Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Stranded in Singapore

I left Indonesia on Sunday, with possibly the worst flight schedule ever: an hour-long flight to Jakarta, a four-hour layover in Jakarta, and hour-and-a-half-long flight to Singapore, a thirty-hour layover in Singapore, and a five-and-a-half-hour flight to Delhi.

(No, come to think of it, I've had much worse flight schedules. A certain eight-hour layover in Charles de Gaulle springs to mind. Or maybe the ten-hour layover in Taipei. Or what about that time I scheduled a flight through O'Hare in the winter?)

In any case, my long-distance travels went smoothly, and, unusually, I didn't cry once, not even when Garuda Indonesia made me pay overweight baggage fees, not even when Singapore Airlines made me pay overweight baggage fees, not even when Jet Airways made me unpack and repack my carry-on and throw away my special SPF 45 facial sunscreen, by far the most expensive cosmetic item I own. (Okay, so I teared up a little bit as I begged, but it did no good.) And, luckily for me, nowhere in all this baggage paying and inspection did anyone think to weigh my backpack; had they even picked up they would have noticed that it was at least forty pounds, far over the standard carry-on weight limit.

My layover in Singapore, far from the being the utter waste of time I had anticipated and grumped about, was the highlight of the past week, if not month: Singapore is such an utter contrast from Indonesia that it seems almost eerie it's only a few hundred miles away. I wandered around the city in a daze, utterly awed at the, to me, amazing features of the city: it had crosswalks! And street signs! And maps! And sidewalks! And bus stops! And a Metro! And DRINKING FOUNTAINS! And a LIBRARY! And PEANUT BUTTER M&MS!!!!!

Phew. I'm getting all wide-eyed and excited again. I barely slept during this day in Singapore; half of that was the paint fumes and mattress coils in my hostel dormitory, both of which prevented me from really settling in, but the other half was the sheer high of being in a city that stayed awake past eleven p.m. I don't think I'd enjoy a longer stay in Singapore--in fact, I know I wouldn't; of all my trips there in high school, every time I stayed past three days or so the novelty wore off, and instead of appreciating the cleanliness and organization, I started fearing the obsessively perfectionist culture and dictatorial government that makes it so--but my twenty-four hours in efficiency and order made an ideal oasis between states of chaos, especially if by "oasis" I mean "tantalizing preview of things to come." Just think--two short weeks and several terrible flight schedules from now, I can eat all the peanut butter M&Ms I want, refreshing myself from public drinking fountains while crossing the street, in a crosswalk, on my way to a library. I can't wait.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Conversation

Fellow English Teacher: Where do you usually get your hair cut in Semarang?

Petra: Well, I tried once at the Johnny Andrean salon in the mall, but I didn't like the cut. So since then I've gotten it cut by my mom, and in Bali.

FET: How often do you cut it?

Petra: I try to cut it every month and a half, maybe two months if I'm lazy.

FET: How long has it been since you cut it?

Petra: I guess about two months now.

FET: When are you going to cut it again?

Petra: Well, I might as well wait until next week when I'll be in India again, so my mom can cut it. She did a great job last time.

FET: So you're going to wait for longer than two months?

Petra: Yes, alas. I've been wanting to cut it for the last two weeks or so, though.

FET: Yes, you should have cut it two weeks ago. It looks very messy.

So that's what she was leading up to. Yes, folks, my colleagues are just that subtle. And just that kind.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Picture This

I went to the mall yesterday to print photos. (The news here, of course, is the printing of photos: I go to, or at least walk through, the mall a minimum of two times and maximum of, oh, six or seven times a day, including Sundays, and therefore nearly any story of this past year could begin with "I went to the mall yesterday." Lest you think I'm reverting to that brief phase in sixth grade when I thought the mall was a cool place to hang out, let me remind you that not only is the mall within seven minutes, on foot, of my house, it also includes the gym, the internet cafe, the bookstores, the grocery store, and the shortest, and most air-conditioned, path to church.)

This photo-printing booth in the mall has a display of photos they've printed. Most of those on display are high schoolers taking what the SLO and I refer to as "Asian pictures": cutesy poses, usually involving Churchhill's V sign, though with much less gravitas; cutesy stickers to accessorize the picture, mostly hearts, stars, teddy bears, and SpongeBob SquarePants; and cutesy backdrops, including everything from the pineapple under the sea to flowers to stars to beaches to, somewhat incongruously, Piet Mondrian paintings. (By the way, if you haven't seen my face superimposed on a Piet Mondrian painting, you haven't lived.)

In the midst of all that Asianness, one picture, front and center, caught my eye: the portrait my family took back in December, which I printed at this booth a few months back. I always suspected that having a white person around was good for business; now my suspicions are confirmed. Family, if you're reading this, forget all your plans for next year. Let's all stay in Asia and go into advertising!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Days of My Life

The day in Indonesia is divided into four parts: pagi or morning, siang, or mid-afternoon, sore, or late afternoon, and malam, or night. It may seem strange, to anyone unfamiliar with the tropics, to make such distinctions, but once you've been here you see the necessity. Morning is like morning everywhere, with day dawns breaking left and right, and the city beginning to stir around six a.m. Much as I complain, I like this time of day: with the sun not yet fully up, the air is still relatively cool, cool enough for the old Chinese man down the street to sit outside on his wicker chair, sarong hiked to his knees, and slowly, with dignity, nod his head at everyone who passes, and the hordes of freshly-bathed schoolchildren in freshly-ironed uniforms--red for elementary school, blue for middle school, and grey for high school--add an energy to the start of the day, an eager brightness that is gone a few hours later, as pressed clothes and spirits begin to droop in the tropical heat.

The heat really hits around ten, the time siang begins--this, then, is the "mad dogs and Englishmen" phase of the day, when everyone, meaning, mostly, me, is sluggish and sweaty and sleepy, wanting only to go home and nap under a fan. The less said about siang in this hot city, the better.

Sore is my absolute favorite, lasting from three-ish to sunset at six, which seems like a confusing and arbitrary chunk of time to the Western mind, at least until said mind experiences it, and then it's obvious and natural--of course those hours are different. Sore is bookended by calls to prayer, and something changes in the air during the three o'clock call, some slight shift in the temperature and the light which makes everyone start greeting each other with selamat sore instead of selamat siang, and which brings the old Chinese man out again, ready to greet the neighbors as they head home. Sore is cool again, almost cool enough to be pleasant, and as the sky darkens the bats come out, swooping low overhead, and, if you live in a neighborhood like mine, the muezzin keeps up a steady stream of goodness-knows-what from the mosque's loudspeakers, filling those hours between the calls with preaching and reading from the Qur'an and, as far as I can tell, trying to clear his throat. (I know Arabic sounds kind of like coughing, but, really, not that much.) Some people find the noise of the calls distracting and invasive, but I love it: the sound of Allahu akbar! echoing through the city stirs something in me, something deeply spiritual that I can't quite describe, and not even the fact that my local muezzin sounds exactly like Tom Waits can destroy the feeling.

For all this extended-evening period, night comes on fast. By the time the sunset prayer has ended, sunset, too, has ended; the night is as dark at six p.m. as at eleven p.m. It's rather disconcerting, this sudden sunset, like someone turned off a lamp; I find myself, every so often, going into a building just before six and coming out, a few minutes later, to wonder if, perhaps, my clock is broken and I spent more time inside than I thought. Malam is relaxed and quiet: by nine p.m., if not earlier, everyone is at home, watching T.V. or just hanging around on their porches, chatting peaceably, swatting mosquitoes, and waiting for bedtime and therefore the next morning. Early to bed and early to rise, they say; they must have been Indonesians.

I won't miss this emphasis on pagi-pagi, early morning, over malam-malam, late at night, but I've grown used to, and fond of, these four-part days. More especially, I'll miss sore, the bustle and the bats and the breeze, the projected invitations to come to prayer, to come to success. I'll never again, alas, settle for a simple English "evening."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Making a Difference

Miss Hannah: “So, what do you think about adoption?”

Student: “It’s bad.”

Miss Hannah: “Really? Why?”

Student: “Ummmmm...”

Miss Hannah: “What about if the child’s natural parents are dead? Isn’t it better for the child to be adopted?”

Student: “Yes, I guess so.”

Miss Hannah: “And what about if the couple can’t have children themselves? Wouldn’t it be better for them to adopt a child who needs it than be childless forever?”

Student: “Yes, I guess so.”

Miss Hannah: “And what about if the child’s natural parents were abusive or unable to take care of the child properly? Wouldn’t it be better for it to have parents who loved it and treated it right?”

Student: “Yes, I guess so.”

Miss Hannah: “And what about if the mother were an unwed teenager? Wouldn’t it be better for the child to be adopted by an older couple more capable of raising the child?"

Student: “Yes, I guess so.”

Miss Hannah: “So now what do you think of adoption? Isn’t it a valid option, in some situations?

Students: “Yes, I guess so.”

Miss Hannah: Would you ever adopt a child?”

Student: “No!”

Miss Hannah: “Why not?”

Student: “Because it’s bad.”

Friday, May 11, 2007

New Slang

Rolfo says that only I would get a pick-me-up out of learning new slang; I contend that if everyone knew what slang usage I was referring to, they, too, would find it almost unspeakably cool.

I stumbled across the construction in question on a t-shirt in Yogya; I was so enchanted by the words that I bought the t-shirt. (Because, really, isn’t cool slang worth a dollar?) It says, in so many words, saya ndak suka situ mbaca-baca tulisan ini. Kalo situ pengin mbeli aja sendiri, or, in translation, “I don’t like you reading this writing. If you want to, buy one yourself.”

Clever enough. The whole thing is very informal language: ndak is the central Javan adaptation of tidak, or “no”; kalo and pengin reflect recent vowel shifts in their spelling; mbaca-baca and mbeli are significant in that they use the Javanese verbal prefix N-, an assimilating nasal, instead of the more formal Indonesian meN-; aja is an informal version of saja, having, as is common in spoken Indonesian, dropped the initial s.

But all that is old slang, at least to me. The thing that really caught my eye was the word I translated as "you": situ. It's not technically a personal pronoun at all, but a term of spatial deixis. It means, literally, "there." So, again, "I don't like there reading this writing. If there wants to, buy one thereself."

Neat, huh? I mean, personal pronouns are a type of deixis, but spatial and social deixis are typically not so interchangeable. (Does anyone know another language that does this?) Apparently, though—and I’ve done my reading now—using “here” and “there” for “I” and “you” is becoming common in Indonesian youth language. Those crazy Indonesian youth! Here finds their language fascinating. Doesn't there?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

For Spacious Skies

U.S. States My Students Guessed Were the Largest

In The Order That They Guessed Them


Los Angeles
George W. Bush


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Spring Break Numero Tres

Spring break the third was occasioned by the Big Scary National Test that all twelfth graders must take to graduate. While my seniors, along with their other teachers, suffered and sweated and stressed, I waved goodbye and headed off for a week at the beach.

My life is good.

I have no amusing adventures to relate about this week of vacation because, frankly, I had no adventures. Quite the opposite: I did absolutely nothing. The SLO and I rented a $4 hotel room in the Kuta beach area, and then proceeded to spend the week doing what one does at a beach. For the SLO, blessed with wonderfully tannable skin, this involved lying on the beach. For me, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with Northern European ancestry, this involved lying on the beach, fully sunscreened and covered in several sarongs, looking therefore ready to enjoy the beaches in, say, Saudi Arabia. This also involved getting tired of the sun and heading away from the beach to browse in used bookstores, purchase books in used bookstores, read the books purchased in used bookstores, and return the books purchased and read, which, of course, began the cycle again. I blew a lot of money on paperbacks.

My life is really good.

Oh, and of course no trip to the beach would be complete without a hideous sunburn; the burn this time, on my back and shoulders and right arm and leg, was so bad that I’m still peeling, three weeks later. Those of you who have seen the pictures can agree: I have lowered my skin cancer onset age to, probably, 25.

My life, at least for the next three years, is good. Thank heaven for spring breaks.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Questions My Students Asked Me, When Told They Could Ask Anything

What do you think of Indonesia?
How do you buy a gun in America?
Do you like Led Zeppelin?
Will Seung-Hui Cho's body be buried in America or sent back to Korea?
Why is your face so red?
"Sunburn"? What does that mean?
Do you have a boyfriend?
Do you really drink baby's blood in your church?
What Indonesian foods do you like?
When a woman has an abortion, doesn't she regret it?
Who would win in a fight: American rappers or the Japanese yakuza?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Here She Is, Miss(?) Central Java

You do two or two-and-a-half years in Java in which all you do is live with the people, write down everything, and try to figure out what the hell is going on...
-Clifford Geertz

Indonesia never ceases to amaze, surprise, and confuse me. Just when I think I'm getting the hang of things, slipping into a comfortable and understood routine, or, as Geertz put it, figuring out what the hell is going on, I find myself, along with a former fashion model, the director of tourism for Central Java, a professor at a local university, and a hairdresser, watching transsexuals strut down a runway, and taking notes on their beauty, dress, walk, poise, breasts, and overall worthiness to become Miss She-male Central Java 2007.

Somehow, in this fairly conservative Muslim country, where men and women generally don't hold hands or even hug in public, where drinking is rare and only for Christians, where immodesty is nearly unheard of, waria*, or male-to-female transwomen/transsexuals/transvestites, are generally accepted and, sometimes, even encouraged--this beauty pageant, for instance, was not a shabby back-alley affair, but set up and funded by the regional government, and hosted in the building of the city's Insitute for Women. Although these pageants have been protested by several conservative Islamic groups, the current Miss Waria Indonesia is a high-profile figure, who works with AIDS-awareness campaigns and writes confessional books, including her bestseller Jangan Lihat Kelaminku, or "Don't Look At My Genitals." And it's not like religion was absent from the evening, either--those of the judges and staff who were Christian gathered in the VIP room for a quick prayer before starting; during the pageant's introduction, we were greeted with the blessings of Allah called down on our heads; and one of the contestants, my personal favorite, was even wearing a headscarf and modest evening wear, like any good conservative Muslim girl should.

The pageant itself was pretty much par for the course: the contestants strutted down a runway in revealing clothing, using feathers and fans to flirt at the spectators; the judges argued in the back room about who looked more like a woman, #23 or #64--or, rather, who looked more like a hot woman; and the audience suffered through several loud, melodramatic, slightly off-key musical numbers, complete with backup dancers and fog machine. The audience was almost entirely other waria, growing drunker and more boisterous by the minute, although there were a few groups of friends and family, including young children, and at least one beamingly proud mother, an ancient, hunched-over woman in Javanese traditional dress who, every time her child was on stage, turned around to grin and tell us, "I'm so proud of my girl."

That granny may call them "girls," but, frankly, it was not always immediately evident; they were not, on the whole, as convincing as Thailand's famous lady-boys. Indonesians are usually small, but these girls were not: most, if not all, were taller than me, which is nearly impossible for women and rare even for men. Most also had broad shoulders and strong collarbones showing through their strappy evening gowns; the tiny former fashion model next to me kept making a tsk, tsk noise as she noted this, and I know she eliminated at least one contestant based on her bicep definition. I myself was far more likely to strike out candidates when I noticed their leg hair; I mean, come on: if I feel obliged to shave before wearing a skirt to school, it's only fair that a contestant bothers to shave before entering a beauty pageant. If you want to be a woman, you have to suffer for beauty like one. Oh, and also? With the length of some of those skirts, I had a hard time following the advice given in the title of Miss Waria Indonesia's book. I can now testify that most of the audience and contestants were not, technically speaking, girls.

Not so for the actual winner, though, or so the rumor went. My vote was cast, of course, for the one in the headscarf--how could I resist such delicious irony?--but the other judges shot me down and chose the prettiest instead. Typical. Shallow and unfair and utterly typical. But then again, before I start getting angry, I take comfort in the thought that at least there was one thing about the evening that didn't confuse me.

*This is a tricky one to translate. Waria is a blended neologism, a combination of wanita (woman) and pria (man); hence, in the actual construction of the word, it's closest to the English "she-male," which is the word I chose above. However, "she-male" is often derogatory in English, while waria is the polite, non-derogatory form. Unfortunately for the translator, the other possibilities in English--transwomen, transsexual, transvestite, as listed--are far more technical, and therefore limiting, than waria. The waria community as a whole is diverse, with some just transvestites, who look and act like men in day-to-day life**, and others transwomen, dressing and identifying as women, and others still transsexuals, actually undergoing surgery to become women, and the term itself encompasses all these variations of sexual identity. To spare myself, and my readers, the intricacies and political implications of these terms, I will use the Indonesian waria, or, if it must be translated, the English "she-male," though with the caveat that I don't mean it offensively, and have only chosen it for its relative simplicity and similarity, in origin and structure, to the Indonesian term.

**I asked one kind waria, who spoke excellent English, whether I should, when speaking to waria, use Pak, mister, or Ibu, Mrs. She said, "It depends on whether I'm wearing lipstick." Such a flexible gender identity, wouldn't you say?