Dari mana?: Reflections on a Trip Back to Malang

Dari mana?

This is a question I hear incessantly in Indonesia.  This question translates to “From where?” and can be used in two different ways: “Where are you coming from?” (as in, “Where were you right before you arrived here?”), or “Where are you from?” (as in, “Where do you come from, as in, like, originally?”).  Since I very distinctly do not look as though I am from Indonesia, “Dari mana?” is usually intended to ask the latter when it is directed towards me.

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Good friends, good food, good times.

Last year, while living in Malang, my Indonesian friends and their playful sense of humor encouraged me to play with the dual meaning of this question, and whenever we went hiking up nearby mountains or to various waterfalls, when people we met along the way asked me, “Dari mana?” I would reply, “Dari Malang!”  This, of course, wasn’t exactly a lie, as I was always coming from the direction of the city, but that wasn’t what people wanted to know.  Most folks would follow up with “Asli…?” (asli means original or originally, and “Asli mana?” is another way to ask where someone is originally from), and that would lead us into the typical discussion of where I was from and why I was in Malang, my friends still giggling off to the side.

It was a wild few days of trying to see everyone who had made my time in Malang memorable (I wasn’t completely successful—there were still a few I was not able to see, and I hope I will have to opportunity to go back again and fix that).  But even with a packed schedule, I still had time to reflect on just how surreal the experience of going back to Malang was.

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AFTER wiping happy tears away.

So much was the same.  I hopped on a rented motorbike and zipped around familiar roads without hesitation, my mental map of Malang still ingrained into my subconscious.  I fell naturally back into conversations with teachers who still go to lunch at the same favorite nasi padang place.  Students (following the screaming and hugging and in a few cases crying that took place immediately upon my arrival) laughed and smiled and gossiped in the same way I remember them doing when I was their teacher. I took my place at suppers with friends, chatting and eating sambal as though no time had passed.  I’ve only been away from Malang for a mere six months: it hasn’t changed all that much.

But there was so much that was different.  My school has a new principle, which meant that the teachers’ rooms had been rearranged and school committees had been restructured.  There is a whole class of tenth graders at my school whom I have never met, and who stared openly at me as I talked to some of their seniors, before I got some of my old students to introduce me.  My site mate, the rock that kept me grounded and steady during the ups and downs that is the ETA experience, is back in her home state of Florida, and was not there to share the experience.  Many other friends, either foreigners or Indonesians, have since moved to other cities, and their presence was certainly missed.

Of course, the thing that had changed the most was, well, me.

Some of these changes are of the sort that simply come with the passing of time: I’m ever so slightly better read and more thoughtful, allowing me to better keep up in conversations with my friends’, most of whom are either finishing their master’s degree or already working and are far wiser than I am.  Some changes came out of having lived in Indonesia for a little longer, such as the increased speed and accuracy of my Indonesian.

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This crew.

But there were changes that stemmed specifically from my having lived in Gorontalo for three months.  My friends, most of whom are from Java, teased me for the new accent they detected in my voice, which I had not even realized I was developing over these past few months.  As my friends weaved in and out of the thick Malang traffic, I found myself getting left behind on occasion, driving too hesitantly, having adapted to the significant lack of traffic and the slightly less aggressive driving habits of Gorontalo.  “You’re not from Malang now,” my friends teased, “You’re from Gorontalo.”

And then, all too soon, I returned to Gorontalo, to streets and rumah makan which are just as familiar and to friends whom are just a precious to me as those from Malang, at this point.  It seems now that I am from a lot of places: Pennsylvania (where I spent most of my childhood), Central New York, East Java, and now Gorontalo.

All of this is really just a result of growing up, of finding my own place in the world.  Whether they move to a country on the other side of the world or to a home down the street, most people do not stay in one place for their entire lives.  For me, the difference in my various homes is more noticeable, because they have been so very different from one another; I’m one of the lucky few able to have this sort of experience.

I’m also one of the lucky few able to share my unique experience.  Not all ETAs who return to Indonesia are able to return to their old sites, and I am very fortunate to have been able to do so.  None of my friends in Malang had ever had the opportunity to visit Gorontalo, and armed with photos, kerawang (the traditional fabric from Gorontalo), and the little of the local language I know, I was able to share at least a little of this with them, in the same way that I share a little of all I have learned from Indonesia with people in my hometown, and share the experience of having grown up in the Northeastern U.S. with folks here.

I will admit that there are days when being “from” so many places exhausts me, when all of the connections I have made and which I work so hard to maintain from all over the world end up making me feel isolated from the here and now I currently find myself in.  But there are also days when these connections fill me up and shower me with a love I do not deserve.  And for that, I am so thankful.

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Spirits in the Teacher’s Room: a Story of Possession

When a crowd of students came bustling in, a few boys in the lead carrying someone on a stretcher, I didn’t blink an eye.  Though there is a small nurse’s office at my school, often students who have passed out (which happens quite frequently here due to the omnipresent sweltering heat) are instead brought to dewan guru (the teacher’s room), to be revived and then allowed to rest on the couches there.  I barely looked up from the materials for my English Corner which were strewn about my desk; I knew from experience that the students had things well in hand.

Then the screaming started.

It was the kind of screaming I generally associate with the haunted houses and scary movies friends in the States used to drag me to every October (I’ve never seen the sense in willingly subjecting yourself to fright).  Shrill.  Piercing.  It was the kind of screaming that gets into your skull and paints everything a shade of pure, unadulterated terror.

I set down my construction paper and scissors and looked up at the crowd of students.  Usually once the student is safely placed in the teacher’s office the rest of the class, excepting a few close friends, return to the classroom, but this was not the case here.  At least sixty students—which meant that more than one class was present—were clustered around one of the couches.  I could not see the affected student.  But I could hear her.

A few students I teach from a classroom near the teacher’s room came in to make sure I was okay (someone must have told them I was in there—this is the sort of selflessness I am undeservedly the recipient of every day).  They explained that the student was kesurupan (possessed), which I had begun to suspect, as my experience seemed to match one I remembered hearing about from another ETA last year.  Their explanation and my subsequent searching in the dictionary to ensure I understood them properly (possession is not a word I use all that often in my Indonesian conversations), led to a discussion among those students and the remaining teachers (all of this happened right after school) as to whether or not they actually believed in what was happening. Some did.  Others said it was caused by stress, and that she was having some kind of breakdown or anxiety attack.  Others, casting furtive glances to the other end of the room, said they were not sure.

Meanwhile, the student (I do not know exactly who she was because she was not from a class that I teach) was still screaming.  Several students were reading from the Qur’an, having selected particular verses that are considered suci (pure or holy), in order to mengusir (chase away or drive out) the setan (devil or evil spirits, depending on who translates) they thought had entered the student.  I know from the little studying I’ve done of monotheistic religions that some Muslims do practice exorcism, and according to my dictionary that is was mengusir setan translates to, but I cannot actually be certain that this concept applies to what was going on in the teacher’s room that day.

I joined a few of the teachers in trying to control the chaos.  I stayed away from the end of the long room where the student was, because I did not think having the foreign teacher so obviously present would help calm the situation at all (there are times here when I can become fully involved, and there are times when I need to recognize the position I am in and sit on the sidelines), but I did shoo away any students trying to enter the room, reprimanding them for being kepo (nosy).  Whether this was an actual possession or some kind of anxiety attack, I was fairly certain having dozens of students swarm around her in an already hot room would not help her in any way, and many of the other teachers seemed to be thinking along the same lines (others offered to help me to get closer if I wanted to see, but again, I was not there to add to the mayhem).

Eventually the student became quiet, and most of the other students left; only a few close friends remained.  The girl—who I could see for the first time now —appeared to be unconscious and her friends took turns fanning her and trying to wake her up.

I went back to working on the parts of the new English Corner.  The teacher’s room was almost empty at this point (as they left some of the teachers told me that I should leave to, lest I become possessed myself—I’m not entirely sure if they were serious or if they were just trying to scare me) I was beginning to worry that the girl’s parents (whom I confirmed had been called) would not arrive before all the teachers had left. I still had plenty of work to do, so I would probably still be there when they arrived, but I did not imagine I would be very helpful, as the one teacher at the school not fluent in English.  I cut out photos of winter-themed words and waited.  The room was nearly silent, except for the low whirring of one of the fans which still on, and the whispers of the few students that remained.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when the screaming began again.  With so few students remaining in the room, I now had a full view of everything that was happening.  The student lashed out at her friends, now trying desperately to hold her down.  One student repeatedly asked her, “Siapa? Siapa?” (“Who? Who?”), but I could not understand the response she spat back in his face.  Another student frantically whispered for someone to get help, something I had already sent my students to do, and a few students sprinted out the door in response to her plea.

A few teachers from one of the other offices—a troop of stern but kindly Ibus whom I would not mess with, even if I were a spirit—marched swiftly into the room and took over.  “Sudah!” they shouted at the student (a word which often is used to mean “already,” but which can also mean “enough”).  The girl reacted by fighting her way free from her friends and swinging the blazer that is part of the school uniform in the teacher’s direction, screaming all the while.

Her hair was wildly tangled, her eyes wide, her skin gleaming with sweat.  In an environment where the girls are usually so demure and are required to wear a jilbab, it was certainly a shocking sight.

Having escaped the hold of her friends, the student was tackled to the ground by the teachers and then dragged—still kicking and screaming—out of the teacher’s room.  While I could no longer see what happening, I could hear that the student continued to scream and the teacher’s continued to shout “Sudah!”

It must have worked, because eventually everything became quiet again.  One of the other students came in to collect her backpack, and when I asked her how her friend was she told me she was calm now and was on her way home.

I finished the last pieces of my project and went home myself.  The entire incident took about an hour and a half, from start to finish.

I have since learned from other teachers at the school that this is not the first kesurupan to have occurred at our school.  Not all episodes are as violent as the one I witnessed, but even those seem to be fairly commonplace.  Often, students who are possessed eventually change schools; I was unable to elicit from students or teachers exactly why this happens, but from our conversations I have developed a theory that there are two potential reasons. It may be because the parents are worried it will happen again if the students remain at the school (often places that are considered haunted here are believed to only affect certain people, which is why everyone else is able to live normally in that place).  It may be because of the teasing I am sure will result from this event.  I’m sure the reason is different for every student and their families.

An Indonesian friend of mine, when I told her about the kersurupan at school, told me that she herself experienced a sort of possession about two years ago while on a hiking trip.  According to the friends and family with her at the time, she screamed incoherently for hours and tried to hit her parents and siblings, whom she did not seem to recognize at all.  At one point she apparently demanded that someone call her parents, so that they could come and find her.  Because her own parents were right there in front of her, her friends and family believe that she was possessed by the spirit of a girl who had died in the forest, and who was trying to tell her parents where her body was.  Once this was all over, my friend awoke from her altered state, exhausted and with no recollection of what had happened.

I don’t know what causes kesurupan.  I am not an expert in either the supernatural or in the kind of stress that may cause a similar experience, and so I do not seek to offer any explanations.  One thing is for certain though: I will never forget my first kesurupan.