Friday, March 19, 2010

But, Miss Sarah, How Did You Get Here?

I love running into teachers and students outside of school. It doesn't happen that often, but occasionally I'll be walking down the aisle at the grocery store and I'll hear a shocked little voice from behind me, "Miss?" [Miss is always pronounced like 'meeeeess' in an impressively high pitch] Or someone will walk by my favorite bakmi waroeng and do an abrupt about-face at the sight of me eating my noodles. Or I'll climb onto an angkot and be greeted by a curious chorus of "Miss, mau ke mana?" by my students. It happens when I'm just taking a walk on the road that the school is on. It doesn't matter where I am, the reaction is always the same -- complete surprise. The general opinion is clearly that I do not exist off of school grounds. They are tentative at first, is this really Miss Sarah or is it a different bule that just looks suspiciously like her...are there any other bule in Magelang? Once the initial shock wears off and they realize that it is indeed their Miss Sarah that they are seeing; they all want to know three things:
1. What am I doing? What I'm doing is usually obvious and boring -- eating lunch, buying groceries, buying pulsa, etc. There isn't anything all that exciting to do in Magelang.
2. How did I get here? My two options for response are always either I took an angkot or I walked. Both seem to shock people. They are impressed that I know how to use the angkots, which actually is quite a feat. They are appalled that I walk anywhere -- don't I realize how hot it is in this country? I know it's hot, but I'd rather walk 5 miles in the heat than try to ride a motorcycle through Indonesian traffic.
3. Am I really alone? Yes, I'm alone. No, I am not scared. Indonesians do not like to do things alone so my independence leads to lots of remarks about how brave I am. I'm not brave really, I just have things to do and when I'm capable of doing them by myself I don't want to bother anyone to accompany me.
After I have satisfactorily answered their questions, they are so happy to see me. First, they are excited that I am enjoying their hometown. Usually this encounter also gives them the opportunity to introduce me to someone, which gives them celebrity status for a few minutes.
I always leave these encounters energized and smiling. Yes, I am brave! Yes, I am smart because I can use the angkots! Yes, my Bahasa Indonesia is good enough to order my lunch! Yes, I do know my way around [kind of]! Yes, I am a resident of this city! Yes, I do know people here! Yes, I can make people happy when I run into them unexpectedly!
I hope you're having a Yes! kind of day too!


  1. Sas,
    Children all over the world find it hard to believe that their teachers are "real" people, that eat, socialize and have a life outside of school... More than once, I've had little ones following me around the grocery store watching closely what I put in my cart.
    I am counting the days until perhaps we'll have a surprise encounter with your fellow teachers or students in Magelang... Not only do you have a life outside of school, but a Mom, a Dad and a Big, little brother...
    Love and Miss you,

  2. A very good post. I'm sure your students love being able to impress their friends that they know a real foreigner who's also friendly and likes to do Indonesian things in her free time. You must be a hit with your kids.

    People in Chicago who teach middle and high school tell me their students are stunned to see them anywhere at all in the real world. They think, as I probably did when a teenager, that teachers just haunt schools.

    My college students, however, don't seem surprised to run into me in Chicago as long as it's an ethnically neutral place, but they are surprised when they bump into me in some place that doesn't scream Americana. I hang out at a Chinese bakery, and my East Asian adult students are always surprised to find me there. If I happen to run into any Latino students in a couple of weeks on the Good Friday Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) in Pilsen, they too will be astounded.

  3. This is so true! 7 months later I still get all of the above. It cracks me up! "Miss, you take angkots?! And can say 'kiri'." Woooow!

    People cannot believe that we live alone. Sometimes they scare me because they make such a big deal out of it. Maybe I shouldn't live alone... hehe