Monday, May 17, 2010

the sorrows of a wanderlust

It was one of those moments where time freezes and allows you to unabashedly take in the world.

“Miss? What will we do when you’re gone? Who will make English fun for us? Please don’t go.” She asked me these questions with tears swelling in her pleading eyes, their cinnamon color in vivid contrast against the pallor of her skin.

Her words soaked into my pores and solidified themselves—forming a grip on my heart. I took a second to breathe and watched all the students that surrounded me. My students. While I was busy teaching my students and roaming the maze that is Medan, I realized I had unwittingly given parts of myself away. These were secret parts, and no one else knew about their existence besides their keepers and me. At that moment, I felt as if I was dispersed across the whole world. I could see various pieces of me floating in the hymns of the Bostwana delta, resting in the nooks of the Jammie Steps in Cape Town, lounging languidly on Bali’s shoreline, hustling in Mumbai’s markets…and now they would be here too...bouncing in the walls of classrooms and speeding through the bells and honks of Medan. The problem with giving parts of yourself to people and places is that giving requires love. And the problem with falling in love is the inevitable good bye. Whether you are together for ten days, nine months, or fifty years—goodbyes are inescapable and so is their blinding pain.

I have learned a lot in Indonesia.

Life here has taught me inextinguishable patience. I’ve been slapped by the wind and tossed in the rains. When Medan shuts down due to a downpour, I have to pause too. Crouching under a roof, I can’t help but smile at the children that flood the streets as quickly as the water.

Where prayer has dominion, I was taught the benefits of religious assiduity and shown a glimpse of another way of being. Muslims have to pray five times a day. They stop whatever they are doing, wash themselves, and take five minutes to appreciate their life and say thanks to Allah. Taking twenty-five minutes out of everyday to appreciate the gifts of our world doesn’t seem like too much to me. The commitment to a higher power in this country is a beautiful thing. I have visited several mosques and have had open discussions on how the world should be according to the faith of Islam. Whenever I am in the midst of whatever I am doing and hear the azan (call to prayer)—I instantly feel a part of something Greater.

We’ve been together for over eight months and now the breakup is imminent. Ominous clouds grey the horizon and the end looms near. Her uncouth behavior contradicts the beauty of her azure pools, of her flawless peaks and valleys. Despite her many contradictions, I’m still smitten with Indonesia and her people.

And despite all that I have learned, I have not yet learned how to say goodbye.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dear America: Questions from x-9

The following is a compilation of questions I received from one of my classes after a discussion on stereotypes and American culture. They are really thoughtful good questions! I NEED your help to answer them!!

I promised the students that I would ask my friends from all over America to help me answer these questions. Please answer any that you can. I would love to have some diverse opinions :) I will meet with them again on Monday (May 17th) and hope to have some answers by then. I typed the questions verbatim.

E-mail me if you've got answers.

*free sex=sex before marriage

1) In America is there discrimination between white skin and black skin?

2) We know that America is a developed country. But what are the less things [the problems] in America?
Is everybody rich and the number of poverty very low?

3) Why do Americans think free sex is ok? Why doesn't the government forbid free sex? Why do Americans like free sex? Do you agree with free sex?

4) Why do the students in high school not use uniform like in Indonesia? Why aren't they use uniform? What is the benefit of no uniform?

5) What is the solution of different religion in America?

6) Why does America support Israel? Why America does not want to help Palestine people?

7) Why America can say what they want to?

8) What does American people look like?

9) Why in New York most of the people don't know their neighbors?

10) Why are the Americans so furious and fight in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why American people like to go to war with Arabian country?

11) What are the religions in America? Is everyone atheist?

12) Do you think abortion is a good solution? Do you think it means kill someone [Do you think abortion is killing a baby]?

13) Does America ever have natural disaster? Like earthquake?

14) What is the meaning of liberty for American people?

15) What kind of ethnicities are in America?

16) What is the night life like in America?

17) What is special American food?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

two truths, a lie, and massive failure in the classroom

warning: this post is not a happy one.

i have three weeks left in indonesia and as expected, i am feeling overly emotional and dramatic. the fact that i am leaving soon exacerbates both happy feelings and frustrated ones.

i decided this week we would play a simple game called "two truths and a lie." most of my students had semester exams this week, so i figured an easy game would be received well.

on the board i wrote:

Two Truths and a Lie
1) i can cook fried rice.
2) i played basketball in high school.
3) i have one sister who is 14 years old.

i explained to them that one of these sentences about me was untrue or false. i then explained that two of these sentences about me were true.

after i read each sentence, the students had to stand up if they believed the sentence i had just read was a lie. a lot of students thought that number two was a lie, which i found pretty funny.

(the lie was number 3, by the way. i have a 14 year old brother.) i explained that they would all write their own 3 sentences and come to the board one by one. the class would then guess which sentence the student wrote was a lie.


apparently not.

here are some of the answers i got from students:

class 10-4
1) i am a student at sman 3
2) i can walk
3) i can fly

i persevered. "guys! you want to write sentences that could be true or false. you want your classmates to guess! otherwise the game isn't really fun, right?"

"oh yeah. yes miss!!!"

class 10-5
1) i am spiderman
2) i have two eyes
3) i hate school

class 10-6
1) i have one father
2) i have one mother
3) i have twenty brother and sister

after the student wrote his/her sentences on the board, he or she would read them to the class. the class would then vote on which one they thought was the lie.

when y.z. disclosed that his first sentence, "i am spiderman," was indeed false, the whole class cheered. they cheered uproariously. i was so confused. didn't they already know he wasn't spiderman? didn't they already know they guessed correctly?

i guess it would be different if i was teaching elementary school? because than i would understand why my students cheer for certain things. like when their classmate reveals that his lie was that he could fly.

how about i tell you about last week.
last week, i had my students write out sentences for charades.
one student wrote, "a man make water for toilet."

really, kiddos?

maybe the smell of fresh cut grass and summer lemonade is clouding my senses. maybe the thought of running into my parents arms at the airport is making these last few weeks particularly hard.

there are no schedules here. my classes are constantly cancelled. teachers get paid for extra-curricular activities they never lead. men get to smoke and judge women who do. cheating in school and on spouses is expected. money that could be going into education is used to buy snacks for meetings. my school has power outages every day, but the glitzy mall Sun Plaza is always air conditioned and glamorous.

im tired of all the stares i receive. i don't really understand why people here stare at me anyways. most indonesians think i am indonesian. im brown. i have black hair. and i dress appropriately for the culture. so why are you STILL glaring at me? if i was white, or pink, or green i would understand.

im also tired of not fitting in --even when i look like i fit in. the other day, on my way home from bandung, i came across a group of americans in the bandung airport. they were on their way to bali. their dress, accents, and navy blue passports gave them away. i was excited to meet some americans so i walked up and said hello.

me: * unusually bubbly for 5 a.m.* "hi! are you guys from america?"

some lady in a gold print VEGAS t-shirt: "yeah"

me: "awesome, im from the states too. what are you guys doing here?"

VEGAS lady: "we are going to bali. what are you doing here?"

me: "oh, i'm an english teacher on sumatra."

VEGAS lady's husband: "where are you from?"

me: "im from the states. indiana."

VEGAS husband: "from india?"

me: "no, indiana. my parents are from india."

VEGAS husband: "that's it! you didn't look...well you looked a little different."

me: "awesome. have a nice trip."

my fellow indonesians aren't the only ones that need a lesson on u.s. diversity. p.s. wtf arizona?


im sure i will look back on all of this in a few weeks and lightheartedly laugh. its just been a rough few weeks. memories are always fonder as time drudges on. the past has a tendency to become romanticized.

but for now, i am not feeling any romance. i am very much looking forward to peeing in my bathroom at home and not have a rat crawl out of the drain.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Motorcycle Musings

Top Three Life Lessons Gleaned from Riding my Motorbike

1) Go fast or go slow…but don’t fluctuate. It seems that when I am feeling particularly lax and drive leisurely, the other moving vehicles on the road don’t really bother me. They do their thing, and I do mine. When I am aggressive and swerve around others, as long as I’m confident, all is well. It’s the days when I am bipolar in my speed…hesitant in whether that becak driver really IS worth cutting off or not…when I get into trouble. I guess we should be content with however speed we’re going in life and know that we’re in control. If we’re too busy deciding, we lose the joy of the drive (and lose balance and skid).

2) Be in the present moment…or you’ll get rammed by a minibus. One typically hot and humid day, I was driving along Jalan Karya engrossed in some fantasy involving jalapeno bagels and garden vegetable cream cheese. I would share more details but that would be inappropriate in this public arena. [[side note: bagels don’t exist here]] Drooling over thoughts of philly cream chease, I kind of went on autopilot. It happens so easily when you’re driving a car. You get from point A to point B and don’t even remember what roads you just took. Unfortunately, a motorbike requires a much more heightened state of awareness. Just as the chunk of bagel was dangling from my fingers about to drop into my mouth, a frenzied HONKKKKK snapped me out of my dream. I was mere inches away from running into a dull orange minibus that happened to be driving on the wrong side of the road. The drivers frustrated glare met mine. Anyways, I learned that regardless of where your mind leads you, sometimes its important to stay in the present...To live in that moment and absorb all the sounds and colors of the world that surround you. Its no fun to live passively in daydreams. And its definitely no fun to get run over by a minibus.

3) The paths are unlimited…adventure awaits. While some friends and I were driving around Lake Toba (Hells Angels style, YEAH WE’RE HARDCORE), we went through some pretty rough terrain and witnessed some spectacular views. It was empowering to be able to drive myself around (a lot of women here would never attempt to try to ride one), and it was suddenly so clear to me that I could go anywhere I wanted. Literally. If I wanted to drive from northern Sumatra to the south and then take a ferry to Singapore and then backpack through Asia living off the land and people's kindness…I COULD! Nothing was stopping me except me. I think I forget sometimes that I can create my reality and shape my world the way I want. Unbound by responsibilities and obligations of debt, children, a job...I own my days. And freedom IS *oh* so sweet.

More updates and pics to come. Its been a very very busy past few months. I've been reminded how blessed I am to be alive and for this experience...sans bagels and all.

Indonesian Cheek Kisses.

Monday, February 1, 2010

gone local

for the context of this picture refer to the paragraph entitled :THURSDAY

“There came a time, (s)he realized, when the strangeness of everything made it increasingly difficult to realize the strangeness of anything.” –James Hilton, Lost Horizon

Many of you have inquired about what a typical day is like for me here. I, unfortunately, have to respond by saying that there really is no such thing as a “typical day.” But I can tell you how last week went and maybe it will help elucidate life in Medan.

MONDAY: I woke up Monday groggy and pining for another hour in bed as usual. I clumsily put on my black pin-striped trousers and long-sleeve sweater (to cover my arms) and cursed the five mosquitoes that ate a fabulous meal from my face. I proceeded to rush to school on my motorbike; instead of passively riding on the sides of the road, terrified of what type of fast moving vehicle was moving my way, I sped. I snaked in and out of the slower folks and skillfully dodged the motorcycle drivers that were coming in my direction (since people like to drive on both sides of the road here). I think the only way the Indonesian survive being a polite and stoic people is by"letting it all go" behind the steering wheel. Their true rage reigns forth in the form of intermittent HONKS.

I flew over a few sleeping police (speed bumps,) cutoff a truck or two, snarled at a driver that nearly ran me over, and arrived at school in record time. 10 minutes. I took off my helmet and gleefully smiled to myself. Take THAT you ANAK-ANAK MEDAN. Driving here should be considered an extreme sport. I have to say, I think I would make a pretty decent competitor. I took off my helmet, untwisted my ponytail, and vigorously raked my fingers through my hair to evenly distribute the sweat that had collected at the nape of my neck and the top of my forehead.

Students here are incredibly polite and bow when you walk past them. They also love to say hello—most of them only knowing the phrase “hello miss” or “good morning” in English. My walk down the main walkway usually elicits at least 15 to 20 “HELLO MISS! except that miss doesn’t sound like “miss” that rhymes with “kiss.” It instead rhymes with “geese.” (the long /i/ for all my fellow phoneticians). Their smiles soften the shell of the misanthrope I resemble in the mornings, and I cant help but laugh. “GOOD MORNING!!!!!” I yell back. I make my way to the teacher’s lounge. Ibu S.H., a boisterous and puerile 47-year old woman, accosts me with another, “Good Morning FIDIIIIIIII.” (v’s are often changed to f’)

“Pagi ya bu.”

“Hai, Vidhi! Do you like SEX?”

Lady, I just woke up. I am not ready for this.*face frozen in consternation* “Uh, apa? What?”

“Do you like sex? Sex is like making looooove. You know it?” *dancing and indonesian song about love and sex ensue*

“Hm. Ngak tahu bilang apa.” ‘Hm. Dunno what youre saying.’

I look over to the rest of the teachers, and they snicker. I am speechless. I smile and say I have to run to class. The first bell already rang five minutes ago. No one moves. I nudge the teacher I am supposed to be working with for the morning and she sighs. She grudgingly gets up from her seat, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I escape the teacher’s lounge. I timidly walk into my first class, 10-7, and they erupt in hoorays.

“Good morning class!! What’s up?”

“Not much, just chillin Miss.” Nice. At least they’ll remember one thing I taught them.

I laugh and we proceed to the present-perfect…


TUESDAY: Hail the rain gods for they have heard my prayer. My alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m. and I smile a secret smile to myself: it's raining. Indonesia has two seasons, rainy and not-rainy. Regardless of the annual rainy season that inevitably arrives (oh my goodness!!) EVERY year, the Medanites still do not know how to handle coexisting with the rain. Motorbikes pull over to the side of the road, the street children crouch under whatever shelter they can find, and the men immediately stop their work to flip open a cigarette box for a quick smoke. A few months ago, when it rained really hard one morning, I left my house 10 minutes early to get to work. This is what the average American would do to get to work in the midst unfavorable weather. I got to work a little damp but exactly on time. To my dismay, no one else had arrived! When students and teachers started pouring in a half-hour to fourty-five minutes later, I asked what any American would ask.

“Kenapa?” ‘Why?’

The answer was unanimous and told frankly: “Hujan.” ‘rain.’

Thus, this rainy Tuesday morning of January 26th 2010, I would not react like a rude time-obsessed foreigner. I reset my alarm for thirty minutes later and then leisurely headed to the school with just a drizzle misting me from above. When I got to the teachers lounge, I noticed Ibu T.T. (the woman I was supposed to working with that morning) giggling and gossiping with another teacher. I glanced at the clock; it was 8:00 a.m. School starts at 7:30. I asked her why she wasn’t in class, and she casually replied, “rain.” It wasnt raining into the roofed classrooms was it? Didnt think so...

“But its 8:00 am!!”

“Oh yes yes, lets go now.”

We arrive to class and all of the students are in their seats waiting. She begins her lesson and finishes at promptly at 8:15. (I am supposed to start teaching at 8:15). A few months ago, I would have gotten up and started. I told her no, that she was really late and she should finish her lesson. She got the hint.

On Tuesdays I have a full plate of teaching. 6 periods. By the time I got to 10-2 (my last class), I was exhausted. Most of my classes are lower level on Tuesdays so teaching them is a bit rough. They don’t say much and generally don’t ask very many questions. Sometimes I have to go student to student asking if they have understood me. Usually I get a handful of “ngak mengerti, Miss.” ‘don’t understand.’

So after using large hand gestures and explaining what a “favorite childhood memory” is to my students for fifteen minutes, I continued my lesson. We had been working on descriptions, so I asked the students to draw their favorite childhood memory. As I started walking around the room checking pictures, a group of guys called for my attention. I walked over and saw that they all had blank pieces of paper. “Ayo, cepat la. Favorite childhood memory.” ‘Lets go, quickly now. Favorite memory.’ Jovi had a question.

“Can we draw your body, Miss Vidhi.” *peals of pubescent laughter*

“Uh, no,” I stammered. Was I dressed too provocatively? I then realized that I was fully covered in loose material from head to toe. Maybe my hair was in a sexy, flirty hairstyle? Nope, it was in its usual taut bun. I rolled my eyes, but the damage was done. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks and wanted to die right then and there. I don’t know how this sixteen-year old kid got the best of me, but I had no idea how to react. The other teacher that was in the room didn’t speak good enough English to even catch what Jovi had said. I told him to get to work and walked from the snickering corner feeling awful. The girls are usually the brightest in most of my classes and they hardly ever misbehave. But the boys… Its really tough teaching the boys sometimes. You want to be friendly and approachable so they listen and respect you-but you want to be stern and unyielding to those who misbehave. Unfortunately the ones who misbehave are the ones who need to most help. I wrapped up the class feeling off-kilter, but hey you cant win em all.


THURSDAY: We had just finished the part of the activity where the students try to match a picture of a memory with its description. During this activity, the girls usually shriek when they find a match and awkwardly jump up and down due to their constricting long skirts. The guys get excited too, but they calmly fist-pump the air. I had just settled the students into their seats when the other teacher walked in. I took my seat and let her continue with her portion of teaching. She finished ten minutes early, and asked the students if they had completed their verb-list homework . Groans rippled through the air. “Have you done it? When will it be done?” asked Bu Leli, who always assigns homework but forgets to mention the day it is due. Someone snickered and snidely replied, “Next year aja, Mam.” The class burst out laughing (myself included). Ibu Leli was peeved. She narrowed her oval eyes to mere slits and pointed straight to Beni.

“Di Depan, sekarang.” ‘To the front, now.’

Beni, head hung in obvious shame, slowly plodded his way to the front. He held his breath waiting for the punishment. Would he have to recite 100 verbs in the past tense? Would he have to write 50 more verb lists for homework? Or worse yet, would he have to write a five page paper on why it is impolite to disrupt a class with a snide remark?

Ibu Leli swiftly walked to the back of the room and grabbed the polka-dotted umbrella that was lying prostrate on the floor. She quickly pushed a red button which breathed life into the polka-dotted rain guard. Determined with alive umbrella in hand, she walked back to the front of the room and stuck the open umbrella in front of Beni’s plump face. His punishment had nothing to do with English or discipline. His punishment was to hold the umbrella for five minutes in front of the class. Beni was embarrassed but could not hide his smile. The girls, laughing, immediately grabbed their cellphones and started taking pictures. The guys started chanting, “nyani, nyani”. ‘sing, sing’

It was confirmed. Ibu Leli said that Beni had to sing a song and dance to complete his punishment. Beni laughed and willingly obliged. I quickly had a flashback to my first month of teaching. I remember being appalled when the tardy student had to sing as a punishment for being late to class. Today, I cracked up. Who was I kidding? Watching a smug sixteen-year old sing and dance with a polka-dotted umbrella was too hilarious. I laughed so hard my eyes started tearing. This kid was that good. After the bell rang, I didn’t rush out as I usually do after my last class of the day. I hung out with the students that were still taking pictures; I wont lie to you, if I had a camera on my phone, I would have taken a picture too.


I promised my English Club students we would watch the Pursuit of Happyness on Friday. I also promised them popcorn and soda. I do not own the movie nor do I know where I am going to find popcorn for 50 students…true to the Indo style, I promised something I don’t know how to accomplish. But also true to Indo style, I am sure Ill figure it out by Friday.

Either you sway to the direction of the wind or spend your energy fighting the undeniable course of nature. I finally feel I’ve earned the right to call this city mine. Some days it frustrates the hell out of me and some days I never ever want to leave. One day when I was feeling particularly homesick, I updated my facebook status asking the question: “Why does Indo not have cough drops, Greys Anatomy, or Granola bars?”

One of my precocious students wisely commented, “Because Miss, this is Indonesia. Things are Different here.”

Saturday, January 30, 2010

an epic december

it is almost february, and i assure you, i am not sure how that happened. two days ago was my five month anniversary here in medan. WOW. SNAP. CRACKLE. POP. SPICY. NASI GORENG. THAT. IS. A. LONG. TIME. rewind?

december was an epic month. i had six weeks of vacation starting december 4th-january 11th. i utilized this travel time to its full potential. i started off by visiting tana toraja in sulawesi where death seems to be a larger celebration than life. i then went to yogyakarta--"the heart of java." borobudur (the largest buddhist temple in the world) was a hop, skip away so we went and saw that too. one day we caught a sunset at a beach an hour south of yogya which was incredible. jimmy, akin to a five-year old child, was playing with sticks and stones and floated away in the ocean current for a while. good thing hes twice the size of the ocean. after lots of medicinal laughs and prawn jokes, i continued on my journey to flores. i met up with seb, ashley, and aaron in bali and we were off for our "remote" adventure. in flores, the beauty was dramatic and magnificent. the people were friendly but not overbearing. i learned that in the flores dialect of indonesian, i am considered "manis" but not "cantik." i will never be "cantik." in indonesian, "cantik" means pretty and "manis" also means pretty but i am yet to figure out the different connotations. in flores however, "manis" is only reserved for women who are darker. "cantik" is only for the whiter, pure, angel-skinned women. interesting. i saw many black sand beaches, indescribable sunsets, and serpentine switchbacks. in flores, like much of indonesia, nature commanded the people to obey to its whims and ways. in indonesia it seems nature refuses to be manicured.

after my trip to flores, i spent two days in jakarta (aka sebs house where i took over) where i met up with raj (pre usa departure for his 2 weeks) and hung out with angie and kerry. kerry met me up in jakarta before our two weeks in thailand and vietnam. on the night of raj's flight, we all went out to some fancy club and the doorman made raj change because he was wearing khaki shorts and BOAT shoes. pants were necessary to enter. CONVENIENTLY, a pant-rental place was just downstairs. raj, exalted by his new style, showed up five minutes later in black adidas sweatpants splattered with white paint stains. peeking out from under his sweatpants were his tan boat shoes. now he was dressed well enough to enter the pulsing halls of club X2. oh indonesia, how i adore thee. we laughed and danced the night away to bad house music.

the next morning kerry and i departed for vietnam. as the plane was descending into HoChiMinhCity, i realized i was going to vietnam. 5 minutes later i realized i was in vietnam. I WAS IN VIETNAM. saigon (or HCMC) is a throbbing, compact city filled with enough motorbikes to pollute the entire universe. i thought traffic in medan or jakarta was bad. stoplights in saigon literally had 7 rows of motorbikes impatiently waiting to step on the accelerator. french baguettes lined the sidewalks next to stands of dried squid fluttering in the breeze. the vietnamese (generalization coming up) are vociferous when angry and are not shy to invade your personal space; they gave a hearty smack on the leg when they felt wronged. after living in a country where outbursts of emotion is hardly ever seen--even when someone is furious--vietnam was quite a shock. we visited a few sites in saigon, among them the vietnam war remnants war museum (which used to be named the us war crimes museum). after overhearing a british couple snickering about the war in afghanistan, kerry and i couldnt help feeling that there would be a similarly named museum in afghanistan one day. to say the museum was depressing would be a gross understatement. we also met up with a friend of a friend, trang, who took us out at night and introduced us to all her friends. she was one of the nicest people i have ever met. from saigon we flew to bangkok and saw many temples, floating markets, and buddhas. we spent five days in a swanky hotel (for free courtesy of kerrys moms friend) and our last night ended with a spectacular new years. we were caught in the middle of an asian times square where we were in the midst of an asian mosh pit. after we escaped the moshing folks, we found our way back to our hotel and watched the fireworks burst over bangkok from the 32nd floor. being a place where temples spotted the landscape more often than churches left me feeling more spiritual than i had felt in a while. from bangkok we headed to hanoi, the capital city of vietnam. from hanoi we tookoff to ha long bay. (i remember randomly sending wyatt an email about wanting to go there one afternoon when i was looking up interesting places in the world while procrastinating writing my thesis senior year) i couldnt believe i was actually there. jagged rock formations with lush green life jut out from the placid water. the vietnamese call the bay "descending dragon." it was cloudy and grey when we arrived there but the beauty refused to be cloaked by the clouds. it was stunning.

i arrived back in medan on january third with a renewed appreciation for indonesia. medan is starting to feel like my own; its not just some foreign city i am living in. four more months left...time is running faster than me. i should probably start sprinting...

cheers to an incredible beginning of a new year. as my penpal jonthon coined, "twenty-ten, so damn zen."
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