Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008

With all our talk of negative personalities at work, profiles of reptiles, fashion critiques of the expats, one might think this blog has become less of an overview about adjusting to life in Indonesia and more a record of two people’s descent into madness.

While that might be true, there are actually some very nice aspects here in Makassar. There are people we come in contact with regularly who make us feel like we aren’t freaks on display for a whole city to point at. People who like us.

After working for years in the service industry I’m finally one those regulars the staff greet by name. Sarah and I have our “usual” drinks, and our baristas make them just the way we like them. I always wanted to be on this side of the relationship. Juanda (pronounced Joo-AHN-da) and Danda (DAHN-da) at J.CO Donuts and Coffee are great. Our first time there they gave me an Americano (espresso and hot water) instead of regular drip coffee. I wrote a comment that said I’d rather have regular coffee and got a reply via email the next day. Now they make a fresh press pot of Sumatra every day just for me. They add an extra shot of espresso to Sarah’s iced latte too.

This is a very nice daily luxury for two people who lived in the Pacific Northwest for ten or eleven years. I wrote to J.CO the other week and thanked them for their fine service. This was their reply:

Dear Mr/s JPeter,
Hi Mr/s JPeter, Thanks for your comment of our job.i have you get comfortable and enjoy on J.CO Mall Ratu Indah.
you are our best customer :>

No. Thank you.

There is a very bright class of fifteen-year-old students at English First. Sarah taught them a few months ago, and now I’m teaching them. (EF changes class teachers approximately every two to three months, the length of one term.) They’re pretty proficient and like to discuss such things as Soeharto’s recent death, sex before marriage, vegetarianism and also like telling jokes. They are a challenge to teach – that is, to keep the class challenging enough so they don’t get bored. So we’ve translated Indonesian poetry. We’ve also listened to Johnny Cash (they think he sounds kind of funny), the great crooner Johnny Hartman (kind of boring, they said) and the song “Cleveland Rocks” (they liked that one a lot). We’ve spent one class just talking at a coffee shop too.

They wrote their own poem for me. Only they wrote it about themselves in the persona of me, their teacher. (What follows is slightly edited by me to help it make a little more sense.)

My Students, My Diamonds

Peter, that’s my name
Paul, is my nickname
I’m a tooth that shines brightly
I’m smiling table
My students are my soul

I said to them,
If you are the stars
I’m the moon
If [I am] the stamp
[You] are the envelope.
Even if Sarah is [my] cupcake…
But [you] are the sugar…
That giving taste to your

I think this might be one of the most amazing things ever given to me. It helps on those nights I can’t hear myself think and want to duct-tape their mouths shut.

Makassar also gives us the guy who says, “Hello, chickadee!” every night we pass by. There’s also the security guard outside a big oil and business complex who always says hello a gives us the thumbs-up. Our own building’s security/fix-it men Jama (JAH-ma) and Rici (RICH-ee) are always kind with the little English they know. Rici gets us our water for us each week.

These people help us feel adjusted and like fellow humans. Not the circus. We wish we could bring them to the States for you to meet. But if we ever do, please don’t point.

Friday, February 22, 2008

February 22, 2008

I am trying to be more involved in the blog writing although Peter’s writing is much better, and more entertaining, than mine – he is a writer after all.

And so it goes… I enjoy the things that most western women enjoy – I love to shop, I enjoy getting my hair done, and I want to be pretty, clean and stylish. Many of you have observed that I like things a little out of the ordinary – my hair has been many different colors ranging from red to platinum to pink and purple, etc. My fashion sense is my own. I love these things – they are my creative outlet.

In preparing for Indonesia, I spent time trying to figure out how I could maintain my hair color in an unknown situation – battle plans were drawn up between my hair person, Lauren, and myself as to whether or not Peter could bleach my hair if she vowed to provide toner. Could I take the bleach and do it myself? Certainly someone in Indonesia could do the bleaching and I could tone it to platinum with Peter’s help. All of these ideas were considered. In the end, I figured it was better not to have color than to end up with strange roots in an unknown country…

I spent the first few months trying to figure out where exactly to get my hair cut. I spent even more time trying to figure out if there was anywhere that I could go shopping. As I stopped and looked around me, I realized that the only women shopping were Indonesians with distinctly different body types and style preferences. In general, their hips are small and their shoulders a bit broad. The clothes are designed to make their hips appear wider and their shoulders more narrow. Now, this does not work very well for me. My hips don’t need any help looking curvy and my shoulders are narrow unto themselves. Strange shorts that look like bloomers are all the rage. Peter and I both think they are hideous. To add to the style difficulty is the fact that none of the clothes are large enough for me. I used to think I was small, but here I am a giant. I went to buy some workout clothes and they offered me the extra large. It didn’t fit.

So, my ego takes a bit of a hit. In fact, on Friday the manager of the fitness center asked me why I had gained weight in this country – did I eat too much? Since I work out every morning, she suggested I should start eating less and then maybe I would look better. I wasn’t sure if I should burst into tears on the stairmaster or wait until I got home. I weighed myself as I was leaving and found that I had indeed gained two pounds since my arrival. Great, I’m on the slippery slope… Bear in mind that this woman really wasn't trying to be mean. Indonesian women see nothing mean or unsupportive in pointing out appearance issues with blatant honesty.

I have not given up my pursuit of pretty things. In Bali, I found some delightful designers and purchased a few new and beautiful items. In December, I found someone who could bleach my hair. (This was a bit of a disaster, but it was a necessary trial into the world of Indonesian hair color.) Last weekend, I turned to the color red and found that red is definitely something Indonesians can do. I have some relatively different pinkish-red locks and I love them. Peter likes them too. However, I do get even more strange looks. (I will note that my aerobics instructors really like the new hair color – exclaiming with great delight that it is “bagus” – Indonesian for good.)

These beauty struggles have not been helped by the female expat community. In part because there are really only about 5 bule (western/white) women in Makassar, but in part because they enjoy not having anything to do with being feminine or pretty. This morning, I ran into a woman who teaches English to a local hospital staff. Her hair is graying and she has at one time attempted to color it strawberry blonde – there are about 2 inches of gray roots showing around her crown. She appears to not be worried about this. While we were in Bali, I found some interesting, boxy shirts that had a small gecko embroidered on them. I wondered aloud that the gecko was cute, but who would buy such a shirt and actually wear it – upon returning to work, the other female teacher was sporting the very same shirt. Other women have given up on any sort of fashion or beauty pursuit and let their hair go – preferring a ponytail to ventures into the salon.

For my part, I must continue try and find pretty things. In the end, it is part of my path to relationships with the Indonesian women around me. The female expat community may not desire beauty, but the Indonesians do – in this, I can continue to try and find our commonalities rather than be struck by all our differences.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

February 19, 2008

We have encountered many characters during our time in Indonesia – many who I never could’ve imagined on my own. But by far one of my favorites has been Phil.

Phil, as many of you may have read earlier, is our gecko in residence here at home. Phil spends much of his time on our kitchen table under our toaster oven or our storage shelves. He’s a very nice animal, about four inches long, light green, and who has helped get our ant population under control.

Phil has made himself very comfortable over the past few months. Some mornings I will write at our table before work, and he’ll come out to look at me and check out any crumbs we have missed. He often comes within a foot or so of me but will never let me touch him. (Don’t go for the tail, it comes off.) He likes sugar, and we often catch him snooping around Ziplocks with cookies or scones in them.

He is such a regular presence here that I’ve gotten to know his personality. One morning last week, when I discovered a gecko moving around underneath our kitchen burners, I knew it was not Phil. This one did not poke his head out to say hello, and after a while when I did not leave the kitchen, he made a break for it past me down the table leg and to a safe corner. Definitely not Phil.

This past weekend, Sarah and I were watching a movie and she decided to make some snickerdoodles. (Everything in Indonesia is loaded with refined sugar, and lately, we have significantly reduced our sugar intake but indulge on the weekends still.) She let the cookies cool on a paper towel on the table while we finished our movie. You see where this is going, don’t you? Well, after the movie we went to the kitchen and there are not one, but two, cookies moved about 3 inches off the paper towel. And they both have clearly been nibbled on. I look and there is a very happy little lizard under our toaster oven. This was quite a feat. Each cookie is probably close to Phil’s own body weight.

Sarah hopes she hasn’t inadvertently cause the poor guy to OD.

In the States, all of the cookies would’ve gone into trash, of course. But after six months in Makassar… we only threw out the two that were moved. After walking past open sewers with raw sewage, after finally accepting that hardly anyone washes their hands after using the restroom, after walking past rats twitching in their death throes in the street, a reptile we know being near our cookies really isn’t that big of deal. Not anymore.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

February 14, 2008

So. I’m downstairs at the bar. (Nu Bliss has been recast as a sports bar.) I’m letting Sylvia, the building owner, know that we still don’t have any water, after not having any all day. Liverpool and Manchester City are playing on TV. Liverpool is like the Portland Trailblazers, they’re having a disappointing season with one of the best players in the league. I’m watching the game and making small talk with Steve the Scotsman and watching the game. Liverpool is down 1-0, and there is a play when they should’ve scored but missed a great opportunity. They zoom in on the guy who missed: dark skin, long black braids, with snow-white extensions interspersed – a true football star. I look at Steve the Scotsman and say something about how the guy shoulda had that one, hair must’ve gotten in his eyes. His only response was, “African.” He nods. “African,” he says again.

The only shocking thing about this is that Sarah and I hear this type of comment all the time here. I thought living the expat lifestyle would be full of tolerance and brotherly union across the race lines. Guess not. It seems bad experiences while traveling gives you ammo and “knowledge” to talk trash and make sweeping, generalized statements about others.

From what I’ve seen in the small expat community here in Makassar, America looks like one of the most tolerant nations in the world. I know of some Australians, Scots and English who have a long way to go. Sarah and I have been told why you should never trust a Pakistani, an Indian, why you should never sell property to Aboriginal Australians, how only Muslim countries are filthy and poor, that “African-American” is just too much to say – whatever happened to “darkie?”

This is all for real. I’m not making any of this up. People actually said these things.

I had an argument with a co-worker about how even though you’ve met a few people from Pakistan who had lied and stole from you, you still cannot make an all-inclusive statement like “They’re liars and cheats” when someone is talking about their cricket team.

I have actually heard the words, “That’s why I wish the old colonial days would come back,” and “These people cannot run their own country. Bring back the Dutch.”

It doesn’t stop there. A student’s poor class performance was first blamed on his (supposed) homosexuality. The lesbians of Makassar have been pointed out to me like rare tropical birds. And if you’re a single bule in Indonesia and not out playing the game in the clubs every weekend… well, you’re most probably gay. What other explanation could there be?

Seriously. I’m not exaggerating here, people. And then it continues with America bashing…

The guy who wished us a “Happy Chinky New Year” called American football “one of those horrible sports no one cares about.” Then I actually had to listen to a debate in the teachers room one day about whether the Moon Landing was real or not. (How was the flag blowing in the breeze on the moon? one asked.) And if it did in fact happen what was the point? To hit a golf ball, collect some rocks and say the U.S. beat the Russians there? Really. I listened to all this. And I really couldn’t tell how serious they were. When I was little, my Mom would’ve told me they were just jealous. I mean, when we think of European technology we think of nice luxury cars, the guillotine and the cuckoo clock. OK. Maybe they discovered penicillin or something over there. I’ll give them that.

Portland may be full of do-gooders and feel-good liberalism, but I’ll take a slice of that over having to hear about how anyone but a (straight and white) European would fail at anything they’d ever try. Of course, racism and bigotry still exist in the U.S. It took us years longer than most countries to ban slavery after all. But we have come such a long a way in such a short time. Is there any other government that has anything close to Brown v. the Board of Education and the wave of change that followed?

Does this mean I think America is the greatest country in the world? The simple answer is no. The longer answer is that every country and every culture has infinite possibilities of intricate, efficient, complex and rich systems of living. And America does too. We gave the world jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, baseball, the Monroe Doctrine, Moby-Dick, Star Wars, the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement, the cotton gin, and the light bulb. We’re not just a bunch of bullies and ill-informed morons. Don’t forget we have two former presidents who have won the Nobel Prize for Peace (Jimmy Carter and Teddy Roosevelt).

You’re welcome, world. Sorry if we get a little too excited sometimes – even, yes, arrogant. But America has given more opportunities to us than most countries could promise.

(I still want to travel all of Europe someday, by the way.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

February 5, 2007

I’m writing this as we get ready to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This is the third New Year’s Day we will get off in 2008. We’ve gotten Jan. 1st off, the Muslim New Year in early January, and now on Feb. 7th, the Chinese New Year. I got to say, it ain’t bad getting all these days off. America needs to give it try. Take a break every now and then.

Seriously, I’m not here to bash America. Just the opposite really. Watching the presidential primaries from the other side of the world has been refreshing. First of all, it’s not in my face all the time that Obama once wiped a booger under the dinner table or McCain used “a” instead of “the” when talking about the 1973 oil embargo over coffee with his wife and what it all means for the future of the U.S. So, that’s been nice. And second, the whole world is watching: Indonesians, the Scot, the English, the Aussies, even the Canadian (kind of – she didn’t know who McCain was). For all the America bashing we put up with, they sure are interested in who will lead our country, not to mention our economy.

While we were in Bali in December, I watched a lot of coverage of the Iowa Caucuses. The BBC and Al-Jazeera both praised the American democratic process. Reporters spent several minutes trying to convey the seriousness (some) Americans take the primary process and what it means. A reporter on the BBC confessed that she thought it was the most ridiculous process she’d ever heard of before she arrived, then she quickly was very impressed.

Soeharto died just last week. His authoritarian government fell the same time as a Southeast Asian economic crisis in 1997. Indonesia, because they were transitioning into a democracy, was hit especially hard and is still recovering. And they still work to build a believable democracy. There just was rioting in protest over a gubernatorial election recount last month. Sarah and I, by the way, are constantly impressed that in spite of all this recent history Indonesia is surviving and functioning.

Yes. The U.S. isn’t perfect. We can be arrogant. We make mistakes… sometimes huge mistakes. But I have a little more faith in our system now after learning about one that is struggling to work, as well as the amount of faith the rest of the world has in the very system we pick apart – the same system that hardly missed a beat when Nixon was busted. No rampant rioting, no coups then.

So maybe the U.S. democracy can continue to work.

Pay attention. Vote. Then throw the bums out next election if they lie.