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.”


  1. i love it! this is really such a great blog---your descriptions and stories are amazing, and i feel like i am really there. so awesome.

  2. you write so well.

    I would have taken pictures of the umbrella-holder also. =)

  3. pardon if my english is not excellent..

    as a local, through your writing..this is my first time to feel more colour of this city..i never see this much colour before..thanks to you :)

    living in this city..where electricity goes off up to 3 times a day..traffic mess..sometimes it's quite stressful..i almost give up on this city..

    but after reading your writings..i feel like finding another reason to love this city.. :)

    u r a good writer vidhi..i have to agree with Riffo..i feel like i am really there..u should publish a book..

    ps : it's nyanyi...not nyani.. :) the words come from menyanyi, to sing..


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