Category Archives: Let’s talk about…

These posts are specifically designed for me to write about different cultural aspects of life in Indonesia. You probably won’t find many pictures here, but maybe some interesting things to think about.

What I wrote while sitting in the airport in Amsterdam on the way home

What I wrote while sitting in the airport in Amsterdam on the way home

(10.12.2014)

It is hard to understand, almost unbelievable that the brain can comprehend the phenomena of returning to a place that one has not been to in a very long time. So many, so many times I have held the things at home that I cherish in my mind’s eye, studied it and thought about what it is like and what it feels like to be exactly in that place. I have played it out so many times, completely unconsciously and routinely. What does it look like standing in my kitchen? What does it feel like to have a glass of wine that has been cooling in my own fridge? What does it feel like to wake up in our bed at home, with Leila asleep, the motor on, and the morning sun coming in though the glass door of the balcony?

The mind does this, over and over again. It does it even when I am on short trips away (and the definition of the word ‘short’ is always a matter of perspective). It is a play put on in the mind, still frames combined with moving pictures. It is enticing and wakes a longing for something one cannot have at the moment. You can wish with all will to be standing in that spot, imagine every detail, enough to almost make it real, except that when you focus your eyes back on whatever is in front of you, you remember with a bite that it is not.

So the moment when your memories, your dreams, come true, is the moment when reality is suspended for a time. It is the strangest feeling, to have something you have imagined so many times and longed for deeply to suddenly be just a few hours away. It is right in front of you, at your fingertips, and you relish in the anticipation of it. Sweet and savory and intoxicating. How can it be that that which you have recreated in your head like that can suddenly become a reality? It baffles me.

And then it becomes reality. You do these things and enjoy them, knowing that very very soon you will be taking them for granted. You won’t try to, but that is what happens in the process of normality that takes over during the routine of daily life. It always happens, and time begins to lift its wings and drag its feet.

And life goes on. And in the meantime you imagine those places that you have been, that you know so well, over and over in your head. You wish you could stand back in your other apartment and taste foreign food that is just not that foreign to you anymore. You play out in your mind’s eye what is is like to drive down those streets and the patterns of people and architecture and traffic that your brain can imitate and remember so perfectly. And you live through those visions time and time again, knowing that at some point in the future they will, again, become a reality.

Let’s talk about “bulé bulé!”, Round 4

Let’s talk about “bulé bulé!”, Round 4

(July 2014)

When I was an exchange student in Germany, my 17-year-old idealistic self thought “You know, I think I could actually live here, like for a long time”. I am happy to say that my 17-year-old self was, indeed, correct. Of course, the same idea has crossed my mind here in Indonesia (but don’t get worried guys, I’m not planning on moving this time 😉 ). Could I live here? Is this a country that I could imagine calling my own?
The answer was very different than it was when I asked myself this question the first time around. No, I do not think I would like to live here permanently. There are many things I really like, and many things I really do not like about Indonesia, but there is one thing that would always make it hard – the fact that a bulé, even an fluently Indonesian-speaking one, will always remain a bulé. Or at least it is very hard for me to imagine how this could change.

I have already written many posts on the topic of being a bulé here in Indonesia.1 I walk down the street and people stare. People never expect me to speak their language (which I am only floundering through). People like to take my picture. I am really, really something special very often. Even my good friends are not just normal (and I cannot always be with them) when it comes to topics of conversation, where to eat, what to eat, how to do things, or ways to be polite. I am sure if I was here for years, this last one would become much more irrelevant and eventually disappear. But for the other aspects, every day, I will always be a bulé, and there is nothing I can do to change this.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day. She is a German who has spent some time like me here in Bogor, and recently spent a month in Melbourne, Australia. She explained to me how, there, she experienced the completely opposite effect: People would completely forget that she was from another country. This was, in part, due to her immaculate English skills. It was also, in part, due to the fact that in Australia, she is no longer a bulé. She even almost missed all the special attention.

Which led me to reflect, from my far-away perspective on the situation, how it feels for me to be a “bulé”2 at home, in Germany. My close friends, or in general people who I know better, forget for the most part that I come from a different country (I think). They speak normally to me, they treat me just like they would treat anybody else, and do not relate everything I do to my nationality. This contrasts with people who know me only fleetingly, or people who have known me for a long time but rarely see me, or people I have just met. People who immediately come to mind in these categories are relatives or family friends who I only see at family gatherings, Studienkommilitonen, and people I meet at parties. Often, they relate things I do or say back to the fact that my nationality is US-American, along with comments about the last time they were in the States or what “cultural phenomena XY is like” in the USA. These are things that happen every once in a while, and are not a defining factor in day-to-day life. And the most noticeable – or exactly not – aspect of this whole thing: Nobody on the street notices that I am from somewhere else at all, until I open my mouth and say a word containing an “R” (The hardest part of the US-American accent to get rid of in German, which I am a spectacular failure at). I can ride the bus, go shopping, even talk on the telephone and nobody is the wiser. Even my name on paper does not look whatsoever foreign. (Of course, all of this is probably a very different case for people of other Herkunfsländer in Germany, and for people who either do not speak the language fluently or have not taken special care to integrate themselves well – for them, this story is very, very different.)

In the end, this a pretty perfect mix for me. I am noticed as a foreigner, but only on certain levels, many of which do not affect my daily life. It is a Mittelweg that would be pretty impossible to find here in Indonesia, or at least here on Java or anywhere where there are not especially a lot of bulés (like Bali or Jakarta).

So, to answer the question again: This is a factor that would make living here in Indonesia permanently very difficult. On the other hand, it makes me appreciate living as a foreigner in Germany more. This is not to say that I have now tried the “bulé” thing and given it up forever – I very much plan and would like to try being a bulé for long periods of time in other countries in my life. But it is an observation that puts things into well-needed perspective.


  1. Take a look for example at this one, this one, this one, this one, and one more

  2. Just to remind everybody, “bulé translates to “foreigner”, although in fact it means more like a “foreign-looking foreigner”. 

Ich packe meinen Koffer and I go home

Ich packe meinen Koffer and I go home

It’s time to go home. To go home, I pack my suitcase.

To pack my suitcase, I sort stuff in.

Into my suitcase go long-sleeve shirts and long skirts, which have been drenched in sweat more times than I can count. Folded neatly, into my suitcase goes my red kebaya, with its skirts and Indonesian-style jewelry that I would never find at home. In on top of that go an Indonesian farmer’s hat and a few items I have collected along the way and my favorite mug from my little Indonesian house. And many things that I took with me to Asia in the first place.

I pack in books (in three languages), music (in three languages), and a new love for saté and sweet soy sauce, and fried chicken. I pack in a map and my mental picture of Bogor, and my school, and my house and everything that was inside it. I fill in the gaps with knowledge of a language that damn near nobody at home can speak.

I take out the wet bathrooms and the often-crowded and loud spaces. I put a few sidewalks in and decide to leave the bargaining behind. I put in the rhythm of the cars that let you know when its okay to cross the street.

The photos of people, new and old, will never be left behind. Those that do stay behind stay in the safest keeping possible. I tidily store Facebook names and phone numbers and Skype names. I put in those small invisible strings that connect me to everybody else leading off in many different directions around the globe.

I pack in golden days, and bold colors.

I pack in nearly eleven months and nearly a hundred blog entries, and an interest in a new kind of writing and a promise to keep doing so. I put in all the tiny moments of my first trip through Asia with Sven. I stuff the edges of my suitcase with leftover socks and a new resolve about going home. I spread my self-confidence out on top of everything, and zip-up the lid.

And as I look out the window of the plane, I can see a vast space of clouds and devoid of continents, knowing that in a few hours, I will be at home.

(12.10.2014)

Let’s talk about sinking ships on SPIEGEL Online

Let’s talk about sinking ships on SPIEGEL Online

Gulf of Tomini (Sulawesi, Indonesia)

A few days ago, SPIEGEL Online posted this article:

http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/schiffbruch-vor-indonesien-untergang-der-versace-amara-a-996911.html

If you don’t have time to read all of it or do not understand German, it is about a small ship, the Versace Amara, that sank off the coast of Komodo Island in Indonesia in August. Basically, the tiny ship sank and most of the people aboard spent two days on a tiny raft taking turns sitting in it and swimming next to it (there was not enough room for everyone to sit in the raft at once). One person had their Gopro with them, and some of the pictures are published in the article.1 Some people tried to get to the nearest island, Sangeang. Some of them made it, and some failed. Two backpackers from Spain were never found.

What made this article interesting for us was that we already knew this story (or parts of it). The ship sank on August 15th – three days before Sven joined me in Indonesia. I was in Penang, Malaysia at the time. Two weeks later, Sven and I were already on Sulawesi and a good few days into our backpacking trip. Right around that time, we were on the way to Pantai Bira and sharing a Kijang2 with four other backpackers. Two of them were on The Versace Amara’s sister ship that had made it safely to Komodo. They filled us in on the details.

And of course we thought, “Well, that’s creepy.”

Of course it is also tragic and heartbreaking, and just really sucky for all of the people (not just the tourists) who had to experience it. But what makes it especially creepy is that this could happen to any backpacker (or anyone else, for that matter) in Indonesia. I actually remember looking at a brochure for the same trip (Western Lombok— Sumbawa—Komodo—Flores) but with (I think) a different company. My friend and I actually checked to see if there were spots available for the last weekend of July, but they were completely booked out.

Of course, one can ask why all the tourists did not pick a better boat (as has been mentioned in the article). But if you have ever backpacked in Indonesia, you know how incredibly silly this question seems. There are usually not many choices, and if the Versace Amara is the one that someone tells you you will take after booking it, well then, that’s the boat you take. I went to the 1000 Islands twice while I was in Indonesia. Sven and I took a boat to (and from) the Togians. And I was on a number of boats between Bali and Lombok and a number of other places. And yes, I was perfectly aware of the fact that everything would suck if those over-crammed and rickety boats started to sink, but at the time, there was not a lot that could be done about it. I will be back in Indonesia again at some point, but I will continue to ignore that fact if I want to go, well, anywhere at all.

But back to the SPIEGEL Online article: For the most part, it is a dramatic reconstruction of a truly tragic story that I imagine must have been very shitty to live through. For the most part, I just feel very sorry for these unlucky people. And yes, I mean all the people on the boat. The article is written from a Western perspective, and is very obviously such. What disturbs me is the portrayal of the (nameless) Indonesian boat crew. I do, indeed, believe that a short inspection of the boat after skidding on a reef the day before would be deemed acceptable to many Indonesians, as is the lack of any high-tech gear such as GPS monitors. But, you must remember, this boat also belongs to people who have nowhere near enough money to afford such things. And it is being run by people who belong to a culture where yes, a short inspection and a thumbs-up is not an uncommon way to determine if your boat is fine (and usually yes, it actually is).

After having spent a considerable amount of time in this country, I also find it very normal that the boat crew would turn to their phones to try to get a signal and reach for help (okay, very improbable but worth a try), or have other methods to try to solve the problem (however not-well-thought-out). But, like many Indonesians in my experience do, they were truly doing their best to try to solve the problem. The article continues to imply that the Indonesian crew members in the raft were unwilling to take their turns swimming in the water. What the article does not mention is what the crew did well during any of these events. I am sure if the author dug more thoroughly, he would have come up with something. Of course, I was not there, and cannot whatsoever judge how the Indonesian boat crew reacted to the whole situation. But one impression that I got of Indonesians, for the most part, was that they may be verpeilt, but they are not selfish. What is missing in the article is making a difference between individual crew members – something the author does very well when talking about the tourists.


  1. A reason I recommend taking a look at it, even if you can’t speak German. 

  2. a shared car, a form of public transportation 

Let’s talk about Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia in the same blogpost

Let’s talk about Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia in the same blogpost

image

When we were in Singapore, I said to Sven “Wow, this is like the opposite of Indonesia.”

Of course, this cannot be true and is a bit sarcastic, but during our time in the city Sven and I continued to notice many major differences between these countries, despite their close geographical proximity to each other. In seven weeks, had been in all three countries, Malaysia included. If Singapore and Indonesia are very different in so many ways, Malaysia feels like a mixture of the two.

It is quickly apparent to anyone who has been there that Singapore is an incredibly efficient and organized city. Not only is the Singapore transportation system very punctual, an extra effort is made to insist that everybody stands back for those people exiting the train (or “alighting” as they call it). People actually stand in line to do so. During rush hour in Jakarta, everybody on the platform tries to push themselves into the train while others attempt to squeeze themselves out. Although we have also experienced trains in Malaysia that break down in areas so remote that there are no alternative transport possibilities, for the most part things tend to run on time.

This may be in part due to one very obvious difference: Sheer size. The longer the distance, the greater the potential for mechanical mishaps. Singapore is a single city on a tiny island, nowhere near Jakarta in size, let alone density and population. Indonesia, on the other hand, is among the largest countries in the world.

Singapore is also immaculately clean, cleaner than the US or any European country I have been to. Singapore makes and enforces many rules to regulate their cleanliness, from littering to drinking water on the subway to chewing bubblegum, and visitors often joke and take pictures of signs forbidding various activities around the city. In even the most beautiful parts of Indonesia, excess garbage can be over-dominant due to a lack of a sufficient garbage disposal infrastructure and a general mindset of what to do with trash. To compare, I have never yet seen such massive piles of non-biodegradable waste in Malaysia, but I have seen people carelessly throw their plastic bottles out of train windows.

Another aspect continued to cross my mind that whoever has traveled to these countries as a foreigner will notice immediately: Greetings on the street and general personal demeanor. In Indonesia, one thing that is often very shocking to new bulés is the fact that nearly everybody, always, will say hello to you when you are walking down the street or pretty much doing anything. People will say hi, wave, call out, and it can sometimes get more than a bit annoying. In Malaysia this happens, too, but is usually contained to non-verbal attention such as waving and does not happen quite so frequently1. In Singapore, this is very different. People, much like in western countries, go about their business and seem to care little for what others are doing unless it somehow relates to themselves. It can be a relief from the attention for some people coming from Indonesia, but it is also a bit dissapointing that everybody does not seem quite so friendly. People in Singapore do not seem to take joy simply in seeing a stranger on the street. This gives the city, and in general the western mindset in this aspect, a very unconnected, self-absorbed feeling. After all, if a stranger on the street in Germany asked me my name or where I was going, I would think they were just being creepy.

I have chosen a few aspects here to compare based on my experiences in these countries. If anyone is curious about my opinion on others, please feel more than free to ask.


  1. although this is hard for me to judge for sure without spending more quality time in the country, as I have only been here as a tourist and mostly go to places where bulés are rather common and not quite so interesting. In places in Malaysia where Sven and I have wandered off the beaten tourist path, the (verbal) greetings have increased. 

Let’s talk about death in the hills of Tana Toraja

Let’s talk about death in the hills of Tana Toraja
Let’s talk about death in the hills of Tana Toraja

When you visit the region of Tana Toraja on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi, you quickly realize that it is a very special place. Many century-old traditions have been kept alive by the Torajan people who inhabit the region, such as unique architecture, burial rituals and keeping dead relatives in your house.

The Torajan live in the higher, mountainous altitudes of South-Central Sulawesi, the landscape full of green rice-field cascades, windy mountain “roads” and buffulo (everyone’s favorite animal around here). It looks generally somewhat like this:

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This region has an unique mix of religious tradions: Most of the people in the region are Protestant Christians, which means you see things like this:

image
this

image

and this

image

in abundance, however you will still hear the mosques calling at all the apropriate times of day. This in itself makes the region a little different from everywhere else, but there is a whole large pile of “different” on top of that.

Belief in Christianity is mixed with older, strongly traditonal practices, many of which seem to revolve around death. So much so that these are probably the biggest tourist attractions of the region. Really, both the Lonely Planet and everyone who has been there to experience it personally say that the highlight of a visit to Tana Toraja is attending a funeral. Yes, a funeral.

We were less fortunate in our attendance – there was one actually going on while we were in Toraja, but we arrived to late in the day and the festivals were aleady over (and we left the day after that so we didn’t get a do-over). Funerals in Toraja are huge, very public events where various animals are bought and subsequently slaughtered so they can accompany the dead into the afterlife. Huge bamboo sitting arangements are built specifically for the occasion, and eveyone in town knows when and where a funeral is taking place. As a tourist, you just have to ask a local for directions, dress somberly, bring a carton of cigarettes “for the family”, and, well, get there on time.

But one of the most interesting parts is that the funeral takes place up to a year after the person has died. Until then, the corpse is kept in the family’s house. Yes, in their house.

Obviously, Torajan funeral ceremonies are rather elaborate and very expensive, and it can take a while for the family to collect enough money to be able to finance it. However, because of the necessity of proper funeral rights for the dead in order for a peaceful afterlife, a loved one cannot go into the ground until the ceremony has been carried out. So the Torajan’s solution is simple: The person is not dead, but only “sick”. The corpse is then preserved (I do not know with what) and put into a special room, fed, talked to, and visited until the funeral ceremonies can commence.

It is, understandably, rare that a tourist can visit a house with a “sick” person in it, but supposedly a great honor. I have met no one so far in my travels who has had the pleasure, and did not have the privilage myself.

After the funeral, the dead are entombed. Torajan graves come in various forms, such as these:

While some bodies are buried in ways that seem more familiar, some clans (families) do it a bit differently, and bury their dead in thier family’s cliff face. This can be chiseled directly into the wall, balanced on beams extending out from the rock, dug into boulders, or put into caves. We were told by our guide at one of the more famous sights that the positions higher up in the rocks are reserved for the higher classes (the highest ones we saw were about over 15 meters off the ground). The cave we visited was formed naturally, and home to possibly hundreds of graves in various states of delapidation and decay. The caves were strewn with cigarettes, money offerings, bits of garbage (some of it intentional), spiders, and human bones. We left a few thousand rupiah and a rambutan. Although some of the graves are (angeblich, according to our guide) over 900 years old, they are still being used today. The newest coffin in the cave was a week old, and at another sight we watched a gravedigger chiseling out a new grave plot high on a clifface.

This practice of burying the dead in rocks comes out of a long tradition of burying the dead with various possesions to take with them in the afterlife (hence the slaughtered animals, cigarettes, and rambutans). Of course, this led eventually to graverobbing, and thus the practice of burying the dead in harder-to-reach places. You can also find baby graves inside tree trunks at certain sites.

Despite the fact that the region seems very death-themed, the people seem rather cheery about this. It feels extremely rude to me to ask a passing Indonesian “Could you please tell me where the funeral is?”, but this does not seem to bother them. Moreover, it was our Indonesian guide through the caves, himself a member of the clan, that urged us to take funny pictures with the skulls of his ancestors. This may be due to the tourism death ceremonies brings to the region, a different mentality about mortality and the afterlife, or some combination of both. Whichever it is, it makes for a unique take on life in the hills of Tana Toraja.

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You can read about our adventures in Tana Toraja on Sven’s blog.

Let’s talk about my internship

Let’s talk about my internship

I spent the last eight months doing a teaching internship at a private Muslim school, Bosowa, in Bogor, Indonesia. I feel the need to take the time and reflect on my internship and give a review as a whole.

I chose to go to Indonesia because I realized the need to take a year off of school. A big part of this was because some time last year, I had realized that I did not like teaching history. So when I started to search for internship opportunities, one of my major goals was to figure out what it was that I didn’t like – the teaching part, or the history part. Other goals (internship-wise, not exchange-wise) included getting some real, first-hand teaching experience, handling my own classroom, getting a grip on long- and short-term classroom planning, and getting rid of any leftover nervousness about standing up in front of the class.

I searched therefore for an internship teaching what I really like – languages. Chances to teach German in India came in at second place, but I soon realized that I wanted to go to Indonesia and that that would limit me to teaching English.

Among many opportunities in various cities on Java and Sumatra, I chose Bogor (and they chose me). The job description and interview questions seemed very well-thought out and took into account the fact that I was an intern, still in school with no real teaching experience. They seemed to care about things like teaching methods and students’ motivation, which another interview fell far short of. In additon to this, it payed more than other internships I looked at in Indonesia and it was in a comparatively “small” city, with just under a million people. In early September last year, I found out I had recieved the internship spot.

I got to Bogor at the start of December 2013. However, due to schedualing, I did not start with my own classes until after New Years.

The English classes in middle school (7th grade, 25 students) and high school (10th grade, divided into two classes of 15 and 13 students) were divided between the program’s regular (Indonesian) English teacher and myself. Per week I had three hours (je 40 minutes, block) in each 10th grade class, two hours (block) of regular curriculum in 7th, two single hours of conversation class im 7th, and two times 1.5 hours of conversation class with my fellow teachers. This gave me a total of 14 hours of class a week. During my first few hours, the other English teacher would stand with me in the classroom, and sometimes drop by to observe a bit or take pictures while I taught. He also assisted me with planning, especially at the beginning. Other than this, I was on my own in the class.

Our international program consisted of the two 10th grade classes, the 7th grade class, and a 1st grade class during my internship (now it is twice as big because the new school year has started), making up only a very small portion of the school as a whole. We had two teachers for primary and one teacher for every subject in middle/high school (except for English). Both upper grades follow the Cambrige curricumlum, a two-year program that would allow students to take a Cambrige level test (IGSCE in middle school, AS level in high school) at the end of next school year. Thus, I was teaching the second semester of a four semester program. The material is significantly more advanced than that of the ordinary Indonesian national curriculum, and was for the most part extremely challanging for many of the students.

The especially advanced material for the AS level English Language test in high school proved to be particularly challanging both to learn and to teach. It consists of reading and writing on an advanced level, high language comprehension skills, in addition to knowlege of basics like audience, tone, style, genre, and language features for examining and creating texts. The goal is for the students to be able to master the art of recognizing this in featured literature and (re-)produce it in their own writing. This means that I was teaching to the test, helping my students to understand and correctly answer certain specific types of tasks. Because of the difficult material and the time-consuming assignments, there was little space for me to do more creative, diverse task types – to both my and especially the students dismay. Despite my best efforts at changing things up a bit, students often remained bored with the material and consequently unmotivated. This made for a very hard class to plan and teach.

The IGSCE English Language curriculum consisted mainly of training the four language skills and practicing different types of assignments that would be found on the test over a variety of topics such as telephone conversations, giving advice, and writing résumés. This material left much more room for creative freedom and supplementary exercises in class. Most of the time I would avoid using the textbook at all, as assignmemts were often unclearly formulated. As I was not the main teacher responsible for the subject, I would often have a hand in the construction but never the correction of assessments for both grades.

My only major criticism on the program is in regards to the curriculum. It is not hard to imagine that the material is challenging for students who are coming from the regular program taught in Indonesian schools (I have never taught in the regular program but have seen material from other interns that have, and it does not say much for quality). It makes tests hard, and leads to extra lessons for teachers and students after school, stress on everybody’s part to get exam scores up, material crammed through, and results in low student and teacher motivation. I do not know enough about Cambrige programs to know which alternatives would be more suited to our program, but the one being implemented now is struggling to be effective.

My other two classes were both conversation classes and curriculum-free, giving me both the freedom and the curse of being able to do whatever I wanted with the class, with the goal of making people talk (which can be very difficult sometimes in a classroom of shy 7th graders). In my 7th grade class we went though various unit topics such as English Around the World, Crime and Punishment, and a mini-unit on Germany. We sadly did not get to my planned longer unit on the United States. In my teacher’s class, I wanted to keep the tone as fun and informal as possible. We ended up reading the novelThe Westing Game together (which we sadly didn’t have time to finish, sorry guys!), watching various episodes of Adventure Time and some short films, and learning to use the platform Prezi with many conversational games and exercises in between. Both of these classes had no required assessments.

This kept me pretty busy, especially after my 10th graders were producing texts regularly, almost all of which had to be corrected. My time from 7 am to 4 pm at the office each day was well-spent and often I would stay until 5 pm or so. When I had a particularly large and ever-growing pile of papers to correct towards the end of the semster, I would sometimes stay at the office until 7 pm until my hand cramped up enough to go home. Because I could almost always eat breakfast at work and because of the proximity of the office to my house (a four-minute walk), this wasn’t so bad.

I liked my work (except maybe the excessive paper correcting). I enjoyed instructing my classes each week and became comfortable in the classroom. Working with my colleagues was a particular joy and became a central part of my internship. When there was a team effort to be done, such as preparing for parent-teacher conferences, everybody would lend a hand (although there was always a particular pressure at these times on the homeroom teachers responsible for each class, and there was little I could do to help with that – they deserve a much higher stipend for the amount of extra work the role requires of them). From fixing the printer to Two for Tuesday pizza parties to school field trips, the colleguim is what gave everything it’s flavor. The administrators also deserve high praise on my part. They were extremely understanding about my preferences and needs regarding my internship, helping me with anything regarding my apartment or transportation, as well as very understanding in regards to vacation days needed (for example because of visa issues). They would listen to my input and suggestions in regards to our program. Admitted, they are often plagued by the Indonesian style of inaccurate planning, but it was always enough to get the job done in the end.

My goals of becoming more confident and relaxed in front of the class, gaining experience in general and in planning, as well as handling the classroom were well met. Many of these are just pretty integral in teaching over a longer period of time. Getting to know the students better is a cure in itself for nervousness while teaching. In general, this internship offered me an environment to follow a curriculum but have the freedom to interpret it and bring in my own activities. It gave me a chance to practice teaching where I had plenty of autonomous freedom but could ask for help and advice whenever I needed it. I have become much better at handling the class spontaneously when something in planning goes awry (however there were a few times when I would be asked spontaneously to teach a class, with no chance for prior planning. These I very much did not appreciate, as they made me very uncomfortable and feel more like I was entertaining the class than as a teacher). I regret now not having taken the time to observe more classes taught by my fellow colleagues and in the regular school. This would have offered me a wider range of insights into Indonesian teaching methods. I have learned that I enjoy teaching English, which was one of the most important goals for me personally. This internship has had the important function of helping me realize that teaching languages is my thing – even if teaching history is not.

I can only say a huge thanks and a hearty terima kasih to Bosowa for giving this opportunity. They have made me a part of thier program, their collegium, and thier lives and I will always be proud to say that I did my internship with them in Indonesia.

Let’s talk about Adzaan in der Hamburger Fußgängerzone.

Let’s talk about Adzaan in der Hamburger Fußgängerzone.

I am sitting here about to go to breakfast in Penang, Malaysia. Malaysia is a country, like Indonesia, where there is a primarily Muslim majority.* While I have been sitting here, the Adzaan (prayer calls) started while I was reading this article (and and watching the corresponding video) on Spiegel Online:

http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/dries-verhoeven-setzt-muslim-hure-und-transsexuelle-in-glaskasten-a-986293.html

For those of you who do not understand German, the article is about an art project that was performed (yes, performed) between the 7th and 16th of August in Hamburg, Germany in the middle of the very public pedestrian zone, where everybody goes shopping (and it’s summer break right now, guys, so everybody is out and about town). The art performance consisted of a big plexiglass soundproof box with a raised platform for someone to sit in. Everyday of the performance, a different person (/people) were in the box: This included a transsexual, a small prostitute, a child soldier sitting on bullets and cleaning a gun, a primarily naked father reading his primarily naked daughter a storybook, a pregnant teenager, and – the performance that the Spiegel article concentrates on the most – a Muslim man praying to Allah at the appropriate times of day at the sound of the Adzaan. Apparently some people got upset about that one.

The project is by Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven, and is meant to represent things that are different. It is pretty easy to figure out that more than part of the point is that people fear what they perceive as different, which is why the title of the performance of the praying Muslim man is “Ceci n’est pas notre peur” which translates to “This is not our fear”. No, the Muslim man is also wearing a bullet-proof vest, indicating that it is him who is scared of something.

The article also reports some of the reactions of people in the pedestrian zone to the performance. Of course, these reactions will have covered all the colors of the spectrum, but the article focuses particularly on some of the negative reactions. One woman implies that the people in the box are not “normale Menschen” (“normal people”), but goes on to say that this is what makes people think about the project and does not mean it as a negative thing. One woman explains that this is a Christian place, not Islamic, with a tone that indicates she sees this as selbstverständlich and given (na?). She says that she finds the performance “grauenhaft” (“horrible”), and that the Adzaan is “furchtbar” (“horrible”) and “klingt bedrohlich” (“sounds threatening”). And I thought “No, lady, it just sounds like the Adzaan.”

Verhoeven is correct – most people do not fear prayer. Some people fear the things they associate with it, however. Even if some people do fear a radical expression of this religion – or any religion, for that matter – this is what it comes down to for too many people: Fear or anger at seeing a normal non-threatening religious practice because of their associations with it. Because no – a normal routine for religious people should not be what we fear, because there is nothing whatsoever scary about it. We fear terrorism, not praying. But because we have come to connect the two in this way, it makes some people view the praying itself as fearful.

I admit, the Adzaan does sound strange to someone who has never heard it. A friend of mine who I was skyping with when it started one time said that it sounded like I was under water. I can also understand that some people do not like listening to it at 4:30 in the morning, especially if you live next to a mosque (But hey, that’s what earplugs are for.). I can also very much understand that it bothers someone to watch somebody – of any religion – pray in public. I do not know anything about performance art, and so cannot debate the sense of this as artistic expression or if that makes it appropriate to put people on display. But is does people damn good to be confronted face-to-face with somthing that they think is different because they’ve never seen it, or refuse to acknowledge that they have.

This woman and other people who this may have disturbed in Hamburg’s pedestrian zone are angry or scared because they are ignorant and have no desire to learn and explore in order to correct their ignorance. Not only should we strive for an open-minded world that accepts ideas that are different or foreign, we must also realize that these images are already very much a part of our world. They may not be one we see, either by chance or by choice or by omission, but they are part of a wider reality every day that encompasses both us and everybody else. The sooner people strive to realize this and help break the prejudices and stereotypes that have become part of our daily lives or the lives of our parents or co-workers or friends, the sooner we can all get started at being better people.

By the way, because it only lasts for about 15 minutes and it took me a bit longer to write this here article, the midday Adzaan here in Penang is already over.

If anybody reading this actually had the chance to see the artwork in person, I implore you to comment on this post or write me a message. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

*Slightly more than 60% of the Malaysian population is Muslim, according to the 2010 census. Muslims make up roughly 87% of Indonesia’s population.

I went swimming today

I went swimming today

I went swimming today off the coast of Lombok, in the town of Senggigi. The town stretches along the coast on one long, rather noisy road, with a few backstreets surrounding and expanding the town. As it is a stop-off point on the way to the Gilis, and a slightly recommended spot by the Lonely Planet, it has a number of tourists now in high season. A drive through, tourist-pumped beach town whose main road is a highway, many of the bars (yes, bars), also play loud karaoke on Wednesday nights and cater to foreign as well as Indonesian tourists.

Anyways, we went to the beach and I wanted to go swimming. The town offers a large bay that was rather calm on the day we visited and we had a good stretch of beach sort of to ourselves. I went out and followed the advice of my friends who had swam out before me and were watching my stuff back on the beach: Try to swim out directly and get past the first wave of garbage, then you should be fine.

So I jumped in and swam out ahead. I swam, past discarded cigarette packages and ice cream wrappers. I thought – just a bit more and I will be past this sea of plastic, as an empty pudding container floated past my ear. I strove on ahead, avoiding pieces of rope, a coconut shell, and something I could not name to make it to safety. Here, I could swim free in a large, wide-open stretch of ocean, only occasionally being attacked by a piece of plastic around my foot, pushed in by the last wave. I swam, and eventually wanted to go back, but knowing I must conquer the battle lines of the garbage to reach the beach. And then I won’t even feel clean when I get out.

Further down the beach would have been a poor choice to sit. There, the garbage has collected on the sand, expelled in hoards by the waves, and you should watch where you place your feet. I do not know if this means the stretch of water here is cleaner than the part down the way and the burden has been transferred to the beach, or if there is just more of it at this unfortunate spot.

But at least it is only slightly polluted. It is nothing in comparison to the water around Jakarta, subjugated to much more abuse by the millions of people destroying its waters. If I went swimming there, I would probably die of something. Not just would I smell like garbage and poop, my skin would come out slimy with the oil that coats the surface of the water. Everywhere one looks, the water is swarmed with chips packages, forgotten or verlorene children’s flip flops, straws, coffee wrappers, Pop Mie Styrofoam cups. And this continues, thankfully becoming ever less dense by the meter, until you reach the first islands north of Jakarta, the ones that are hard to see from the shore. Even there, I would prefer not to go swimming. After all, who knows what the ocean has managed to pull out that far into itself, aside from the visible aluminum cans and occasional dead fish?

And I know from my previous trip to Lombok and back that the garbage is not just limited to the beaches and waters close to the heavily populated shore. No, there are also those massive collections out in the middle of the sea, where the garbage has been corralled by the currents to create places where the water underneath the layer of plastic is hard to see.

In general, water has come close to losing its battle against pollution in Indonesia. Look down the crevice into most rivers, and you will see garbage littering the landscape and ruining all chances of a beautiful picture. Old t-shirts, plastic cups, things I can’t even recognize and mostly made of plastic color the slope down to the water in bright but unnatural colors, decorating the plants and occasional flowers with its rainbow of hues and myriad of shapes, as if someone had missed the correct painting and mistakenly added those colors. But every time I dare to peak around the corner of my little house in Bogor, where a ravine meets a stretch of town that has taken full advantage of its possibilities as a garbage dump so that one could wonder if it is truly built of man-made materials, I cringe and turn around the corner: Just like everybody else – out of sight, out of mind, sad to see the world look like this.

Let’s talk about “bulé, bulé!”, Round 3, Part 2

Let’s talk about “bulé, bulé!”, Round 3, Part 2

All this talk of picture taking puts us in mind again of a topic we talked about before: Objectification. This time, we are not talking about women in Indonesia, but about bulés.

To remind ourselves, objectification is treating people like objects instead of people. In doing so, it dismisses their personal opinions and qualities in order to focus on a single facet of the person. In our current case, this is the fact that they are a bulé with light skin and all other physical features in accordance with this. In Indonesia, bulés are objectified all the time.

When people take my picture, they are treating me as an object. I am, in that moment, the subject of their picture. I am part of something they can show their parents or friends later (or whatever else they do with the pictures. Who knows? Maybe I am on someone’s blog about bulés along with a hundred other pictures 😉 ). Few of the people who take my picture go further than that, few ask where I am from or why I am in Indonesia, and fewer strike up a real conversation. Those who do are often very surprised that I can speak rudimentary Indonesian.

But one does not only find objectification of bulés when it comes to picture taking. This is also a common phenomena in advertising. My milk carton, for example, looks like this:

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Why are there a bunch of happy bulés on my milk carton? The language on the carton in Indonesian, so that is obviously the company’s target audience. So why not put a bunch of happy Indonesians on my milk carton? As we talked about before, this could be because bulés are associated with beauty, and their looks considered desirable (as a side note: It is very common to hear people, especially women, call out “Cantik! Cantik!” or “You are beautiful!” to me as I walk down the street. I learned fast to reply “Kamu juga!” (“You too!”) with a big smile in response to the compliment). So maybe if we put people who we think are attractive on the milk carton, more people will buy our milk?

But it’s not just the milk carton company that is objectifying me. Many, many companies all over Bogor do this. Take these stores, for example:

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These are from stores that my bus passes from my house on the way to the mall. It also passes other billboards, some of which take up the whole side of the building, including a furniture store, many clothing outlets, and two hardware stores. So, I ask again, why put bulés on your signs?

A few other answers to this question have occurred to me. Maybe the signs are made by foreign companies, and they find it natural to print their signs like this, unthinking of the parts of the world where people look differently. Maybe it is because bulés are not only associated with the movie industry, but also with wealth and productivity. A sign on a store with only bulés on it could convey various messages to its customers, such as ‘Bulés use our products, so they must be good’ or ‘Bulés made our products, so they must be good’. Whether these statements are in any way true is, of course, completely irrelevant (and carry many more cultural implications of the relationship between Indonesians and bulés). But, apparently, it helps them sell their product.

Ironically, it makes this post slightly contradict itself – people take pictures of me because I am a rare sight. On the other hand, pictures of bulés already seem to be all over the place.