Thursday, March 11, 2010


That title is as close as I can come to a pronunciation of “holidays” with an Australian accent.

Sometimes when I’m really bored, and I mean really bored, I like to try and write out phonetic spellings. But you have to be careful with that sort of thing, because nothing screams nerd more than someone finding out you’ve been doodling “beau-SIGH-russ” in your notebook. (Woot hometown!)

But that’s not the point. This is: most of the “bule” foreigners who come to Palembang, or Indonesia for that matter, are Australian. That’s a little exciting in itself, but sadly, they don’t come equipped with kangaroos and Fosters. Is that racist? Or country-ist? Probably.

Anyway, what happens is that quite a few of those Australians accept jobs at organizations like English First, and they teach English to Indonesians. Which means those Indonesians learn to speak broken English with an Australian accent. Like koalas, it’s actually adorable.

But I work with my teachers a lot on pronunciation, and this poses a unique problem. When they ask me why I say “holiday” differently than they do, do I correct them? I try to explain that just like natives in Palembang and Jakarta speak Indonesian a little differently, English speakers have different styles in America, in Australia, and throughout Europe.

Usually, they just want to know “If I ever go to America, how would I say this?” so I correct them. As though it’s not hard enough for them to learn English, they have to wade through all the different accents all their teachers are telling them to use.

This blog title is two-fold, actually. It occurred to me that I’ve completely skipped over telling you about two of the most fun experiences I’ve had in the classroom. Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

Merry Christmas from SMA LTI IGM Grade 11 Level 1!

The headmistress at my school said I was free to teach about Christmas as long as I didn’t “get into the religion stuff too much.” Well, ok. I’m not one of those Christians who says you have to be religious to celebrate Christmas. Just love cheerfulness and carolers and Santa and tiny men dressed in green? Hey, deck the halls!

Still, I didn’t think I would be doing Christmas justice if I didn’t at least mention that Christians celebrate Christmas because they believe it’s Jesus’s birthday, just like Muslims celebrate Muhammad’s birthday in February. That was it—just one sentence. My students were visibly uncomfortable with me talking about it, though, which was frustrating. I wasn’t preaching, I was just explaining WHY. Oh, well. In every class, I mentioned it, and then we moved on.

I brought back a bunch of Christmas-y things from my trip home in December, and the kids loved it. In each class, we decorated a paper tree. I gave everyone a paper cutout of Santa Claus and a candy cane. We danced and sang to the 12 Days of Christmas, and we played Christmas pictionary with the news words they’d learned. And what Christmas is complete without writing a letter to Santa?

It was one of the most fun lessons I’ve taught, and the students had a lot of fun. They were truly appalled, however, with the concept of mistletoe.


“Well, you don’t have to,” I explained. “It’s just for fun.”

They raised their eyebrows at me.

Valentine’s Day was almost as fun. I was a little worried about the reception I’d get, especially after the Islamic Council in Palembang condemned the holiday as a “pagan, dangerous” tradition. The students, however, knew about it, and they loved it. We talked a little history, and we played a bunch of games.

The most pervasive misconception I’ve seen here is that Valentine’s Day is only for couples. “Miss Katie, how will you celebrate the holiday alone?!” I explain that Valentine’s Day isn’t just about romantic love, it’s also about celebrating love between friends and family. And for some of us, it’s just a good excuse to cover everything in pink hearts.

I gave all the teachers big foam hearts I’d cut out with “Happy Valentine’s Day! Love, Miss Katie” written on them and a few heart candies attached. I was especially nervous about that, but every one of them—even the religion teachers—was genuinely excited. Strangely, they thought the hearts were mousepads, and now they’re all using them next to their computers.

My students are overwhelmingly, heartbreakingly dramatic, but it leads to some of the cutest moments. Like the girl who asked, “Miss Ketty, am I allowed to ask Santa to bring me true love?” The simple answer: of course. You can ask Santa for anything.

At Thanksgiving, I gave them pictures of a turkey that had big, empty spaces for feathers and had them write six things they were thankful for. One girl wrote, “I am thankful for my ex-boyfriend, even though he broke my heart into one million pieces and now I am broken and alone forever.” Jeez.

I said, “Maybe you could say, ‘I’m thankful that now I’m single and I can meet an even greater boy?” She politely said, “No, thank you.” But I just felt bad. “You know, we say ‘boys suck.’“

She perked up. “Boys suck? Do boys suck in America, too?”

“Boys suck all over the world,” I said. “But I think that maybe boys suck the most in high school. They get a little better after this.”

She smiled. She turned to her friend and said what might be my favorite words from this whole fellowship: “Ketty says boys suck, no matter what color they are.” See? Don’t tell me I’m not making a difference.

Valentine’s Day happened to be the same day as Imlek, the Chinese New Year. Chinese people in Indonesia have only been legally been allowed to celebrate the holiday for a decade or so.

Before heading out to watch the celebration in Palembang with our ultra-hip photographer friends, Raj, Yanti, and I had a Valentine’s dinner at my house. There we were: a Muslim, a Hindu, and me, having a candlelit dinner before going to celebrate the Chinese New Year on Valentine’s Day. That has to come pretty close to what this is all supposed to be about.

The Chinese New Year was absolutely incredible. The cloud of incense is nearly enough to make you choke, but seeing the colors and fires and masses of people makes it worth it.

Sadly, I don’t really know what most of them were doing when they waved the incense back and forth and walked really fast around the temples. I was with Indonesians, most of whom don’t celebrate Imlek, and I would have felt rude interrupting someone to ask. But I know this: the Chinese New Year involves paying a small amount of money for a whole lot of golden papers and sticks of incense, which you promptly set aflame.

My flash decided to take a nap.
People weren't really moving quite this fast.

And I know that it’s very, very good luck if it rains on the eve of the holiday. (Of course, it’s rained nearly every single day here for the past five months.) Luckily, that night was no different. But this time, when a light rain began to fall, people cheered and danced out into the drops like they were being coated in good luck and prosperity.

At one point, some men lit a huuuuge number of gigantic candles. They gave off so much heat you couldn’t even stand within ten feet of them. This was the point at which Yanti turned to me and said, “Man, I’m glad my religion doesn’t do anything pointless like this.”

Cough, cough.

These are the gigantic candles just before they started melting my face.

Hanging out with the photographers was terrific, too. By virtue of their profession, they tend to look at everything in a way that is the most. The most beautiful scene, the most natural moment. It’s an infectious way of thinking. I may not know much about f-stops and shutter speed, but I found myself saying to Raj, “God, just look at this.”

I can't help but love this bridge.

Good-luck rain was falling, lights were on everywhere, we were dodging cheap fireworks left and right, and one of the most perfect parts of the whole night is that I was sharing it with Indonesians, for the first time standing with them as outsiders. My life lately has consisted of teaching Indonesian people about American customs or listening while they teach me about Indonesian customs. But for once, we were both learning.

The photographers let me draw names for the door prizes.

2010 marks the Year of the Tiger. And you know who was born in the Year of the Tiger? Me. Rawr. I’m back in my element.


  1. fabulous : )

    i especially love the stories you tell about your life with your students. that's the good stuff...

  2. Boys do suck!!! You nailed it on the head with that one. LOL... but I can't help laughing thinking of these little Indonesian girls running around Palembang saying, "Boys suck, Miss Ketty said so!" :-)

    I hope you did tell the kids that while they can ask Santa for anything, he doesn't always bring it - true love or even a pony.

    Love you!