The absence of four distinct and wonderful seasons that I’ve grown up with has altered my sense of time. Regardless of what month it is, Indonesia will always feel like an oppressive Virginia summer, only the mosquitoes carry fatally debilitating diseases and I rarely have air-conditioned havens to retreat to (unless the BRI ATM kiosks count?). A few weeks ago, I was riding my bike home, cruising down this one stretch that’s purely fields and fields of sugarcane and chili peppers, and I realized that even though I had been sweating uncontrollably the entire day, it was in fact December. Indonesians don’t talk about the weather much, unless they’re mentioning how obviously sweltering it is, or if it’s already raining, otherwise there’s really not much to say, it’s either always hot or rainy. I have yet to see an official weather report on TV or in the newspaper, but my iPhone (because I can) tells me that today’s current temperature is 91 degrees Fahrenheit and cloudy. Does that sound like a familiar December to you? Usually around this time, I’m bundled up with my Gao-Gao near the portable heater, watching Netflix, in my freezing house as my mom insists on using the heat only if the pipes are at risk of bursting. Frantic December shopping is usually overshadowed by reunions with friends I grew up with, grabbing drinks at South Street Brewery and occasionally stumbling back home from UVa’s Corner whilst nursing our inebriated bodies back to our normal states with Christian’s Pizza. December means carrying on silly traditions, like trekking over to Leigh’s to decorate the mini-chocolate house with gum drops, lifesavers, peppermint candies, chocolate bars, licorice, and M&M’s, while Leigh’s mom sweet talks Jackson (their timid dog), and Snook recounts highly inappropriate experiences in her outside voice, while Leigh’s parents are in the other room. We scold her every time for it, as if we’re still in middle school, but that doesn’t make it any less hilarious. Last year’s masterpiece: And I’m going to miss spending time with my family, watching Home Alone for the 50,000th time (Home Alone: Lost in NYC was actually on TV a few months back, and I was watching it with my host mother, it was dubbed in Indonesian. Every time Macaulay Culkin threw the brick at the robbers from roof of the abandoned building, she would yelp the BEST ‘ya ALLAHHHHHHHHHH’s’). This year, I will be celebrating my surviving first semester as an Indonesian teacher by traveling various places around Java with my first visitor and darling Klaas!
I don’t want to spend too much time reflecting on how I think my first semester went. I know that it was a time of observation, trial and error, frantic organizing, and pulling teeth to coordinate my counterparts… but in the end, things came together, and I don’t feel completely hopeless about enduring the next three semesters. To an extent, I understand how the school works, what my boundaries are in the classroom, how to identify the students who need the most help, how to keep the troublemakers and slackers active, what teaching style works best with which counterparts, how to plan my lessons and activities based on my five classes varying skill levels, and most importantly how to go with the flow of the school because there’s no point in going against it. Indonesians will be Indonesians, cancellations will happen, my counterparts will have unjustifiable excuses to not come to our planning meetings, these things will happen. I’m still working on building meaningful relationships with people, which has been my biggest challenge and weakness as a PCV. Generally, I think I did well and will continue to do better. I have lists of potential projects and ideas I’d like to see blossom into something more, and I know that many of them can work, because Indonesians are usually agreeable and supportive, but it’s up to me to see them through. I’m proud to say that the first of (hopefully) many pen pal packages are en route to my high school back in the States, English clubs are alive, Y.E.L.W.S. invitees have been notified and are busy writing (thanks T&T!), planning meetings are happening weekly (sometimes bi-weekly!), there’s a couple shipments of books on their way (makasih banyaks donors & Int’l Book Project!) and I’m now coaching a debate team (um, what?)… this comes without saying that while there’s a lot to look forward to (because I’m a glass half-full kind of lady), I know there’s many more frustrations ahead of me.
Back up a few weeks….all 43 PCVs reunited in Surabaya to celebrate Thanksgiving together at the munificent Consulate General, Kristin Bauer’s house. Until then, I had never had a metal detector and spiked fence standing between me and a Thanksgiving dinner, but it was totally worth it. Alhamdulillah my good friend nasi (rice) wasn’t there, or he would have felt both betrayed and appalled at how much we all vehemently indulged in the four different types of pie, stuffing, mashed potatoes, turkey, dan lain lain (etc). As the Bintang flowed, desert ended with a true bang as a long lost friend of mine, red wine, arose from its deep dark hiding place. As dinner ended, the night was still young. It was the first time since early April that all 43 PCVs were together (and may ever be together) since that incredibly awkward and blurry night at the Peace Corps office. A handful of us crammed into a hotel room, sprawled out on the floor, as Daft Punk among other good music facilitated a cozy atmosphere for us to bond as true Americans and Peace Corps volunteers. It was bittersweet and heartwarming to look around the room, to be together, no longer strangers, no longer ID4’s and ID5’s, but instead satu keluarga yang besar (one big family).
Since IST, my collection of art supplies has grown extensively. Even if language or other cultural differences appear to be an occasional barrier to meaningful conversation, art always seems to extinguish any potential for awkward situations. Instead it serves to conquer other cultural hurdles and fosters an alternative, more subtle way of expression. Thankfully, artistic tasks have benefited me (and hopefully others) greatly, allowing for me to see how others creatively express themselves, something that’s lacking in a culture that doesn’t seem to encourage individuality and real human sentiment. Growing up in an artistic household and community where both my mom and sister are incredible artists, I had forgotten how therapeutic and refreshing working on small projects, be it writing or drawing, can be for my mental and emotional health. So in the meantime, I’ve been attempting to inspire this sort of expressive and individualistic behavior in both the little kids in my neighborhood as well as students at school. It’s fun to see what they produce and get a visual of how they view the world and what’s stirring in their imaginations. It’s undoubtedly made teaching English a lot more enjoyable and gratifying, less like a responsibility. I’m not creating little Piccaso’s or anything, but we’re having fun.
I can’t seem to stay away from the blossoming (not) capital of East Java that is Surabaya. This past weekend, fifteen other PCVs and I participated in a pilot cross-cultural training workshop. It had me thinking and asking myself various questions about cultural barriers and solutions that I still can’t quite wrap my mind around enough to answer. Like are my reactions to situations I’m faced with appropriate enough for the situation, or am I basing my reactions off of previous experiences and applying that set of emotions to situations here? And if so, is that okay? Is there a pinnacle of cultural effectiveness? Again, this culture is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and every day, I believe more and more that I really am an alien.
Aside from cultural training, we also celebrated Tim’s birthday (albeit early). There were several attempts at surprising people, ice cream, Bintangs, delivery pizza, haircuts, party hats, and a variety of abstract, avant-garde sketches that just scream “Peace Corps Volunteers May Poop in Holes But We Are Still Capable Of Creating Some Mean Artwork” MoMA exhibition in the making.