Just Another Day In Indonesia…

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Attitude Adjustment

I’ve now started my second year of teaching with new classes. It’s been much different than starting my first year, mostly in good ways. One big difference is that this year has been off to a much slower start. I think that’s mostly due to the fact that school started during Ramadan this year, whereas last year we had a couple weeks of normal classes before fasting began. The slow start meant schedules weren’t complete until a few days after classes were supposed to start, new students didn’t (and still don’t) have their high school uniforms, and the academic calendar was only released two weeks ago (a month and a half after school began). I was nervous about my schedule this year. I remember at this time last year I was talking with other volunteers, and we were comparing our schedules with the highs and lows – who had weekends off, who taught with good counterparts, who had unruly classes, etc. I remember making comments like, “Next year, I’ll make sure they give me what I want” or “I’ll figure out what’s best for me this year and make sure I set up an awesome schedule for next year.” When it was time for me to travel back to the States, I wondered if I should leave a detailed list of my preferences for the next year’s schedule – in case my vice principal set it up while I was gone. But as I scrambled to get everything ready, I had no time and I forgot about it.

When I got back the schedule (surprise) wasn’t finished but it was in the works. My vice principal told me that my counterpart who I taught the most classes with previously had requested to teach only one class with me, while a new counterpart was ready to teach multiple classes with me in grade ten. I started freaking out a little. It was exactly what I didn’t want. I wanted to teach grade eleven, I preferred teaching more classes with counterparts I’d worked with before so we could build on our first year, and I was confused on why my counterpart had requested to teach only one class with me without telling me. Was the first year that bad? I thought it had been pretty successful. As it turns out, my counterpart (actually, two of my counterparts) is pregnant and was concerned that we taught several classes together it would be difficult when she goes on maternity leave. Once I got that sorted out, the schedule was just about finished. My completed schedule had me teaching three classes of Grade 10, and only one of Grade 11 – which was not a class of science students, as I had requested, but social students.* I was teaching three of my classes with veteran counterparts and one with a new counterpart. I was teaching every day of the week except Wednesday (a day reserved for lesson planning and English teachers’ meetings), with a full schedule on Friday – my only free day last year. Faced with the prospect of no free days and no classes I was excited about, I didn’t know what to do. What happened to my plan of ensuring I had the perfect schedule to glide through my second year?

I called my dad to ask for advice. Should I fight the schedule? Should I tell my vice principal it needed to change because I couldn’t teach every day and it would really be better if I had different classes? My dad wisely pointed out that I had no leverage in this situation. And anyway, wasn’t I there to help? I’m a co-teacher, so my schedule is dependent on the schedule of three other teachers and it would cause a real fiasco to try to change it.

“But, Dad,” I said, “It’s going to be a really challenging year.”
“Isn’t that what you signed up for? Didn’t you join Peace Corps because you wanted to be challenged?” he replied.

That conversation made me realize I badly needed an attitude adjustment. My self-centered focus on solely on setting up the best situation for me. I wasn’t thinking about what would work best for my school, or how I could help them. On a larger scale, this attitude extends far beyond a school schedule. What am I doing to help my community? Am I open to new opportunities and challenges? Or is my focus on being comfortable? What’s my attitude when I unexpectedly have a stranger visit me in the evening when I want to relax? Or when people want to take my picture or ask me for the millionth time if I’m kerasan (comfortable) in Indonesia? To be honest, these things annoy me, and I am only human – some things are bound to get under my skin. But my dad is right – I joined Peace Corps because I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to experience new things. I’ve done that in my first year – why not also in my second?

My second-year resolution is this:

– to keep an open mind and an open heart

– to resist slipping into monotony or volunteer-centric isolation from my community

– to continue to put energy and effort into developing relationships with my family, neighbors, coworkers, students, and community members

– to remember I’m here but to help my community – so I need to evaluate my attitude and actions to ensure they are focused outwardly so I can be most available and supportive – not inwardly, focusing on my own comfort

With that resolution in mind, I realized my attitude shouldn’t be to figure out how to make other people change according to what best serves my comfort. I should, instead, be doing what I can to be helpful to my school. My school has about 70 teachers and one overworked vice principal who was trying to juggle everyone’s different schedule demands (which, for many teachers, includes teaching at two schools, working multiple jobs, or living away from their families during the week and requiring more than a single day off so they can go home once a week). Surely, one volunteer who lives one kilometer away from school and has no other teaching demands besides those I’ve accepted voluntarily (teaching elementary students on Fridays, for instance, helping with English club) can manage to come to school 6 days a week if that’s what’s best.

As these things usually turn out, my schedule has ended up being perfectly fine. I actually have really enjoyed teaching my tenth grade classes, while my eleventh grade class is looking rather challenging at this point – but that’s what I signed up for. 🙂 I’ve enjoyed the rhythm of teaching only a class or two every day and finishing up at 8:30 on Saturday with the rest of Saturday and Sunday free. I’m so glad I didn’t try to fight the schedule – I most likely would have made a fool of myself and everything worked out just fine anyway. And as obstacles arise – like several weeks of canceled classes or teachers who don’t show up or sudden illnesses that land me in the hospital – I’ve been remembering my resolution and it’s helped mitigate a lot of frustration as I realize, it’s better not to sweat the small stuff but just keep doing what I can to help.

*In my school, the eleventh and twelfth grade classes are split into two tracks: social and science. Stereotypes abound about the two tracks (mostly, that science students are smart and diligent and social students are lazy, dumb, and undisciplined), and that can be pretty frustrating to me because teachers tend to teach to the stereotypes and students internalize the stereotypes and the cycle continues.


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Idul Fitri: Through the Lens

Finally, after several days of trying and failing, I have good enough internet to post my Idul Fitri photos! I took these when I went with my family to the Idul Fitri morning prayer service at the neighborhood mosque.


The girls and women at the mosque getting ready for the special Idul Fitri service


Bags of food to give to the poor


Everyone from the neighborhood came for the most important holiday of the year!


Happy children in bright, shiny (new?) clothes


This little girl who looks like a cross between a pumpkin and a ghost (Halloween, anyone?) loves to yell, “MISS SARAH!” every time she sees me


Neighborhood boys messing around like usual and trying to hang off the flag


My shy little neighbor girl


Oops, looking the wrong way


What an awesome Strawberry Shortcake jilbab. If I had been a Muslim child I would have LOVED that.


I’m sure for this little boy it was much more interesting to watch me than watch everyone praying 🙂




This one is as mischievous as he looks.


Time to shake hands and go home

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Idul Fitri Number Two

[written on Thursday, August 8th – not published until now due to lack of interent and laziness]


It’s really interesting being here for a second round of the biggest holiday in Indonesia. I assumed it would be the same as the previous year, but that’s silly – Christmases are different every year, even if you do the same activities. Obviously it’s the same for Idul Fitri.


Last year I woke up on the morning of Idul Fitri to an empty house. Everyone in the whole neighborhood went to the mosque and I was alone. It was strangely quiet, after a month of mosques blaring, fireworks, and people up at all hours of the day and night. It was nice to have the house to myself but I wondered what was going on at the mosque. I continued to wonder and I felt a little jealous when I talked to other PCVs that went with their family to the mosque, either for the special evening prayer every night during Ramadan or on the morning of Idul Fitri. I knew my family wasn’t trying to exclude me but rather showed their respect for the fact that I am Christian, not Muslim, by not asking me to participate in Muslim traditions if I don’t want to. But the thing is, I did want to go to the mosque; I was just too shy to ask. I was talking to a PCV about this a few days ago and she said, “It’s an American thing. We don’t want to invite ourselves to things.” That’s probably true, and it’s also a personality thing. Even in situations when I could just directly ask for something* I tend to beat around the bush and hope the other person will offer. I don’t want to ask for something and face rejection or make the person feel uncomfortable. So, it makes sense that I have almost never invited myself to something with the family – I always wait to be invited. This year, as Ramadan came to a close, I realized I really did want to join my family. This will probably be the only time in my life I’m living in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramdan and what a cool experience it is! I would just have to take charge of the situation and ask. So, I did. And my ibu said yes, of course I could come and I could bring my camera. [Photos coming soon – when the internet at school actually works and I can upload photos again.]


This morning I found myself strolling down the street as the sun arose with my host family and all my neighbors following. Everyone gathered at the small mosque and I sat across the yard at a friend’s house and took pictures. Since the prayers/message from the imam was all in Arabic and Javanese, I didn’t understand anything beyond the word “dhahar” (formal Javanese for “eat”)** but it was still meaningful to gather with my community and see how they celebrate their most important holiday.


After the mosque, we came home and I napped. I came down with a cold the night before Idul Fitri – perfect timing for a holiday when you’re required to shake hands with everyone you meet…at least two times. Post-nap the family gathered to ask forgiveness. Children have to ask their parents for forgiveness first by saying, “Minal Aidzin Walfaidzin” (Arabic)/ “Mohon Maaf Lahir dan Batin” (Indonesian) which loosely translates to “I’m sorry for the mistakes I’ve made towards you.” The child must salim (raise the hand of their parent to their cheek or forehead in a sign of respect) their parent and then apologize. Then, they shake hands with everyone else. This can often be a very emotional moment for families. In my house, I salim-ed my ibu and apologized to both my ibu and bapak and shook hands with the rest of the family and wished them a Happy Idul Fitri. Then we all went to my host aunt’s house – she is the oldest of my bapak’s siblings, and though she is Christian, she still celebrates Idul Fitri with her neighbors and family (as do many Christians here). We all salim-ed her and she was so touched; there were not many dry eyes in that house.


Then it was finally time to eat breakfast! It’s quite a change going from eating breakfast at 3 AM for a month to getting up around 4 or 5 but waiting until 8:30 to eat. We were hungry! Traditionally, people cook chicken here for the holiday. We grow, kill, and cook our own chickens here and, in the spirit of the holiday, I even forewent my vegetarianism to try a little bit. After breakfast, I took another nap.*** The other adult children in the family went to ask forgiveness from their other parents/parents-in-law.


Around 10, it was time to start making the rounds to the neighbors. Idul Fitri is all about visiting people. The idea is similar to asking forgiveness from your parents – you want to show respect and apologize for any mistakes you’ve made (apologizing is big here). Usually, you go to someone’s house, shake the hand of everyone in the house, sit down, eat a snack and drink something, make small talk, and then say “ayo” (“Let’s go”) and shake everyone’s hand again as you leave. If you’re lucky enough to be a child, that second handshake will include an envelope with a little bit of cash. It’s like trick-or-treating…but better. In my experience, people aren’t actually apologizing during these visits, but the fact that they came to the house is really important and will be remembered all year long (especially if you happen to be an American visitor and they take your picture – very memorable).


I was traveling with a big crew, which included three of my adult host siblings, my host nephew, my host brother-in-law and his siblings and their spouses and children. There were three things that stuck out to me as I went from house to house. The first was that even though most of the people I was with are not family members I interact with on a daily basis (and some I only see once or twice a year), they all treat me like a real member of the family. Sometimes I interact with people who treat me like an animal in the zoo. They want to stare and take my picture and they talk loudly as if my foreignness implies that I am deaf or stupid or both. I am so very lucky that no one in my family or extended family**** acts like that. Instead, they treat me like an adult. They don’t even try to show me off, though they will answer other people’s questions about me, which saves me from saying the same thing a hundred times. In short, they (extended family included) are the best host family. Period. The second thing was that I realized that the majority of the people I was going house-to-house with were Christian! One of my host brother-in-law’s siblings converted through marriage and had three boys and I didn’t even realize until a couple weeks ago that they were not Muslim. That’s another testament to the awesomeness of my host family – they truly treat people the same, regardless of their religion. This is just another reason why I feel so comfortable with them. And, finally, I really enjoy going to my neighbors’ houses. It’s pretty eye-opening to see the insides of the houses I pass everyday. Most are very simple – something I did not realize until Idul Fitri last year because my house is relatively nice and I assumed my neighbors’ were all the same as mine. But even the simple ones are full of character. There are always pictures and posters of kids and grandkids and weddings. Some are full of Javanese cultural symbols, like wayang. Others have Arabic signs hanging over every door. You really get a better sense of a person when you see their house. I wish we had a similar ceremony in the States. I think it would do people good to go into their neighbors’ houses once a year.


After hours of visiting houses, it was time for nap number three. I crashed in my bed and slept straight through all the visitors who were sitting in the guest room just outside my door. One benefit of living in Indonesia for a year is that I can now sleep through fireworks exploding, mosques blaring, children screaming, cats howling, and guests sitting outside my room. In the evening, I stayed at home and helped host – which means I shook hands with everyone who came through the door. It’s like Halloween, you just wait to see who will come and then you give them snacks/candy. Unlike Halloween, it leaves me rather exhausted and it continues for a solid week. Day One down, only six more to go!


[Obviously, Idul Fitri has long since ended and I do have photos, coming soon!]


* Recently, at our Mid Service Conference I had a conversation with my counterpart and a couple other volunteers where we joked about how I’m more culturally Javanese and she is more American. The other volunteers were surprised and asked for an example. Bu Chris astutely told them that if I want something, I won’t ask her directly. Instead, I just bring up the topic and talk in circles until she figures it out. It’s true – guilty as charged.


**I assume everyone was encouraged to gorge themselves on snacks later in the day…at least, that’s what I did.


***This is starting to sound like a Beseda holiday


**** With the exception of a couple family members that I met during Idul Fitri last year…luckily I don’t have to see them more than a couple times a year