Friday, September 30, 2011

New Videolog!

The longest one yet...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Impressions from the Last Month / How It's Going

The last month my drive to write has cooled off a bit, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been anything to write about.  Things have just sort of been all over the place.  This post will reflect that.  Oh, and it’s really long.


I wrote that Ramadan post after five days of fasting.  There were 25 more days after it.  I didn’t cheat once, but I was over it by the end of the month.  I felt good about my ability to control my cravings, which only approached “unbearable” one time—when I met up with other PCVs in Madiun but couldn’t eat anything with the ones who weren’t fasting.  Tough, but good to be in control of myself. 

On the other hand, it was less of a bonding and spiritual experience than I had hoped.  Not being able to drink water is really limiting physically, so I wasn’t able to ride my bike places for the whole month.  This meant a lot of time spent indoors, which was making me a little bit insane by the end of the fasting period.   Most people were very impressed that I fasted the whole time and I did feel like it earned me street cred, but I didn’t feel really closer to people.  Also, I think I learned an important lesson: ascetic activity that is not accompanied by serious mental focus is only one step above masochism.  Fasting is pretty ascetic, but the spiritual dimension was lacking for me because I wasn’t taking advantage of the physical deprivation to pursue anything greater.  At some points I just felt like it was pointless to fast in that way if there is neither a religious obligation nor a personal spiritual goal.  For me it was just about seeing if I could do it and knowing that I would never count my fasting experience as authentic if I cheated.  Other than that goal (which was sufficient this time around), I didn’t have a good answer for “what’s the point?” by the end of Ramadan.  Therefore…

Next year, I probably will not be so strict with fasting.  Having done it once and correctly, I will not have the same need to prove myself to…myself.  The drawbacks are pretty big, especially the physical limitation.  Plus, next year I’ll be able to take vacation away from my site during the two-week Lebaran holiday, which I shall want to do without the weight of not eating or drinking holding me back. 

On the final night before Idul Fitri, which marks the end of fasting, is a ritual called takbiran.  The takbir is the Arabic phrase Allahu akbar, which is variously translated as “God is Great”, “God is Greater”, or “God is Greatest”.  It’s one of the most common religious phrases in the Islamic world and becomes the slogan of seemingly every political movement that wants to cast itself as righteous.  Anyway, in my village takbiran means chanting Allahu akbar in the mosque through the entire night and broadcasting those chants to the entire village.  In my village it was about ten hours straight of men passing around the microphone and saying the same thing over and over in a terrible droning “melody”.  I couldn’t fall asleep.  By the time 6:00am rolled around, I was pissed off and half-delirious from sleep deprivation.  Being cranky and tired, I just spent the morning sleeping while everyone in the village was going from house to house asking neighbors forgiveness for any physical and mental transgressions.  At that moment, hungry and sleep deprived and with a brain liquefied by ten hours of takbiran, I was in no mood to ask other people to forgive me.  This might constitute the greatest anticlimax of my whole Ramadan experience, because going around to the neighbors and asking for forgiveness is pretty much the most social thing about the fasting month.  And I skipped it.

Point of interest:  As Lebaran/Idul Fitri is the biggest holiday of the year in Indonesia, it is often compared to Christmas in America.  There are some oft-cited similarities: Traffic is horrible, people go across country to be with their families, many children get presents—usually new clothes—and there’s a two-week vacation from school.  One thing other thing that I never heard anyone talk about is the phrase Mohon maaf lahir dan batin (more or less: “Implore forgiveness external and internal”).  This is the formal phrase you use to ask for forgiveness, which you think would be uttered with great solemnity.  In actuality, it’s said in approximately the same tone as “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” in America.  It’s written on banners and advertisements and pops up in television commercials, which often caused me to wonder how it’s possible for a corporation or political group or restaurant to ask forgiveness from a bunch of people it doesn’t know.  Is the concept of mental and physical forgiveness really applicable between a television network/restaurant/celebrity and anonymous individuals?  The idea of asking forgiveness from strangers is odd.


So school was out for a couple weeks, and since resuming two weeks ago the situation has improved immensely.  I had worked it out with my principal that my pre-Lebaran schedule would change after the holiday was over.  In my new schedule, I have five different groups of students (the accelerated group from 10th grade and the Science track and Language track kids from 11th grade).  This is infinitely preferable to my former schedule.  Planning is much, much better.  My days are stable.  I have been able to organize myself in a way that makes me happy and allows for a measure of routine and predictability, which is precious here in Indonesia. 

I work with two other English teachers, and I’m sort of taking the lead in having us work as a unit.  I’ve managed to get us to sit down every week to plan what will be taught for a week in advance.  Since we don’t have English books and they are both cool with departing from the national curriculum, we are developing almost all of our own materials.  This is one area where more progress must be made—especially in terms of sharing the workload.  I hope that over the semester and year, we will develop into an efficient team.  I dream that this sort of team spirit and efficiency will survive after my service is over.  If I achieve that, I’d call my service successful.  Time will tell.

I let all my students choose nicknames and had them make name cards/placards.  They were allowed to use their normal nicknames or invent new ones, but I warned them that anything they chose was going to be the thing I called them for the entire time I live in Indonesia.  On any assignment they turn in and on my attendance/tardiness/participation sheet, I just use their nicknames.  This is making it easier to learn who they are.  The girls are usually much tougher to remember because they wear headscarves (which cover ears and hair and neck) and long clothing and so look much more alike than the boys.  But it’s coming along nicely, and there some very interesting names in my classes (we have a CR7, a Rambo, a Hernandez, a [male] Chelsea, and a Justin).

Extracurriculars still haven’t started, and it’s almost October.  Next week has got to be the week.  I need to devote more energy to developing this.  I’ve got plans and approval for an English Club, and English Development thing, a Teacher’s English Class, and possibly also an American Games and Sports afterschool activity.  We’ll see which ones fizzle and which ones take off.  The difference between English Club and English Development is that the former should/will be more about fun and activities while the latter should/will be more seriously focused on developing basic skills that are chronically overlooked here—e.g. how to say the letters of the alphabet, practicing with numbers, learning useful grammar points, intonation, pronunciation, etc.

I am, at some point in the near future, going to make a post about what a day in school is actually like, also touching on the character of the students and teachers here, what level their English is at, and how classes run. 

Independence Day

August 17th was Indonesia’s 66th birthday.  I didn’t write any blogs about it because I had an idea for one DavidFosterWallace-style mega post about my experience on that day that would capture the essence of life in Indonesia through the eyes of a foreigner.  Yeah, ambitious.  I still have the notes from that, but I never got far into the write-up, and it doesn’t look promising.  For me it was an upsetting experience, watching the ceremony.  Everyone was fasting, yet more than a thousand kids had to stand out in the heat and sunlight for like two hours while this series of ceremonies took place.  Some highlights…

At least seven girls fainted.  There was an ambulance waiting from the beginning, as it is common for people to faint due to the heat and the restrictive clothing.  And this time it coincided with fasting.  Another 30 or so students, including a number of boys, had to be escorted from the main group because they were woozy and in danger of passing out.

Teams of students were waiting behind all the formations of kids to run in and catch the people who were passing out.  They took them to a shady area in the back.

There was a re-enactment of Indonesia’s struggle for independence from the Dutch, complete with horse riders and peasants bursting into song and cruel soldiers miming beating peaceful villagers.  One of the riders fell off his horse.

The “fireworks”, which were more like propelled firecrackers, were launched by a group of older men at the back.  They were supposed to shoot up into the air and explode and make a loud noise.  Most of them did that, though they were unnervingly low in the air.  Some of them shot into the crowd of students.  One firecracker landed next to a medical team, and the girls jumped away in terror about half a second before the damned thing exploded where they were just standing.  There was much screaming.


September 16th marked the completion of three months at our permanent sites.  After three months at site, we are allowed to start using our vacation time and spend nights outside of our villages.  To mark the occasion, I went on vacation to Yogyakarta (aka Jogja, not the same as Jakarta) from Friday until yesterday (Tuesday).  I had been looking forward to it for a good month.  I missed two days of teaching. 

We were supposed to meet up on Saturday, but since it takes eight hours to get to Jogja, I decided to leave on Friday after classes.  I was giddy, practically dancing around, in school that day.  I took the executive bus (quicker, smoother, air conditioned, more expensive, doesn’t allow buskers/vendors) and sat next to a very nice young man from Jogja named Aris, whom I hope to meet again some day.  I invited him to hang with me and my friends the next day, but he had fallen ill and couldn’t join.  I stayed in a hostel that night with Elle.  The hostel was beautiful but empty, because it’s a quiet time for tourism in Jogja.  It was actually pretty ghostlike when I got there—no guests and no employees.  I walked around the whole house looking for someone until I stumbled into a room with a sleeping Indonesian whom I could not wake up, despite repeated efforts (including shaking him).  Eventually the other hostel managers returned from wherever they were and we got things straightened out.  Elle arrived later, and it was wonderful to be able to hang out and talk freely and just generally revel in the beauty that lies in being able to be yourself.

The next day we went to the villa we had rented in the middle of Jogja.  It was glorious.  Walled in, green grass, private swimming pool, comfortable bed-chairs to lounge in next to the pool, outdoor bed on the patio, outdoor table on the patio, more chairs for lounging, beautiful tiling, fridge, air conditioning, lovely kitchen to cook in, multiple beds, massive bed/bedroom with gorgeous white bedding for everyone to share, two overhead showers with water as hot as you want, a sit-down toilet (!), and lots of peace and quiet.

I kind of don’t want to try to write about the vacation, because it was perfect beyond words and you wouldn’t understand it if you weren’t there anyway.  There were some external, touristy activities, but luckily they were kept to a minimum.  We did walk around the Kraton, or palace area, visited the underground mosque, went to Malioboro street, and made a trip to Borobudur temple.  These things were all right, but they’re also all the kind of thing I’d much rather do alone than in a group.  Exploring a new place ought to be done alone, and I had this in mind from the beginning, so I wasn’t disappointed at being underwhelmed by what Jogja had to offer.  From the beginning, the point of this vacation was to not feel engulfed by the foreignness of Indonesia.

So the true highlight was just being.  Just being relaxed.  Just being American.  Just doing what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it.  We spent so much time cooking beautiful meals and listening to music, drinking beer and talking, talking, talking.  Getting to know one another, swapping war stories, laughing our faces off, doing things just for the hell of it.  And did I mention there was always music playing?  Everyone contributed some essential quality to the dynamic, everyone helped to do what needed to be done.  Nobody was selfish.  We invited various Indonesian friends to come to our villa, which pretty soon started feeling like our house, so they could eat with us and spend time with us in our natural state.  That feeling of being a host rather than a guest or stranger was fantastic.  There were so many moments, especially around the table, where people just grinned and giggled out of sheer happiness and gratitude.  And when it was just us after eating, we were doing some intense personal bonding, aided by our long-unmet friend, Alcohol.  If I had to choose a single word to sum up those four days, it would be golden. 

On the first day in the villa, I was walking to the convenience store to buy something when I just ran into Pak Wanto.  I was walking in the general direction of the main road and there he was in the street!  Pak Wanto was my Javanese language teacher for the week that I and other PCVs studied local languages back in training.  I knew he, like all the other language teachers, lived in Jogja, but running into him less than a hundred yards from the place we were staying was beyond coincidence.  He had been on my mind recently because I was thinking about the Javanese culture lessons he had given me and my classmates.  He’s something of an expert on Javanese culture, a very sophisticated man, but with a simultaneously humble and confident presence.  He seems very serious, but when he laughs it lights everyone up.  And he teaches language for a living, so he speaks very clearly and knows exactly how to read the people he’s talking with, viz. if they understand what he’s saying or not.  The day after running into him, he came over to eat dinner with us (his first time trying Mexican food), and it was wonderful to have him.  Interactions with Indonesians who have substantial knowledge about the outside world as well as a cultivated grasp of their own culture yields the most rewarding exchanges. 

I don’t have pictures from the trip, but the others do.  When those pics go up on the internet, I’ll either steal and repost them here or post links to their blogs. 

Going back home was difficult.  I think the perfection of the vacation probably couldn’t have been achieved if it hadn’t been preceded by five and a half months of constant struggle and frequent isolation. 


I’m good.  Aside from the things listed, I’ve done a wee bit of reading and a good bit of music playing/recording.  I’ve got some friends here at my site, and I’ve got my PCV friends.  Things in my host family are pretty good.  I get along with everyone, though they are not the closest people to me.  I spend a lot of time at my house, and when I go out to sit or talk with neighbors, they always chide me to come out more.  Part of me agrees that I should be more focused on silatorahmi, which is a concept of being a good neighbor and taking active interest in all the people you live near.  And the other part says that sitting on the porch shooting the shit with the neighbors, or watching inane television with my host family, is not something I’m obligated to do if I’m not in the mood.  I have a good level of integration, but I also maintain a certain distance and independence, which I value.  Nonetheless, this tension between spending time alone and spending time with my family and neighbors remains imbalanced, and I will try to work on it more in the coming months.
My language skills are advancing in stop-and-go fashion, depending on how much I push myself to study.  But they are developed enough to handle all normal situations with ease, and I don’t really ever get into situations where I can’t understand what the other person is trying to say.  From time to time it becomes clear to me just how far along I’ve come in less than half a year—how many subtleties and cultural nuances I’ve picked up in and through language—and it makes me feel good.  Earlier I set a goal to be “fluent” by nine months.  The problem is I’m not sure what constitutes fluency.  There are some topics that I can discuss fluently.  There are others that I can talk about at a slower pace, and there are some that are a struggle.  But I have been able to live whole days without speaking English and to discuss conceptual things at a deeper level.  I am able to ask questions and understand explanations about religion and culture and history, as well as to express frustrations, with self-assurance.  I go through spurts of motivation to study Indonesian through reading and listening exercises, and they usually advance my skills.  These spurts of motivation are usually followed by longer periods of apathy.  It does require some serious discipline to do this all alone with no teacher or co-learners, so I don’t get too dismayed by those droughts of enthusiasm.

Two weeks from now will make six months in Indonesia.  At that point, I will write more about the personal side of things, taking a look at the last half year of my life.


P.S.  Not to toot my own horn, but I love this new background.  I hope you love it too, because it's going to stay for a long, long time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Strangely Normal Day

Today has been strangely normal.

Besides being an oxymoron, there are all kinds of odd significances behind that statement.  I woke up at 4:15am to go running with Pak Indri—an Indonesian language teacher at my school—and Bu Ani, but I got out of the house late because I was looking up information about the US Open semi-final match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.  My heart broke a little seeing that, despite standing at the cusp of victory several times, Federer could not put away the Serb.  Anyway, this caused me to leave late.  I went for a short run.  I came home, washed all my clothes, which had been piling up since the middle of Ramadan, and ate breakfast.  I tried to take a nap.  I woke up again, met my friend Dira, and we spent the day out.  We biked to the ruins of a Buddhist temple called Surowono and went to the swimming pool.  There were zillions of little kids.  Weighing my desire to swim against the combined risk of high urine content and probability of merciless attention to my fair skin, I didn’t go in the water.  We had a good talk.  A group of boys came up to talk to me in English, which was very nice.  They were super friendly and very respectful, impressed with my Indonesian and eager to ask me questions about English and about America.  Some said I was the first foreigner they had ever met (surprising, because their English was relatively excellent). 

After leaving, we ate lunch.  Two bowls of bakso for me.  Then we saw a place where there’s a natural spring and a cave, but we didn’t go in, because there was already a group of people in the springpool.  So we just relaxed for a few hours in the shade of the trees and an unwalled bamboo hut.  I took a nap.  I was already sunburned when we started the return journey.  Like most Indonesians, Dira had never seen a sunburn before.  She was half-frightened by the redness in my skin, and I had to make an effort to convince her it was nothing serious.  On the way home, we stopped by the “supermarket” and I saw her house.  I arrived at my place, brought my now-crisp laundry into my room, and bathed.  After that, more nondescript things.

Really, calling the day “normal” doesn’t do it justice.  It was a really good day.  I got out of the house, met new people, got to know my locale better, and was adequately productive.  No one here, including me, seemed to register that it is, in fact, the eleventh of September, and it is exactly ten years since the attacks.  It only entered my mind late in the afternoon.


My father was six or seven years old when Kennedy was assassinated, but the memory of that day remains clear in his mind.  Even though he lived in Ireland and had no family or connections in America, the collective trauma of that day was enough to carve its own permanent place in his memory.  There probably wasn’t a moment of comparable trauma, at least for the American psyche, in the thirty-eight years between JFK’s assassination and the day those planes went down. 

In some ways, countries are like individual humans.  Their experiences during infancy and childhood give shape to the struggles and conflicts that will play such a crucial role throughout their lives.  As time goes on, a definite personality forms.  Then life happens.  Joys and sorrows accumulate, softening hardness, hardening softness, and carving new lines into the soul and visage.  If you know what to look for, you can reap an incredible amount of information about a person and their history by simply looking at their face—the way they hold their mouth, the way that smiling alters their face, the way they wrinkle their eyebrows. 

And certain memories and events become imbued with a timelessness and significance that means they are part of that most basic storyline.  The plot of your life.  The story of a nation.  We live long, long lives, most of the moments in which we will forget because they were not consequential.  But a few moments we can look back on and say unequivocally: That. Was. Critical


I was in eighth grade at the moment I heard.  Mr. Ciccone’s history class, to be precise.  Both planes had already hit.  The principal, Mr. Margolis, came on the PA and told us that the United States had been attacked.  I was thirteen years old, and I did not know how to react.  I don’t mean that I didn’t know the socially appropriate reaction (one ought to be sad, frightened, perhaps angry, and terribly worried for all the people in danger).  I mean it at a deep level: I did not have any instinct of how to react.  Like an animal species that has never encountered humanity and thus doesn’t know to run from the hunter.  Nothing had ever happened like this.  Reaction: blank.

There was only amazement.  School did not end early that day.  After getting home, I sat on the couch in the living room and watched the news with my family.  I sat there all day and into the night.  I must have watched the towers collapse a hundred and fifty times, and I could have kept watching.  When you’re a kid from a place that’s completely predictable, clean, and safe, you tend to witness or anticipate disasters with an enraptured thrill.  Let that hurricane come here! Who cares if it destroys a bunch of stuff?  You don’t understand why adults worry so much about bad things happening.  All you know is that it’s amazing and extraordinary and it feels important.  At times over the next few years I would find myself both moved by what happened and dismayed by the course our country pursued in its wake.


America has been gearing up for this anniversary for a long while now, and I’d bet anything that almost everyone in the country will watch or participate or catch sight of some kind of tribute.  The September 11 attacks are part of what America is now.  The effects of the wound, which has been healing for the last decade, nonetheless remain visible for anyone to see—like a permanent limp.  America’s perception of itself changed.  America’s perception of the rest of the world changed.  The entire world’s view of America changed, for better or worse.  And there is no going back.  The wound may heal and things may go better or worse for the country as time goes on, but that scar is forever.

Perhaps that’s why it is feels so strange to have had a normal, even really good, day here.  On this date, that is.  That scar is so deep and essential in America, yet this place where I am is untouched.  People may not be aware of the date.  Being made aware, they shrug their shoulders and say, Well, don’t worry; there are no terrorists in this area.  And they carry on, totally unconscious of the monumental significance of the day to every American (even if the American himself does not perceive the magnitude). 

And maybe it’s strange because I can’t quite figure out how much I’ve been touched by that event.  I am not and have never been a proud and flag-waving type of American, largely thanks to my European parents.  After 9/11, we didn’t have a flag hanging outside of our house or in the windows of our cars—it just seemed a strange gesture, tainted the moment it became an unofficially mandatory act of solidarity.  The with us or against us attitude and the instinct to react with war was fascinating to me, but never resonated.  Yet I am, it seems, in the service of the United States.  Ten years after the event, I live in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.  And I am, in some way, working to improve relations between the United States and foreign Muslims. 

I was thrilled to be invited to serve in a Muslim country.  Maybe it’s my bleeding heart, but I guess I’ve always felt as if, since that day, Islam has needed an advocate in the US.  America is well covered: plenty of people speak for it.  But who speaks for the hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims whose reputations were stained on that day?  I hate the black and white picture of good and evil in our world.  Something deep down makes me want to make people understand each other.  So I feel grateful for this opportunity.  Ten years later, it feels right to be here in Indonesia, building my own small bridge between those two sundered worlds.

At some point in the future, I suppose September 11th will be like Pearl Harbor Day: still marked, but no longer felt in the heart, except by the older folks who were around to witness it and who will carry that experience, and the understanding of its import, inside them to the grave.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Awkward Situations & Amusing Questions

Like every other Volunteer, I get a lot of strange questions/comments and often am put in situations that would be terribly awkward in the US (see Nicole's post).  At some point, things stop being surprising and you have answers ready for even the weirdest inquiries and cultivate a certain what-the-hell approach to the unfamiliar.  For your entertainment and edification, here are a couple brief episodes.

·      Yesterday I went back to Giripurno, my training village, to visit my family.  It was a Friday, so I accompanied Pak Rodli to the Friday prayers.  I was dressed like any self-respecting Javanese Muslim man—kopiah, sarong, and baju koko.  I borrowed the last item from Pak Rodli, and I like it way more than the one I already have and plan to get a bunch just like it.  Anyway, I looked really Javanese.  Later, I was walking up the road to visit Cody’s training family, and I was stopped by one of the neighbors.  He said something about me looking very Muslim or Javanese.  So far, so good.

And then, vaguely in keeping with the whole Oh-you-resemble-a-Muslim shtick, he asked me if I’d had my foreskin cut off yet.  Well, I didn’t exactly understand the words he was saying, but when he pointed at my crotch with the devil’s own grin on his face and blathered something in Javanese, I put it together.  Unsure how to answer, I stalled a bit, and he repeated his query.  Wanting to be sure that his point came across, he mimed a most vulgar snipping of the member in question.  He was, of course, teasing, but he seemed alarmingly interested in the answer.  I told him that it was a private matter and we tried to move on with as little awkward lingering as possible.

·      The first (and thus far only) time I went to get a haircut, I went into the village salon with my Ibu.  The two hairdressers were already attending to some clients, so we took a seat.  I was soon joined on the cushioned bench by a plump, well-dressed, and immoderately made-up woman in her mid-fifties whose manner could be termed “handsy”.  Drawing upon every reserve of restraint and composure, I sat there like a Zen Master as this woman caressed me.  Yes, caressed me.  She 1) put her hands on my face, touching my nose and admiring its straightness; 2) examined my hair, which is thicker and wavier than Indonesians’ hair; 3) stroked my thighs and shoulders; 4) compared her dark skin to my light skin; 5) generally smothered me.  All the while, she was peppering me with questions and bursting out with exclamations about how handsome/smart/generally awesome I was.  Javanese frequently praise foreigners in this way—they’re really very complimentary, and they’re up-front about how they think white skin and “straight” (rather than flattish) noses are beautiful. 

[Side note: Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my eyes here, which are my best feature.  I’d certainly never been praised for my skin color or nose-straightness before arriving.  Weird place.]

At one point, I tried to shift my posture so that she would no longer be able to hold my hand, which she had seized upon arrival.  I succeeded in freeing my hand, only to watch as she quite deliberately grabbed it, as if it were a puppy wandering into traffic, and set it in her lap, fixing me with an “OOOH NO YOU DON’T!” expression that transcended any language barrier between us.  She invited me to eat dinner and spend the night at her house.  Mind you, this all happened in the presence of at least four onlookers, and she was simultaneously talking with everyone in the room.  After an eternity, I was rescued by the hairdresser.

·      Some interesting questions I’ve fielded/assumptions I’ve attempted to set right, ranging from the innocent and cute to the redundant to the awkward to the unintentionally depressing…
o   Does it rain in America? (I think all the PCV’s have gotten this one)
o   Is there rice in America? (…and this one)
o   What is your religion? (Extremely common and meant harmlessly, but could be awkward if you say anything except one of the six recognized religions of Indonesia…makes it hard on atheists/agnostics)
o   Does the sun rise in the east in America?
o   What is the weather like in America? (Implicit assumption that the US has a single climate)
o   What’s farther from Indonesia: Hong Kong or USA?
o   Assumption: Latin America and/or Mexico and/or Canada and/or Europe are parts of the United States.
o   Aren’t Indonesian people ugly/stupid!?!?
o   Do you want to marry an Indonesian?
§  Why not?
§  Could you be convinced?
§  …but what if you stay here for a long time?
§  Don’t you know you can have more than one wife?
§  Not going for it? Oh well, you’ll probably find an Indonesian woman anyway tee-hee tee-hee.
o   Would you consider converting to Islam?
o   Why are there black people in America?
o   Have you met _________ (Obama, Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, or any other international celebrity)?
o   Why do seasons change?
o   Oh, are you _________?
§  Answer: Yes, as you can CLEARLY DEDUCE from the visual evidence, I am in fact eating/washing clothes/leaving for school/coming home/going to bathe/making food.
o   Do you have a goat in your house?
o   What is to like to eat pork/drink beer?  Why don't you like eating chicken feet/cow skin?
o   Which country has better people, Indonesia or America?
o   What is a planet? (After me explaining that a certain point of light in the sky was not a star but, in fact, Venus)
o   And my greatest pet-peeve: What kind of music do you like—pop or rock?
§  Frequent corollary: Well, do you like (insert shitty band here)?
§  Inevitable follow-up: WHY NOT?
§  THUMP THUMP THUMP as my head bangs against a wall.

Interestingly, I haven’t gotten many questions regarding sexual culture in the US, at least from people I didn’t already know well enough for it not to be awkward.  I have gotten some, most of which centered on how exactly people do the whole "free sex" thing.  Free sex is the Indonesian term for the right that Westerners have to just sex up people who aren’t spouses without any societal hammers dropping.  They are amazed.