I’m sitting on the cool tile floor of the tiny two-room apartment that has been my home for the past nine months, and which I will be leaving very soon. I’m feeling more than a little ill (as per usual), I’m emotionally spent from all the goodbyes I’ve gone through in the past week, and it’s two o’clock in the morning and I haven’t finished packing for the flight that leaves the following morning. I’m surrounded by the kenang-kenangan (a word which translates literally to “keepsake” or “fond memories,” and often describes the gifts given to someone when they leave) from my teachers and students, trying to fit it into my bags. It’s an impossible task.
To help me semangat, a playlist of show tunes is playing quietly in the background (part of me is tempted to shamelessly ignore jam malam, or curfew, and blare my music loudly, since it is my last night in the dorm, but my lovely students have finals the next day, and I’m not quite that selfish), and it doesn’t take long for Rent to make to make a timely appearance.
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?
I don’t have a year to measure. I wasn’t here that long. And yet that doesn’t make the question any easier.
I look around at all of the batik, wayang kulit (a type of traditional puppet), wooden tissue holders, and hand-crafted art I have been given to take home. I take in the pile of postcards and letters friends have sent halfway across the world to their crazy friend who decided she was ready for such a leap, as well as the postcards and letters I wrote but never actually sent (sorry, folks; I’ll send those out as soon as I can get to my local post office at home. I shake my head at the 996 post-it notes that made up my Bahasa Indonesia word wall (I don’t really have the space to take them home, but I also don’t have the heart to part with them). Somehow, I have to fit all if this into my baggage and get it home with me (something I do manage to do, but not without incurring overweight charges), but none of this helps to summarize my nine months here.
When I try to break down the elements that make up my experience as an ETA in Malang, I can only think of the sort of things you can’t pack. I think of the sound of my students knocking at my door—now devoid of the photos and notes which have decorated it all year—for help or just chatting, their quiet “Excuse me? Miss?” and their constant apologies for interrupting me, not matter how many times I tell them I don’t mind at all. I think of the way the night air feels on my face on a late-night ride home from dinner with friends, cool and fresh and flying by far faster than is probably safe. I think of the swish of a badminton racket, the satisfying ache that settles about your shoulders after playing enough matches against players far superior to yourself. I think of the shy smile of the mbak at the Alfamart (a convenience store chain) where I did most of my grocery shopping, who always giggled at my lack of coordination and defended me more than once from pestering bapak-bapak who didn’t realize I understood enough Indonesian to know they were being crude. I think of nightly texts from one of the math teachers confirming that we will be eating dinner in the cafeteria together at 6:30. I think of excessively long phone calls with my fabulous site mate, who was one of the greatest factors in my getting through this year. I think of the exhaustion that comes from a full day of teaching—whether that day was a success or a failure—and the way it washes away in a cold bucket shower. I think of the ringing tones of Javanese, of rice paddy green, of tempe and sambal, of sweat and tears and smiles upon smiles upon smiles.
The truth is, I don’t know how to sum up this experience. I don’t know if I ever will.
Fast forward to about two weeks later. I’m back home, in one sense of the word. I’ve already attended a family wedding, and I head back to my summer job tomorrow. Already, I’ve had a number of conversations about my time in Indonesia. I answer people’s questions honestly, but never as fully as I’d like to. People ask me the dreaded, “How was Indonesia?” and I tell them, “Incredible, and also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” It’s as close as I can get to summing it all up in one sentence, but it can’t come close to even describing the smallest part of all these nine months were and will continue to be to me.
In some ways, I have it easy. I am returning to Indonesia at some point in August for a second period as an ETA, which means I am not finished learning from this country or this program. In some ways, I don’t have to answer this question just yet. I can perform the ultimate procrastination trick and put it off until I return next summer.
But in other ways, I can’t do that. When I return, I will be going to a different school on a different island. I am returning to Indonesia. I am returning to the role of an ETA. But I am not returning to SMAN 10 and Malang for more than a visit. That chapter of my life is closed. A new one is beginning.
But the threads of the story continue. I’m starting to add elements to the equation: emails from students about their plans for vacation, What’s App messages from friends who are starting their days as I am settling beneath the covers. Perhaps one reason I will never be able to summarize my experience is because it is still dynamic, still morphing into the shape that fits best into whatever my life turns into next.
It is a shape that sits snugly in the place where it is easiest to understand: the corner of my heart.