Being the token foreigner in a pretty remote area has given me several privileges. Some are great, and some I could live without.
Example one: A couple of weeks back, I was asked to speak to a handful of students at an local Islamic boarding school, a pesantran. I have never seen kids as psyched to sing ‘itsy bitsy spider’ until I visited that school, the enthusiasm almost left me deaf. After a few Q & A’s, and a middle school boy asking “miss, do you love me?” another youngster followed up asking if they could have my autograph. There I was, standing in the front of a classroom as 50 middle schools rushed to me with their notebooks, pencil cases, and backpacks. A local celebrity just for being foreign. Now there’s a handful of tots walking around East Java with my loopy signature donning their school things.
Example two: A new salon just opened up. Don’t get hyphy, it’s not posh or anything, just a little ruko or rumah-toko (houseshop). The owner told my laundry lady he wanted to meet me, so the other day, I did. He is this wonderfully giddy and flamboyant young guy who told me that I am orang asik (fun/interesting person) and that there’s a shortage of them in our community (perhaps, there is some truth to this statement). He then insisted on giving me a free cream bath — a fun procedure where a bunch of goopy lotions/gels are deeply massaged into your scalp, heat is momentarily added, and then you wash all the goops out and have very silky hair. How could I say no?
Example three: It’s impossible to go home empty handed. I get invited to many places and saying “no” in Indonesia when you’re offered something is sort of like plotting to kill kittens, YOU JUST DON’T DO IT. When I visited the pesantran, I came home with a big container full of dadar jagung (like fried corn cakes) because my host mother told the teachers there I liked them. When I went to my friend Evira’s house, and her family found out I liked kerupuk, I came home with a huge bag of kerupuk. During the mango season, I stopped by a teacher’s home, maybe for 2-minutes for a quick hello and I left with at least 20 mangoes. And this afternoon, I went to visit some fields where one of my students’ parents works as farmers, growing melons among many other things. Granted the bike ride was a couple of miles long, they did not let me leave empty handed as they threw a bunch of large ripe garbis (tastes like cantaloupe, but isn’t) into a rice sack and strapped it onto the back of my bicycle, where riding uphill made my thighs and calves resent me, like there was a set of infant quintuplets weighing down my bike. Upon entering the doorway to my house, I could already see my host sister, squinting with curiosity; her face read ‘what sort of goodies has she brought home this time?’
Example four: I can get away with being weird! My curiosity is constantly screaming: FEEEED MEEEEE and the people of East Java are saying: INGGIIIIIIIIIIIH (high Javanese for ‘yes’). At the other end of the spectrum, my naivety to some cultural norms is sometimes acceptable – I know this sounds negative for the most part, but I also believe it is important to expose people to new ways of thinking, of doing things and behaving as long as they’re not offensive or harmful to others. After all, this is one way social change is born.
Example five: A simple wave or smile can evoke uncontrollable giggling and joyful shouting. Wearing a batik (traditional Indonesian fabric) will tap the keg of infinite compliments. And saying a simple phrase or counting to ten in Javanese is enough to persuade people that I am fluent.
Example six: My opinions and what I say are the real deal. I have the ability to validate anything and people will believe it! This privilege is sometimes frightening even to me, sometimes I doubt myself. Don’t worry; I’m not spreading too much nonsense around.
Example seven: I’m like a baby. People constantly want to take me places and expose me to things. This is both a blessing (for learning and bonding) and a curse (because sometimes I want to say ‘no’ and not be paraded around and hawked at, but the PCV in me often says I can’t).
Surely being the only foreigner around here has its advantages but aside from the celebrity status, there’s times nearly every day where I wish for one second that I could truly blend in and not captivate people and gain unwanted attention and honks. After all, I’m not a freakin’ alien. Despite having Asian blood and Asian features, I still stick out. Anonymity is impossible where most PCVs are placed. On mediocre days, the combined concoction of people (mostly men) yelling unintelligible things and catcalls or even ‘hey mister’ when I’m obviously not a dude on top of the staring, steers me closer and closer to acting out impulsively and purchasing a jilbab and a housewife duster (muumuu) so I can finally blend in and trick people. Would this allow me the freedom and blessing of anonymity?
Example One: My growing derrière is an obvious result of Indonesian hospitality (and biking daily!) I’m fed quite well over here though palm oil has also become my arch nemesis. Weight gain is a natural conversation starter here, and no matter how much I tell myself that it’s a cultural thing and that I don’t look like a whale, that tambah gemuk (fatter) isn’t intended to make me feel self-conscious about my body, I still take it very personally. I’m trying to take more control and kick up the exercising a few notches, but the lack of anonymity here (on top of the repelling heat) makes it difficult to conjure-up the courage to go jogging. To all the bules in the world who go jogging and tolerate the attention, rock on.
Example Two: Some people still treat me like a baby. With that comes mockery, in which case strikes up the rude and snarky match within that I quickly have to extinguish. I am always being watched. There are a few older male teachers at my school who have never taken the time or effort to get to know me (and visa versa, I’m totally guilty too) and thus they don’t know the extent of my language abilities. One morning when a teacher brought in a large bag of fresh peanuts, a bunch of us flocked over, who doesn’t love fresh peanuts? A couple of male teachers came over to my desk, holding the peanut away from their faces within their thumb and index fingers, saying in a painfully condescending and slow monotone way ‘KA-CANG’ (peanut), when I already know the word. It’s not like I haven’t been living here for over a year.
Example Three and on…: I can’t and will never be able to blend in. That in itself has instilled a lot of fear and shyness that has prohibited me from going to certain places and seeing certain things on my own. While this may be a disadvantage, I see it as a means of toughening my skin, becoming braver, and meeting a goal of ‘breaking out of my comfort zone’.
Between the celeb status and feeling like a baby alien tot, I realize every week that the longer I’m here, the more I actually don’t understand. Can I get a worldwide PCV confirmation on this? Why are people treating me this way? Will I have the same privileges a year from now? Will the kid I pass on my way home still continue to confidently shout “mom!” in a poor attempt to say “ma’am” without me stopping one day to correct him? Will those pesantran kids ever resent that their backpacks read “Elle Chang” in big squiggly letters? Will returning home empty handed ever become an option? Will I be able to maintain this orang asik status? Will I ever stop asking myself rhetorical questions and writing them down so people all over the world will know what I’m thinking in some of my most personal moments? I want to continue to keep things in perspective as I am only a normal person so should I embrace the balance of having privileges (while I do) and giving up my anonymity — because when I return to the States, the majority of people won’t give a hoot who I am, if I go jogging for whatever image conscious reasons, or if I can count to ten in Javanese?