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. 


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.


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.


“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.