When something goes wrong, a common Indonesian response is “Waduh!” The word also means “Wow!” and may be the best way to describe my Indonesian experience.
Most people dwell too much on mistakes, myself included. These last 2 weeks in Indonesia, I questioned my academic choices, mourned someone’s death, and found countless cats whose tails appeared to have been ran over. But were these events mistakes? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s briefly swipe through my top “mistakes” in Indonesia so far:
Not Pushing Myself Enough
This summer as part of the US Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), I’m doing an 8-week Bahasa Indonesia language immersion program at Malang State University in Indonesia. Although I was thrilled to continue my Indonesian learning in Malang, my first in-country dilemma was realizing the class I was placed into was too easy. I seemed like a genius!
However, I liked my class. There were 4 students and 4 teachers (the perfect ratio!), and although the concepts initially were review for me, the coursework began moving fast. I decided to stay, which was the best decision! Between hosting a Rachel Ray-esque cooking show to debating Indonesia’s death penalties for narcotics possession to cruising around town in an angkot (local transportation), my classes are never boring.
Celebrating…Only to Mourn
Besides my Indonesian class woes, I faced another predicament: learning how to celebrate and weep Indonesian-style. For starters, 4th of July in Malang was grander than any celebration I recall in America. My favorite moments of our special event at Malang State was singing the Indonesian national anthem with my American classmates, proudly standing as the Indonesian students performed the American national anthem, and pathetically attempting the “Wobble” and “Footloose” dances. Toward the end of the night, my fellow Americans and the Indonesian students gathered onstage to dance to Katy Perry’s “Firework” as balloons fell upon us from above and fireworks illuminated the sky.
Two days later, one of the Indonesian leaders of CLS unexpectedly died. I had just had a pleasant conversation with him on the 4th of July! After class, all CLS students, teachers, and tutors took angkots to his home to console his family and listen to what I believe was a Muslim prayer recited in Arabic. Indeed, there is a time to laugh and a time to mourn, but I don’t ever remember them happening back-to-back.
Feeling Sorry for Myself and Cats’ Tails
The next “mistake” of my Indonesian experience was not so serious as death but involved being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you know me well, you recognize that hand sanitizer is my longtime BFF. It then shouldn’t surprise you that my germ-hating feelings returned when I shook hands with 400 incoming freshmen at the Catholic high school where my host mom works.
During my tour of the school, we followed loud noises until we reached the auditorium. There an energetic group of freshman was playing their orientation games. Shortly after I found myself alongside the gurus (teachers) and priests shaking the students’ hands! I didn’t belong there, but there I was! My least favorite part was not shaking hands; it was the 1 in 10 students who, as a sign of deep respect, shook my hand while placing their forehead on it. Germs mixed with head sweat! Yikes! After mentally scheduling my journey to the cuci tangan (sink or literally “hand cleaner”), I made a point to enjoy congratulating the deserving students. How fun!
Besides pitying my hands, I’ve also felt sorry for cats these last couple weeks. Their tails are dinky! So dinky, in fact, that I was convinced a motorcycle or car ran over their tails. However, after finding 20-30 cats with tails of comparable lengths, I reconsidered. It’s genetic!
Thus started my hobby project: “Proyek Kucing Ekor” (“The Cat Tail Project”). I now take photos of every cat with a short tail (about 2/3 of cats). It’s an oddity for Indonesians to see anyone actively searching and meowing for felines, but I no longer mind.
While I just complained about recent “mistakes” or unfortunate events in my life, I also revealed the positives that happened because of them. The circumstances provided me experience, curiosity, and wisdom, and although I would certainly not choose someone’s death, everything served as an opportunity to learn through a culture unlike my own. And I’ve also had several no-strings-attached positives! I’ve made health a top priority by taking Muay Thai (Thai boxing) classes 2 hours a day 3 times a week and beginning training for a South Africa half marathon. I’ve also challenged my spice tolerance to its limits by eating Mie Setan (literally “Satan’s Noodles”) with the trusty aid of 5 bottles of water! On top of that, I’ve begun learning the gamelan (Indonesian percussion instrument) and teaching English to my new friend, Mas Gun. Most importantly, I’m improving my language skills while growing close to my Indonesian friends and family.
Life in Indonesia will be a constant struggle between mistakes and triumphs, but whatever happens, I’m facing it head on. Semangat!
Pictured below are some pictures to prove how fun (and delicious!) Indonesia is:
First is the food…
Now for everything else…