Rasa Syukur: The Thanksgiving Post

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This week in English Club, my students and I made Thankfulness Turkeys, and the Monthly Project for my English Corner[1] is a Thankfulness Tree.  It’s Thanksgiving in America, and while I tried to share the slightly problematic history with some of my students, this mostly left them rather confused, and what I ended up focusing on most was that while the food is usually awesome on Thanksgiving, it is the time spent with loved ones and the act of reflecting on all we have to be thankful for.

Last year around this time, I composed a list of ten things I was personally thankful for.  This year, I went for twenty (because you can never be too thankful, right?).

1 My Family

When your slightly crazy twenty-something relative runs off to the other side of the world, there are many ways you can react, and not all of them are positive.  My family—especially my immediate family, but also my extended family—has supported me though the highs and lows of being here, and I cannot thank them enough for that.

2 Friendly Stray Cats

After a less-than-successful day of teaching or of cultural exchange, there is nothing more therapeutic than coming home to the Admiral, who unceremoniously hops in my lap and begins his steady, quiet purr.  He does occasionally bring me dead mice while I am working on lessons or studying Bahasa Indonesia, but hey, in cat speak that just means he loves me.

3 The People of My Previous Site

Students, teachers, friends… they all reacted with an excitement I did not deserve when they learned I was actually, truly back in Indonesia.  I am going back to Malang very soon, and I am thrilled to be going back to the place I called home for nine months last year.

4 My Friends from Before Fulbright

I have made a slew of new friends in the past year and a half, from Indonesian and from other places, but I cannot forget the friends from before my stint as an ETA, who have kindly forgiven my inaccessibility and general lack of communication, and continued to love me anyway.

5 Motorbike

My motorbike gives me a freedom of mobility that is key to my independence and mental health while here.  It may not be the most glamorous mode of transportation, but it is everything I need.

6 Access to Clean and Plentiful Water

I wrote a short blog post on the privilege of safe water access last year, and this year I feel very similarly about my water situation.  This year, after a long drought, the privilege of even having water, even if it is not actually safe to drink, was reaffirmed for me when the taps in my friends’ homes would not produce any water, while the personal well next to my house (a distinct privilege here), never seemed to run dry.  As I mentioned in my blog about my house here, even having running water inside the home is a distinct privilege, and one I am continuously thankful for.

7 My Previous Cohort

They know me.  They know the roller coaster ride I am on.  Some of them are here in Indonesia again.  Some of them are back in the States.  Some of them have run off to new adventures in new countries[2].  But wherever they might call home for the moment, they are often my support system before I even know I need one, and I love them more now than ever, if that is even possible.

8 The AMINEF Staff

Last year they were the mysterious program leaders whom I knew smiled a lot and would have my back if I ever needed them.  This year they are more like friends, teasing my about my cat and my horrible spelling, and recommending novels for me to peruse in what spare time I have.  I cannot express how grateful I am to have been able to meet such wonderful people.

9 Internet Cafes and Smart Phones

I never had a smart phone until the very end of my grant last year, and I bought it predominantly because I wanted to me more readily accessible to this year’s ETAs as a returner.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to discover this about HPs (“hand pon,” the Indonesian term for mobile phone) with data access, but it really is a game changer.  I use it for everything from staying in touch with friends, to keeping up on the news, to providing my students with visuals in class.  For more intense internet needs, there is always the local internet café, where the coffee is delicious and the staff is always smiling.  While I am sure I would manage without the internet (how many generations before me did so?), there is no denying that having access to it makes my job much easier, and I am forever grateful for its existence.

10 My Students

I’ve said it time and time again.  My students are the best part of Indonesia.  I am especially thankful to have an English Club this year, providing me with a structured opportunity to work more closely with a few of my students outside of regular class hours.  English Club is what I look forward to most every week: even when it is pouring down rain, I can trust that at least a few students will come, and that warms every corner of my heart.

11 Rain

I have always loved rain.  The way it makes everything look and smell clean and fresh.  When ETAs first arrive in Indonesia, it is dry season, and we often go two months or more without ever seeing rain.  As soon as rainy season arrives, my mental health improves tenfold.  The world, and my perspective, is new.

12 My Sitemates

These are the folks who see me at my best and my worst, and seem to put up with me nonetheless.  I can’t thank them enough for being such a key part of my experience here.  We didn’t choose one another, but I can’t imagine being here with anyone else, and I love them from the bottom of my heart.

13 My Education

So much of this experience would be exceedingly more difficult if I did not have the background I do in the classroom, and I am thankful every day for my years of teacher training.  I also believe the ideas of my various educators over the years, regarding critical thinking and social justice, have strongly influenced my approach to my grant.  I don’t know that I always live up to the person they prepared me to be, but I strive to, and I thank them for helping to instill that desires to do so.

14 The Opportunity to Teach

This is tied in with number ten, but I still think it deserves its own place.  I’m continually asked why I put as much work as I do into my lessons and the activities I do with my students outside of class, and the only way I can think to respond is that it’s the least I can to, in return for the opportunity I have to work with the next generation.  There is a powerful potential in young people that is almost palatable when you walk into a room full of them.  As a teacher, I have the opportunity to spend more time with these young people far more than most adults do, even sometimes their parents.  As a teacher I also have the opportunity to help them to become all they can be, while simultaneously they unknowingly shape me into a better version of myself.  Teaching is a humbling and rewarding profession, and I am forever grateful that I am able to be a part of it.

15 My Current Cohort

I am quite fond of this year’s cohort as a whole.  They are certainly different in many ways from last year’s cohort, and have shaped my experience here in more ways than I think they know.  I should thank them more often for that.

16 The Days When I Feel Healthy

This time last year, I was relatively healthy.  I had certainly had my issues with adjusting to the food and the weather, but I was still healthy more than half of the time.  This year, I am still fighting a lowered immune system from my bout with typhoid, so my body is not delicious[3] more often than I would like.  But there are days when I am absolutely fine, and can eat and do whatever I want without needing to worry.  And that is a reminder of what a privilege health is; objectively I’ve always known that not having any kind chronic illness is a huge privilege, but this experience only makes me more aware of that.  Even if I am not always well, there are days when I am.  And though typhoid does tend to linger, it does eventually go away, and then I will exist as though I never had a tropical disease.  And for that, I am very grateful.

17 The Teachers of MAN Model

I spend quite a bit of time in dewan guru (the teachers room), and the teachers there, be they the English Teachers I work with or other teachers, have helped me through a number of the minor issues that invariably arise when you live in a foreign culture, and they never fail to make me smile and laugh.  They are a huge part of my family here, and I cannot thank them enough for welcoming me with open arms.

18 Fresh Vegetables

I happen to live in between two pasar (markets), and this means that I am able to fill my refrigerator and my dinner plate with plenty of leafy greens and fresh onions and tomatoes.  My day is always better with some green, and I regularly thank my lucky stars (to use the idiom from this week’s English Corner) for having such easy access to veggies.

19 Neighbors

Whether they are the ibus who scold me when I walk home in the rain or the tiny children that follow me on my way to drop off my laundry, my neighbors regularly make my day brighter than it would otherwise be.  Working my way into the community has been a slow process, but one worth having.

20 The Opportunities that Somehow Keep Coming My Way

Not a day goes by when I am not baffled by the mere fact that I am here.  Somehow I was deemed worthy to be part of a prestigious program that would send me to a place so few Americans ever have the opportunity to see.  And then somehow I was invited to come back for a second grant, to continue to learn and to grow.  Not every day is easy, but I am still the luckiest girl in the world, and I cannot express just how thankful I am.

 

[1] An English Corner is a vague concept that essentially means a learning space for folks who want to learn more about the English Language.  Some people have a room, some a corner in the library… I have an awesome papan tulis (white board) in the main courtyard area, where I am able to create daily, weekly, and monthly activities for students to engage in.

[2] One of my favorite ETAs from last year’s cohort is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and she continues to blog about here experience in Asia here.

[3] In Bahasa Indonesia, if you want to say, “I am not feeling well,” you say “Badan saya tidak enak.”  Enak can mean “nice/pleasant,” so what you are saying is “My body is not nice,” but the more common use of enak is to mean “delicious,” so this phrase causes endless amusement for both native and non-native speakers of Indonesian.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.