Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Purple

Operating in a foreign culture and language, or at the very least a slowed-up, watered-down, turned-around version of my own language, means that I very often find myself losing hold on certain parts of my personality. It's hard, for instance, to be sarcastic when one's conversational partner isn't sure what is being said in the first place. It's hard to convey a picture of a relaxed, liberal Mormon, relative to the norm, when no one has any idea of the actual norm. It's hard to seem smart with the vocabulary and grammatical capacity of a nine year old suffering from Broca's aphasia.

One of the most disconcerting examples of this personality loss, at least for a generally level-headed person like myself, is the wild mood swings. On a daily basis, Indonesia offers unique new experiences and opportunities for curiosity and wonder and personal growth and all that tourist-brochure jazz; on that same daily basis, though, it offers unlimited petty frustrations and irritations. Caught between these poles, I sometimes feel like I'm catapulted back to the age of 15, subject to the slings and arrows of all manner of new, startling hormones. (The major case of acne I've developed since being here does little to alleviate that feeling.)

For the most part, I'm happy here, but most of the time that "happy" is not quiet contentedness but an average between ecstasy and misery, with the scales tipped in a positive direction. Last Saturday, for instance, I began the day feeling euphoric, watching a parade of small children randomly banging drums to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, but quickly swung into exhaustion and depression, mostly based on the fact that the weather was hot and I was thirsty. (What can I say? My needs are simple.) Throughout the rest of the day, I experienced everything from the transcendent (much as I hate Thoreau and Emerson and everything associated with them, the Javanese trance dance I watched requires the word) to the downright annoying (trying to make my way through the mall mostly just left me thinking, "Go ahead, move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.").

Perhaps what I'm trying to say is better symbolized by my train of thought while riding through traffic on the back of my friend's motorcyle: one second all I can do is grin widely and think "Wheeeeee!", but the very next second that grin is a grimace, and I'm trying to remind myself to breathe, while thinking, in a panic, "Holy shit, woman, that bus was two inches away! Did you even look???"

Emotions that roller coaster like this leave me breathless, tired, and not a little peeved at myself. I'm not used to it, after all. My feelings can typically be handily tucked away into a pocket somewhere, or easily suppressed by reading Boethius or doing a math problem. Here, half a world away from my copy of "The Consolation of Philosophy," I have to take other emergency measures: first, purchase and consume every chocolate bar for sale in the local grocery store (this, luckily, for my future case of type 2 diabetes, is not that much chocolate); second, turn on Radiohead, Okkervil River, or Sufjan Stevens; third, spend several hours memorizing vocabulary lists. It doesn't get much more soothing than that.


Tolkien Boy said...

Ah, Petra. I miss you so much. I've been having a lot of the same up-and-downedness. I have to just reiterate to myself that you can't take yourself seriously the first two months of any new endeavor.

Melyngoch said...

So, um, you don't revel in it and maybe write three mediocre poems?

Petra said...

Melyngoch, darling, I think it's time to play a little game called "Me or Not Me." All you need to do is ask yourself some simple questions and guess which one is you.


"1. Revels in emotions and writes three mediocre poems? (Me!)

2. Tries to ignore it and studies vocabulary? (Petra!)"

It's a pretty simple game, really but tons of fun. Try it sometime.

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