Thursday, October 8, 2009

Haircuts in School: The Highlight of My Week

A regularly scheduled weekly blog is officially out, as I am sure people have figured out quickly. I will likely end up posting about once a week and half, but it will be there when it shows up. Anyway, without further ado…

I have been in Surabaya for almost two weeks now. I am settling in nicely and trying to gather the courage to venture further than walking distance.

Last week on Tuesday, one of the school’s four vice-principals picked me up and took me to the teacher’s holiday party (celebrating the end of Ramadan). Everyone was very friendly, but there was a lot of talking in Bahasa (which I didn’t understand) and mostly I just sat there smiling. I am not entirely sure, but I think there was a religious comedian—I say this because he was clearly telling funny stories accompanied with laughter interspersed with what sounded like religious chanting. Towards the beginning, I introduced myself to the teachers in a mixture of English and Bahasa—which went over well. They served fish, but my counterpart knew I do not like fish, so they had some chicken especially for me.

After the party, I visited my counterpart’s home and met his wife, sons, and mother-in-law. His mother-in-law has a food stall in front of the house and they made me a plate of gado-gado. Gado-gado is a local dish that is a mixture of different things (lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, tofu, boiled eggs, etc)—the base is a rice concoction steamed in banana leafs. I liked it (but I ate around the tomatoes).

The next day (Wednesday) was my first day of school. It was also the first day back from holiday break. There was a flag ceremony in which I introduced myself to the students. Afterwards, it was time for the tradition of asking forgiveness for the past year’s transgressions. This involves a variation of shaking hands and young people generally perform it on elders. So, the teachers were in a line (me, too) and the 500 students streamed by shaking hands with us and then formed their own line at the end of the teachers to shake hands with each other. People shake hands all the time: to say hello and good-bye! Also, the children take the hand of an adult and lift it to their forehead, cheek, nose, or mouth (I have seen variations of each). At first, they just shook my hand, but one the teachers told them to do the bow, hand lift thing to me, so I think there is probably no getting out of it. It is cultural, but it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I know it is just a sign of respect, but it appears to my American sensibilities as a sign of superiority.

I am still just visiting school. I don’t start to teach until next week on Monday. On the second day (Thursday), I was observing the first class of the day, when one of the vice-principals came in with scissors. At first, she went around to the boys checking for bracelets—if they had one, she cut it off. So, I am feeling not very comfortable because in the States the bracelets would have been confiscated, not destroyed. Well, it was about to get worse. After cutting off the bracelets, she precedes to start chopping at the boys’ hair right there in the classroom if their hair was too long. Apparently, this is a weekly occurrence—I learned later that it generally occurs on Monday after the regular flag ceremony.

Another interesting tidbit is the list in the teacher’s lounge. There is a paper posted for all to see with everyone’s salary including any loans they have with the bank and/or school cooperative, what payments they owe (monthly amount and the number of payments left), and their take-home pay at the end of the month.

Everyone at the school is very nice. There are only squat toilets and only AC in the office (where I don’t spend a lot of time). Some of the classes get very hot. As I am riding to school at 6 am, the temperature is not too bad and it stays bearable until about 8 (by which time it is over 90). The poor students stay in one class and it must get really boring and hot. From the classes I have observed there is very little engagement of the students and it is too easy for weaker students to just fall by the wayside. (On the every cloud has a silver lining side, I am hopeful that the low standards for classroom excitement will make anything I do great fun.)

On Monday morning, I tried the bemo (the local name for angkots, public transportation) for my trek to school. One of the household helpers went with me on the trip. We got on one on the nearest main road, and then we got off and walked to a nearby terminal. We got on another bemo and then waited. Often at terminals, the driver will wait for a full van—fortunately, the driver only a few minutes and we headed out. We picked up several ore passengers along the way, but we were going at a very slow pace. Soon we stopped altogether. The driver got out and stuck a stick in his gas tank—guess what? We were out of gas. So, here we are blocking traffic and the driver is running down the road off to buy gas. About this time, I receive a text message from my counterpart asking when I am coming to school. Back runs the driver carrying several glass bottles and part of a hose attached to a funnel. After a few tense moments, he hops back in and attempts to start the bemo. Yes, I used the word “attempt” because, of course, the vehicle would not start. But after several tries and maybe a few prayers, we are on our way again. After this experience, I have decided to avail myself of the motorbike rides offered by school. I get door-to-door service, but have to be at school when it opens and stay until the end, even if I don’t strictly need to be there for classes (but I figure that is part of the job, the other teachers have to be there). Overall, the motorbike is faster and far less hot. Also, I only need to pay for gas money every week, rather than worry about having enough small bills everyday for the bemo. (But not to worry, I have a helmet and the drivers go slower with me riding).

Although I live in a very nice part of Surabaya, it is mostly a residential area—so there are not a lot of easy, cheap transportation close by (at least that I can easily figure out). I think sometime soon, one of the helpers is going to ride the bemo with me again, so I can figure it out some of the routes.

My birthday was very nice. I have received several of the cards I know are coming. (I will let you know when I receive a card, if you sent one.) One Sunday, several of the local ETAs came to visit and one made me a cake—it was a great surprise.

Some observations. I am sure that everyone knows that rice is a staple of the Indonesian diet. Well, heaven forbid that I should not want rice with lunch or dinner. I have had noodles for dinner a few times and one of the helpers always ask why I do not have rice, too. I try to explain that noodles are enough—I don’t think trying to explain carbohydrates would go over very well.

Everyone at school knows this one English phase that they have been saying to me since the teacher’s party—it is “I love you ____.” It is from some famous Indonesian singer. At first, I thought they were saying “I love you beautiful” which I thought was very nice. But then I realized that the word was not that long and thought it was “I love you fool.” Which did not strike me as quite as nice, but I know that it was just a phase that they knew. Well, just two days ago I learned that the phase is actually “I love you full,” which is back to nice. Someone says that to me at least twice a day.

Dogs are not considered clean animals in Muslim culture, so they are not frequently kept as pets. But some people do have them. Anyway, I have seen a few strays and they are all purebreds—dogs that would cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in the States. It struck me as strange, but I quickly realized that only the wealthy would keep dogs as pets and of course they would buy purebreds. So, I guess they were some abandoned rich family’s pet. However, there are cats everywhere. Not really kept as pets, just wondering around after scraps.

During the classes I have observed, the teacher often offers the students the chance to ask me questions. I have received the standard questions: what’s my favorite movie, song, band, actor, etc; where am I from; where do I live in Surabaya, etc, etc. The two most interesting questions are: Is America or Indonesia better? (Not sure if this wording is a miscommunication or a serious cultural idea—I answer by saying one is not better than the other, just different) and the kicker was received today: What do I think of Malaysia stealing Indonesian culture? So, if you are unaware, there is some bad blood between Malaysia and Indonesia over which country and people are the true owners of certain cultural things prevalent in the area. Last month, the UN cultural something or other, officially proclaimed batik (which is a traditional method of fabric dying using wax—which is very popular here) to belong to Indonesia’s cultural heritage. Of course, claiming ownership is not an easy matter and the area saw so much trade and sea travel during its long history, but I think I will avoid a discussion of the evolution of culture and how aspects can belong to multiple to people without theft being involved because it is a very serious matter here. (But no worries, I lived in Baltimore for two years where the mention of the Indianapolis Colts could cause serious hard feelings, so I know how to avoid certain topics).

There are also a lot of bugs here. I am pretty lucky because the helpers here stray the indoors and take care of any infestations (unlike many of the other Fulbrighters who must take care of their own bug problems). But there is a courtyard set-up here and the primarily restroom and shower is somewhat outdoors (in that I have to walk outside to get to it and it is open on the side, but there are doors) and bugs crawl up into the area occasionally. The ants are not awful, there are lots, but they are little. The yucky one is, I am pretty sure, some kind of cockroach, but I are calling them beetles because it makes me feel better. (You can call me silly if you want but semantics comforts me). Anyway, these “beetles” have accompanied me to the restroom and once in the shower. It is not pleasant, but I have survived. But today, I innocently sat down to take care of some “business” and turned the toilet paper roll and there, pretty as you please, crouched a “beetle.” Well, that was just a little too much for me; I can handle them on the floor but not any higher. I quickly vacated and, just like a squeamish girl, asked one of the helpers to get rid of it for me.

Cassandra’s Firsts:
First time to ride a motorbike of any kind (I never did in the States, but they are more prevalent here). First time I witnessed a classroom in a foreign country (Makes me appreciative of American schools. Unfortunately, if students are not involved in class or do not do the work, they are labeled as lazy—it is never considered that they may not to understand or that the teacher has failed to engage them). First time to try so many foods I cannot even keep count (people at school frequently bring in food for others to share and I have no idea what exactly many of the things I have tried in the last two weeks actually are). First time to see a school official cut a student’s hair (Wow, I had no idea what to do when it started happening).

Here is a list of foods I know I have tried: boiled bananas (not bad, pretty sure it is a special kind that gets boiled), papaya (I actually don’t like it, but it is suppose to help certain stomach issues that I am currently having, so I am forcing it down—it is getting easier), all kinds of things made of rice, soto (which I thing is some kind of soup, but good), red and black soup (both have Indonesian names which escape me right now)—and countless other things that people stuck in front of me and asked me to try.

Well, that is all for now. Not sure when my next blog post will be—likely sometime late next week. Hope all is well for everyone in the States. Sampai Jumpa (Good-bye).

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