This was the mission given to me by my mom after I confided in her that I could feel myself retreating into my office and not venturing out because I felt like everyone was staring at me and shouting at me (…which they were). When I say shout, it’s never in anger—here are some examples:
-“HEY! MISTER!” (smiling and pointing)
-“MISS! MISS! WHERE YOU GOING?!”
-“HELLO HOW ARE YOU?!”
-“MISTER MISTER! BECAK?! BECAK?!” (do you want a ride in my becak?)
-“MAU KE MANA?” (where are you going?)
Aaand my personal favorite:
“I LOVE YOU!!!”
I know that the excitement of seeing a bule (white person) is hard to suppress, and I understand they’re just interested. But to me, it’s been such an effort to put on a happy face whenever I step out the door, and engage with everyone. Obviously, I don’t HAVE to talk to everyone, but ignoring seems a bit rude, too.
I am so happy to be in a country where people ARE excited to meet me and talk to me. It really is true that Indonesian people are warm, welcoming, and friendly. But I’ve been struggling to do a big part of my job, which is to be a part of this school community, talk to students and just be out and about.
I think it had really been getting to me on my walk to and from my Tuesday and Thursday classes. I walk from my office in the Language Center, down a road (through campus) to the post-graduate building. There are loads of students on the side of the hill as I walk by, and they all call out to me, yelling “MISS!” “HI MISTER!” “I LOVE YOU!” I consider myself to be a happy person (and I certainly will admit to kind of loving attention) but honestly this was stressing me out! I tended to just scurry by, smiling, waving, and trying not to trip.
I also have been being a big fraidy cat when it comes to eating lunch. I didn’t really know where to get lunch at first (no cafeterias), and I’ve seen the food stalls along the road on campus here, but I never felt brave enough to go wander into them. They are teeming with students, all chattering away in a language that makes me feel like a 4 year old when I try to speak or understand it. The whole process (not to mention the spiiiicy food I don’t tend to crave at lunchtime) just overwhelmed me, so I started bringing my lunch, and eating in my air-conditioned office. The only room in this building with AC I believe. So, of course I wasn’t talking to students out on campus at lunchtime either.
You know how sometimes you get something into your head, and it becomes a bigger deal than it is? Well, that’s what I figured out was happening to me.
So I took my mom’s advice (as all good children should) and on Monday I ventured out around campus, made eye contact, and spoke to everyone I could. It’s funny, once the students who yell at you, “MISS! HOW ARE YOU MISS?!” get a reply, they tend to either break out into nervous fits of giggles, or clam up altogether. It seems their English is limited to the calls they make at me—good thing I’m here!
I spoke to students as I walked to the English Department, and in groups, they tried to utter a few sentences, and then just giggle away. I decided to go OUT for lunch on Monday, so I walked to a long line of stalls, and picked the one that said “martabak” (which is yummy curry over eggy-bread.. or something). The people working, sitting, and eating there were very excited at my arrival, and made me sit down while I waited. I tried to practice my Indonesian, and a bapak tried to practice his English. And of course I thought, “why haven’t I done this before? What was I so scared of?” (Uh huh mom, those words everyone loves to hear: YOU WERE RIGHT!)
However, I think I know partially why it overwhelmed me. Communication is a challenge here—I haven’t met many students (or teachers) who can speak enough English to carry on a conversation, and I haven’t been studying Bahasa Indonesia as much as I should. It can be really frustrating (on both ends) because it’s so easy to feel dumb when you know exactly what you want to say, and just can’t find (or don’t know) the words to express it to someone. I think more than anything, living in Indonesia gives me such insight into a fraction of what my students in the U.S. must feel when they arrive—either from refugee camps or from south of the border. People talking at you—and you have no idea how to respond. It’s frustrating, scary, and stressful. Yet, it is also motivating. I’ve started studying more, and talking to people more. I MUST improve, because I live here, and I want to know people here.
One great thing about teaching is that no matter what kind of mood you’re in at the beginning of the day, you really have to snap yourself out of it, put on a happy face, and smile. (Unless you’re a big grouchy-pants teacher). Once you smile and ‘act happy’—guess what?! You tend to be happy! So that is what I’ve decided here: I am a teacher 24/7 (well maybe not THAT often). So when people yell, “HEY MISTER!”, I say “hello! I’m a MISS, not a mister” And then I smile and keep walking. That doesn’t make me a smartass does it?
While I know at times I won’t feel like talking to anyone, I feel like I’ve gotten over my initial discomfort of being the strange foreigner on campus that everyone points at. It’s something I’ve got to accept and embrace. I am the lone white girl, wearing Indonesian batik shirts, trying not to butcher your language, and I’m very happy to be here.