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. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tim,

    I stumbled upon your blog while reading some other blogs.

    I have to say, thank you for your words, and thank you so sharing your story.

    I'm currently in a small town in Kosovo, not through the Peace Corps program, but through another program.

    Life is tough, and I found solace in some of the things you wrote:

    "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."

    Absolutely. I am the only Asian American living my town in Kosovo, and get harassed and heckled at everyday. Stares at me are unavoidable. I started to wear large sunglasses to prevent people from saying something about my Asian appearance.

    "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."

    Yes, I agree. I've been in Kosovo for 8 months, and I felt the same way.

    Again, great post. It'd be great to connect, as I am having some tough times in Kosovo right now and would like to speak about ways to cope/address the challenges you've faced in Indonesia.