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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Investments

Tomorrow marks 3 weeks left in Indonesia.  While I am unbelievably excited to get home and see the people I miss, breathe clean air, climb a tree, and eat Chipotle, it will also be hard to leave.  There is so much that needs done before I leave – the school year must be wrapped up (teachers – and English teachers especially – I know you feel me on this one!), my house needs packed and cleaned, you’re-leaving-the-country paperwork needs to be taken care of.  We have our last homeroom get-together to be had, our last student council event to be planned, our last coaches meeting to be attended.  On the other side of things, a place of dwelling in America needs to be found, paperwork needs to be done for the new job, summer plans need to be made.

And on top of all of this, I am leaving a lot of people that I have grown to love.  And moving to the opposite side of the world.

Now more than ever, the question arises:

What is important?  Where do I invest?  

A few weeks ago, my mom shared with me a story about my younger brother that answers this question beautifully.

As you prepare to be challenged by a 12-year-old, let me give you a quick background on my family:

We love to win.

It’s just something in the Schaeffer blood.  Ice cream and winning, not necessarily in that order, are among the most important things in life.  My father has instilled in us a deep love for both.

And this love for winning can bring lots of good!  In addition to the highly entertaining rivalries and memories that have resulted from this, it often points to achievement.  We don’t want to give up!  My siblings have accomplished all sorts of neat things due to the drive to do well.  Where I see it tripping me up, though, is when it becomes the main goal.  When it becomes more important than people.

A co-worker put it well recently while we were casually sharing important life lessons with our students.  “Just because you prove you’re right doesn’t mean you win.”  Sometimes focusing on achievement means neglecting or stepping on the people around us.

Back to my brother.  Although he appropriately loves ice cream, Andrew’s real passion in life is baseball.  Since he was three, that is the activity in which he has invested the majority of his time and energy.  And he’s good!  He plays on a travel baseball team and does a pretty darn good job of it.

Recently, they were playing in a tournament and Andrew was up to bat. The catcher let a pitch pass him, and the opposing coach began yelling across the field, berating him. Andrew, as the batter, was at the place as all of this took place.  Before taking the next pitch, he turned and told the catcher that it was ok, that those things happen to everyone, that he just needed to keep his chin up and keep on playing.

Andrew wanted to win that game.  He wanted to do his best, and he worked toward that.

But he didn’t let that stop him from loving people.

It’s not an either/or questions.  It’s not accomplishments or love.  It’s not working hard or having friends. It’s not winning or being soft.  Both can absolutely co-exist.  We just can’t let a to-do list or a desire to win stop us from seeing people.  Stop us from loving people.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

It is good to strive for excellence.  It is good to want to do well.  It is good to work hard toward things. But we must be careful not to focus on these things alone, blocking out the people in our peripheral vision.

As I finish here at SPH, I want to finish strong.  I want to invest in people.  And sometimes, as a teacher, that means taking the extra hours to give good feedback on students’ assignments.  It means staying after school to focus on that new unit I decided it would be a great idea to do at the end of the year.  It means organizing everything for the people that come after me.  That is one way to invest in these kids.

But it also means putting my pile of papers away during lunch and laughing with the students in my classroom.  It means taking the time to sit and talk with a student that is struggling, whether that be academically or otherwise.  It means patiently working through the silly requests that may presently seem like they don’t matter.

Because really, those are the reasons that I love teaching.  Those are the things that I look back on and remember.  Those are investments in people.

And that is worth it.

Truth and Love

Recently, some friends and I were discussing love, truth, and the relationship between the two.  How do we confront without becoming judgmental?  How do we love without becoming too permissive?  What is loving and what is truthful?  Where do they overlap?  Can you have one without the other?

This idea of truth and love is something that has always been a real challenge for me and my vocal self.  I’m a doer.  I want to get things done.  And if I don’t believe something will make a difference in the end, I generally don’t see any point in doing (or saying) it.

This leads to an often imbalanced application of truth and love.

Today, though, while teaching, I had a tiny little glimpse into how this should look.

I know teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but (if we’re honest) there are definitely kids who especially tug at our hearts. For the purposes of this story, I will name this particular student, who easily fits into the above category, Landon.

Landon didn’t care much about school last year, and sometimes got into trouble for being dishonest or consistently not doing his homework.  This year, he’s really stepped up and taken more accountability for his work.  He’s been trying much harder, and has readjusted his priorities.  He’s growing up and figuring out who he is.

It’s been an absolute joy to see that growth, and it is something that I badly want to reward.  That said, Landon still has a lot of growth to do in the English department.  While I have desperately wanted to nudge his grade in the encouraging direction, I have avoided doing so, hoping that it won’t discourage him to the point of giving up.

Today I handed back an assignment with a failing mark.  We talked through the issues, and some ways that he could fix them.  I was clear in what the problems were, and told him exactly why he received that grade.  I didn’t sugar coat it.  He looked sad.

It’s those things that are hard as a teacher.  How do you encourage a student, but at the same time appropriately cover their paper in the necessary marks? How do you call students out on bad habits without discouraging creativity?  How do you speak the truth in love?

As I sat at my desk considering these things, the class filed out, with Landon being the last in the classroom.  Despite our tough conversation, Landon turned around as he walked out of my classroom and added, “Miss? Thanks for believing in me.”

I was stunned that this was his response to our conversation.  Even after I failed his assignment and told him in no uncertain terms what he needed to work on, he still felt believed in.  The focus wasn’t on what I thought he had done wrong, but on what I thought he could do right.

Isn’t it the same in life?  The same in relationships with family, friends, and even the people that are really hard to love?  If we can invest, if people know, know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we believe in them, that we love them and we’re on their team, then the focus is no longer on the short-comings that we address.  That negative aspect doesn’t govern the tough conversations that we may have.

Because, in reality, all of us fail at something.  All of us feel like we just can’t get that one thing right, no matter how many times we try.  That even if we do improve, that it’s still not good enough to be “passing” whatever test it is that we have set up for ourselves.

And sometimes, we just need someone to be real with us about it.  To tell us that we do, indeed, need to keep working on this, but that they’ve seen growth.  To tell us that, yes, we’re currently struggling in this department, but that they know we have the potential to beat it.  To tell us that we are broken and sinful, but they still love us.

And that they believe in us.

I still don’t fully understand the whole concept of truth and love, and I am by no means any good at applying it, but I am thankful today for this glimpse of what that means!

Also, as a side note: I love teaching.  It’s the best job ever.

KDM visit

This past Thursday we had another random day off of school – I’m honestly not sure why – so my student council kids and I went on a trip to an organization in downtown Jakarta that rescues, rehabilitates, and educates children that have been living on the streets.  The organization has been working in the city for 30+ years, and is really doing incredible things!

On my first teacher’s desk I had a post it that asked: “Am I surviving or thriving?”

The thing that was most incredible about this organization is that they were really encouraging kids to thrive.  It wasn’t just survival, just eating and sleeping and getting through the day.  It was kids living as a family, receiving an education at their level, experimenting with art, going on exploratory trips around the country, going to a soccer tournament in Brazil, designing and building their dorm with a volunteer architect.

It was a huge inspiration to me that, even when life is hard or I feel like I’m behind the eight ball, I need to be exploring my passions and practicing my talents and giggling and loving people and seeking out those little corners in which I can thrive.

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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.

Sukabumi: High Ropes

Every year, we take our 7th graders to a national park about 100 miles from our school.  We stay in tents, visit a nearby village, and do all kinds of activities to help them experiment outside the bounds of their comfort zones.

One of the five main activities in which the kids participate is the high ropes course. This particular course has a series of six challenges strung 20 meters above the forest floor.  The afternoon that we went, the whole area was immersed in a fog that gave it an eerie feel. Our kids did an incredible job on it!

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Afterward, when we were debriefing, one boy mentioned something that really made me think.  He talked about how he had originally been scared of the course, and hadn’t wanted to do it.  He talked about how he watched his friends do it, and how watching them do it made him willing to try.  And then he talked about how, once he was up there, it wasn’t that bad. That he was glad he had done it.

I considered how broadly this can be applied to our lives.  First of all, that once we try things, we often are glad we did.  That things aren’t as scary as they look.  Secondly, though, it is a good reminder that we have huge influence on those around us.  By being willing to step up and do something, step up and stand up for someone, step up and talk about something difficult, we give others the voice, motivation, and courage needed to do the same.

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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.