Just Another Day In Indonesia…

One Year Reflections, Part Two [Lessons Learned]

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I promised a post about the projects I’ve worked on over the last year and I started writing it and basically bored myself to sleep. It’s not that I’m not interested in talking about these projects but after a while it sounded way too much like my VRF (Volunteer Report File) that I have to fill out three times a year. I’d rather write about the different themes I’ve noticed in myself and my experience over the past year, so here we go.


People make my experience what it is.

My last post really elaborated on this. What I forgot to share about are the other volunteers I am privileged to know. My group, ID6, is the third batch of volunteers here in Indonesia since the program reopened in 2010. I may be biased but I think my group totally rocks. There’s so many cool, inspiring, fun people. Most of us met up recently to meet the new batch of volunteers, ID7. I hadn’t seen several of my friends since our training last October so it was great to have a reunion (even if it was brief). We ate non-Indonesian food, we told stories, we vented, we met the new trainees, and then we partied like rock stars for the last time with the batch of PCVs that came before us, ID5. We didn’t sleep much, but it was worth it. And as for ID7, they seem awesome. I’m pumped to have them here, and they seem like a great group. I was especially excited to meet two volunteers from SE Portland! What a small world! I got to spend even more time with then when I helped as a resource volunteer during TEFL training last week (look for an upcoming post on this).


I love teaching.

I guess I knew this before Peace Corps, but my service has only confirmed it: I do really like being in the classroom and working with students. I like helping people understand a new concept or idea. I like being silly with my students and making them laugh. I hope I’ve made English fun for them. The truth is, English won’t be important in all of their lives (maybe not even many of their lives) but I hope that the experience of learning something in a new way has been beneficial to them. This leads to my next point, which is…


Teaching English is not that important to me.

I do think English can provide opportunities for my students but I’ve never been that passionate about teaching English in particular. What I do love is when my counterpart and I will use teaching English as a method to start a deeper conversation, like when we asked students to write essays on one thing they would change at their school. I also love using the material to bring up important topics, like teaching announcements by showing video clips of PSAs about topics my CP identified as affecting the lives of our students (reckless driving, peer pressure, smoking, etc). But teaching grammar? Not my cup of tea.


I’m adaptable.

Again, I knew this before Peace Corps (my mom told me this before I even came here) but it’s fairly easy for me to adapt to new situations, especially when traveling/living in another country. It’s usually harder for me to adapt back to the ‘familiar’ at home…maybe because I change with each new experience and I have to negotiate what those changes mean when I find myself returning home to a situation that looks and feels the same as when I left.


I’m less scared of things.

Spiders, mice, rats, cockroaches, snakes…you name it, we’ve got it. And while I don’t like these creatures, I’m more likely to laugh when I see a mouse run across the room than scream and run away. (I do still ask my host dad to kill/remove any large critter that makes its way into my room, though.)


Internet is a precious resource…

…and all too often Indonesia feels like it’s running short. (But, seriously, I do not understand internet here and why it so often shuts off or stops working.)


Indonesia could make me an introvert.

Every time I’ve done one of those personality tests I’m always split between introvert and extrovert. On the one hand, I love being with people, I feed off that energy, I’m a verbal processor, and I don’t really like being alone. On the other hand, I don’t like big groups. I find those exhausting, and I prefer small groups of people where you can have more meaningful conversation. Also, I don’t really like being labeled and I don’t feel like I fit the extrovert or introvert category to a tee, so why choose? But my time in Indonesia is fostering the introvert side of me. Before I came here, by far my biggest concern was isolation. I was afraid of being away from people because maybe I needed them by nature of who I was. Well, if that was true, I came to the right island – Java is the most densely populated island in the world. Living with a host family has been ideal for me because there are people around but I’m not necessarily doing activities with them all the time. But at the same time I’ve grown much more comfortable with silence and solitude and if I don’t have a couple hours to drink tea and read books in the evening then I feel too busy/overly stimulated (put another way, Indonesia could be turning me into a grandma).


I like to delegate.

Clearly, my dad has raised me well because my dad is one of the best delegators around (case in point, he always “delegated” all household chores to us kids and told us his role in cleaning the house was finished – he was the delegator). Anyway, whenever I can I prefer to delegate responsibilities, especially to student leaders. Students here don’t get too many opportunities to have real leadership and responsibility, unless they join scouts or OSIS (think student council). Our English Club elected student leaders for the first time this year and I push them to think of activities, help plan and lead, etc. It makes less work for me, which is nice, but more importantly it teaches students responsibility. Sometimes the activities flop and that’s ok. If I rescued them every time that happened they would just depend on me to be the one in charge all the time. I want to empower them to be able to make decisions and problem solve. Long story short: I’m passionate about youth development and it’s been exciting to see my students grow in their confidence, leadership skills, and critical thinking skills.


I am a product of my environment.

Recently I’ve received some kudos from fellow volunteers for the “success” I’ve had in my community. My gut reaction is to deflect this because I don’t think the successes here are due to my presence as much as the fact that I have wonderful people to work with. The truth is, my community is unique. My area is more religiously diverse (and tolerant), more liberal – and by that I mean more accepting of differences and less strictly conservative, and more progressive than other areas in East Java where PCVs live. A few examples: around my town there are eight churches. They may be small but that’s a very high number for an area in East Java. My Catholic counterpart can discuss God in class without it being a divisive topic because there is a genuine level of respect for people with different opinions (and she’s clearly not trying to convert anyone). The fact that students can dance at my school – and dance Gangnam Style at that! – shows that my school is more liberal than many of my friends’ schools (it helps that it’s not a religious high school). Clothing is less restrictive here; girls wear knee-length shorts, less girls and women wear veils (though that doesn’t mean they are opposed to the veil but for one reason or another they have chosen not to be veiled…topic for another post). And perhaps it’s a bold claim to say my area is more progressive than others but I’m basing that partly on facts…girls in my area are more likely to work or go to college after high school and the average age of marriage is higher here than in other places….and partly I’m basing this on observation: last week the teachers in my regency protested because they were unhappy with the process for choosing principals and the fact that their bonuses would be taken away. I haven’t heard of teachers protesting in any other area before. Anyway, these are just a few examples to give you an idea of the environment I’ve been placed in. I’ve done lots of exciting and inspiring things with my counterparts and my students, but I think it’s really because they are awesome people who are ready to work hard. Maybe I’ve been a catalyst but I’m not the reason for success; rather, my “success” is a product of my environment.


I love having a sense of home here.

Recently every time I have gone on vacation I’ve had stressful travel experiences and I just can’t wait to go home. I like home. I can relax here.

Here’s a story from yesterday that illustrates how I feel about being here for one year:

I’m riding home on a borrowed bicycle after ketoprak (Javanese drama) practice. I’m definitely feeling like a Peace Corps Volunteer because I’m reminded, again, that I am not allowed to ride on a motorcycle. Every single teacher and student at the practice rode a motorcycle (the one who drove me in a car had left early) and I was stuck until someone kindly lent me a bike. So I’m biking and as I leave the house where we had practice I feel the stares of people who have not seen me before. I hear people yelling, “Hello, bule, how are you?” I can’t decide if I prefer being called “bule” or “mister.” How about neither. I stare straight ahead, concentrating on avoiding the potholes. This road is so bad, I think this borrowed bicycle will fall to pieces. I turn onto the road that leads past school to home, three kilometers to go. These potholes are familiar to me. I know when to swerve to the left and the right, I know when to slow down because motorcyclists might suddenly turn in front of me. I stop at the bridge to take a picture of the breathtaking view that never ceases to amaze me. I live in a beautiful place. Now I’m only two kilometers away. This is where I start to feel like I’m at home. Suddenly I find myself in the middle of a throng of people setting up something that looks like carnival. Actually, what is really looks like is Last Thursday on Alberta Street in the summer, minus the pot and alcohol. As I push my way through the crowd I get more stares and I hear lots of “bule” comments from people who don’t know me. But then I see the head of the village who greets me with, “Hello, Sarah!” and I feel known. I bike on and yell a greeting as I pass my counterpart’s mother. I’m close to school. A student who I don’t teach drives me and says hello to me. I bike on, only one kilometer from home. The children from down the street yell, “Miss Saraaaaah!” as I pass by. I turn right, onto my street. I nod to the elderly man who sits on his porch and waves and monggo’s me every afternoon. I see my neighbors and I say hi. “Going home?” they ask. “Yes,” I reply. And now I’m almost to my house. And down the street, so far that I can hardly see, one of the elementary school kids jumps up and down and waves his arm at me. I turn into my house where my family exclaims, “Sarah’s home! It’s so late!” I see my host brother, sister, nephews, mother…and I feel known.


This is how I know I’ve been here for one year. I’m not merely a bule to everyone. I’ve created ties with these people in this place and it’s good.


I’m looking forward to the next year here.


Author: Sarah

I'm Sarah and I like many things starting with the letter "S," including (but not limited to) Seattle, springtime, summer, sunshine, swimming, sunrises, surprises, and sociology. For anything else you want to know, you will have to read my blog!

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