Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More Reflections

I've been at site for six weeks now.  For all you non-Peace Corpses, "site" is the place you live and work for the two years after training.  Some people also say "post". 

As I said I would do, I've been writing posts about specific topics.  Encapsulating all aspects of my experience with rambling updates is not possible, so I haven't tried.  Just been taking small bites, trying to sketch the more striking aspects of life on Java.  Sometimes, though, it's necessary to get more personal, talk about myself and not about Indonesia.

Where to begin, where to begin...

I arrived in Kandangan on June 16th.  High schools were on vacation, which lasted until July 10th.  In those three and a half weeks, I went to the school most days.  I live less than a kilometer from my school, so it takes me about five minutes to get there with my bicycle.  Calling those few weeks "busy" would be overstatement, but I certainly wasn't idle.  I learned about the structure of the school; the usual teaching practices and philosophies of the other English teachers; the amorphous, labyrinthine schedule; the frequency, cause, and duration of various interruptions; grading; and a bunch of other stuff.  These are things that the school usually (and for no reason) assumes you already know.  If you're not somewhat prepared for them, the entire first few months are one exercise in patience as the rug is repeatedly pulled from under your feet.

I spent time getting to know my counterparts personally, introduced myself to most of the teachers, and started designing materials (emphasis on started).  I became a familiar face.  And it paid off, because I don't feel like I'm going insane.  I'm mildly alarmed at how easily I've adapted to the incredibly laid-back Indonesian attitude toward education.  Nobody makes a fuss if you arrive at school a few minutes after the official beginning.  I'm not bothered by class cancellation, and classes starting late doesn't bother me.  Because I mostly understand the schedule and ask ahead of time--and have fantastic counterparts--I usually know well beforehand if classes will be canceled. 

I've already mentioned that I'm responsible for 20 classes (at the moment 17, because two don't seem to have materialized and one is still being constructed).  As long as I have to teach this many students, I'm not going to kill myself trying to lesson plan with five or six teachers, all of whom are teaching different subjects.  It would be ineffective and a waste of my time, and hazardous to my mental health.  Instead, I am creating my own activities independent of the curriculum (which itself is random enough, anyway).  Just stuff to try and get the kids thinking of the world, English, and themselves in a way that might motivate them to learn on their own.  This gives me a ton of flexibility, so I don't sweat it when the schedule breaks down.  I'm not stressing out at all. 

Teachers don't really prep during the short summer break, nor is the schedule made.  All of that gets worked out after school starts.  At the same time, kids are all doing marching exercises (marching is mandatory and popular here in anticipation of the Independence Day celebration), so classes get canceled in the middle of the day.  There's a good analogy for these first couple months of school.  It's basically like putting the key in the ignition and letting the engine warm up after the car has sat in the snow for a while.  Give it some time, let the snow melt, let defroster defrost, tune your radio, and then start driving.  No one's rushing to get going.  Just easing into the semester.

There is a lot more time now than there was in training.  During PST I mostly shunned Alone Time, preferring to sit with my family and practice speaking.  Since getting to site, I've had much more time to read books, watch movies/television on my computer, write (obviously), and keep in touch with friends.  I've gone through intensive periods of doing each of these things.  I suppose it's normal, but I'm not quite happy with it.  I don't feel I spend enough time with the neighbors.  Yet it is difficult to motivate myself to go out there, sit down, and have conversations about the same old stuff over and over.  But I should try more, because I can hardly expect interesting people to knock on my door.

One thing I've realized is that it's important to have things to look forward to in the short-term.  Planning little trips or getaways is essential, because days pass more cheerfully if you seem to be working toward something.  Last weekend I went to Malang and met up with John Alford (another Volunteer) and Zaki (former cultural facilitator).  It was a grand old time.  John was the first white person I'd seen/talked to in the flesh since the middle of June.  Full disclosure: I did spot some white people on a bus that was driving by about three weeks ago.  And I met with the very American and wonderfully intelligent Erika, another PCV, in Jombang around that time, but she is black.  And I skyped with people.  So, with those caveats, the streak of not physically interacting with a person of my own ethnicity lasted five and a half weeks.

The point is that I need to have plans like this to offset the part of my nature that loves numbers.  I know exactly how long I've been in Indonesia and exactly how long I have left.  I know it in weeks and days and by percentage of total service duration.  What can I say?  I love statistics.  I love reading box scores for sports.  I guess it's only natural then that I'm so conscious of the passage of time here.  Thing is, always having that in mind can be somewhat oppressive, especially if it's been a difficult or boring day. 

What, another 23 months of this shit?  Another 690 days of THIS? 

You can see how this would mess with your head.  And this is where the planned breaks come in.  You need them to cut this beast of a commitment into digestible portions.  This is NOT to say that I'm unhappy or just counting down until I leave.  I'm glad to be here; I want to be here.  I just can't help myself when it comes to numbers and countdowns.  It's my instinct to count.

Week before last, another one of the volunteers decided to go home.  He was part of my training group, so he'd only been in Indonesia for three months.  In that time, he got sick at least four times, the last time quite seriously, and was generally unhappy.  This cultural environment, as welcoming as it may be, is not for everyone, and I don't blame him in the least. 

Being a PCV in Indonesia asks for some pretty big sacrifices.  You leave behind family, friends, your culture, many material comforts, your own food, alcohol, sex, the ability to blend in, and your freedom of movement.  And you go to a place where people do not realize that you have made such sacrifices just to be there.  Most people, though friendly, do not have the capacity to empathize, and they view you as an entity that has simply materialized in their world. 

At times, this is really taxing.  Everyone looks at you, and many people stare shamelessly.  You smile, and they usually smile back, and only then is it not weird.  Children start giggling.  People point you out to their friends when they think you can't see or hear.  I've lost count of the number of times I have seen one youth nudge his/her friend "discreetly" to make them aware of my presence.  Kids all yell out "Mister" when you pass them on the street, and sometimes they shout it from across the school or the road.  Clowning boys with no courage try to get your attention by yelling as their friends snicker to each other.  Kids test you by using greetings in Arabic or Javanese to see if you know the right response.  People see you can speak Indonesian, and the first question is whether you know Javanese yet and hey-you-should-learn-Javanese-too.  At intervals this can make you feel like they see you as a zoo animal, existing purely for their entertainment.  You just want them to understand how things are for you, because if they only knew, they would never act as they do.

Losing patience is easy but not helpful.  Ninety-nine percent of the kids have never interacted with a foreigner before, and annoying as their hollering can be, it's truly not meant with malice.  If you let them know more appropriate ways to get your attention or say hello, they are usually quick to adopt them, because they mean well.  The problem is ignorance.  Which, I suppose, is exactly what we're here to combat.  The war never ends, but you can win battles.

And, of course, being a celebrity has its pluses.  Everyone tries to make you feel special.  People tell you how handsome you are and get excited simply to speak with you.  They all invite you to their homes.  People look out for you and bring you food or drinks when you don't expect it.  They want to take photographs with you, they ask for your e-mail address, request your friendship online, and offer to teach you about their language.  They marvel that you can speak in their language and tell you how smart you are.  In many circumstances, particularly with regard to teaching, you are treated with great deference.  And it's all very flattering, when it's not obnoxious.

My mental track the last couple weeks has got me thinking about how we grow to love things or places.  I spend a lot of time and mental energy trying to understand this place and its people.  Who they are and why they do the things they do.  What do I have to teach them, what do I have to learn from them.

In some ways, I am scathing with regard to this culture.  I am withholding serious/specific condemnation in this blog for what I hope are obvious reasons.  My analytical brain just dices it all up.  I look for irrationality, inconsistency, superstition, ignorance, paradox, and indolence.  I note all the ways in which this culture seems to inhibit itself.  I look for the cracks in the system and try to find out who is falling through and what happens to those people.  Who are the casualties, what is the cost?

And then in some ways, I truly admire and feel comfortable in this place.  If you read the earlier blog post on happiness here, it's clear I feel that we Westerners have a lot to learn.  My own assumptions are frequently challenged.  And of course I am growing used to the rhythm of life here, growing to expect the behaviors which once were foreign.  I'm used to having food prepared for me, and I've grown fond of many people here, and I enjoy the way that nobody is disrespectful to me, and I love that people all have time for each other.  I like feeling relaxed at work.  I like not being nervous very often.  I'm a rather big fish in a rather small pond.

It just seems remarkable to me that these perspectives should bloom simultaneously--the one extremely critical and the other extremely affectionate.  Of course, the first thing it occurs to me (or anyone) to discuss is always the critique.  When I see or talk to other PCVs, we talk about problems, not about the pleasures.  Beyond the catharsis it offers, constantly discussing the screwed up stuff is not really helpful.  It takes discipline and maturity to know when to shut up and be thankful.  I'm still working on that.

This combination of admiration and fault-finding causes me to think ahead to my return.  When I get back to the US, I expect it to be rough.  I'm already critical of American culture...I don't want to get venomous.  I just hope for the clarity to remain balanced between criticism and admiration. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Food in Indo (Part 2)

In a three-day span, a couple of people have mentioned to me that they enjoyed reading about food--a veritable deluge of plaudits for Thought Porridge.  Ask and you shall receive, my darling readers!

Let's start this off with where and how you eat.  Picture your classic American kitchen/dining room.  Now, remove the appliances from the kitchen--dishwasher, microwave, toaster, blender, oven, George Foreman Grill.  Replace all that splendor with a gas stove powered by little propane (I think?) tanks about half the size of what you'd use for a grill in the States.  There might be a sink.  Refrigerator is fifty-fifty, but scrap any notion of that culinary/sci-fi fusion that makes ice and dispenses fresh water and freezes sides of beef and has space for all the food you want (and all the food you don't).  Replace it with a modest, older unit, possibly containing a small freezer box/tray thing toward the top.  And no ancient jars of pickles fermenting at the back.

So, imagine the dining room.  Now make it disappear.  There is none!  I mean, there's a room where you dine, but there's no dinner table, and it's a multifunctional space.  You eat in the living room, and you sit on the floor.  The food is set in the center of the eaters, and all take what they like.  Javanese often forego cutlery, opting rather for the squishy pleasure of eating with bare hands.  Afterwards, you usually wash your fingers in a little water bowl.  At restaurants this is provided along with your dish.  I've gone Javanese a few times--once out of curiosity and twice out of necessity--but I just find it...icky.  Hey, I compromise in plenty of other, far more onerous ways for the sake of cultural adaptation.  Allow me this small bit of obstinacy.

People also use cutlery, but, interestingly, not knives.  The main (and sometimes only) eating instrument is a spoon in the right hand, usually bolstered by a fork in the left.  When you consider that

(1) you're always eating rice, and

(2) there's rarely anything that needs cutting (usually there's not enough meat to require cutting and there's no bread or large/long vegetables), and

(3) ripping flesh with your hands is just as effective as cutting with a knife

--this does make sense.  Occasionally, however, you may go to a neighbor's house for an event where guests are given food and find yourself trying to cut through dry chicken with a plastic spoon.  You just stab-stab-stab at the birdmeat and hope that people aren't looking.  Note: they're always looking.



Now we're getting into the meat of things (forgive the pun).  I should probably preface by saying that my experience is limited, so drawing conclusions about the whole culture may be overhasty.  But here we go anyway.

Short List of Behaviors That Are Acceptable at The (Figurative) Table:

    •    Thunderous belch sequences that interrupt your own speech (and there's no need to say "excuse me")
    •    Making little slobbery smacking noises while you chew
    •    Picking up food from the floor (the rule here is ten minutes, not five seconds)
    •    Watching the television (dinner is TV time!)
    •    Lighting up a cigarette while others are still eating (I haven't seen anyone balk at this yet)

There's also no fuss about talking with your mouth full or getting up to leave before others finish.  One thing that is absolutely NOT okay is to start pawing the common plates with your left hand. 

(Side note: I used to think this was purely symbolic, until I realized that there is not a drop of handsoap in this house--where everyone wipes with their left hand--save for the bottle I keep next to the toilet.  Alas, this bottle is the only possession of mine stored in a common area that I'm sure nobody else uses, which fact is upsetting to contemplate for several reasons.)

More or less the only spices that are acceptable to add to food are sambel (a red spicy homemade chili paste), kecap (thickened sweet-ish soy sauce), and sambelkecap (combination of the two).  You will not find salt and pepper available to add, and this is the interesting/maddening part.  Javanese culture is places deep emphasis on respect and indirectness.  To add salt or pepper to a dish would be to assume that the cook did not know the perfect amount to put in.  Might be offensive, terribly sorry, old bean, no salt or pepper for you.  I have whined about the tea and coffee always being too sweet, and the principle behind it is the same. I mean, the conundrum of oversweetened beverages or undersalted food is, in theory, extremely easy to fix:  Just put a freakin' sugar bowl and salt shaker on the (figurative) table.  Regrettably, this is not the Javanese way.  The food must be eaten and the drinks drunk just as they were prepared by the mistress--and it is invariably a woman--of the kitchen.


Family Time

The concept of "family dinner" as such does not really apply here.  Though I often eat with all the members of my host family, it is just as common to eat alone, or with only one.  This, too, reflects a fascinating aspect of Javanese culture.  In America and Europe, dinner (ideally) is supposed to be the one time of day when every person's schedule harmonizes.  Parents aren't working, children aren't playing, and teenagers aren't hiding away.  All are together for "family time". 

Not so, the Javanese.  This is a culture with a, shall we say, relaxed work ethic and where family is rock solid at the top of the totem pole.  People spend so much time with their families anyway, what's the big deal about dinner?  It's actually not-quite-polite to engage someone in conversation while they eat, because (duh!) they're hungry.  Javanese don't reckon mealtime as the relaxation time sandwiched between assorted drudgeries, or as the way to unwind after a taxing day at the office. 


We're going to stop here, and I promise to put out the next installment of Food in Indo in short order!  Yes, there is still a lot to say.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poor, Crowded, Hot, and Happy

I suppose when Americans think of places like Indonesia, they aren't flooded with associations.  Not like when you think of England or France or Italy, or even China and India.  Considering its size (the fourth largest country in the world), Indonesia is quiet on the international scene.  Your average American might vaguely connect Indonesia with shoe- and textile-factories that pump out goods for American department stores, or perhaps with terrorism.  Probably relatively few realize that Bali, one of the hottest vacation spots in the world, is an Indonesian island, so they may not have this association (I assume this because even I, the kind of nerd who ought to know such things, was hazy on Bali's sovereignty status before coming here).  Yet the pall of terrorism, thanks to the infamous bombings some years ago, might dim even Bali’s glow.

Compared to America, Indonesia is poor, hot, crowded, and internationally obscure.  Your average family gets along on about $200 a month—on par with a trip to the supermarket in my family.  Serious poverty, by American reckoning.  And in the US, poverty is almost instinctually equated with misery. 

Being here has convinced me that this equation is false.  First, poverty is relative.  A “poor” person in Indonesia is in much worse shape than a person considered poor in the US.  Of course, most Americans would not think twice before calling even an ordinary Indonesian villager poor.

Maybe they are poor.  Judging is difficult for me now.  But I feel confident in this judgment: contentment, happiness, misery, and wretchedness are most definitely not dependent on affluence.  On the whole, Indonesians are happier than Americans, and it’s not really close.  These are people who mostly don't have cars, DVD players, washing machines, computers, air conditioning, or hot water; people who often eat with their hands while sitting on the floor, have the same dish for every meal, and know relatively little of the outside world; people who were born without any material, racial, or cultural advantage—yet they manage to live more content, peaceful lives than those who have been given everything.

Indeed, part of the reason they can be so content is precisely that they do not have these things.  They do not have and they do not miss.  Children here are every bit as carefree and delighted as their American equivalents (if not more), and with far simpler diversions.  A half-flattened plastic ball and a dusty yard are all you need to play a great soccer match; with a sarong and a bubbly kid, you can play ghosts or bandits.  People here work, and they work hard, but they are not consumed by work in the way that Americans are.  I have not met anyone who defines himself first by professional accomplishments, or even anyone who designates professional success as their prime motivator.  From what I have seen, Indonesians seldom worry.

The more you have, the more you have to worry about (I call this the Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems Principle).  Americans have cars and computers and air conditioning and college education, etc. etc.  But they also have mortgages and student loans; insecurities about having enough and having extra; financing future retirement and education for their children; filling up the car; and protecting their assets from people who want to take them away.  On top of that, they worry about living meaningful lives.  Worrying, worrying, worrying—always worrying.  The cumulative stress can be psychologically and spiritually debilitating, not to mention physically hazardous as years and decades wear on.

For Indonesians, taking it easy is an end in itself.  In the villages, at least, materialism is not a real force.  To be sure, motivated, hardworking, creative people can make more money here, but the general thought is: What’s the point?  Yang penting (the important thing) is having time for friends, neighbors, and especially family.  I haven’t seen children suffering for lack of parental attention.  Fathers come home early and spend quality time with their kids.  One of the nicest things to see in the evening is children crawling in the laps of their parents, positively floating in this ether of love and nourishment, magnificently unaware that this level of care is enviable.  Families spend a lot of time together.  Not just parents and children—also grandparents, cousins, second cousins, etc.  It is normal to live next to one’s parents or siblings after getting married.

Living in a comprehensible world

Americans live in a huge world.  News and images from around the globe pour from our televisions and our computers.  We know that there is practically no place in this world where the United States does not involve itself somehow.  We live largely in our minds, in elaborate virtual environments, or in an illimitable digital cosmos.  No wonder then that we may be discouraged by the immensity and insentience of our world—where is our place in it, how can we possibly matter?  And what if there's no God, what does it mean?  Should we live for ourselves or for others?  And how can we avoid the sorrow that always accompanies choice?  The questions go on and on.  Even if many people do not articulate them personally or specifically, these anxieties permeate our culture.

Contrast that with the people I have come across thus far in Indonesia: They live in a world that they understand, and one that makes sense to them.  It’s a small place, and they know how they fit in.  They believe in God, they believe in each other, and they believe in their own basic goodness.  The very Western existential questions (“Why am I here? What does it all mean? What am I to do with myself?”) do not plague them, because the answers are more or less obvious. 

I am here to live happily and morally, to serve God, and hopefully to raise a family.  When I die, there’s nothing I can take with me but my clean or dirty soul.

It's simple, and it thwarts the despair of answerlessness. 

The simplicity, I think, can drive us Americans (even religious ones) bonkers. We aspire to be educated, to be successful, to outdo our parents, to give our children lives with every opportunity.  Indeed, to us, freedom is choice.  We see people who are happy but have few choices as people deserving of pity.  Should we pity them?  Or, do they understand a basic, plain truth about existing contentedly that we, ever seeking new avenues to happiness, have not accepted?  And if they are happy, is that a genuine happiness?  Would they really choose to live that way if they had another choice?  Don’t they know how unfortunate they are? 

I don't have answers.  I am, after all, an American outside of my homeland, and there are multiple ways to interpret this conundrum, the mere existence of which contradicts multiple notions I was raised with.  I sit on both sides.  At various times I find myself admiring, impatient, dismissive, exasperated, or marveling.  Perhaps they should be pitied their lack of options, or perhaps I should be pitied for the inherent assumption that you cannot live fulfilled without thorough freedom of choice.  Perhaps no one should be pitied.  I don't know where to come down, or if I should at all.  (There are obvious arguments for both sides, and several other positions besides.)

Choice as liberator/tormentor

Having choices is freedom, but making decisions is cruelly distressing.  The word for "decide" in Indonesian is memutuskan, which would literally translate to "make severed".  The root of the English word "decide" is the Latin decidere, which, broken down, means "cut off".  When we make decisions, we cut off, even destroy, potential.  Then, we brood about the choices we might have made instead, and their possible outcomes.  We dwell on the opportunity cost, to borrow a term from economics.  Ruminating on opportunity cost almost invariably makes one unhappy.  Thus, we Americans, who have a hundred paths ahead of us, suffer because we can only choose one.

There is not really anywhere to go with this meditation.  Minds far greater than mine have dissected this conundrum.  If nothing else, I can say that from my own observation, I will no longer automatically pity people who are poor.  Compassion is good, but pity, when laced with ignorance and presumption, is patronizing.  Sometimes pity is appropriate, and sometimes it is insulting to the dignity (or wisdom) of the people who receive it.  Better to reserve pity, for it is a judgment.

Note/Disclaimer:  I understand I've been speaking in broad terms here.  It has been necessary to illustrate a general point.  There are people who are not happy here.  There are emotional and psychological casualties of this social structure.   There are drawbacks to the simplicity of the lifestyle, many of which I have or will go into.  Nor does the description of physical/economic conditions apply to all Indonesians.  I think many of the PCVs who have been here over a year would make a fair number of additions or amendments to my portrait.  I don't want to give the impression that people are simply living in bliss here, because they are not.  But it doesn't change the fact that they are, in general, happier.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Six Hundred (My First Battle)

Last Friday I had my first battle in Indonesia.

First, some background info...

Peace Corps Indonesia's policy caps the number of hours per week a Volunteer may be in the classroom at 20. Schools are not permitted to assign their Volunteers to teach more than 20 hours per week. The other hours may be spent planning, running extracurricular activities, focusing on secondary projects, and taking care of whatever random functions (there are a lot) the school needs the PCV to do.

In Indonesia, high school starts in 10th grade and ends in 12th grade. Classes operate in more or less the same way as elementary school classes in the US. For example, if there are 150 kids in 10th grade, they will probably be divided into five classes of 30 students (say Class 10-A, 10-B, etc. until 10-E). And each of those classes has its own homeroom, where they stay for all their courses. Teachers, not students, rotate between the rooms.

When you consider that for this upcoming semester, there will be eleven classes of 10th grade and nine classes of 11th grade in my school, and that all students are required to take 16 courses (there are no electives) each semester, you can imagine that creating the schedule is a pretty insane task. Therefore, you often get insane results, e.g. students having one hour of English, then one hour of chemistry, then two hours of English again, then two hours of chemistry again. The difficulty of merely designing a schedule more or less precludes logical course sequencing/spacing, such as having English class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Classes are scheduled for whenever they fit in.

On to the story...

The last couple weeks I'd been operating with the assumption that I would teach two classes of 11th grade and two classes of 10th grade for a total of 19 hours per week. I'd been very well in communication with my counterparts, and we'd been designing new materials and drawing up the structure/policies of our courses. Then this morning there was a meeting for all teachers in the school to discuss the schedule for the upcoming semester.

And at this meeting, the principal announced that he had decided I would teach every class of 10th and 11th grade for one period each week. I actually didn't catch it the first time. I was already zoned out from a solid 45-minute block of brain-melting bahasa Indonesia, so it kind of went over my head. Later, my counterpart, Bu Ani, who had been informed earlier that morning, realized I hadn't understood, much to her chagrin. She was afraid of having to deliver the news herself, but deliver it she did, once the meeting was over.

As I said, there are nine classes of 11th grade and eleven classes of 10th grade. That's twenty classes. Twenty hours per week, each with a different class. Twenty classes. Containing at least 30 kids apiece. That's at least 600 students, each of whom I am to instruct for less than a quarter of their total time studying English. It would mean planning with five different teachers.

I was furious, and my counterpart could tell. She was actually a bit afraid, not yet having seen me angry. We went to the Vice Principal for Curriculum, and he caught on to my wrath-vibe in about half a second. He indicated immediately that it wasn't his idea -- the principal had informed him this morning. He accompanied me toward the principal's office, but before storming in there and raising hell, my rational brain prevailed, I excused myself for 20 minutes, and I called the Peace Corps Indonesia Program Manager.

Is this legal? Can the principal even do this? Are you going to back me up here? What if he refuses to change?

Pak Mifta, the Program Manager, answered my questions patiently and offered some thoughts on how to deal with the headmaster. He said that if, after the conversation, the principal refused to budge, I should call him back and he would talk to him. But, bottom line: the principal makes the decision.

So I rounded up the VP for Curriculum (also an English teacher) and one of my counterparts, Pak Eko, told them the angle I was going to take, and we went to the office. We had to wait ten minutes, as the principal was already in a meeting with another teacher. In the meantime, Pak Mifta called Pak Eko and explained to him in Indonesian my situation and the rationale behind "quality over quantity", which we had already discussed in English. I was grateful nonetheless.

The wait was tense. When I get angry like that, and I feel righteous, I get focused and I get forceful. I am not often angry--this was probably the first time since arriving in Indonesia--so I don't mind so much when that side of me comes out. It reminds me of what my buttons are. Push the disrespect button and there is a different me. I felt like bottled lightning.

We went into the office, and the bargaining began.

The headmaster's perspective was predictable: Quantity is important, too. The parents know you are here, and they expect their children to be taught by the native speaker. If you see all the students, you will be able to motivate them all to learn.

My responses were also predictable (and more numerous [and, if you ask me, more logically and morally compelling]): Quality is more important. 600 students for 45 minutes per week means they will learn nothing, and my potential contribution to the quality of education nullified. I do not have magic English dust that I can sprinkle on the students to make them know the language. I cannot plan with five teachers. I am not here to be a political tool or to make the school look good to prospective students; I'm here to improve the program. Any student who wishes to learn with me can join English Club or English Development. I am here as a teacher, not a celebrity.

And so on…there was a lot more. We had some back and forth.

More background info:

There are no free high schools on Java. Students must pay to enroll. More students means more money (MSMMM). This simple equation means that schools are more than half a business. And businesses depend on "clients" for survival. They also compete with other businesses to recruit those clients. I am going to get more into this in an upcoming blog. It is incredibly fascinating for me.

Anyway, the consequence of MSMMM with respect to my presence at the school should be quite obvious. Here in East Java, Volunteers are celebrities. Having a native English speaker on staff is an incredible recruiting tool that no other school in the area can boast. You're fishing in a gator pond with steak on your hook. So, if you, as a recruiter, lure in new students with the expectation of being taught English by an American, there is some real pressure to live up to that expectation.

Despite my arrival just three weeks before the start of the semester, total enrollment is up from 10% to 15% compared to last semester. Coincidence? I highly doubt it. This explains the headmaster's desire for me to take on six hundred students.

The bargain…

We have some back and forth.

Headmaster: Proposes, after hearing my plea, that I play celebrity teacher for twenty classes for the first three months only, after which we could re-evaluate my role.

Tim: I make another passionate plea for a sane schedule, restating/rephrasing my reasons.

Headmaster: Proposes one to two months as celebrity teacher, after which I only teach 11th grade and the accelerated class in 10th grade.

Tim: I express dissatisfaction with this deal. There is no difference between teaching twenty classes for one hour per week and teaching ten classes for two hours per week. I am still spread too thin. I indicate I may accept the temporary role of celebrity teacher if it is, in fact, purely temporary.

Headmaster: Asks me what situation I would be happy with after a month or two as celebrity teacher.

Tim: I reiterate that I want to be at every meeting of any class I teach. Therefore, after playing celebrity, I want only four classes of five hours per week each.

Headmaster: Accepts this compromise. I will be celebrity teacher to 600+ students through the end of Ramadan (one and a half months, but much of which is low-quality teaching time because of frequent interruptions and shortened classes), after which I will be a real teacher on my own terms.

And that is the deal. During and after our conference, I was high-octane. Pak Eko gently suggested I be a bit less serious, though they love my passion. I said that it's good to get mad sometimes, because angry people change things, and I am not here to be a cash cow for the school. Mentally, I was in combat mode. After finishing, I ate lunch with my headphones on while listening to "Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums". As the afternoon wore on I settled back into my usual good humor, largely helped by a great discussion with Bu Ani, the product of which will make up a different article.

So there you have it. My first battle. I'm proud of not letting myself get trampled.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Buses, Angkots, and Sepeda Motors

I may have mentioned to some of you that driving in Indonesia is wack. For those whom I haven't told: driving in Indonesia is wack.

Some adjectives, in the order they come into my head: dangerous, curvy, congested, pollution-y, under-regulated, exhilarating, nauseating, farcical, baffling, and completely fitting.

Some facts...
  • About 70% of vehicles on the road are motorcycles, or sepeda motor in local parlance.
  • Roads are hardly ever wider than one lane for each direction, and often there are no lane markings.
  • Speed limits do not exist, as far as I know.
  • The law requires motorcyclists to wear helmets…
  • (And) the legal driving age is probably 17 or 18…
  • (But) there are no traffic police.
  • Public transport options on roads include:
  1. Angkot: A smallish van (perhaps three meters long and 1.5 meters wide) with a cab in front and a compartment with benches in the rear.
  2. Becak: A buggy pulled by a hardworking little man on a bicycle.
  3. Bus: You think you know what this is.
  4. Dokar (aka Kereta Kuda): Horse and buggy. This does still exist here in some places.

Motorcyles - Verboten

All Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to ride on motorcycles. Period. Worldwide, a number of PCVs have been killed in accidents, so some years ago Peace Corps made this a global policy, with the single exception of Cambodia, where you literally may not be able to do your work if you don't hop on a motorcycle sometimes. As inconvenient as this can be at times, I'm with Peace Corps on this one. Motorcycles are dangerous as hell, and considering the way people drive here, better not to deal with them at all.

Motorcyclists are required to wear a helmet by law. In practice, maybe half of them do. It's more common in the city, where there's a minor chance of being seen by police who might fine you. Outside of cities, helmets are like seat belts: some people always wear them, and some people just never got in the habit. While on the subject of laws that nobody pays attention to…(segue)…driving age! I've seen boys that could not possibly be 12 years old driving motorbikes and smoking cigarettes with one or two giggling friends hanging on the back. Kids with glinting impish eyes and squeaky little voices that call out "Mister!" as they zoom by. I mean, their feet can't reach the ground and barely make it to the footholder things. The first couple times I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

The real scandal with motorcycles is that it is absolutely typical to see three or more packed on simultaneously. Two is usual, three is normal, four is in no way remarkable. The most I have seen is five, which is quite rare and perversely breathtaking, both for its sheer recklessness and as a cheeky rebuff to standard American notions of vehicular capacity (I mean, what exactly are they sitting on?). And when four or five people are on one bike, at least two of them are not wearing helmets. Those two are usually children, sometimes infants strapped to mother's chest and nestled between parental torsos.



In a city, the best way to get around is by angkot. Angkots run back and forth along set routes. You can flag them down at any point on the route and get off at any other point. The price is the same no matter what. The advantage here is that it's cheap and you don't have to bargain. The disadvantage is that the angkot frequently stops to pick up passengers and will often sit in one spot, refusing to move another inch until enough fares get on board to persuade the driver that it's worthwhile to press on. If it's late, you can bargain with the driver to take you to some specific place that might be outside of his normal range. The driver is always a man.

An angkot is about the size of a minivan, but the back is empty, except for benches. An American looking at the vehicle might say you could fit eight, or perhaps ten, uncomfortable people in the thing. An American looking at the vehicle who has been told that a driver's income is wholly dependent on how many fares he can pick up might readjust the estimate to twelve or thirteen people, if they are skinny and carrying no bags. An American looking at the vehicle who understand drivers' pay and is also aware that there is no legal limit to the number of people inside an angkot might start sweating and say that fifteen cramped and potentially violent people could theoretically be stuffed into this not-terribly-large and suspiciously rickety POS.

But, dear friends and readers, I do aver that I have been inside an angkot with no fewer than twenty-three passengers. Keep in mind that I'm talking about a moving vehicle with seating capacity comparable to a queen-size mattress. In some parts of the country, people regularly hang from the doorway, which is always open, or just sit on top. Twenty-three is my personal best, but other PCVs have outdone this. Once you get to about eighteen people inside, you start rooting for families with lots of little kids to get on board so you can bump up the record. Don't ask about seat belts.

I imagine this will not be a surprise for those accustomed to traveling on the cheap in places outside the U.S. or Europe, or even for some subwaygoers who are used to being pressed up against pungent strangers during rush hour. I'd call it a draw in terms of squishedness, but the level of danger is infinitely higher in an angkot. You are in live traffic in an ancient vehicle, the engine of which is backfiring constantly, and your life is in the hands of a somewhat unpredictable driver. And the roads are narrow, curvy, and congested, with cars and motorbikes frequently swerving into the oncoming-traffic lane as they pass the slower drivers. On your average 30-minute ride, there are at least a half-dozen situations where you seem to be playing chicken with an oncoming vehicle.

People can--and do--smoke inside the angkot. Usually, this is an older man with papery hands who holds the cigarette so that the burning ends faces inward, toward his palm, and brings it up to his mouth with his hand sort of inside out in that way that lets you know that this dude has smoked a fucking lot of cigarettes in his day, sonny.



For intercity travel, buses are the most economical option. Buses here are not like buses in the US or Europe. They're basically bigger, faster, more dangerous angkots.


After visiting my PST host family in the Batu area, I get on the bus back to my permanent site. A rough count reveals approximately 30-35 seats on the bus, all of which are occupied when I board. An equal number of people are standing in the aisles and clustering in the little areas by the doors where there is a bit of extra space. At 5 feet 11 inches, I am the tallest person on this bus (being 5'11" here is like being 6'5" in the States). The ceiling of the bus is about 5 feet 8 inches high. There is precisely one spot on the bus where I can stand up straight--near the back, there is a cutout square spot in the ceiling which seems kind of like a hatch that can be opened in case of emergency. It is about five inches deep, giving me about two square feet of head space. Mostly, I hunch.

Buses are like angkots because the pay of the driver and his two helpers is 100% determined the number of people that get on the bus. Therefore, the driver's incentive is to go as fast as physics will allow, and occasionally faster, in order to maximize passenger intake. Buses are also like angkots because they do not stop only in terminals or at stations--they can be flagged down at any point along the route. The two doors to the bus are permanently open and each feature a hustling/bustling male helping passengers get in and out. If at all possible, the bus will not actually stop to pick up (or drop off) the passenger. It will usually slow to a crawl and let the individual jump in (or out), before speeding up again. This gets interesting with old ladies and young children.

The bus journey from Batu to my site is about two hours. During this entire time, I do not sit, because nobody ever gets up. Apparently all the people who get on at the beginning of the route are long-distance travelers. The road itself is hellacious: a narrow, sloping, serpentine thoroughfare through mountain terrain. On its own, it's enough to spook any person even mildly prone to motion-sickness. But throw in the standing, the ludicrous speeding, and the physical constriction, and you have an earthbound Vomit Comet. Hanging from the wall of the bus is a large clump of black plastic bags for the passengers to barf in. On this particular journey, at least six bags are passed to people in my half of the bus, filled with spew, and tossed out the open door. Sometimes they just throw up in their hands because they can't get hold of a bag in time. I, too, begin to feel a bit queasy toward the end of the ride, but I manage keep my dinner down.

Also worthy to note is that buses which are not completely full will routinely host beggars, buskers, and vendors. They get on and off at will. People try to sell you pens, office supplies, textiles, snacks, candies, drinks, and I can only imagine what else. Men with old, crappy guitars jump on the bus and sing awful songs (occasionally, however, the singer will have a good voice) and then stalk the central aisle with their palm held out. One time, a woman came on board with an amplifier and reverb-heavy microphone and sang karaoke for a solid ten minutes. I've only been here three months, and I suspect that I've only seen the tip of the iceberg.

The whole thing is pretty wild, and largely cramped and uncomfortable. But truthfully, it's not such a big deal. That's one of the strange things about being here. There are so many things that are weird and potentially strange/uncomfortable, but they don't always make me unhappy, and in some ways they make me feel good. The sense of adventure sort of offsets the inconvenience. And then in that moment where you realize you're actually used to this once-new-and-crazy thing, you Like, Ain't no thang, I can handle it. It's nice to find out that you're actually kind of tough.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Peace Corps Moments"

I suppose every group of people who work together develops its own jargon. I'm not sure if the term Peace Corps Moment (PCM) is an original coinage, or if I read it somewhere and subconsciously recalled it when thinking about certain experiences I've had here. I'm sure hundreds, if not thousands, of people have thought of it independently.

Anyway, it's a sort of semi-ironic term that some of us like to throw around here. A PCM is an experience that somehow fits in with the romantic notions or expectations one fashions while considering Peace Corps service. I think it's safe to say that pretty much every volunteer at some point was wooed by the promise of beautiful landscapes, deep cultural exchanges, moments of feeling like you really are making a difference, etc. When you're in the application process, or still thinking about applying, you definitely fantasize about epiphanies and other assorted profound episodes. The organization itself works hard to cultivate this idea of the "Peace Corps Experience". It's certainly an attractive image.

(Whatever service is like, it doesn't much resemble the expectations you begin with.)

But PCMs are real, and they are powerful. When we discuss PCMs with each other, we use the term with a hint of irony, but maybe that's just because it's a bit absurd and counterintuitive to talk about highly personal and deeply meaningful experiences with an obvious cliché. It's the quickest way to get your point across, because all of us understand what those moments entail. I will share a few of mine.

Just a couple days after arriving at my host family's house during training, I had my first real PCM. There were about a dozen little kids already at my house, most with English workbooks, requesting my help with their homework. The sun had already set, but it wasn't dark yet. Then the power went out in the whole village. I was already sitting on the sofa with all the children surrounding me, dressed up really nice for prayers at the mushollah. The adults brought out candles, and we continued doing English exercises together. The ambience was unreal. This orange-golden light was bathing all the children, and they were smiling and repeating words after me, giggling at some of the funnier sounding ones. They all broke into laughter we repeated the word "banana" several times, each time louder than the last until a dozen people shouted out BANANA! It was a moment of complete comfort, and one of those moments where you are conscious of just how special and beautiful it is.

Another moment was just last week. One of the boys in my new village invited me to play soccer with a big group of them. The field is near my house, and it's in fairly good condition. It is surrounded by rice paddies on three sides, and its north edge is lined by a dirt road with houses on the other side. The goals have no nets, and there are several very large piles of rocks, probably for grinding and making cement later on. For at least an hour, I played soccer with 20 village boys, some in their late teens, some probably as young as nine or ten. They were very excited to have me there, and my teammates were eager to pass me the ball. Indonesians love to please. We played shirts vs. skins, and then switched, and as the evening wore on the sun was blazing red in the west and setting over the paddies, where the sky was reflected in the water. There was some haze in the air, so the halo of the sun was magnified and it seemed twice its usual size. Running, exercising, laughing, play-faking injuries, chasing balls kicked into the fields, setting up goals, scoring a goal, getting schooled, shaking hands. I don't know why, but it felt like being inside the song "Cape Canaveral". The colors and the air and aura just felt like they were waiting to be swallowed into memory and reminiscence.

A third moment was two days ago. I was home after a very good day. My host father's cousin's son (therefore my host second cousin, hah) came over. It was my first time meeting him, but I sat with him and my host parents, and we talked in Indonesian about many things. The school system, philosophies of English education, relative wealth in the US and Indonesia, American companies setting up factories in this country, and many other things besides. I sat with them a good three or four hours, and we just talked and talked, plenty of laughter and plenty of seriousness. And for some reason, I was giddy inside. It's really happening, this is integration. This is real discussion, real exchange. Smooth and natural, and these people are good people, and this is the right thing for me. It was an amazing feeling.

I have had other PCMs, but I think I've illustrated my point. I don't want to give the impression that every day is filled with these moments. For every PCM, there is a moment of gloom. It's not so different than life in anywhere -- sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down, and most of the time you're somewhere in between. But, at least for me, the ups are more intense here, and my general mood is better than it would be in the US. I don't brood as much, anyway. And the lows really aren't so low. For me, at any rate.