Lost in the Familiar: A Summer at “Home”

I’ll be completely honest: the journey home from Indonesia to the States was a roller-coaster ride.  I was ill, which made the over thirty-six hours in airports less than enjoyable, and I was also a bit of an emotional time bomb, ready to explode at the slightest touch.

Walking through the Tokyo airport, trying to decipher through my feverish haze where to go for my connecting flight, I was also searching for a water container so that I could medicate away the percussion practice happening inside my skull.  It took almost until I reached my gate for it to dawn on me that I could fill up my water bottle at any sink—the water here was not likely to kill me.  As I drank tap water for the first time in nine months, though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I cried.  

I’m sure feeling sick had something to do with my reaction, but I might have cried anyway.  And I wasn’t crying over the simple joy of drinking from a tap; I was crying because I just felt… stupid, and out of place, in an environment where, in theory, I should have fit in.

Fortunately, I was traveling home in the company of a handful of ETAs, so I had a system of support of people who understood my experience built in to my trip home.  I made it through TSA and my first wave of loud, rushing Americans at the Detroit airport, and from there it was only a short flight to Albany before I was in the care of my mom, who will love me no matter how disheveled and burnt out I am.

And then I was home.  After nine months of teaching-learning-struggling-surviving-thriving-living on the other side of the world, I was back on the family farm.

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Chickens.  Ayam.  They don’t care what you call them, so long as you feed them and cuddle them.

Being at home amongst my family (who have been incredibly supportive of every crazy decision I have ever made and without whom I would not be returning for a second year to Indonesia) and the animals that are our lives and livelihood was significantly easier than my journey to get there.  Having returned home at least twice a year while an undergrad—coming back each time older and (maybe?) wiser—I was accustomed to navigating the place where all my previous selves had lived as the “new”—and hopefully improved—me.  (Plus, farm animals have a bit of a reputation for being incredibly non-judgmental.)  

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I will admit that mixing various shades of brown all summer made me miss the bright colors Indonesians so often paint their homes.

I also returned to the same summer jobs I’ve had since I started undergrad, one of which I’ve actually had since I was fifteen.  Mixing rainbows of house paint and scooping mountains of ice cream has been part of coming home for me for many years now, and I actually chose to work this summer in part because I thought keeping those elements in my life would make transition easier. All this, combined with trips to D.C., New York City, North Carolina, and Ithaca, kept my schedule tight and made the time fly by.  

On paper, I did all the right things.  I came back to a routine which was familiar and (mostly) enjoyable, and kept myself busy.  Off paper, I was mostly okay.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a little trouble adjusting back to American norms.  I ducked past people, respectfully keeping myself lower than them; “Apa?” still came more naturally than “What?”; I touched my heart with my palm after every handshake; and it took me a while to stop feeling self-conscious in shorts and a tank top.  (As a side note, I was also cold all the time, even though I was home throughout the months of June and July.  Dear Central New York, have you heard of summer?)  

In and of themselves, these small transitions, for myself at least, weren’t really a big deal.  (Everyone’s reverse-culture shock experience is different, and I can only speak to my own.)  During the first few weeks, one of my greatest challenges was worrying incessantly about being stared at.  Meeting someone new.  Did they just see me do the thing with my hand?  Serving a customer.  Do they have any idea what language just came out of my mouth? Walking down the street.  Are my shorts too short? Oh wait, I’m the most conservatively dressed person around. Wait, what?

Occasionally, the folks I worked with or friends would tease me, but for the most part, no one noticed.  I was just being paranoid.  I’m sure part of my paranoia stemmed from nine months of being stared at no matter where I went, but a lot of it also stemmed from my inane thinking that everyone would be able to read my grant on me, like a tattoo across my forehead that read “I just spent nine months on the other side of the world having one of the most life-changing experiences of my life!”  But that’s not how this works.  In a room full of strangers, the only one who knows that I spent nine months in Indonesia is…me.

The hardest part of being at home this summer was trying to navigate  how to talk about my experience in Indonesia. Whether it came up in casual conversation or was a more structured interview I never really knew how to talk about…whatever it was that I did.  I of course got the dreaded question “How was it?” uncountable times throughout the summer, but I had a scripted response to that question. I just told people that it was “both the most wonderful and the hardest thing that I have ever done.”  Yes.  Good.  Honesty and brevity.  Feel free to walk away now.  I know you were just being polite, and that’s okay.  (Okay, in all honesty there were times when I really wanted people to care and it was all I could do to keep from saying “Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world and you just had to ask me where it was.  Please ask me about my time there so that I can educate you.”  But I refrained.  Plus one for self-control.)

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The thing that gets you though everything else.

With good friends and family it was somewhat easier.  Conversations would naturally lead to me being able to regale people with tales of my trials and triumphs in Indonesia.  

“There was this one time my co-teacher and I were wading to class and I almost slipped and fell into a foot of water in front of like six classrooms of kids.  I caught myself, but I was still hearing about it for weeks. So I feel you on the being-on-your-bum-in-front-of-a-giant-group thing.”  

“They do this whole dance where they line up and kind of go like this… yeah, I can’t do it.”

“Wait, we want a group selfie?  Have I told you yet that the Indonesian word for selfie stick is tongsis, which literally translates to narcissistic stick?  How perfect it that?”

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This is how you do cultural exchange when you get back to America, right?  You challenge your mom to badminton?

I am sure I confused people on occasion when we talked about Indonesia.  

Whenever anyone said something to me along the lines of, “Yeah, I saw the photos you posted.  It looked like you were having a great time.  There are some beautiful beaches in Indonesia,” I would respond with something along the lines of, “Well, I mean, I wasn’t often at any of those beaches.  I lived in the mountains, and, you know, had a job teaching there.  650 students, in fact. Between that and trying to learn Indonesian and being a cultural ambassador and being sick and… not much time for beaches.” This was not a vacation.  I tried to communicate to them.  What I did was hard.  Really $%&#@ hard. Can’t you see what I did was hard?

On the other hand, whenever someone’s response to my time in Indonesia was along the lines of, “I just don’t know how you did it, or why you want to go back.  It seems like an impossible country to live in.  I could never do it,” my response was more along the lines of, “It’s really not difficult.  Indonesians are seriously some of the most friendly people you will ever meet, and there is this incredible diversity in everything that is just such a privilege to be a part of.” What do you mean you couldn’t live there? Almost 250 million people live there every day. What are you saying about them? Indonesia is a great place, and I love it.  How dare you.  

Confused yet?

In truth, Indonesia, and as a consequence the nine months I spent there, is a conglomeration of all things good and bad.  My own experience encompassed everything from leading amazing lessons with my kids and teachers, to being terribly overworked (partially my own fault, as anyone who knows me will not be surprised by); from making some of the best friends I will ever have to fighting off homesickness, from eating and learning to cook some of the most delicious food ever, to dealing with Typhoid and not being able to eat some of those foods, even months later… the list goes on and on.  And somehow when you throw all of these into a giant wok and fry them up, you get nine months of me in East Java, Indonesia.  It was a great experience, and one I will be forever thankful for, but it wasn’t always perfect, and it certainly wasn’t terrible.  In my heart, I know this.  It’s just hard to put it into words.  

One of my favorite parts of being home was going to the Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C.  This was the first time the returning crew got to meet the incoming cohort of ETAs, and let me tell you, they’re pretty cool.  Fresh out of my first grant, I was persuaded that no one could compare to the ETAs I had come to love from my own cohort; the new cohort is different, in such a way that I will probably never be able to say if one is better than the other, but it seems to be chock-full of people I will enjoy spending time with and pulsa on over the next nine months.  

And meeting the new ETAs gave me the opportunity to talk about my experience in a way that was specific and useful to an entire group of people.  ETAs asked questions about what they should pack, what they might expect in their classrooms, what suggestions we had as far as staying healthy.  While I and my fellow returners didn’t always have all the answers, I know that, for myself at least, it was just such a relief for the questions to not be, “What is Indonesia like?”  These are people who are interested in learning about Indonesia, both generally and personally, and talking with them was just… refreshing.

Going to D.C. was also my first real experience as a “Returner,” the big, bad, Indonesian ETA who’s taking on another grant… and still has no idea what she is doing most of the time.  (Again, I speak for myself, and not my fellow returners.)  It reminded me of why I never really felt like I came home this summer: because half of me was still in Indonesia.  Yes, I was home for two months, living and working and doing my thing.  But in many ways, it felt as though I live in Indonesia, and was just on an extended visit to America to see family and friends.  

In many ways, this makes me wonder what my experience will be like when I come back to the States more permanently after this second grant (I can only defer grad school so many times).  I can’t even begin to predict something which is almost a year away, but I will say that the prospect of digesting almost two years in Southeast Asia while starting grad school and returning to a land with four seasons both terrifies me, and excites me.

Which is not unlike how I feel about returning to Indonesia for another nine months.  

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