Slowly Fasting Fasting Slowly

Hey hey hey, as a disclaimer, I remind you to please please please not be offended by anything I say here, as these are my personal thoughts that don’t reflect on the PC or anyone but myself. Religion is a touchy subject, I’m not saying any religion is better or worse, right or wrong, so again, my thoughts, I don’t ask that any one agrees or disagrees.

I remember first hearing about Ramadan in 6th grade when one of my good friends, of Pakistani descent, told me her family was fasting. I knew it meant they weren’t eating, but being in 6th grade, I didn’t really care to learn more. Until I was 17, I had never been exposed to as many Muslim-Americans, as I had when I first moved to Richmond for college. I remember the first week of school, some students from the Muslim Student Association (one of the biggest student organizations at VCU, I may add) were going door-to-door in the dorms, asking if we’d be willing to donate $1 and pledge to fast for a day. Sure, I donated a dollar; they gave me a flier with more information, including details of when and where they’d be “breaking-fast” at the end of the day. At the time, I was rowing for the crew team, so I had promised I wouldn’t eat until sundown, but I wouldn’t deny myself water throughout the day. By the end of the day, I was grumpy, lethargic and seriously-seriously-seriously hungry. Whoever I was in my past life seriously did something good because I feel pretty blessed in this life to have been born into a restaurant business—I’ve never gone hungry. There’s always been food around for me snatch at my disposal. Perhaps my middle name should have been “Snack”, haha Elle Snack Chang, cute right? I don’t know how I’m not obese. Back to my first experience with Ramadan, I was starving. I remember patiently waiting in line at the Student Commons, with my friends and everyone else who had promised to fast for the day, we were all antsy and hungry, and had been promised some good middle-eastern food. Turns out MSA didn’t exactly order enough food, so my friends and I complainingly ate the free hummus, pita, grapes, and maybe a meager piece of chicken, thought it was bullshit that there wasn’t enough food and headed to Shafer, the dining court. To put it simply, Elle and Fasting aren’t really good friends, things could change, but so far things are looking bleak. You could say it’s a cultural thing. I didn’t grow up believing in fasting and its principles but instead I grew up with the “American” mentality and gift of indulgence. If you want to learn the principles of eating, I can tell you all about that. I don’t think the two really correlate, and not to say that people who fast don’t appreciate food, but I was brought up learning to love everything about food: the love that goes into preparing it, how it makes you feel, the purpose of each ingredient and where it originates. And again, these are my own personal thoughts (and it IS directly correlated to me not being very religious, and Muslim for that), but I don’t believe in depriving my body, something I like to think I have the utmost respect for, of food and water, especially when it’s telling me that it urgently needs it. I believe in discipline, but the bottom line is, I need to eat food and I need to drink water.

So this month of Ramadan, is going to be a hard one if I choose for it to be, but otherwise a manageable one if I continue to listen to my body, and eat and drink in the privacy of my bedroom out of respect for everyone else fasting.

Everywhere I go, people ask me “puasa, puasa?”—are you fasting? And this is something I’m beginning to struggle with! How do I respond? I was Skyping with two of my best friends from home who asked how Ramadan’s going and I said painful, and they essentially said they could imagine, oh yah? ha—why would you think that?, “elle, because you snack all day”. Caught. I need to get it out of my head that just because I’m not fasting doesn’t make me less of a good person, it doesn’t mean I’m weak either, but I still feel guilty being surrounded by people who are fasting. And I feel even more guilty when my PCV friends text me how thirsty they are while I’m busy chugging away in my bedroom.

Originally I said I would fast for the entire month of August, but it’s been a lot more difficult for me, than it has been for the other PCV’s who are also fasting, most of whom are also not drinking water! It’s hot, it’s summer, it’s INDONESIA, now I’m just making excuses, but if I don’t drink water throughout the day, I not only suffer, but I suffer from bad headaches, why? Oh yeah, dehydration. I really wanted to try, and I’m still trying, as a challenge for myself, to test my will, to see if I can practice self-control, but it turns out that when I run out of fuel, I lose self-control. Maybe it’s all a gradual process, I can’t just dive in head first into fasting, and maybe I need to take baby steps. Yesterday I did less secret-snacking than I had the day before, and today I only had one orange and a couple dips of chocolate, no Oreos today…because I finished them last night…that’s progress, right?

Mencoba, mencoba, mencoba, try try try.

I’m trying.

::gets up to grab knock-off-Nutella spread and water::

I believe in doing things in moderation, and so I think that’s kind of ironic that Ramadan is making me do excessive things because I now have to do them in privacy. Like eating lots of Oreos and lots of chocolate, it’s like I can’t control my cravings. The group from last year said it was difficult their first year, and they would eat fruit, crackers, pb, and drink water in their rooms, but this year, most are going cold turkey. I really admire them, as outsiders, non-Muslims (as I dip my index finger into the chocolate spread once more), for embracing the more demanding and challenging cultural customs, fasting not for Allah, but out of respect for their families and students. Does this mean I’m being disrespectful? I’ve been talking about this with my family, they know I’m trying and know that fasting and waking up at ungodly (no pun intended) hours to force myself to eat is something I’m not used to and it’s bordering lines of torture. They say sudah biasa meaning it’s something they’re used to, and know that I’m not. On the flipside, it’s not like I’m making them go out of their way to accommodate me, there’s always food around, and if I want to eat, I can. I’m still being respectful.

It sounds really easy to fast. But I also haven’t told you that it requires you to wake up between 3a-4a, to eat, the meal is called sahur, and then fast until sunset. I’ve woken up for sahur twice now, after eating, people pray, and then some go back to sleep. The first time my host mother woke me up for sahur, I felt like a hungover zombie rolling out of bed, force feeding myself, unable to focus my eyes on the live Muslim program on TV. I returned to bed a little bit before 4a, then woke up to start my day a little before 7a. For the first three days of Ramadan, schools not in session, so my entire routine felt really off, instead of directly going to take my routine bucket bath followed by breakfast, I instead got on Skype. The day was long. And you know how when you’re not supposed to do something, you want to do it even more? I wanted to EAT. Thus commenced the internal conflict between food-loving-elle and culture-embracing-elle. They made a compromise over an Oreo, which led to another Oreo followed by 5 dried dates, followed by an orange, and several finger-dips into the chocolate spread. I talked with some PCV friends, about an hour before sunset, saying they were on the verge of eating their arm, when all I could think was “jeez…just go eat a little something…it’s not a big deal”. So I’m starting to question my character, why can’t I fast without internal conflict? I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not really interested in corrupting my sleep schedule (yesterday I didn’t go back to sleep after waking up at 3a, going to bed at 9:45p!) and eating-cycle, and I’m slowly making peace with the fact that perhaps I have no self-control, or that I love myself too much and don’t enjoy starving myself for a bulk of the day. I admit it, I’m weak! Plus, my host mother told me I could do the anak kecil or little kid version of Ramadan, because most children under the age of 9 or 10, still eat lunch and drink water, for an hour. So at noon, my host mother would say “eeelllleeee…. bisa makannnn, bisa minummmmm” or you can eat now, you can drink now. Personally, I really don’t like being told when I “can” and “can’t” eat or drink, it kind of makes me lose my appetite. Plus I had already been drinking water and eating fruit, etc, in my room the whole time. So three days into the Ramadan experience, I’ve felt excessively hungry, thirsty, guilty, irritable, dizzy, and really fatigue. I think that if it didn’t include getting up at 3am and not altering my sleep schedule, I could do it, skipping lunch is easy. Water, needed.

I asked if people usually get sick during Ramadan. The response was never. I hear that fasting is good for the body, it’s cleansing. I thought it was bad to deprive your body of fluids, especially in this tropical climate. And it can’t be great to flood your body and shock your intestines with food without having really warmed up the ‘engine’ first, right? What about those blood-sugar levels? Plus the erratic sleep schedule, especially for women, who have to get up extra early to start cooking. Everyone still seems to be going to sleep at normal times, between 9 and 10p, that means they’re averaging ~4-5 hours of sleep? Yes, people nap during the day, but damn, I insist on regular sleeping patterns. I don’t get itttttttttt.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with Ramadan, and I’m still no expert. But it basically marks the new year of the Muslim calendar. From Lonely Planet, “As profession of faith and spiritual discipline, Muslims abstain from food, drink, cigarettes, and other worldly desires (including sex) from sunrise to sunset.” Pregnant and menstruating women, small children, the ill, and others who do hard labor are exempt from fasting. During this month, people are constantly praying, the loud speakers at the mosques are always ringing with voices reciting verses from the Koran, school and work schedules are shortened/altered because people are too tired and hungry to be productive, most restaurants/food stalls/food carts are closed, people go to visit family graves and ceremonies with holy water and flower offerings, and most importantly this is a time to be generous, to ask for forgiveness for past sins and other wrong-doings. Negative thoughts and being angry is strongly discouraged. My counterpart said that beggars take the most advantage of peoples’ generosity during Ramadan. For those who aren’t fasting, it is best to eat and drink in privacy out of respect for those fasting. The principal of my school made an announcement that if me or the other 4 Christian teachers want to eat or drink, we must do it in the storage room. Outkasts unite? The closing of Ramadan is called Idul Fitri, it is basically two hectic weeks of celebrations, processions, reunions, and Muslim people all over the country, on the move to see and spend time with family. Traveling during this time is a nightmare SEKALI, I’ve heard and hope to never experience.

Today school was back in session, but on a shortened schedule, where all classes are cut short by 30 minutes. As if it couldn’t be more difficult to understand the curriculum and get into a regular routine here, it’s even harder when the classes are cut short, and when 99% students who are fasting, are feeling exceptionally lethargic and overcome by heat, hunger, and thirst. From my observation, Indonesian students aren’t the hardest working or most motivated, especially when it comes to learning English. I’d been enticing the shy ones with candy so they speak up, but I can’t do that during Ramadan. Now when I ask students to participate, they say they don’t want to because they’re fasting. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, while white-water-rafting, in the dark, with tweezers, no meds—if that’s not painful to you, I may be tempted to buy you a plane ticket to come help me teach. All prospects for getting into any kind of routine, or seeing any kind of progress this month, have been flushed down the squatty potty.

I’ve heard from some PCVs from last year say that their favorite time was Ramadan, it’s still too early for me to say, as I’m left feeling hungry, bored, sedikit frustrasi and confused. Perhaps I feel like many parts of Ramadan, other than the fasting part, should be evenly spread throughout the year… I think we should always strive to be good, generous human beings with good intentions, who eat, drink, have sex, think positive/negative thoughts in moderation, with a cigarette here or there, with concern to our health, instead of putting an emphasis on one month. That’s a lot of pressure for one month! After all, we’re only human, we have natural desires, our bodies need to be replenished, and we all need to feel some degree of gratification, acceptance, and satisfaction. This is not to disagree or disregard Islamic faith (because I don’t know a lot and I’m still learning) whatsoever. I consider myself to be more spiritual rather than religious, so I understand the concept of demonstrating devotion and discipline (with exceptions to prohibiting myself of food), but perhaps I think there’s more productive and effective ways to be good people. I don’t want to sound like a complete ignorant nut, but how can we ask for forgiveness through generosity for one month when everyone is just tired, grumpy, and hungry?—making excuses to be less productive BECAUSE they’re fasting. Imagine if we were all replenished and satiated, we could all be energetic and motivated enough to forgive, learn and solve bigger problems facing in our communities and environment.

In other non-religious, this-past-week-news:

-My body battled a weird intestinal thing that caused me discomfort followed by constipation, which was equally discomforting

-David Burruss, Chief of Operations of Europe, Med, Asia regions, visited my and other PCV sites, from Washington, DC. Had a good chat about life in Indo, things that are working, things that aren’t, and how PC can improve, blah blah blah. AND he brought along a box of teaching materials from the US Embassy in Jakarta, thanks US Gov’t!

-Seniors painted murals at on school walls, photos to come.

-Found out I’m not completely trapped in my village, and that biking to Gresik to meet another PCV is not difficult.

-Visited family in Mojosari with my Christian counterpart on the first day of Ramadan, got to meet up with two PCVs for the day. Still reminding myself that the PCV in me needs to be patient, I can’t be Mother Theresa in my school, not yet at least.

-Finished Eat, Pray, Love (inspiring book!), just started The Kite Runner, goal is to read 4 books this month

-Starting to seek out grad schools…whoa.

-Realized that since being in Indo, I’ve never seen a fire truck or a vacuum cleaner.


3 thoughts on “Slowly Fasting Fasting Slowly

  1. This is the most unbelievably offensive, anti-Muslim rant I could EVER have imagined, Elle. Shame on you, bigot.

    lol, just kidding. nothing offensive in here. i like the concerns you brought up; they make for an interesting contrast. for me, this has been my favorite time since getting to site. maybe part of it is because in college i got really used to not eating for most of the day (mixture of thriftiness and laziness). anyway, i was gonna do a post on this whole fasting thing mahself–super interesting topic.

    and you’re so right about the fire trucks and vacuum cleaners. i totally forgot about vacuum cleaners!

  2. Pingback: The Ramadan Diaries | From Charlottesville to Indonesia

  3. Pingback: The Ramadan Diaries | From Charlottesville to Indonesia

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