Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lessons Indonesia has taught me, truths Indonesia has made me appreciate

I've told you that a lot gets lost in translation, but here are some lessons and truths that shine through any language or cultural barrier.
1. The meaning of generosity: Indonesians take generosity to the next level. In terms of money, most Indonesians are relatively poor. I make more in a week than many of the teachers at SMKN 1 Magelang make in a month (and it's not like I'm making a fortune...I'm paid far below the U.S. poverty line). Yet, my Indonesian friends and colleagues are always giving. I am invited to lunch almost every day, and no matter how much I argue, I'm never allowed to pay. I told one teacher that I love mangoes. I now have 13 mangoes (4 different varieties!) in my refrigerator. All the teachers that had trees in their yards brought me mangoes! Indonesian generosity stretches far beyond money. I am amazed by how much time everyone has given me. People will stay after school to take me to the grocery store, they will take a two hour lunch to chat, they will draw me maps by hand so I don't get lost at school, etc. I am constantly in awe and full of gratitude for all that I am given.
2. The early bird gets the worm: This maxim has a whole new meaning in Indonesia. I swear, no one sleeps here. First of all, school starts at 7:00. For me, that is a little rough...and I live at school. Many of the teachers live up to two and a half hours away...and take public transportation to school! Moreover, the majority of teachers are Muslim and get up for 4:30 a.m. prayer every day...they don't go back to sleep afterwards! So, you're now thinking that they must go to bed super early. Wrong! I go to bed around 9:00 p.m. so that I can function when I have to get up at 6:00 a.m.. All of the Indonesians think I'm crazy; they stay up until 11:00 or 12:00. Yet, every day they are so friendly and chipper!
3. Everyone, everywhere, loves children: Whenever I'm in a situation where I don't know what to say or I don't have the language to talk about what I want to, I always revert to talking about children. It is a universally happy topic. It hardly ever fails because it seems like everyone I've met is married and everyone who is married has at least one child. It is also amazing how long you can drag out a conversation about someone's kids. People are also tickled when I tell them that I think Indonesian babies are way cuter than American babies.
4. A smile is a universal language: When in doubt, smile. When happy, smile. When upset, smile. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much, but I keep getting compliments on how friendly I am. If all else fails and you can't communicate at all (like with my maid who speaks Javanese), just smile. It's amazing how much you can convey by flashing some teeth. And it is amazing how many wonderful friendships start with just a shy little smile.
5. The secret to youthfulness is laughing: Indonesians look so young! They have made it a game at school to have me guess how old everyone is. It is funny because I'm usually off by 5-10 years. I swear, one man claims to be 31 and he looks younger than my 18 year old brother. What is the secret to their youthfulness? Indonesians laugh all the time...almost as much as they smile. And these aren't just little chuckles. They laugh big belly laughs. They laugh until they cry. I swear, it keeps them young. Really, I don't know, but I'm practicing my belly laughs just in case my theory is correct.
6. The most powerful thing in the world is the ability to communicate: Communication is something that we take for granted in our everyday life. It is only when we lose the ability to successfully express ourselves that we realize how important it is for our mental health to be able to tell other human beings how we feel, what we need, etc. and reciprocally to be able to understand what other people are telling us they feel and want. I have a new awed understanding of the frustration that Max, the non-verbal 3 year old with autism that I worked with at Colgate, feels every day. This experience has reaffirmed my desire to be a speech language pathologist and my belief in the beauty of the work that they do. If you can give someone the skills for a successful communication episode, you give them one of the biggest gifts imaginable.
7. The simplicity of the name "Sarah": Today I met a man whose name is 57 letters long. Kindergarten must have been a very rough year for him. Don't ask me what his name is...I didn't stop and wait for the 5 minutes it would have taken me to write it down.
8. The definition of tedious: Is, in fact, picking 2 millimeter long bugs out of a 10 kilo bag of rice. Nothing keeps all bugs out, nothing kills them all. I've learned that you want to have lizards in your house because they eat the nasty little bugs. In the end, bugs don't kill, they've also taught me the lesson of acceptance.
Stay tuned for more words of wisdom learned on this small cluster of islands...


  1. Sas,
    You've learned so much in just over a month... Just imagine what the next 8 will teach you... and what you, in turn, will give to your new friends... I look forward to experiencing the islands, culture and people (especially the kids!) with you.
    Love & Miss You,

  2. Sas,
    Great blog! Sounds like you are having the experience of a life time. Miss you tons!

  3. This is a beautifully written post, Sarah. Our family is learning so much too by following your many adventures through this blog. I frequently show my children, Grace and Jack, pictures from your blog so they can see what life in Indonesia is like and how it is the same, yet very different, from our life here in Maine. Grace often finds a map or a globe, points to Indonesia and says, "That's where Sarah is!" You have become quite famous in our household! When you return from Indonesia next year I really hope we can get together so that you can teach Grace and Jack (and myself) more about the Indonesian culture. Thank you for sharing your adventures with all of us.

    Rebecca Leger

    P.S. I am so happy to hear that you have decided to become a speech-language pathologist. Your experiences in Indonesia so far have taught you far more than anything you will learn in Graduate school.

  4. I mean I do look pretty old.