Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Feminine hygiene

On any given day, I walk into school at 6:30am not having any idea what the day holds. Will students boycott and leave school because a power outage made their classroom too hot? Is it a national holiday I’ve never heard of? Will four of the five English teachers be out sick with pinkeye? That’s all happened in the last few months.

Will some company shut down the school to hock their products for an afternoon? Awesome. I think we’re all pleasantly surprised to march our way up three flights of stairs only to see a vendor stand waiting at the top.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a test scheduled for the day or not. The students cheer and the teachers glare at them until they get inside the teachers’ lounge, and then they cheer, too.

We’ve cancelled classes for shampoo, face wash, and, once, a tax rally. Normally, I’m more than happy to accept t-shirts and free products. They usually send English-speaking salespeople, too. I smile widely for pictures the company says they take for future advertisements. I won’t be the least bit surprised if someone traveling in Indonesia in another decade sends me an email saying something like, “Did you know you’re the poster child for dandruff-eliminating shampoo and conditioner in Sumatra?”

Once we cancelled classes while vendors passed around a weird-looking drink only to women who claimed to be menstruating. Not understanding this was a sort of trick demonstration, I wasn’t paying attention until he came to me.

“Yes, miss? Do you want this drink? Is it special time for you?”

“Yes, it’s…. uh… definitely a special time for me. Thank you for the drink.”

And all the teachers exploded into giggles. “You are menstruating!”

“Oh, eww! I didn’t know that’s what he meant!” I said.

I think my response is a pretty accurate representation of my maturity.

If there’s one thing that’s completely a private issue in America that is definitely not here (and there are many), it’s that. Women here proclaim the arrival of their periods like visiting friends.

“I cannot pray this week! I am menstruating!” It does raise a few issues of honesty and mathematics, since I know at least a handful of women who apparently menstruate half their lives. They don’t have to pray or fast when they’re on their periods, though they’re supposed to make up the fasting days they miss.

All of my experiences with tomato-based (not kidding), cramps-relieving energy drinks pale in comparison to the morning the feminine hygiene team waltzed into my life.

Immediately, classes were cancelled. Then we decided to have classes for the boys, since the presentations were aimed only at the girls. Then the teachers decided they didn’t want to teach the boys, so we cancelled all classes again and forced the boys to sit through hours of discussing exactly the right way to clean female genitalia and why their product was the best to use. I can only imagine what that must be like for a hundred 16-year-old boys.

I say I can only imagine because I opted out of the presentation. All of the teachers did, in fact, until they found out the company had brought in the 2008 winner of Indonesian Idol to perform. Somehow, this was not a great motivating factor for me.

I would like to point out that all of the presenters were male. Just a note. Anyway, I was happily typing emails until two of the teachers—young, a little weird—came to get me.

“Miss Ketty, I think… I think you should listen to the presentation. They say it is very important for everyone to know how to clean their vagina. This is a lesson we are not taught anywhere else.”

Dear GOD. I can’t even write the word without flinching, and she said this with a very straight face. She was genuinely concerned.

I said that I was fine, thank you. Since many of the other teachers were also not there and the presentation was in Indonesian, I thought it was all right that I miss out. They left.

Only to come back in five minutes.

“Miss Ketty, I really think that you should listen. They said everyone must know about it.”

I tried another tactic. “Actually, my stomach kind of hurts.”

“Oh!” she said. “Are you menstruating?”

“Ack! No!”

“Are you pregnant with a baby?!” She started laughing. Then she said, “No, I am only telling a joke. I know you would not be the kind of girl to do that.”

Ooh, not even going to touch that one.

So I surrendered and walked over to the presentation. All of my students were sitting inside the room, alternating between giggling and blushing. Of course, they made me sit in the front, but not before handing me a small card with a mirror on it.

“This is for looking while you clean.”

Oh, God! I do not do well in embarrassing situations. And the potential for an Extremely Embarrassing Moment was quickly mounting.

Someone must have been punishing me for lying about the stomachache.

Of course, because the color of my skin makes me a b-list celebrity, the announcer had to call me to the stand at the front of the room. “Did I seeeeee a buuuuuleeee?!” he shouted.

I couldn’t help but thinking that this man’s English fluency was being wasted selling a feminine cleansing product when he could be working for the embassy or something.

My students love me. I like to pretend it’s because I’m just so darn fun and motivating, but more likely, it’s because I play a lot of games and they know they won’t have a test when I’m in their classroom. So as I was forced to take the microphone in front of the whole school, they started to cheer.

He asked my name. Katie, I said.

“Kehhhh-teeee! If you can answer a couple questions correctly, I’ll give you a free t-shirt.”

Oh, joy. I could hardly wait.

“Ketty, we’re here talking about vaginas.”

This was not off to a good start. I immediately turned the color of a tomato in front of more than 200 students. I also know that 80% of my students definitely couldn’t understand what this guy was saying, but I guess I can understand the word “vagina” is pretty funny on its own.

“Ketty… what is this product for?” He holds up this little bottle that I don’t feel completely comfortable having in my line of vision. “Do you think it’s for cleaning… your vagina… or your knees?”

Your knees?!

He says it “fah-HEE-nuh.”

I say, “The first one.”

He says, “Say it.”

I say, “Say what?”

He says, “Say what it cleans.”

I’m at a crossroads. Tell the guy he’s being inappropriate and make it a big deal in front of everyone in my school or just get through it?

I swallow and say “vagina” very clearly into the microphone.

The students absolutely erupt with laughter.

I die inside and try to walk away.

The guy pulls me back.

“Ok, one more question. Do you think… that when you wash your fah-HEE-nuh… it gets bigger… or it stays the same size?”

This one caught me off guard. Then again, I figure it might actually be a concern for young Indonesian girls. Grin and bear it, right?

“I think it stays the same size.”

“What does?”

Oh, we’re done here. “The vagina does.”

They laughed and laughed and clapped and clapped. Then we stopped the presentation and took about a billion photographs of me holding my new free t-shirt that I will never, ever wear. Then the Indonesian Idol sang a song for me. It sounded really pretty, but I have no idea what it was about, as I was still trying to get my breathing under control.

And I sincerely hope that’s the last time I ever type the word fah-hee-nuh.

Indonesian Idol, some of the teachers,
and me without my new t-shirt


  1. I feel like a such failure as a mother that my child had to travel all the way around the world to learn such valuable lesson... ;-)

    Katie, this is probably the funniest thing I have ever read in my entire life. Oh. My. God. I can picture you standing in front of everyone, willing to do or say just about anything to get the experience to end.

  2. and the blog post of the year award goes to..

  3. I don't know a whole lot of Indonesian, but I now know how to pronounce a word I will probably NEVER use. Thanks, Kettie.

  4. Ok, so you don't even know me, but I was an ELF last year and I'm friends with Maura (Julianne is in the town I was in)...and that was the funniest damn thing I've ever read!!! I thought some of my experiences were painful, but this one takes the cake. Maybe it's time all us girls washed our fah-hee-nuhs. ;)

  5. Clearly a new specialization for you in your journalism career - do not lose that mirror! Doc Joe

  6. This is an amazing story! I am totally going to start using the word fah-hee-nuh.

  7. O.M.G. How I have needed a huge laugh - and you delivered without any disappointment! That is the funniest thing I've ever read, and to know it's totally true makes it even that much funnier.

    Like reasonbreedsinsanity said, I'm going to use fah-hee-nuh from now on. I have this image of you speaking Liz Lemon-like into a microphone saying, "The vagina does." LOL. Sorry to get so much joy from this traumatizing experience. But THANK YOU for sharing.

    The Indonesian Idol is HAWT!!!

    MORE LOVE, LOVE, LOVE - for you. Oh and the fah-hee-nuh does stay the same size, doesn't it?