Reflections on Ramadan

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Mesjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Jakarta, and in Southeast Asia.  

Ramadan is the Muslim fasting month, culminating in Eid al-Fitr, and is the most important holiday for Muslims around the world.  Commemorating the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, the observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, alongside a belief in Allah, the five daily prayers, Hajj, and charity.

I have spent the last three years in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world, first as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and later as the ETA Coordinator.  However, due to the timing of Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C. each year, I have never been in Indonesia for any part of Ramadan.  This year, I pushed my return date back a bit, so that I could take in some of the Ramadan traditions practiced in the country that has become my second home.

Now, I did not remain in Indonesia for the entirety of Ramadan.  Because my research visa had come to an end, I needed to first leave Indonesia and re-enter with a tourist visa.  Rather than buy an international roundtrip ticket solely for the sake of getting a tourist visa, I decided to travel for two weeks in Cambodia and Thailand first, and so I actually spent the first half of Ramadan in countries where Muslims are a minority, much like in the U.S.  Interestingly, I happened to choose a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand very close to one of the few mosques in the city, and so I still heard the call to prayer and regularly met folks on the street who were headed to evening prayers at the mosque, or meeting at the several restaurants along “Halal Street” (as the sign proclaimed at the entrance) to break their fast together.

In Indonesia, I split my Ramadan experience between three cities.  I spent the first few days of Ramadan in Jakarta before leaving for Southeast Asia, and spent a few more days there after my trip.  I then headed off to Sulawesi, where I spent a few days in Manado with friends who have moved there, and then spent the last days of Ramadan, as well as Idul Fitri (the Indonesian spelling of Eid al-Fitr), in Gorontalo, my second ETA site.

While in Indonesia, I did join my friends in puasa (fasting, in Indonesian).  The first meal of the day is taken before the first prayer, or Fajr.  This pre-dawn meal is called Sahur, and in many communities children march through the neighborhood banging on drums and calling out “Sahur!  Sahur!” to remind people to wake up and begin their fast.  While there are neighborhoods in Jakarta that do so, because I live in a tall building I was not able to hear them.  The first time I heard this call was in Manado, and I was pleasantly surprised at the energy the children had, and the happiness with which they took to their task, even so early in the morning (as someone who is definitely not a morning person, I would probably have been too groggy to have done well, had this been my task).  Once azan (the call to prayer), is heard, everyone clears away the breakfast dishes and prepares to pray.  When fasting, Muslims of course do not eat or drink, but they also refrain from sex, swearing, and even negative thoughts.  It is not uncommon for friends of Muslims to join a day or two of fasting, and it truly is an excellent exercise in self-control (try sitting in the hot Indonesian weather with no water, brain frazzled by a dialect of Indonesian you haven’t spoken in a few months, and thinking only positive thoughts), at the very least.  For someone who is Muslim, while self-control is an aspect of fasting, it is only one small part of this month of added prayer and reflection.

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Buying jajanan on the street.

Later in the evening, after the sunset prayer, or Magrib, it is time for buka puasa (the “opening” or breaking of the fast).  This might be done alone, but is often done together as a family, or perhaps at the local mosque.  In Indonesia, most people buka puasa with jajanan (snacks), usually of the gorengan (fried food) variety.  Sellers line the streets in the hours leading up to buka puasa, so that people can buy the foods on the way home.  Buka puasa bersama (breaking the fast together) is also a very popular practice in Indonesia, and I regularly did so with friends and other community members.  It is not uncommon for non-Muslim friends and co-workers to join for buka bersama, and while in Manado, which is actually a Christian-majority city, I participated in a buka bersama with my friend and some of her university friends, at which everyone attended was of a different religion, naturally leading to a questions and discussions which I do believe were highly illuminating for everyone present.

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Breaking the fast after Tarawih.

Throughout Ramadan, many Muslims seek to improve their practice and their understanding of the Qur’an.  Many of my friends spent additional hours studying the Qur’an, for example.  Another common practice that I experienced while spending Ramadan in Indonesia was Tarawih.  Tarawih is essentially extra prayers performed during Ramadan.  These are usually done in sets of eleven or twenty-three rak’ah[1], and while some people perform Tarawih alone, but many do so at the local masjid (mosque).  I was fortunate enough to be invited by friends to observe Tarawih twice, once at Mesjid Istiqlal in Jakarta, and once in the musholla (prayer room) behind my friend’s house in Manado (which her grandfather had actually built).  The sense of community Is especially strong, I feel, during Tarawih, which was a privilege to witness.

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Tumbilotohe.

I spent the last week of Ramadan in Sulawesi.  After spending a few days in Manado to visit friends from Gorontalo who have since moved there, I headed to Gorontalo for the last two nights of Ramadan.  I especially wanted to spend the last few nights of Ramadan in Gorontalo because I wanted the chance to observe Tumbilotohe, a very special form of adat (tradition) in the city where I once served as an ETA[2].  Tumbilotohe is usually translated to “Nights without Darkness,” and it takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, throughout the province of Gorontalo.  Throughout Tumbilotohe people line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps.  The belief is that these lights will attract the attention of angels to Gorontalo, and the timing of this festival is due to the larger Muslim belief that acts of ibadah (acts of devotion) have more value during the last days of Ramadan.  In more recent years some communities have replaced the traditional oil lamps with fairy lights, and instead of traditional noise makers children now also run down their streets with sparklers, but the essential spirit of the celebration remains the same.  After hearing so much about this celebration from my friends in Gorontalo, it was a blessing to be able to finally be a part of it.

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Listening to the khutbah.

I remained in Gorontalo for Idul Fitri.  One of my co-teacher’s husbands was giving the khutbah (sermon) at one of the local mosques, and so I joined her and her family for sholat Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr salah, or prayers).  From what I could understand (I still find it difficult to understand Indonesian when spoken through a microphone), her husband spoke of the importance of remembering the lessons of Ramadan throughout the year, and of continually bettering their practice, not merely during the month of Ramadan.

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Doa Lolipu. (Photo credit to my co-teacher.)

Following sholat Idul Fitri, my co-teacher’s husband, and as such herself and her family and myself, were invited to the home of one of the men who had helped lead the prayer.   We were joined by other important men associated with the mosque, the leader of the community in which the mosque was located, as well as their families.  What followed was another tradition unique to Gorontalo, doa lolipuDoa means prayer in Bahasa Indonesia (generally, in comparison to sholat, which is the Indonesian spelling of salah, which is Muslim prayer), and lolipu is Bahasa Gorontalo (the language of Gorontalo), translating to something along the lines of “our city.”  Two men led this special prayer, and afterwards men of especial importance were given nasi kuning (yellow rice) and tili aya (a sweet dessert), two dishes commonly found at almost every acara in Gorontalo.  Once this ceremony was complete, everyone was invited to share the nasi kuning and tili aya, as well as several other dishes that had been set out.  My co-teacher explained to me that this same ceremony would occur near every mosque in Gorontalo, with those who had led that day’s prayer.  Doa lolipu is quite common in Gorontalo, and also occurs when someone dies or when there is an important event in the city.  Idul Fitri is, of course, another important event.  This sort of ceremony may not necessarily occur in other parts of Indonesia, though other areas might have their own adat regarding Ramadan as well.

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Me with the family of one of my co-teachers.  

The rest of that day, as well as the following day, was spent visiting.  Alongside my co-teachers, we went from house to house in the neighborhood, wishing everyone a blessed Idul Fitri, and exchanging the phrase “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin,” which essentially means, “Please forgive the sins of my body and soul.”  There is food in every home, and we were encouraged to eat everywhere we went (and we, in turn, encouraged people to eat when they came to us).  When visiting family, my co-teacher and her husband also gave jakati (gifts of money for family members, in larger amounts for adults and smaller amounts for children).  Everywhere we went, when a new adult family member entered the room, children would immediately gather, shouting, “Jakati! Jakati!”  We also visited the tombs of her father and her husband’s father, to pause and pray.

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Another “family photo.”  

While the first day of Idul Fitri was largely dedicated to family and neighbors, the second day was devoted to visiting friends and co-workers.  This day was especially special for me, as it entailed many visits to the homes of other teachers from the school where I used to teach.  These are the people who became my family while I lived there, and so as wonderful as the visits to my co-teacher’s family were, it is these visits that brought me the most personal joy.

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Some of the teachers who took me into their homes during Ramadan.  

Ramadan is an extremely special time for Muslim’s around the world, and it was a privilege to witness some of the different practices across this vast archipelago.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone who opened their doors and their hearts to me, making Ramadan 2017 an unforgettable time for me as well.  Terima kasih (thank you), and mohon maaf lahir dan batin.

[1] A rak’ah is essentially one set of salah, including the movements and prayer.

[2] I actually wrote an entire blog about Tumbilotohe, which you can find here.

Cicak on the Wall: WORDS Competition 2017

Each year, one of the best parts of my ETA grant was the WORDS Competition, and it was definitely something I was looking forward to as part of my current position.  While working towards WORDS from behind the scenes was certainly different, and I very much missed working one-on-one with my students while they prepared for the competition, I was still very excited for the national competition in Jakarta, especially as this year marked the tenth anniversary of the WORDS Competition.

A quick review for those who might not have been following my blog for two years, and therefore did not experience my joy in Malang and Gorontalo, as well as at the national competitions in Jakarta in 2015 and 2016:  WORDS is a speech and talent competition, developed by ETAs in the 2006-07 cohort, with performances centered on a given theme.  This year’s theme was “Cicak[1] on the Wall,” and students were asked to respond to the question, “If you could be a cicak on the wall of any room in the past, present, or future, where would you choose to be, and why?”

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One of the participants performing traditional dance.

Each of the students was amazing.  Students chose to be cicaks in castles and museums, Kartini’s room of confinement and Nikola Tesla’s lab.  Some speeches were comedic, others inspiring, and still others made the audience cry.   For their talents, students danced, sang, performed traditional martial arts, and more.   The audience was captivated, and the judges—who included two past WORDS winners—certainly had a tough job in selecting the winning participants from such talent.

The night after the competition, there was a group activity planned for the students.  I had not initially planned to join, as the activity is usually exclusively for ETAs and their students, but a few ETAs were sick, and an additional chaperone was needed.  The original plan to go to laser tag fell through because of traffic, but we all took the students to see movies, and it was a grand time anyway.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the WORDS Competition, an additional event was added to the experience: English Fun Day.  I won’t deny that I was not exactly thrilled at finding the planning I had to do for WORDS doubled in comparison to previous years, but we managed it, and the end of the day the envent went fairly well.  English Fun Day was held at @America and in addition to the WORDS Participants and their ETAs, also included participants from two Jakarta-based organizations that serve disadvantaged children: Ticket to Life and Sahabat Anak.  Several groups of ETAs developed storytelling, song, and game activities in which everyone could participate, for an afternoon of fun and English language learning.  All of the students, the WORDS participants and our guests, were enthusiastic and adorable, and though managing such events means that you rarely are able to stay in one place for too long, I loved what I was able to see.

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Everyone at the DCM’s house.

During their time in Jakarta, WORDS Participants were also able to explore the capital city with a visit to MONAS, while the ETAs had a meeting about their last weeks at site.   And following the English Fun Day, all students and their ETAs were also kindly invited to a farewell dinner at the residence of Deputy Chief of Mission Brian McFeeters. Though I know shamefully little of the DCM’s work and policies, I will say that he has a wonderful way with young people, and the WORDS students adored him.

The few days dedicated to WORDS were, of course, hectic and stressful.  This job always is.  But unlike most other things in my current position, WORDS involved the young people I love so dearly, and feel most passionate about working with.  WORDS, for me, was a breath of fresh air, and way for me to group myself in the reminder that when this grant is over, I will return to work more directly in education, where I truly belong.  I loved every minute, and I still cannot quite believe that I was able to enjoy a third WORDS Competition, something very few people have the opportunity to do.  Whatever insanity led up to the competition, I feel so blessed to have been there, and I wish all of the participants the best of luck for the future.

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All of the WORDS participants, their ETAs, and the judges.

[1] A cicak is a small lizard.  ETAs changed originally chose the theme “Fly on the Wall,” and then changed the Fly to Cicak in order to make the theme more Indonesia-centered.

The Art of Pulkam

Pulkam is short for pulang kampung, a phrase which roughly translates to “go home to your hometown.”  My recent travel for research happened to bring me back to both of the sites where I used to teach and live as an ETA (Fulbright English Teaching Assistant): Malang in East Java, and Gorontalo in Northern Sulawesi.  I made sure to sneak in time to visit my own people while in both of these places, though of course most of my focus was on research.  These were whirlwind trips, and while I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, I did get to spend at least a little time with most of the people who are the reason I was so thrilled to be headed back to these places.

Last year, while I was an ETA in Gorontalo, I also had the opportunity to pulkam to Malang.  I have been so blessed to have been able to re-visit the various places that I have called home here several times, something not many ETA alumni have the chance to do.  Over time, I’ve noticed a few consistencies in the act of pulang kampung, regardless of when and where I have returned.  And so I offer my observations as a sort of “Grace’s Guide to Pulkam,” with the caveat that I am not an expert in anything at all (except maybe drinking jus alpokat), and these are based only on my own unique experiences.

Expect to eat a lot.  It sometimes seems as though Indonesians express their love through food (this is one of those things that I have found true across the archipelago).  Ibu-Ibu have always insisted that they simply cannot send me back to my mother thinner than I was when I arrived (regardless of how I might be feeling about my own bodyweight), because that would mean they had not properly cared for me.  Every time I pulkam, it feels almost as though people are trying to feed me as much during the few days I am there as they did during my nine months as an ETA.  Not that I necessarily mind.  Each region of Indonesia has its own special foods, and heaven knows I miss the foods from the places I lived in.   I have been craving the ikan bakar (grilled fish), binte biluhuta (a fish and corn soup)[1], and tinutuan (a sort of pumpkin “porridge” with lots of greens)[2] of northern Sulawesi ever since I left (I have found a place that makes almost passable tinituan in Jakarta, but let’s face it: it’s better in Sulawesi).  And unless you have been to Malang, you will not understand why I think bakso (meatballs, usually served in broth) is the best thing since sliced bread (which really isn’t all that great, in comparison), or why I worship tempe as the goddess of all proteins, or why I feel I can make the best apple crisp in Indonesia–even with just a toaster oven–because those apel Malang are just magical.   Just like I generally miss American dishes when I am here, and generally miss Indonesian food when I go back to the States, I also miss these daerah (area)-specific dishes when I move from one Indonesian city to another, and I am not all that bothered by the excess of lunch and dinner invites I receive (so long as I get to pay for one or two) or the few pounds I put on every time I pulkam. 

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A few photos from my pulkam to Gotontalo.

Bring gifts, but more importantly, bring stories.  I haven’t been able to pin down whether or not this applies to anyone who goes on pulkam, but at least for ETAs, there is definitely the expectation that you will bring gifts or oleh-oleh (souvenirs) back for people, and I have always tried to oblige as best as my budget and suitcase-space will allow.  This gift-giving is a way to show people that you have remembered them, and I am 100% for that.  But because I’ve always struggled with what I perceive as the materialism so prevalent in Indonesia (why do physical gifts need to be brought everywhere? and why does the size and cost matter so much?), I try not to simply bring gifts, but gifts that come with a story.  Last year I brought kerawang, the traditional fabric of Gorontalo, to my friends in Malang, because it gave me an excuse to talk about the ways in which Gorontalo culture differs from Javanese culture, something which was so influential my second year.  And this year, in addition to some little trinkets from Jakarta (the capital city is notorious for not having good oleh-oleh), I also brought small souvenirs from Korea, which allowed me to talk to about my time there visiting the South Korean Fulbright Commission, and just generally how much I have learned about the ETA Program this year, since I am seeing it from a different perspective.  In the end these stories still matter more.  Even if you bring oleh-oleh that doesn’t necessarily come with a story, you will find it quickly set aside as everyone asks you a million questions about what you have been up to, and fills you in on the latest gossip on their end.  There is a cultural expectation that you bring something material, yes, but do not confuse this with a prioritizing of objects over a person.  People are still more excited about you than anything you bring.

Anticipate a lot of selfies.  Selfies are a bit like food.  They are a way for people to show you that they missed you, that they are excited to see you again.  While teachers and other adult friends will definitely request these, you will probably get these requests most often from your students.  Don’t say no.  Be prepared to smile for so many selfies that your face hurts.  And then make sure that someone sends those photos to you.  One of my housemates, a Fulbright Research Alumna and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (in Indonesia both times), often says that no matter how many photographs she has of beautiful vistas, it is the foto-foto of people that she values the most.  And it’s true.  At home I have many beautiful fabrics from the various places I have visited in Indonesia, and USBs full of photos I have had the privilege to visit.  But it is the class photos I took at the end of each year, and the group shots I have with fellow teachers and friends, that I treasure most from my two years as an ETA.  Having the opportunity to add to that collection of photographs of the people I love brings far more joy than seeing Komodo Dragons or hiking a mountain.  And though you might have the opportunity to pulkam once, the fact is that you may not have the opportunity to do so again.  Those sweaty selfies will be priceless later.  Make sure you get copies.

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A few photos from my pulkam to Malang.

Prepare yourself for the less-pleasant parts.  It won’t all be joyous.  There may be people you never wanted to see again.  I know I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I narrowly escaped meeting a particular teacher during my first pulkam to Malang, and had a moment of panic when I did run into this guru during my most recent pulkam.  My pulkam to Gorontalo also had its share of awkward interactions with men from my neighborhood.  And, let’s be honest, I do not think that either of the cities I lived in as an ETA are perfect.  There are parts of them that drove me insane when I lived there, and those exasperating characteristics have not disappeared just because I moved away.  The bentor (becak motor, a rickshaw with a motorbike instead of a bicycle) drivers in Gorontalo are still amongst the most persistent harassers I have come across in Indonesia, and it only took one bentor ride on my way to rent a motorbike for my visit in the city for me to remember why I had chosen to ride a motorbike as an ETA, avoiding bentor drivers as best as I could. I spent my nine months in Malang navigating the politics of my school’s two campuses, including the poor treatment of my Papuan students, and was yet again smacked in the face with the Javanese idea of their own superiority when during my pulkam an entire teacher’s room—mostly full of new teachers who did not work at the school when I was an ETA there and did not know about my fiery responses to racism—immediately began making derogatory jokes about orang Sulawesi (the people of Sulawesi), after hearing where I had been placed my second year as an ETA.  But in the end, all of these irritations were like mosquito bites from an incredible hike: I noticed them, and was highly displeased, but it did not cause me to regret my decision to go.

Assume there will be changes.  Whether you were gone for a few months or a few years, you will not be going back to the same place you lived in as an ETA.  In Gorontalo, one of the few placements last year at which ETAs could boast that they had the ability to live without an Indomaret or Alfamart, because there simply weren’t any, there is now one or the other on every corner, and this change has happened in the mere nine months I have been gone.  It also has an increase in stoplights, some of which even have the recorded reminders to wear helmets that I am accustomed to hearing only in larger Indonesian cities.  “Gorontalo so mo jadi kota besar!” (“Gorontalo is already becoming a big city!”) came out of my mouth more times than I care to count.  In Malang, at the end of this academic year the two campuses of my school are actually going to split into two schools, one of which will be a military academy, and so if I do have the opportunity to visit Malang again, SMAN 10, as I knew it, will not even exist.  In both places, some of the teachers I loved no longer teach at my schools, and a few friendly faces have even sadly passed away.  And of course, my students are older, some of them even graduated.  And I have changed.  I’m no longer the fresh-faced ETA that came to Malang her first year in Indonesia: I’m a little more haggard, a little wiser, though somehow still just as stubbornly optimistic about the futures of my kiddos in spite of what other teachers may say (some things never change).  And I’m certainly not completely the small-town girl of Gorontalo anymore: though I’ll never call myself a city girl, I have changed in certain ways in order to survive Jakarta, and it shows in everything from my confidence to my accent, as noted by my friends in both my old sites.  These changes—in your school, in your community, in yourself—are often positive, though not always, and they are almost always jarring.  Take them all in: you’ll have time to digest them when you are finished with your pulkam.

Know that it will not be enough time.  You might not get to see everyone.  Even if you do, you will probably feel you did not fully get to catch up with them.  You will not be able to visit all of your favorite haunts.  You will not get to eat all of your favorite dishes.  The fact is, there is a reason this is pulkam: you no longer live in this place.  And you cannot fit nine months of an ETA experience into a few days.

Pulkam is bittersweet.  If you are the crying type (and I am) you might cry harder when you leave from your pulkam visit than you did when you left your site at the end of your grant.  Highs are high and lows are lows when you are an ETA, and that doesn’t end when you find yourself an alumnus.

Breathe deep.  Take it all in.  The smiles, the tears, the laughter, the grimaces.  It is an emotional rollercoaster, but it a privilege to be able to go along for the ride.  In the end, my only real advice is this: feel what feelings come, and then feel lucky to have felt any of it at all.  That is the art of the ETA pulang kampung.  Perhaps it is the art of being an ETA at all.

[1] Binte biluhuta is Bahasa Gorontalo; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as milu siram.

[2] Tinituan is Bahasa Manado; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as Bubur (porridge) Manado.

When a Brain Child Grows Up: The Bahasa Project

Throughout my first grant as an ETA, the best teachers I had as I tried to learn Bahasa Indonesia were my students.  I had bought and borrowed textbooks, I searched online for resources, but nothing was as effective as the enthusiasm and humor my students brought to my bumbling attempts to master their language.  I wished on more than one occasion that I could somehow bring my students to every Bahasa Indonesia learner.

This was the spark that brought me to head a project that stretched across the great archipelago of Indonesia, The Bahasa Project.  The aim of the project is to create a series of videos, and sometimes supporting materials, to help folks who may want to learn Bahasa Indonesia or one of the hundreds of local languages spoken throughout the country.  To do this, ETAs enlist the help of their students and other members of their school communities, the true experts in the field, as they talk, tease, and tell their stories in these languages each and every day.

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Almost a third of the 2015-15 ETA cohort created such videos with their students.  This is not the sort of project you can tackle on their own, and I was awed and thankful for the amount of support my crazy idea received after I pitched it to the cohort.  This project would not be what it is without them.

Facilitating the making the videos with my own students was an absolute joy.  I placed control of the project firmly in their hands, from selecting the topic and subsequent vocabulary, to writing and developing the script (I helped with editing a bit), to the directing and acting while the video was being filmed.  I supported them, but refused to tell them what to do with the project: it was they who were the teachers now.

My English Club girls rose to the task at hand, and created not one but two videos for the Bahasa Indonesia section of the project, both about describing people’s personalities.  The thoughtfully crafted skits for each vocabulary word, checking with me to make sure certain examples would make sense to someone outside of Indonesian culture, and adding cultural explanations where needed.  Their skits were effective, creative, and almost always hilarious.  While the filming was taking place, my job was generally limited to pressing the record button on my camera and making sure that everyone was in frame, while my girls tweaked parts of the script, determined whether or not they needed to retake a scene, and teased one another good-naturedly for forgotten lines or for laughing before the scene was over.

Plenty of fun was had by all, and more than once we all ended up on the floor in stitches.  At the same time, my girls treated the project with a seriousness that made me feel like I was on the set of a real movie on occasion.

Many of the students in my English Club were too shy to so much as say hello to me in English when I first started holding English Club meetings, but they stuck to it and kept trying, and their hard work really showed as they tacked this project.  Working with students in this way is one of the most wonderfully humbling experiences I think anyone can have, and I feel blessed to have been a part of this.

In the end, it was time that got in our way, as it always does.  While we had planned out the video for Bahasa Gorontalo, because school was repeatedly canceled we did not have enough English Club days to film it together.  I ended up filming it during my last week at site, and did far more directing than originally planned.  Even so, it was great fun to do, as it involved more students and even some of the teachers.

Due to time and the fact that my old laptop was on its last legs, editing the videos—something my students and I had planned to do together—had to wait until I returned to the states.  While I have at this point shared the completed videos in the English Club Facebook Group, but a large part of me still wishes we had been able to watch them for the first time together.  I comfort myself by knowing that waiting allowed me to create a much higher-quality video, to truly showcase the talent of my students.

Technology and time meant I was not the only ETA whose videos were not finished at the end of the grant, and a few tweaks needed to be made to several of the videos handed to me at our end-of-year conference.  I didn’t really mind one bit, as this meant I had the privilege of seeing the brilliant work made by other students and ETAs from across Indonesia before they were even posted to YouTube.  Though enough videos have been uploaded for the project to go live, there are more videos on the way, and I cannot wait to see what other schools have produced.

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The young people I get to meet and work with as an ETA impress me in a million ways each and every day, and this was just one more chance for them to blow me away.  I am incredibly proud of the work all of the students and ETAs have accomplished in The Bahasa Project, and humbled and blessed to have been a part of it.

 

Links:

Website: thebahasaproject.wordpress.com

YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/channel/UC6MFZUgG58VZRkqyuFIJ4vA

 

When Educational Worlds Collide: An American Classroom and Teacher in an Indonesian School

There are many things that I absolutely adore about teaching in Indonesia.

I love the energy of my students, which sometimes does need some reigning in, but honestly is the reason I show up to work every day.  In the States, one of the biggest challenges of teaching high school, in my experience, was creating excitement and enthusiasm.  That is already there every time I walk into any classroom here.

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Taking class outside, because, well, why not?

I love the way the outside world begins where the classroom ends, and we just have to walk out the door if we want to take class outside.  There is no trekking down the hallway, there is no making sure alarms won’t go off if we go into the courtyard, as there is in so many northern U.S. schools.  We just step out of the classroom, and… there we are.

I love how quickly my students help one another, how they support students who struggle with English to keep up, as best they can, with the rest of the class[1].  I love how easy this makes incorporating group work into the classroom.

I love how the relationship between students and teachers is much more informal than it is in the States: teachers seem more like parents than the distant professionals various regulations have forced U.S. teachers to be[2].  I love the way all of my students take pride in the class they come from, the way their class becomes a sort of family.  I love the way the whole school feels like a family, like a home.

But there is no denying that teaching in Indonesia is also a considerable challenge.

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One of my classes didn’t have a white board for a while, so we used the floor instead.

I laugh now at how much of my own training to become a teacher focused on the use of technology in the classroom, as I now work in classrooms with one whiteboard, no markers unless I bring them myself, and a few shared projectors that can’t be used half the time because of mati lampu.

The classrooms are hot, and often packed with far more students than I would ever recommend in one class[3].  Sometimes, there are not enough chairs for all of the students.

The students take too many classes.  My students take anywhere from fourteen to seventeen classes during their six day school week, and this leaves a mere hour and a half each week for English.  I remember being in college and taking seven or eight classes in a semester, rather than the recommended six, and finding that I was never able to find as much time as I wanted to dedicate to each subject; I can’t imagine how my students survive.

Teachers show up late to class, or not at all, and there doesn’t seem to be any real accountability for them.  And there is no system of substitute teachers in Indonesia, which means the students are left alone for that period.  Students come late to class and skip class too, generally coming to school but hanging out in the canteen when they don’t feel like going to class.  The teachers reprimand them, but in some ways I can’t blame them, what with the examples they see every day.

Every day, I navigate the ups and downs of these joys and frustrations.  Perhaps the most difficult part of this is differentiating when something is particular wonderful or vexing because it simply is, or because it is so different from the American context in which I am accustomed to learning and working.  I do my best to consider everything as objectively as possible—which makes me pretty confident in my critiques of classroom size, but less so in regards to just how advantageous collectivism in the classroom is—but the truth is I will never really be sure.

One of hardest things about teaching in Indonesia, for me, is not having a consistent space in which to teach.  In Indonesia, the students do not come to the teacher; the teacher goes to the students.  This means that I need to be able to carry all of my supplies for a lesson with me, and they need to work in ten different classrooms with ten different set-ups[4].  This means my students sit in the same classroom all day.  This means I cannot leave permanent learning spaces in the classroom.  It is maddening.

At the beginning of the second semester, my school moved the entire tenth grade to a new building, leaving the old tenth grade classrooms empty.  We had just used the required content of diary entries to compare and contrast American and Indonesian schools.  I saw an opportunity.  I took it.

In one of the classrooms left empty by the tenth grade move, my teachers and I have created an American Classroom.  It started as an experiment, as a one-week trip to give them a taste of what they had read about and we had discussed.  But the students and my co-teachers loved it so much that English Class is now held in the American Classroom every week, and I use the space for all of the after-school English activities I run as well.

Students flock to the world map in the back of the room when they arrive, pestering me with questions about different countries on the map (ever so thankful for my high school geography class now).  On the way out they take selfies with the American Flag while making jokes about how they are in the U.S.A.  And they tease me for refusing to take down the Indonesian Flags on the ceiling: “This is the American Class, Miss!,” while I insist on the beauty of campur (mix).  When they are assigned to present on a hero of their choice, a handful of students in each class pick the American social justice leaders whose inspirational quotes are displayed by the door.

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Students using the Irregular Verb Word Wall for a poetry exercise.

But it’s not just about the decorations.  It’s about creating a permanent space to learn in.  When it was time to incorporate biographies into the tenth grade curriculum, I was able to create an interactive gallery walk about famous Black American heroes, something that, had I needed to move it to each of my ten classes, would have taken too much class time to set up to really be feasible; those same biographies now line one of the classroom walls, and some of the eleventh graders, visiting the American Classroom after school, recently read through and asked me questions, thereby extending the Black History Month lesson well beyond only the classes I teach.  I have created Word Walls of all the new vocabulary they were exposed to last semester, and of the irregular verbs they have been working with so intensively this semester; not only does this act as a great resource for students while they are doing their work (no more leafing through the notebook for those words they cannot remember), those students who tend to finish work a bit more quickly go to these Word Walls when their assignment is finished, extending their vocabulary.  Upon the request of my co-teachers, I will be adding more quotes and reading materials for some of the other walls, to provide more extended practice for high-achieving students.  Students are currently working on their own poems, and I plan to display that poetry on one of the walls which, for now, is intentionally blank.  There may only be three months left in or grant, but I already have so many ideas as to how to use this new space for future lessons.

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The kind of lesson that just wouldn’t really be feasible without the American Classroom.

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating when I say that every aspiring teacher dreams for the day when they have a classroom of their own.  I ended up with my first classroom in a fairly untraditional fashion, in a borrowed, faded, unused classroom, devoid of desks and chairs and with broken windows and a whiteboard that had to be re-nailed to the wall.  But as I sweep the classroom floor before school, and students start to file in early (usually stealing the broom from me in the process—it is considered disrespectful if they let their teacher do the classroom cleaning), firing questions off right from the beginning about whatever it is I have added to the wall or written on the board that week, satisfaction settles in around my smile.  What I have is a classroom that is a blend of American and Indonesian traditions, with both an American and an Indonesian teacher, with some of the loveliest students any teacher in the world could ask for.  Who needs desks?

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Waiting for students to arrive.

[1] This probably comes from the culture of collectivism that prevails in Indonesia.  Collectivism is complicated, with plenty of positives and negatives alike, and I don’t fully understand it yet, but I do so love this one element.

[2] Most of the teachers I have worked with are not actually all that distant.  But there is no denying that any time a student would give me a hug there was bound to be someone telling me to be careful about physical contact with students, and I could really only get away with it at all because I am a woman.  This is not the case in Indonesia.  Students and teachers touch all the time (though gender does play a role, still).

[3] This year, my largest class has thirty-six students, which is pretty close to the average class size in Indonesia.  Last year, I had more than one class with forty students in it, and fellow ETAs have taught in classes pushing fifty students.  In comparison, the average U.S. High School Classroom, according to data from 2012, is 26.8.

[4] Objectively, I know this experience will make me a much stronger teacher in the future, especially if, instead of becoming a more traditional classroom English teacher, I go into ESL education and work in a variety of classroom alongside other subject teachers.  Nonetheless, I am an American teacher trained with the expectation of someday having a classroom space of my own, and the lack thereof wears on me.

A Happy Teacher Gets an English Corner

MAN Model is a big school.  I teach ten classes every week, and that doesn’t cover even the entirety of the tenth grade.  Trying to reach the larger student population and offer my services as an ETA is a daunting task.  Fortunately, generations of ETAs before me have been fighting the same battle, and I had numerous ideas I could attempt to implement.  A friend from last year’s co-hort had waxed rhapsodic about her “English Corner,” a white board in the school courtyard on which she could put up information about English Club and other English-related activities, facts and figures about American Culture, and short English challenges for students to try.

I seemed to remember that the ETA who was at my school last year—a fabulous individual very much missed by her students—had also had an English Corner (I was right).  So in mid-October I approached the English teachers to ask if it might be possible if I could set up an English Corner as well.  They were completely on board, and one week later there was a shiny new white board at my disposal.

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The English Corner when it first began.

The middle school teacher in me was thrilled.  I love bulletin boards, but I haven’t had too many opportunities to work with them, since I have yet to have my own classroom. I bought copious amounts of colored paper, foam, and patterned tape, and set to work.

In many ways, the English Corner was an immediate success.  Students flocked to it between classes, and all I had to do was sit on a nearby ledge during breaks in order to have the opportunity to talk to the eleventh and twelfth grade students who wanted to practice their conversational English.  My own students asked about and commented on parts of it after class, and even the teachers got excited when something new popped up.

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Students interacting with the English Corner during a break in-between classes.

But it wasn’t perfect.  My English Corner throughout the first semester a little too ambitious.  I created six different sections of the English board: “Daily Word,” “Weekly Idiom,” “Weekly Challenge,” “Monthly Project,” “News,” and a section which I intentionally left blank, so that I could use it in any way I needed.  I vowed to change out these various parts of the English Corner accordingly.  I thought that was completely doable.

I was wrong.  I had ten classes which I co-taught with four different teachers, English Club, Bahasa Indonesia lessons, various off-campus commitments, and my responsibilities as a returning ETA.  I often found myself overwhelmingly busy, and when I had to cut drop something from my daily to-do list, it was often my English Corner.  The “Daily Word” section would stay the same for three or four days in a row, the “Weekly Challenge” wouldn’t be updated until Wednesday.  I had clearly bitten off more than I could chew.

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The completed “Thankfulness Tree” at the end of November.

I was also continually fighting the location of my English Corner.  The wind would steal the sticky notes on which my students had written their favorite hobbies.  Elementary school children who would play in the courtyard after school would take the leaves I had painstakingly cut out for the Thankfulness Tree (I don’t really blame the kiddos—they had no idea what they were for, and who wouldn’t want a bright red leaf to take home with them?—but the amount of time I spent cutting out leaves in the month of November was a bit ridiculous).

All of this, while somewhat frustrating at the time, was an opportunity to learn, and improve.  When I came back from my December travels and the new semester began, I made some pretty significant changes to my English Corner.  I decreased the number of sections, and I completely eliminated anything that required me to change a section daily or weekly.

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One student’s contribution to the “New Year’s Resolution” project.

Meanwhile, I kept the elements of the English Corner that had already proven to be really successful.  The students love interacting with the English Corner and filling it with their own words (and if I’m honest, I’m really fond of that as well), and so I am always certain to include elements of that.  But this time, instead of using sticky notes, I tape a whiteboard marker to the side of the English Board, and have students write their responses.  I also make sure to include lots of culture, for my ever-inquisitive students whose curiosity is absolutely insatiable.

And since then, my English Corner has bloomed.  My most recent English Board included multiple sections related to Black History Month, including a focus on Black American Heroes, a timeline of important dates in Black American History, and a word bank full of vocabulary they need to understand those other sections.  The other sections were an interactive section in which students could write about their own heroes, and information about an upcoming English speech competition.  A crowd of students helped me to put it together; they were so impatient to see what the updates would bring.

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The most recent English Corner.  A little faded, but still going strong.

I am incredibly thankful for this opportunity to learn from my past attempts in order to create something more useful for my students.  At some point during my time as an undergraduate education major, I remember a professor explaining what she felt the difference was between the lessons from a new teacher and an experienced one: the lessons of the experienced teacher are less flashy.  While the young teacher is determined to be bold and exciting, the experienced teacher doesn’t want anything to do with bells and whistles.  The experienced teacher wants tried and true, she wants what she knows will help students learn. This is not to say the experienced teacher is boring, or that the new teacher is not in any way effective.  But the experienced teacher has had time to tweak lessons and classroom elements, fiddling with its wires and gearboxes, so that even if the paint isn’t quite as bright, it runs like a dream.

As I take in my new English Corner, with its faded lettering and slightly-dusty edging, I can’t help but feel this is true.  My English Corner no longer looks as flashy as I might have once dreamed it would, but that’s okay: it’s more effective as it is.

 

 

 

From Across the Archipelago

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I am thrilled to have the opportunity to continue to explore Indonesia and share my experience with this blog. But even as I am continuing to expand my understanding of this amazing and multifaceted country, I can by no means give a complete picture. There are many others from this year’s cohort who are also blogging about their experience here, and I feel this is a great place to start exploring.  Below are links to their various blogs.  (Also, check out Indoensiaful, the online publication any and all ETAs from Indonesia can contribute to.)

Sulawesi

Kelsey, Gorontalo

Shalina, Manado

Sam, Manado

Kalimantan

Jared, Pontianak

Mackenzie, Palankaraya 

Carlie, Palankaraya

Sumatra 

Ramon, Bandar Lampung

Rebecca, Bandar Lampung

Caitlin, Pangkalpinang

Kelly, Pangkalpinang

Java

Camille, Malang

Bryan, Wonosari

Julia, Yogyakarta

Kendra, Yogyakarta

Savannah, Magelang

Maria, Semarang