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), and tinutuan (a sort of pumpkin “porridge” with lots of greens) 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.
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.
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.
 Binte biluhuta is Bahasa Gorontalo; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as milu siram.
 Tinituan is Bahasa Manado; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as Bubur (porridge) Manado.