Family. Turkey. Football. A problematic history. Pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is almost impossible to understand simply and concisely, and I have found the task becomes even more difficult when I am living half a world away from any traditions I may associate with this holiday. Even when I was in England, I was able to have a small gathering with others in my program, which echoed the quiet day of family I usually have on Thanksgiving. But this year Thanksgiving fell in the last week of classes at SMAN 10, and amidst the flurry of preparations for finals and last-minute grading, the last Thursday of November passed by with barely a nod to this American national holiday.
That weekend, however, I was able to attend an event with the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, where there was turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie, amongst other western foods I had not realized I missed until they were again made available. More importantly, at least a third of my ETA cohort was able to attend the same event. Being able to see them in person and talk without the frustrations of lagging Skype or dropped phone calls was the best part of the trip, though the opportunity to take silly pictures with the U.S. ambassador was also quite fun.
Still, though traditional foods and time with friends and family are staple parts of Thanksgiving, in my family the most important part is the essence of the name itself, giving thanks. Though this Thanksgiving was very different from any I have had before, the season still inspired me to reflect upon my current situation and articulate what I am thankful for. I have been incredibly blessed throughout my life, and perhaps never so much as I am now. For the sake of concision, I have condensed my otherwise never-ending list to the top ten things that right now I find myself most thankful for.
One: my family. My family has always been incredibly supportive of me, and I cannot possibly express how indebted I am to them for this. As a small-town farm-girl turned aspiring English teacher who has somehow found herself in Southeast Asia through a series of only partially well-thought followings of the heart, I know I have not made it simple for them, but they do it anyway. I am also fortunate that my family, both my immediate and extended, is composed of some pretty fantastic individuals. I have always been at least partially aware of this, but never has it been more apparent than here. When a student is furiously flipping through her dictionary because she desperately wants to tell me, “Your father is so… wise,” I simply must accept it as true. I have never been asked so many questions about my family as I have here, and in trying to articulate my favorite parts of them—their determination, their patience, their compassion, their humor—I have come to realize just how lucky I really am to have them in my life.
Two: my friends. Going abroad can put a huge strain on friendships, but due entirely to the fabulous nature of friends from all parts of my life, thus far this has not been the case for me. My friends actively read my blog and often respond to aspects of it, and keep me updated about their own lives through e-mails, Facebook messages, and even the occasional piece of snail mail complete with postcards from their hometowns and holiday stickers. I confess that I am not always the best at responding promptly to the love they send me, due to a combination of inconsistent internet, a full and hectic schedule, and my own unwillingness to reply on days when an excess of frustration—at the challenges of teaching, at cultural differences, at my own perceived inabilities—renders me unable to fairly assess my current situation. And yet, they are completely understanding and continue to love me with the same uninhibited selflessness. Though I have certainly experienced a number of challenges since coming to Indonesia, I have, thus far, found my grant to have been easier than anticipated, in part because my friends from home, like my family, have been so supportive of what I am doing.
I am also incredibly thankful for the friends I have made since coming to Indonesia. Teachers at my school, fellow ETAs, and members of the Malang community have all made me feel as though I have a place here, however difficult that may be to define at times. Though I am only a third of the way through my grant, I am already worried about leaving some of these fabulous people behind when I must return to the U.S. in May.
Three: my health. Staying healthy in a foreign country is no easy task, and while I have certainly had my ups and downs as I try to contend with very different food and weather, thus far I have managed to avoid any major illnesses, for which I am extremely thankful. Teaching at two campuses within a culture I do not yet fully understand is exhausting enough without further filling my schedule with trips to the rumah sakit (hospital; literally “sick house”) for Typhoid or pneumonia.
Four: my education. Without the educational background I was blessed to have had, I would not even have been able to become part of the Fulbright ETA program, and the lessons in empathy and critical thinking I have received from all aspects of my studies have certainly helped me to be the best cultural ambassador I can be. More specifically, I am especially thankful for my training in education; while I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the challenges I would face in my everyday existence here, I know that I am struggling considerably less than other ETAs within the classroom, and much of this stems from my education courses and my years of experience volunteering in various classrooms and after-school programs. No matter how difficult the challenges I face here are on occasion, they are all worth it if I can feel that I am somehow aiding the students for which I am responsible, and this has been made possible by the particular course of study I was fortunate enough to pursue.
Five: water. Indonesia is panas (hot), especially for this Northeasterner, who is far more accustomed to snow than this particular brand of sweltering. I would not be able to get through my day without the water bottle that is my constant companion wherever I go. I am also more aware of the privilege of water access now than I have ever been before, a topic I hope to cover in more detail in a later post. For now, I will merely say that every time I take a sip of clear, safe water, I do so knowing that I am amongst some of the most privileged people on the planet.
Six: non-verbal communication. The language barrier here has been very much a part of my day-to-day existence. Never before has it been so necessary that I use hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate my meaning, both within and without the classroom. Smiles have always been one of my favorite methods of human communication, but here they have taken on a whole new significance, as some of the friendships I am developing began with smiles being the only language we shared.
Seven: modern technology. There is no denying that if I had attempted this same program twenty, or even ten, years ago, the experience would have been very different. I live in an age in which I can use technology to keep in contact with family and friends, to plan lessons, and to augment my language learning. Yes, sometimes I do not have access to internet for days at a time, but even this inconsistent access is a blessing.
Eight: the amazing undefinable mess that is young people. In many ways I could probably have included my students under the category of friends, because they have all gone so beyond being merely my students, and are often the people who are helping me to navigate my new life here. Though I am here to help them learn English, it is often they who teach me—language, life lessons, jokes—and it is my students who are my day to day motivation to keep going, and keep trying. But beyond the incredible awesomeness that is who they are as individuals is the essence of youth that permeates young people everywhere I go, and which I am persuaded somehow creates the openness, happiness, and caring that my students express. I will not pretend to understand what it is in human nature that allows this to occur; I will simply be thankful that it exists.
Nine: to have been born where I was and to have lived where I have. Though I was aware of my inherent privilege of simply being American before coming to Indonesia, I am learning everyday new nuances to this privilege. (This, too, is a topic I hope to tackle in a later post.) But while I am—in many ways, most of them inherently problematic—thankful of all the advantages I have merely because I was born in a particular country, when I say that I am thankful for where I was born and lived, I mean more than that. Quite frankly, I find it especially hard to articulate what I am trying to say with this, but if I were to make a valiant attempt, it would go something like this: without the combination of various experiences I have had throughout my life, I would not be the person I am today, and I am discovering more and more just how capable the person I am is of navigating the various challenges life offers. I did not create myself. I was created by an amalgamation of factors that I am incapable of fully understanding, but am fully capable of being grateful for.
Ten: the opportunity to be where I am now. Just as my background helped to create the person I was when I arrived in Indonesia, the resolute but also slightly lost young woman who was not yet sure she had what it took to make it through the next nine months, my time here is shaping me into a new, and, I think, better, person. I do not believe that I will return to America unrecognizably different from the person I was when I left, but already I feel I am more patient, and closer to having the level of empathy I aspire to possess.
I also recognize that simple being here is an incredible opportunity, and I cannot possibly express just how grateful I am to wake up every morning in a country I never would have dreamed of even being able to visit a little over a year ago.
There are days when the challenges of being an ETA in Indonesia seem to be too much, and find myself staring at the calendar and resisting the urge to count how many days I have left until I can return home. But even on my toughest days, I have so much for which I must say terima kasih (thank you). Perhaps I should learn to do so more often.