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.

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

  1. Grace, thanks for writing this! I think it’s great that you are expressing yourself in this way, and you have every right to do so. This is your blog and your space to share. And people who love you so much will want to know how you are feeling and how their words and actions are affecting you. I think some people might have a hard time understanding that we develop a second home that makes us equally homesick when we leave, and it’s just because many folks haven’t had the chance to live the immigrant/expat life before and can’t fully empathize. That’s okay, of course. Ultimately, the burden is on us to be patient. I think it’ll be really important for you to keep in touch with your fellow ETAs (and me!) when you get back to the States, since we can fully empathize with your experience and may be able to meet some of the new emotional needs you may have after you leave Malang; don’t disappear, for your own sake! I will always be there to support you– just a phone call or a text away. Even Skype, since we’ll have better internet 🙂 You’ll get tired of people asking “How was Indonesia?” and “So, how was it?” “Glad to be back?” etc etc, and I encourage you in advance to reach out to me if and when you need! I am always here for you! ❤ ❤ ❤

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  2. Pingback: Indonesia Blog 49: Wallowing in Kesepian, Navigating the Biasa of It All | All for the Love of Wandering

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