One week ago I travelled from Bandung, Java to Manado, North Sulawesi. After two and a half weeks of intense learning during my orientation I am now “home”… Or at least trying to start to make this place my home. Although I left the United States and arrived in Indonesia five weeks ago, it doesn’t seem like I’ve been here for that long (although some days have felt like weeks) because I’m not settled into the routine of why I came here: to teach English.
This past week for most of the other ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) in my cohort was the first real week of teaching classes. However, at my school the students were taking their midterm tests for this semester so I didn’t teach any classes. While I’m a bit envious of others who haves started working with the students that they’ll be teaching for the next eight months, I also know that I’ll be there soon enough (tomorrow, in fact) and I really appreciated this last week of exploring Manado and getting my room a lot more set up and home-like.
While I wasn’t teaching this last week, that didn’t keep me from being plenty busy. Since the paperwork for my limited stay visa wasn’t finished when I left the States, I came on a social/cultural visa, which is only valid for two months. So I was busy going to immigration Monday through Thursday with my counterpart, getting all of the necessary paperwork in order with many signatures from many different people. One day, we went on this wild goose chase, asking around ten different people where the local officer was until we were finally directed to a one-room house/shack along a row of other houses/shacks pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me a little bit of the community in Costa Rica where everyone knew everyone and nobody was in a rush to do anything. So while I was confused how we were ever going to find this mysterious man, the teachers I was with clearly weren’t fazed and it eventually all worked out. I’m currently waiting on what is hopefully the last part of the process: I turned in three separate copies of all of my materials to the immigration office on Thursday and they told me to come back on Monday. But I know I shouldn’t be surprised if I have more hoops to jump through…
There is one other ETA at my site: a girl from Maryland named Megan. The first week in Indonesia she was living in Manado but around thirty minutes from my kost (dorm). However, once we got back from orientation she immediately moved into the same one as me because she had unwanted roommates (rats) and her overall living conditions were a lot worse. It has been wonderful getting to explore the area with a friend and while I still want to do some things on my own outside of school, it’s really great to have a buddy: especially these first few weeks where everything is new to both of us and we can share our excitement with one another.
One of the most interesting things that I noticed right away was the attention I got when I was with Megan, who is Caucasian, versus when I was on my own. My first week in Manado I thought that I was getting a lot of stares and people were curious about me, but the first time I went outside with Megan I realized how different I had it… Different, I say, because being unnoticed and noticed both come with their ups and downs. We walked from our kost around fifteen minutes to a row of small waterfront restaurants, a walk I had taken a few times before on my own. The amount of stares, people trying to talk to us in broken English, and overall attention that we got was really overwhelming and startling. I asked her if she noticed it as much as I had; she said that it’s this way whenever she steps outside of her room. It made me appreciate how more easily I can blend in if I want—sometimes it’s nice to be recognized as being different. However, I can’t imagine what it will be like for Megan these next eight months where, whether she wants it or not, she will get stared at everywhere she goes.
It also makes me curious what people think of us when we are together. Some of the questions I imagine people have go something like:
- What is that white girl doing with that Chinese girl?
- Is that an Indonesian girl who’s giving a tour of Manado to the white girl?
- Why can she speak English so well?
- Why can’t she speak Indonesian?
- Why can’t she speak Chinese?
- How could they possibly know each other?
Megan has been a great ally in helping me deal with these kinds of situations and checks in to see how I feel about it. Almost daily I get asked where I’m from and when I say America, they always look surprised. “But you look Chinese,” they say (this is when some of them pull their eyes to the sides of their faces.) I think my reaction and how angry/annoyed/irritated/unfazed/amused/bored depends 75% on my current mood and 25% on if they are curious about my background or if they are telling me that I’m supposed to be a certain way: “You don’t act like a Chinese woman.” Well yes, that’s because I’m not, I’m an American woman.
As a cultural ambassador I do understand that many people are confused because Americans can be of all different races and ethnicities, but in a place so remote and diverse within itself (each region has its own local language and people look very different), if you don’t look Indonesian people are very confused and interested in you because it’s something that they rarely see. So I’m taking this part of my journey on a moment-to-moment basis where I’m trying as best as I can to give people the benefit of the doubt and to make them more aware of how diverse America is and how it is not just filled with the types of people Indonesians see in Western movies.
Anyways, my last week here has gone splendidly, even with the new things I’m trying to get used to and figure out. I found a place to snorkel just a ten-minute walk from my kost, which happens to be the same place where Megan and I have already become regulars at for lunch. Although Bunaken Island has thousands of more species of fish and coral, it’s pretty amazing that I am able to swim and see fish and coral basically out my front door. I’m so glad I brought a snorkel, mask, and little neoprene booties (thanks, Mom!) because I was able to jump in right away. I saw this gigantic blue starfish that looked like it had been painted in a pastel-blue—its arms (or legs?) were rounded at the tips, unlike the pointed ones I have seen on pinkish starfish in Maine.
Around twenty minutes into our swim, it started to lightly rain… which then turned into a full-on downpour. The fog completely covered Bunaken Island and the volcanoes surrounding it and soon it engulfed all of the buildings along the shore. It was such a magical moment. It felt like we were swimming in the middle of the ocean all alone with nothing and no one for miles. Something about being in water when it’s raining is just breathtaking, especially with all of the big drops spilling onto the top layer of the ocean and making thousands of small circles around me. Megan and I were so happy and couldn’t stop thinking how lucky we are to live in a place where we can do this anytime we want to. I hope places and things like these don’t become routine to me: I never want to take these experiences for granted, because while nine months are bound to seem like an eternity sometimes, when it’s all over I know I’ll have wanted to make the most of living by the ocean and sipping coconuts and walking in the rain.