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My best advice

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Seeing the new generation of YES Abroad students to Indonesia has been such a bittersweet experience. I can remember exactly what it was like to be in their place: to know nothing about my future adoptive home, to be so excited that waking up at 3 AM was no big deal, to be absent-mindedly worrying about how heavy my suitcases were, or how I'd survive a year without seeing my dogs.

Re-adjusting is a funny, achy thing.  I'll update you guys on it soon enough. Anyway, without further ado.

For fear of over-sharing, seeing as all the fun of being an exchange student is discovering things on your own, here's an entirely not exhaustive list of the things I wish I had known while I was abroad. Or some things that are just so important they warrant reiterating.

Adapt to the locals' ways. There's a reason why they do what they do, even if you can't see it at first. Basically: if they forgo toilet paper in favor of water and a hand, follow suit. It won't kill you. If anything, you'll have a hilarious story to show for it. 

... but always carry spare tissues anyway.

Remember that you are not going to blend in. A hijab, a hat, nor sunglasses can hide your American-ness. You will never be mistaken for a native. The sooner you get this through your head as a fact of life, and not a painful annoyance, the better.

In some cases, hijab hinders your quest to blend in. Seriously.

To the everyday Indonesian, there is no such thing as a 'traveller'. Or an 'expat'. Or an 'exchange student'. Wherever you go, you will only be recognized as 'tourist'. Even if you're poking around in the most boring, dilapidated town, where no outsider in their right mind would ever want to go, schoolchildren will shriek 'tourist!', thinking you have pilgrimaged there for the sole purpose of being an object of their amusement.

Therefore, don't bother avoiding doing things because you're afraid you will look like a tourist. You will always look like a tourist! That's not a bad thing. Indonesians love their tourists, and take wonderful care of them. Of course, in your heart and to those close to you, you will be known as a traveller/expat/exchange student/actual human being. But it's no use angsting over what that pedicab driver guy thinks of you just because you want to take a picture of a building.

Listen to that one song over and over and over again. Let it be your anthem. When you come home and hear it again, everything you felt when you were abroad will come rushing back.

Videos can be so much better than photos. Take as many as possible. Put them all together to some inspirational music when you get home and watch others drool over your adventure. 

Keep a good record of your time abroad. And make sure it's on a platform you'll actually use. Blogspot is great for a nice, polished blog, and Wordpress has excellent photo formatting and beautiful layouts, but if you want a platform that's good for quick notes and lots of photos, head for Tumblr. I wish I'd used Tumblr instead of Blogspot, mainly for picture purposes and because I never had the energy to finish a nice post for this blog. 

Learn to recognize when you can't handle things on your own anymore. Get help when you need it. That counts for anything from ordering street food to dealing with adjustment-related depression. 

Don't let anyone or anything crush your spirit. So if something's wrong, even if it's trivial, bring it up. With your host family, liason, your other friend in your host city. If you don't tell someone, they won't know. Nobody is a mind-reader.

Bring prescription-strength diarrhea medicine, and some over the counter stuff as well. Just in case. You will never regret bringing it, but you will sure as hell regret not bringing it if you end up needing it.

Don't buy anything you don't absolutely love. Before buying, remember that at some point you will have to decide whether to toss, give away, leave, or bring it home. If a shirt is kind of cool but it doesn't make you feel all that great, it's not worth that time you'll take to decide.

If you give in and buy every cool, cheap thing you come across in Asia, this will be your return baggage. Exercise caution, fellow first-worlders.

If you're living in an Islamic country, you'll hear a lot of 'assalamajhdkjshfj khdfjddf' when people greet each other. That's what it'll sound like for a while. The full phrase is 'assalamu'alaikum wa'rahmatullahi wa'barakatuh'; just listen and practice until you get a hang of saying it yourself. You don't necessarily have to greet people with it, but if you're a part of a crowd and you can respond (walaikum'salam wa'rahamtullahi wa'barakatuh') people will think you're insanely clever.

Go out of your way to meet people. When you first arrive in your host school, ask to switch classes until you find one you really click with; spend the rest of the year with them. Take extracurriculars seriously. Don't just give up with a convenient excuse. Fight for your right to (tradionally) dance! Your schoolmates will love that you're trying so hard to integrate with them. 

When people say 'hi', stop to talk to them. They'll be embarrassed about their English but thrilled that you want to talk to them. When you can finally speak Indonesian, you'll have scores more friends. Or at least people to sit with at school sports events. (Those are invaluable.)

When dealing with piercings/tattoos/heroin, be overly paranoid about HIV/AIDS. Go to the places tourists go for their needly fix, and make sure you watch everything being cleaned and sterilized for you. Market piercings make great stories, but they can turn into awfully annoying infections. Or life-threatening illnesses.

Realize that life will go on, and you will have to leave someday. Don't make promises in-country that you might not be able to keep once you get home.

Get this through your head: YOU ARE NOT IN AMERICA. THINGS WILL NOT BE LIKE THEY ARE BACK HOME. Expecting anything to match up to American standards, whether of quality of culture, will lead to let-downs and some heavy burnout. 

Let your surroundings inspire you. Make art. See that there's beauty in everything, even in the stinkiest market streets and the most boring fields of grass and nothing else. Learn to love it; after all, it's yours. Your year, your exchange, your life. As the Snapple bottle cap says, 'bloom where you are planted'.

(PS: Never ride BJ. Future Surabayans will understand. Or not! Who knows.) 

Now in motion

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Look! Yesterday I learned how to make .gifs on Photoshop and to practice I made a few out of the video I got while celebrating Nyepi. Behooooold. (You might have to wait a second for all of them to load enough to play smoothly, or click on them individually).

"Eh. I've seen smokier."

Monday, August 19, 2013

I'm back in Idaho and it has greeted me by burning itself up. My friends and I were camping last weekend and had to drive a couple hours out of our way to find a site that wasn't in immediate danger of fire. Trading constant humidity for crispy heat hasn't been such a bad thing, though. 

I just wish my starchy homeland would give clear air and greenery a chance, for once.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I am kind of really proud of myself right now. I've been meaning to sit myself down and write a blog post about school since, like, my first day entering it. But now, with less than 30 days left in this country, I'm actually getting around to it. Huzzah!

School in Indonesia is different from school in America in basically every way possible, other than the fact that they are schools and they seem to be universally detested by the students who enter them. In Indonesia, the 'stay one class while teachers move around' system is used and there are two tracks of study rather than different classes that students choose individually.

Me, on my last day in school at Smala
The tracks are Science and Social: both have core subjects like math and Indonesian language, but where Science takes Biology, Physics, and Chemistry, Social takes Economy, Sociology, Geography, and History.

I chose to enter Social class due to the fact that I am utterly incapable of science even when the classes are in English.The thing I really love about staying in one class is that you end up becoming like a kind of family. And it really is like a family, in that many people with radically different personalities, who might never have become friends under any other circumstances, end up squished up together for extended periods of time, all bound together by one unchangeable circumstance.

It also means that the classroom is a comfortable home base, and slogging around through the halls isn't something to deal with often. Sometimes teachers can't come to class, meaning there's free time ('jam kosong') where everyone can finish homework, browse the internet, or play heated games of UNO in the front of the class. Jam kosong itu emang indah, it's one of my favorite parts of school in Indonesia.

If there's no class, my friends and I usually scoot off to the cantin to buy meals, pre-packaged snacks, and drinks. The cantin can be visited any time of day, with different sellers and a decent variety of food to buy, and I'm sure I'll miss it very much in America where the cafeteria is only open for an hour a day.

Classes are scheduled in one-two hour blocks, each class taking place on a certain day, with two breaks for eating and praying. There can be anywhere from three to six classes in one day. Friday is always the shortest, with only three classes, due to the important Jum'atan prayer at noon - half the school disappears as all of the boys have to pray together in the school mosque. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are always the longest with six two-hour classes each.

Indonesian teachers tend to have a different approach to education than I'm used to, in that they mostly prefer to sit at the front of the class and lecture out of government-approved textbooks and give only the assignments in those textbooks. While presentations and other vaguely creative methods are in use, students don't have much room to exercise creativity or make choices in what they learn. Sometimes the students even have to teach themselves material, and then teach the rest of the class by way of a PowerPoint slideshow.

The cantin

The school system is outdated, a relic from the age of Dutch occupation, with a huge focus on rigorous national exams that take place in senior year, and it's sadly famous for it's inefficiency. This is an issue I'm still exploring myself, and having the opportunity to talk to my classmates about the similarities and differences between our education is an awesome one. At some points I've been made glad that I received an American education, and at others I've realized how similarly bad both systems are for students.
Climbing wall by the cantin

I attend the best public school in Surabaya, and one of the best in the country, SMA Negeri 5 Surabaya. Students have to take exams to get in, the quality of teachers is high, and the building is a historic monument left over from the Dutch. Seriously, this place is cool. It's even got peacocks! Which are stuck in a concrete and metal cage in the middle of the school, and have their tails cut, but eh.

SMA 5's nickname is Smala, which is taken from SMA and 5 - which in Indonesian is 'lima'. Thus, Smala. The students here have immense pride in their school, which shows in their endless support for the sports teams, their willingness to travel all over the country to represent their school in competitions, and their overall school spirit. Twitter bios, car bumpers, and T-shirts all proudly emblazon 'Smala' or whatever abbreviation they've made up for their class/team/etc.

School basically consumes everything in an Indonesian teenagers' life, up until they graduate university, which is more of a time of intensive study than a time to discover oneself and party it up like it is in America. At the end of high school, students have two tries to get into university, and if they fail, they have to retest and reapply.

In fact, there are only around 60,000 PhD holders in this nation of 240 million people. Indonesia's university system fails its students just as badly as the high school system. In a nation bogged down by poverty but swiftly gaining its footing in the global economy, education is something which very badly needs attention in order to create a generation of well-educated, creative, and ambitious people ready to lead their country.

Let's... BUAT SALIM.

(Thanks Google)

Quickly, westerners! What's going on in the picture above? 

Before anyone gives me any weird answers, I'll say that it's a picture of an Indonesian girl performing a traditional but still very widespread greeting to an elder: salim. In Indonesian the action is called 'buat salim' or 'making salim'. Google tells me it's also called 'kasih salam', but in Surabaya I always hear it with 'buat' instead of 'kasih'. The meanings are about the same in this phrase.

I'm not sure of the origins of making salim, but a couple of theories are that it was a Muslim practice brought in with Islam in the 13th century, or that it was a practice in the ancient Hindu kingdoms where the forehead contains the third eye. Nowadays it's a simple way of showing respect to elders. 

Salim is definitely not contained to one Indonesian culture or group. People from Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and all over the rest of the country have adopted this gesture. It's one more little thing that brings the many ethnic groups of Indonesia together as a whole.

To make salim is very easy. All you have to do is take the salim-ee's right hand with your right hand, bend forward a bit, and touch the back of their hand to your forehead/nose/cheek/lips. Be careful to ONLY use the right hand, though, because as we all remember, the left hand is used for very unclean business.

What's a bit more challenging, at least for me, is knowing who to salam and when. Usually, if I'm with others, I just follow whatever the person closest in age does, but there's a pretty typical formula for who to salam. It goes like this, allowing for variations depending on the people, relationship, and cultural context.
  • Children salim their parents when going separate ways from them. IE if the child wants to go to school, they have to 'salim dulu' or make salim before they can head out the door. 
  • It's the same if parents are leaving and the children are saying goodbye. This is for more permanent goodbyes though; if someone's just running out to the store, then no salim is really necessary.
  • When greeting older relatives, always make salim. This is especially important the older the relative is. In some families, younger siblings salim older siblings, but this isn't especially common, at least in the cities.
  • Students always make salim to teachers, even if they don't know the teacher. This is always difficult for me, as sometimes I can't tell who's a teacher and who's not. 
  • Once, I made salim to the school security guard... don't do that. 
  • Sometimes when greeting a parent's friend, it's appropriate to either make salim, shake hands, or kiss cheeks. 
I once heard a rule of thumb which was, 'If they're in your parents' generation or above, make salim'. Just follow that, and you'll be golden. 

(This is a blog post I started while in Indonesia and haven't finished until now. I have a bunch of these! Expect to see a bunch of them in the coming days.) 

Minyak Kayu Putih

Friday, August 2, 2013

Minyak kayu putih: directly from Indonesian to English, it means 'white tree oil', but the better translation would be cajuput oil. I was just leaning over to grab a bottle of hand sanitizer off the floor, but instead caught that familiar glimpse of green and red: the cap of my last bottle of minyak kayu putih, which has traveled over 10,000 miles with me, from home to home again. Now it contains just enough oil to last me about a lifetime here in mosquito-less Idaho.

Lifting the cap, the smell - strong and unmistakable, enough to make your eyes water - instantly takes me back to Indonesia nights, when my AC was on full blast and I was awake clear into the early morning hours, reduced to frustrated tears over the mess of mosquito bites spread all over my body.

I would say that anyone who's had a mosquito bite can understand that pain, but the level of torture a bule goes through at the hands of Indonesian mosquitoes is unimaginable if and until you go through it. It's  maddening, knowing that the nyamuk are lurking everywhere; if you don't wear long clothes all the time or cover up in nasty-smelling lotion, you're guaranteed to be bitten practically to death.

Indonesians, for their part, don't suffer in the same way - or at least my host family never had a problem with them. Awesome for them, not so awesome for the one person who would become every mosquito's dinner in the natives' place.

I would slather on the minyak kayu putih, as much as I could tolerate. It works like a charm, but only for a little while, and much like aloe vera or an ice pack, has to be reapplied liberally. So I would stay up, the glow of my laptop playing Skins the only light in the darkness, nursing angry little wounds until they let me go and I could fall asleep.

Sadly, my phase of looking like I had smallpox because of all the red welts on my face and neck was over by the time Avery introduced me to minyak kayu putih. I remember the first time I dribbled some on a bite, rubbed it in, and felt the instant sting of relief. It was the kind of moment that could make anyone believe in God. I'm not even overselling this, it was one of the greatest discoveries of my year, the only downfall being that I stopped focusing on actually preventing the bites... thus, I ended up in the hospital with dengue fever on Valentine's Day. (Which is a story that I've already told but I plan on adding on to later because there's hilarious additions that I didn't know at the time. You guys will see what I'm talking about.)

Burning plastic, open sewers, Javanese night flowers, my host mom's perfume, laundry soap, strawberry essential oil, and especially minyak kayu puth - all of them trigger memories I usually don't uncover during my daily American life. For a moment, it's like I'm living abroad again, enjoying my time, feeling like it'll never end because I can't imagine any life that isn't as vibrant and painful as it is (was?) in Indonesia.

And then, just as quickly as it's brought up, the memory is replaced by some other thought or whim, and I'm brought out into the 'real' world. Maybe just for a second, or for the rest of the day. But those reminders will always be there, ready and waiting to take me back, and I'll always be infinitely glad to have those free one-way tickets to my Indonesia.

About me

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I'm Sara, the freckled bule, one out of eight of the coolest people in the world. I spent a year in Indonesia as a KL/YES Abroad student but now I live in Boise, Idaho. Welcome to my bloggity blog.


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