Friday, April 30, 2010

Oops, my apologies.

Like most really, really smart people around the world, one of my teachers sort of lacks a certain amount of people skills. He’s fine around the other teachers and me, but he really struggles in the classroom. All right, fine, it’s Rudi. The students make fun of him constantly, calling him a “ladyboy” (and to be honest, he is pretty effeminate). Rudi doesn’t handle this very well and responds by grabbing whatever blunt object is nearest him and hitting the student on the back of the head as hard as possible. (Which, as we covered before, isn’t all that hard for him.) It doesn’t matter what it is—whiteboard erasers, water bottles, books. Once he found a bottle of baby powder in the back of a classroom and poured it over a student’s head in a fit of anger. Sadly, just like bullies in the US, this sort of behavior only fuels them to tease more until Rudi’s tiny 4’10” body is shaking with fury. Finally, I have to ask him to sit down at the back of the classroom.

Rudi’s behavior isn’t uncommon at all, though. All of my teachers smack students when they talk out of turn or play with their Rubik’s Cubes instead of listening. After a particularly frustrating class, I came back to the teachers’ lounge and said I was having some serious trouble getting kids to pay attention. “You have to pinch them,” Sry says.

“Oh,” I responded. “I don’t really feel comfortable doing that. In America teachers never touch the students.”

“I am not talking about touching them,” Sry said. “Just a little twist on their arm until it hurts them.”

The thing is, it doesn’t work. The students don’t pay attention any better after someone “twists” them. Part if it, I’m sure, is just bad behavior. For some reason, my school is known for spoiled students who can’t behave; one of the teachers is even writing her thesis on it. They think it’s probably because the students are so wealthy.

After eight months here, I’m surprised at how many cultural differences still shock me. I wonder how long I’d have to live somewhere to totally adapt. It probably takes longer certain places than others, too, I’d imagine.

For me, one of the most frustrating differences is the idea of “jam karet,” or “rubber time,” meaning that time can be stretched around to your needs. A 12 o’clock lunch can start at 2 o’clock here, and that’s completely acceptable to everyone. Likewise, someone might say they’ll stop by at 10 o’clock in the morning, and they show up at 9 o’clock because they were in the neighborhood early.

One day, when I was returning from a trip, a friend of mine said he would pick me up from the airport. I texted him (they say SMSed here) when I landed, and he said he’d be there soon. I waited. A half hour later, I called. He said he was actually just leaving his office then, and he’d be there in another half hour. It was fine; I had a book. (If you want to talk about how I’ve changed, just look at that: I was willing to wait an extra hour to save the equivalent of $2 for a ride home.) Still, 45 minutes went by, and still no friend. I called him again. He said actually he was just then leaving the office, and he’d be there in a half hour.

So I said thanks, but he could just meet me at my house and we’d go to dinner like we’d planned. I caught an ojek home and took a $2 loss. My friend (the boyfriend of a teacher at my school) finally showed up an hour and a half later. I got in his car and we immediately drove to the mosque, because he hadn’t prayed yet. So I sat for another half hour, this time in the car and without my book. I asked why he didn’t just come 3 hours late and pray before picking me up, and he said he wanted to show me how important his religion is to him. Hmm, ok… point taken. Then we listened to the Koran in Arabic all the way to and from dinner.

While I was waiting in the car, I passed the time by talking to Christine on the phone. It was now completely dark outside and there were a lot of people filing around. And I’ve been jumpy since the purse incident.

Suddenly, someone touched my shoulder. I screamed like a large rodent had just been dropped into my lap. Apparently, my friend had silently creeped over to the car window—which was rolled down about two inches—and stuck his nose in through the opening to greet me with “Hellooooo, how are youuuuuuuu.” He said it in that slightly terrifying monotone of people who have memorized words but don’t really know what they mean. So I screamed. (I was, in hindsight, perhaps already not the best version of myself that night.)

The friend was immediately apologetic. This is another trademark of Indonesian people who mean well: unending apologies for some things they did but most things that are completely beyond their control. (Although, in this case, it was his fault.)

This is common: “Miss, I am so sorry for the condition of the roads!”

“It’s fine,” I say.

“Miss, please forgive me for this road. I am so sorry.”

Apologies, in fact, are an integral part of Indonesian life. When saying a formal goodbye, for example, a person here should begin by issuing a grand blanket apology for anything they might have done to offend anyone. Similarly, they expect apologies to fix anything, too.

Teachers are paid to run English Club at my school. I nearly always do it alone though, because it’s just easier that way. But at least they’re sports and they stick around.

Once, though, during EC, I ran back to my desk in the teachers’ lounge to get something I’d forgotten and found Rudi and Sry rooting through my desk. Without shame, mind you. That week, I’d had the students write personal letters, and they were opening the sealed envelopes sitting on my desk and reading the private notes. They were also using my coveted antibacterial wipes I thought I was keeping hidden in the depths of my desk.

I was pretty upset. Not only were they going through my desk while getting paid for the job I was doing, they were using my things and reading letters my students trusted me to keep between us. Both Rudi and Sry dropped my things when they saw me and returned to their own desks.

I asked, “Why were you going through my things?”

Sry’s face immediately crumbled, and she nearly started to cry. “Please do not be angry with us!” she said.

Rudi continued, “Yes, we did not find anything bad, anyway.”

This sort of feeling extends to many sectors of Indonesia. Once, a computer tech woman started crying because she thought I’d be mad at her for not being able to fix my internet. (This was back at the beginning of my grant, when my dreams for worldwide connectivity were young and full of hope.) I’m not sure if people here really have a crippling fear of someone being angry with them or if it’s considered polite to assume an apologetic response.

Still, I really am getting the hang of it more. I know know my part. If you go into any situation in Palembang and begin by apologizing, you’re getting somewhere.


  1. we were also surprised at how much our Thai English students said, "Sorry, sorry!" they were sorry for EVERYTHING, and usually, everything was not their fault. it kind of made me angry, to be honest, because to me it sounded like (how American is this) they all had cripplingly low self-esteems.
    really, they were trying super hard to take care of us. the slightest thing wrong distressed them. once i figured that out, it was sweet of them, but still.

  2. I'm sorry I've not been over to visit.

    I'm sorry there are giant roaches and translucent lizards over there.

    I'm sorry...


    I can only imagine the look on Sry;s and Rudi's faces when being caught red handed. What a feeling, like something out of a movie.

    You have to get a photo of Rudi. And, I've heard the term "ladyboy," before. I heard it in reference to the boys in Thailand who try to pass as girls and are prostitutes. You have to be careful because guys wanting females end up with a ladyboy. FYI - LOL.

    Students will always not pay attention. It also depends on the environment - and with classes canceled for everything, there is no real stress on education. The lack of respect teachers show for their students there, well, they reap what they sew. That's just my opinion though.