The Last Post: Day by Day… Until Today.

So this is it. The last blog entry.


Regardless of the situation, I hate saying goodbye. And also, I’m very bad at it. I’m not bad at it because it’s so difficult. I’m usually not the one to stumble away, sobbing into my hands like a little boy whose Tonka truck was stepped on. I’m bad at it because it’s easy. What I find is that while most people create a ritual of saying goodbye, exchanging heartfelt words to one another, exchange letters, embrace for long periods of time, etc., my desire is to do it as quickly and cleanly as possible- like ripping a band-aid from an open wound. Maybe it’s my stoic Germanic roots, though my imaginary therapist would probably surmise that it’s somehow connected to a childhood of instability and constantly being uprooted. After which I would pay them two-hundred fifty imaginary dollars. If I could, when I say goodbye to someone for the last time, it would amount to a good, long hug/handshake/pat on the head (student), say thanks for everything, promise to stay in touch (that both only sometimes follow through with), and then say goodbye.

But that is not the Indonesian way. And it certainly isn’t the Banjarese one.

My goodbye, a two-week long process, started with me getting up in front of the school during upacara, the Monday flag ceremony and giving a speech to the whole school, after which one of my students came up and gave a speech to me on behalf of the school. And then I was presented with gifts and many, many photos were taken. And accepting many gifts, one of which was a large, fluffy stuffed pink rabbit. After that, I was taken to lunch by the English teachers, at which I gave another speech. I spent my final full week of teaching going around to each class, giving a farewell speech and having them write in my Memory Book. Some of my favorites were:

“You’re my Teacher AT USA. You’re no hair, you make me smile.”

“Dear Mr. Chris, Don’t forget Ass, Thank You!”

“Dear Mr. Chris, You is number one. I LOVE YOU Mr. Chris! I Like it you.”

and the unforgettable…

“Dear Mr. Chris, My name is Hendy. You are handsome BUT you more handsome if you have hair in your head.”

There was clearly a theme here. Accompanying them were some fantastic illustrations, and a few disturbing portraits which unintentionally made me appear like a serial killer. On the last day at my school, I said my last goodbyes, had probably close to 40-50 photos taken of me, shook hands and was asked to be part of a few dozen selfies. And then I rode off on trusted motorbike down Jl. Soetoyo for the last time. And then silence. Even though I wouldn’t fly out for a few more days, it was almost as if with the dog-and-pony show over, there was no need to get in touch with me again and my phone remained silent. This was a strange sensation, even for someone like me who avoids long goodbyes. It something I’ve never completely understood about people I’ve met during my time here: initial friendliness followed by a lack of communication.

Fortunately, this wasn’t entirely the case. My host family took me to one of their favorite Chinese restaurants and presented me with a sasirangang (local batik design) shirt and we said our goodbyes. I went to some of places I’d frequented during the last nine months, said goodbyes and presented them with oleh-oleh (small gifts). One of the more touching moments was when I was told someone was outside my house wanting to talk to me. I opened it up and to my surprise, found my friendly coconut seller outside with her youngest son. She had asked around and figured out where I lived. After saying our final goodbyes, she sheepishly pulled out something from her pocket and handed me a ring made from Borneo Red, a valuable local stone. I felt loved, humbled and embarrassed all at the same. I hope one day to be half as generous as her.

Last night, I had my final meal with Mitch, my snarky and completely irreplaceable site mate, at Sakuro our go-to restaurant for Chinese noodles, but more importantly, forbidden ice-cold Bintangs. Today, I say goodbye to my host family and fly to Jakarta for a brief exit conference. And then I return to Brooklyn to finish grad (literally one more class left), start teaching high school history (job pending), and start a new chapter in life.

Before I do that, one last thing to say. Whether you interacted with me through this blog by furthering topics via email, left comments, or simply by being a blip on my readership stats, I wouldn’t have continued it without knowing there were people outside of my immediate environment who cared enough about what I was learning and experiencing during these last nine months in South Borneo to actually take the time to read this. Or just click on my site and scan the first few sentences (I do that a lot). So thank you- I mean it. I titled this blog Hari Demi Hari, which means Day By Day in Indonesian. And this is the last day.

Thanks for seeing it through to the end with me.


Why I Felt Like I’d Failed For the Past Year

Let me explain. IMG_20141109_103932

When I arrived here in Indonesia, I had visions of educational grandeur: dynamic activities that brought students close to tears with enlightenment concerning the English language. Brilliant recitations of works from the likes of Lewis Carrol and Shel Silverstein. Possibly a debate or two. But it was not to be. The first week of teaching at my vocational school was a punch in the mouth to the reality that I was now teaching in an educational system dubbed by many organizations as one of the worst in the world. Considering that said system is also the fourth largest in the world, this is not insignificant, especially as Indonesian students attend school on Saturdays as well. Now you may ask, what must a country do to achieve such a grandiose title? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Have only a third of its 57 million student complete basic schooling
  • Provide less than half of its educator population with even minimum teaching qualifications
  • Have teacher absenteeism hover around 20%
  • Through bribery and embezzlement and all-around scallywagging, siphon off 40% of the school budget before it even reaches the classrooms
  • Subsequently, have little technology or school supplies

But none of those reasons are what got to me.

It was the jam keret. Translated as “rubber time”, this term refers to the tendency of people here generally being late to most things. But in my school it was a mindset. It meant that throughout the nine months I was here, no co-teachers showed me lesson plan. It meant that sometimes, halfway through having lunch with one of my colleagues, they would casually mention they actually have a class right then, Ha Ha! And the truth is, I started to get jam keret too.

Not that I didn’t show up on time or have a lesson prepared. It was more the thought, “I’m only the teaching assistant and I seem to be the only who cares if any of the students are learning!” So I stopped caring as much. And I felt guilty about it, because I felt like I was failing at teaching, something I genuinely love (sometimes hate) and believe it to be meaningful when done well. So my focus shifted. instead of planning lessons around the finer grammatical points of English, I took a relaxed, activity-based approach. And wasn’t all too worried about assessing them.

And then my last week of teaching.

I arrived at my last English Club for our final session. I should add that English Club by far has been the exception to my reality. it was completely mine (control freak) so there was no potential co-teacher confusion/conflict. And the students. Somehow I’ve always attracted quirky, big-personality students, and the dozen or so who turned up every Wednesday were no exception: maniacal laughter, K-pop renditions and statements like, “Mr. Chris, I’m not a girl, I’m a boy,” were weekly fixtures. There was no doubt that it had been a unique connection, but I stepped into my last English Club session feeling somewhat discouraged, wondering whether my time with them had been valuable.

After about an hour of snacking and party games, several students asked for the floor. The first was Eli, my fiery and lovable debater. She announced that she’d written a poem named “Blue Eyes” (I was going to make a joke reference to Coldplay’s Green Eyes but no one would’ve gotten it). By the end of it, she was openly crying and so were many others- much of it revolved around how my input had bolstered her confidence in herself, which was a beautiful thing to witness throughout the year. The next up was Dita, an artistic student whose hyperactive tendencies border on lovable derangement. Likewise, what she said was incredibly moving.

And then Wiwin went up. She had been the student who I had accompanied to Jakarta to compete in a national speech competition. Although she had done very well and her song at the end had garnered raucous applause, afterwards she had been silent and withdrawn which was not like her and had worried me. Her talk was about that weekend. She explained that in being a perfectionist, she had kept comparing herself to the other competitors, which had been hurtful and caused her to retreat into herself. And then to my horror, she started telling the students the Ice Cream Story, where on the way to our hotel, she had vomited a previously-eaten ice cream cone in the airport taxi shared by other competitors. This part I knew. But what I didn’t know was the fact that I’d gotten out of the taxi and helped her clean up had been hugely significant for her, something that had stuck with her long after the weekend was over. It’s funny how the moments in which we deeply touch others we are sometimes completely oblivious too. I’m not a crier but I came mighty close by the time she finished. Several dozen photos later, we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways home.

I’m don’t write this for self-promotion. The truth is that in some aspects, I do think I’m a good teacher. But mediocre in others. And I will leave Banjarmasin with a mixed bag of remembrances: some good, but a lot of conflicted ones as well. However, I left my last English Club with this thought: my time and input here has made a difference. For that, I’m glad I came. Due to being here, one student was able to visit Jakarta for the first time, and two others who will be going on a fully-funded trip to America (Dita is one of them). And whether I even know all the ways how, they have changed me for the better.

And for that I’m grateful.


A Survivor’s Guide to Indonesian Motorcycle Driving*

As I looked on in horror, two motorbikes collided. Me on the Bike

The sound was both sickening and altogether vivid- something between the blast of a 12-gauge shotgun and several dozen drunk men bashing empty beer cans on their foreheads simultaneously. Fortunately, I was on neither motorbike. Quite unfortunately, my site mate Mitch was. My first thought to register between his broad frame flying through the air and it landing on asphalt was something like, “Dear God, Mitch is dead. Why? And does he even have life insurance?” Thankfully, apart from some cuts and deep abrasions, he was very far from dead (not even mostly dead for you Princess Bride nerds) and after clearing the road and an hour of talks with the other driver’s father and the community leader, we settled on a price (200,000Rp. which is about $16), and got our lily-white butts out of there.

I tell that story for two reasons. The first is because Mitch assures me constantly (a little snootily even) that he reads no one’s blog, including mine. So I can tell the story. If he does actually, well now we have an interesting ethical dilemma, don’t we? The second is because it illustrates a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. How does one survive driving motorcycle in a country whose motorcycle accident fatality rate is so high that it makes the news. Having driven in multiple countries (including Bangkok, Thailand. Still can’t believe I lived through that) and speaking as a survivor, I thought I’d share some tips for those considering the two-wheeled approach to Indonesian jalan-jalan.

1. Learn how to drive motorcycle before you arrive. I know, it sounds like a given. Though there is something incredibly tempting about the omnipresent automatic scooter/motorbike that offers transportation with seemingly little beforehand experience. But trust me, you need it. Judging from the fact that in Bali alone, of the 3 deaths and 150 motorcycle accidents a day, an alarming amount of them are foreigners, you really shouldn’t be getting on the road unless you know what you’re doing.

2. Wear a helmet (always!) and riding jacket (always too but sometimes I cheat). Imagine your job is to be shot from a cannon and hurled onto the ground, but you chose to wear a helmet only occasionally. That’s the best equivalent I could come up with. Always wear a helmet. Even when it’s the hot season and the inside of it smells like that pair of underwear you wore for a week straight while camping. Also, buy a riding jacket made of durable but breathable material and wear that too. Nobody wants road rash.

3. Don’t assume red means stop. We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Green means go and red means go faster,” but actually around here, it’s not a cliche. It’s a state I like to describe as reality. Can’t even count the number of times I passed through a green light only to have a motorbike (Not to profile, but to profile: young Indonesian male, 15-22 years old) zoom past me with inches to spare. I don’t even angrily honk at them anymore.

4. Stay away from the middle or center of the road. The middle is obvious. Indonesia is the king of over-taking and the middle basically serves as a third lane. Don’t sit in it. The edge is more surprising but I’ll give you two reasons: first, potholes large enough to engulf your entire front tire usually start on the road’s edge. Second, there seems to be a long-held Indonesian tradition to pull out onto the road without looking at oncoming traffic. No doubt something to do with proving bravery.

5. Spend less time on your rear view and more time looking in front of you. When I first arrived here, I started to have a sneaking suspicion based on the hairline maneuvering directly in front of me that drivers rarely used their rear view mirrors. I asked an Indonesian friend about it, who promptly assured me, “No, no, we always use our rear view mirrors!” I was less convinced when I noticed many motorbikes had their mirrors dangling at odd angles, and some had none at all. The reality is everyone drives generally face forward, watching the slightest movements of the vehicle in front of them and expecting the riders behind them to do the same. I’m not saying don’t use your rear view. I’m just letting you know that from what I can tell, most people around you don’t and are far more focused on what’s in front of them.

6. Always expect the darnedest things to happen. I remember first driving here and thinking, “No way is that car up ahead going to pull out in front of…oh!…oh wait..” or “Wouldn’t that be crazy if that kid ran into the street without look….hey!” Eventually, what I began to notice was a pattern. A pattern of sporadic, unexplainable movements. What I began to do while driving was to anticipate anything to happen- that whisker-faced guy might make a random U-turn, or that heavy-set woman with a load of chickens on the backseat might suddenly stop. Sometimes- not always- it proved correct. And saved the lives of a dozen strung-out hens.

7. Don’t assume a turning signal means turning or that no turning signal means not turning. Initially, I began noticing that entire groups of drivers would drive with the turning signals still blinking. It felt like Florida all over again. I would try to do the polite thing, drive up to them and motion that their turning signal was still on. They would usually smile, nod and keep driving. Possibly they didn’t understand what I was getting at. Or possibly they just didn’t care (probably a little of both). Either way, don’t ever trust a turning signal when in fact they are used (not common).

8. If you get in an accident, pay and get out of there. It doesn’t even really matter whose fault it is. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a foreigner. Thus, it will be considered you’re privilege to pay. Don’t exchange insurance numbers because most likely, there are none. And frankly, unless it’s serious don’t get the police involved. Most likely you don’t have a license anyways and forgot to pick up an international ID before you left, thus illegal. Also, there’s no assurance they won’t expect money too. Learn this word: berapa (how much?). And get your (potentially- I’m trying to keep this inclusive) lily- white butt outta there.

*For legal purposes, I neither encourage nor condone any future Fulbright scholars from owning, riding, much less staring at a motorcycle while on assignment. Unless it’s a Honda CBR 250, of course.

The Final Countdown

 Exactly one month from today I will board a plane.images

Thirty hours later (give or take) my American existence will be jump-started back to life. Which is a crazy thought. As if I had hit the pause button on my life, stepped out of it for 9 months, and will simply stepped back into my old self, still frozen in place. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. I have changed, and so have the friends and community I left behind. There’s always a certain anticipation and tension when returning home after a long period of time; almost as though I’m not completely sure of what I will find waiting for me. But more on that later.

I recently returned from my org’s WORDS Speech Competition, which brought all 35 of us ETAs and our one selected student from each of our schools to the luxurious Le Meridien Hotel in Jakarta for a whirlwhind of weekend of speech competition and activities. For my student Wiwin, it was a weekend of many firsts. First time flying, first time to Jakarta, first time ice skating, bowling, etc. It was a lot to take in but she was brilliant about the whole thing and gave a speech that won her some loud, raucous cheering from the room. She told me later that it was one of the most incredible experiences she’s had. She’s an exceptional human- I have no doubt she’ll have many more.

But for me, one of the most significant aspects of the weekend was the conversations I had with individuals I’ve come to really value over the last few months. The truth is that conversations have always been important in my life. It was one conversation that determined the college I would attend, another led me to working in Thailand for three years. Another one gave me the conviction to apply for the Fulbright and well, here I am.

But these conversations were different.

Instead of helping arrive at life decisions, they instead helped me unpack the complex experiences involved around the one to move to Indonesia. Here’s a few important takeaways I thought I’d share.

There are things you learn in isolation about yourself that you can learn nowhere else. Much of my life has been spent in constant flux. 4 years is the longest I’ve lived in one place. Ever. Because of this, I’ve inherited a need for change and relocation after a few years. If anything, living in a remote region of South Borneo stripped of friends, community, and fresh dairy products (cheese, when we meet again… it’s on) I’ve realized that somewhere inside me, I crave continuity. I desire to plant seeds in one place, whether in the form a relationships or projects, and live in a place long enough to watch it to develop into something beautiful or die, and not simply because I left too early to see its outcome.

Sometimes letting go is necessary. This could relate to many facets of my life here in Indonesia, but when this occurred to me, I had teaching in mind. The reality is that for the first 3-4 months, I felt like I was failing here. I could never coordinate with my eight co-teachers concerning what we would be teaching, I didn’t have any curriculum to work with and when I did, it was vastly beyond my students’ comprehension. Frankly, it sucked. And then I realized it wasn’t my job to change the education system or will my students toward English fluency . Instead, I focused on just enjoying them in all their teenage quirkiness and helping them with English along the way. And it got much better.

Everyone struggles here, but in different ways. There are times that I felt like I got the raw deal with my site and let’s face it, waking up to thick smoke for several months due to the forest being burnt down was not a pleasant experience. But the more I talked with other ETAs, the more I realized that in a very real, personal way everyone has deeply struggled during their time here. Regardless of whether they’re in the middle of nowhere or a bustling cosmopolitcan. Whether its feeling alienated, school issues, rat infestations (that ones me), everyone’s had their own battles to wage. And though I don’t wish that on anybody, it’s a relief as I’ve been waging my own.

Thanks to all you amazing individuals who were parts of these conversations, you know who are. Unpacking all this will take time and I’m sure I’ll write more about this later. But anyways, it’s a start.

From Brooklyn to Banjarmasin: A Teacher’s Journey to the Other Side of the World*

The cardboard sign they were holding read, “Mr. Chris, ETA.”

I had just stepped off the plane at the Syamsudin Noor Airport and realized that what my friends had told me was true- it is very hot in Banjarmasin. The heat rolled off the cement airstrip like ocean waves. As I collected my bags and walked out of the airport gate, I saw three people holding the sign. This was the first time I would meet Bu Mei, who would be my teaching counterpart during my time here, her husband Pak Al, and another English teacher, Ibu Anna. They had come to greet meat the start of my 9-month stay here in Banjarmasin as I taught English at SMKN5.

Before I moved to Indonesia, I was living in Brooklyn, which is a borough of New York City well known for its culture, music, and as a location for many films and TV shows. Sometimes, the street I lived on was blocked by film crews and I would have to find another way home. I was in graduate school at Brooklyn College to become a history teacher. I was also teaching at a middle school in Brooklyn and was hoping to teach there after I graduated. But one day, a professor asked me if I had considered applying for a Fulbright Scholarship through the American government. This scholarship sent university students and scholars to teach in countries all over the world for a year. It is very difficult to get this scholarship, so I applied not thinking I would actually get it. In my application I had selected Indonesia because I had traveled here while teaching in Thailand years ago and had greatly enjoyed people, their culture, and of course the food.

Several months later I was working on my computer when the email came in: I been selected for the Fulbright Scholarship! I was so excited that I could not finish what I was working on so instead I called my friends and family and gave them the big news. Even though it was very exciting, moving to Indonesia was a big change of plans. I had to take a break from graduate school and leave my apartment.

During my last week, my friends held a huge going-away party for me that included live music, food, drinks, and a comedy sketch where one of my friends who is a comedian teased me: it was great. After a 30-hour flight, I arrived in Jakarta where I met all of the other 35 ETA’s (English Teaching Assistants). Most of them had just graduated college and had been very successful in their programs. From there, we were taken to Bandung for a two-week orientation. During orientation, we studied the Indonesian language, learned about Indonesian culture, and prepared to teach in schools all over Indonesia: Java, Sulawesi, Timor, and Kalimantan.

During orientation, I had become friends with many of the other ETAs, which made it sad to go. After saying goodbye to them, I flew to Banjarmasin, my new home for the next 9 months. After meeting me at the airport, Bu Mei, Pak Al and Bu Anna took me out for lunch to eat bistek ayam, my first meal in Banjarmasin. After that, they dropped me off at the Winata’s house, a lovely family who had generously allowed me to live with them during my stay.

My first week in Banjarmasin went by so fast I can only remember it in smells, sounds, and sights. From the beginning, I was shocked at how much traffic was on the roads no matter the time of day, and since it was dry season I was surprised to wake up every morning to heavy smoke that poured into the city from distant forest fires. Even though that part was not pleasant, I loved walking by the river at night and watching the lights reflect off the water’s surface. Also, I began to discover all the delicious food in Banjarmasin. Some of my favorites were soto banjar, ketupat, and mandai.

            Arriving at SMNK5, I was warmly greeted by teachers who were eager to talk with me and ask me questions about my life in America. I was also greeted by friendly students, many who wanted to practice their English and take photos with me, which made me feel like a fake celebrity. Even though I was excited to be here, it was very different from teaching in America. To begin with, SMKN5 is a vocational school, which is very rare to find in America. I was fascinated to watch students study regular high school subjects then work on car engines or manufacture metal parts on a lathe. Also, although I had taught in Southeast Asia before, my previous students generally spoke fluent English. At SMKN5, I had to learn communicate with my students even though I spoke very little Indonesian and many of them only spoke minimal English.

However, in order to be a good teacher, one must always be willing to adapt in order to better help their students. For me, this meant partnering with my Indonesian co-teachers, who knew the students and could speak well both in English and Indonesian. Also, it meant learning to be flexible. At the schools I taught at in America, it was very important that things went exactly as planned. However, I have learned that sometimes it is OK if things are a little jam karet. Even though this was difficult for me at first, I have grown to appreciate the relaxed atmosphere in which teachers educate and students learn.

I came to Indonesia hoping to teach, but looking back on the last four months, I think I have learned more from my students and my co-teachers than I have taught them. From them I have learned how to be patient when things do not go how you want them to and how to always be friendly no matter how you are feeling. Of course, not that SMKN5 is a perfect school- there is always room for improvement no matter where you go. However, I am proud to work in a school in which teachers treat their students with respect and kindness. When it is finally time to return to America, I will be sad to leave all the people here who have been so supportive of me, but I will go knowing that I have learned much over the last nine months and that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

*I was requested to write this article for my school’s newspaper. This is amusing because beyond the English teachers and a handful of students, virtually no one else at my school would be able to read it. Which is how things go.

Surfing: Pain, Failure and Why I Keep Doing It

Four years ago, I entered one of the darkest period of my life.1950s surfer

I’d just finished my job in Thailand and was preparing to return Stateside for grad school. However, I’d recently started to have misgivings about a career in journalism, a direction I’d been vetted for since high school. I felt like a young mango tree whose roots had been cut out under it before it had chance to grow fruit. Also, I was broken-hearted. I’m not talking the she-didn’t-call-after-three-days kind. I’m talking the type when the Titanic theme song comes on and you make fun of it because you’re with friends but inside you’re think, “Yeah. She get’s it.” But that’s another blog post (probably won’t be). Reeling from all of this, I decided to do the only thing that seemed to make any sense at the time.

I’d move to Bali for a month and learn how to surf.

I settled on Medewi, a surfing spot located about a 3 hour drive west of Kuta (Bali’s notorious party town) unless of course the occasional truck has crashed on the road, making it more like 5-7 hours. This has happened to me. I chose Medewi because it was largely off Bali’s major tourist track and when the conditions were right, boasted one of the longest left-handed point breaks on the island. After arriving, I wrangled a deal at Gede’s Homestay, who rented me an upstairs room overlooking the sea for 35,000 Rupiah a day (about $3) and rented a longboard for 40,000 Rupiah from an amiable local guy named Piping.

Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d attempted surfing. I’d gone to Medewi a few years prior with a close friend/ surfing guru friend Craig to learn The Way. I won’t forget my first day. The swell had picked and waves were overhead, and to get to the pointbreak you had to swim through the white water. Before I made it through, a big set came in and pounded me against formidable rocks armored in razor-like barnacles for what felt like an hour. It was closer to 3 minutes. Bloodied and exhausted, when I finally made it out to where Craig was, he took one look at me and said, “Dude, that looked pretty rough.” My thought was: You @#$!? got that right, Craig.

I’d like to say that it got better after that. It didn’t. Instead of spending my time improving my technique and ultimately catching waves, I spent the majority of my first week trying, and many times failing, to avoid large waves from crashing over my head and throwing my body like a rag doll into the swirling “washing machine”. This was painful. It was also humiliating, not only because I didn’t see myself improving but because frankly, I expected to be good at it from the get-go. And I wasn’t.

This is why returning that second time had been so important. Most days, I’d wake up around 7am, grab my board and swim out onto the pointbreak if it wasn’t too crowded and the wave looked good. But after two weeks and seeing little improvement, I started to dread going out on the water and would create internal excuses as to why it would better to stay in that day. Instead, I spent a lot of time in my hammock, reading book after book and writing whatever came to mind. When a month had passed, I left Medewi feeling like I had failed.

But that was years ago. Last week, Craig and I returned to Medewi to go surfing and although I’d developed since then, even going on a surf trip in Costa Rica, I was still anxious due to everything I’ve mentioned above. As much as I loved Medewi and the people I had befriended there, for me it represented failure and unfulfilled goals. This was running through my head as we paddled out through the white water our first day back. And it is what made the sensation only sweeter when from that first day, I had some of the best waves of my life. And the following day was even better. For the first time, I looked forward to getting up at 6am in the morning to go catch waves.

Ultimately, I’ve still got a lot to learn- surfing never came easy for me. And you know what? I’m OK with that. If Indonesia has taught me anything, it’s the value of being comfortable even in failure, whether in trying to communicate in a different language, teaching in foreign education system, or navigating through culture norms that still are incredibly unfamiliar. This year has helped me grow more comfortable at failing. But when success breaks through…

It’s like gliding down a glassy wave ontop of the world.

5 Ways Indonesia Has Changed Me

“No, it dog. Please, you must try!”

That blog post feels like years ago. If you don’t knowolverinew which one I’m referring to, It’s not hard find. Just look for the one that includes “Eating Dog” in the title. I still recall that night vividly- I clearly remember thinking, “what the @#$!? did I get myself into?!” It’s hard to believe that was seven months ago. And it’s harder to believe that in two months, I will uproot my life here Banjarmasin and, like a transplanted sapling, settle my roots back down in Brooklyn.

A part of me is excited for this. I’ve missed the friendships, conveniences (aka solid WiFi connection) and luxuries (aka Netflix) of My American Life. But I already know there are things here I’ll miss about My Indonesian One. Fresh coconuts. My hilarious, Korean-boy-band-loving English club. Playing badminton twice a week. Lazy rainy days in my hammock. Seriously though, fresh coconuts. My coconut lady already told me that when I return to the States, she’ll cry (I’m steady revenue). In all honesty, some aspects of my time here have been difficult as well. Regardless, they’ve all been formative. With this in mind, I’ve been recently reflecting on the way my time in Banjarmasin has changed me.

  1. I Don’t Mind Students Touching Me Constantly

In Indonesia, there is a custom in which after class ends, the students rise up enmasse and descend upon the lone teacher, clutching at his or hand, pressing it up against their sweating forehead, cheek, or mouth. I may or may not have experienced tongue on a few occasions. At first, this made me rather uncomfortable. First off, the germ-sharing in this transaction must be off the charts. Secondly, coming from a self-professed egalitarian society, there felt something weirdly servile about the whole thing. Not to mention that in NY looking at a student the wrong way is justification enough for a lawsuit. These days, I don’t mind it. In fact, I enjoy it. I think what changed was a shift in my perception: Indonesian society is based on the value of deference to those elder or in authority, and this custom was a built-in mechanism to ensure that it remained so. In fact, maybe I should take it back to the States and see how it goes.

  1. I Consciously Eat and Handle Things With My Right Hand

Before you think this unimportant, you should understand: I’m left-handed. Not simply physically, but ideologically as well. I am the one who as a student, verbally assaulted teachers who perpetuated the right-hand bias by failing to provide left-handed desks. Ok, that’s not entirely true but it definitely annoyed me. However, in Indonesia left-handers are generally looked upon as handicapped. In fact, to eat or hand an object to someone with your left hand is considered offensive. Several of my Indonesian friends described to me how as children they were force-taught to favor their right. There are cultural and religious origins for this social norm. Culturally, many Muslim societies follow the tradition of eating with your right hand and, well, assisting in the defecation process with the left. This originated from passages found in all of the Abrahamic texts in which the “right hand” is considered holy and the left, by default, not.

Frankly, it bothered me initially. Probably more than it really should have. Even though no one was forcing me to use my right hand, it all felt like an affront on my identity as a left-hander. I even made a point to use my left hand, possibly with the motive of making use of one’s left hand acceptable. An ambassador of Left Hand, so to speak. And then I started to use my right. Why? Because it wasn’t my place to change culture norms here and to their credit, no one was coercing me to conform. So conform I did. but not in a way that felt like I was compromising a part of me, but rather temporarily setting it aside out of respect for another’s customs.

  1. I Put Rice On My Plate Before I Even Know What The Meal Is

Having been born and raised in SE Asia, I ate my fair share of rice, usually once or twice a day. And then I moved Indonesia. This has ratcheted my intake up to a fairly solid regime of rice at every meal. And when it’s not rice, it’s usually a rice variety, such as longtong (rice packed tightly into steamed in leaves). On most days, this isn’t a problem because I love rice. My friends can attest to the fact that in college, I even wrote a song about my rice love affair which my band Smooth Grooves played as a closer. I’ll be honest though- I’m looking forward to pasta.

  1. I’ve Made Peace With Selfies

“Mister, can we take selfie?” This is question that students, other teachers, friends, strangers, children of said strangers have asked me since I got off the plane. I used to resent it. I did so because frankly, I felt objectified, like a weird, exotic bird. I could hear the prior conversation to them asking: “Hey look, there’s a bule (foreigner)! Who brought their phone? Let’s go take a picture with it. It’s just so… white!” In fact, there are an untold number of selfies that were never taken because I said the unthinkable: tidak (no). But now, I don’t put a fight. In fact, I’ll even throw up a peace sign. Am I being objectified? Yeah, probably. But in the friendly sense of the term.

  1. I’m OK With Not Having Weekend Plans (And Don’t Feel Like a Social Outcast)

In the past, by Wednesday I would be thinking “Hey, what am I doing this weekend? I really need to make some calls.” By Thursday, panic set in with, “OK really, what am I doing?!” and Friday was like, “It’s happened again. I will resign my social guilt by binging on Netflix and pizza (man, I miss pizza). And then Indonesia happened. At first, there were a flood of invitations every weekend. By the second month, that flood had receded to a trickle. And now, unless I make calls- nothing. And I’ve learned to enjoy it. The solitude, the time reading in my hammock, the introspection. It’s not how I anticipated my time here being but I’ve grown to embrace these still rhythms of life. But don’t worry Brooklyn people- I still plan to have fun carousing with you when I return!