You Don’t Have to Know Everything

Regardless of which country you find yourself in, you only need to know a few things to get by. Here’s how I managed my first week in Indonesia.

Albert Einstein once said that if you can look something up, you don’t really need to know it by heart. That’s why I believe that being an expert does not mean understanding every minuscule detail or being the best at what you do. It’s about knowing what you need to know, and then just a snippet more.

This was my first breakfast in Indonesia. Enak sekali, ya?

I’ve lived in Indonesia about a week now and I’m far from an expert on the cultural norms of my host city, Malang. But you know what? I’ve gotten pretty darn good at getting by with limited language skills and common sense. Before arriving in Malang last week, I’d already taken one year of college-level Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language courses), but since I’m still a slow speaker, I’ve got my go-to phrases:

  1. “Saya kenyang” (“I’m full”)- Used when my host family eyes my plate, shortly after picking up a spoon to dish out my second helping
  2. “Baiklah” (“Okay” or “cool”)- When I’m not sure what was just said but want to keep the conversation rolling
  3. “Di mana kamar kecil?” (“Where’s the bathroom?”)- Perhaps the most useful phrase in my arsenal

I also have become accustomed to calling everyone by special names. I’m Mbak Francine, with Mbak being a term preceding young females’ names. My male peers are called Mas, middle-aged and older women are Ibu (mother), and middle-aged or older men are Bapak (father). It’s a blast referring to my American pals with these terms!

Every Sunday morning on one of Malang’s main roads is Car Free Day when many vendors, markets, and activities are open. For my first Care Free Day, I took a traditional wagon ride.

Besides becoming a semi-expert on Indonesian language survival, I’m also living on a new time schedule. Indonesians are extreme morning people, but I’ve always preferred sleeping til 8 or 9! That can never happen anymore because come 5 every morning the neighboring mosque’s call to prayer becomes my 10-minute “unsnoozeable” alarm. That, plus my host family is out and about by 4!

Throughout my brief time in Malang, understanding my host family has become a necessary ingredient of my immersion. My family includes Ibu Katarina, a young-looking, boisterous 78 year-old, and her daughter Ibu Rina. They’re kind-hearted individuals, exceptional cooks, and fervent Catholics. In fact, they’ve taken me to church and—to my shock—had me join the church choir. Life is overflowing with surprises!

Other than learning a lot about language, family vibes, and Indonesia’s religious diversity, what capped off my Indonesian learning this week is sanitation basics. Apparently, the trash can next to the toilet is not simply for aesthetic purposes. It’s for used toilet paper! Glad someone had the humility to explain.

I’ve talked about how I could get by in Indonesia, but to be considered an expert (even though I’m not), I need some local knowledge. That requires experiences, which this week have been numerous. At Kampung Warna-Warni, I admired a wide array of colors painted on village buildings. I could hardly believe I was in Indonesia because the colors and landscape seemed reminiscent of National Geographic’s Rio or Morocco snapshots. Then there was Car Free Day, when I joined friends to ride a horse-drawn wagon, shop at a local market, and meet a rabbit breeder. My childhood consisted of rabbits, so he and I became quick friends!

Here I am with my 3 spectacular new friends at Kampung Warna-Warni. From the left is myself, Mbak Vita, Mbak Qiqi, and Mbak Mei.
Kampung Warna-Warni is so scenic, I could sit there for hours just gazing at the view!
At Kampung Warna-Warni.

Of course, I also had to test local cuisine, which included not only hanging out at a warung (local stall selling cheap food and beverages) but also comparing American fast food places like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut with Indonesian versions. At McDonald’s, affectionately called “McDee’s” here, I sampled banana apple pie, white rice bound in a wrapper as if it were a burger, and spicy chicken, while at Pizza Hut I was most amused by its beef fettuccine (isn’t chicken for fettuccine?).

My McDonald’s dinner: plain white rice (in wrapper), fried spicy chicken, and scrambled eggs

I also cannot forget my wonderful friends who have already helped define my Indonesian experience. They include my language tutors, Mbak Vita and Mbak Mei, who are serving as my personal language assistants this summer. I also have Mbak Qiqi, who I befriended at a Taiwan food conference last September. Since she lives in Malang, we have been able to meet up several times. The four of us have been inseparable this last week, and even conjectured up a reality TV show called “Husbandable” to find the man of my wildest dreams. When we discussed our show, one idea led to another and we laughed so hard that we shed tears!

I have continued my tradition of watching a foreign film in every host country I live in. This time it was an Indonesian comedy, and thankfully it had subtitles!

Am I an expert in Indonesian language or culture yet? Absolutely not! But after 20 hours of language classes and many more of cultural immersion, I’m on my way. While you may be wondering what my academics and no-English policy is like or what it means to represent the US government internationally, I’ve got more posts to go! Next week I’m also starting yoga, dangdut (Indonesian pop music), and gamelan (Indonesian drum) classes, not to mention having a field trip. But remember: you don’t have to know everything!

…Extra photos (and captions!) are below:

Mbak Qiqi and I reuniting in Malang after having met in Taiwan last year. We did it through the best way possible: ice cream! In Indonesia, McDonald’s has special shops that just sell ice cream!
I tried my first durian this week! While the smell is not pleasant, it’s quite tasty. The fruit’s texture is somewhat like banana, but the flavor differs.
Mei Setan is a restaurant in Malang famous for devilishly spicy noodles. While I haven’t tried those yet, I got the full dim sum experience there.
Since one of my homework assignments involved bargaining, I went to a flower market to buy a cactus. Here I am standing my ground (my tutor Mbak Mei is dressed in red to the right). I succeeded!



Traveling Abroad and Growing Up Are More Alike Than You Think

Traveling should not just be getting away to relax under a tropical sun. It also can help define who you are. This is blog #1 of my soon-to-begin 7-month global adventure.

When do we become adults? 

As my 4-year-old self entered my brother’s 2nd grade classroom, the only thing I could do was stare. There they were. Towering. Responsible. Infinitely intelligent. My brother and his classmates were reading, writing, and discussing topics with their teacher I only dreamed of comprehending.

Four years later, I started 2nd grade only to discover that I was still a little kid. Now the 6th graders were the mature ones. They swished the basketball into the hoop like NBA stars, sang and played instruments with real flair, and—thanks to my existence—earned plenty of cash babysitting.

Now at 20-years-old, I’m still debating what a grownup is. I no longer play the “guess how old I am” game because I’ve learned that over or under-estimating anyone’s age is as much a crime as calling them fat, hideous, or dim-witted.

But what if adulthood is not really about age?

Over the last couple years I’ve journeyed across North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, visiting 14 countries. I’ve traveled to 8 of them alone and lived in 2 for 2 months or longer. When I made my first major international trip, I was a little girl on the inside. Two years later, I dare say I am a woman. Traveling did that to me.

Right after graduating high school, I was selected to go to India for a food security-related internship. Since I passionately dreamed of making a difference, I was ecstatic about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As soon as I landed in India, reality kicked in. Not only was my check-in luggage misplaced, but once I reached my lodging I also could barely understand anyone’s accents. Worst of all, the wi-fi wasn’t working… and I couldn’t figure out how to call my parents to tell them I was okay!

I cried so hard that first night. How idiotic and naïve I felt for wanting to change the world when I couldn’t even solve my own problems! It was in that moment—that pitiable realization—that I began to grow up.

Traveling matured me not by making me a pessimist, but a realist. After witnessing such sweeping inequalities abroad, I want to change the world now more than ever, but to do that I first had to grasp how the world works. I needed experiences to learn, adapt, and discover the aspects of life I can and can’t change.

While abroad, I learned what it meant to be a woman, white, American, and all 3 at once. As a woman, I had to be confident but cautious and aggressive when necessary. As a white person, I had to understand privilege and acknowledge that some of my ancestors had deprived these people of their land and rights. As an American, I needed to recognize that what people saw in movies and the news was often how they viewed me: rich, carefree, and a Christian without morals.  Ultimately, as a white American woman, I had to compare the luxuries I savored abroad with the injustices many native women endured, all because I held the right nationality and race cards.

Becoming a grown up overseas was not just about my own identity. It’s been every bit as much about relating to people, especially when they differ from me. I will always be a white American woman, but I argue that my best qualities came from experiences. After all, respect and empathy are learned.

Wearing sarees and drinking tea with Indian villagers. Learning survival Chinese phrases at Taiwan’s temples. Working around prayer schedules in Muslim Somali communities. It’s all been a matter of meeting people where they are and engaging with them despite and because of our differences.

I think one of the signs I’m growing up is that I’m noticing immature adults now. I’m saddened to see people who have become so rigid in their ways that they refuse to accept what is unfamiliar. Whether it’s hearing alternative viewpoints, exploring new places, or recovering from past events, they are stifling their own growth and have become the devil behind their own demise. But is it entirely their fault that they haven’t grown? Perhaps they need a good enough reason!

From June 2018 to January 2019, I’ll be highlighting my life in 10 African and Asian countries (with possible revisions), including:

1. IndonesiaTea_plantation_in_Ciwidey,_Bandung_2014-08-21

2. Thailandthailand-1451382_960_720

3. South AfricaJohannesburg

4. SwazilandSwazi

5. MozambiqueMoz

6. ZambiaZambia

7. ZimbabweZim

8. Botswana


9. IndiaIndia Wedding

10. Myanmar (Burma)myanmar

I’m a college student so I will not only be studying abroad but also doing language immersion, research, and thankfully some vacation! Whether you think you have or haven’t grown up, dream of traveling, or are simply curious about what tales a 20-year-old college student can tell, I invite you to join me on 7 months of Fran’s Lands. It’s about time we grow up, together this time.




Fran’s Lands Begins

Thanks for joining me!

You may know me and you may not. Regardless, I’d say it’s time for a grand introduction, where you learn all the sappy details about my life and travels. Just kidding. I’ll keep it somewhat short and to the point.


Hometown: Benton Harbor, Michigan, USA

Education: junior at Cornell University with double major (International Agriculture and Rural Development, Development Sociology) and triple minor (Southeast Asian Studies, Leadership, International Trade and Development)

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 8.53.42 PM.jpg

Favorite Entree: paneer tikka masala (not out of a box!)

Family Life: grew up with 2 amazing parents, including a UPS driver dad and stay-at-home mom; also put up with an overachieving but highly motivational older brother

Image (162)
Here I am finishing the final pieces of my pancake at my pancake eating competition.


Fun Facts (I’ll share 3 for kicks):

  1. Only drank water entire life (except as a baby)
  2. Won a restaurant’s pancake eating contest
  3. Graduated high school in a class of 13 students


Hobbies: writing, bicycling, weight lifting, playing piano and accordion

What Excites Me: my faith in Jesus Christ, ensuring everyone has access to quality food, anything related to India, muffins, Trevor Noah

3 words I want to be:

  1. Passionate
  2. Driven
  3. Authentic

Now that that’s all over, the more exciting part of my post is to come… But first, I do want to make something abundantly clear: I’m not rich at all. I just apply for academic programs and grants and save some spending money for excursions. 

Fran’s Land’s 7-Month Itinerary

Note that my plans are subject to revision. After all, life is full of surprises!

Nation 1

Malang, Indonesiamid-June to mid-August 2018

Gamelan 2
Indonesia’s traditional gamelan
  • Purpose: US Critical Language Scholarship Program (means speaking 0 English for 2 months), living with host family, cultural trips, studying at one of the country’s oldest universities
  • Goal: learn a traditional instrument called the gamelan (check it out here)


Nation 2

Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand – mid to late August 2018

Southeast Asia Bangkok Thailand Road Traffic
Bangkok’s scooter scene
  • Purpose: taste epic pad thai, enjoy Thai massage, rent scooter, see ancient sites with friend
  • Goal: ride an elephant


Nation 3

Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, South Africa –  late August to early December 2018

The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa


  • Purpose: study abroad through the School for International Training, living with 3 host families, learning Zulu, and submitting journalism piece for media group
  • Goal: get published in a national periodical


Nation 4

Swaziland a few days between September and December 2018

Tribal women in Swaziland
  • Purpose: study abroad educational trip
  • Goal: come back with exciting report for Swaziland-obsessed friend


Nation 5

Mozambique8 days between September and December 2018

Seafood Moz
Mozambique is well known for its seafood sensations
  • Purpose: another study abroad educational trip to learn the country’s role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid independence
  • Goal: eat authentic African seafood


Nation 6

Victoria Falls, Zimbabweearly December 2018

The Fall of the Angels is a 13-minute helicopter ride over the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls
  • Purpose: take a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls promised by my friend (it’s called the “Flight of Angels”)
  • Goal: take too many pictures


Nation 7

Kazungula, Botswanaearly December 2018

Kazungula is a river crossing involving the borders of 4 countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia.
  • Purpose: ride a ferry, see wildlife
  • Goal: see lots of elephants


Nation 8

Livingstone and Lusaka, Zambiaearly to late December 2018

My Zambian church’s vision is to plant a church in every capital city of Africa by 2025.
  • Purpose: reunite with host mother, adopted church, and friends
  • Goal: go to Lusaka National Park, perfect my atrocious African dancing skills


Nation 9

Hyderabad, Indialate December 2018 to mid-January 2019

Two years ago, I did my first research project at ICRISAT in Hyderabad.
  • Purpose: perform senior honors thesis research (if I receive funds that I applied for), reuniting with old friends
  • Goal: generate a peer review research article, maybe see Taj Mahal (bucket list goal!)

Nation 10

Myanmar (Burma)mid to late January 2019 

rice field myanmar
Paddy farmers in Myanmar
  • Purpose: take a Cornell agriculture and development course (contingent on class itinerary)
  • Goal: carry on a decent Burmese conversation, under Rohingya crisis

Well, that does it! I plan to publish on a bi-weekly basis beginning in mid-June. My journey officially begins June 17 at the US Department of State in Washington DC, where I will post my final pre-international update before heading to Indonesia! Thanks for reading and until next time on Fran’s Lands!