Ode to Afi, or, The Journey to WORDS, and Back Again

Towards the end of April, all of the ETAs and the WORDS winners from their schools gathered for the national WORDS competition in Jakarta.  Every single student there was incredible.  I actually wrote the Indoneisaful article about the 2015 competition, so if you want to read all about the amazing weekend that was WORDS, I suggest you head over there.

I don’t want to write about WORDS here.  I want to write about the journey there, and, also, about the journey that has continued, in part because of WORDS.  I want to write about Afi, and how this one student has come to shape a huge part of my time at SMAN 10.

Untitled 1Afi is a quirky, intelligent, funny girl, who loves Doctor Who, tries to read Shakespeare in her spare time, and never lacks a quick-witted response (in English, no less) whenever you talk to her.  (When I asked her what she had learned from her weekend at the National WORDS Competition, her first response was, “Thou shalt not eat four plates of breakfast. Believe me, I tried. It didn’t end very well.”)  I always enjoy runninginto her after school or in the dorm; she will always make me smile.

Afi amazed everyone at my local WORDS competition.  It was understood, even then, that she would have to improve very little in order stand a chance at winning at the national competition.  Nonetheless, she and I still had our work cut out for us in the weeks leading to Jakarta.

The challenge was not her English.  Afi actually learned English, from her parents, before she learned Indonesian, and she sounds almost exactly like a native speaker.[1]  The challenge was not her speech: it sounded like poetry, and had almost everyone, including me, was in tears even the first time she gave it.

The challenge, for Afi, was getting through the speech, emotionally.

Her speech was about a childhood friend with Autism, the son of some of her parents’ closest university friends.  Afi and this young man, grew up together almost as siblings, and she credits him as being one of the most powerful forces that shaped her into the young woman she is today.  Just a week beforeSMAN 10’s WORDS Competition, her friend passed away due to diabetes and kidney failure.  Afi, who had originally planned to take on the topic of being a young Muslim woman in a world where she accused of being a member of ISIS in online English chatrooms, almost dropped out of the WORDS Competition altogether before deciding, two days before the competition, that she wanted to try to talk about her friend in her speech.

She came to me for help in preparing her speech, and it was so clear how difficult it was for her to talk about this topic.  I worried it was too much, too soon, for her to give this speech in front of everyone.  But she wanted to try, and I was not going to stand in her way.

She made it through the local competition beautifully.  Then the real work began.

Afi’s speech was too long, and much of it needed to be cut to meet the national requirements.  Cutting a speech down is difficult for anyone, but it is even more difficult when you have to eliminate words about a close friend whom you are trying to honor.

Once we had a speech, we practiced as much as we could together—in empty classrooms, in the office after everyone had gone home (we were almost locked in by security a few times), in my room late at night (she delivering her speech quietly, in order to avoid getting caught breaking curfew)—and while often she delivered her speech perfectly, and I had almost no suggestions to give her, more than once she had to stop because it was simply too much.

I have been in Afi’s shoes.  After losing one of my closest friends in a car crash my junior year of college, I tried to use spoken word poetry as a way to keep her memory alive, and find a way to express how important a person she was.  In the end, doing so actually helped me to cope with the emptiness that had replaced her presence, but there was no denying that sometimes reciting the words I had written for her opened and deepened wounds I had thought were in the process of healing.

I would never have imagined that sharing this story would become part of my coaching for my WORDS student.  But by describing my own experience to Afi, I was able to show her that her pain did not make her weak, that her struggle to articulate how she felt did not make her a bad friend.  I told her, again and again, that the cacophony of emotions that battered her heart every time she practiced her speech—the sadness, the frustration, the cold emptiness and the fiery anger—was natural, was okay.

Afi was worried about the national competition, understandably.  At SMAN 10’s Competition, she was delivering her speech in front of people who knew her and cared about her; in Jakarta, she would be pouring her heart out  in a room full of strangers.

We were prepared.  I did not let us leave without a plan.  I was to wait near the stage, and after her speech, she would tell me what she needed.  If she was okay, we would go back to our seats.  If she needed to, we would find a place to hide and cry.

During the first round, Afi did a fantastic job of delivering her speech, “Another Set of Wings.”   She choked up a little at the end, but she powered through, and did great honor to her friend.  I met her off stage, and asked her what she needed.   “Let’s go to the bathroom,” she said to me, and we left.  It did not take her long to compose herself, strong young woman that she is, and we returned to enjoy the rest of the speeches.

When the names of the seven finalists were announced, and Afi’s name was called, I was overjoyed.  After all the emotional turmoil she had undergone to get to that point, I was glad she was able to achieve something special, in honor of her friend.  Later, when I asked her how she felt, hearing that she was a finalist, she told me:

It’s like being sucker punched…in a good way, of course. But for a split second, when my name was announced, I wanted to run away from the room and not come back. I brought up a topic that’s hard to speak about in daily life: autism and loss, and the two of them wrapped up tight in Bagus, the friend in my speech. Diabetes and kidney failure tore his body apart until there was nothing left to save. It couldn’t be helped; because he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was hurting. He could only suffer in silence until it was time for him to go, and sometimes I prefer to remember him that way, rather than picturing him crumpled in pain.  I was still mourning his loss at the day of the competition (that was why I put on black everything), and being a finalist meant I have to relive the sadness and the pain and the memories. But I realized, he’s not gone. He just found that bright place. He was alive. He burned brightly, and then he died.  But not really. Because someone like him cannot, will not, die like everyone else. He will always be here, in the offerings and the people he left behind. So I wipe away the tears. I kept in mind the reason I was on that stage: to convey a message that people with autism are people first. They do not deserve to be held in shackles, cornered, harassed, exiled. They deserve love and affection, even though they don’t always know how to return it. They are not a lost cause, and they are stronger than we think. I didn’t care about winning. I didn’t care about trophies or medals or awards. I just wanted my voice to be heard, and my message loud and clear.  

After the final round, when Afi was announced as the overall winner of the 2015 WORDS Competition, she sat in her seat, stunned, unable to believe it was really her name being called. IMG_0346

That’s one of the best parts about Afi: she is genuinely one of the most humble people I have ever met.  She never thought of herself as a winner.  She just thought of herself as a friend, as someone who had a message she wanted others to hear.  And it was heard.

Winning WORDS really changed things for Afi, in ways I don’t think either of us expected. Her dream of studying abroad seems more a reality now, and she and I have spent much of the past month discussing SATs and Financial Aid for studying abroad.  I don’t know exactly where she will end up, or what she’ll decide to study, but I know she will be amazing, wherever she goes.

She is also much more confident now.  When I asked her if I could share a video of her speech publicly, because people in my family wanted to watch it, she seemed surprised, but gave her consent.  Later, she said to me, “It’s still hard to believe that people in other countries want to see me speak.” She looked embarrassed.  Then she smiled.  “I’ve never felt so fabulous.”

“You are fabulous,” I told her, “Never forget that.”

I pray she never does.  I know I certainly won’t.

Afi’s Speech:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi-qw8iv8s0

[1] Afi actually did not really learn Indonesian until she started school.  She once told me the story of how, when she first walked into her kindergarten class, she could not understand her classmates, because she did not know enough Indonesian.  Though she has worked hard to learn Indonesian, and even some Javanese, since that point, she still finds it difficult sometimes to express herself in what would traditionally be her first language, as a native-born Indonesian.  Often, she says, she finds it easier to speak in English.  She says she is partially glad of this, as she dreams of studying abroad, and being fluent in English will help her to do this.  But she also finds it somewhat isolating. Hers is a unique story

In One Word… Love: 2015 WORDS Competition

WORDS was definitely one of the highlights of my experience as an ETA this year. Read all about it in the Indonesiaful article! (Which I’ll admit I wrote–any and all mistakes are totally my fault.)


– By Grace Wivell –


“Fabulous!” –Wiwin, Banjermasin, South Kalimantan

“Amazing.” –Fadhila, Magelang, Central Java

“I think the right word is, ‘If I’m dreaming…’” –Faqih, Kendal, Central Java

“VM (Very Memorable).” –Giovani, Kupang, East Timor

“AWESOME!” –Dimas, Malang, East Java

“Love. <3” –Bertha, Atambua, East Timor

On Saturday, April 25th, thirty-five high school students from across Indonesia and their Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) gathered in Jakarta, to take part in the annual WORDS Speech Competition. Later, when students were asked to describe their experience at WORDS in one word, their responses were as varied and insightful as they are themselves.

The morning of the competition, nerves were high for many of the participants. Wiwin, from Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, said later that she was, “Nervous and I had big worries if just one mistake would destroy everything.” But when Wiwin stepped onto the stage to deliver her speech warning…

View original post 1,467 more words

The Recipe for a Perfect Birthday

For This Recipe, You Will Need:IMG_0527

  • Three Classrooms Full of Indonesian Students
  • One Badminton Court
  • An Endless Supply of Tissues
  • Access to Very Spotty, But Still Sort-of Functional Internet
  • A Handful of Indonesian Teachers
  • Two Cakes
  • A Beat-Up Nokia Hand Phone that Doesn’t Do Much But Can Still Receive Text Messages, Sometimes
  • Friends and Family Scattered Across the Globe


1. Roll over in bed and glare at your mobile phone alarm that always goes off way too early (seriously, who ever thought it was okay for school to start before seven?). Fumble with the buttons trying to stop the scary British woman you wake up to every morning (“It’s time to get up.  The time is 5:30.”  Because that’s exactly what you need to hear upon first opening your eyes.), and discover that you already have several sms2 (text messages) from Indonesian friends who, unlike your lazy bum, woke up around 4:30 for Fajr, morning prayer.  They’ll probably look something like this one:

Happy Birthday!  Selamat Ulang Tahun!  Otanjoubi Omedatto!  Saengil Cukhae!  Please enter Spanish here…………… LOL!  Selamat ulang tahun yang ke-23 Grace!  Semoga hidupmu bermaka! 🙂   P.S. Is this the first congrats message for you in the world since it is not May 8th yet in the U.S.?

 Or maybe this one:

Good Morning Grace!  Hopefully this morning you open your eyes with joy and happinnes.  Look over the blue horizon, birds are singing happy birthday song for you.  Happy Birthday Grace, long live and prosper. 

(Seriously, friends back home are going to need to up their game for birthday texts from here on out.)

2. Drag your now-cheerful-but-still-exhausted butt out of bed, slurp down a delicious cup of instant coffee (but actually… why doesn’t instant coffee taste like this at home?), throw on a cute batik dress (which, due to the miracle of living in Indonesia, you get to do on a regular basis, and not just on your birthday), attempt (and fail) to control your hair, and hop on your motorbike and embark upon the daily adventure that is surviving Indonesian morning traffic. When young whippersnappers try to cut you off, tell them in no uncertain terms that it is your birthday and you are not going to tolerate their nonsense today (say none of this out loud, and let them pass you; it’s really not worth the fuss, and you’ll still get to school on time).

3. Arrive at your desk in the ruang guru (teacher’s room), to a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” even from those teachers who can’t speak English. End up late to class because they insist you need to open you gift of a new batik skirt sekarang, while they can all ooooh and clap with the particular brand of enthusiasm that is unique to Indonesian Ibu2.  Smile too broadly, and thank everyone in an incomprehensible campuran of languages, because communication becomes impossible in the presence of so much joy.

4. Scurry to class, only to have your entire class break into song. (As a side note, the Indonesian Happy Birthday song is much faster and more upbeat than its American, and I really think we should seriously consider adopting it.)  Eventually get class started, because learning cannot be stopped, even in the face of blackouts, floods, and even birthdays.

IMG_05105. Go back to the rumah guru for the break, to find a giant cake sitting on your desk. Cut a slice for each teacher (and pose for a foto with each as well), and find yourself late for class again, because you are not allowed to return until you have eaten your own slice as well.  (I’m not going to pretend that this sort of prioritization doesn’t sometimes irritate me, but, hey, it shows they care, and in the end that’s what’s important.)

6. Rush to your next class, to be serenaded again. Intersperse your lesson with the answer to all of your students’ many questions about birthdays in America.  Fight off a few marriage proposals from your more naukal boys while you’re at it.  It might be your birthday, but its business as usual in your tenth grade classes.

7. Treat your favorite teachers to nasi padang. (In Indonesia, the person whose birthday it is does the treating, not the other way around, as it is in America.  Since my teachers have been paying for my noontime meals since I got here, despite my protests, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to treat them, for once.)  Share the sort of inside jokes you can only have after living somewhere for eight months, snort hot sweet tea out of your nose as a consequence, and further tire your facial muscles by smiling too much.

8. Go to your last class, for another round of the birthday song. Reaffirm why your students are the absolute best part if being here.

9. Before leaving school for the day, log on to your various e-mails and social media accounts, and read through all the long messages your friends and family from back home have sent you, complete with an excess of emoticons in some cases and heart-wrenching lines of “badly written” poetry in others. Try not to cry at your desk.

10. Go to badminton, as you always do on Fridays. Discover that the guys who usually bring rackets for everyone are not going to be able to make it, and so badminton is actually not happening that week.  Play peek-a-boo with some of the neighborhood kids who live near the gym, try to teach some of your Indonesian friends how to cartwheel, and decided that badminton, usually your favorite part of your week, wasn’t really need to make this day any better.

11. Go to supper at one of your favorite restaurant with your site mate and a collection of some of the best people you have met during your time here. Eat more cake, and a delicious curry.  Open presents with tiny perfect notes attached to them.  Listen as one of your friends sings on stage, dedicated to your birthday.  Get pulled up on stage (despite endless refusals—those are never listened to here) for a speech, and thank everyone for how amazing they are.  Try not to cry in front of everyone.  Fail.

12. Go to sleep far too late, knowing that you have never had a birthday quite like this one, and that you probably never will again.


The Question I Don’t Want to Be Asked, or, Sometimes I Have Bad Days

Disclaimer: This is not going to be a positive blog post.  If you are looking for my usual, cheerful self, you will not find her here.  Till now, I’ve tried to keep my negative experiences and frustrations out of my blog as much as possible, because I felt that, generally, they don’t really add anything to my writing.  But the truth of the matter is, the negative has helped me to grow just as much, if not more, than the positive, and it needs its space in the overall thread that is my attempt to record this nine month adventure in Indonesia.

Another disclaimer: I am completely honest in this blog post.  This might result in my offending some readers, but sometimes things need to be said.  I’ve come to realize that hiding the negative has only made certain conversations with people back home more difficult, so I cannot do so anymore, for my own mental health. I am sorry, but also completely unapologetic.  I only ask that you read until the end before judging me completely.

“When are you coming home?”

This question has been asked of me hundreds of times since I began my grant in Indonesia. (And even before I started, quite frankly.)  I am not exaggerating.  I get the question, via an e-mail or a Facebook message or a phone call, at least once a week.  As I draw nearer to the end of my time here, this question has been occurring with an increased frequency, and while I have done my best to answer the question as simply and politely as possible, the truth is this question always produces a certain amount of frustration and,
sometimes, rage.


A, I don’t know.

Not knowing defines my experience here.  I don’t actually know what lessons I need to prepare for next week, even though I am one of the ETAs lucky enough to receive a schedule of topics for the semester.  I’m not positive there even is school tomorrow. There may or may not be water and electricity in my apartment when I get home at the end of the day—I’ll find out when I get there.  Due to the mess of paperwork that results when two very large, very different (and yet somehow so darn similar—but that’s a conversation for another day) governments try to work together, my Visa was given an incorrect ending date, and I’m not even sure if I will be able to finish my contract with my school when I am supposed to, or if I will be pulled out of the classrooms of my beloved students and teachers three weeks
early.  I don’t know what I’m eating for dinner, or whether or not it will make me sick.
I don’t know if the phone call I’m getting from one of my favorite ETAs is one of celebration, just catching up, or a need to talk about some kind of awful that they’ve been experiencing, which neither of us can fix, and all I can do to help is listen.

I’ve come, to a certain extent, to accept not knowing.  I’ve had to, to maintain some semblance of sanity.  Getting angry about it doesn’t solve anything.  But sometimes, I have bad days.

Not knowing wears on me.  I’ll be the first person to tell you that I do have some Type-A inclinations, and I like to plan ahead.  Waking up most mornings and either not having a plan at all, or not knowing if the plan I’ve developed is actually going to happen, is more than a little stressful. I’ve tried to embrace it, to see the positive in a flexible existence and learn what I can from this experience. But the fact remains that not knowing just does not mesh with the person I am.  And that’s hard.

When people ask me when I am coming home, it is a reminder of just one more thing I have no information about.  I can’t even plan my school week out ahead of time: I don’t need to be worrying about the unknown that is still a month away.  Please, don’t ask me to.  When I know, you’ll know. I promise.


B, This question only makes me more homesick.  

I understand you just want to know when I’m coming home because you miss me.  But can we take a moment to think about everyone that I miss while I’m here?

Due to inconsistent internet, a 12-13 hour time difference, and busy schedules, I am unable to even stay in contact with my family in the way I would like to, much less my friends.  Almost everyone in my life who has known me for more than a year is still in the United States, half a world away from everything wonderful and terrible and in-between than makes up my day to day here.  I come home crying at the end of the day and I can’t even text my best friend, or call my mom.  Things happen—to my family, to my friends, to my country—and not only do I learn about it all far later than I would if I were at home, but even once I know they are happening, I am left knowing there is almost nothing I can do in response.  Family members and friends dance and struggle though love and death and success and failure… and often I can do little more than send an e-mail with lots of smiley faces, or stereotypical words of encouragement.

Missing home, and especially the people that make home what it is, is a part of every day that I spend here.  And it stands to reason that, if I am missing people as much as I am, at least some of them are missing me too.  As much as I have loved being here, and feel that this time has helped shape me into a better version of myself, sometimes I feel guilty about being here, because I know it means I have taken myself away from people who came to rely on me over the years. When I was considering whether or not I wanted to come back to Indonesia for a second grant in the fall, it wasn’t the blazing-hot weather, or the cultural differences I still fail to navigate correctly most days, or the difficulties of teaching in classrooms with forty or more students that kept me from giving a resounding yes.  It was the guilt of knowing that people missed me at home, and that I was leaving them behind, again, that made me hesitate.

When people ask me when I’m coming home, or when they send me long e-mails about how hard it is that I am not easily accessible, it only adds to that guilt, and that guilt can sometimes taint my day.  During the past few months, due to a loss of Wi-Fi in my apartment, my laptop’s stubborn refusal to accept an internet modem, and temporary set-backs in my purchasing a smart phone, I have only had access to internet in my school’s offices (when it works there).  I usually check my e-mail, etc., either right before or right after I spend my day teaching.

Let me paint the picture for you: on the days I teach, I teach four 90 minute classes. Sometimes my co-teachers show up to class.  Sometimes—either by choice or due to factors outside their control—they don’t. (Sometimes, due to necessary immigration visits or illness, I am also not able to show up for class, which results in serious setback in the learning of the students, every teacher’s nightmare.) Most of my classes have around forty students, with varying levels of English proficiency, and I need to somehow reach them all, and make the mess that is the English language accessible and interesting.  It is impossible for me to truly succeed, and try as I might not to take that too much to heart, it still bothers me.  The classrooms are crowded and hot, and I leave them sweaty, faint, and that blend of deliriously happy and insurmountably miserable that I am convinced is unique to teaching.  In and in-between classes I try to navigate a culture that is not my own, often in a language I am not yet fluent in.  I have worked 13 hour days every summer while I attended college, but nothing exhausts me, physically, mentally, and emotionally, like my days here.

As frustrating as my days of teaching are, they are also wonderful.  I may not be able to reach every student every day, but I am reaching some of them, and in ways that go far beyond English learning.  When I get my head out of my own perfectionism, and take my day as it is, I know that I am making a difference.  And that is good.

When I receive an e-mail devoid of positivity at the beginning of my day, sometimes I spend the rest of the day unable to feel good about the tiny moments of joy that invariably occur.  A student tells me that English class is always fun with me, and the darker voices in the back of my head remind me that this student’s new eagerness to pay attention in English class comes with a price for the people I left back home. When I receive such an e-mail at the end of the day, sometimes it is impossible for me to remember those tiny good moments at all, and it becomes far too easy to focus on the trials and tribulations of the day, and decided that this all isn’t worth having ever left home.

Most of the time, when I receive e-mails that upset me, I can see them for what they are. People do not send these e-mails with the intent of making me feel sad or angry or guilty.  These e-mails come from a place of love.  They come from a place of caring.  And I try to respond to them as such.  But sometimes, I have bad days.

And then I send back short, snippy responses to those I need most.  Sometimes they understand.  Sometimes they don’t.  And I get that.

I’m not saying you can never tell me you miss me.  Not at all.  But please, try to take a moment to think about how you do so.

You can’t wait for me to come home?  Okay, tell me what we’re going to do when we meet again.  Will we climb mountains?  Visit historical libraries?  Play endless rounds of the
new board games you’ve discovered while I was teaching some of our old favorites to my students?  When friends do this, it makes me excited about eventually coming home, not just feel guilty about being here, right now.

You’re bummed that you can’t tell me about the important things that are happening to you as they happen?  Yeah, me too. Part of why I started this blog was so that people could still have some idea as to what I’m up to, even when I can’t talk to them in real time.  And I want to know what everyone else is doing as well.  Is your job simultaneously fulfilling and boring?  Is your new boyfriend hilarious?  Are your graduate school classes kicking your bum?  I want
to know.  So don’t waste the e-mail you’re sending by just telling me you want to tell me things: tell me them.

It doesn’t have to all be positive.  I’m learning, belatedly, that one of the mistakes I’ve made with this blog is that I’ve kept too much of the negative out of it.  You are allowed to tell me about the things that make you mad or depressed: I want to hear about those as much as I want to hear about the things that make you want to jump for joy and hug strangers on the street.

Just, tell me something.  Big or small.  That’s all I ask.  Because I miss you too.


C, Coming home is not going to be a purely positive experience for me.  

Yes, going home means I get to be in the same country as many of the people I love. And I am thrilled about this.  I cannot wait to hug my parents and brother.  I cannot wait to text my best friends the moment my cell phone is in my hands again. I can’t wait to skype people without worrying endlessly about time differences and blackouts and dropped calls. I am so excited to be going home in about a month.  I really am.

But going home also means I’ll be leaving behind many fabulous people here. Yes, I will be returning to Indonesia next year, and I have every intent of visiting Malang while I am here, and some of my friends here are hoping to visit me at my new site next year.  But because of limited travel allowances, and because some of the people I met here are potentially moving to other cities in Indonesia, there are many people I have met here whom I may never see in person again.  And that makes me want to cancel my plane ticket home and never leave this place.

Most of the time, I can focus on the positives of going home, and be as excited as my friends about my fly-out date.  But sometimes, I have bad days.

A little over a week ago, I had access to internet and happily logged in to my various e-mails and social media accounts, only to find that no less than seventeen people had asked me “When are you coming home?”  (I counted.)  That night, I called my mom out of the blue—in the middle of morning barn chores for her, poor woman—and rambled off the list that ended up being the basic framework of this blog post.  Except, I never actually got to say letter “C.”  Practically in tears due the cacophony of emotions ringing in my head, I said to her, “And I know, I know everyone is happy I am coming home…”

And because she is my mom, the woman who knows me best and who is one of the most wonderful people this world has to offer, she finished my flustered, babbling statement for me: “But it is also going to be sad for you.”  It was everything I needed to hear.

I don’t need for people to hold back their excitement at being able to see me again.  The messages I get in all caps lock screaming “I GET TO SEE YOU IN A LITTLE OVER ONE MONTH AHHHHHHHHHH” make me smile stupidly and realize just how lucky I am to be so loved.  But I need people to understand when I say that I am also sad about leaving.  I need to not be accused of not loving them as much as they do me.  That is in no way true.  I just have developed love for people here too, and since I cannot be in two places at once, I now no longer have the privilege of ever living in a place where I am not missing someone.  I only ask that you understand that.

Now, I understand that it is difficult to fully comprehend where I am coming from if I don’t tell you outright.  I’m sorry about that, and I wrote this post in part to fix some of my own mistakes.

And to clarify, most of the days I have here are good, relatively speaking.  To be sure, these past eight months have been some of the most challenging of my life, but I still have it pretty good.  I recognize that.  And even when things are hard, I am learning so much—about Indonesia, about teaching, about people, about myself—every day that I am here.  This is what I have tried to focus on in my blog.  This is what I want to remember from my time here. Most of the time, that seems easy enough.

But sometimes, I have bad days.