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Thursday, May 23, 2013

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Living Alone in Indonesia

Nina Bhattacharya just finished teaching English in Indonesia on a Fulbright scholarship, and we emailed about it a few weeks ago.

Edith Zimmerman: Was there a moment when you realized that you were making such a huge change to your life? And then just said, "yeah, I'm doing that"? Essentially — what was it like to decide to do this?

Nina Bhattacharya: Oh god, did I agonize about making the commitment. Even though I had been to Indonesia before, my brain could not process the length of time I would be away. Nine months? It seemed unfathomable. While I publicly announced my decision to go almost immediately, it took many long conversations with my parents before I felt certain enough to accept the grant.

I distinctly remember the day when I signed the papers to accept the Fulbright grant. I even made a housemate take my picture as I was signing.

Now I laugh a little when I think about how difficult the decision seemed at the time. The last eight months have flown by, and it’s starting to hit me that I'll have to leave in four weeks. I don’t feel ready to leave just yet. Which is not to say that living here has always been easy, but the decision to come here was one of the best I've ever made.

What did you have for breakfast?

Most days, I usually have a traditional Javanese meal from the school canteen called nasi pecel. It is spicy peanut sauce poured over a bunch of cooked greens, sprouts, and rice. And you get to pick some side dishes, too! I usually like to get an omelette, fried tempeh, and additional veggies. It’s enough to last me for breakfast and lunch. Some of the teachers tease me for eating it almost every day, but I seriously can’t get enough. 

What's the sweatiest you've been recently? Ahhh, that sounded more normal in my head (because of the thing in an email you said about biking and sweating) but now it sounds like I'm harassing you, maybe, and I apologize! But the question stands!!

This is a totally legitimate question, considering I often sweat just by existing in this country. I recently climbed a volcano with my friends, and the non-existent trail was brutal on the way down. We all had made the poor decision of not leaving our luggage at the hotel, meaning we were lugging our stuff through a jungle for five hours. I was pretty much covered in mud and cold sweat by the end of it. On a daily basis, though, I get pretty gross when running around my classrooms.

For those who are curious, dry shampoo, eye shadow primer, foundation primer, and gel eyeliner are all very useful beauty products in this country.

What's your job like?

I teach about 300 students each week, or all ten sections of 10th grade at my school. I am able to meet with each section once a week to work on conversational English. The curriculum is very rote-based and does not emphasize speaking. I've enjoyed trying activities that encourage students to be creative and critical with their thinking. Because it's my first time teaching, there are lots of ups and downs. Nothing ever goes perfectly, and that’s okay. Overall, I find my job incredibly rewarding for the small “aha!” moments students have in the classroom.

What are 10th graders like these days? (Or, super-mini-profiles of two or three of them?)

I would describe my 10th graders as less jaded than students of the same age in the United States. Lots of earnestness! Here are a few mini-profiles of some of the students with whom I work:

- William is one of my few Christian students. He has a slight lisp, and is incredibly attentive in English class. In the school, William is known for his passion for hip-hop dance – he’s one of the few boys on the dance team.

- Ekie, who is actually an 11th grader, is one of the sassiest people I’ve met. She always has a smart retort at the tip of her tongue, but equally ready to shower One Direction with praise on Twitter in a never-ending stream of tweets. She says she eventually wants to work for Google.

- Novi is a tomboy obsessed with basketball. Her swagger is completely visible even behind the long skirt of her uniform. Abrasive, curious, and kind, she always sends me long text messages that usually begin with, “Miss NinnnaaaaaAaAaaaa :D.”

Where do you live?

I live on the island of Java, in small town called Krian. It is an hour outside Surabaya, the second-largest city in Indonesia. For the record, Java is the world’s most populous island, and – according to Wikipedia, anyway – home to 60 percent of Indonesia’s population. My town is home to one department store, as well as lots of small shops and warungs (food stalls). There's not too much going on otherwise.

I’m lucky to live in a cute, yellow house in a lovely little neighborhood that is just a seven-minute bike ride from my school. There is a swing in my small courtyard, where I like to sit and read when it rains, not to mention about 50 potted plants that always tip over. My kitchen is half-outside, and I sometimes have to run into the house if a bat decides to fly in while I’m cooking dinner. I love my little house dearly.

What's the boat situation like on Java?

I would say that boats are fairly common along the coast. Many Indonesians still fish from small outriggers. Public boats are packed to the brim with anything you could imagine. One girl I know was on a tiny boat with a bunch of goats and motorcycle.

The best time I was on a boat was going to see orangutans in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. My friend and I slept on a riverboat in the middle of a jungle for a few nights. We could observe much wildlife from the boat itself — from proboscis monkeys to crocodiles to kingfisher birds and more. After a long day of hiking or observing orangutans, we would trade Kindles and read late into the night. There was something satisfying about burning through several candles while reading and floating on a river.

You mentioned what Indonesian people think of as typically American, and that you don't quite fit it — can you elaborate on both sides of this?

Like in many other countries in Asia, a lot of Indonesians idealize whiteness. And it permeates nearly every aspect of an Indonesian woman’s life, from beauty regimens to what to you see on television. My relationship with skin color here is complicated. Having brown skin allows me to blend in more in crowds. Although I am often called “bule” – the catch-all word for foreigners – it is not yelled at me as I ride my bicycle through town. I feel fortunate to not have stereotypes of “free sex” and promiscuity ascribed to me. Most Indonesians love Indians, having been raised on a plethora of ‘90s Bollywood movies.

At the same time, I sometimes find myself wishing for a little of the white Fulbright grantees receive. Indonesians don’t clamor to take pictures with me or seek to practice their English. With my black hair and brown skin, I subvert the perception that all Americans have white skin and blonde hair. Even my school – which I sincerely love! – requested a Fulbrighter with white skin for the following year. Instead, my skin color means I have to fight for my claim to be American.

“Americans, I thought they all had blue eyes?”

“Is only your mother Indian?”

“But real Americans have white skin, right?”

“American? But your face is like an Indian?”

These are just a sample of some of the questions I receive. And to be clear, none of these questions are ever asked with ill intent. It is difficult for many Indonesians to understand how I can simultaneously occupy two identities – “Indian” and “American.” It often requires describing my family’s immigration narrative and explaining that my parents had lived in the United States for more than 30 years. That I was born in the United States.

Every time someone denies my claim to call myself an American, I have to remind myself that facilitating cross-cultural exchange is one of Fulbright’s goals. I try not to forget that my small interactions are integral in articulating America’s diversity to the rest of the world.

They just don’t know that their words sometimes hurt me. Living in Indonesia has, however, made me even more conscious of my identity as a woman of color. Working through these issues is an ongoing process, and something I will have to continue reflecting on as I return to the United States.

What's the pop music like there? What's popular, I guess.

First, Indonesians of all ages absolutely adore karaoke. Frankly, many of them have such beautiful voices that I’m often too embarrassed to try karaoke myself. You’ll be immediately popular if you at least give it a shot. I recommend singing a ballad – Adele is a good choice. It would not surprise me if more people knew the lyrics to “Someone Like You” than the lyrics to the national anthem.

When I started teaching, I made my students talk about their favorite musicians if they wanted me to accept their friend request on Facebook. My favorite response? “Miss, my favorite musicians are Avril Lavigne, One Direction, LMFAO, Pitbull, and Celine Dion.” This is an accurate summary of youth tastes in music.

K-Pop is hugely popular. K-anything, really. One of my female students actually started crying when she saw her favorite K-pop singer perform … on television. “Gangnam Style” was so popular that I mastered all the dance moves, thanks to my students. (If you’re curious, the Harlem Shake has been taking off the past several weeks.)

Indonesian pop and rock takes two forms: ballads and K-pop-inspired girl groups. The ballad “Separuh Aku” by NOAH is on heavy replay on the radio and at my gym. When boys are late to my class, I often make them sing girl group Cherrybelle’s song, “You Are Beautiful.” Finally, I’m not ashamed to say that “#eeeaa,” from tween boy band Coboy Jr., is one of my favorite Indonesian songs.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention dangdut, a type of Indonesian music that draws inspiration from Bollywood, Arabic, and Malay music. Dangdut has been around since the '50s, and occasionally raises the hackles of religious conservatives for its “vulgar” performances, which frequently feature gyrating young women.

If this isn't too invasive — what's the best connection you've made since you've been there?

No! This is a really good question. There are not many young people my age in Krian, because most of them are either studying or working in larger cities. As a result, I find myself spending a lot of time with Bu Nova, the Indonesian language teacher at my school. (“Bu” is the term for “Mrs.” in Indonesia.) She has become what I like to call my “Indonesian mom.”

While Bu Nova doesn’t speak any English, she is perpetually patient and understanding with my sometimes broken Indonesian. She listens to my questions seriously and always answers thoughtfully. I love that I don’t have to worry as much about propriety, which is some that is important in Javanese culture. Her entire family always goes above and beyond to make sure that I’m doing okay. There is something really comforting about knowing that I just walk down the street to chat over a cup of Nescafe or dinner.

What's the best outfit you've worn so far?

The outfit I wore to my friend Miranda’s wedding is one of my favorites. Because she was such a close Indonesian friend, I really wanted to wear traditional Indonesian clothes to the wedding. I wore a kebaya, or a blouse, of sheer pink lace over a batik-print skirt.

Have any animals bitten you?

I went to the beach last week and stepped on a little crab. That sort of hurt! But other than that, nope. Which is fortunate, considering the rabies vaccine is ridiculously expensive and I opted not to get it before coming to Indonesia. I try to avoid monkeys and dogs, though. Just in case.

What's the loneliest you've been?

Two moments come to mind. The first was a month into living in Indonesia, right after orientation and my first night in my town. My boyfriend at the time had broken up with me the day before. I felt very adrift and sad in a new place where I knew no one. The second time was returning home after a winter break vacation with my mom and my sister. There was nothing lonelier than coming home alone to a dark, empty house. I am lucky to have family and friends who encouraged me to get out of my house when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed with my Kindle.

The happiest?

It is all of the little moments, honestly. Successfully navigating the traditional market on my own. Watching my students dream up fabulous dream vacations to places like Crabby Patty Island and Vampire Land. Whizzing past the rice paddies near my house on my bicycle. Traveling. Having my house full of students practicing their speeches for an English competition. Stopping at the juice and french fry stand for some fresh sirsak (soursop) juice. Figuring out how to bake cookies in my rice cooker. Feeding an orangutan a banana. Having someone ask me if I’m Indonesian after conversing in bahasa Indonesia. Going to a school basketball game with my kids. Watching television with my ibu and her family.

 

Previously: Alone in the Tetons

Nina Bhattacharya was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Indonesia and is now traveling through Southeast Asia. In her free time, she enjoys drinking Nescafe, dancing Gangnam Style with her students, and getting cream baths

83 Comments / Post A Comment

districter

That breakfast sounds so delicious I would also eat it everyday. No judgement at all.

frigwiggin

I haven't even gotten all the way through reading this yet, but the GIRLS! The girls are SO CUTE oh my goodness.

frigwiggin

@frigwiggin Oh man, okay. Thank you for this, Nina! Hearing about stereotypes of Americans across the world is interesting--somehow (perhaps because I am a white American) I didn't realize that to some people American = white. But it goes the other way too, doesn't it? Oftentimes Americans don't think about the ethnic diversity of other countries.

Nina B.@twitter

@frigwiggin They also have hearts of gold. Just last week, one of them emailed me a poem she had written because she missed me. I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day.

And you are completely right! Americans are also not the best about recognizing ethnic diversity of other countries, or the different types of privilege they might be exercising when they live or travel abroad.

oh! valencia

What... bake cookies? In a RICE COOKER?

fondue with cheddar

@oh! valencia Seriously...I need to learn how to do this!

Nina B.@twitter

@fondue with cheddar It's not as intimidating as it sounds. Ovens are not that common in Asia, so many of us improvised when we missed real baked goods. Some days, I would make a giant one-person cookie in my rice cooker. (Here's a rough recipe that I used.) Honestly, you could probably adapt any recipe! Some friends of mine have used it for chili or steaming greens as well.

fondue with cheddar

@Nina B.@twitter This sounds so awesome, thanks! It doesn't sound intimidating at all, that's why I want to try it. I wish I'd known about this when I lived in a college dorm! Now that it's summer it sounds like a good way to bake without having to heat up the whole house.

Kellerboy

fondue with cheddar It's not as intimidating as it sounds. Ovens are not that common in Asia, so many of us improvised when we missed real baked goods. Some days,best face serum

fondue with cheddar

I love that this appeared on the same day as the Obama post.

martinipie

Yummm that breakfast is awesome-sounding, and as someone with vague notions of applying for a Fulbright, I appreciate the chance to hear from someone who took the grant.

Nina B.@twitter

@martinipie If you have any questions, just holler. I can maybe send you my email your way?

martinipie

@Nina B.@twitter Thanks! I wish the Pin had a DM system but my email is vanessapmartini at gmail dot com. It's basically one of the many forks at this point of my life where the fork in the road instead looks like a kitchen brush because there are so many possible paths...

stonefruit

"the juice and french fry stand"

WHAT. This is clearly an area in which Indonesia has surpassed the U.S. I demand more juice and french fry stands!

No but Nina this was lovely! So interesting and your photos are beautiful.

Nina B.@twitter

@stonefruit I'm so glad you liked it! One of the best juices in Indonesia is "jus alpukat" -- or avocado juice! (Indonesian avocados tend to be sweeter and larger than the Haas ones usually available in the States.) They usually drizzle the glass in chocolate syrup before pouring in the juice. It's fantastic.

stonefruit

@Nina B.@twitter amazing. I dated a guy from Sri Lanka briefly and he introduced me to the world of avocados-as-dessert and ... revelatory. It inspired me to try an avocado-smoothie-boba-tea drink once, and it came with chocolate syrup, and oh man apparently I haven't quite gotten over it.

Sunny Schomaker@twitter

@stonefruit They also have avocado juice (sometimes with the chocolate syrup, sometimes without) in Morocco. Occasionally, I use my Ninja to try and replicate it, but it's never as good.

kellyography

Such a great read!

frigwiggin

I also really like this contribution to the series because it does vary a bit from the previous narratives we've seen. I have a friend who spent last summer (and is going again this summer) in Laos for fieldwork, I wonder if she'd be too ridiculously busy after getting back to share some of her experiences here--I should ask her.

planforamiracle

This was delightful to read. Thank you Nina! The little house sounds amazing and so does the river boat time, holy moly.

cmeggles

This was lovely, but there's so much more I want to know! How do you get this scholarship? What are the requirements? Do you have to be a student? Did you speak Indonesian (?) before you applied? I want to go there and do all of this.

Nina B.@twitter

@cmeggles Great question! I'll try to tackle as much as I can.

First, the Fulbright Program is administered through the U.S. Department of State to facilitate intercultural exchange through organic interaction. I realize this sounds jargon-y, but when I talk to my students, they are learning about America just as much as I am learning about Indonesia. Fulbright is present in most countries and also offers opportunities for people to come to the U.S. Anyway, there are two main types of grants: the research one and the English Teaching Assistantship. I did the latter, which spanned 10 months.

I applied during my senior year in college, but you do NOT have to be a student when you apply. You do, however, need your bachelor's by the time you begin. Within my cohort, we have people from diverse backgrounds -- fresh from undergrad, few years of work experiences, Peace Corps, master's degrees... You get the picture. If you have graduated already but your alma mater has a study abroad office or something that deals with Fulbright, I would get in touch with them. You still could have your application go through your school! :-)

The application process is a long process that begins in the summer before your grant would begin (meaning, I applied in summer 2011 for the 2012-13 grant cycle). You can only apply to one country (your essay's explain why you picked that country), which makes sense! Other countries only want people waaaant to be on their turf.

I did speak Indonesian ("Bahasa Indonesia") before I applied, because I studied abroad there for a month after my freshman year and sort of fell in love with the idea of learning the language. It isn't a hard language to learn in terms of grammar because there is no new script or verb tenses.

Nina's Application Timeline:

  • August: Submit application (including essays and recommendations) by University of Michigan deadline

  • September: Go in for interview at UM's International Institute. Interviewed by three individuals related to my grant purpose and region (aka my Indonesian professor and two folks from the School of Ed). They submitted their own reflections, but ALSO provided me with ways to improve my application. They re-opened my application that evening so I could edit it and submit it in time for the final State Department deadline. It was great!

  • Wait.

  • January: Get email from State Department saying that my application had been selected to be forwarded to the government of the country I applied for -- in this case, Indonesia.

  • Wait.

  • April: Get grant offer from Fulbright.

  • August: Depart to Indonesia. The beginning date of the grant varies on the country and its school system.

    I would also check out the Fulbright website, which is quite helpful!

    Please free to ask any other questions! I might be a little scarce because I'm off to Burma tomorrow morning but I'll do my best.

  • cmeggles

    @Nina B.@twitter Wow, thank you SO much for all this info! What a cool opportunity-- I really wish I had known about this when I was a fresh college graduate completely unattached and dying to travel anywhere but with no money to do anything. I ended up settling in and getting a job for a couple years, but now I'm working on moving to Spain to teach English next year. At least now I have the income to save up and make this happen, but receiving a grant and some direction would make it a thousand times less stressful. I'm planning on going with my boyfriend, though-- do you know of any couples who have applied together? We're definitely open to going to another country too, since I'd imagine Spain is probably one of the more competitive locations. Thanks again :)

    Nina B.@twitter

    @cmeggles I've heard of couples who applied together, but there weren't any in my cohort. There was one couple where the girl had a Fulbright and because she was in a bigger city, her boyfriend could take a job at a company called English First in the same city.

    For Indonesia, our salary was $10,000. Which is not a lot, but was enough for me to travel to quite a few places, go out sometimes, and also save about $4500 for my general savings fund and travel around Southeast Asia fund. In Indonesia, your school provides housing. I was lucky to have a school that also paid my electricity and water. (And even though the job sometimes feels strenuous, most of us didn't have crazy job hours.)

    Nina B.@twitter

    @cmeggles Also! You might want to check out the English Language Fellows program -- I know of couples who have traveled and worked together through that as well.

    iceberg

    Ugh your students are adorable! But what are your thoughts on durian?

    Nina B.@twitter

    @iceberg While I have grown used to the smell of durian ("fruity farts," as one friend described it), I'm not a fan of the taste. I did try a durian donut once, and it was as awful as it sounds.

    Fun fact: Durian-flavored condoms also exist (WHY?), and interestingly enough started by an anti-AIDS organization in 2003. Apparently they flew off the shelves!

    Titania

    Um, not to be wildly superficial or anything but did anyone else click that link that said "creme bath"? I am now officially DYING to try that. Any 'pinners in NYC have any idea if there are any salons that do it here?

    Nina B.@twitter

    @Titania Cream baths are great. The shoulder and scalp massage was great. It usually cost about $3-$4 at the salon I went to. If you find a place in NYC that does it, let me know. Because I will 100% go to NYC just for that.

    Mira

    I'm going back to Indonesia in a couple of weeks (have only been to Jakarta in the past) and this (along with comment thread) has given me so many tasty and delightful-sounding ideas of things to do there! Nasi pecel and avocado desserts! I really enjoyed reading this. And the pictures are terrific.

    Nina B.@twitter

    @Mira Awesome! Have a great trip. Where all will you be going?

    Mira

    @Nina B.@twitter Medan and Jakarta for sure, hopefully Yogyakarta and/or Bali if I can swing it. I've always wanted to see Borobudur.

    I haaaaate Jakarta so I'm really looking forward to seeing more of the country.

    Nina B.@twitter

    @Mira Borobudur is great and worth a visit. Medan? Two fellow Fulbrighters were placed there and they definitely had an interesting time. If you are looking for things to do in the city, the Rahmat International Wildlife Museum is a HILARIOUS taxidermy museum (two-headed animals and stuff). Also, lots of cool things just outside -- Brastagi is a hilltown I went to with friends to hike Mt. Sibayak. Some other folks I know when to Gunung Leuser National Park to play with elephants. And of course, there are always the orangutans!

    (Sorry for sort of word-vomiting with this comment.)

    Mira

    @Nina B.@twitter Noooo it's not word vomit at all, that's very helpful! Many thanks.

    RachelAnn

    Indonesians love Avril! My boyfriend did a Fulbright in Indonesia from 2009-2010 (He was near Banyuwangi, so pretty close to where you were, I think?) and his students loved Avril. He had me send him a bunch of her songs from my 9th grade Avril fandom days. Having all of her older jams gave him a lot of street cred with his students, obviously.

    And nasi pecel, yum. I had that for at least 2/3 of the meals I ate when I went to visit him. Peanut sauce on everything, I say!

    bleepbloopblopbloop

    I'm trying to make this NOT the most stalkery comment ever but I've loved your Tumblr for your perspective on the ETA program in another country (I'm in Turkey) and your GORGEOUS photos. And now they are on The Hairpin, the bestttttttt! I feel like this is the equivalent of a celebrity sighting in my favorite bar. So excellent.

    the jackal

    Hah! As an Indonesian-American currently living in Jakarta this was a bit strange/fun for me to read. I'm glad you enjoyed Indonesia! What parts of the experience do you think you'll miss the most? I assume there's not much English penetration in Krian? Do you know any recipients of the Fulbright FIRST awards in Indonesia? I'm off to search for your tumblr... P.S. My name is also Nina. Did any of your kids sing you the "Nina Bobo" song?

    Nina B.@twitter

    @the jackal Well, my students were nowhere near fluent and I would describe their English ability as "average." With adults, I almost always spoke Bahasa... even the English teachers. No, I don't know any Fulbright FIRST recipients in Indonesia, but I'm sure that might be more common for bigger areas than mine.

    Oh my goodness, EVERYONE sang me the "Nina Bobo" song. And they found it funny each and every time!

    What parts will I miss? My students, mostly. They are such sweethearts and say the funniest things. I'll miss nasi pecel. And I'll miss traveling. There is still so much I need to see in the country.

    SherryMorris14

    If you think Joanne`s story is flabbergasting,, last pay-cheque my cousin's step-mum actually earned $8162 working a thirteen hour week an their house and the're classmate's ex-wife`s neighbour has done this for 6 months and got paid over $8162 part-time on their mac. follow the steps available at this link, Bow6.com

    CrescentMelissa

    Thank you so much for this! My father is Indonesian and my mother is white. I look mixed, but more Indonesian. I had the pleasure of visiting a few years ago with my little blond haired hazel eyed daughter in two (funny enough, my daughter looks just like my mom, fair and "American"). They absolutely delighted in her and me, looking so much like them but this very American voice flying out of my mouth. It is a wonderful country to visit and was so tickled to see this post!

    millper

    I am late to this article, but I am planning a trip to Indonesia in February, and really liked your perspective. Could I run a few places past you that I've been looking into going for my trip and see what you know about them?

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