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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.) 

1 comment

  1. this just helped me so much. I am slowly beginning to recognize Indonesia as my new home and not a foreign country :)



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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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