Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There was an old Katie...

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.

The apathy in that nursery rhyme used to bug me. (Pun intended.) But now I understand. The woman was in Indonesia. She couldn’t help it.

I ate my school-provided lunch one day while sitting in the teachers’ lounge. Then the chubby little “office boy” burst through the door, shouting frantically in Indonesian. (The office boy is an old woman, but they only refer to her as “office boy,” or OB for short. I may never solve that mystery.)

She was shouting way too quickly for me to interpret her. I looked to the English teachers for help.

“She said, ‘Whatever you do, do not eat the vegetables. They are rusak. How do you say it? Yes, contaminated. Do not eat the vegetables.’”

I looked at my plate. The vegetables were long gone.

Perhaps I’ll die.


Since I’m the only American most of my teachers have met, I guess I’ve inevitably become a poster child for the US. These people are generalization-crazy. They tend to take every little thing I do and apply it to all Americans.

Sometimes, this is delightful. “Ooh, all Americans have such fun ideas for teaching students!” They literally say that. All Americans.

Sometimes, it’s just ridiculous. I drink a Coke Zero every morning here. At home, I drink a Diet Mountain Dew every morning. On a list of “things I miss from home,” my precious Dew at least ranks third or fourth, and it’s #1 when you limit the list to non-living things. I’m convinced that my symptoms of withdrawal are worse than a drug addict’s.

Anyway, I drink a Coke Zero every morning at school. The teachers are disgusted. “That will give you a stomach ache!” They say it every day. To be fair, I probably do have a stomach ache at least once a week, but Coke Zero is not the culprit.

“All Americans drink Coke Zero for breakfast.”

I try to gently correct them. No, most Americans don’t have pop for breakfast. Many of them drink coffee. Some drink orange juice or even just water.

I’ve taught at this school for more than five months now. I drink a pop every single morning. And even today, “Miss Ketty, you are going to get sick.”

“Pinky promise I won’t.” I love pinky promises. I’ve taught everyone here how to pinky promise.

Now they’ve started claiming that watching me drink Coke Zero is giving them a stomach ache. Today one teacher said, “Ooh, please. I cannot watch you drink that. It makes my stomach hurt, and then I will not be able to breast feed my baby.”

I don’t even know what to say to that.

Mom occasionally sends me a few bottles of DMD. I treasure them. If part of the bottle makes it to the afternoon (and only in the afternoon), the teachers will ask to try it. I feel like I’m giving up my own blood. Basically, I am.

I am constantly giving them American treats. I shower them with Hershey’s Kisses until the chocolate is dripping down their chins. I bring in muffins and no-bake cookies and tortilla chips. But you get your hands off my Mountain Dew. Simple solution, though: I just stopped bringing it in to school.

I have painted my nails twice in the past four months. Muslim women aren’t allowed to paint their nails (except the week before their wedding) or color their hair, so they’re fascinated by my fingers.

“All Americans paint their nails every morning!” they observe.

“I’ve painted my nails twice,” I say.

“No, I think you paint them every morning. And all Americans color their hair!”

“I have never dyed my hair. Some people do. Not everyone.”

“What is it like to have blond hair, Miss Ketty? Your blond hair is so pretty.”

I explain that I wouldn’t know, because I have never had blond hair. I google “blond women” on the internet (with some alarmingly suggestive, though perhaps predicable, results). I show them the cleaner pictures. “Yes, that is like your hair. Your blond hair is so pretty!” I do not have blond hair.

Whenever we’re not in class, all of the teachers congregate in the lounge. It’s not air conditioned, but it has wireless internet, and we each have a desk there. I guess it’s not surprising, but since we spend so much time together, I’ve actually grown closer with a lot of the teachers than I have with most of the students. Most of them are young—under 35—and they’re eager to learn and share.

I have officially been put in charge of “lounge music.” Today was Britney Spears day.

Rudi has become one of my favorites. He’s shorter than I am and only 21, and he started working at IGM in mid-January. He’s incredibly good at English, the best speaker I’ve met in this whole country with the exception of AMINEF’s employees.

He has an incredible (and kind of funny) formal vocabulary. “I am currently considering filing an application for one of the assortment of scholarships which is offered by your parent organization.”

I teach him slang and idioms. Once, I exploded with, “I am sick of fish, Rudi!” He was concerned and asked if I needed to use the restroom. No, I explained, I’m not really sick. I’m just tired of fish. Too much fish. Terlalu banyak ikan.

The greatest thing about Rudi is that he’s comfortable enough with the language that I can explain things to him in English and he understands, but he’s far enough removed to ask questions that really make me think.

Today, he asked me the difference in pronunciation between cop and cup. Say them out loud. Pretty close, right?

And this is where I fall short. I haven’t ever felt at a loss because my degree isn’t in education, and I feel very qualified to read and edit speeches and papers. But I just don’t know how to explain the differences to him. All I can do it say the words aloud over and over and give him other words to compare them to. The vowel in cop is like the vowel in rob, I say. And cup is like… guppy. What’s a guppy? Of course he doesn’t know what a guppy is. I need linguistics training or something.

He gave me a ride home today after we taught English Club together. “You get on the motorcycle, right?” he asked.

“Umm, yeah, I already did. That’s why we’re moving now,” I said.

No. He wanted to know why I get on a motorcycle, but I get in a car.

Easy, I said. You’re literally climbing onto a motorcycle, and you’re getting into a car.

Ok, he said. But you get on a bus.

Hmm. Well, I said, I think maybe that’s because you’re climbing up to get into a bus. So you’re climbing on.

(This is the point in an Indonesian lesson where I would suggest quitting and getting some fried rice. Bless him, he kept up.)

Ok, he said. But you also climb up to get into big trucks. But you still get into trucks.

I honestly don’t know why, I finally told him. But I promised I could at least tell him what the correct English was, and he could memorize it. That’s the best I could do.

Rudi studied in America once before; he traveled with a big group of Indonesians and lived in California for two months. It’s amazing how much of a difference it made, and he tries to share what he learned with the other teachers.

“People in America did not yell at me on the street,” he says. “When I wanted rice for lunch, they got me rice for lunch. They did not tell me I needed to eat their food only.”

He gets embarrassed when people shout at me as he drives me home and apologizes for them. I tell them he doesn’t need to apologize for anything, but it makes me wonder. Is learning the negatives of your own culture the dark side of gaining a more worldly understanding? I mean, it’s a good thing to know the weaknesses and strengths of where you come from. That’s how we grow, right? But I feel guilty when he’s embarrassed.

And I know the feeling. I mean… look at MTV’s Jersey Shore, for God’s sake. American Indian reservations. Plastic surgery. Tanning salons. I fidget in my seat when I try to explain them.

Rudi is applying for a Fulbright to get his master’s degree next year in America. I really, really, really want him to get it. He asked me to help him find some potential schools.

“I think would like to apply to attend Ball State University,” he said.

I could have cried.

All Americans who attend Ball State University are nice like you, right?” he asked.

You can take the boy out of Indonesia, but you can’t take the Indonesian out of the boy.

“They would love you,” I said.


  1. Please don't die. I love your blog posts too much!

  2. i think this is one of my favorites, thus far. please tell me you're going to compile these in a book later. :)

  3. what astounds me is that i didn't do ANY of those things and they still apply it to all Americans. And they spent just as much time with me as with you. It astounds me how much common sense is lacking in a situation. And also how selfish a lot of people are in such a collectivist society....hope you're ok kiddo. Call anytime, you have my number.

  4. Do you want to make Rudi go crazy? Show him this comedy clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDFQXxWIyvQ

  5. You totally forgot one thing, though, how many cats will you leave behind when you die? :-) I've actually kept up with your blog, but I'm just now getting to write in some comments so you know how much I love you and that I follow your every move. I tried to get your bed on the plane, but they rejected it...so I had to come back home. Hmpf!

  6. This is definitely one of my favorites of your posts in a long time. Such a great explanation of looking at and considering other cultures. :-)