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Monday, August 29, 2011

Ramadan – One more day

I went to sleep thinking that my fasting was over. I woke up to lots of noise outside at 2:45am. I looked at my cell phone to check the time and saw that I had a message from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer.

“Turns out there is one more day of fasting. Gov’t just announced it. Dern.”

So I ate Sahur – the middle of the night meal from the left over food that’s always on the table, drank lots of water and went back to bed.

When I got up this morning my Ibu-mama said that they announced on television that the leader of the Mohammedan sect said that Ramadan ends today and the leader of the Nahdatul Ulama sect says that Ramadan ends tomorrow. The NU group is the largest in Indonesia and has over 50 million members here.

Ramadan ends at different times all over the world. It starts with the sighting of the new moon and ends with the sighting of the new moon. Each country has religious leaders who declare when it starts and stops. Indonesia is as wide as the United States. The moon rises at different times around the world and there is a slight phase change every day.

Every calendar here has August 30 and 31st listed in red. That means they are federal holidays. I assumed that it also meant that Idul Fitri is celebrated by 2 days of celebrations. I was wrong. It’s celebrated by a week of celebrations.

Okay. That’s the facts, as far as I know them and they might be right and they might be wrong. Here’s my reaction.

This is typical of my life here. I never really know what’s going on or why. It’s almost reassuring to realize that other people don’t know either.

My first reaction was, okay, another day – actually it kind of surprised me how easily I thought that. No resistance. I just climbed a super high mountain only to be shown that I’m not on the summit – I still have a ways to go.

When I was young and impressionable a young girl named Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbonize Liberation Army – a radical group in the US and I never did understand what they were protesting. She was the daughter of a wealthy man who owned many newspapers. Her kidnappers kind of brain washed her over the next few months and she assisted in a bank robbery and her picture was on television a lot with comments from psychologists. It seems that when you finally surrender to your surroundings in order to survive you do things that assure your survival in that group even if you normally wouldn’t do them in your every day life. When she was finally returned to her family she was released without any charges against her. She eventually married her body guard.

I expected Peace Corps to change me dramatically. It’s one of the reasons I signed up. Yes I wanted to save the world, one little piece at time but in the process I knew that something inside of me would have to change too. There are reasons why the Peace Corps slogans are “How far will you go to make a difference?” and “The hardest job you’ll ever love.”

Betsy, our Peace Corps Assistant Country Director here in Indonesia gave us a talk during our mid-service conference about “Changing behaviors.” She said that is what development worker do – their job is to change behaviors in countries where they are assigned. Something in me rebelled. I knew from some absolute place of truth that wasn’t MY job. She explained that you need to identify which behaviors the host country nationals want to change and what their resistance to the change involves and you go from there. All of that is very true and very acceptable and certainly something I would have agreed to do and certainly signed my name to when I first joined Peace Corps. And when I tried to look at what the heck was stirred up inside of me, I found that all my life I had tried to change people’s behavior, why was I upset about doing that now?

When we were still in the States we were given a little booklet called: A Few MINOR Adjustments. I’d describe it as a survival manual on cultural adjustment. Basically it says that the way we experience a culture is not as an abstract thing, but rather as the behavior and actions of people who have been conditioned by and respond in accordance with certain assumptions and values. It goes on to say that fist you learn to predict the behavior of host country nationals, then you accept the host country behavior and finally you change your own behavior. If you still do not like most of what the people around you are doing, you haven’t adjusted. The chapter ends with a section on Cultural Sensitivity and Can I still be me?

Two weeks ago when I had diarrhea and vomiting – at the same time – with no toilet (in the Western understanding of the word.) – something shifted. Actually, it had to. I had a slight fever and a little runny nose and I didn’t want to tell the Peace Corps Doctor because the last time I told him I had diarrhea he sent a car to bring me back to Surabaya, a 5-6 hour trip in a disposable diaper! It turns out, I talked the nurse out of sending me back, but it sure scared me enough to think twice before I shared my diarrhea stories again. But this time I was beyond miserable and when I went to school the next day I told my co-teachers what had happened and I went home a little early. (We weren’t teaching, it was Pondok Ramadan – Islamic teaching week.) I was home for half an hour in my room with the door closed; lying on the bed when my Ibu-mama knocks on the window and tells me the vice-principal was in the living room. Oh Shoot. I went out (without my jilbab headscarf and my calves exposed – I really wasn’t thinking very fast.) and sat down with the 2 co-teachers and the vice principal. It’s a Muslim obligation to visit the sick. The sick have the obligation to sit in the living room and convince the people that you really are okay. Now I was worried that PC would find out I was sick so I called the Dr. and all he told me to do was stop fasting and drink 3 liters of water with oral rehydration salts that day and 2 liters the next day and I’d be fine. He said it was viral. I think he meant something like a 24 hour flu bug. Anyway, it all turned out fine. The next day every teacher asked me about my diarrhea – you get used to this kind of thing – bowel functions are not a taboo subject here. While the teachers were here one of them said, “Oma, I think something is not just wrong with your stomach, something is wrong in your heart.” And I started to cry. It was true. Being sick absolutely made me realize how much I wanted the “comfort” of my own society, my own bathroom, my own control over what food I ate, my own little bed. I told them I wanted my family, that I thought everyone who is sick would naturally want to be in their own comfortable surroundings. They understood. They said yes, when you are sick you like your own family to squeeze and pinch your arm. (This is what people do here who love you and care for you – kind of a little massage. I prefer to be left alone. But they understood what I meant within their cultural context.)

Here’s where I think I am in all of this. Something inside of me has snapped. The rubber band has been stretched so far that it no longer can return to its original position. I live constantly with ambiguity. I really am not sure most of the time what people are saying, what they really mean (even if I can translate every word) or why they are doing what they are doing. I usually guess because that’s the way human beings work, we try to make sense out of our surroundings. But now I see that I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to predict what they will do or at least not being surprised when everything changes. I may not know why, but I see that there is a system of logic behind what people are doing – it makes sense to them. But the acceptance part, the changing my own behavior to conform to host country norms, the adjusting my own behavior so I don’t offend them, the behaving in a way they expect so that they become more accepting of me – that’s the hard part. I can see that part of me cracking apart. It feels like an invitation to surrender at a level deeper than anything I’ve surrendered to before.

Who am I? It kind of doesn’t matter any more. I’m a human being. I play the role of a teacher, a mom, a grandma, an American, a woman…..but who am I really? If I’m willing to live by a value system that I didn’t endorse, if I give up, “I’m right and you are wrong.” What’s left? It all becomes “This is the way we are behaving because we are in Indonesia and this is the way people behave in Indonesia.”

Now a little disclaimer. I am no way endorsing everything here. I don’t particularly care when students cheat or teachers cheat – I can see that’s what the system requires. But would I stand by and watch someone torture someone – I don’t think so.

An interesting side note – the more accepting I become, the more okay it is that everyone is the way they are, the more accepting I seem to be of myself.

You, sweet readers, who are still reading this incredibly long blog, may think I have cracked up. I may have. It might be only temporary. I don’t know. It might be the result of fasting for a month. Or totally unrelated. Or it might be that the person I have lived my life at being is no longer as important as I thought she was.

I’m kind of curious to find out what happens next. I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Wonderful Oma!

    And I am so glad you explained the NU and Muhummadiyah dates. My family(Muhummadiyah) has been eating all day while the rest of the village is still fasting, and I couldn't figure out why.