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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Difficult Day

My group of Peace Corps trainees: Maggie, Scott, Andy and Lukasz met with the next village group: Sami, Erica, Diane, Noel and Bart for our now twice a week teacher training sessions. Rebecca, our TEFL teacher was having us teach each other a grammar lesson on the past, present and future, simple, perfect and progressive verbs. I left that session wanting to say bad words and eat candy and go shopping all at the same time. I think it was the frustration of thinking that somehow I need to learn the English language as well as Indonesian to be able to be a teacher and survive here.

Earlier that day I had a series of conversations with a woman at a bank who kept calling me on my cell phone. She wanted to know my husband’s name. I told her the connection was bad, then I told her I was in class and would call her back, then I stopped answering the phone. I didn’t know what to tell her.

On the first day in Jakarta when I asked the language teacher about being divorced she had very specifically written out in Indonesian: “Are you married? Response: Yes, I am already married.” This was what she wanted me to say. So I have been very carefully not telling people that I am divorced. When they see the pictures of my children and grandchildren and ask about my husband, I tell them that he is crazy and that he doesn’t want to live with me. What does the word or concept "divorced" mean in this Muslim country? Does it mean I am so bad you should cut off my arm? Does it mean that my presence will somehow pollute your air space? Does it mean I am a prostitute? I don’t know.

Now some woman at a National Bank is insisting that I tell her the one thing that I have avoided discussing here in Indonesia. Peace Corps had us sign an 8 page application for a bank account so that once we are sworn in, they can deposit our monthly walk-around money ($1.75 per day) into a bank account where we can draw it out as needed. Then she texts me: “What is the name of your husband?” I text her back: “I am not married.” She is so sorry and explains that somehow on the 8 page form someone (maybe the Indonesian helpers at the PC office) had put an X in the married column.

I am worried about what all this means. I have just “outed” myself. What are the ramifications? I’m on a slippery slope that someone I trusted told me “Don’t go there.” and now I have begun sliding down and I can’t see the bottom.

And I got a beautiful message from home that something special will probably happen and I won’t be there for it. I’m keeping that a secret from you right now because the information really isn’t mine to share.

Add on top of all those emotions – the next day we are going to have our mid term language assessment test. Our teacher, Guru Teguh has explained that the test will just be an oral quiz, where each of us will be alone in the room with him and he will ask us questions that we should already know. All the language teachers have given us a sheet of questions so that we can prepare. They are easy questions but I am used to answering with the formal “I ” and all the questions are using the informal personal nouns, which I avoid using because it’s harder. And it takes me forever to talk about money and lots of the questions are about how much did I pay for this or that. First of all, I don’t remember what I paid, then I have to think about it in English, where I store the information in dollars, then I translate that to rupiah, at a rate of 1000 to 1 and have to remember the Indonesian names for the numbers and hundreds and thousands. For example my cell phone cost $24. Rp. 240.000,00 Dua (2) ratus (hundred) 4 empat (times 10) puluh . (dot) ribu (thousand) rupiah.

So I am mega stressed. I hate it when I feel like a failure but I have to admit it. I feel like a failure. I haven’t managed my life very well. I’m a divorced woman. I’ve failed at marriage. I can’t remember from one week to the next what the perfect tense is. And I don’t even care what the perfect tense is. And I know I am being less than a perfect PC Trainee by not caring. And I’m a failure as a mom. I’m half way around the world when my children are going through important things in life. And I’ve failed at learning the Indonesian language and tomorrow even my teacher, who likes me a lot, will find out how little I know. It all seems like too much. Sitting in the back of the classroom I get tears in my eyes. I want so badly to be the person I was back in the States: confident, competent, someone whose life experiences can contribute something to the people around her and here I am: slowing my friends down because I can’t understand most of the words in the sentences, writing down 10 words each day to remember and waking up and trying my hardest and absolutely not being able to remember them. And on top of all of it, I really am feeling sorry for myself and I hate it when I feel selfish like this. And I don’t have a tissue, probably will spend the next 2 years without a tissue and there’s nowhere to wipe my gooey nose. Maggie and Scott put their arms around me and tell me its okay. Maggie gives me a homework assignment: I need to write down 15 things about me that I like about me, things that make me unique. Andy and Lukasz keep Teguh busy but I can tell that they are worried too. Scott walks me all the way home which is out of his way and gives me a hug on the street, which men are not supposed to do to women in Indonesia, but he knows this is a hard day for me.

I walk into my house and the all Indonesian language conversation that we have every night as my Ibu watches me eat dinner is too much. The tears come again. She keeps telling me the words: “I am happy.” And I reassure her, “Yes, I am happy.”

Then I do the homework assignment Maggie gave me. Here’s the list:
Colleen’s good qualities:
1.I am willing to fail and keep going.
2.I have courage.
3.I am strong enough to show my weaknesses.
4.I trust that absolutely everything in my life is exactly the way it should be for me to grow into who I am becoming.
5.I can laugh at myself.
6.I’m not afraid to be foolish.
7.When I think I’ve figured out a strategy to handle how the people of Indonesia see me as a divorced person, I can go with the flow and change the strategy.
8.No matter how I present myself, or how other people see me, I know who I am inside.
9.My core being is linked to more than just this body or this personality.
10. I can find the core of who I am very clearly when I am struggling.
11. I know how to release intense emotional and physical pain – I have experienced it.
12. I am willing to go deep into the agony of being incompetent to find that place where it dissolves.
13. I can figure out a way to be present for important family events even if it seems impossible- maybe in person, maybe skype, or maybe something will happen that I don’t even know about yet.
14. I am good at loving people and allowing them to love me.
15. I communicate with people with much more than the words that come out of my mouth.

It works. I do feel better. I ask for permission to go to sleep. (And for permission to go to the bathroom and for permission to go to school… that’s all a part of the culture here.) I go to sleep and the next morning I get up early, ask for permission to go walking and go for a walk up a street I’ve never been on. There is a little village. At the highest place where the wide stream comes from the rice fields there is a chest high concrete enclosure with 2 separate areas and I guess that this is where the people bathe and use the bathroom. I can picture myself living in a little village like this. It would be fun. I keep walking father and farther up the mountain, on a little path that’s wide enough for a vehicle to use. I meet people and talk to them about where I am from and where I am going and ask them if this road will take me to the main road and they say yes, that my village is “dekat” (close) and keep pointing up the mountain. I have been gone a long time and I’m afraid that my Ibu might be worried, so I decide to take a short cut on a path through the fields. I go up and down muddy embankments and meet a man who tells me that yes; this path will take me to my village. (Does everyone tell you that because they don’t want you to be discouraged? That’s what the culture was like in Africa, when I went to visit my daughter, but I really have no idea if that’s true for Indonesia.) He walks with me under the trees and through the fields until we come to another little village and points in the direction of the “great” road. I keep going and Yes! I am back on my main road. My Ibu is waiting on the street for me. I am covered in mud from the grass and my flip flops have flung up little chunks of mud on the back of my pants and my shirt but I am happy.

I really am happy.

At school, Scott gives me 3 pieces of American chocolate with cranberries and almonds. When I break one in half, he insists that they are all for me and gives me the baggie and tells me to save the others for when I really need them. Andy arrives next and shares his cookies and candy too. Maggie reads my homework and tells me that she loves #4 and #9 and she’s not good at loving and being loved, (which isn’t true at all.) And she tells me that she’s proud of me. I take the test and it’s not too bad. After school, Lukasz walks with me to the internet place and offers to help get me set up on facebook, but all the stalls are full. He walks home and I head up the hill to my house. There is another internet place close to me and I go in there and I get myself on facebook. ALL BY MYSELF! Okay, the connection was really slow and it took forever, so I didn’t transfer pictures, but I did it! I am happy.

I really am happy.


  1. A STORY:
    I remember a time when I had a bad day at the "Fun-House".

    The walk through turning barrels was impossible, air jets from the floor that were to be part of the experience were bothersome, and worst of all, I thought the mirrors were a true illusion of myself.

    Finally I walked out.

    The next time I went I knew it was just as it was supposed to be:

    A Fun-House experience!

    Love to You!

  2. Colleen,

    I love your #4 and #9 too!

    Acceptance (of what is) is the answer to all my problems today! Or as Katie puts it, "Loving what is!"

    Thank you so much for sharing your most excellent journey with us!

  3. I love #1,3,5,6. They really show ur courage!!