Projects Projects Projects

I would like to begin this blog post by extending a formal welcome to my newest bathroom inhabitants. The rainy season is well underway in Cilamaya, which means there are even more creatures crawling up and out of our bathroom drain. So I would like to give a warm welcome to the cockroaches, slugs, frogs, worms, spiders, crickets, lizards, and of course the geckos who greet me every day when I enter the tiny bathroom.

As I near the end of my PC service (3 months, 93 days, 2232 hours, 133920 minutes… but who’s counting?) my days do not stand out as particularly exciting in any way. America still feels as far as it did 23 months ago. But I’m slowly pushing through and trying to focus on my bigger projects that will give my service more meaning and have a lasting effect on my students and community (inshallah).

One of the projects taking up most of my time is called IGLOW, which stands for Indonesian Generations Leading Our World. This is a youth empowerment camp for high school and middle school students. I have been working with the 3 other volunteers in the nearest city to organize this camp for the past 5 months. In April, 64 students will spend a weekend hearing from a variety of Indonesian organizations that educate about nutritional health, reproductive health, environmental sustainability, animal protection, anti-bullying, gender roles, body image, and study abroad and career options. These are topics our students don’t usually study, or they don’t have access to the information. As teachers who spend lots of quality time with our sweet students, we feel the topics presented at the camp will have the most impact on our students’ lives and will hopefully inspire them to pursue further education in these areas.

Although IGLOW camps are common projects for PCVs all around the globe, nothing like this has ever been done in our community. We want this camp to be sustainable, and that means that we are working with our Indonesian counterparts at school to develop partnerships with local businesses so that the camp can be repeated for years to come. Our goal for this first camp is to get at least half of our funding from local Indonesian businesses, but given that it is a new project and we have a lot of groundwork to lay, we need some help from our friends and families back home.

The 4 PCVs are in charge of organizing the camp but during the actual weekend we take a backseat role and let the students learn from Indonesian mentors. This event has nothing to do with learning English and everything to do with empowering our students to be healthy, educated, and active members of society.

And here is where I take a deep breath, and ask you wonderful readers for some money. We are very much looking forward to our IGLOW camp and our students are too. We would be honored if you could contribute whatever you can to help us pay for our fees and expenses. You can donate money to our GoFundMe page at Every dollar matters and is a huge step forward. The money goes directly toward making the camp happen. $23 dollars will fully pay for one student to attend the 3-day camp,
$10 dollars can pay for camp workbooks for 6 students,
$5 dollars can cover the cost of food for one student for the entire 3-day camp. We would be incredibly grateful to receive whatever you can give.

To give you a sense of what an IGLOW looks like, here’s a video from another PCV’s IGLOW camp:

The other main project I have been devoting my time to, is what I am calling my “Animal Care Project.” I can’t believe I haven’t written about this subject already. The treatment of animals in Indonesia is sometimes very difficult to witness. There are certain houses in my community I cannot look at because there are monkeys chained to trees or luwaks and other exotic animals kept in cages. Many people think it looks fancy to keep small, beautiful birds in tiny cages near the front door, when really it just looks painful for the birds.

There are not many dogs here because Java is a mostly Muslim island and dogs are considered “dirty” in Islam. But what Java lacks in mangy, stray dogs it makes up for in mangy stray cats. There are lots of street cats everywhere. Most of them are scared of humans because they are usually not treated very nicely. Somehow they survive by eating leftovers in the street or garbage heaps, and by hunting rodents and birds. Indonesians are equally as scared of the cats as the cats are of humans. Especially kittens.

A few weeks ago a mother cat had newborn kittens near my house, and she somehow singled my room out as a safe zone. She must be the smartest cat in Cilamaya because any other Cilamayan would kick her out immediately and treat her and her teeny tiny babies like flesh-eating parasites. All the members of my host family were absolutely terrified of this sweet mom and her kittens. KITTENS!

I decided to do my Animal Care Project because I have witnessed so much cruelty, violence, and neglect of animals in my village.My goal is to educate the families of Cilamaya about the sentience of nonhuman animals. My hope is that they will understand that ALL animals feel pain, fear, happiness, and deserve to be treated with the utmost kindness and respect. I want to create a sustainable method of reaching out to children and adults in this community to help them understand the importance of treating animals with compassion.

I have been emailing with an animal protection group in Jogjakarta for almost a year now and it looks like my project is finally coming to fruition. In a few weeks, 6 students from the local university and I will travel to central Java and train with Animal Friends Jogja. The students will learn about animal welfare issues, as well as how to give presentations and puppet shows to younger students about being kind to animals. When the students return home, I will help them organize speaking engagements at different schools in the area. I’m hoping this project will be sustained with these students and will help spread awareness about the importance of being kind to all animals.

Indonesia is made up of extremes. It can be extremely hot and humid and in a minute it can be pouring rain with thunder and lightning. The streets can be crowded with people and motorcycles, and then you turn a corner and discover a serene and private rice field. There are bustling cities with loud horns and music and calls to prayer, and tranquil jungles with no evidence of human existence. As a foreigner I can be treated with extreme compassion or extreme harassment. When locals see me they either assume I don’t speak any bahasa Indonesia and so they don’t even try to communicate, or they assume I’m completely fluent and will speak at top speed using words I don’t yet know. THERE IS NO MIDDLE GROUND.

Peace Corps service in general can also be extreme. I can be super busy with classes and projects and not have enough time in the day to get everything done. And I can have too much free time, no structure to my days, and not do anything productive.

I love when the young kids in my village wave at me and call out “Hi, Miss!” I always hope for my students to be brave enough to talk to me. But if I pass anybody in the street who looks older than my high school students (especially men), I hope and pray they don’t talk to me or shout something rude in my direction. Hoping the Indonesian youth will be brave enough to talk to me and hoping everybody else will please ignore me is maybe the most confusing extreme. And of course, there’s the emotional extremes. I can get in a real rut of negativity and anger, and then some tiny victory will occur and I’ll be elated the rest of the day. That’s one thing that has been especially difficult these 2 years. There is no middle ground. I’m either Tigger or I’m Eeyore. Nothing in between. And I know this isn’t just me, it’s most – if not all – PCVs. I guess it just comes with the territory of doing something extreme, like living alone in a foreign land.

P.S. It has recently come to my attention that more than just my mom reads my blog.  Thanks for the support friends!  Don’t be afraid to leave a comment.  I truly appreciate your thoughts and I love hearing from friends and family back home.  As I say to my students, “Jangan malu!”  Don’t be shy!  Love to you all.

Strangers on a Train

A few weeks ago I took a train to my friend Travis’s site for the first time. As I was waiting at the train station I was of course getting lots of stares, but I was trying to focus on my podcast and getting on the correct train. A woman in a bright, lime green skirt-suit came up to me and asked me where I was going and where I was from and if I was married… the usual Indo questions. She said she noticed I was foreign and wanted to talk to a foreigner. I wasn’t really in the mood to be an object of entertainment, but she seemed friendly and good-intentioned, so I smiled and answered all the usual questions. The train arrived and it turned out we were going in the same direction. My new friend insisted I sit next to her on the train and continue our conversation. She turned out to be very nice. Her name is Bu Linda and she runs a theater group for kids! I told her how much I love theater and we bonded. As we got closer to my destination, she asked who I was meeting and how I was getting to my friend’s house from the train station. I admitted that I had never visited this area before so I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to where I needed to go, but I assumed there would be people at the station to help me. Bu Linda looked worried but I told her I would be fine.

This is an interesting phenomenon I have found in Indo. People are usually friendly and will ask you questions/give you unasked-for advice all the time, especially to foreigners. So when I travel somewhere I am never nervous that I will get lost because I know there will always be someone there to help me (even though I’m always careful about who I’m asking and how much detail I give them). But when I express this sentiment to an Indonesian, especially an Indonesian woman, they are always worried for me. Is this because they are worried I can’t get around without being absolutely fluent in the language? Are they worried about my safety? Do they not experience the same kind of help if they are lost? Maybe a combination of all three. I swear sometimes I feel safer in Indo than the locals think I should. Or maybe it’s a fear among women. I am a foreign woman traveling alone and they think I should be afraid, because they are taught to be afraid. There is also the added factor of being alone, which I have mentioned before is something Indonesians cannot fathom as something enjoyable.

As we were talking, a group of middle-aged men entered our train car and stood in the aisle near our seats. One of them commented on my presence – something like, “Oh! There’s a foreigner sitting here! Hey friends look! There’s a foreigner!”. I tried to ignore him but Bu Linda chimed in and said the most perfect words I could ever hope to hear. She said, “She’s not a foreigner. She LIVES here. She can speak Indonesian. She’s a new Indonesian.” Thank you Bu Linda!! Even my community members in Cilamaya don’t stand up for me like that. The men started laughing and they seemed genuinely good-natured.

One of the men asked where I was going and even though I’m usually hesitant to tell strangers where I’m headed, I needed help getting there. I told him where I was getting off, and this instigated a heated discussion. Each man had different advice for me about how to get to Travis’s house: ankgot, motorcycle (obviously not for me), friend of a friend’s car, and on and on. It was with absolute kindness and concern that this group of strangers was trying to help me get to where I needed to go. Bu Linda was chiming in too, making sure I felt safe.

After a few minutes half the train car was helping me. My new friends shouted to people at the back of the train car, asking if anyone was going to my area. People were calling their friends and family on the phone to ask them to pick me up. The were doing everything they could to make my journey as easy as possible. I was amused, flattered, and incredibly grateful for this immense concern.

I ended up being escorted by a lovely older gentleman from the train station to an angkot that took me close enough to Travis’s house. The only other obstacle I had to face when I got off the train was the torrential downpour…

The rainy season arrived late in Indonesia this year. And my site is further north than Travis’s site and there are zero mountains anywhere, so the rainy season was especially late for me. It didn’t even occur to me that other places were receiving rain. Lots of rain. So I did not have any kind of jacket or raincoat with me whatsoever.

My smiley escort and I tried to wait for the rain to die down inside the station, but so did everybody else. The small station room quickly grew very crowded and it seemed like there would be no relief from the rain any time soon. My kind escort pulled out the tiniest umbrella I’ve ever seen and we braved the storm.

We had to walk from the station to the main road, which was probably about a 3-minute walk. A 3-minute walk is not that long, but when there is basically a bucket of water constantly streaming down on top of you, 3 minutes can be pretty miserable. My escort was trying so hard to keep half of his miniscule umbrella over me and half over him, but it was a lost cause. I had a bag with me that I was trying to protect, so I was trying to cover my head and my bag with the umbrella, which created the perfect cold stream of water coming off the umbrella and directly down my neck and my back, inside my shirt. All the while I am ankle-deep in puddles, walking through tiny alleys, dodging motorcycles, people, and frogs. I started laughing hysterically because it was such a peculiar situation. My escort was surprised and kept asking me why I was laughing but it was just one of those humorous things that I couldn’t quite explain and it was probably not funny at all to Indonesians. I was so grateful for all the help I had received on my trip, and now this tiny old man with his tiny umbrella was trying to help me too, although the Indonesian rainy season was ruining all of his efforts. The only thing I could do was take a metaphorical step back, look at my situation and the day I had had, and laugh and think what a typical Peace Corps day it was.

I don’t know if Donald Trump has ever been the only white man on a train full of Muslims. But I would bet some serious money that if he ever found himself in this situation, he would be treated with the utmost kindness.

Year 2 Revelations

I am knee-deep in year 2 in Cilamaya and things are… not all that different. I started my final year of teaching with gusto and enthusiasm. I know how the school system works now, I know what to expect, and I feel much more integrated and comfortable with my language skills. This year is going to rock!! I’m going to make positive changes and my teaching counterparts will make those changes with me and we will all be best friends and get along perfectly and all the teachers will respect me even more! Oh what a silly, naïve little American I am. Nothing has changed. Nothing is different. I feel different because I know what to expect at my school and with my students and counterparts. But Indonesia is still the same. The people are still the same. And the misconceptions, lack of motivation, lack of communication, and daily frustrations are still the same. Why did I think it would be different? I guess I was really hoping to see some actual changes and results from all my hard work from last year. But alas, it appears I will have to find satisfaction in my work outside of my actual work assignment.

But that’s ok. I don’t mean to sound negative. I really am finding purpose and satisfaction in my other projects, and of course my students constantly amaze me and keep me smiling at school. I started planning our IGLOW/IBRO camp with my fellow Karawang PCVs. I started planning a project with some animal protection organizations in Indo. I started a monthly Culture Club at the university in Karawang. And I’ve been continuing with my integration and cultural exchange at my site.


I arrived at school last Thursday to find out classes were canceled because the entire school was going to spend the day praying for rain.


We have been in a major drought and many people are without running water. My house didn’t have water for over a week.


So EVERYONE at SMA Cilamaya prayed for rain. (Minus the bule.)

There is a woman in my village with whom I frequently interact, as she lives across the street from my favorite neighbor, Bu Yuyun. This woman’s name is Yos and she is always happy to greet me and always ready to chat and laugh with me. She likes to tell me how much she wants my white skin and I tell her how much I want her beautiful chocolate skin and then we joke about trading skins. (This conversation happens literally every time I see her.) Yos is married and has a 5-year-old son, who is just as funny and smiley as she is. I found out a few months ago that Yos is 23 years old. This woman is the same age as me. I was surprised when she told me because my silly American brain assumed since she was married with a kid that she was at least in her late twenties. We chuckled with amazement when we both said we were 23. I was filled with surprise and admittedly some pity, because I saw something very personally unappealing. I saw a woman already tied down with a family. A woman who will probably never continue her formal education, never travel and explore. A woman who will never have the opportunity to date different men and actually choose which one she wants to marry. A woman who will probably live in Cilamaya her entire life and have the same experiences and the same interactions with the same people everyday.

Yos also seemed filled with surprise and pity for me. She probably saw a girl all alone in a foreign land with no husband or child to keep her company. A girl who is ALREADY 23 and without a husband or prospect of marriage. How will she ever feel supported? Who will she take care of? Who will take care of her? Who will she spend her time with? Yos saw my situation as pitiable too.

Indonesians often ask me when I will get married. The honest answer is I have no idea nor do I really care what age I am when I marry. To me – and to most Americans I know – the age does not matter, it’s the person you are marrying that matters. So I tell them when I find the perfect man I will marry him. And I add that I’ll probably marry when I’m around age 30.   Of course this is met with gasps of horror and disbelief. “30 is too old! I already had 3 kids by the time I was 24,” just some of the typical responses I hear. And while I listen and silently cringe at these women who were married by age 18, they loudly try to encourage me to marry immediately when I get back to America. Or better yet, marry an Indonesian man!


Two of my favorite 11th graders, Hisni and Euis. One of their favorite hobbies is taking dozens of pictures on my phone without telling me.

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A while ago I was taking a long bus ride back to Cilamaya. I was sitting in the very first row of seats on the bus so I couldn’t see the other passengers but they definitely saw me and took note of the white girl sitting on the bus. As we drew closer to my stop, a man with long, scraggly hair, big boots, a black t-shirt, and tobacco-stained teeth came up towards the front of the bus. He asked the driver in bahasa Indo, “Is she getting off at Cikampek?” I look at the driver and try to telepathically communicate with him, “Don’t tell this dude where I’m getting off. Come on man. That is rule #1 when you’re a solo traveling female and a foreigner, DO NOT tell this dude where I’m getting off.” The driver says, “Yep. She’s getting off at Cikampek.” Thanks for nothing.

The creepy dude looks at me and says, “You’re getting off at Cikampek? Where are you going after that?” Without smiling I say, “Just Cikampek. I know where I’m going.” He says, “Are you going to Cilamaya?” I take a second to decide if I should tell the truth, but this guy couldn’t have just guessed my village randomly, he must know me or at least know about the white girl living in Cilamaya. I say yes and he says, “You’re a teacher right? At SMA1?” I say more enthusiastically yes! He says, “Ok, when we get off at Cikampek you can follow me.” I tell him I know where I’m going but thank you, and he says he can help me with my bag. Ehhhh… to trust or not to trust, that is always the question when meeting new people. And talking with this punk guy with his gross teeth and long hair (a very clear symbol of “naughtiness” in conservative Indo villages), I just wasn’t convinced he had my best interests at heart.

As the bus pulled up on the side of the highway at a random spot with no clear markings, Creepy Dude grabs my bag and says, “Ok come on, let’s go, this is Cikampek.” I say, “This is not Cikampek. I know what Cikampek looks like and this is not it.” He says, “yes it is! Let’s go let’s go!” There were other people getting off and the driver said I should get off too, so I grab my stuff and run off as Creepy Dude insists on carrying my bag for me. I try to keep a close distance with my bag but try to stay far enough away from him and I try to recall in which section of my bag I put my pocket knife, just in case. We start walking up a hill with the other people who got off the bus and the scenery becomes more familiar to me. Now I know where we are.

We are aggressively approached by some angkot drivers but Creepy Dude waves them away and tells me they will make us wait a long time. We walk across a bridge to more buses and angkots and we pass a creepy police officer. The officer says, “Hey mister! [talking to me] Where are you going?” Creepy Dude says, “She’s going home. Don’t bother her.” Cool points for Creepy Dude.

We cross the highway with Creepy Dude signaling cars to stop, and we finally get on an angkot heading to Cilamaya. Creepy Dude starts asking me the usual questions, where am I from, how long have I been in Indo, how old am I, etc. I ask him a few questions and find out he is originally from Cilamaya and his family is still here, but he works as a bartender in Bali for months at a time. His daughter actually goes to my school and is in one of my new 10th grade classes. I am more at ease with this situation but my guard is still not completely down. When we get off the angkot he insists on paying for both of us.

We walk to find another angkot, all the while fighting off aggressive motorcycle drivers offering us rides and rude people making comments about a white girl walking with an Indo guy who clearly looks “naughty.” As we are getting on the second angkot a skinny guy shouts at Creepy Dude, “Hey! Is that your wife?” Creepy Dude says, “No. We are just friends. She’s a teacher. Show some respect.” Heart melting.

We ride the angkot together for another 45 minutes and Creepy Dude (now officially Not Creepy Dude) is talking with me and the angkot driver, and he tells the driver all about me and my life. He is very respectful. He asks if I have someone to pick me up at my stop and he makes sure I am texting and calling them to make sure they know when and where to pick me up. I am now scolding myself for being initially creeped out by this guy. He was so helpful and kind! He helped me get to Cilamaya safely, he carried my bag, he told off rude men, and he insisted on paying for both angkots for me. What a gentleman.

Not Creepy Dude told the angkot driver about how we met on the bus and he says, “She was scared of me at first. She was scared of my long hair.” The angkot driver laughs and says something like, “Of course she was scared of you! Your hair is long and you look like a bad person.” I say, “No, I wasn’t scared of your long hair! I don’t care if men have long hair. I was cautious because I always have to be cautious with new people. I’m even cautious with old ladies if I don’t know them!” They laugh, but it’s a true statement

I do not condone letting strangers carry your bags or trusting them with your infomation or directions. But this was a good lesson in not judging a book by its creepy cover. Thankfully my new friend was nothing but helpful and kind. I hope to be shocked by kindness many more times in this hot and fascinating country.


Two blog posts in one week!  Wooo!

First, I have some exciting news to announce: I can get mail!!!!!!  I love getting mail.  Letters, packages (including goodies and food that I miss), books, magazines, pictures, anything!  Please feel free to send me anything anytime and I promise I will write you back.  It will probably take about 4 weeks for me to receive something sent from the states.  (*cough cough* my birthday is November 15th, just in case anyone was curious).  I’m not going to post my mailing address here because I don’t know who exactly reads this blog, so if you want to send me a letter post a comment here or Facebook me or email me and I will send you my address.  Yay pen pals!

Secondly, I want to give you some of my favorite blogs from my fellow PCVs in Indonesia.  There are many excellent blogs to be found, but I think these particular ones can either offer a perspective that I will never get in Indonesia, or are extremely well-written and present a thorough analysis of Indonesia’s education system.  Please read!






One camera comes out and suddenly I’m surrounded.

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School Systems

I don’t know how long August was back in America, but over here on Java August felt like a whole darn year. My August began with a 10-day-long Peace Corps conference in Bandung with my fellow West Java PCVs. Then I was thrust back into the chaos of a new semester, trying to navigate my way through the mystery that is the Indonesian education system.

I am often asked how high schools in America are different from high schools in Indonesia. I am always met with wide-eyed amazement and confusion when I answer. Since I assume most of you reading this are familiar with the general set-up of American high schools, let me tell you how my school in Indo is run. I teach at a public high school, which in Indo is called an SMA. Note: public schools all have the same general structure, but it can differ greatly between public schools, vocational schools, religious schools, and international schools. SMAs are 3 years instead of 4 like in America: grades 10, 11, and 12. (Junior high schools are grades 7, 8, and 9.) Each grade level studies between 16 and 19 subjects every year, depending on the school. This is, in my American opinion, an insane amount of classes for anyone to take. In America we study an average of 6 subjects every year. For example, at my high school we had 4 main courses, English, math, science, and history, and 2 electives, a language class and an art class. Each year the subjects of the courses change. I studied physics for a year, then chemistry for a year, then biology for a year, etc. Indonesian schools, however, structure the curriculum so that the students are learning ALL subjects EVERY year. Plus they add some subjects that American schools don’t usually offer as required courses. The main subjects Indo students study are: math, physics, biology, chemistry, economics, sociology, Indonesian language, Sundanese language, Arabic, English, religious studies, gym, history, and other Indonesia-specific subjects I’m not sure how to translate like PKK and PLH.

To me and my American brain, this seems like mistake number one. How can anybody be expected to thoroughly learn and understand things when there are so many subjects thrown at them? Also, since the students have to sit through at least 16 subjects every week, it requires the schedule to be sorely lacking in adequate class time. English class, for example, is scheduled for 4 hours of every week. “1 hour” in the Indonesian school system is defined as 45 minutes (I have no idea why but it’s the same for all schools). Plus you have to factor in the 15-20 minutes that many teachers spend in the teacher’s room avoiding class. If I’m lucky, my students get about 2 hours of actual class time a week. Now I’m not here to teach math but according to my calculations 2 hours of 16-19 subjects every week does not equal a reasonable understanding of any of these subjects nor does it equal a decent education.

During Peace Corps training with my fellow PCVs, we studied bahasa Indonesia for at least 4 hours 6 days a week. Some days we even had 8-hour lessons. My students and community members always comment on my language skills and remark, “Miss, I studied English for 5/6/7/8 years and I can’t say a sentence in English, but you studied bahasa Indonesia for 3 months and you are fluent! Americans are so much smarter than Indonesians.” I always respond with, “First of all, I am far from fluent. Second of all, it has nothing to do with being smart. Indonesians are very smart. But I had to study a lot and practice a lot. That’s the only difference.” It hurts me knowing that Indonesians, and my precious, sweet, hilarious, intelligent students are told they are not smart enough, when the main thing holding their potential back is the messed up education system.


hangin’ with some kids from my favorite class. They wanted me to be in their official school picture but I wasn’t there on the day the photographer came, so they brought their cameras to school the next day and had a little photoshoot with me 🙂


and of course many selfies were taken…


Seriously. They took my phone and when they gave it back there were about 30 selfies.


The rice fields are green right now instead of their usual brown, so things are looking pretty beautiful.

Although I am constantly frustrated by this system, most Indonesians don’t seem to really care too much. I was talking with my dad recently and venting my frustration with the education system and he asked, “Why is this system still in place? Who dictated that the curriculum and schools should be run this way? Haven’t they figured out that they are not producing results? Why haven’t they changed the system?” I have asked myself these questions countless times. I think one of the bigger factors in not trying to change the system is that, at this point in time on this particular island, education is not the most important thing to most Indonesians. I have come to believe that the most important thing to my teachers, students, and staff, is the feeling of family. My school really tries to make everyone feel like family. There are no social hierarchies among the grades like there usually are in American high schools. For the most part, everyone knows everyone’s name. If a parent of a student dies, all the teachers and staff and many students go to the house to show support. One of the teachers recently left my school to be a principal at a different school. All the teachers and most of the students went to his new school to say goodbye/welcome him to his new job.

My fellow PCV recently remarked, “In most developing countries, people don’t choose to invest in education because it’s not economically wise or valuable to them.” In small villages like mine in Indonesia, people don’t have savings accounts or retirement plans or insurance on anything. Their insurance is their friends, family, and neighbors. People rely on the people around them to support them through tough times. If there is a flood or a fire or an earthquake that effects someone at my school, without any hesitation there will be hundreds of students, teachers, and staff there to help the families in need. They have created an environment at my SMA where social connections are the most important commodity, not education.

I am constantly forced to remind myself of this cultural difference when I am beyond frustrated with the lack of time, resources, energy, and teachers. I know I moved to a developing country with massively different cultural practices, and usually I feel pretty proud of my ability to integrate into this new culture, but sometimes these deeply rooted values spring up in my mind and I am forced to confront them. It’s incredibly difficult to put aside some of these values I have grown up with. They are ingrained in my person, they are a part of my thinking and my actions in my daily life. My view on education is clearly an important value to me. And it seems so obvious when I’m around my American friends, we are always talking about grad school and our future academic and career endeavors. It jolts me like a bolt of lightning when I have to unpack my frustration in Indo and really understand why I feel this way and why those around me don’t, and why they may never understand my views.

I’d like to end on a lighter note. This story also has to do with my deeply ingrained sense of politeness and decent kindness. Today I taught my favorite 11th grade class (Oops! Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites. Well we do.), about comparative adjectives, such as good, better, best, fast, faster, fastest, etc. I assigned the class into groups and asked them to write 5 sentences using comparative adjectives. When I went around to check their sentences, almost all the groups had written sentences that would have gotten

them in big trouble had they been in America. Most of the comparative sentences were about students in the class: Faizal is smarter than Dimas. Saepul is the fattest student. Lilis is prettier than Ana. This class is better than the other class. I couldn’t help but cringe at the blatant rudeness, laugh at the frankness, and swell with pride at the correct grammar.

Ibu Fitness and General Updates

*This post was written at the end of July and posted at the end of August.  Sorry for the delay.

The month of Ramadan is officially over and my third semester at school is almost here! It’s been about a month and a half since I’ve seen my students and I miss them. After almost 2 months of having no responsibilities, I’m more than ready to get back into school and see my kids again. Even though there are countless cultural differences and difficulties, and frustrations in dealing with the Indonesian education system, my kids never fail to brighten my day and make me laugh.

Ramadan is tough. Ramadan is a month of fasting to strengthen one’s commitment to Allah. Almost every family in my community is Muslim so Ramadan effects everyone. My community wakes up at 3am – the women wake up at 2am to start cooking after neighborhood boys bang on drums throughout the village to wake everyone up. At 3am the families eat a hefty breakfast together, chat for a bit, try to stay awake, but eventually go back to sleep around 6am. They don’t eat or drink anything again until 6pm after the sun has gone down. It’s also required that Muslims don’t consume alcohol (which they usually don’t anyway since it’s prohibited in the Quran) or smoke cigarettes. This is very difficult for most people since 97% of Indonesian men smoke. And they smoke a lot. To pass the time, people take multiple naps during the day, watch tv, and hang out with family. They refrain from their usual daily activities because they are hungry, tired, and cranky.

Last year Ramadan was difficult for me to say the least. I was new to my permanent site, less than 1 month in. I didn’t know my community at all, I didn’t have any site friends yet, I didn’t know where anything was, I hadn’t met my students or teachers yet, and I was still the new foreign “bule” in town. (“Bule” means white foreigner.) But this Ramadan was much different and much better. I have friends now! I know where things are! I developed a daily routine for myself to keep myself occupied, and I knew at the end of the month my adorable students and school would be waiting for me. An added bonus during Ramadan is the quietness. Since everybody mostly stays in their house and naps, the roads are much quieter than usual until 5pm when everyone prepares for “buka puasa” or breaking fast.

In June I was fortunate enough to travel to Thailand and Malaysia for 2 weeks. It was an incredible trip that I will not soon forget, mostly because of the incredible kindness shown to me. A huge shout-out to Kim, Jessye, and Bouquet for helping me see the wonders of Pinang, Malaysia and Chiang Mai, Thailand. You are all amazingly kind and I am so lucky to know all of you.


I explored lots of beautiful temples


I swam in the “Grand Canyon” of Thailand


And I got to hang out with these beauties for a day!


And I got to hang out with these beauties for a day!

Originally I had planned on making this June trip with one of my PCV friends. Unfortunately she had to cancel at the last minute, and for a brief few days I thought I would be traveling in Thailand alone (not alone in Malaysia because I stayed with my wonderful friend Kim). If this had happened a year ago I probably would have canceled my Thailand trip. The prospect of traveling alone in a new place where I know nothing about the language, culture, or geography would have seemed too scary. And it is scary. But after a year of living on my own in Indonesia, traveling alone, making friends along the way, and learning how to function in a foreign country, I felt calm and ready to travel alone. I was a little nervous, naturally, about the language barrier and getting around to different places, but I noticed this new thing in me. Bravery? Confidence? Independence? Or maybe naivete? I’m not sure. But I was proud of myself for not giving up on my long-awaited plans to go to Thailand just because of a major bump in the road. Fortunately, one of my other PCV friends was able to join me in Thailand! We had the most amazing experience there and I am so glad I got to share it with someone. We already started talking about our plans to go back again 🙂

Now, in regards to my confidence in traveling alone, this feeling does not occur to most Indonesians. In fact, Indonesians rarely do anything or go anywhere alone. Especially women. Whenever I go to Bandung for the weekend and I inform some of my teachers, they ask with whom I will be traveling. When I tell them I’m traveling alone they, without fail, gasp in horror and say, “Alone?! Aren’t you afraid??” Even though I have lived here for over a year and I travel to Bandung and other places alone quite frequently, they are always shocked that I live to tell the tale. I don’t know if they are worried for my safety because I’m not fluent in the language, or if it’s because I’m a woman, or if it’s simply the prospect of going somewhere alone.

A couple months ago I was leaving Bu Yuyun’s house to bike home (by myself no less) and she had this look of intense fear on her face. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “You’re leaving now?!” I said yes I was leaving because I wanted to bike home before it got dark, as I do every time I visit Bu Yuyun. She said, “But I’m alone! There’s nobody else home!” I looked at her confused, not comprehending why this was such a devastating situation. She just couldn’t fathom being alone in her own house for 30 minutes before her family came home. Bu Yuyun lives next door to her entire family and the families across the street are her good friends. How could she ever be alone?

In February I was talking with one of my Indonesian friends who is originally from my village and goes to college in Bandung. Her name is Elina and she is studying English literature so her English is pretty good. She was asking me lots of questions about Peace Corps and what it’s like to live in a foreign country. I told her sometimes it was difficult but now that I’ve been here a while it’s usually ok. Elina said, “I just think you’re crazy. You move to a new place by yourself, you don’t know the language, and you’re the only foreigner in the village. You must feel so alone.” I tried to explain to her that yes, sometimes it can get lonely to be the only person from my culture, but I am content to do things alone. Most Americans enjoy alone time. We are ok with going places by ourselves, doing daily activities by ourselves, and taking quiet time to ourselves is rather enjoyable. Ok, to be fair maybe to most Americans or people of any culture living in a foreign country by oneself for 2 years is kind of crazy. But to Indonesians this act is unthinkable. When my students get up to use the bathroom during class they ALWAYS take a friend with them. When a student has to get pens from the office it is always a two-person job. The prospect of being alone is simply too scary.

A few months ago, I was invited by some of my lovely female teachers to go with them to an aerobics class. I enthusiastically said yes, partly because I wanted to bond with my teachers more and partly because I wanted to witness Indonesians working out. Exercise is not a foreign concept to most Indonesians, they just don’t understand why anyone would want to do it. Why would anyone get any enjoyment out of sweating and being out of breath and having one’s body ache? When I go for runs in my village I have to mentally prepare myself for all the incredulous stares and comments I will receive. “Miss, aren’t you tired?” “Miss, it is hot.” “Miss, you should walk, don’t run. You will get tired.” With all these misgivings and reluctance to participate in exercise, I was very eager to see what an aerobics class in my village looked like. I was expecting older women in hijabs moving their bodies slightly to and fro, mostly laughing and chatting with the friends around them. (Obviously they would have friends there, Indonesians never do anything alone.)

I arrived at the tiny gym (that I did not know existed) with my teachers around 4pm. There were some young men sitting and talking outside the entrance, clearly surprised at seeing a white person walk in. I felt safe and protected from any rude comments by my awesome teachers. Bu Indri said to me, “The mens class just ended. Now it will only be women.” We walked up a big staircase and entered a large, airy room with lots of mirrors. There were women of all ages sitting around, drinking water, and chatting. My teachers and I chose a corner to put our stuff down and started stretching. It was slightly humorous to see my fellow teachers out of their school uniforms and in their workout clothes. Obviously I know they have lives outside of school and different clothes besides their uniforms, but it was kind of like seeing your boss out grocery shopping. You know it must happen but you never really witness it. I wonder if they felt the same way about seeing me out of my uniform.

To workout, I wore running pants and a T-shirt that covered my shoulders to be respectful. This is what I usually wear to run in my village. I always make sure to cover up an appropriate amount. My teachers wore similar outfits. Some wore longer sleeves. Some took their hijabs off, some left theirs on. But holy moly the other women in the class… There were Muslim ladies working out in bikinis and bras and booty shorts! I was shocked and weirdly proud. That’s right ibu, you flaunt it! It was mostly younger women in skimpy outfits, outfits that would probably never see the outside of this gym room. But there were some older women in hardcore exercise gear. Work it, ibu!

The workout was more intense than I was expecting. There wasn’t any resistance training or weight lifting or anything like that. But there were lots of fast arm and leg movements and we really did build up a sweat. (Although you tend to build up a sweat stepping out of the house in my village.) I was impressed with these women’s commitment to fitness, and oddly proud of them. I don’t know if I have any right to be proud of them, but I’m not sure how else to describe it.

P.S. One of my dearest friends got married 2 weeks ago!  Sadly I couldn’t join the celebrations for obvious reasons, so I made a video instead.  Take a look at my darling students:

Ohhhhhh I’m Halfway There…

I have officially hit the 1-year mark at site. Which means only 1 more year to go! Some days, the prospect of 1 more year seems impossibly long and I can’t wait to run home and cuddle with my dogs and a few special-needs goats, donkeys, and pigs. On other days, 1 more year almost doesn’t feel like enough time to accomplish all the goals I hope to complete. I spent this past year mostly trying to integrate in my community, trying to better my language skills, and trying to employ a cultural exchange so that we might understand each other a little bit better. Now it’s time to get some big projects done.

Here are some goals for my second year in Indonesia:

I am planning an IGLOW. IGLOW stands for Indonesian Girls Leading Our World. It’s a camp for high school girls to learn about women’s empowerment, women’s health, and much more. I’m hoping to include an IBRO, a similar camp for boys which stands for Indonesian Boys Respecting Others.

I’m also planning to host a few different guest speakers at my school and hopefully other schools in my community. The speakers will be from (no surprises here) different animal protection groups in Indonesia!! There has never been a PCV in Indo who has tried to incorporate animal protection or animal rights into their service, so I’m a little nervous to see how my school, students, and community will respond, but I know this is an important subject to me so I’m putting all my efforts in to making it happen. There is a West Java chapter of World Wildlife Fund that will come speak at my school, a rescue organization in Jakarta that will hopefully hop on board, and an educational program with Animal Friends Jogja. (I will have to do my own fund raising for some of these groups to travel out to my site so please stay tuned on that front.)

I’m running a 10K in the Bromo marathon in September! I will be running with my fellow PCVs around a volcano and I’m going to feel cold for the first time in months. I can’t wait.

Interesting tidbits:

The gender dynamics and perceived gender roles in Indo are sometimes disheartening in my American feminist brain, but ultimately fascinating. The socially constructed gender roles are akin to the gender roles in the U.S. circa 1920. I’ve noticed if I’m with a male PCV and we run into a curious Indonesian local, the questions are always directed at the male PCV. Since my male PCV buddies are aware of this gender dynamic, we often have fun making side-eyes at each other and without speaking decide that I, the woman, will answer all of the questions. Sometimes the curious Indonesian is taken aback when they are asking all their questions to the man but the woman is answering.

Sons are very obviously, unquestioningly, unabashedly valued more than daughters in the household. My host father once told me that he was happy when his first daughter was born but he was ecstatic when his son was born. I asked him why even though I already knew about this gender disparity, and he said, “because my wife gave me a boy, so it is more special.” I tried to ask him again why a boy was more special than a girl and he laughed and couldn’t give me any more explanation. There is very little questioning in Indonesia. If I ask people about their cultural values, there is no critical thinking about why those values exist, or that perhaps there are other ways people live their lives, with different standards or values.

My friend Mike recently came to visit my site. Mike has darker skin than I do and he spends a lot of time fielding questions from Indonesians about his skin and his curly hair. When we were eating lunch at my house, my host father said, “Mike, I’ve noticed you’re black. You are blacker than Zoe.” We laughed and lauded my host father for his keen observation skills. This led to a discussion about skin color, and of course the Indonesian side of the table took a firm stance that white skin is more beautiful than dark skin. Mike and I explained that in America all skin is beautiful. Many people even try to look darker by going to tanning salons and lying in the sun. My host family thinks this is very funny since they spend their entire days avoiding direct sunlight to preserve their light skin. Mike asked my host father, “Why do Indonesians think white skin is better?” My host father just chuckled and said, “because it’s more beautiful!” Critical thinking and analysis at its finest. I chimed in, “But why do you think it’s more beautiful? How did that thinking start? Because clearly in America many people think dark skin is more beautiful? So who is right?” I have my own theories about why Indonesians believe white skin is more beautiful, starting with the occupation of the Dutch and ending with globalization and western media infiltrating Southeast Asia, but I wanted to see what my host father thought. He couldn’t really give me an answer. Mike and I asked him if he thought it had anything to do with the Dutch coming in to Indo. He said yes it probably started with that.

One of the things I really appreciate about Indonesian culture is the importance of respect for elders. Strangers will often help an older ibu or bapak onto a bus, or take their arm while they cross the street, or help them carry a heavy bag. It’s done without question and without forethought. You help the elderly in anything and everything. It’s endearing to watch. I noticed an interesting linguistic/cultural convergence: when you are talking about your sibling, you will say “adik” or “kakak.” Adik means younger sibling and kakak means older sibling. There is no gender assigned to either one. I found this difficult to understand at first because it’s the opposite in English. “Brother” means male sibling without any age assigned to it, and “sister” means female sibling with no age assigned. In Indonesia the age of the sibling you are talking about is more important than the gender (at least in most cases).

2 weeks ago I walked out of my house to go on my usual morning run. I walked about a minute on the main road and then turned down a small dirt road to run through the rice fields. After walking a few feet I hear from behind me “Hello Miss!” I look back and see 2 small boys waving at me from the other side of the road. I smile and wave back. I continue to walk past the uneven, rocky part of the path and just as I’m about to begin running, I hear rocks crunching from far behind me. I look back and see 8 young boys riding 4 bikes down the path, 2 kids per bike. I’m not sure if I know these boys or if they are going to ride past me and call me “bule,” so I keep walking and take 1 earbud out (I was listening to music) so I can try to hear what they are saying. As they catch up with me it’s clear that they know me even though I don’t recognize any of them. One boy seems to be the leader of the pack and he says, “Miss, are you exercising? Can we come with you?” I am shocked because usually the last thing Indonesians want to do is run or exercise, especially in the morning when the sun is getting hotter. I say, “Of course you can come with me! Are you sure you want to bike on this bad road?” The spokesman of the group says, “Yes the road is bad Miss, but we will come with you anyway.” I crouch down and pretend like I’m in a race and one of the boys yells in a fake announcer voice, “Ready! Go!” And I start running and the boys start biking beside me and behind me.

I was so excited to have a little posse with me. I always run through the rice fields alone and there are usually a few rice farmers who greet me as I pass. So when the farmers see me running with this little gang of middle school boys they are equally surprised and amused.

We reach my usual halfway point where there is a tree and a place to rest. The boys say, “Miss we are tired. We are going to rest here.” I rest with the boys for a few minutes as I watch them chatter and climb the small tree. One of the boys in the tree asks me if I like berries and I say sure. He signals me to stand underneath the tree and starts tossing me any berry he can find from the branches. Then the other boys make it their mission to collect berries for me too. The smaller boys pick them from low-hanging branches and the rest of them start climbing the tree and pointing out which branches have the bigger berries. It was so sweet!! Each time the boys handed me more berries I would say, “They’re delicious! Don’t you want some too?” And they would say, “No Miss. They are for you!”

After my berry snack break I told them I was going to run a little further and come back. They opted to wait under the tree. On my way back from my run I saw 2 of the boys had taken a mini bath in the small river that runs through the rice fields. “We were too hot Miss!” I attempted to learn their names and we had a good laugh at my mispronunciations. The main spokesman for the group was asking me questions about my life in Indonesia, teaching at my school, what time of day I usually run, etc. They were very curious about who my friends are in the village and out of the village (my other PCV friends).

As we left the shade to run back home we did the fake start-of-the-race joke again. This time 2 of the boys wanted to run alongside me instead of ride their bikes. So the entire way back I was chatting with the oldest boy in the group and the spokesman, who invited me to go swimming with them after our run. This was such an unexpectedly adorable and lovely run with my new middle school friends, and I hope they keep their promise to run with me again soon.


My new posse climbing the tree searching for berries


My new crew

I have been having some phenomenal conversations with my teachers lately. There are 4 new teachers who have just arrived at our school within the last 3 months. 3 of them are young women who are not yet married, and the other one is “married but alone” as she says, because her husband lives in a different city. All 4 of the new teachers plus one of my favorite teachers, Bu Indri, all rent rooms from the same complex. I have biked to visit them a few times and we always have a good, giggly time. After getting through all the usual questions about America and Peace Corps and school and husbands, they have started to ask me deeper questions about culture and I greatly appreciate it.

I was feeling frustrated a while ago because I felt like I had learned to be polite in this culture, but nobody was concerned with how to be polite to me. I know it’s not quite fair. How are they supposed to know when they are being rude if they don’t understand American culture? But it can get exhausting monitoring everything I say all day in order to fit in and cater to my community, when they unknowingly commit grievous social errors in my head all the time. I never blame them, but it can really grate me down. Bu Indri asked me, “Miss Zoe, I know it’s rude to call you ‘bule’ but what are some other things we do that are rude in America?” Finally I felt heard. Bu Indri was taking the time to really discuss my experience in Indo and I appreciate her interest and thoughtfulness SO much. I said, “Well… If you don’t know the person very well or you are just meeting them, it’s rude to ask how much money they make, the exact address and house where they live, where they are going, what religion they are, how much they weigh, if they are single. Commenting on any physical appearance is usually rude.” The ladies drank in everything I was telling them and, while they found some of our socially constructed manner rules silly, they maintained a satisfying level of respect. They are wonderful and I can’t wait for the next semester to start so I can see them everyday.


I finally got to cuddle with a chicken in Indo!!

Kartini, Conformity, and Kindness

Since I was terribly late in posting my last post (I ran out of internet for a few weeks. Indo problems.), here is a collection of funny stories that have happened over the past few months:

In March I was talking with some teachers at school and one of them excitedly says to me, “Miss, Pak So-and-so is getting married in April!” I turn to Pak So-and-so and I say, “Wow! Congratulations! Who are you marrying?” And Pak So-and-so gleefully responds, “I don’t know yet!” Lots of Indonesian marriages are arranged marriages, especially in rural villages. Very often people will wed their second cousins or slightly distantly related family members. Pak So-and-so’s parents had chosen a wife for him but they had not yet met (I don’t know if they were related or not).

On April 21st Indonesia celebrated Hari Kartini, a holiday devoted to a woman named Raden Ajeng Kartini, who was a pioneer for women’s rights in Indonesia in the late 1800s. (I highly recommend learning more about Kartini because she is fascinating. And she promoted a vegetarian lifestyle. 10 points for Kartini.) The way my school celebrated was fairly typical, the way most Indonesian schools celebrated. During our weekly flag ceremony, only female teachers participated instead of the male teachers (usually the flag ceremony is carried out by both male and female students, but only male teachers make announcements, lead prayers, and give speeches). All the female teachers dressed in the same outfits (pink shirts, of course, because we are women so we must wear pink), and all classes were cancelled and replaced with games and competitions. I was pleased to see the concept of women’s rights being celebrated. Of course there was never a discussion about women’s rights at my school, nor were any ideas or feminist theories brought up, but I’m glad Kartini and her contributions to Indonesia are acknowledged with a national holiday.

After a few traditional Indonesian carnival-style games, my school prepared for a soccer match. One might think that, since this is a holiday celebrating a woman who worked towards women’s rights in Indonesia, and since earlier in the day the events were run by female teachers and students, one might think that this soccer game would be all girls, or at least co-ed. But no. The soccer players were the male teachers. Male teachers wearing dresses. The way my school celebrated the importance of women’s rights was to have the male teachers wear dresses and “play soccer,” which was really just them prancing around pretending to be clumsy women who can’t kick a soccer ball without breaking a nail. All the students were laughing and enjoying the game, as I was standing in the doorway of the teacher’s room writing a list in my head of all the ways this activity was offensive.


10th graders standing in formation during the Hari Kartini flag ceremony


I think I need to take a moment to talk about conformity. A few weeks ago as I was entering my school campus at 7am, there were 2 female teachers standing at the gates ready to close them right at 7:00 sharp so they could write all the names of the late students. This is slightly humorous because Indonesians are notorious for being late due to “jam karet” or “rubber time.” Furthermore, most of the teachers are at least 10 minutes late to school everyday, and they don’t go to class on time. Ever. I’ve literally never seen a teacher go to class on time.

As I was walking through the gates I heard the teachers stop the boy walking behind me. “Where are your socks?” one of the teachers asked accusatorily. The boy replied, “I don’t have any today, Bu.” “Why not? Where are your socks?” “They are dirty, Bu.” “You must wear socks. Go home and come back with socks.” The boy was turned away from school because he did not have clean socks to wear. My heart ached with embarrassment for him (this berating happened in front of his peers) and I ached with silent frustration with the societal values expressed in this situation. This boy was now going to be late for class, maybe miss a test or an important lesson (although maybe not since his teacher would most likely be late too), all for what? To put on some dirty socks so he can look like all the other boys?

This brings me to uniforms. Ohhhh the uniforms. As a teacher, I have 5 different uniforms, and all the teachers wear the same uniforms on the same day. Mondays we wear green, Tuesdays beige, Wednesdays blue, Thursdays black and white, Fridays white and blue, and Saturday is “free but polite,” meaning you can wear any uniform you choose. (When I first started teaching I was specifically told that Saturday is “free but polite,” which I interpreted as, “don’t wear any tank tops or shorts or bathing suits to school, ya crazy American!”) We even have matching bright, lime-green tracksuits for when we do “fun walking.” Yeah, as you suspected, lime-green is super flattering on everyone. I dare you to find a better color for a thick, flannel material tracksuit. The students also have a different uniform for every day of the week. They will be punished by public humiliation if they wear the wrong uniform on the wrong day. Even though my students all wear the same clothes and the same shoes everyday (black allstars with white laces), I’ve noticed the tiny ways they express their individuality: My students will tie their shoelaces in different complex styles.


The top half of the Monday uniform.


You can glimpse our beautiful lime green uniforms here, modeled by some of the other teachers.










So much of Indonesian culture is about conforming and blending in. This is partly why being a non-Indonesian is so difficult sometimes. I stick out like a sore, hijab-less thumb. One of my female students is Christian but she wears a hijab at school. I asked her why she chose to wear a hijab when her religious views do not require her to do so. She told me, “Solidarity, miss!” I understand and appreciate the united, solidarity, “We Are One” concept that my school and Indonesia try to promote. But when you are raised in a community that celebrates diversity and promotes the freedom to choose how you dress and ultimately how you live your life, being in a culture of conformity is very disorienting. Differences are not celebrated here.


Some 11th grade boys sleep in class while the teacher arrives late. Maybe they should be learning or studying, but at least their uniforms look sharp!


I try to see myself as a role model here in Indonesia. I am constantly thinking about how my words and actions will effect my students, my teachers, and my community. I didn’t really think about how my actions might negatively effect my community until last week. Bu Yuyun’s family has always been interested in looking at my lower legs to see if I’ve recently shaved. They find it fascinating and they have no qualms about remarking, “Oh Tante! [they always call me Tante which means auntie] You’re hair is so long already, you must shave again!” Most Indonesian women don’t shave their legs. It’s just not a cultural thing they do here. Plus their legs are rarely seen so why would it matter if they had hair or not? Last week Bu Yuyun told me her 12-year-old daughter wants to start shaving her legs like Tante. My immediate reaction was “oh no!” I don’t want to introduce a new socially constructed beauty standard to my community. It’s completely unnecessary and sometimes a total pain in the butt. This was the first time I saw myself as a bad role model, directly negatively impacting this young girl. Although I guess negative and positive impacts are completely subjective and culturally constructed, so who am I to judge?

Another example of Indonesian kindness:

A few months ago I was going for a run through my desa near the rice fields. (That’s pretty ambiguous because everywhere in my desa is near a rice field.) I was running through a part of the desa that I don’t normally visit, so I was on the receiving end of some pretty incredulous stares. I heard a motorcycle slowing down behind me and 3 young girls on 1 motorcycle say, “Where are you going, Miss?” I say, “I’m just running on the road.” They say, “Do you want a ride?” as they squish together to make room for me on the back of the motorcycle. I say, “No thank you, I am running for exercise.” They accept my answer and ride away. A bit later I see them stopped on the side of the road waiting for me to catch up. When I get to them, they ask me the usual questions: where am I from, what am I doing here, how long have I been here, do I have a husband, how can they learn English fast, etc. If I take too long to think about some of these questions I can make myself crazy. What AM I doing here?? Where am I from?? Is this my real life or is my life in America my real life??

The girls’ last question was, “Where do you live and can we come visit your house to learn English?” I said yes, of course, anytime you are welcome to come. They said, “Right now?!” I said sure, but I want to finish my run. They said, “Miss, you will get so tired! Why don’t you just ride on the back of our motorcycle with us.” I said, “I like running. I like getting tired from exercise. It makes me healthy and strong” (a concept with which most Indonesians seem to be abhorrently against). They said, “Ok, then we will follow you to your home.”

So I finished my run with a motorcycle full of middle school girls trailing behind me. (Yes, kids here usually start driving their own motorcycles around age 11 or 12. Scary to our American eyes and brains, I know.) At one point I hear the sound of the motorcycle fade in the distance behind me. I keep running and listening to my music. A minute later the girls are back behind me and they call out, “Miss! Miss! Drink!” I look back to see they have bought me a huge bottle of water from the small stall on the side of the road. It was so sweet! They used their own money to buy this water for me after knowing me for about 5 minutes. This is a common experience for me in Indo, having strangers (and good friends too) buy things for me out of pure kindness or concern. It is something that constantly surprises me and reminds me of the goodhearted, random acts of kindness in the world. Although this doesn’t feel like a random act of kindness to Indonesians. This is just part of their extremely polite culture, and it seems obvious to them that they should buy food, drinks, or small gifts for others.


These are the shoes my dear (and very impoverished) neighbor surprised me with a few weeks ago because she knows I love animals. They are frog shoes. I love them.


Here are some sweet ducks! They get very confused when I run by them through the rice fields and sometimes they try to run along with me.


Reason #812 Why I Am Never Having Children

Reason #812 Why I Am Never Having Children:

I would be THE most obnoxious mother on the planet and nobody would ever want to talk to me ever. I’m already an overly-anxious, overly-doting mother of dogs and other furry and feathery creatures, and I’ve proved to be an overly-proud, overly-adoring teacher. Seriously, you all know how much I brag about my animals and my students. How awful would I be with my own children?? It would not be pretty.

A few weeks ago I attended a theater competition with about 30 of my students. We all piled into 2 small buses and drove from our school to Bandung. I enjoyed the front seat with one of my favorite 11th grade boys as we shared headphones and played each other our favorite music. When we arrived at the theater we marched up some very narrow staircases and made ourselves at home in the rehearsal room above the theater. This room was our “green room” and the hard cement floor also provided our bedding for the night. We talked, ate, sang songs, and I answered lots of questions about American high schools. Some students went to bed around 8pm, but we were supposed to do a run-through of our show at 10pm, so I chose to stay awake and talk with some of my kids. There were 2 other schools rehearsing that night and sleeping in the same room as us. You never really know the meaning “shared communal space” until you come to Indonesia.

When we finally began our run-through at midnight, I lasted for about 30 minutes and then made my way back upstairs to sleep. After a very uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night, I got up around 7am and ate breakfast with my students. The entire morning we sat around, talked, and took lots and lots and lots of pictures. They were all excited for their performance that afternoon, but I think I was the most nervous out of all of them. I am the ultimate stage mom/teacher.

Two of my PCV friends, Erica and Alan, came to watch my kids perform, which was incredibly nice of them. In the limited rehearsals I had seen, I had only watched the first half of the play. It was comical and my kids did a wonderful job with their expressions and comedic timing. Little did I know the second half of the play was entirely tragic. A high school girl becomes pregnant and her boyfriend is very mean to her and wants her to get an abortion, her friends are upset, her parents are sad and angry, and her father has a stroke. The play was written in Bahasa Sunda, the Sundanese language, so I understood maybe 1% of the dialogue. But the acting was surprisingly phenomenal, so I could understand everything that was happening in each scene. These kids were unbelievable. The plays that I had attended before were good, but they were “high school good.” This particular play and these particular actors were so spot-on, I felt like I was watching a professional show. I’m telling you, MY kids are the BEST.

Due to the heavy subject matter, there was lots of crying in the show, and I even choked up a bit in the audience, mostly because I had no idea my students had this much talent and I was so freaking proud of them! When the show ended and all the kids came out to bow, a few teachers from my school ran up to bow with them. I was pulled onstage for a bow too, even though I had barely anything to do with this show, I just came along for the ride and, as Indonesians would say, “to give spirit.” When I got up onstage, I saw all of my students were crying. Every single one of them. The actors, the stagehands, the musicians, the makeup artists. Every one of them had running noses, red eyes, and tears on their cheeks. I leaned over to one of my kids and asked, “Why is everyone crying?” She said, “Because it’s a very sad play, Miss.” We bowed and everyone migrated backstage.

Backstage was intense. All the polite sniffles and quiet tears that I saw onstage now turned into loud sobs and wailing. I hugged the girls and told them what an amazing job they did and how brilliant they all were. Some of the girls cried into my shoulder while I rubbed their arms and back. I could only shake the boys’s hands due to cultural appropriateness, but I wanted to wrap them in my arms and squeeze their adorable little tear-strewn faces. I had never seen such a hysterical scene like this in Indonesia before. I was quite shocked because crying is typically frowned upon in Indo, especially for boys. As I mentioned in blog posts before, Indonesians rarely show sadness or cry at funerals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the words “don’t cry” in Indo, told to young kids, my students, teachers, community members, and me. Crying is simply not a socially acceptable thing to do in public. Clearly, however, this was a space where my kids felt safe and comfortable with letting their emotions go. I was at once happy for them for having a good, hearty cry, and heartbroken for them that this was the one place where they could feel free and open.

I was so proud of my kids for working so hard and putting so much effort into this show and having it pay off in such a huge way. (I found out later we won 1st place!)  I was so happy for them, and also a little selfishly sad for me. I only get to spend 2 years with these amazing kids. I am only a miniscule part of their lives. I’m sad I can’t spend more time with them and truly get to know them. Even though I’m the interesting bule from the faraway land, there is a lot that I don’t understand here and so I cannot fully be there for them in the way I want to be. Watching them cry backstage made this sink in for me. These kids are so incredibly kind, enthusiastic, hilarious, and innocent. I never want them to lose that.

I think part of the reason why they were so affected by this play was because the subject matter hit very close to home. One of the teachers told me every year my school usually expels 4-5 girls because they get pregnant. There are many complex issues going on here that I don’t have time to delve into, but I’m sure the content of this show really resonated with my kids. It’s ok if they cry about an emotional play, but I never want them to cry because they are in a bad situation. I don’t want them to be corrupted by the harsh realities of adult life. I don’t want them to ever experience sadness or anger or disappointment or fear or worry. I don’t want them to ever lose their innocence or their enthusiasm or their passion. I want to communicate this to them but I can’t. At least not right now. First because my language still has a ways to go, and second because they are still young and innocent, they probably can’t understand the complexities of adulthood. Let’s be real, I’m an “adult” and I still don’t understand the complexities of adulthood.  I know I had little-to-nothing to do with this show, this competition, this situation, but I was incredibly honored to be included and to be a part of this experience.


Excitement before the bus ride


Excitement during the bus ride


“Theater kid” is a universal term for “slightly more crazy than everybody else”


action shot


some of my favorites

Blissful Ignorance: Motorcycles and Valentines


They say ignorance is bliss. Here in Indonesia, a truer word has never been spoken. When I ride my bike through my desa (village), or I run through the rice fields, I enjoy not knowing everything people are saying to me. I think people have generally grown accustomed to my presence in Cilamaya. Even if they have never spoken to me before, people know that there is a “bule” (foreigner) living here, so when they see me I am usually no longer met with stunned silence. When I run by my neighbors’ houses we smile and wave at each other. Sometimes they will ask where I’m going, or they will comment and tell me that I am running. Yes, yes in fact I am running, thank you for telling me. Every once in a while I’ll pass someone and get some shouts, or a truck full of farmers will pass and they will shout something at me as they drive by. I choose to believe that they are shouting curious, nonthreatening statements. But sometimes I can see from the smile on the driver’s face, or the kissy-lips a dude makes at me, that the sentiments are not always so innocent. This is where my blissful ignorance comes in. I can usually pretend I don’t see or don’t understand these dudes, and I ignore them and keep running. I know that if something were to happen and I was in a situation where I felt unsafe (knock on wood knock on wood knock on wood) there are plenty of neighbors around who know me and who could jump in and help me. I guess that’s the true feeling of integration.

Another benefit of being blissfully ignorant, is that I can get away with being rude or insensitive and chock it up to cultural differences or cultural ignorance. For example, there is a woman whom I have only met once in an overwhelming encounter in a city far away from my desa. She wanted to pick me up from my school and drive me to her city so that she could take me to her school and show me off as her very own prized American. The polite, Indonesian thing to do would be to smile and just go with this woman. And there are some days when I place myself in the polite Indonesian role. But sometimes I refuse to place myself in an uncomfortable situation, to be leered and gawked at by a ton of strangers. That is basically my life every single day in my desa, but I don’t mind it much anymore because I live here. I have friends and students and connections. I enjoy the cultural exchange that happens. Speaking at one school for a few hours, where I have zero social connections, being driven far away by a stranger to a place to be gawked at some more is sometimes just too much to ask. Maybe this sounds whiny and maybe you’re thinking I should grin and bear it. And I have. I have already spoken at a number of schools and it is always the same. I know the real reason people invite me to speak at their school is so they can show off the bule. I already undergo a significant amount of social stress at my own site, most days I can’t bring myself to facing a school of strangers. I also get SO many of these invitations, I know if I said yes to one I would be pressured to say yes to all. I politely declined this particular ibu. I was feeling a little guilty, I was hoping I didn’t offend her, but then I reminded myself of my blissful cultural ignorance. Since I am the bule, I can get away with being unknowingly culturally impolite for the sake of my safety and personal sanity.

A few months ago I made plans with one of the teachers at my school to go to her house for some bahasa Indonesia/English tutoring. This teacher’s name is Bu Nena and she is always cheerful, kind, and enthusiastic about everything. She is a new bahasa Indonesia teacher at my school and she speaks English quite well. We made plans to meet after school and I would follow her on my bike to her house. Bu Nena rides her motorcycle to school so I couldn’t ride with her. She said her house was about 5-10 minutes away from school.

I’m proud to say that I have gotten much more comfortable on my bike since I started riding here in June, but I was still nervous about riding long distances in areas with a lot of traffic (need I remind you of the infamous wrist-shattering of 2011?). So we leave school around 2:30pm, Bu Nena leading the way on her motorbike and me bringing up the rear in my geeky helmet and running shoes. I follow Bu Nena past Bu Yuyun’s house – my usual bike ride destination – past the field of rice being harvested, past the road where my school had the “fun walk,” past the apple sellers I rode to once, past the houses I’ve never ridden by, past the hair cutting places, over the bridge, past the intersection, past the bank, past the market, past the dentist, and finally we reach Bu Nena’s house about 30 minutes later. Bu Nena and her family are all laughing as they watch me pull my helmet off and they say, “Jauh! Jauh! Capai?” meaning “Far! It’s so far! Are you tired?” I jokingly chide Bu Nena and say, “that was not 5-10 minutes!”

Although I was sweating and panting I couldn’t help but be thankful for my blissful ignorance about the distance. If I had known exactly where Bu Nena’s house was, I would have thought it was too far and I would have opted for a different tutoring location, and I would not have met Bu Nena’s amazing family. I would have thought the ride was too long and too difficult and I would have doubted my ability. But since I was ignorant about the distance, I was blissful about riding my bike there. And I did it! This was a bike-riding milestone for me and I was rather proud of myself.

Speaking of riding bikes…

2 weeks ago I was hit by a motorcycle while riding my bike to Bu Yuyun’s house. I’m totally fine. It’s a long story, but basically it was a head-on collision but I was only really hit on my left side. I didn’t even fall to the ground. Luckily I walked away with only a bruise on my leg. The concerned Indonesians who witnessed the accident were shocked that I caught myself before falling, and that I wasn’t hurt worse. I told them it’s because I’m a very strong, healthy, vegetarian. I’ll fit in that animal rights info wherever I can J Thankfully, I am all healed up now and the desa seems to be over it, but the social aftermath of the accident was very stressful. There were so many different factors and questions and reports and witnesses, and it felt like one of those things that would never end. Things seemed to have quieted down now, hopefully.

Even a motorcycle can't take me down!

Even a motorcycle can’t take me down!

After this stressful experience, my day/week was made completely better by, of course, my adorable students. All week in all my classes I was teaching my students how to make valentines, since Valentines Day was this weekend. I had so much fun in each class talking about love, encouraging my students’ creativity, and reading their sweet, sentimental, witty, and sometimes hilarious cards. But by far the class that took the cake was one of my 11th grade classes. 4 boys decided to write valentines cards for ME! It was a total surprise and they were just about the best things I’ve ever read and totally helped me get out of my weird, stressed headspace. I was so happy and honored and touched.


3 of the adorable valentines culprits


“Dear Ms. Zoe, Happy Valentines Day I miss u forever, I need you always. Thank you for always you make me happy and funny you are amazing.”


One boy wrote a valentines to me on behalf of his entire class. Heart. Melting.


These 3 boys worked the most diligently on their valentines and took up the entire class period.


Notice the text of this valentine is an exact copy of another one. These boys were sitting next to each other and clearly copied each others work. Oh well. Still cute.

After finishing valentines, we had a few minutes before class ended, so we played a few rounds of hangman. I was the “answer person” who comes up with the sentences, as I usually am. But then 2 of my male students stood up and said, “Miss! Miss! We have an answer! We have an answer!” So they went up to the board and made me close my eyes while they wrote the letter placement holders. After a few minutes of guessing letters, their hangman sentence revealed itself: Miss Zoe you so beautiful. My heart did one of those things where it gets really tight and I just want to hug and squeeze every single one of those adorable kids and never let them go.


“Miss Zoe You So Beautiful” (we are still working on verb tenses…)


The boys working hard and being sneaky about their hangman answer