Mission: Smile, wave, and talk to EVERYONE.

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)



-“MISTER MISTER! BECAK?! BECAK?!” (do you want a ride in my becak?)

-“MAU KE MANA?” (where are you going?)

Aaand my personal favorite:


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.

The “long” walk from the post-grad building to my office: to the right loads of students usually congregate and call out to me “MISTER!”

The building where the Language Center (and my office) is


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!)

view from my lunch spot.

The girls who were eating at the martabak place.

The boys at the martabak place


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?

Some of the waving students at IAIN on my walk back to my office.

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.


About Deirdre Hand

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." Bill Bryson
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8 Responses to Mission: Smile, wave, and talk to EVERYONE.

  1. Molly Cox says:

    My favorite blog post so far…– Mom.

  2. La Tone says:

    LOVE this blog Deirdre! Very familiar to me as just moved to Malaysia…pop over if you want, plenty of room in my, erm four bedroom flat! X

  3. Rich K. says:

    Enjoy the attention… you might miss it for the rest of your life. Enjoyed your thoughts. Keep ’em flowing.

  4. Tabitha says:

    Amazing post! All sooooo true! -Tab

  5. joeyrochford says:

    Loved that one. Being the centre of attention is sometimes torture! Great writing Deirdre 🙂

  6. Jennifer Hand says:

    this is great. Good for you! I admire your strength and fortitude and am glad to hear you are venturing out of your office. I sometimes feel like hiding in mine and that’s just in Blacksburg, where no one pays any attention to me when I walk outside, so I can only imagine!

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