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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sami and Diana's blog

Most of the people who read my blog are about as computer literate as I was before I came to Indonesia. So, for the older crowd - (You young ones already know this) there are lots of other blogs by Peace Corps volunteers. You can see them by going to "Peace Corps Journals" and then click on "Indonesia" to read what is happening to my friends.

I was touched by what Sami wrote and she included part of what Diana wrote - so, I copied it here for you:

The Day You Mistook Devendra for Me, Or: The Right to be Cheesed (by Sami)

If you haven’t been reading Diana’s blog, you certainly should. She just wrote a great entry about why cultural differences make us so agitated:
“On culture shock: the idea of culture shock entails the idea that it will end. Something which is shocking is only upsetting for a moment, and then things go back to normal. Even when studying culture in college, the entrance to another culture like that which I’ve done was called “culture shock.” I was reading a book intended for teachers like PCVs who immerse themselves in other cultures, and the author described the situation as more of “culture fatigue.” I find this a much more accurate description of the cultural transition. The first time you stand in front of your house for over an hour waiting for a bus while being bitten by mosquitoes, swarmed by flies, stared at and heckled by every third person on the road, you are shocked. The first time maybe you say that it’s a “cultural experience.” I’ve realized in coming to Indonesia how much of a buzzword that phrase is in America. Whenever I talk about something frustrating, the poor soul listening back home says “what a cultural experience.” “Cultural experience” also has the connotation of brevity. I thought that after I had lived in Indonesia for awhile, Indonesian ways of doing things would become a literal second nature and would seem normal and thus not terribly irritating. But let me say that the 100th time I stood in front of my house for over an hour waiting for a bus while being bitten by mosquitoes, swarmed by flies, and heckled was not any bit better, more normal, or less irritating than the first time. Quite to the contrary, the knowledge that the irritation with busses is not transitory – the knowledge that it’s going to take this much time and effort every time I want to go in to the city for the next year and a half makes it even more irritating. Thinking it will get better provides a goal of cultural tolerance toward which you can work. Recognizing it won’t get better frustrates you with the whole system. Thus, cultural fatigue encompasses the idea that you’re “tired” WITH the culture; with the set of beliefs and attitudes which were established long before you came and which will continue long after you leave. The fatigue is more than just mental though – this job is utterly exhausting. Constantly working to understand, to be polite, to be competent, to be understanding, to not rip someone’s head off is so much harder than anything I did in America. I get 8 hours of sleep each night, but by 7pm, I’m wiped. I actually noticed this first in Bali. The ease of communicating and existing for us in Bali, both in Kuta while surrounded by Indonesians who spoke English and were accustomed to our culture, and later with the other PCVs, left us a ton of energy. Sam and Luke were awake for almost 3 days straight. We all stayed out multiple times until 4am and got 4-5 hours of sleep and were good to go like that all week. It was really weird.
This is a tough time in the PC cycle for a variety of reasons, and is a period of increased “cultural fatigue.” There are a lot of ways in which we’ve acclimated to living in Indonesia. The heat doesn’t get to me much anymore, and I’m a pro with the bug spray bottle. Food is good, I can wash my clothes by hand, and the teaching is getting easier. Some things still piss me off from day to day though.”

Travis and I have been understanding our lives in terms of our newfound bipolarity; we both feel that the cultural roller coaster we thought would end or at least slow down has in fact done neither (roller coaster is still the only way to accurately, albeit cliché-ly, describe it). The emotional insanity of PST of which we thought we’d eventually be free has become an hourly reality in our lives at site. No more smoothly transitioning day-to-day or week-to-week series of ups and downs. We thought that was rough…boy were we in for it.
Sometimes I get so angry or depressed before school that I don’t recognize myself. Then snap! I’m elated to meet my students and tell jokes with my counterpart. Snap! I’m furious because someone has (by American standards) absolutely appalling manners though doesn’t seem to care or register my discomfort (because it’s no big deal in this culture). Snap! I witness students and teachers practicing English independent of my encouragement and feel joyously proud. Snap! I get disgusted with my inability to speak Javanese and my consequential alienation from teachers’ room banter. Snap! I have a blast hanging out with the neighborhood kids and practicing English with them. Snap! I’m harassed into a rage about not eating enough rice for dinner. Snap! I feel like a jerk for regaining weight I lost during Ramadhan and for being called fat for it. Snap! I watch something funny on my computer and feel uplifted (even if artificially). Snap! I find myself in tears because I can’t fall asleep despite my exhaustion.
There are many ‘problems’ in my life that I thought would get better as time went on, and realizing they won’t change is making me anxious. As much as I tout cultural adaptation being a two-way street, I’m starting to accept that my Indonesian friends not only won’t adapt to me in certain ways but that expecting them to do so would be unfair. I’ve got to be the one to take the extra measure to be more sensitive, calmer, and more tolerant.
And it pains me to recognize that I’m a lot more uptight and impatient than I thought I was.
The only people I can be comfortable around and whose company I truly, unconditionally, and absolutely enjoy are children, specifically my kid friends. They accept me, they don’t laugh at me; they seem much more mature than most of the adults. They make an effort to explain things I don’t understand. They teach me things, take me places, and give me hugs. They are excited to see me because I’m me, not because I’m different or strange or an attraction, a spectacle. They rely on me and look up to me and I can see that I inspire them—by paying attention to them and helping them learn and grow, not by being a foreigner or a village celebrity.
I hang with these kids every single evening. Looking forward to it and meeting the kids keeps me from becoming a hermit and helps me remember that I’m valued and needed (what PCV doesn’t want to feel that?).
I think we’re all having such a rough time because though we were requested by the Indonesian government to fulfill a need in these village schools, some of our counterparts do a good job of making us feel unnecessary or expressing their ambivalence to our presence. In my case, my counterpart’s needs and my skills do not perfectly match, though it’s no fault of either of ours; I feel needed and appreciated but I could be doing so much more, intellectually (if I was needed in that way). The amount and type of change my counterpart is looking for doesn’t align with the amount and type of change I was hoping and expecting to be a part of. This isn’t a problem, it’s just a reality that I’m having to face. I’m needed, but not as much as I’d like to be, and I’m not trying to sound vain or narcissistic or whatever—I really wish my services and skills were being put to better use because my counterparts wanted to get as much out of me as they could before my time is up. I want to give as much as possible, but you can’t give what won’t or can’t be accepted.
But what’s becoming more important to me as I begin developing and refining the reality of my service and its future is that giving my energy where it’s needed and wanted is what’s going to help me finish my assignment most honorably and what’s going to help my work sustain once I go home. I can’t spend two years expecting to create sustainability by pushing people to change things that are culture, things that are misunderstood and easily misinterpreted by me. [An example: I try to set an example of what a teacher’s role ‘should be’ by erasing the white board myself, but this action actually makes my students feel guilty, uncomfortable, and disrespectful. I can’t change and I don’t want to waste my time trying. Another example: I won’t change the fact that my counterpart will use the LKS workbook (the error-filled English practice book) as long as the school forces students to buy it, no matter how much I bring in outside materials and better, more authentic and correct texts. I can teach her how to supplement her curriculum content and I must help her develop strategies for working within the system that isn’t quite ready to change, though it will eventually, and drastically. Using the LKS helps her feel that she’s honoring her students’ purchases, conforming to school culture standards, and doing her civic duty as a federally employed teacher responsible for working within the state curriculum.] What I can do is help people change what they’re ready to change, what they’re capable of changing, and what is culturally realistic for them to change. These changes may be small, and that may mean I don’t feel as needed as I’d like to be.
But my little kids need and want my energy, every bit of it. And it takes all of my energy to make sure I give them enough of the right kind of attention and support, help raise them well, and help them make enough gains now so that when I’m gone they can continue succeeding. This is vain: they need to interact with and learn as much from me while I’m here if they’re going to survive the school system here and manage to learn as efficiently as I know they can (especially about English and thinking critically). Giving them a leg up or a head start is the best thing I can do for them—the daily interactions I have with them are part of my service, even though I gain just as much as I’m hoping they do; feeling needed is what makes dealing with the cultural fatigue of the rest of my life manageable.
I know that no matter how stressed or frustrated or pissed off I am, I can walk around the corner and be with my best friends: the cultural fatigue evaporates. They’ve always got time for me and are always happy to see me. I don’t feel any of the strain or “cautious uncertainty”* that I do when I interact with teenagers and adults or any of the guilt I feel when I take ‘too much’ personal time alone in my room. But I’m not using them for my own happiness: by being with them, I can perform my service in its most pure and natural sense: spending energy with people I love and who love me, helping them grow and learn, actually exchanging energy, and savoring every second of it. I think the instances when I feel that I’m not doing work because I’m a PCV but just as a person helping other people are the best, most genuine moments of my life here and the truest manifestation of what I want to do. Mutual benefit is always win-win. I feel these things most acutely when I’m with my little friends.
Basically, we volunteers have the right to be cheesed. We’ve got the right to feel anger and frustration, even if daily. We don’t have to apologize for something outside our control: the exhaustion, the daily grind of being a stranger in a strange land, the cultural fatigue. But we’ve also got the right to bliss: something that keeps us going, helps us get through the day, reminds us why we’re here, something that makes us full of love. We’ll still be rollercoasting all over the place for the majority of the hours in a day, but our memories will be rose-tinted; I already know that what I’ll remember most about this country isn’t the things that drive me crazy, but the kids and the community and respect I feel with and for them. All of their Spirit and Love.

Snowflakes and Mecca

This blog is really about two different things –making paper snow flakes and visiting the homes of people who have been to Mecca.


At my school, and I think it’s the standard practice at all schools, the students must pay to take the semester exams. The ones who don’t have the money are given a paper waiver and their parents must pay next week or they won’t get their report cards. Each student is assigned a test number. All the classrooms become test rooms and every desk has a paper glued to it saying which student is assigned to that seat. All my student desks are small tables with a shelf a big as a drawer underneath. Two students sit at each desk in wooden chairs. Each desk has two students but they are in different grades. For example all grade 10 students would be on the right side of each desk and all grade 11 students would be on the left side of each desk. This is done so students can’t look at the paper of the person next to them and copy their work.

I saw a list of teachers authorized to give the exams and grade the papers. My name was not on the list, so I am not allowed to “proctor” an exam by myself. I go with different teachers and help them by making sure each student has the correct test, fill in the dot type answer sheet and scrap paper. All Math tests are given at one time. All English tests are given at a different time and the time is specified on the corner of the national test. However the bells at my school are handled by various different people so we approximate the national schedule.

I walk into the classroom, make sure the students begin with a 3 or 4 minute long Arabic prayer, which I have been practicing saying with them, then we hand out the papers and every student has to sign their name on an official form showing that they are present for the exam. The teacher signs this same paper on 2 places.

Then the adventure begins. Generally the students are quiet for the first 45 minutes or so. Some of the exams are for 90 minutes, others are 2 hours. The tests are hard. The English one had massive amounts of vocabulary that we hadn’t covered in class. One teacher told me, “Actually, Oma, the students are forbidden to cheat.” That’s the dilemma.

Some teachers read magazines during the test. Others send text messages on their cell phones. As the week progresses, some of them use the time to enter grades onto various different forms. I made up my mind that I would occupy my time by cutting out paper snowflakes. I cut them out of scrap paper and tape them to the windows of the classroom where I am assisting. I walk around the class and sometimes that is a deterrent to the cheating. I let the teacher in charge make the decision about what she will tolerate in that classroom. Sometimes it’s painful for me to witness the amount of what our western morals would call “dishonesty.” But I personally know that I can’t change any one’s morals and it appears to me that helping your neighbor is a cultural norm here in Indonesia. Some teachers are more lenient than others. Some classes are more blatant than others. Sometimes it’s so noisy as the students ask each other questions, that the students themselves are trying to shush the talkers. Sometimes they are fairly well behaved for the majority of the test period. Sometimes it feels like a group effort is happening right in front of me and it’s all I can do to concentrate on my own task at hand.

The students are fascinated with paper snowflakes. They watch me cut them out and tape them to the windows and sometimes hold out their hands asking for them. My thought is that the first people who hand in their tests early are generally not cheating as much as the ones who wait. I give snowflakes to the individual students who turn in their papers early. When the test is done I teach every one who wants to learn, how to fold and cut them. I always bring 2 pairs of scissors and sometimes my fellow teacher will make a few.

During an average test I make approximately 50 snowflakes. I’ve gotten pretty fast. So there are now paper snowflakes decorating the windows of various classrooms and the teacher room at my school. I also put them all over my mirror in my bedroom. It’s the only Christmas decoration I have.

Christmas is not big in my city. Where I live the people are mostly Muslim. The only other sign of Christmas is a Christmas tree with lights in my church and red, green and orange (?) crepe paper hanging from the rafters. There may be Christmas trees in other churches, I don’t know. Last Sunday we sang Indonesian words about Bethlehem and the birth of the child of Allah to the tune of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Next week, for Christmas, I will go to the regional capital and meet up with the other volunteers. There are 16 volunteers who will be together – 2 of us have visitors from the states and won’t be joining the group. We’re playing the gift exchange game – a traditional favorite with my family, where each person brings a gift and you pick one wrapped gift but can exchange it for an already opened gift if you want. The game gets pretty lively as people swap and trade (sometimes reluctantly) for various gifts.

Then in the evening we’ll have Christmas dinner at the home of our assistant country director. That’s really nice of Betsy. She and Joyce, the financial officer are hosting a big PC volunteer party and then inviting all the staff for desert. It’s really great to be a part of this first Peace Corps group in Indonesia!

On Dec 26th, I’ll return to my site for a day, and then go to a 3 day overnight English camp at my sister Madrasah (Islamic High School) where Angela teaches. The students and teachers at my school have been preparing stories and drama and poems and songs that they will perform at the English camp. Then Angela and I will go to spend vacation time over New Year’s on the island of Lombok, which is supposed to be like what Bali was 30 years ago. We’ll meet up with 5 other PC Volunteers for the first 3 days.

The only other Christmas item I have is an electronic advent calendar that my friends Corky and Kathy sent me from Salt Lake City. Every day I get to click on a different part of the winter scene and some Christmas music plays and I watch a little skit about Christmas in a rural village. Many times I have taken my computer to school and let the teachers “play” with the advent calendar. They like to click on the presents and pick out the wrapping paper. But they do not understand why there are so many dogs in the scene. Muslims are forbidden to have dogs and generally people avoid the few dogs that are around. If there is a dog on my street, everyone I greet will warn me, “There’s a dog up ahead.”

So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I don’t want to carry my computer around with me and I don’t know if I’ll be able to access the internet for the next few weeks.


On a totally non related topic, I had a very interesting Thursday. A notice was written on the teacher white board that something would be happening at 11:00. We were all told to come to school early so we could get the testing done early so we go to the “haji” celebrations. When ever I asked what it was all about I couldn’t get a clear answer, something about visiting people and Mecca. I told people I wanted to go but I was concerned that I can’t ride a motorcycle (Peace Corps rules) and people told me that the places were too far to walk. Three different English speaking teachers told me that maybe I would be tired and go home. I walked out of the teacher room feeling pretty sad. I really did want to participate. Outside was a rental van and many of the teachers were getting into it. I walked up to the group and they told me there wasn’t any room. I asked if it was because I was Christian and they said “Never mind.” This is the usual translation of literally, “No what what.” and it can also mean, “No problem.” One teacher suggested I ask the vice principal for a ride in his car. Now, when I’ve been politely informed several times that the answer is “No” I generally stop asking, but I really did want to go so I asked for the fifth time and he was glad to let me come! Other people piled in his car and we headed off for a 6 hour adventure. It began to dawn on me that the teachers were trying to give me an excuse if I didn’t want to come. The “Oh, Oma, I think you will be too tired.” Was their way of saying that if they were my age, they would be too tired and would want a good reason to stay at home.

But what a cultural trip! We stopped at 6 different houses where teachers or parents of teachers or committee member at our school had just returned from the mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca. As we approached each house, men went one way and women went the other way. We were fed bowls of real food (rice, vegetables and some meat) and then went to a different part of the house, still separated by sexes and sat on the floor or one time we sat in chairs in front of lots of different snacks: raisins, dates, cookies, candies, garlic little chips and lots of other things. Little “shot” glasses filled with water from Mecca were passed to each guest. Many homes had banner with pictures of the pilgrims and scenes of Mecca in the background. The host or hostess would begin with an Arabic prayer and then talk about their deeper relationship with Allah. (I think.) I know some of these teachers and I have to tell you, they were remarkably calm and peaceful! The Mecca returnees were all dressed in white and we would shake the hands and rub cheeks with the women of the house and bow to the men as we entered the house and when we left. Watching them and listening to them you really could see the change in their demeanor.

As we filed out after the prayers and blessings we were given a gift bag. Some of them had a dish with a package of dry noodles and some prayer beads; others had bars of soap and pamphlets of Arabic / Indonesian payers. At one home we each got a prayer rug! Some presents were in cloth bags with draw strings. Others were in printed paper bags with pictures and names of the Mecca returnees on the front.

I asked about the expense. The teachers in my car all agreed that going to Mecca was very expensive and although it is one of the 5 requirements of being a Muslim, they were all praying that some day they would be rich enough to afford to go and then return and put on a big feast and give presents to hundreds of people. And I do mean hundreds. There were about 75 people in my group and as we approached each house, we would wait for the group in front of us to be finished and then we would join the food line and then go to the prayer place. I know several days are set aside for the celebrations. When I got home and showed my ibu-mama all my loot (and gave her the food and dishes) she showed me that the night before she had been to one of the homes and had the same presents.

And I should also tell you that we stopped at a mosque so that the teachers could do one of the 5 daily ritual washings and kneeling and bowing prayers before we continued on our journey to pray at the individual houses.

The people who teach at my school live anywhere from a few minutes to an hour away from the school. The teachers in my car were impressed when I pointed out where I had walked. I could have made it on foot to 3 different homes, if I had directions, but the other 3 were way too far away. But then I would have missed the whole “group” thing. All the teachers were wearing their blue uniforms and jilbabs. I have figured out which days are tan days and which days are blue days and generally I wear something that blends in with the group. And of course, I wear the appropriate color jilbab. As we approached each house we could see the sea of blue that showed that the other teachers had already made it there.

After the last stop the teachers in my car asked me to teach them an English song that they could teach their children. I taught them, “One little, two little, three little Indians.” I probably should have said “native Americans,’ oh well. I needed a very simple song that they could remember. The whole car was laughing when they tried to sing it really fast and then tried to sing it backwards (10, 9, 8…)

The teachers asked me about the snowflakes and I had some pre-made as examples in my backpack. They asked if they could take them home! Who would have thought that recycling scrap paper into paper snowflakes would be such a fascinating thing!

Love and hugs and jingle bells and candy canes to all of you!