenirs.
I’m really excited about this one. I loved all the presents I brought home for Christmas. I’m going to try to buy fewer things on this half so I can actually get all of my own belongings home. I’d still like to find some kind of jewelry souvenir for myself.
18. Learn more about Islam.
Check. Check. Check. And still learning.
19. Get in the Columbus Dispatch Travel section.
I took three different pictures—at the Monkey Forest Sanctuary, with the Rafflesia bud, and at Borobudur—of me holding up the paper, and now I just have to send one in.
20. Grow as a person.
Sigh. There’s no real way to evaluate this, is there? I read one Fulbrighter’s blog who said he/she “isn’t scared of anything anymore.” I am still scared of plenty of things. But I’m growing, certainly in terms of patience and tolerance. We’ll have to evaluate this more thoroughly in May.
And a couple additions—
21. See the Komodo Dragons.
Somehow this missed my list the first time. I simply MUST see them! Safely. From a distance.
22. Find somewhere to volunteer.
I have plenty of free time, and I’d like to use it better. The only problem is finding somewhere that needs me and finding a way to get there, since I don’t have my own transportation. I’ll get to work on this after I’m back from Makassar.
23. Travel somewhere on my own.
I am only including this in spirit of full disclosure. I added this to my list months ago, and I think since then I’ve decided to take it off. It sounded so empowering to imagine myself traveling around Indonesia on my own. Since then, however, I’ve learned that it probably just wouldn’t be safe, especially when I have so many other willing travelers around the country. We’ll count my trip home as one I did on my own.