Monday, May 16, 2011

Disclaimers, Corrections, and Follow-Ups

After more or less every post and video I make, I recognize one or more errors I made, either in my interpretation of the culture or simple mistakes in language. So here's a disclaimer: everything I say or write is subject to revision.

For example, spicy peanut sauce is not called gado -- it's called pecel. At some point I used the word adzar, which is supposed to be adzan (call to prayer). The additional prayers said after adzan in the morning are called pujian.

I have learned that the volume of the mushollah next to my house is not normal -- even my host mom is annoyed by it, though she doesn't show it. She told me she can't sleep through it and that it's louder than any other mushollah in the village. It is, however, getting easier for me to ignore. I usually wake up a few minutes before and have the headphones ready.

Also, the upacara bandera (flag ceremony) is not held every week, but every other week, at least in the school where I did my practicum. And often it is not held at all. If there was a lot of rain the night before and it is too muddy, they just skip the ceremony.

This correction process will be ongoing.


After the videolog on the taboo surrounding the left hand, a friend of mine asked me to give information about any other weird taboos that are here. Well, there are a couple. For example, you should not show the soles of your feet to people. That means usually you ought to be sure you're sitting in a position where your heel isn't visible and facing someone. In fact, the only time I've seen people really, really relax with their sitting position -- i.e. stretch out their legs and not care that the bottoms of their feet are showing -- is when they are at home with their family. I'm not sure what the source of this taboo is. It might be that the bottom of the foot is considered dirty and therefore ought not be pointed at others, but that's just an educated guess.

Also, there is the taboo on drinking alcohol. Indonesia is something like 99% Muslim--the largest Muslim country on planet Earth--and alcohol is forbidden to followers of Islam. So those who take their religion with any seriousness do not partake. It's not illegal to drink, and there are shops around where you can buy beer or liquor (no 'liquor stores', just places that carry some alcohol), but you just don't. We have been strongly discouraged by Peace Corps from drinking and told that if we do, we are advised to be as discreet as possible. That means not drinking in any place where people who know us can see. It's kind of funny -- craving alcohol here makes you feel like half a criminal instead of half an alcoholic. Drinking alone in your room is considered antisocial and unhealthy in the US; here it's simply polite. More than five weeks in, I haven't had any alcohol since leaving the States. Thank God I'm not one of those people who suffers if they don't drink, or for whom relaxation is synonymous with drinking a beer.

The real taboo I want to talk about is touching between men and women. Here on Java, public exchange of physical affection between the sexes is a big no-no. PDA does not exist between boys and girls, at least out in the villages. The most I've seen is a young couple holding hands at the shopping mall in Malang (which is urban and therefore more liberal about such things). But to this point, I have not seen anyone give hugs or kisses or touch each other as an expression of affection while in my village. Really, the ONLY exception to the touch rule is between children and parents. Young children sometimes hug their parents and hang on them like little koalas, and parents will return the affection.

But to this point, I've never seen my host parents hug or kiss or touch in any way other than what you might call incidental contact. And neither has any other trainee. When you leave or enter a house, you give a handshake and say the appropriate greeting/leavetaking.

I wouldn't call it an 'exception', because this rule really only applies to contact between men and women, but it is acceptable for women, especially school-age girls, to hold hands or hug. Having looked around in schools, their physical interaction with each other is much the same as American girls. It's also okay for boys to hug or touch each other (I haven't seen any hugging or holding hands, but often enough one will have his arm around the other's shoulder in that partners-in-crime sort of way).

Still, to reiterate, I haven't seen any kissing or hugging between men and women, even married couples. Also, no affectionate hand-on-arm stuff, and not really any handholding. I've asked our cultural facilitators about it, and they confirm that it's just not done here. They assure us that married couples DO show each other affection, but they would never do it in the presence of children or guests. And for young people, romance here is mostly funneled into courtship. You can't be 'dating' without both families knowing about it and approving.

As you might expect, this unspoken prohibition has been challenging for some of us Americans. Obviously, we come from a culture where it's acceptable, even encouraged in some settings, for the sexes to touch each other, hug, kiss, etc. There are plenty of people in this group of trainees that might describe themselves as "handsy". Even I, who am not really a "handsy" person, struggle with this sometimes. First, the absence of touching makes you miss it and makes you miss the people with whom it was never a problem to show affection. I'm not handsy, but I am a hugger. One time I gave a quick hug to my friend Jennifer before saying good night, and Zaki (the cultural facilitator who was present) gave us each a serious look and a shake of his head.

Don't do that where people can see you. It's not good.


And that was the last hug I had.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Five Weeks In

Well, a little more than five weeks in. Here are the links to the last two Videologs I made but didn't link to:

Sounds/Sound Privacy in Indonesia


Speaking Indonesian!

I'm now more than half way through training. The three-week teaching practicum is over, and it was a blast! I really enjoy being in front of a class...feel calm and natural up there, and there weren't any moments feeling overwhelmed. I think I've got a pretty good grasp of the challenges that I'll be facing when I'm actually on the job. Peace Corps staff does a good job of getting us ready. And I'm learning Indonesian as fast as it's possible to learn, I think. My resolution: I will be fluent, and within the first nine months.

I like it a lot here. Each day has some purpose, some need that must be met (and usually is). It's very satisfying. Much better than sitting around in Florida/Europe and thinking about what to do with myself. But yesterday it occurred to me for the first time that returning to the States and/or Europe is going to be difficult. It's going to be tough to relate to some people -- or more specifically, it's going to be hard to feel like people can relate to me. Already, talking to people from back home is a bit strange. On the one hand, it's amazing how close they can seem and how easy it is to talk to people 10,000 miles away. But as easy as it is to communicate, there's also this feeling that there are new barriers separating us. Going back may be more difficult than coming here. Or perhaps the difficult thing would be to go back to my lifestyle the six months before leaving for Peace Corps. Well, it's a long way off, so I'm not worried about it presently.

From time to time I find myself testing myself to see if I can still make sentences in German. It's difficult. Indonesian words pop into my brain. But the other day I listened to a German podcast, and my comprehension was still at a very high level, so that made me feel better. It also made me miss being in Europe. Living with an Indonesian family affords me the opportunity to practice my language skills constantly. I rather wish I had been able to do the same in Switzerland or Germany (sorry Mom, but you and I will always speak English together :D ). Anyway, it has occurred to me a few times that maybe after Peace Corps I'll try to get back to Europe and live in Germany a while, or something. I also miss that differentness/weirdness that characterizes Europeans -- from my American perspective, of course.

Time to go. Hope you all are well!