The time has come (again) for me to give some candid opinions. That is to say, my optimism in Indonesia has run out (again).
It’s been a rough 2008 so far. Sarah and I returned from Bali on Jan. 4th and a wide array of excrement hit the proverbial fan… even if at times that fan wasn’t working properly. Before we were home for even a half hour, we found out we teachers had not been paid yet. And probably wouldn’t be paid until the following week. Another teacher walk-out was organized that Monday, but we still we did not get paid until Jan. 16th. The owner – who was hurt that we would do such a thing – offered no solution to prevent this from happening again. By the way, he would not meet with us before the walk-out, and when we went to talk with him before actually walking out he had gone to lunch. He also claimed he didn’t know we wanted to talk with him… yeah, about why we weren’t getting paid. Didn’t think that’d be an issue for us, I guess.
On Saturday the 5th, seven men claiming to be police officers demanding to see our “marriage papers” woke Sarah and me at about 1 a.m. They puffed cigarette smoke into our apartment and showed us some folded up piece of paper written in Indonesian. Sarah called the building owner while I told them to get the hell out and slammed the door. We figure maybe only one or two were actual police. Guys: At least, wear something besides shorts and flip-flops if you want to intimidate people into giving you a bribe. Deep under cover, I’m sure, to execute morality and justice.
The air conditioner in the teachers’ room has not worked since before Christmas break, and my classroom’s AC has not worked for two weeks. I was given a fan instead of a repairman. I was supposed to open my second-story window (no screen, of course) and run the fan while I taught my six-year-olds. This past week I tried talking to the owner three different times about this matter. He was never available. I talked to other administrators instead, and they only told me that the repairmen are coming. Or maybe the part has been ordered and hasn’t come yet. It was finally fixed on Friday. (My six-year-olds still wanted the window open anyway.) However, on Monday, it wasn’t working again – I remain without AC…
I’m hot and surly. I have almost no climate control at my workplace. Every time I meet with the school administration (if I can find any), I am met with either reasons and excuses or outright lies.
Throughout all this, I’m just told: Well, this is Indonesia.
I know. I realize I’m an American with a privileged upbringing. But after thinking about this and venting to Sarah (several times, such a patient woman), I’ve come to understand that my comfort and self-respect is not what’s at the heart of these matters. It’s not even about how I can’t understand why this culture doesn’t have our good old Judeo-Christian work ethic. My frustration is not because of these things at all. I think it’s simply this: uninspired people surround me.
I have met some nice people here. Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want is to make gross generalizations. And I didn’t come to Indonesia for things to run smoothly and to be oh-so-comfy like the U.S. But I seem to be constantly struck by apathy and lethargy at every turn. No one cares. No one is vulnerable. A sense of figure it out yourself, I can’t help you is everywhere. Don’t ask for help here… for anything.
We have been accused by a co-worker of not seeking out the culture of Indonesia. We were told we live in a “honky enclave,” and asked why we came halfway around the world to just live like we did in the U.S. (Yeah, good one!) This was said as though the only real culture is found in poor neighborhoods and shanty restaurants and old, divey bars.
However, one thing I truly have recently learned, and one thing I constantly keep in mind – and it’s the one bright spot of this entry – is that the real culture, the true life of Indonesia, is found in their writers.
While in Bali I bought five books by Indonesian authors. These translations were my first encounter with a sense of wonder and mystery at life here in Indonesia – that is, real inspiration. I finally found people with a sense of something bigger than us all, a sense of something that holds us all together, something we recognize in each other regardless of ethnicity. I consumed three and half books on vacation alone. Gus tf Sakai, Goenawan Mohamad, W.S. Rendra, Ketut Yuliarsi. New names to me – new inspirations. Not just new problems and challenges. I finally found a connection with the culture here. I stayed up late reading their pieces on doubt, anger, love, peace, and religion in Indonesia. And now I finally understand something of real worth about Indonesia.
All of my co-workers knew I wrote when we got here. My question is why did no one tell me about these authors? Why did no one lend me a copy of poetry or essays? Why were we only taken to dives where old, worn-out prostitutes sadly strut their sorry stuff around? It took a student to tell me about W.S. Rendra.
This is how culture dies. This is how misunderstandings occur. It’s not where you eat. It’s not about hanging out with locals all the time or not. It’s not even about avoiding the chain restaurants. (I love Black Canyon Coffee.) Culture is illuminated and kept alive by poets and writers and artists. The only thing worse than ignorance is not embracing or protecting them. But to be uninspired… that is the worst crime you can commit against any culture. Each night I still had Goenwan Mohamad when I got home, even though I didn’t have a paycheck, and that’s what made our problems bearable.