The Big Durian: A Brief Reflection on Living in Jakarta for a Year

My mother raised me under the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  So, if anyone was wondering how I lived in Indonesia’s capital for a year without really writing all that much about it, it’s because, for a long time, I couldn’t find anything nice to say.


Even fancy phone filters can’t hide that blue skies like this are a rarity in Jakarta.

One of the nicknames I have heard for Jakarta is the Big Durian.  Durian is a large, spiky fruit famous (or infamous) for its strong smell (it actually isn’t allowed on airplanes or on most public transportation systems in cities where it is sold), and people usually either can’t get enough of it, or think it is the most disgusting fruit in the world.

If this isn’t a great metaphor for Jakarta, I don’t know what is.


This kitty seems content enough sleeping on the bus platform.

I do know people who like Jakarta.  It attracts an array of interesting people from around the country, and even around the world, and it seems to be an especially hot hub for motivated young people in various fields.  For those who enjoy a good club, I hear the nightlife is fantastic.  The international food scene is booming, and even I came to enjoy the café culture that flourishes in the city.  I’m convinced it is the shopping capital of the world (not quite true, but one does not go on a trip to Jakarta without shopping for at least one day).  And if you, like myself and many of my friends, enjoy museums, Jakarta is pretty much the only city in Indonesia with a decent selection of them.


On one of my better days in Jakarta, I came across this mosque named after Cut Nyak Dien, one of my favorite Indonesian heroines.

But though I could see why other people were able to come to love the city, I never could.  Jakarta is a massive, sprawling, hot city best known for traffic, corruption, and pollution.  None of this exactly adds up to my happy place.  As a farm girl who still needs her fresh air, being forced to wear a mask anywhere I went was torture; my first response when people asked me why I didn’t like Jakarta: it’s hard to love a place that doesn’t let you breathe.  I hated the crowded, dirty streets, and the sterile malls.  I hated that the harassment, while not something unique to Jakarta, was by far the worst that I had yet experienced.  There were plenty of days when I had to force myself to leave my apartment, because it was so much easier to hide in my room with a favorite Y.A. novel, pretending I was somewhere—anywhere—else.

I tried to love Jakarta.  Never in my life have I tried to love something as much as I tried to love Jakarta.  I subscribed to several email chains and Instagram accounts that focused on free and/or exciting things to do in the city.  I went to a museum almost once a month, at least when I wasn’t doing extensive travel for work.  When I took time out of the office to write my research article, I forced myself to go on a café tour, mostly to get myself out to see more of Jakarta.  But though I did have a fair amount of fun doing so, I still couldn’t bring myself to love, or even like, the Big Durian.


Finding fun: visiting Obama’s elementary school, playing diplomat at the ASEAN office, and befriending a civet at Car Free Day.

This is not to say that I was 100% miserable living Jakarta all the time.  As I have learned from the many other places that I have lived over the years, my experience in a place is not usually defined by the place itself, but by the people in it.  I had two amazing housemates while in Jakarta: we had met while I was a first-year ETA in Malang, and the fates were kind enough to bring us to Jakarta around the same time.  And over the course of my year there developed a network of wonderful friends, both Indonesian and American.  Finding fun things to do in the city with them, learning from them, laughing with them, and yes, sometimes bonding with them over our mutual dislike of our shared city, was what really made my time in Jakarta memorable.  If there is one good thing I can say about Jakarta: I probably would not have developed as many truly life-long friendships as I did while in Indonesia if I had not had my year there.

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All about the people: office yoga, my farewell party, and dinner when one of my American friends came to visit (the lovely housemates I mentioned are on the far right).

In the end, I feel about the Big Durian much like I feel about durian itself: I’m glad I tried it, and I got some stories out of the experience, but if I never encounter it again, I think I’ll be just fine.

I’m hoping that’s a nice enough statement to satisfy Momma.


Museum Hopping in Jakarta 


The exterior of Museum Seni.

One of the things I was looking forward most to about living in Jakarta was the museums.  I have loved museums since I was a child, and even though my older, more educated self can understand how they can sometimes be quite problematic, I still fall head over heels for the way a good museum can encourage curiosity and somehow manage to capture the enormity of a culture or a time period in even the smallest of exhibits.  When I studied for a semester in London, I spent much of my time wandering in the giant national museums and galleries, as well as seeking out some of the hole-in-the wall collections they don’t always put in tour guides.  And while my Fulbright experience allowed me to head twice to D.C. and see some of the incredible Smithsonian’s that I had before only read about, the two cities I found myself placed in as an ETA were a bit smaller and did not have a particularly extensive selection of museums.  Jakarta is one of the few places in Indonesia that that has several museums, and I was eager to explore.  While I didn’t get to see all of the museums Jakarta had to offer, I did see a fair few, and a few more than once.


The statue that gives Museum Gajah its name.

Museum Gajah (Museum Nasional Indonesia)

The National Museum is the largest museum in Jakarta, and in all of Indonesia.  It has a fairly extensive stonework and ceramic collection that I never got bored of seeing no matter how many guests I accompanied there.  There is a good amount of information about some of the different cultures across Indonesia (their display of traditional houses is especially memorable), and the English descriptions, while not perfect, are generally understandable, which is not always the case in Indonesian museums.   Museum Gajah actually means Elephant Museum, and this nickname comes from a statue of an elephant outside of the museum, a gift to Indonesia from Siam (modern day Thailand) in 1871.  The museum is right across from Monas (Monument Nasional), making it one of the most visited museums in the city, so if it’s possible to do so, it’s always better to visit on a weekday.  They were renovating some parts of the museum towards the end of my grant, and while it is a bit of a bummer that some of the exhibits were closed, there is no denying that some sections were in need of some repairs, and I am glad they are taking the time to do so.  It is possible to do this museum in one visit, but if you have the time, it would be best to give yourself several visits, so that you can really take everything in.


A painting by Afandi, one of my favorite Indonesian artists.  This was part of the Presidential Exhibit.

Galleri Nasional

Galleri Nasional (the National Gallery), does not have a permanent exhibit, but rather has different kinds of exhibits constantly coming through, usually only for a few weeks at a time.    It is also within walking distance of Monas, albeit a slightly farther jaunt, and is well worth a peak if there is time.  And for folks that live in Jakarta, it is a museum to keep an eye on.  Not all of the exhibits there are equal, in my eyes, but some of them are truly stellar.  I saw a particularly good exhibit around Independence Day, which included a selection of paintings on loan from the presidential collection.


The courtyard of Museum Fatahillah.

Museum Fatahillah (Museum Sejarah Jakarta)

Most commonly called Museum Sejarah Jakarta (History of Jakarta Museum), this museum is housed in what used to be the Governor’s office, during the Dutch Colonial era.  The building itself is the focus point of Kota Tua (Old City), which is filled with old Dutch buildings that have been repurposed by the Indonesian Government, many as museums[1].  The rooms are filled with old furniture and portraits of Dutch officials that had a significant influence during the colonial era.  Nothing in the museum is labeled, so it is important to find a guide.  When I visited, I had a fabulous guide who spoke excellent English and who was able to piece together everything on display in a way that really painted a picture of the building and the different moments in history of which it played a role, but I have heard from friends that the guides there can be very hit or miss.  Still, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, though I do wish I had gone earlier in the day, as the museum is not air conditioned and can get rather stuffy.


One of the wayang at Museum Wayang.

Museum Wayang

Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppets) are one of my favorite parts of Indonesian performance art.  Museum Wayang, another of the museums in Kota Tua, has an extensive collection of puppets from across the country, and even a few from other places.  Some of them are quite old, as well, and so it is possible to see how the methods used to make the puppets and the styles of the puppets changed throughout history.  However, while the collections itself is great, the museum is in major need of renovation.  The lighting is poor, it is hot and stuffy, the English signs are almost incomprehensible, and the Indonesian signs are not much clearer or more informative.  If you go, try to get a guide, or go with a friend who knows more about wayang and can explain it to you (which is what I did).  With patience and a little help, it is definitely worth a visit, but it is not a museum I would recommend just walking into on a whim.


The inner courtyard at Museum Bank Indonesia.

Museum Bank Indonesia

This is probably the best museum in all of Jakarta[2], and it is also part of Kota Tua.  (Just be careful and don’t confuse it with Museum Bank Mandiri, which is right down the street: I never had a chance to go to Museum Bank Mandiri, but I heard that it simply did not compare to Bank Indonesia.)  It is a beautiful museum, inside what used to be the main bank for Indonesia, both during the Dutch Colonial area and even for some time after Independence.  Much of the museum is dedicated to the history of the bank, which is structured in such a way that it actually does a good job of telling the story of Indonesia as we know it today.  For those who don’t know that much about Indonesian history and prefer museums to books, it can act as an excellent introduction, and those who already know something will find the economic focus interesting.  There is also a room at the end of the museum filled with coins and paper bills from almost every country in the world, and often from different eras, which can be a lot of fun to explore.  Though it is possible to do Museum Bank Indonesia in a few hours, I revisited the museum several times with friends, and always enjoyed myself.


One of the many rooms in Museum Seni.

Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik (Museum Seni)

Museum Seni (the Art Museum), is yet another museum in Kota Tua, and it is the one that I was looking forward to most while I was there, because I absolutely love art museums.  The collection is fairly good, and certainly worth the admission fee.  However, the museum is in major need of repair, and the English signage is rather poor.  If you can read Indonesian or have a friend who can translate, the Indonesian signs, while a bit ragged around the edges, do give some very good information about the artists and the various painting styles that have come in and out of fashion in Indonesian art, but the English signs do not have accurate translations and can, as a consequence, can be very confusing.  As someone who loves paintings and ceramics, which is much of what makes up the collection, I was perfectly happy to work my way through the Indonesian to learn a little more about Indonesian art, but it might not be the best experience for everyone.

Taman Prasati

This was another one of my favorite museums in Jakarta.  It isn’t really a museum at all, but rather a graveyard used during the Dutch era.  The tombstones are not all originally from that particular location: many graveyards were destroyed after Independence, and people interested in preserving the history of those graveyards moved the tombstones to a new location, while the bodies, in many cases, were shipped back to the Netherlands to be reburied in family plots (though it is said that there are still some left under the buildings that have now been built where the graveyards used to be).  This is another place where I would recommend a guide, if you visit.  It is a beautiful little plot, but without a guide you can’t do more that read what is on the tombstones themselves, and unless you read Dutch and know a lot about the Dutch Colonial Era in Indonesia, you’ll probably miss much of the story.


Some of the many beautiful graves at Taman Prasati.  

[1] If you like museums, Kota Tua is definitely a good place to visit in Jakarta.  If you are trying to visit many or all the museums in that area in one day, I would recommend starting with Museum Seni, Museum Jakarta, or Museum Wayang, as none of those museums are air conditioned and can get rather hot once midday rolls around.  Museum Bank Indonesia is cool and comfortable, and I have heard the Museum Bank Mandiri is also air conditioned (though I never made it to this museum, and so can’t vouch that this is indeed the case).

[2] It is not, however, the best museum in all of Indonesia, in my eyes, though some people do feel that way.  I have to give that title to Museum Batik in Solo, Central Java, which I visited when I found myself unexpectedly in Solo in 2016.

From Belum to Sudah, and Back Again

I have, by this point, officially reached the halfway point of my Fulbright grant, which means I am halfway through my time here in Indonesia. However, though I did not technically reach this milestone until I attended to Mid-Year Conference in Jakarta, where I was able to see all the lovely faces of my fellow ETAs, in many ways I feel as though I have already reached my own personal halfway point, with the changing of semesters.

Perhaps this is partially due to the teacher in me, who finds it easier to interpret a year through semesters and units than through the more typical months and weeks. More so, I believe it is because the actual “Mid-Year” came right in the middle of the many adventures of the new semester, while the change in semesters came after two weeks of no school, and traveling and reflecting with some of my favorite ETAs. This is not to say that I did not learn anything from my week in Jakarta: indeed, I came home brimming with new ideas I could not wait to use in the classroom. But I had already come into the new semester with new ideas for how to navigate different parts of my professional relationships and social life as they exist in this new culture, which are arguably much more challenging than the more familiar classroom struggles.

In part because of my new determination to find my place here, and in part due to just the natural passing of time, I have enjoyed a significant change in my experience from the first semester, to the second semester. I have come to understand this marked change through two of the most commonly used Indonesian words there are: belum and sudah. 

Belum and sudah translate to “not yet” and “already,” respectfully. Indonesians are loathe to say tidak, or “no,” directly (it is a hopeful language, and “no” is too harsh for their mindset), and therefore they often use the word belum in its stead. Sudah is not only used in the manner in which English speakers use “already,” but also sometimes to indicate anything that has happened in the past. I cannot get through even the smallest conversation in Indonesian without either hearing, or saying myself, at least one of these words.

My first semester was defined by belumBelum bicara Bahasa Indonesia. (I do not yet speak Indonesian.) Belum bertemu dia. (I have not yet met him/her.) Belum ingat jadwalku, karena itu berbeda setiap minggu. (I do not remember my schedule yet, because it is different every week.) I could not get through a single conversation in Indonesian without having to say “Belum jelas” (“Not yet clear”). And in response to almost every question teachers tossed my way, from “Have you been to [insert name of place in or near Malang here]?” to “Do you know how to get home by yourself?” the answer was always the same: “Belum, belum.

Belum is the definition of knowing you do not yet belong. Belum can make you frustrated with yourself, your teachers, the handwritten sign on the warung where you want to buy jus strawberry. On your worst days, belum can make you want to pack up your bags and return to the people and places you know and understand. But belum is worth the struggle, because just beyond belum, bathed in tropical sunlight and resting in a valley of rice paddies and sugar cane, is the magical land of sudah.


Since coming back to my school from break, I have started to hear the word sudah with a much higher frequency than I did before. Though I cannot hold any conversation without slipping into a campuran (mix) of English and Indonesian, it seems that any time I talk to anyone this semester, they feel the need to pause the conversation, point and me, and say to whomever is walking by, “Sudah pintar Bahasa Indonesia![1] I personally feel that claiming I am “Already good at Indonesian!” is a bit of a stretch, but I’ve been working on accepting compliments, and so I just smile politely and look pointedly at the ground.

Occasionally, one of the older, sweeter ibu-ibu at my school will smile across the our lunch table piled high with bakso (the Indonesian version of meatballs, usually used in soup, which is especially fampous in Malang), and Nasi Padang (a spicy selection of foods originally from Sumatra), and say to me, “Sudah lancer!” (“Already fluent!”). To this one, I always respond, “Belum, Bu, belum.” I feel closer to sudah lancer every day, but I still have a long way to go.

Eating has also caused an increase in sudah. While, before, I would only sometimes eat with my hands, keeping my trusty sendok (spoon) tucked in my purse just in case a dish proved too challenging for my clumsy fingers. Now I shamelessly dig in, causing my ibu-ibu to exclaim happily, “Sudah bisa makan pakai tangan!” (“You can already eat with your hands!”). My spice tolerance has also increased gradually, so that while I used to ask for food tampa (without) sambal (the Indonesian equivalent of salsa, which usually is a danger level of spicy and which they put on everything), I sometimes find myself asking people to tambah (add) more. “You already have the Indonesian taste,” one of my co-teachers told me just recently. The importance of this change is not to be underestimated. Indonesians love food: the fact that I can now happily enjoy their cuisine might be more important to them than the fact that I am trying to learn their language.


While some of my transformation from belum to sudah has been gradual, such as my language learning and my Indonesian palate, there was one change I made from one semester to the other that created an immediate sudah, and it was not one which I expected.

During the second week of our recent break, I finally learned how to ride a motorbike, and somehow this has
changed, well, everything. My trusty steed is a ten-year-old automatic which I am renting from a lovely ibu with two adorable children, to whom I am referred to as “Auntie Grace.” It’s scratched and bent from previous bule renters, it is not the most impressive ride, but it has already done so much for me. Not only has riding a motorbike given me renewed freedom of mobility, something I was feeling a significant lack of in my first semester, but it has changed almost every interaction I have here.

Male teachers who wanted nothing to do with me before now ask me about where I have been on bike, and how fast I drive. Students whom I was having difficulty getting to know now wave ecstatically every time I drive by. Asking for directions when out walking, I am more likely to be told that I should not be walking alone than actually given guidance as to what turn I should make. On a motorbike, becak drivers and warung owners alike are morelikely to provide the help I am asking for.

It’s a baffling change. “Sudah berani” (“already brave”), smiles one of my favourite ibu-ibu, and I can barely keep the confusion off my face. I confess, after the persuading I had to do to convince my teachers to let me rent a motorbike, and after hearing so many of the female teachers talk about how their fathers and husbands will not let them learn to ride a motorbike, I expected hearty disapproval of my mode of transportation. But Indonesia is always full of surprises, and the very thing which I worried would cause others to think ill of me has, rather, provided me with more respect than I have enjoyed since coming here.


In many ways, I am still navigating the realm of belum, and to some extent I probably will be right up until the day I leave. But there is beauty in the struggle, and with one foot firmly in belum, and the other testing the waters of sudah, I am excited to drive off into the second half of my Indonesian adventure.

[1] As a side note, pintar literally translates to “smart,” but it is often used to mean “good at.” You
can be sudah pintar bahasa Indoensia, but also sudah pintar badminton. As someone who used to read Howard Gardner for fun, I have a small internal party every time I hear it used this way.

Venturing Out of Java: A Trip to Northern Sulawesi

Over 17,000 islands come together to create the archipelago that is Indonesia, and three months into my placement I had still only been to one of those islands, Java.  There are certainly plenty of advantages to being placed on what my sitemate perceptively calls the “favorite child” (Java has significantly superior infrastructure to the other islands, creating an extremely interesting kind of privilege which I hope to further explore during my time here), but one of my goals for my nine months in Indonesia is to try to get a more complete picture of Indonesia as a country, in what capacity I can in such a short time.  I am able to accomplish some of this by talking to my students from my second campus, who come from all across Indonesia, but I still wanted to see some of Indonesia’s great diversity with my own eyes.

My first opportunity came fairly recently, during my school’s final period.  (Due to restrictions from the Indonesian government which have been put in place to discourage cheating, I am not allowed to be in the classroom during the final examinations.  As a teacher, this drives me a bit insane, but there is little I can do about the situation.)  Encouraged by my co-teachers to travel during this time—“Go!  See Indonesia!”—I packed my backpack and boarded a plane to Gorontalo, a city in the northern part of the island of Sulawesi, where a fellow ETA—whom I have come to adore—is placed.  I knew very little about the city, or even the island itself, but I had someone there who could show me around, and it was somewhere new; and so, somewhat impulsively, I confess, I went, not knowing that North Sulawesi would soon become one of my favorite places in Indonesia.


Upon stepping off the plane and getting into the travel car my friend had pre-arranged for me, I found myself unable to decide whether Gorontalo was exactly like Malang, or completely different.  I was surrounded by rice fields, a familiar site for me because I live a bit outside of the actual city of Malang, but there was a noticeable lack of sugarcane, which seems to be the primary crop in the area in which I live.  I had been told the rest of Indonesia would cook me alive next to the relative coolness of Malang, but I found Gorontalo to be much cooler than I anticipated it being, though the breeze I felt had the distinct taste of the ocean, rather than the cool mountain freshness I have in Malang.

Perhaps the biggest difference that I first noticed was the abundance of sapi-sapi (cows) in Gorontalo.  Though I live near the city of Batu, one of the only places in Indonesia with temperatures cool enough which can support a dairy industry, and am surrounded by fields and farms, the only time I have really seen cows since coming to Indonesia was during the period before Idul Adha.  In Gorontalo, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a cow, and I immediately began babbling like an excited two-year-old (and probably with a more limited vocabulary than most Indonesian two-year-olds) to this man I had just met about how excited I was to see cows: “Ada banyak sapi di Gorontalo!  Tidak ada sapi decak aku di Malang!  Keluargaku punya sapi di Amerika!”  (“There are many cows in Gorontalo!  There are not cows near me in Malang!  My family has cows in America!”)  He immediately began trying to persuade me to take a cow home with me, and to point out every cow we passed; I knew from that moment that I was going to like Gorontalo.

(Later, my friend used the same driver to get to the airport for a trip of her own, and he apparently talked for most of the ride about my love of cows.  I find it reassuring to know that even halfway around the world I am still known as the girl with an eccentric passion for all things bovine.)


As soon as I had dropped off my bags at my friends’ house, we hopped on her motorbike to explore more of the rural aspects of Gorontalo.  During her time there, she had befriended a family who had invited her to see their rice harvest, and it happened to be in full swing on the day I arrived.  I had the opportunity to ask questions about rice of one of the workers who was busy harvesting, and even got to get into the paddy and try my hand at doing it myself.  My route from one campus to the other takes me past many rice paddies, I have become more and more curious about this unfamiliar grain, and have been harboring the somewhat-secret wish to step into a rice paddy for quite some time now.  So though both the Indonesians present and my fellow ETA were calling me gila (crazy) as I stood ankle-deep in mud and cut down stalks of rice, I smiled and was senang (happy), for a dream was coming true.



Gorontalo might be immediately surrounded by cows and rice, but it is also quite close to the ocean.  Malang is set in the mountains of East Java, and I am at least four hours from the nearest beach, so being in a place whose fishing industry is ever-present and the air tastes a bit like salt was a new part of my Indonesian experience.  On my first night there, my friend wanted to take me to a beautiful beach she had been to, but we were unable to get there before dark.  Instead, we pulled over at a small beach next to a desa (village), and enjoyed Indonesian waters the way they should be: with fishermen tossing their lines into the waves and anak-anak (children)—ranging from fully clothed to stark naked, but never in a proper bathing suit—leaping off of dilapidated foundations into the shallow waters near the shore.


Watching the sun set into the ocean, as the sky veritably exploded into shades of red, pink, and orange, I was stunned, once again, by the beauty of the place in which I have found myself.  It was my first proper ocean sunset since coming to Indonesia, and I could not have asked for a better one.


The following day, we met up with another ETA who is placed in Gorontalo, and went on a quest for additional stunning shorelines.  One of my friend’s teachers had told her about a pulau (island) off the northern coast of the Gorontalo province, Saronde, which was supposed to be gorgeous.  Two hours on a motorbike through fields and jungle and one boat ride across the bluest water I have ever seen later, we reached a place so beautiful it evades even this English major’s description skills.


Saronde is a small island whose only permanent residents are a husband and wife, their pet monkey, and a few wandering chickens and stray cats.  There are a few cabins on the islands which can be rented out, but when we went no one had yet arrived for their weekend stays, and so we had the island almost entirely to ourselves.  We soaked in the bright sunshine that made the white beach impossible dazzling and waded in the clear, warm waters, feeling all the while that we had somehow stumbled upon paradise.


Although it is surrounded by the precise kind of mostly-unspoiled nature and humble farmland that my soul has been craving, Gorontalo itself is, indeed, a city, albeit one in which cows are found even in the town center.  It is a small city, with a population less than one-fourth that of Malang, but one which has the feel of a swiftly developing  metropolis which in some ways is seeking to leave its more rural roots behind, with its growing number of cafes and chain restaurants, and its Eiffel Tower replica towards the center of town.  Much of my infatuation with Gorontalo stemmed from its small-town feel and its availability of quieter, emptier space—something I have struggled to find living on Java, Indonesia’s most densely-populated island—and so I find this rush towards perceived progress somewhat bittersweet, but I have not the expertise in development to claim that Gorontalo will become less as it strives for more; I am only sure it will continue to change with time, as all places do.


All too soon, it was time to say goodbye.   In barely forty-eight hours, I had explored new places, sampled new culinary delights, visited with friends, discovered that Bahasa Indonesia is almost a new language when you leave your island, and scratched an Indonesian cow behind the ears.  As I sat on the back of my friend’s motorbike one last time, enjoying my last few glimpses of this beautiful place, I found myself snapping photographs not only with my camera but with my heart, determined to somehow save the enchanting experience I had had.  Gorontalo might eventually transform into something almost unrecognizable, but I will forever carry my short time there with me, the little piece of perfect paradise I had not expected to find.


Dangling Confidence and Coconut Heads: The Art of Learning Bahasa Indonesia

One of the reasons I applied for the ETA Fulbright program in Indonesia was to have the experience of living in a country where I did not speak the language, and therefore had to fumble my way through everyday interactions unable to articulate myself with the clarity to which I am accustomed.  Part of this desire stems from my decision to pursue Applied Linguistics for my graduate degree and eventually acquire my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification.  I wanted to have an experience similar to that of my students who are ELLs (English Language Learners), in order to help me best serve their needs.  I knew that I could never truly put myself in their shoes, but thought that maybe I could at least come close.

The language barrier has certainly been one of the greatest challenges of living in Indonesia.  Even in my native tongue, I cannot fully describe the frustration of trying to articulate even the simplest ideas and not being understood.

When I first arrived at my site, I had a solid grasp on greetings and could communicate any important needs I might have, but I could not hold any extended conversation with anyone who did not speak English without the kindness of a translator.  I spent a lot of time trying to listen in on the conversations the other teachers were having, and fighting back tears when I realized I did not understand any of what was being said.  I wanted to get to know the people who surrounded me, but could not ask them more than “Apa kabar?” (“How are you?”)  I have never felt so isolated in a crowded room.

Within a few weeks of arriving at my site, I was teaching alone in classes upwards of forty students, some of whose English level does not allow them to understand all directions in English.  After explaining an activity with written and verbal instructions, I would ask students, “Jelas?” (“Clear?”), and at least half of them would shake their heads and reply, “No, Miss.”  Usually, excessively pronounced hand gestures and drawing on the board would eventually result in their understanding, but it was hard not to feel like a failure as a teacher because I could not support my students in their native language.

I admit, I almost gave up trying to learn Indonesian in the beginning.  I have always struggled to learn languages: even after three years of studying Spanish at the college level, my speaking skills were still extremely weak.  The ETA grant is only nine months, and in that time I hope to be able to communicate naturally with the people around me?  It seemed an impossible task, and I was already overwhelmed by the multitude of other cultural differences I was surrounded by.  I convinced myself that my response to people asking me if I knew Indonesian would forever be “Sedikit-sedikit” (a very little), and was fully prepared to throw up my hands in defeat.

But as is so often the case, one of my students changed everything for me.  As I was sitting outside of the asrama (dorm) where I live one night, one of my students sat next to me.  As we chatted about everything from pop music to college majors, I used a handful of the Indonesian words I knew, mostly out of courtesy, recognizing the kindness of this student’s using a language that is foreign to her solely to make me feel welcome.  In response to one of my broken Indonesian phrases, my student said, “I love that you talk Indonesian, Miss.  I think it so amazing that you know Indonesian words.”

Sometimes it is easy for me to forget who I came here for, to selfishly only consider my own struggles.  And that is when I give up.  But I also have to remember how my actions affect those around me.

That was all it took for my determination to be revitalized, and I began to be much stricter with myself about studying Indonesian every day.  We had been given small textbooks at orientation from Wisma Bahasa, an Indonesian Language group based in Yogyakarta, and I had downloaded Stuart Robson and Julian Millie’s Instant Indonesian onto my Kindle before my arrival.  I pulled them out from where they were hidden in my closet and began to belajar (study, or learn) Indonesian with a renewed vigor.  I also enlisted the help of my sitemate, who was also an ETA last year; she not only knows much more Indonesian than me, but she is also an incredibly patient teacher.


I also ceased to passively try to simply listen to the conversations around me, and began to ask questions of the teachers who speak both English and Indonesian.  I began to say “Apa Bahasa Indonesia [insert English word here]?” with far more frequency than “Maaf, tidak mengerti” (Sorry, I don’t understand).  I purchased a small buku tulis (notebook) and began writing down the words people taught me, as well as words from signs and documents that I wanted to look up later.  It might have been the best purchase I have made since coming here.  This tiny blue notebook goes everywhere with me: even if I have woken up late, my hair is a mess, and I have forgotten my cell phone, you had better believe that I have a pencil and my notebook in my bag.

In an effort to further move my language learning away from my desk, I made another simple but life changing purchase: a stack of brightly-colored post-it notes.   I assigned each warna (color) a different kind of word, and began writing down the words I was trying to learn.  Now, my living room has become a learning space.  I put kata baru (new words) around the edge of the mirror near my door, and once I feel that I truly know a word, I move it to the “Word Wall” I have created on one of the walls in my living room.  Though this wall was kecil (small) when I first began, it has since grown considerably, and I look forward to the day when it stretches all the way from one corner to the other, and to the day when it has nowhere to go but up.


I still have trouble navigating most conversations, and I am constantly using incorrect structures and sometimes even incorrect words as I try to speak in Indonesian.  Sometimes, my mistakes can be quite funny, such as when I tried to warn my one of my co-teachers, who was about to hit her head on a cabinet door, “Hati-hati, kelapa Anda!” This translates to “Careful, your coconut!”  What I meant to say was “Hati-hati, kepala Anda!” (“Careful, your head!”)  Needless to say, we still joke about coconut heads in the teachers’ room sometimes.

But generally, my efforts have paid off. My Bahasa Indonesia has vastly improved over the past three months, and I am sure it will continue to do so as my grant continues.  Though I still cannot articulate everything I want to say in my new language, I can recount simple stories from my weekend adventures and ask teachers for their opinions about workshops they attend.  I can use a campur (mix) of Indonesian and English when giving directions or explaining a new grammatical concept in my classes, which not only helps my students’ comprehension and learning, it also encourages my students to try to use English in class, even if that English is as imperfect as my Indonesian.  I have even begun to learn a few words and phrases in Bahasa Jawa (Javanese), the local language spoken by most of the teachers at my school.  One day, as I was trying to talk to one of the drivers in Indonesian, he looked into the rearview mirror and said, in the little English he could muster, “Your Indonesian, not so bad.”  It was the highest compliment anyone could have given me in that moment.


I have a long way to go before my Indonesian is mantap (amazing), but I must semangat (keep spirit), as my students always remind me.  Though for now I still respond to question of whether or not I can speak Indonesian with “sedikit” (a little), which is not much of an improvement from my previous response, I hope that by the time I leave I will be able to smile and say, “Bisa” (I can).

Terima Kasih: The Thanksgiving Post

Family.  Turkey.  Football.  A problematic history.  Pumpkin pie.  Thanksgiving is almost impossible to understand simply and concisely, and I have found the task becomes even more difficult when I am living half a world away from any traditions I may associate with this holiday.  Even when I was in England, I was able to have a small gathering with others in my program, which echoed the quiet day of family I usually have on Thanksgiving.  But this year Thanksgiving fell in the last week of classes at SMAN 10, and amidst the flurry of preparations for finals and last-minute grading, the last Thursday of November passed by with barely a nod to this American national holiday.

That weekend, however, I was able to attend an event with the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, where there was turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie, amongst other western foods I had not realized I missed until they were again made available.  More importantly, at least a third of my ETA cohort was able to attend the same event.  Being able to see them in person and talk without the frustrations of lagging Skype or dropped phone calls was the best part of the trip, though the opportunity to take silly pictures with the U.S. ambassador was also quite fun.


Still, though traditional foods and time with friends and family are staple parts of Thanksgiving, in my family the most important part is the essence of the name itself, giving thanks.  Though this Thanksgiving was very different from any I have had before, the season still inspired me to reflect upon my current situation and articulate what I am thankful for.  I have been incredibly blessed throughout my life, and perhaps never so much as I am now.  For the sake of concision, I have condensed my otherwise never-ending list to the top ten things that right now I find myself most thankful for.

One: my family.  My family has always been incredibly supportive of me, and I cannot possibly express how indebted I am to them for this.  As a small-town farm-girl turned aspiring English teacher who has somehow found herself in Southeast Asia through a series of only partially well-thought followings of the heart, I know I have not made it simple for them, but they do it anyway.  I am also fortunate that my family, both my immediate and extended, is composed of some pretty fantastic individuals.  I have always been at least partially aware of this, but never has it been more apparent than here.  When a student is furiously flipping through her dictionary because she desperately wants to tell me, “Your father is so… wise,” I simply must accept it as true.  I have never been asked so many questions about my family as I have here, and in trying to articulate my favorite parts of them—their determination, their patience, their compassion, their humor—I have come to realize just how lucky I really am to have them in my life.

Two: my friends.  Going abroad can put a huge strain on friendships, but due entirely to the fabulous nature of friends from all parts of my life, thus far this has not been the case for me.  My friends actively read my blog and often respond to aspects of it, and keep me updated about their own lives through e-mails, Facebook messages, and even the occasional piece of snail mail complete with postcards from their hometowns and holiday stickers.  I confess that I am not always the best at responding promptly to the love they send me, due to a combination of inconsistent internet, a full and hectic schedule, and my own unwillingness to reply on days when an excess of frustration—at the challenges of teaching, at cultural differences, at my own perceived inabilities—renders me unable to fairly assess my current situation.  And yet, they are completely understanding and continue to love me with the same uninhibited selflessness.  Though I have certainly experienced a number of challenges since coming to Indonesia, I have, thus far, found my grant to have been easier than anticipated, in part because my friends from home, like my family, have been so supportive of what I am doing.

I am also incredibly thankful for the friends I have made since coming to Indonesia.  Teachers at my school, fellow ETAs, and members of the Malang community have all made me feel as though I have a place here, however difficult that may be to define at times.  Though I am only a third of the way through my grant, I am already worried about leaving some of these fabulous people behind when I must return to the U.S. in May.

Three: my health.  Staying healthy in a foreign country is no easy task, and while I have certainly had my ups and downs as I try to contend with very different food and weather, thus far I have managed to avoid any major illnesses, for which I am extremely thankful.  Teaching at two campuses within a culture I do not yet fully understand is exhausting enough without further filling my schedule with trips to the rumah sakit (hospital; literally “sick house”) for Typhoid or pneumonia.

Four: my education. Without the educational background I was blessed to have had, I would not even have been able to become part of the Fulbright ETA program, and the lessons in empathy and critical thinking I have received from all aspects of my studies have certainly helped me to be the best cultural ambassador I can be.  More specifically, I am especially thankful for my training in education; while I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the challenges I would face in my everyday existence here, I know that I am struggling considerably less than other ETAs within the classroom, and much of this stems from my education courses and my years of experience volunteering in various classrooms and after-school programs.  No matter how difficult the challenges I face here are on occasion, they are all worth it if I can feel that I am somehow aiding the students for which I am responsible, and this has been made possible by the particular course of study I was fortunate enough to pursue.

Five: water.  Indonesia is panas (hot), especially for this Northeasterner, who is far more accustomed to snow than this particular brand of sweltering.  I would not be able to get through my day without the water bottle that is my constant companion wherever I go.  I am also more aware of the privilege of water access now than I have ever been before, a topic I hope to cover in more detail in a later post.  For now, I will merely say that every time I take a sip of clear, safe water, I do so knowing that I am amongst some of the most privileged people on the planet.


Six: non-verbal communication.  The language barrier here has been very much a part of my day-to-day existence.  Never before has it been so necessary that I use hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate my meaning, both within and without the classroom.  Smiles have always been one of my favorite methods of human communication, but here they have taken on a whole new significance, as some of the friendships I am developing began with smiles being the only language we shared.

Seven: modern technology.  There is no denying that if I had attempted this same program twenty, or even ten, years ago, the experience would have been very different.  I live in an age in which I can use technology to keep in contact with family and friends, to plan lessons, and to augment my language learning.  Yes, sometimes I do not have access to internet for days at a time, but even this inconsistent access is a blessing.

Eight: the amazing undefinable mess that is young people.  In many ways I could probably have included my students under the category of friends, because they have all gone so beyond being merely my students, and are often the people who are helping me to navigate my new life here.  Though I am here to help them learn English, it is often they who teach me—language, life lessons, jokes—and it is my students who are my day to day motivation to keep going, and keep trying.  But beyond the incredible awesomeness that is who they are as individuals is the essence of youth that permeates young people everywhere I go, and which I am persuaded somehow creates the openness, happiness, and caring that my students express.  I will not pretend to understand what it is in human nature that allows this to occur; I will simply be thankful that it exists.


Nine: to have been born where I was and to have lived where I have.  Though I was aware of my inherent privilege of simply being American before coming to Indonesia, I am learning everyday new nuances to this privilege.  (This, too, is a topic I hope to tackle in a later post.)  But while I am—in many ways, most of them inherently problematic—thankful of all the advantages I have merely because I was born in a particular country, when I say that I am thankful for where I was born and lived, I mean more than that.  Quite frankly, I find it especially hard to articulate what I am trying to say with this, but if I were to make a valiant attempt, it would go something like this: without the combination of various experiences I have had throughout my life, I would not be the person I am today, and I am discovering more and more just how capable the person I am is of navigating the various challenges life offers.  I did not create myself.  I was created by an amalgamation of factors that I am incapable of fully understanding, but am fully capable of being grateful for.

Ten: the opportunity to be where I am now.  Just as my background helped to create the person I was when I arrived in Indonesia, the resolute but also slightly lost young woman who was not yet sure she had what it took to make it through the next nine months, my time here is shaping me into a new, and, I think, better, person.  I do not believe that I will return to America unrecognizably different from the person I was when I left, but already I feel I am more patient, and closer to having the level of empathy I aspire to possess.

I also recognize that simple being here is an incredible opportunity, and I cannot possibly express just how grateful I am to wake up every morning in a country I never would have dreamed of even being able to visit a little over a year ago.


There are days when the challenges of being an ETA in Indonesia seem to be too much, and find myself staring at the calendar and resisting the urge to count how many days I have left until I can return home.  But even on my toughest days, I have so much for which I must say terima kasih (thank you).  Perhaps I should learn to do so more often.

“Sebelas, Duabelas” or a World of Difference?: A Tale of Two Campuses, or, a Reflection on Teaching in Indonesia

“It’s like you teach at two different schools.”

My sitemate has accompanied me to English Camp, a new annual event held by my school that takes all of the tenth grade students to Batu, a city which neighbors Malang, in order to spend a day participating in short English games and team-building activities.  It was an exciting day for the students, most of whom do not often have the opportunity to leave Malang, and it is also one of the few times that all of SMAN 10’s tenth graders were all together in one place.


SMAN 10 has two campuses: Campus One is located in a neighborhood called Sawajarjar, within Malang’s city limits; Campus Two is about a half hour car ride from Campus One, surrounded by rice and sugarcane fields in Tlogowaru, just outside of the city; each campus is somewhat-affectionately called by the name of its neighborhood.  Sawajarjar resembles a fairly typical senior high school: with the exception of a few eleventh-grade students from Papua who live in a kos (boarding house) together, all of the students at Sawajarjar live with some family member or another in Malang—in many cases my students live with only their mother, while their father works in Surabaya or Jakarta and visits on weekends, or sometimes only holidays—and most students were born in Malang.  Tlogowaru, on the other hand, though it is still a public school, more closely resembles a private boarding school: there are students from all over Indonesia, and even a few from Malaysia, though there are a number of local students a well.  There is a cohort of students in the eleventh grade—predominately from Papua and Sulawesi—who are able to attend this school because of a scholarship funded by Pertamina, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Indonesia, but many students are able to go to SMAN 10 only because their parents can afford to pay for them to go there (the idea of public education is very different here).  While students who go to school in Sawajarjar go home every evening, cramming themselves onto motorbikes or huddling under a shared umbrella in an attempt to keep dry, most of the students who attend school in Tlogowaru live in one of the two dorms on campus, which is also where I live.

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to properly assess a situation, and my site mate had “hit the nail on the head,” to use the idiom I had taught my students earlier that week.  Because I teach on a slightly insane every-other-week schedule in order to be in the classroom with all of the tenth and eleventh grade classes on both campuses, there are some days during which I teach on both campuses.  On those days, I experience a kind of pedagogical whiplash as I go from campus to campus: forget teaching in two different schools; sometimes I feel I teach in two different worlds.


Classes at Sawajarjar are much larger than at Tlogowaru: while many of the classes I am in at Sawajarjar sometimes have almost forty students, it is rare for me to have a class at Tlogowaru that has even thirty students, and I even have one class with only ten.   This makes learning their names much easier at Tlogowaru, and also makes for some other interesting differences in teaching.  While I find it completely possible to meet with each student individually in order to clear up any confusion about content or assignments during my classes at Tlogowaru, I am never able to talk with each student for as long as I would like during my classes at Sawajarjar.  At Tlogowaru, I come out of my classes feeling energized and satisfied that most of my students did in fact learn that day, and I am able to walk back to the dorms with those same students, laughing and joking about how excited we are all to mandi (shower), and feel refreshed after a day of being in hot, sticky classrooms.  When I am at Sawajarjar, I come home from school feeling harried and exhausted, and wondering if I have managed to make any difference at all.

Each campus also provides its own challenges as far as my students’ English level.  As students come to our English Camp station for a rousing round of charades, my sitemate quickly picks up on the fact that all of my high achieving students seem to come from Tlogowaru, and she points out the difference to me.  While generally this is true, the different achievement levels on the two campuses are more nuanced than that.  My highest achieving students almost all go to school in Tlogowaru, yes, but so do many of my striving students: in fact, those of my students who struggle most in English class are students in my Tlogowaru classes, not my Sawajarjar classes.  I am unsurprised that it is students at Tlogowaru who have the highest English level, as it is usually these students whose parents could afford tutors, or who are English teachers or professors themselves.  Without these advantages, it is understandable that the students at Sawajarjar are not already fluent in English: they have only had their once-a-week (or twice-a-week, in junior high school) English classes to aid them in their learning.  I am also unsurprised that many of my striving students are also at Tlogowaru: because my students at that campus come from many schools from all across Indonesia, they have not had the same access to quality English Education, and I believe this is probably the root cause of the great diversity in achievement that I see on that campus.  Certainly, it is not the students’ eagerness to learn that causes this gap, for my striving students are just as enthusiastic and diligent as any of my high achieving students, and sometimes perhaps even more so.


Due to these differences, differentiation has never been more relevant to my teaching: I have learned that I must differentiate materials and strategies for the different campuses, different classes, and even different students when I can, especially when I am teaching at Tlogowaru, where the variation is most extreme.  With nineteen classes and over five hundred students, whom I only see in the classroom every other week, I won’t pretend for a moment that this differentiation is easy, or that I am in any way persuaded I am doing it correctly.  I can only promise myself and my students that I do my best, and hope that my best is somehow cukup (enough).

(On the bad days, I just remind myself of the same thing I am always telling my students: what is most important is that kita coba (we try).  On the worst days, I find it hard to believe in my own words, and myself as an educator.  But there are always a few good—or at least decent—days to remind me that I will not fail my students in the end, or at least not all of them.)

There is a certain understanding amongst many of the teachers on both campuses that my belief in giving each student the best education that I can is merely a result of my being a young and inexperienced teacher, and in Indonesia only for the extent of my grant period.  “You are young and have more energy.”  “It is easy for you.  You are only here a short time.”  The negative commentary batters my determination whenever I tell other teachers—be they English teachers or teachers of other subjects—that I cannot bring myself to give up on a student, or believe that a student simply “cannot.”  It is not my first time hearing these arguments: I was once, after all, an idealistic education student, and later a student teacher who was often told I would not be able to maintain my dedication throughout my teaching career.  There is little I can say in response to these assumptions, because there are some elements of truth in them.  I am a single, energetic young woman—or at least I am on the days I am not ill, which I often am in Indonesia—who does not have a family to care for at the end of the day, and is able to focus her excess of energy towards her teaching.  I am also belum guru sejati (not yet a real teacher): I have volunteered in classrooms, I have been a student teacher, and I am now an English Teaching Assistant, but I have not yet held a permanent or even semi-permanent position in a school.  I have not endured years of working in education in any country, fighting against a system that fails students and teachers with equal neglect and outright cruelty, and so I cannot yet guarantee that I will not eventually be defeated by the walls I am always trying to tear down.  I know this is true, but I hold fast to my belief that my students are worth all the effort I can give them, and I only hope that I can maintain this attitude and prove wrong the cynical of the world.

Whether they teach at one campus or both, most of the SMAN 10 teachers have distinct opinions about the various students at the different campuses.  One of the teachers, who only teaches at Sawajarjar, is constantly talking about how lucky I am to teach at Tlogowaru: “The students there are so clever,” she tells me, again and again, “Our students are not as smart.”  I am continually trying to tell her that out students at Sawajarjar are also very intelligent, pointing out each time I receive a particularly poignant reflection from a student, or when a student is able to make a particularly clever joke in English.  As of yet, I have been unable to change her opinion, but I will not berhenti (stop) until I succeed or leave Indonesia, whichever comes first.

At the same time, while this teacher firmly believes that the students at Tlogowaru are generally cleverer, she also has distinctly negative views towards my students from Papua.  One day, when some of the students from Tlogowaru were visiting Sawajarjar for a student event, she pointed out the window of the academic room where our desks are, laughing, and said to me “Look, Grace, a Papua student!”  I shook my head, not understanding the joke, and she then said, “Many teachers here, we think they are stupid.”  More furious than I had yet been since coming to Indonesia—you can cat-call me and try to cheat me at market and laugh at my language mistakes, but don’t you dare insult my students in such a blatant manner—I immediately informed her that the Papua students are just as smart as any other student, and that I did not want to hear them called stupid again.  I then left the air conditioned comfort of the academic room to sit and eat my lunch in the hot sun with my Tlogowaru students, brilliant individuals from across this great archipelago that claims “Unity in diversity,” but lives this idea just as problematically as the United States lives its claim that “all men are created equal.”

I have repeatedly heard teachers who teach on both campuses or only at Tlogowaru speak of the Sawajarjar students with the same derision as this teacher.  They are “wild,” “impolite,” and “lazy,” it seems, and nothing I have ever said seems to change people’s minds.  If varying degrees of access to quality education is the root cause of the different achievement levels between campuses, I predict teacher attitude is what has allowed it to proliferate.  Experiencing this attitude is not new for me, as I have seen it time and time again in the U.S. as well, but its familiarity does not keep it from hurting any less.  While we were at English camp, one of the math teachers who had come along as a chaperone came up to me and said, “This is my first time to see the students from Sawajarjar.  They are not as organized or diligent as our students.”

Bristling at the implication that the Sawajarjar students are not also mine, I find myself being blunt and honest before I can find a way to be polite: “I think it is because of the way the teachers treat them.  If you don’t tell your students you believe they can do something, of course they probably won’t do it.”  He seems taken aback by my passion—more accustomed to the sweet and quiet demeanor I have adopted here as a means of survival—and mumbles something about this maybe having something to do with class size.  I conceded that maybe he has a point, but still insisted, “I teach all of these students, and they are all wonderful.”


But not all of the teachers treat the students of SMAN 10 in this way.  One of my co-teachers, whom I truly believe is an angel on Earth, treats all of her students, no matter what grade or what campus, with the same patience and care.  When she explained to me that the students from Papua often had a lower English level than the other students, she did so in this way: “They did not have good English teachers in junior high school, so English is hard for them.  So we need to help them more.”  Though she, like me, seems much more drained after a day of teaching in the larger classes of Sawajajar, she still gives everything she has to these students, and when she rests her head on her desk at the end of the day and says to me “Ngantuk (sleepy),” she does so with a smile and never once blames her students for her exhaustion.  It is teachers like her who give me hope for the future of education in Indonesia, and everywhere.

Towards the end of our day at English Camp, this same saintly co-teacher takes the microphone and speaks briefly to the students.  I may not yet be fluent in Indonesian, but I understand this speech: she is telling the students that it is important that they remember working together today, to remember that they may have different classrooms and different teachers, but they are all one school.  It is a speech that is easy to believe in, seeing the students smiling together in matching blue shirts, soaked through with rain and covered in mud from a day of races and impromptu dancing to “Sakitnya Tuh di Sini,” but I wonder how long this comradery will last, and if it is even the students my fabulous co-teacher should be talking to.

But that is cynics’ talk, and I refuse to conform to that ideology that so often seeks to swallow me whole.  There is always hope for the future, and if anything is the embodiment of Indonesia—and the world’s—future, it is its students.

During the last activity of English Camp, students work together to create a flag pole and raise the Indonesian flag in the center of a muddy field.  As they scramble to beat the countdown being shouted out by the leaders of the team-building activities, the different schools and classes blend more haphazardly than they have all day: a student from Tlogowaru holds two pieces of plastic as a student from Sawajarjar, hastily ties them together.  Once the flag is waving above our heads, mostly straight and somehow stable, the students erupt in cheers, the few boundaries that have persisted until now dissolving in their combined success.


I am reminded of an Indonesian saying I learned recently from one of the science teachers: “Sembilas, duabelas.” This saying is used to express when two different things are so similar that they are like the difference between eleven and twelve.  This is how I have come to view my students: no matter how many differences I note on my own or have pointed out to me, they are all, at the end of the day, young people with an entire future of challenges and celebrations ahead of them.  Even having only spent a little over half a semester in their classrooms, and having only seen one grade truly together for a single day, I know that my students all have the capacity to be just as—or less than, or more—kind, cruel, or apathetic than the generations that have proceeded them, and that they truly seem to be headed towards improvement.  In this way, though they vary from campus to campus, and from student to student, each of these individuals is somehow the reflection of the individuals standing next to them.  And if they work together, then they, like the flag that represents their nation, have nowhere to go but up.