Reverse Reverse Culture Shock

Our trip to Peru allowed for a very twisted but interesting cultural experience. People talk about “reverse culture shock” – the idea that re-entry, into that which was once normal for you, can be a surprising and overwhelming experience. While most people go home and are reminded of things that they had forgotten about while abroad, though, I headed to another third world country, which was very similar to Indonesia, and watched other people go through the things that had been normalized in my mind over the last two years.

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I watched 93 others process the things that I stopped balking at long ago – bucket showers, no toilet seats, hot and humid weather, not understanding the language, a lack of efficiency, and big bugs.*

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The biggest change that I recognized in myself, though, was my reaction to things not going as planned. One of my biggest shortcomings is my love for control. I’ve habitually stuffed my life so full that things not going as planned throws a major wrench into my mental projection of how things should go.

Those of you who know anything about Indonesian culture can probably imagine, with some amusement, the way that it lined up with my personality and priorities. Needless to say, I had many opportunities to practice dealing with things that did not go as planned. To name a few: nothing ever being done on time, rain storms and flash floods, bankrupt airlines and disappearing drivers.

When we got to Peru, there were lots of things that weren’t quite what we expected. I didn’t get my luggage for two days. “We provide bedding” turned out to mean that there was a sheet on the mattress, but nothing else. We had no enclosed showers, and the public spigots sat between the boys’ and girls’ cabins.

What struck me, though, was that none of this really bothered me. Two years ago, I would’ve been up in arms, but my time in Indonesia taught me that, if you really think about it, those things don’t determine your effectiveness or joy or anything of much importance.

I learned that complaining and worrying and anxiety don’t solve anything, and that one’s response to a situation is 95% of the outcome. This sounds so simple, but it had to be beaten into me time and again before I really internalized it! I can’t say it was a fun lesson to learn along the way, but I am grateful for it.

So for that, Indonesia, thank you for rarely getting things right the first time.

*A quick return to the big bugs and getting over things that don’t go as planned. There were tarantulas around our camp, which had the students (literally) running in terror. A few days in, I decided to teach an object lesson in taking control of one’s surrounding and overcoming fear. One of the translators picked up the spider, and I passed it around to many of the students, who quickly learned that they were, in fact, bigger than the spiders at hand. I was pretty impressed by how many fears were tackled!

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My Life in Indonesia: A Tragic Comedy

I walked down the highway chatting with my friend as the sun shone down on our shoulders.  The street was lined with trees and the mountains rose behind us, creating a backdrop that re-demanded attention and remarks about its beauty every few moments.

And, as we walked, we inhaled the fumes of hours of stand-still traffic and did our best to ignore the constant catcalls that were sadly misplaced due to a lack of control of the English language.

Really, this dichotomy of beauty and frustration is quite symbolic of my life here in SouthEast Asia.  I live in one of the most stunning countries on earth.  From the coral nestled deep in the seas to the cauldrons of the looming volcanos, there is no denying that Indonesia is naturally fascinating.  However, at the same time, life here can be endlessly disheartening.  Things don’t go as planned, people don’t show up on time, and no one will give you a straight answer.

This was one of those days which started off with the highest of hopes but quickly morphed into issue after issue.  At the time, I was definitely not enjoying myself, but looking back it is undeniably ridiculous to the point of laughing at the sequence of events.

8:00 a.m.

Having spent the long weekend a few hours south of our current abode, my friends and I woke up early to beat the traffic in the area.  We had plans to go hang gliding and spend the afternoon at a tea plantation, and our driver was scheduled to arrive at 8:00.

I’ve lived here for two years now, resulting in (more of) an understanding of the way that things work, so I checked with the hotel staff to make sure our driver had actually showed up.  “Yes,” they assured me, “he’s ready when you are!”  So the six of us brought our various bags out to load of the van, only to find that he was, in fact, not there.

I spent a good while explaining to the hotel manager that we had somewhere we needed to be and time was important (this is counter-cultural).  After determining that driver #1 was in traffic (read: never called and/or not in the mood to show up), she called another driver.

9:30 a.m.

Driver #2 arrived and was quite eccentric.  The entire car was covered in trash, and #2 was very excited to practice his broken English by asking me barely coherent questions throughout the entire journey.

11:00 a.m.

After about an hour and a half of driving, we had successfully covered the 20 miles to the tea plantation.  Leaving one friend there to read, we continued the final 2 miles to the hang gliding location.  When we reached the top of the hill, we inquired with the people behind the hang gliding company’s desk.  They knew nothing, and seemed quite frustrated that we would consult them; it turned out they had simply been looking for a seat.  We located a random restaurant owner who called a random man who told us that maybe we could hang glide.

Though his logic was faulty on many levels, I managed to work out in some mix of English and Indonesian that we would wait until 12:00 to see if we could hang glide, but that we would need to return to Jakarta after that to avoid traffic.

12:10 p.m.

The hang gliding random man told me to wait 10 more minutes, or maybe until tomorrow.  I re-informed him that waiting longer was not an option and danced through a circular conversation* only to arrive at the fact that we would not be hang gliding that afternoon.

We started back down the hill, only to immediately stop in traffic that was not moving.  At all.  Apparently, the system set up to help with traffic in Bogor is having a one-way road that alternates back and forth. Without a schedule.

1:00 p.m.

We sat for an hour, and all rejoiced as traffic started moving… and then our driver pulled over to the side of the road.  “Sorry, sorry!  I buy gas!”

Groaning, we waited and watched our sliver of hope disappear.  By the time he was back, traffic had grid-locked again.

“It’s okay, ya?” he asked.  “No,” I told him,”please buy gas while we are stopped instead of the one time traffic is moving.”

2:00 p.m.

Sick of sitting in an overcrowded car on an overcrowded road, several of us decided to walk down to the tea plantation and wait there for our driver.**  Which brings us back to where we started: the sun, the mountains, the exhaust, the catcalls.  We finish our trek in all of ten minutes, and go in to buy some tea before returning to the entrance of the plantation to wait for our driver.

3:00 p.m.

Traffic speeds up significantly, and all of the cars that had been in front of and behind ours have passed us. Our driver still has not showed up.

 Now, let me set the scene for you.  We are six white people sitting on the side of a road very full of people that think all white people are celebrities worth harassing.  There are three policeman, a news anchor with her camera man, and a handful of ojeks (or motorcycle taxis) at the same entrance.

Our driver has all of our things, and we are becoming increasingly concerned that he has driven off with them.  The longer we wait, the more significant items I realize I would lose – my credit cards, passport, laptop, camera, student tests (God forbid).

Working together, we mentally and verbally flip through our slim options.

1. Ask the police for help.
This idea is immediately rejected since police here only take your money, not find it.  However, they did seem quite amused by watching our helplessness.

2. Call the driver.
We call the hotel for the driver’s number, and are given the wrong one. We call back and are given the right one.  We call him six times and he does not answer.  This increases our anxiety.

3. Cry.
This almost happened.

4. Count down the days until I move back to America.
This definitely happened.***

5. Take motorcycle taxis to search for our lost driver.
At our wit’s end, we sent two members of our party on ojeks to search for our long lost driver – and valuables.  While they are gone, we begin planning an alternate way to get back to Jakarta.

3:30 p.m.

Our friends call us, telling us that they have found the driver.  He had stopped for gas (again) as soon as the traffic had started moving (again) and was apparently just hanging out up there.  Needless to say, they climbed into the car and accompanied him toward us.

3:45 p.m.

As we continue waiting at our perch for him to make his way to us, we hear an enormous crack of thunder and the rain begins.  Let me remind you, dear friends, that Indonesia is a tropical country.  This means major rain storms.

We begin to trek our way back up the hill, seeking the cover of the vehicle.  As we trudge up the side of the hill, through the pollution, in the rain, all of the people in the cars along the way roll down their windows.

Many take pictures, many try to hit on me by calling me “mister,” and others simply state “hujan***.”

4:00 p.m.

Needless to say, I was not in a good mood when we finally arrived at the car and the driver stuck out his hand and said, smiling, “It’s okay, ya?”

8:30 p.m.

After stopping twice more for gas (the second time I gave him money and told him to fill up the car, that we would not be stopping again), major car sickness, multiple requests to please roll up his window to keep the pollution in the car to a minimum, and endless stop-and-go traffic we arrived at our apartment.****

9:00 p.m.

Over sushi and Starbucks with a friend, I thank God that we made it back home before work the next morning and with all of our things in tow.  And really, it is home.  After two years here in my little corner of a little suburb outside of Jakarta, I feel at home.  There is that relief of return and the reality that I’m starting to figure out how to do life here.  Here, where the beauty and frustration have become so interconnected that one cannot really separate them from one another, I have been challenged and have made mistakes and have grown and have become sad about leaving.

But let’s end on an honest note (I was still born and raised an American, after all): I’m so, so glad that that journey is over, and am very much looking forward to the “bad traffic” in the States.

*In order to save face, people here will not tell you no.  They simply avoid saying yes until you give up.

**This is one of the nice thing about Indonesia!  Maids, drivers, nannies – they’re a fixture in the life of normal people!

***Recently, I have been quite sad to leave Indonesia.  I absolutely adore my students, and our lifestyle here is pretty cool.  This was not one of the moments in which I was upset to be leaving.

****Hujan = rain.  Yes, thank you, I do realize that it is pouring.

*****Our apartment was approximately 60 miles away from the starting point, which we had left more than 8 hours before.

On Being Fat

I am told that I am fat.

Now before you go reacting, stop and think.  Really, you are probably told this routinely, as well.  The world is constantly sending you messages that you are not as skinny as you should be.  Now, I don’t want to beat this to death, because many things have been discussed, written, and overall communicated about this topic.

You know that media portrays an unrealistic goal for the human body.  You know that porn is damaging.  You know that Barbie dolls are unrealistic (and would have to walk on all fours if they were real people).  You know that models are airbrushed and the mannequins adorning the giant windows of clothing stores are not proportionate to the average – or healthy – human’s body.

But, even though you know these things, you still allow society and media and whoever else to start to shape your perception of self.  Even if you don’t believe that a runway model’s structure is an appropriate goal, you let the message seep in that your body is not what society holds as a standard of beauty.

I say this because, even as a rather confident 20-something, I let the barrage of images thrown at me begin to write my definition of “skinny”.  I knew that, with my naturally big-ole’-German-boned body, I would never be the stick-thin model I saw in catalogs.  And that was okay with me.  I didn’t let society convince me that I was fat, but I did believe that I was less than ideal.

And then I moved to Asia.

There is a cultural duo here that is dangerous to one’s perception of self. First of all, there is a very narrow (no pun intended) version of “skinny” that is held to by basically the entire population of SouthEast Asia.  Which is a lot of people.  Secondly, people say aloud everything that they are thinking.

So, since I moved, here, I have been told on a rather regular basis that I am fat.

And it doesn’t bother me.  Which is weird.

It’s interesting that this stands out because, really, society has been screaming that at me for quite a while.  And those messages didn’t bother me.  They were normal and daily and went unnoticed.  I didn’t think about them.  Instead, I allowed those definitions of beauty to shape how I saw myself and how I saw others.

The Butterfly Circus is a short film which I have come to love. It’s excellent, and you should go watch it now – it’s only 20 minutes, and you can watch it here for free. Nick Vujicic stars brilliantly in the film, portraying a limbless man that had worked his whole life for a freak show at a circus.  A few minutes into the movie, he begins to work for a kind-hearted circus director who sees past people’s issues to who they really are.  Nick is beginning to see value in himself, to see more than others’ understanding of him, when, one day, this new boss begins to berate him.  He tells him that he is worthless, that God himself has turned away from him.  Nick responds vehemently, “Why would you say that!?”  The director pauses, looks at him, and slowly responds, “Because you believe it.”  And in these redemptive words from the director, I gained major insight into the way that I perceived myself.

Isn’t this the truth?  We let others define us.  We listen to their subtle clues about who we are and who we should be.  But if someone comes out and directly says the same to us – or to someone we care about – we react strongly against it.

Living here, I am accepted as fat.  Logically, this seems like it should have a negative effect on my self-esteem and perception of self.  In reality, though, it has had the opposite impact. Because people tell me that I’m fat – because they actually voice the unspoken messages of society – I have stepped away from their standards.  It’s not that I don’t care what others think, but I have realized that the expectation for our bodies is, in many ways, unattainable.  “Skinny” is not a valid way to measure our self-worth. “Skinny” is not something that I am going to spend all of my time striving for and worrying about.

Now, I don’t want to deny that America is struggling with obesity, and that it is a problem that is wise to address.  But, that said, how often do we allow the pendulum to swing too far the other direction, defining the perfect body as overly thin and telling people that they are not ‘good enough’ if they do not reach that standard?  How often do we criticize ourselves, choosing to believe things that we would never think of saying about other people?  Things that would infuriate us if they were said to the people that we love?

This is a topic often explored that rarely includes new ideas.  And I don’t really have any mind-blowing information to share with you here.   However, I did want to share my experience, because in this reveal of the world’s messages, I have found a beautiful freedom from the very standards that used to bind me unnoticed.

I’d like to add a big thank you to my parents – not only for always being willing to edit my writing, but also for pushing me to think deeper, for encouragement of a healthy standard of true beauty, and for instilling in me that it is beautiful to be unique.

How We See People

All year, my homeroom from last year has been begging to have a reunion.  I told them that we could if they planned it, and they readily agreed.  They informed me that “7.2 last year was the best” because “everyone was in it.”

This is funny, because at the beginning of last year they complained that “none of their friends were in their homeroom” and “there was no one in it”.

I laughed at them inwardly, but appreciated the clarity of the lesson.  As they talked about last year, they talked about how no one judged anyone else, and you could be yourself.  I love what they learned, whether they realized it or not.  First, that the important thing is the ability to be yourself, not how cool or pretty or whatever else you think a person is. Secondly, that if you give people a chance, you’ll often end up really liking them.

We tossed around a whole bunch of ideas, but landed on just going to my apartment to hang out and eat Bon Chon*.  22 out of the 23 kids still living in Indonesia made it.  They came to me the week before, asking excitedly if they could invite the students in their grade that were new to SPH this year.  “We just know that they would’ve been part of 7.2!  They fit perfectly!”

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It was a relaxed but fun time.  It’s amazing how much they’ve grown up in just one year, including many of them growing to be taller than me!  Below is a picture from the beginning of last year, then a picture of our reunion.  This is my first group of students that I had for a whole year, and it was great to reconnect as a homeroom 🙂

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*The closest thing you can get to Chick-Fil-A here.  And they’re just as obsessed with it as Americans are with Chick-Fil-A!

The 50th Floor Does Christmas!

One of the things that has been a huge blessing to me this year is the influx of women my age.  Specifically, the four new 20-somethings that moved on to my floor.  The 50th floor of our building is now exclusively SPH single women, and I love it!  The community that has come with more people in my stage of life has been such an unexpected encouragement.

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Tonight, we hosted a Christmas party for everyone living in the two apartments in which the school places singles and young couples.  It was great to take a step back from the business of marking papers and planning exams to simply enjoy the people I work with.  With all of the craziness and no cold weather, it can be easy to forget that Christmas is just around the corner!

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We split our floor up into different sections, featuring a Photo Booth, a Christmas movie, cookie decorating, and, of course, lots of good food!  The girls who have moved in are much more cute and crafty that I am, so there were lots of wonderful, Christmas-joy-inducing decorations, as well 🙂

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My parents always hosted a big party on Christmas night, and we invited in people that didn’t have family in the area.  As kids, we loved it!  We would even ask our parents to plan trips around the 25th so that we could still host our bash.  My mom would make soup and bread, and the night was always warm and cozy and full of fun and laughter.  This is my first Christmas away from my family, but having this party was a little taste of home and tradition!

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Thanksgiving

Recently, I have been especially thankful for the community that I have here.  Indonesia is very far from home, but I have been blessed with some pretty incredible people to do life with here!

Most recently, we had a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner.  32 people squeezed into my neighbor’s apartment, hailing from six different countries and bringing all kinds of comforting Thanksgiving-y food.  Though I missed my family for the holiday, it was so special having people to celebrate with and laugh with and simply enjoy the night with.*

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Additionally, I am hugely thankful for technology.  For the majority of my time here, I’ve been able to simply pick up the phone and call my family.  Skype and FaceTime have allowed me to see them and “be a part” of things.

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Living abroad now is definitely different for me than it was for many who came before me! I am so thankful for every one of you from home that prays for me, reads my blog, or keeps me otherwise connected to little pieces of home!

Have a beautiful Christmas season!

*Not being home was made slightly more okay by the fact that my family had no mashed potatoes… what!?

Wrong Number

A few days ago, I wrote about something that was surprisingly cross-cultural. Today, I speak of something that is not cross cultural: embarrassment over calling the wrong number.

And my manners.

I never nap. Like, ever. Generally, I feel that I wake up more tired than when I first lay down.  And I’m so obnoxiously type-A-personalitied that I feel like I’m wasting valuable time during which I could be accomplishing things*. But yesterday I was so exhausted that I decided I deserved a nap.  And there’s no better time for a nap than a Sunday afternoon.

Just as I was drifting off, my phone rang.  Now, you must understand that I never get phone calls.  If I’m lucky, maybe one a week. Due to this, I assumed that it was important.  Inspecting my phone, I found an unknown Indonesian number.

I answered, and was greeted by a rather demanding voice on the other side:

“KEISHA!?”

Let’s take a quick step back and remember that I speak minimal Indonesian.  I can get around okay, but often have to skirt things instead of getting straight to the point in order to avoid words that I don’t know.  The conversations that follow take place purely in Indonesian.  Hers loud and overbearing, mine rather halting**.  Do your best to imagine it with me.

A side note: one of the hardest things about communicating in a new language is being polite.  Being polite takes a whole lot of vocabulary that I simply do not yet have.  Often, there’s only one way that I can possibly say something.  And often, that method is not very warm and fuzzy.

“This isn’t Keisha,” I responded in my broken Indonesian.

“WELL THEN WHERE IS KEISHA!?”

“I don’t know… this isn’t Keisha’s number.  Sorry.”

“WELL THEN WHO ARE YOU!?”

“I’m not Keisha… I’m Lauren. Keisha doesn’t live here.”

“Oh… sorry.” Click.

This is the first time anyone had accidentally called my number, and I was pretty proud of myself for getting out of it.  Often my students make calls or write texts for me, but no one had been around and I had figured it out!

My moment of victory was oh-so-brief.

Approximately 30 seconds later, the phone rang again. I answered.

“KEISHA!?”

“…I’m still not Keisha.”

“WELL THEN WHO ARE YOU?! WHAT’S KEISHA’S NUMBER!?”

“I’m Lauren.. I don’t know Keisha’s number.  She’s not my friend. You don’t have the right number***.”

[Insert something in really fast Indonesian that I couldn’t understand.]

“…Sorry ma’am, this is the not right number.” And I hung up.

Still, peace was beyond my grasp.

This lady was persistent.

An hour or so passed, and my phone rang again.  Same number. I didn’t answer.

Until the third phone call in a row.

“IS KEISHA THERE?!”

“No, Keisha is still not here.”

“WELL WHERE IS SHE!?”

“I still don’t know.  Keisha is not my friend. She does not live with me.”

[More jumbled Indonesian]

Now, let’s pause for a moment so that you can try to put yourself in my shoes.  I had to get rid of this lady, and she wasn’t understanding anything.  There was no one around to translate. This is where I have to choose between communicating and using my manners, seeing as I don’t know words like ‘please’ (actually it doesn’t really exist here…) and ‘call’.

“Ma’am.  I am not Keisha’s friend.  I am not your friend.  She does not live here.  I do not have her number. I do not want to talk to you again!”

Needless to say, I haven’t received any more phone calls.

*I know some of you think I’m crazy, but others of you totally get me on this!

**Indonesians don’t seem to pick up on the whole I’m-still-learning-this-language vibe.  No matter how many times you ask them to slow down, they still rattle things off at a million miles a minute!

***I still don’t know the word for wrong…