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Friday, June 24, 2011

Cultural Exchange

Beautiful jilbab girls.

The purpose of this blog is to ask you to stretch in ways that may be difficult. It does not reflect the attitudes or opinions of Peace Corps, the United States or anyone else. It is NOT an account of life here in Indonesia!

You have been selected to participate in a cultural exchange program. For the past year you have filled out forms, asked people to write letters of recommendation, been interviewed, and visited 5 specialist doctors to certify that you are healthy, been to the police to obtain a report that you a good person and finally you get the paper that says you will go to a foreign country for 2 years.

It is such an honor to be selected for this program! All your friends are so happy for you. But some of them are worried. You will be going to a different part of the world where your religion is not common. They tell you to be strong and true to your faith.

When you arrive in the foreign country, many things are different. To begin with it is so cold, but people do not wear jackets. They say that the temperature is perfect and that if God had wanted people to wear jackets he would have given them fur. We are not animals. We do not wear jackets.

The people eat bread 3 times a day. You live with a very nice family. They know that you like to eat rice so every night they give you a very small amount of instant rice. Instant rice looks like rice but cooks in 5 minutes. It tastes like rice from last week that has been re-cooked. You smile and tell them thank you for the delicious food, but in your mind you miss your own good food that you had at home.

Your new job is teaching in a religious school. You are told that you must dress like a person of that religion but only while you are at school. For this religion people show their arms and legs. They believe that God made women to be beautiful and that it is right to show how beautiful they are. They are especially proud of their long hair and they like to feel the wind blowing through their hair. You feel very different with so much skin exposed but they tell you that you are beautiful and talk about how comfortable it is to have their skin and their hair in the wind.

For weddings they dress their little girls in shockingly provocative outfits! It is disturbing how little clothes they wear and how much make up they put on their faces. But your job is to be a teacher and to learn about their culture, so you try to be polite. Every time you wear clothes like they wear they tell you that you are a good woman. Only people who are ashamed of the body God gave them try to cover it up. It is a good woman who is thankful for what she has been given.

They love the color of your skin. They tell you that it is like sweet brownies. They call you “black sweet.” In the store you see that they sell soap to make your skin darker. And you see stores called “tanning salons” where rich women go to lay down under special lamps that make their skin look darker. They also like your small ears. In your own country, small ears were not considered beautiful and you are embarrassed that your ears are so small. But here you see people looking at your ears and talking about them all the time. A pregnant woman wants to touch your skin and your ears and then touch her belly so that her baby will also have dark skin and little ears like you.

One day in the teacher room, you hear talk about a man who is going to prison because he has 2 wives. The teachers are all saying what a shame it is – that everyone knows that one man and one woman belong together. For a woman to have 2 husbands or a man to have 2 wives is wrong. You keep quiet because the religious leader that you admire the most has 4 wives. The people in this foreign country just do not understand these things. You also hear that one of his “wives” was 14 years old. The teachers are outraged that a man would do this. He deserves to be punished and maybe even die. You do not tell them that your own mother was married when she was 12. It was a very good marriage. Her father married her to a wealthy family and you are proud of your grandparents and your mother and father.

At school you are required to say the special prayers for the religion. At first you do not understand what they mean because they are in a language different from the national language that you have learned. You say the prayers because you believe that God listens to all prayers. You want the students to respect you. The headmaster of the school tells you that he thinks you will be a model and an inspiration.

Your friends invite you to eat the holy bread that is a part of their religion. You do not want to offend them so you eat the holy bread. It doesn’t really taste good and you eat so much bread every day you can not understand why someone would want to eat more bread but you do it to be polite. Every day for 30 days they give you the holy bread. They talk about how it makes a person so holy. They say they feel so close to God when they eat the holy bread. They ask you if you feel peaceful inside and you say “yes.” You feel peaceful inside most of the time. You do not think it has anything to do with the holy bread.

Now your best friend is having a big party at her church. She is in charge of the program and all her friends and family and neighbors want to meet you and hear about your experience in their country. It will be held early in the morning. It is called a “Sunrise Service.” She wants you to come to her church and join the other people of her religion. It is a special occasion to honor the prophet that they think is God. She wants you to wear the clothes of her religion. She wants you to give a speech and tell about eating the holy bread and what you felt. And she wants you to talk about how you know you are a good woman when you wear the clothes of their religion. She wants you to give your opinion of people in the religion who believe their prophet is God.

You do not want her to be sad, but you do want to go to the church. You do not want to talk about the clothes. You do not want to talk about eating the holy bread for 30 days.

But she is your friend and whenever you try to tell her something that she does not like she says, “Never mind.” You know that she means, “No problem.” But still, it bothers you. Every time she says, “Never mind.” You think, “I DO mind.” “What is in my mind is important.”

You are worried because you can see that the people in the foreign country want you to believe what they believe and they want you to think what they think. But you do not believe what they believe. Your thoughts are different from their thoughts. You will be in the foreign country for another year. It is important to make friends. You do not want to disappoint her family and all her friends who want you to come.

What should you do?
Will you go to the church?
Will you give the speech?
Will you tell your friend that you do not want to go?

Your friend insists that you come. She says you must wear black on bottom and white on top. You don’t have the right kind of clothes but she says she will get some for you. She says if you don’t want to talk about religion, you need to write a funny story about your life here. She will translate the speech for you. If you do not go she will be embarrassed because she told many people that you are coming. You said you would go but now you are not sure.

What will you do?

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story, Colleen.

    Ever since my daughter (Erika) became a PCV, I've periodically daydreamed about exactly the scenario you've described here - being host to a foreign exchange student from Indonesia. I've tried to imagine what it would be like for them to be here, and what I could do to help them with things ranging from the food, to the weather, the language, the religious differences and the cultural ones.

    Your account here - the entire blog as well as this particular entry - has provided me with many more insights both into what I could do, as well as what it's like for you. Thank you!