Rasa Syukur: The Thanksgiving Post



This week in English Club, my students and I made Thankfulness Turkeys, and the Monthly Project for my English Corner[1] is a Thankfulness Tree.  It’s Thanksgiving in America, and while I tried to share the slightly problematic history with some of my students, this mostly left them rather confused, and what I ended up focusing on most was that while the food is usually awesome on Thanksgiving, it is the time spent with loved ones and the act of reflecting on all we have to be thankful for.

Last year around this time, I composed a list of ten things I was personally thankful for.  This year, I went for twenty (because you can never be too thankful, right?).

1 My Family

When your slightly crazy twenty-something relative runs off to the other side of the world, there are many ways you can react, and not all of them are positive.  My family—especially my immediate family, but also my extended family—has supported me though the highs and lows of being here, and I cannot thank them enough for that.

2 Friendly Stray Cats

After a less-than-successful day of teaching or of cultural exchange, there is nothing more therapeutic than coming home to the Admiral, who unceremoniously hops in my lap and begins his steady, quiet purr.  He does occasionally bring me dead mice while I am working on lessons or studying Bahasa Indonesia, but hey, in cat speak that just means he loves me.

3 The People of My Previous Site

Students, teachers, friends… they all reacted with an excitement I did not deserve when they learned I was actually, truly back in Indonesia.  I am going back to Malang very soon, and I am thrilled to be going back to the place I called home for nine months last year.

4 My Friends from Before Fulbright

I have made a slew of new friends in the past year and a half, from Indonesian and from other places, but I cannot forget the friends from before my stint as an ETA, who have kindly forgiven my inaccessibility and general lack of communication, and continued to love me anyway.

5 Motorbike

My motorbike gives me a freedom of mobility that is key to my independence and mental health while here.  It may not be the most glamorous mode of transportation, but it is everything I need.

6 Access to Clean and Plentiful Water

I wrote a short blog post on the privilege of safe water access last year, and this year I feel very similarly about my water situation.  This year, after a long drought, the privilege of even having water, even if it is not actually safe to drink, was reaffirmed for me when the taps in my friends’ homes would not produce any water, while the personal well next to my house (a distinct privilege here), never seemed to run dry.  As I mentioned in my blog about my house here, even having running water inside the home is a distinct privilege, and one I am continuously thankful for.

7 My Previous Cohort

They know me.  They know the roller coaster ride I am on.  Some of them are here in Indonesia again.  Some of them are back in the States.  Some of them have run off to new adventures in new countries[2].  But wherever they might call home for the moment, they are often my support system before I even know I need one, and I love them more now than ever, if that is even possible.

8 The AMINEF Staff

Last year they were the mysterious program leaders whom I knew smiled a lot and would have my back if I ever needed them.  This year they are more like friends, teasing my about my cat and my horrible spelling, and recommending novels for me to peruse in what spare time I have.  I cannot express how grateful I am to have been able to meet such wonderful people.

9 Internet Cafes and Smart Phones

I never had a smart phone until the very end of my grant last year, and I bought it predominantly because I wanted to me more readily accessible to this year’s ETAs as a returner.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to discover this about HPs (“hand pon,” the Indonesian term for mobile phone) with data access, but it really is a game changer.  I use it for everything from staying in touch with friends, to keeping up on the news, to providing my students with visuals in class.  For more intense internet needs, there is always the local internet café, where the coffee is delicious and the staff is always smiling.  While I am sure I would manage without the internet (how many generations before me did so?), there is no denying that having access to it makes my job much easier, and I am forever grateful for its existence.

10 My Students

I’ve said it time and time again.  My students are the best part of Indonesia.  I am especially thankful to have an English Club this year, providing me with a structured opportunity to work more closely with a few of my students outside of regular class hours.  English Club is what I look forward to most every week: even when it is pouring down rain, I can trust that at least a few students will come, and that warms every corner of my heart.

11 Rain

I have always loved rain.  The way it makes everything look and smell clean and fresh.  When ETAs first arrive in Indonesia, it is dry season, and we often go two months or more without ever seeing rain.  As soon as rainy season arrives, my mental health improves tenfold.  The world, and my perspective, is new.

12 My Sitemates

These are the folks who see me at my best and my worst, and seem to put up with me nonetheless.  I can’t thank them enough for being such a key part of my experience here.  We didn’t choose one another, but I can’t imagine being here with anyone else, and I love them from the bottom of my heart.

13 My Education

So much of this experience would be exceedingly more difficult if I did not have the background I do in the classroom, and I am thankful every day for my years of teacher training.  I also believe the ideas of my various educators over the years, regarding critical thinking and social justice, have strongly influenced my approach to my grant.  I don’t know that I always live up to the person they prepared me to be, but I strive to, and I thank them for helping to instill that desires to do so.

14 The Opportunity to Teach

This is tied in with number ten, but I still think it deserves its own place.  I’m continually asked why I put as much work as I do into my lessons and the activities I do with my students outside of class, and the only way I can think to respond is that it’s the least I can to, in return for the opportunity I have to work with the next generation.  There is a powerful potential in young people that is almost palatable when you walk into a room full of them.  As a teacher, I have the opportunity to spend more time with these young people far more than most adults do, even sometimes their parents.  As a teacher I also have the opportunity to help them to become all they can be, while simultaneously they unknowingly shape me into a better version of myself.  Teaching is a humbling and rewarding profession, and I am forever grateful that I am able to be a part of it.

15 My Current Cohort

I am quite fond of this year’s cohort as a whole.  They are certainly different in many ways from last year’s cohort, and have shaped my experience here in more ways than I think they know.  I should thank them more often for that.

16 The Days When I Feel Healthy

This time last year, I was relatively healthy.  I had certainly had my issues with adjusting to the food and the weather, but I was still healthy more than half of the time.  This year, I am still fighting a lowered immune system from my bout with typhoid, so my body is not delicious[3] more often than I would like.  But there are days when I am absolutely fine, and can eat and do whatever I want without needing to worry.  And that is a reminder of what a privilege health is; objectively I’ve always known that not having any kind chronic illness is a huge privilege, but this experience only makes me more aware of that.  Even if I am not always well, there are days when I am.  And though typhoid does tend to linger, it does eventually go away, and then I will exist as though I never had a tropical disease.  And for that, I am very grateful.

17 The Teachers of MAN Model

I spend quite a bit of time in dewan guru (the teachers room), and the teachers there, be they the English Teachers I work with or other teachers, have helped me through a number of the minor issues that invariably arise when you live in a foreign culture, and they never fail to make me smile and laugh.  They are a huge part of my family here, and I cannot thank them enough for welcoming me with open arms.

18 Fresh Vegetables

I happen to live in between two pasar (markets), and this means that I am able to fill my refrigerator and my dinner plate with plenty of leafy greens and fresh onions and tomatoes.  My day is always better with some green, and I regularly thank my lucky stars (to use the idiom from this week’s English Corner) for having such easy access to veggies.

19 Neighbors

Whether they are the ibus who scold me when I walk home in the rain or the tiny children that follow me on my way to drop off my laundry, my neighbors regularly make my day brighter than it would otherwise be.  Working my way into the community has been a slow process, but one worth having.

20 The Opportunities that Somehow Keep Coming My Way

Not a day goes by when I am not baffled by the mere fact that I am here.  Somehow I was deemed worthy to be part of a prestigious program that would send me to a place so few Americans ever have the opportunity to see.  And then somehow I was invited to come back for a second grant, to continue to learn and to grow.  Not every day is easy, but I am still the luckiest girl in the world, and I cannot express just how thankful I am.


[1] An English Corner is a vague concept that essentially means a learning space for folks who want to learn more about the English Language.  Some people have a room, some a corner in the library… I have an awesome papan tulis (white board) in the main courtyard area, where I am able to create daily, weekly, and monthly activities for students to engage in.

[2] One of my favorite ETAs from last year’s cohort is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and she continues to blog about here experience in Asia here.

[3] In Bahasa Indonesia, if you want to say, “I am not feeling well,” you say “Badan saya tidak enak.”  Enak can mean “nice/pleasant,” so what you are saying is “My body is not nice,” but the more common use of enak is to mean “delicious,” so this phrase causes endless amusement for both native and non-native speakers of Indonesian.

Remember to Love: A Response to Islamophobia from a Non-Muslim Teaching Assistant in a Muslim-Majority Country

I read the news of the bombings in Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris on my smart phone.  And not for the first time, I wished I had better access to internet or access to a paper newspaper in my native language, because the news was simply too heavy to be coming from a piece of technology that can fit in the palm of one hand.  That weekend, when I had the opportunity to go to the local internet café, I spent hours reading various articles and watching short videos about all the events that had occurred within a mere 48 hours.

A myriad of emotions weighed me down as I immersed myself in a world of the news: blocks of text, photographs, and chaotic videos attempting to encompass all that had happened.  I was saddened by the loss of so much life in such a violent fashion, and that so many families and friends would feel that empty space so poignantly.  I was angry at the way different media centers were covering the various attacks depending on where those attacks had occurred.  And I was also afraid.  Afraid of how people’s reactions to these tragedies—for they were all, each of them, tragedies, and I would never call them less that that—would further encourage Islamophobia around the world.

Over the next few days, every time I got on Facebook or other social media sites, I was bombarded by standardized profile pictures and French flags, as well as various explanations—some thoughtful, others not so much—as to why people chose not to change their profile pictures or overtly support France.  I saw vehement protests against the media’s coverage of the various attacks, which certainly seemed to be problematic, at best; and I read reminders that readers are also partially responsible for how informed they are.

And mixed into all of this, I saw a wide range of articles, posts, cartoons, and videos that epitomized all that I had feared: a blatant, cruel Islamophobia that often encouraged the same kind of violence practiced by terrorist groups.  Perhaps even more dangerous were those more subtly prejudice, celebrating the United States’ Bill passed recently by the House of Representatives that might limit the U.S.’s acceptance of refugees from Syria, even though this kind of fearful response is exactly what terrorist groups such as ISIS are seeking to create.

As all of this saddens, angers, and scares me, I find myself paralyzed as I try to determine how I ought to respond.  I try to carefully choose articles and videos to share on my own Facebook timeline.  I unapologetically argue with people whom I feel are perpetuating the unfounded general fear of Muslims I see so often in responses to such tragedies.  And now I find myself attempting to write a blog post—which may only reach a few people, but will reach people nonetheless—and not really knowing what I can say that will have any impact.

I can point out, as so many others have, that Islam is not inherently more violent than any other religion.  I can iterate that 81% of ISIS terrorists indicted in the United States are American citizens, and none of them were from Syria.  I can beg readers to stop seeing refugees from Syria as potential threats, and start seeing them as people, as families seeking safety and security.

I can proliferate the voices of Muslims from around the world who have created powerful campaigns to counteract the wrong opinions so many have about Islam as a whole, such as the #NOTINMYNAME campaign which started in London, or the group of students who bravely wear pins proclaiming, “I’m Muslim, Ask Me About Islam.”  This might in theory be one of the best responses I can have to these events, because as an ally my voice should not be louder than those who are actually marginalized by such oppression.

But I also know that not everyone will click on links related to groups created by Muslims.  I know that, as generally non-religious American raised in a Catholic household, my voice is sometimes more palatable to a Western audience.  Even if I should not be the loudest in the room, I should also not be silent.  Perhaps, if voices like mine speak loudly enough, the world will quiet enough to allow the most important voices to be heard.

I have now lived in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country for over a year, and this year I even work in a madrassah, a Muslim religious school.  And while I recognize that Islam is very different in different places, and this will cause many to disregard my argument, as the most-populous Muslim nation in the world, I don’t think that my experience with Islam here in Indonesia can objectively be ignored.

Because so many of the positive aspects of my experience here have directly stemmed from people’s devotion to Islam.  I have been welcomed with open arms into two very different communities by some of the most genuine and kind people I have ever had the opportunity to meet.  I came here barely speaking the language, and only superficially understanding the culture, and I have largely been met with nothing but love.  There are multifarious reasons that might go into my being accepted here, some of which might stem from a uniquely Indonesian friendliness, some of which might be related to my privileged idolization as a white westerner, but when I have asked friends outright why they are so open and welcoming, a majority of the responses are the same: “That is what Islam teaches us.”

This has, largely, been my experience with Islam.  That Islam is love.

Yes, there are levels of conservatism that are unfamiliar to me, the Northeastern American dripping with sweat in what I feel is far too many clothes for Indonesia’s tropical climate.  But, again, this is the particular form of Islamic belief to which I am exposed, in the same way that the conservatism of the Amish and Mennonite communities I grew up around do not represent the beliefs of all Christians.   Yes, I find that some of problematic views on gender roles may stem from people’s religious belief.  But they may also stem from a plethora of other influences, and I, too, was raised in a religion that still does not allow women equal roles within the religious institution, thereby influencing many members of this religion to believe that men and women are not equal.

I do not believe that Islam is perfect.  But I do not believe that any religion is perfect.  I recognize that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims (to make a vague and under-analyzed assessment of a large group of people), just as there are good and bad Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.  I cannot ignore that ISIS claims in its very name to be an “Islamic” organization, even as I cannot ignore that the KKK claims to be a Christian organization.

But, for all religions I have ever had the privilege to be exposed to or to study, I do believe that at their core they intend to make the world a better place.  I believe that, at their core, they are about love.  Islam is not different.  Islam, too, is love.

All I ask of people as they react to the various tragedies that have occurred recently is to try to emulate this same love.  It is okay to be sad, to be frustrated, and to even be angry at all that has happened.  But do not direct that frustration and anger towards people who have done nothing wrong.  Do not allow your fear and your rage to close your borders and your hearts to those who need love the most.  Be sad.  Be frustrated.  Be angry that the world still seems to be more ready to hate than to love.  But do not hate in return.  Keep your doors and your hearts open.  Remember to love.

While working on various paperwork for AMINEF and materials for lessons earlier this week, I was pulled away from my table in the corner of the internet café by a group of excited Indonesians who wanted to talk to the foreigner tapping away at her keyboard.  One of them was a Catholic Priest who has worked for the last twelve years in a neighborhood a little outside of Paris, and we inevitable ended up discussing the recent situation.  He is originally from Gorontalo, and had only returned to visit his sick mother.  In slow, carefully chosen Indonesian that would ensure I would understand even though I am not fluent, he expressed his worry at being here while his parish is seeking to understand recent events.  He felt he had a duty to his mother and that he could not leave right away, but he hopes that he can go back to France very soon in order to guide his parishioners.  “They will be sad,” he said to me, “But I do not want them to be angry.  I want them to remember to love.”

It was heartening to find a kindred spirit so far from home, a reminder that all people are capable to the love we both desire so much for the world.  And it, combined with various conversations with friends both within and without the ETA program, gave me the encouragement I needed to keep speaking, even as I am never sure what exactly needs to be said. Just as this man will return to Paris and remind his parishioners that Islam is not ISIS, that Islam is the faith of his beloved friends and neighbors from the Muslim-majority city he spent his formative years, I will remind anyone who will listen of the same idea.

Islam is not ISIS.  Islam is part of the spirit that creates such beautiful smiles on my students, helps build the system of support I have in the teachers at my school, ensures I am never left stranded in this amazing, baffling country without a friend.  Islam is love.

Whatever religion we may or may not belong to, however hurt we may be by the pain of the world, we must remember this.  We must remember to love.

Wallowing in Kesepian, Navigating the Biasa of It All

“Miss tidak takut tinggal sendiri?” I get this question all the time from my neighbors, my students, the teachers at my school.  Time and time again, I respond to their worry by telling them that I am not afraid of living alone, that, in America, a woman living alone is biasa (normal).  It’s okay.  I’m not afraid of ghosts in my house, or of being robbed, or of cockroach invasion[1].  A big house all to myself?  Bring it on.  I’m not afraid.

What I don’t tell them is that, in all honesty, I am afraid.  Not of sendiri, but kesepian, loneliness.

I’m generally a pretty outgoing person.  I like people.  I smile a lot, and I’m practically a bobble-head when it comes to nodding and saying hello.  At this point, I know exactly where I need to look on my walk to and from school to wave to the various Ibu and Bapak who might be around, and it’s not uncommon for me to chat with the neighbors as we water our plants or wash our various vehicles.

But that’s typically about as far as it goes.  I am friendly with plenty of people here, but I’m not sure yet that I actually have any friends. 

I certainly have a few budding friendships: with people from my neighborhood, people from my school, people I’ve met around the city.  They’re fabulous people, and I’m excited to get to know them better throughout the year.

But they’re not that kind of friends yet.  The kind I update about all the funny things that happen throughout the day.  The kind of friend I go to when I’m frustrated with how my lesson went that day.  With the people I’ve met here, we’re just not there yet.

Sometimes, that makes things hard.  This past weekend, I should have had a weekend packed full of various events.  Then, for one reason or another, they all got canceled, all last minute.  This ended up leaving me with a lot of time to myself, as I waited to be picked up for various activities that simply never ended up happening.

And as I sat in my house, trying to fill the wait time that just kept getting longer and longer, I found myself feeling just so darn sendiran (lonely).

There are days when I handle the challenges of the grant with grace.  And there are days when I don’t.

I ended up sending long messages to friends all over the globe detailing just how lonely I was: friends from home, friends from the ETA cohort last year, and friends from Malang (my site last year).  I spent a good portion of my day crying, and just generally feeling miserable and sorry for myself.  Why can’t I make friends?  I have all these other friends I’m reaching out to.  Why don’t I have friends like that here?

My friends were everything I needed them to be, and in the end I was in a much better place, able to actually see my situation for what it is.

Those friendships I relied on in my loneliness did not become what they are now over the course of two months.  They took time (sometimes years) and energy to build, and they take time and energy to maintain.  And that is what makes them so beautiful.

The friendships I have begun here will probably develop into the same kind of friendships[2], and next year when I find myself frustrated and lonely as I begin graduate school, they will probably be amongst those I reach out to.  But they need time.

I was chatting with a fellow ETA over Facebook chat recently, and he admitted that there were times when he felt lonely, but that he was sure that was “just part of the process.”  And he is right.  I certainly had periods of loneliness during the first parts of my grant last year, but by the end of my grant I was distraught at having to leave so many people about whom I cared so much, the same people whom I now reach out to when I am lonely.  This loneliness is all a part of the process, a difficult, wonderful process I am so lucky to be in the middle of.

That doesn’t make it any less difficult, in the moment.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be days when I give in to the kesepian, and I find myself defeated and crying to the stray cat who is the only other occupant of my big, empty house.

And that is biasa.  It’s okay.

I just need to remember that.

[1] Okay, if I’m completely honest, I might be afraid of that last one.  Just a little bit.

[2] In fact, I will probably be able to develop more of such friendships this year, now that I have a better grasp on the language and I am able to develop relationships with people only in Indonesian.  Without a language barrier, so many more opportunities to befriend people have presented themselves to me. It’s things like this I forget when I am wallowing in loneliness.

Wedding Season in Gorontalo

It seems inevitable that when one is in Indonesia, one goes to a lot of pernikahan (weddings).

This was certainly my experience last year, and it did not take long for it to begin again this year: I attended my first wedding during my first week at site, prior to even going to orientation, and continued to do so for quite some time following orientation.

Weddings in Indonesia have always seemed ornate affairs, and if anything they seem to be more so here in Gorontalo when compared to the ones I experienced in East Java last year.  The bride and groom are completely desked out in matching outfits, with elaborate hats and headdresses that come from traditional Gorontalo dress.  The parents and other family members are in their very finest—and are often also matching one another—and everyone in attendance, from the smallest child to the oldest Ibu, is wearing their finest; even in my favorite dress from Indonesia—which I’ve taken to calling my “wedding dress” because I always wear it to any wedding I am invited to—I often feel very underdressed.

The funds for all of this comes from the family of the groom.  While paying an actual “bride price” in the form of cows or goats goes not seem quite so common anymore, or at least not in metropolitan places (Gorontalo is a small city, but it is still a city), it still falls on the man to provide funds for the wedding.  The level of extravagance of the whole affair is often directly related to the wealth of the groom and his family.  I attended a wedding with one of my sitemates and her teachers that was held in a giant hall, which the couple would have had to rent out, complete with giant fake trees and the largest spread of food I have ever seen at an Indonesian wedding, here or on Java.   Most of the weddings I have attended here, one the other hand, are held in tents outside of the family’s home; they are still warna-warni (colorful) and indah (beautiful), but there are certainly no fake trees.  I asked one of teachers once what happens if the groom cannot pay for the wedding, and she told me that while in the past that might mean the couple could not marry, now they tend to have what is essentially a court-house wedding at the local ministry of religion[1].

Weddings almost never start on time, in keeping with the jam karet (rubber time) that is so pervasive here.  While everyone waits for the ceremony to begin, neighbors catch up on gossip, teenagers play with their hand phones, and young children become progressively more restless until they amuse or annoy everyone around them with their antics.  Often there are singers performing pop ballads in various languages, with varying degrees of talent.  But sometimes, in between songs or at weddings where there are no performers, the background to the waiting period is just friendly chatter.

Once the ceremony actually begins, I don’t usually fully understand what is happening.  Different family members speak, and there are various prayers said, that is certain, but I am never sure exactly what is being said, due to the fact that the prayers are in Arabic (a language I do not yet speak) and while I might be able to understand the Indonesian speeches in a different situation, I find it extremely difficult to hear clearly over the sound systems which are always used at weddings.  To be honest it, it never seems as though anyone in attendance is paying close attention to what is happening; most continue to whisper to the people sitting next to them or distract themselves with their HP (hand phone, or mobile phone).

Meanwhile, I sit peacefully and people watch, and admire the grandeur of the whole set-up, including the extravagant stage the couple and their parents sit on.  One of my co-teachers told me that for the wedding night the bed is also decorated in a similar fashion.  To be honest, if I were in their place, I’m not sure whether I would find this incredible, amusing, or intimidating.

After the actual ceremony is over, various individuals are called up for photos with the couple and their parents.  Then, sometimes the bride and groom sit in the ornate throne, and sometimes they change into a second set of wedding clothes, just as colorful as the first.

As soon as the first set of photos is finished, however, it is time to eat.  People swarm the tables on which the food is laid, and pile their plates with daging, sayur, and, of course, nasi.  In my experience, queuing is not a concept in Indonesia.  I’m never quite assertive enough for this bit of craziness, and still find the mild chaos a bit terrifying.

Then, it is time for a second round of photos, and then everyone goes home.

Indonesian weddings are always a particularly interesting experience as a foreigner.  Often, I find myself in a position of honor at the wedding, even though I really have no connection to the bride and groom at all.  I continue to find this position quite uncomfortable, as I have done nothing to deserve this attention, but I feel I have gotten better at navigating it less awkwardly as my time here increases.

While I found myself at a number of weddings during my first month and a half or so here, the invitations seem to have waned.  Because it is considered lucky to get married around the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca, there were a lot of weddings in the months of September and October.  But now, the Wedding Season is over in Gorontalo, and while this makes everything a little more peaceful, it also makes everything just a little less colorful.

[1] I’m sure there are all sorts of prejudices and politics wrapped up in this, but it is reassuring to know that some progress is being made.  I’m a hopeless romantic who believes love can conquer all, but I’m also a realist who knows the world is not always kind to love.

A Happy, Happy Halloween

Clustered around my laptop (with handy portable speakers), filling in the blanks of a Halloween song’s lyrics.

Last year, with the help of the dorm committee at my school, I facilitated a Halloween party on one of my school’s campuses, with all of the students in attendance.

This year, I celebrated Halloween on a much smaller scale, but it was still a ton of fun.

I focused my Halloween activities on my English Club.  The English Club at my school meets twice a week, with some students attending only one day, and others attending both, depending on their schedules.

My house was invested by hantu imut (cute ghosts) for Halloween.

The first day we commandeered a room at the school (English Club still doesn’t have a permanent space, so we just sort of wander around until we find an empty classroom that is still unlocked), and spent the next few hours listening to Halloween songs about Trick or Treating and trying to be spooky; and then reading and retelling various American ghost stories.  In fact, my English Club kiddos got so into their retelling of the various stories I found myself getting the shivers…


The second day I invited students to my house for a Halloween Party.  We carved Jack-o-Lanterns out of pumpkins, made sometimes-spooky-but-more-often-adorable masks, listened to Halloween songs and the pop songs my kids are obsessed with, chatted (in English at first, but more in Indonesian as the party went on, as English Club so often goes), ate far too much candy, and laughed just the right amount.

I have attended a few varied Halloween events in the States over the years, and I’m sure I will attend many more when I eventually return.  But I don’t know that any Halloween party I have attended or will attend could every compare to the festivities I have had here.  There is something so magical about students’ joy at their first Halloween Party that I don’t think could be reproduced anywhere else.

Try as they might, they just can’t stay spooky for long.

“I will never forget this… happiness, Miss,” said one of my students as she left my house (well after sunset, because Halloween is a special occasion and you don’t kick kiddos out of your house when English Club is technically over).

Nor will I, sayang. Nor will I.

About half of the students who participated in the Halloween Party (some had to head home before this photo was taken).

The Wonder and Chaos of English Camp

From Monday, October 12th, to Wednesday October 21st, the agenda book I carry everywhere in an attempt to keep my life in order was… well, a mess.  One glorious, adventurous, wonderful mess.  Because that was the “week” of English Camp.

When I was first told about English Camp, it was described as just that: one week of activities which would replace class for a select group of students chosen by the English Teachers.  It would run parallel to Japanese Camp and Arabic Camp, as those are the other two languages taught at MAN Model.  As my counterpart explained the idea to me, I found myself getting unreasonably excited: English Camp sounded AWESOME.

“Listening Practice” means I get to expose my kiddos to “Seasons of Love” from RENT.

What didn’t sound so awesome was that apparently someone from the upper echelons of my school seemed to think that I should be the one to coordinate all of the activities of English Camp (therefore not attending any of my classes, of course), from seven in the morning until nine at night, for six days straight (even with breaks factored in, that’s over 50 hours of different activities), with one week’s notice.

Last year’s ETA Grace would have panicked, smiled, nodded, and spent most of the next week not sleeping in an attempt to accomplish the impossible.  This year’s ETA Grace is better at saying no[1].

Using “Guessing Cards.” (Major thanks to the English Language Fellow who gave me a PDF copy!)

After a bit of persuading, I convinced my school that it would be more beneficial for me to continue to join my classes (something which is actually a Fulbright policy… I CANNOT skip class), and participate in English club outside of those hours during the school day, while the other teacher involved handled the activities at night[2].  This was still a little over fifteen hours of activities to plan, in addition to my classes and other weekly activities, but while that still adds up to a busy week of planning and preparation, that is doable.

The activities I planned for the students went really well, for the most part.  We learned about U.S. Geography[3], the history of the flags from various English-speaking nations, the subtle differences in the English language from one nation to the other[4], and even spent a day learning vocabulary related to cooking (and then making our own delicious grilled cheese sandwiches and pancakes… and eating far too much).

The students in English Camp were from both the 10th and 11th grades, and from all different classes, so they were a really interesting and awesome bunch to work with.  It was all wonderful.


Then the chaos ensued.

The teacher actually in charge of English Camp was part of a nation-wide competition for the Best Teacher of the Year award, and there was a last-minute change in when the final stage of this competition would be held.  This meant that, instead of leaving for Java a week after English Camp was over, this teacher needed to leave the Thursday of the week of English Camp.  It also meant that a group of people from the central government would be visiting MAN Model to interview other teachers and inspect the original documents that made up this teacher’s portfolio; this in turn meant this teacher had to hastily collect all of these papers from their various sources over a week before they had expected to.

“Guessing Cards,: this time ones they made themselves.

Unable to attend English Camp because of all the other responsibilities that had been thrown at them, this teacher, understandably, turned to me for help.  I took on the night sessions of English Camp in addition to the daytime sessions, with no time to prepare (picture me mumbling rapidly to myself during a five minute shower while I consider anything and everything I might have in my house that might help students learn English, and you have a good picture of what that looked like).

I pulled out the various English Games I had brought with me, dug deep into my memory for every race or role-play game I had ever heard of, and winged it.

Somehow, it worked.  The students had fun, we all learned something along the way, and I survived.

When a teacher shows up at your house and tells you that you will be running four hours of English Camp in 20 minutes… grab every English Game you have (Bananagrams, Pictureka, Apples to Apples…) and go!

Thursday through Saturday of English Camp were postponed, because the teacher in charge was in Java.  Those days were moved to Monday through Wednesday of the following week, which meant a weekend of crazy planning on my part once again[5], but once again, it was doable.

We learned about body parts (and then played “The Hokey Pokey” again and again… I never would have dreamed that song would be so popular, but there you have it), American slang (kids are still shouting “That’s WHACK!” in my class whenever the English language does something particularly strange[6]), and English idioms.  Exhausted though I was, I gained energy from the kids[7] and had just as good of a time as they seemed to be having.

The various language camps ended with a closing ceremony that included performances from all the students who participated.  The students from Japanese Camp sang, the students from Arabic Camp put on a musical about a student’s first day of school, and the students from English Camp put on a play in which Barbie finds herself a student at Horror School, shunned by the vampires and ghosts that make up the student body there (and later wakes up, discovering the whole thing was a dream…).  It was absolutely brilliant, and I am so proud of the students for creating such a fantastic piece.  (You can see the whole performance here.)

Photo-bombing a student selfie at the closing ceremony.

All in all, English Camp epitomized so much of the experience of being an ETA.  It is often stressful, frustrating, and exhausting.   There are days when you feel you have no more left to give, but are still expected to give fully, and to many; these are the days you want to throw in the towel, to walk away from everything and tell everyone they just need to accept your failure.  But it is also hilarious, heartwarming, and rewarding.  It gives you the opportunity to live and learn with amazing people, of all ages; it gives you a reason to smile, a reason to love life for all it is.

The English Camp Crew!

It makes you go home at the end of a good day, glad you stuck out the bad days.  Because as hard as the bad days are, the good days are so much better.

[1] I’ve always objectively known that, as an educator, I need to prioritize quality over quantity, and that it is okay to not take on project you don’t have time for or you are not qualified for.  But I’ve also always been really bad at saying no when people ask me for help, even if I’m not really able to give quality assistance.  Last year, this led to stretch myself so thin that I ended up really, really sick; it was an awful experience, but it also seemed to be the lesson I needed.  I won’t pretend I’m suddenly particularly good at not overworking myself, but I am getting better.

[2] This teacher was actually getting paid a bonus to run English Camp.  I, meanwhile, am not allowed to receive any payment outside of my stipend… this did help alleviate the guilt I still felt about saying no to running all of English Camp by myself.

[3] This was a topic requested of me.  I basically used it as an excuse to talk about the diversity of the United States, both in regards to its nature and the cultural influences that make it up (all you need to do is have students look at the names of the capitals of the different states in order to have an opening to do so).  The kids got really excited about making comparisons to the diversity present in Indonesia

[4] These two were topics I persuaded my school to let me include.  Although I am part of an exchange program from the United States, and much of the cultural exchange I do is very directly between the United States and Indonesia, I also know that students from Indonesia who are interested in studying abroad will not always end up in the States, and I do not want to give them limited exposure to the English Language.

[5] Because my class schedule is heavier towards the end of the week, I had more free time during the beginning of the week for English Camp.  This meant than when the second part of English camp was moved to the beginning of the following week, hours in which I was in charge were actually added to the schedule.

[6] I actually have my fellow ETA Michael, to thanks for this activity.  The best teaching is often stealing, as a professor once told me.

[7] I’ve found that teaching is something that gives me energy continuously, while also taking energy but in a way that I am unaware of until I get home and my very bones are tired.  I can’t imagine a better career to be in.