A New Life in Manado: The Land of Smiling People

This past week has been overwhelming to say the least, but I’m already starting to feel more comfortable here in my new home. I’m not exactly sure where to begin because I’ve had so many unique experiences so this may be a bit of a ramble/medley of random experiences… but I’ll start with Manado itself.

Manado is in North Sulawesi, a three hour plane ride from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. I was nervous getting off the plane and meeting my counterpart, the person from my school that is responsible for me throughout the grant, but in hindsight I had nothing to worry about! I was met by my counterpart, Miss Alisa, and two other teachers at the school who greeted me with open arms. I didn’t know the amount of English my counterpart would know, but I was relieved to realize that as long as I didn’t speak too quickly, she could understand everything.

During the ride to dinner and then to my kost (dormitory), the teachers told me that I was not simply a guest, but was now apart of their family. One of the teachers quickly informed me that Manado is known as “The Land of Smiling People” and so far my experiences have proven that to be true– the people here smile whether they are happy or feel uncomfortable in a situation; it’s their natural reaction to almost everything. This has made my interactions so far a lot less stressful because even though I can’t communicate in Bahasa Indonesian very well, I don’t feel as though people are frustrated with me.

There are some things that I’m very conscious about and definitely worry about being disrespectful without knowing it. During the short security briefing from the AMINEF people in Jakarta, they asked if anyone was left handed. I’m pretty sure I’m the only lefty in my entire cohort of around thirty ETA’s and Indonesia that makes things a lot harder. It is not acceptable to pass or receive things with your left hand, which is what I do naturally. I have also been eating my meals a lot more slowly than in America because I have to use my right hand to put the food in my mouth (also if you know my quirky tendencies to stand on the left side of people to feel balanced, this whole using the right hand is pretty uncomfortable for me.)

Manado is a very Christian city and people go to church and worship daily. In Indonesia, everyone has a religion and it’s basically unheard of not to. That has been one of the most anxiety-provoking things for me so far, because I am not Christian and do not worship any/a specific god (I believe in some higher power/ reason that we’re all here.) I was told that asking about people’s religion, age, and martial status is considered normal and not invasive, so I was waiting for people to ask me about my religion. Before I got to Manado I had decided to tell people I was Buddhist and that I worship on my own, so that people don’t ask me to worship in public, but when I was asked I felt uncomfortable lying so I rambled for a bit how I’m not Christian but that I am open to learning more about their religion until they moved on to another subject. I’m still not entirely sure what my answer will be the next time people ask me; really, I just don’t want to offend anyone but I also don’t want to lie.

The most challenging thing for me so far has been communicating with people as an American who looks Asian. The first day that I went to school I could tell that many people were confused that I was the native English speaker coming to teach at their school. Some of the teachers came up to my counterpart and asked them who I was and one teacher came up to me and pulled her eyes to the side, telling me that I looked Chinese. I knew she wasn’t trying to be offensive and I didn’t really mind the gesture as much as I have in the past, but I was also a bit disappointed that I think people were expecting to have a white person show up. People have told me here that I look Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, and that I from other places, just not from America. But besides teaching English, my role as an ETA is to be a cultural ambassador, so I am excited to have students understand that Americans can look very different and that different places in America are very different; it’s not simply “American culture.”

So yeah, so far I think I’m doing pretty well adjusting to a completely new place but I definitely have a lot more to learn and become familiar with. Traveling to Indonesia before and living in Costa Rica has definitely given me more confidence and has allowed me to give myself a break when things seem confusing or hard. I’m not supposed to know everything yet, and this place still feels like I’m a foreigner, but I’m excited for those moments where I can confidently take the two micro buses to my school by myself, order food in Indonesian that I know I want (not just say yes to everything), and learn my student’s names (I think I have over 300 students in thirteen different classes.)

I will be in Manado for another few days until I travel to Bandung for a two week orientation. I’m excited to take language lessons for four hours a day and come back to Manado equipped with a better understanding of the language. I know people will still be confused why I don’t speak Manadonese or Bahasa Indonesian fluently, but I want to learn the language for myself, regardless of what other people think I should know.

Other little random things to note:
– I use a bucket and big ladle to shower with in the same little room as the toilet. It’s not bad at all and a lot more efficient than I imagined.

– My counterpart, Miss Alisa, was surprised by how much rice I could eat. Apparently the previous ETAs at my site could only eat a little bit of rice when they got here. One of the students at my school who is fluent in English asked me if we have rice in America… I said of course!

– I’m still not sure what the school system is like here/daily school routine, and specifically at my school, SMAN Eben Hazer. Many of the teachers are not teaching their normal classes because they are preparing for a big government funded art competition that is taking place at the school, where students from over 30 provinces in Indonesia are coming to. I’ve been told the school is famous in Northern Sulawesi and that many people apply to come here. They have won international choir competitions, basketball tournaments, and have an insane amount of trophies throughout the school.

– My kost is right by the water… I still can’t believe how incredibly beautiful it is here. My counterpart took me to the Soekarno Bridge (named after the first president of Indonesia) to watch the sunset over the volcanos and Bunaken Island. I can’t wait to do water activities and get my diving certification!

Beautiful clouds... smoke? Something coming out of the volcano
Beautiful clouds… smoke? Something coming out of the volcano
Myself with my counterpart, Miss Alisa, enjoying the sunset down by the Mega Mall
Myself with my counterpart, Miss Alisa, enjoying the sunset down by the Mega Mall
The view from Soekarno Bridge
The view from Soekarno Bridge
Me standing in front of my school (these kinds of signs are all over)
Me standing in front of my school (these kinds of signs are all over)

9 thoughts on “A New Life in Manado: The Land of Smiling People”

  1. Mei Lin, Thanks for sharing your first week experiences. It sounds like you will be working very hard… 130 students! Love Peggy

  2. You write beautifully ..your attitude and self awareness are stellar .. The question is who is luckier your students or you ? Can’t wait to read about more adventures xx Lynn

  3. Hi Mei Lin, That bath that took is called a mandi. You probably know that by now. The language schools are very good and lots of fun. I knew that you would confuse people and they would wonder why you are a native english speaker. It is all a great learning experience for you and for everyone.

  4. Hey Mei Lin,

    You are so cool!! Hearing all that you are doing and learning makes me want to visit this country!
    The photo’s are great! Almost like being there.

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