Kotor Tapi Cantik

Confession: I do not know how to clean my tub. The seemingly 500 gallon water basin that humbly resides in the corner of my bathroom delivers daily mocks and taunts with its tainted crimson, mosquito infested water and rust-colored ring of what can only be described as perpetually-moist-muck-that-must-somehow-be-imported-from-the-gator-infested-shores-of-Louisiana-because-the-texture-and-the-smell-both-scream-swamp. My enemy of a tub has no apparent plug in its massive underbelly, leaving me perplexed as to how to empty the darn thing to clean it out. Tactic one- dump the whole tub over. While quick and efficient, I could not bring myself to utilize this strategy due to my fear of initiating a Shining-esque bloodbath-flooding-my-halls-and-oh-goodness-creepy-twins scene, or, in a (slightly) less melodramatic version, creating a Noah’s Ark worthy deluge, and alas, I have not yet found an ark big enough to securely hold my myself, my neighbors, or their three cats while I merely attempt to clean my own bathroom fixtures. Tactic two, using the minuscule measuring cup of a bucket that serves as my tub’s companion, empty the villainous tub and its murky contents one tablespoon at a time. Picturing myself hovered over my tub for days, weary from the exhaustion of scooping droplet after droplet out of the basin, I quickly ruled out Tactic 2 and began to accept my fate of perpetually filthy water. I mean, it’s totally cool to take a bucket shower with mosquito’s, right? They make killer accessories when they get trapped in my humidity-mangled hair. And I have heard swamp smell is like the new Chanel No 5, so no worries on the odor front.

Regretting my creature-from-the-swamp look/smell, I begrudgingly asked my counterpart at school how to clean the tub and was informed that Tactic 2, while odious, is the favored basin-cleaning strategy of Indonesia. Saving the task for a day when I had more courage to face my rival (aka, procrastinating), I went off in favor of exploring my site and the nearby attractions. Infused with more energy, I returned, measuring cup in hand, ready to face my foe head-on only to find that, surprisingly,  my tub, my villainous antagonist, was already clean. After pushing away mystified thoughts that perhaps I had a self-cleaning tub, I contacted my counterpart, thanking her for contacting someone to clean my apartment for me and delivering profuse apologies for my messiness.  Finding amusement in my ‘naïve-bule-who-doesn’t-know-how-to-clean-her-own-tub’ ways, she issued a gentle, dancing laugh of ‘kotor tapi cantik’- ‘messy but beautiful’. My lifestyle, my apartment, my time in Indonesia- all are messy, yet beautiful. Three simple words issued as a joke between friends have somehow managed to reflect the entire spectrum of experiences that I have encountered in Indonesia. From the intrinsic factors such as culture shock, family emergencies, and cross-cultural relationships to the more superficial, external variables such as my cleaning abilities and the crumbling appearance of Medan itself, all are messy and flawed, yet all are beautiful. Beauty is not found in perfection, but rather, is found in originality, in the flaws and difficulties which give our lives and surroundings character and meaning, that serve as a bridge of connection with the world around us. Without messiness, we fail to appreciate beauty, and without beauty, we contain no hope to pull ourselves out of the mess and darkness that surrounds us. Beauty and chaos, intertwined and interdependent- ‘kotor tapi cantik’.

Through the Eyes of a Tourist

I am usually a happy person. Not a confident person, nor a trusting person, or even an outgoing person, but usually a happy person all the same. Usually. Usually. Usually. I say this word because this champagne sparkle of a trait, this glimmering, defining characteristic of my entire being, has been noticeably absent for the past months. The illusory little voice that lives inside my head (or as normal people call it, my brain) was able to convince myself that this lack of my usual optimism was attributed to  the grief that I felt at my mother’s passing, but if I am being honest with myself (Muahaha- take that brain. Don’t try to fool me, sucker!) I was unhappy even before that event which has so strongly defined these recent weeks. Confession: I never fully settled into Medan. Yes, I established a routine. Yes, I built relationships with fellow teachers and students from my school, and yes, I was a successful, passionate teacher in the classroom. And yet none of these accomplishments have rooted me to the city, my city. The sudden 2-ton crimson brick wall of awareness hit me today as I was taking a 4 hour stroll through Medan- I have never allowed myself to be a tourist in my own city. I came to Medan with the intention to be a professional teacher, to make this bustling, less-than-verdant city my home. So I skipped the typical Stage 1 of re-rooting your life- the sense of absolute wonder and amazement that one feels upon exploring a new place, and upon realizing that this magical heaven will be their new home. I relocated to Medan with the logic that I would be living here for 9 months, so I must try as quickly as possible to integrate myself into my school and community, to set up consistency and a routine. I did not allow myself time to explore, time to grow awestruck with my surroundings (and to be fair, the surroundings themselves may have contributed to my failure to feel inspired. Cars, trash, buildings, motorcycles. Not exactly the exotic Indonesia I was hoping for…)  Enter this weekend: Forgoing all logic and rational thought, I decided to go on a series of 4 hour strolls through the city, looking at Medan through the eyes of a tourist, photographing every little thing, (garbage/stray cats/cemeteries/bananas/more garbage/ mosques/temples/churches/random object that I have no idea what purpose it serves but it looks awesome so I am going to take a photo anyway) I perceived to be beautiful or unique. And simply put, I found my happiness again, my sense of wonder, little stray bubbles of excitement. Exploring my city as a tourist has allowed me to feel the charm of its native citizens, the distinctive culture of each neighborhood, and to understand and feel connected with my home in Indonesia. Part of this newfound connection is the result of the city itself, but a fraction of this novel enthrallment with Medan is the process of capturing life. Photography has always given me a sense of control. I have power over what I photograph, how to portray it, how to let the image serve as (or fail to serve as) a reflection of myself. Photography gives me choice, it gives me control, it gives me power, while reminding me to be inspired by the beautiful chaos of the world spinning wildly around me. Photography is my happiness, and to explore this happiness, to root myself to my city, I am starting a photography project, “Through the Eyes of a Tourist”, where I catalog my city as a tourist would, with anticipation, with enamor, and with joy- with the intention of discovering my own happiness through art and exploration. In “Through the Eyes of a Tourist”, it is my goal to capture the distinctive life, voice, and culture of Medan by walking through the city for at least 5 hours each week, using photography to portray the street life and scenery of my freshly discovered city of happiness.

The Slump

I understood when I booked my ticket that returning to Indonesia would be a challenge, that having my family halfway across the world would take its toll psychologically and spiritually, that expressing an uncomfortable state of grief in a culture not my own would prove difficult. What I did not expect, however, is that these challenges would result in such irrepressible frustration on my end. I find annoyance in every little interruption to my day, in any potential deviation from the lesson or event that I had planned out. I become aggravated to the point of tears when my co-teachers fail to show up to class, despite the fact that since my very first day at school, they were about as present in the lesson as water-buffalo on Mars. I grow enraged in a tantrum-esque battle with my water-pump as my faucet once again fails to manufacture any indication of a liquid substance, producing instead only a taunting gurgling sound. I immaturely huff a sigh of nuisance and restrain myself from revealing one-specific finger in a particularly American gesture as the men on my street perform their usual jeers and signals as I walk home. In examining my anger, however, I have realized that all of these sources of frustration, whether it be my relationships at school, the crowded angkot rides home, or even general irritation with the hot weather itself, are consistent. They were present when I left Medan, and they are present when I arrived back- they remain unwavering. It is I that have changed. It is I that have let my negative ‘My-mom-died-and-then-my-dog-died-and-I-feel-like-I-am-losing-everything-I-love-and-now-I-am-halfway-across-the-world-What-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-myself-Now-I-am-questioning-the-meaning-of-life-and-existence-and-am-angry-with-whoever-is-creating-these-challenges-for-me-and-all-I-want-to-do-is-curl-up-in-a-ball-and-cry-and-eat-and-sleep-except-minus-the-eating-because-I-have-no-appetite’ attitude consume my identity. I have become enveloped in a dense cloud of gray and have let my challenges define my outlook on life. I have failed to remember that I have control, that I can choose to look for the positive, that I can find the glimmer in life despite the grayness that surrounds me. So, to remind myself that I am capable of finding the beauty and sparkle in my existence, and simply to spite the grimness that has consumed me this past month, I have decided to end this blog post with 5 things that I found special about today:

1) The blue sky. I know that for those living in America this may not seem like anything special, but for those of us residing in the smog-infested urban cities of overpopulated Indonesia, blue skies are a rare treat.

2)  Coffee. I do not typically define myself as one who needs caffeine to get the ball rolling in the mornings, mostly because I generally wake up with more energy than the Tasmanian Devil, but the creamy little coffee-juice-boxes here have grown to become the highlight of my morning routine.

3) Friendship. Despite my tendency to erratically burst into tears at any given moment this past month, my friends have still decided that I am worth keeping around (or else, are doing a stellar job of stealthily, gradually purging my neurotic self from their lives. The trick is on you, suckers, ‘cause this frenetic gal is around to stay *crazy eyes*).

4) Ice cream. I have decided that if ice-cream cannot make me feel better, momentarily, at least, then nothing can. No matter how lacking my appetite has grown, I can always manage to scarf down some of this creamy deliciousness.

5) Writing. When I began this blog post, I was consumed with all of the frustrations of the day. ‘Oh my gosh, my water is not working AGAIN, and now my computer is broken, and why is this woman sitting on my lap in this angkot? Can’t she see that it’s full? And just where-oh-where-have-my-coteachers-gone-oh-where-oh-where-can-they-beeeeee? And no, I cannot lead this lesson by myself because I haven’t been here for a month and don’t even know what topic my students are on, and no, I will not, instead of giving a lesson, talk about my dead mom and her funeral in America, and no, I do not want you to ask the students if they have any questions about my loss, and why can you not see that my grief is not the opportune moment for an English lesson? And I wonder if this is what going crazy feels like, this acute sensation that the heavy feelings in your gut and the whirling thoughts in your mind are not your own, that someone much darker than you has temporarily misplaced them there, but now here they are, rooting, reaching, festering, and these mislaid thoughts of another slowly turn into your own actions and your own emotions, and you are left wondering where you stop and the other takes over. And now I am frustrated and I feel sick and I am crying in the front of my class and I look like an idiot and I feel like an idiot and I am an idiot because teaching is the only thing that brings me happiness and I can’t even do that correctly right now and the universe is conspiring against me and I am overwhelmed and I am still crying,  and I want to go home,  not to America home, but to my house in Medan home, because America is too far and I really just need some chocolate and a nap and WHY AM I STILL CRYING?, or, in the wise words of my best friend, WHY IS THERE FLUID LEAKING FROM MY EYES?’ But now that I have channeled all of these frustrations into a cohesive (but perhaps not-too-articulate-or-sane) source and they no longer exist as a mind-clutter akin to space junk, I feel more at peace. I have the regrettable belief that I will find these frustrations again, but I also have the not-so-regrettable sense of calm in knowing that I can overcome these aggravations to find the beauty in my life.


I once believed weight to be an objective measurement of the mass of an object or being, but given recent weeks, I have redefined weight as anything but objective. Weight is a fluid and changing dance, dependent on complex balances of variables such as environment, time, emotion, and past experience. When I am alone and clouded by thoughts of the loss of my mom followed by the loss of my dog, and my difficulties in having my emotions understood and validated by a culture so different from my own, I seemingly weigh 500 pounds. This hollow, nauseating weight rests deeply within the core of my gut like a stone, growing larger and larger as its contagion spreads throughout the entirety of my body and mind. My limbs drag as they attempt to accomplish the most menial of tasks. Even my eyelids feel heavy as they wearily scan the bleak environment around me. But when I am in the classroom surrounded by beaming students, the stone in my gut shrivels into a gleaming glass pebble, and I am as weightless and as free as a balloon gliding against the backdrop of crisp azure summer skies. My spirit and soul bounce with joy and excitement. A ping-pong match of smiles scatters across the room- my students making me smile, and then my goofy smile, in return, sparking amusement on the faces of my precious little jesters. My weight varies from day to day, from minute to minute. Within one body exists the possibility of unbearable heaviness, but also the potential for a lightness which knows no bounds- it remains up to me to choose my dominant weight.

An Alphabet of Emotions

Happy. Hostile. Hungry. Hopeful. Hyper. A recent joke with a friend centered on my tendency to exhibit emotions/ states of being beginning exclusively with the letter ‘H’. However, with the recent passing of my mother and my subsequent arrival back in America, the past few hectic (yes, I had to throw another ‘H’ word-hectic- in there) weeks have held an entire alphabet of varying mental states (As a disclaimer, the following post will be more informal, raw, and possibly uncomfortable than the traditional blog format):

  1. Adrift- Imagine Disney Pocahontas surrounded by the chaotic swirl of pastel autumn leaves as she ‘paint[ed] with all the colors of the wind’. Now, switch out each leaf with some cruel form of a grief-related emotion swirling around my sentiment-ridden mind, and you’ve got my current psychological state, adrift in a frenzy of emotions.
  2. Bare- I generally try to hide my emotions with an impermeable veil of happiness for fear of making myself vulnerable, but recent events have allowed me to show my most honest and exposed emotions without hesitation, fear of judgment, or restraint. I remain bare for the world to see. Behold the ugly cry.
  3. Connected- The loss of a family member is inherently connecting. The raw pain of the event serves as a unifying bond between all who knew the deceased and a jilting reminder to appreciate your remaining loved ones. Tears serve as a stream of not only sorrow, but connection, a collective pool of unifying emotion.
  4. Distracted- I remain wholeheartedly convinced, despite all logic and supplementary knowledge, that I can distract myself from the surging waterfall of emotions that  floods my spirit by watching 8 consecutive seasons of Gilmore Girls while eating an entire bag of Pepper Jack Cheez-Its.
  5. Estranged- Estranged from myself; estranged from others. There becomes a point when one becomes so overwhelmed by sadness and loss that they detach from everyone and let the numbness triumph over them just so they can bear to continue.
  6. Future Oriented- Met with the sudden reminder of mortality, I am now challenged with the notion of re-planning my future. Will I relocate to be closer to the family that I have remaining? Will I continue to explore/travel the world, with such a costly distance from my loved ones? My goals for the future have not yet been altered, but have been drastically challenged and questioned, leaving me with an alarmingly unplanned future.
  7. Guilty- I was half-a-world away when my mother passed. My guilt-ridden mind insists on reviewing the timeline of recent years and my involvement with my family, and the single word that comes to mind is “away”. Away at school, away in Thailand, away in Indonesia. For the past six years of my life, I have been away on some challenge or adventure, during which I sacrificed time with my family. Despite the rationalization that I could not have expected the outcome of these past weeks, I cannot help but feel burdened with guilt when faced with the fact that I was not there for my family, that I will not regain those years with my mother.
  8. Hungry- My favorite ‘H’ word. I have discovered the true meaning of the term ‘comfort food’. I have ravenously inhaled everything from macaroni to fried chicken to gallons of coffee ice cream to dozens of cookies, washed down with a side of pizza and a liter of soda….and that’s just breakfast. Let’s just say I may have to book two seats for my return flight to Indonesia, because I’m fairly sure my waist-line cannot handle the quantities of creamy chocolate and delicious fried goodies that I am consuming.
  9. Insignificant- The world keeps changing, turning, growing, in spite of who enters and who leaves. How can one help but feel insignificant when the world remains indifferent to the passing of one who was so considerable in not only your own life, but to the strength and spirit of her community, as well? In this constant stream of chaos and beauty, what impact can we who are so small, truly make?
  10. Jilted- Of my entire alphabet of emotions, this one remains the closest to anger. I cannot help but thinking of all of the events that my mother will miss: my sister’s wedding and college graduation, the birth of her first grandchildren, the opportunity to see me off to my next adventure, family holidays and celebrations. There is an endless flow of events that she was supposed to be here for, and I feel cheated by time that she is no longer here to witness these occasions.
  11. Knotted- In spite of the constant state of hunger and search for comfort-food that has settled in, my gut remains twisted and knotted into a heavy state of disbelief and anxiety as I recall the death of my mom, met with a fresh wave of sorrow that accompanies the memory each time.
  12. Lethargic- Emotions make ya tired, nuff said. Whether it be from jet-lag or a constant state of ‘on-the-verge-of-a-complete-mental-breakdown’, a quick nap suddenly turns into a 14 hour coma.
  13. Motivated- In direct contrast to the lethargy mentioned above, I have also been hit with a wave of energy and motivation, which has manifested itself in daily runs and jogs around the community. I sincerely doubt that this favorable behavior will persist, but for now, my habitual jogs in the crisp fall weather remain welcome.
  14. Numb- This feeling is tricky. It’s often difficult to tell if one is feeling too many emotions all at once, or just nothing at all. One settles into this gray haze of numbness and detachment that actually serves as a welcome relief from the constant pain of the reminder of one’s loss.
  15. Open- This is the first event in my life that I have felt assuredly convinced that I could not handle on my own. I strive to be self-reliant and independent, but the emotional stress of the past few weeks has allowed me to open up and share my feelings, and thus vulnerabilities, with those around me.
  16. Paralyzed- The overwhelming quantity of emotions have left me feeling paralyzed, unable to make basic decisions or to complete the most menial of tasks.
  17. Questioning- I suppose the tendency to question the order of the universe and the presence of a higher, omniscient being is common in times of emotional chaos. The past two weeks have left me questioning my meaning in life, the overall purpose of humanity, the definition and role of death, and the presence and planning of God.
  18. Reminiscent- Everything, whether it be from a silly Velveeta box to a song on the radio, in some way serves as a fresh and raw reminder of my mother and a special experience or memory that we shared together.
  19. Shocked- Despite her being gone for two weeks, there is still a piece of me that does not actually believe that she is dead. I keep waiting for her to come downstairs from one of her long naps, to come home and find her sitting at the computer, playing her favorite game of Solitaire, freshly returned from a marathon shopping trip. I live in a constant state of shock as I have to remind myself daily that she is forever gone.
  20. Temporary- The sudden death of a loved one forces you to confront the fleeting aspect of life. Life, love, friends, family, can vanish in a single second, ripped away without known cause, meaning, or purpose.
  21. Unprepared- No matter how old or how ill an individual grows, one can never truly prepare for the loss of said person, or the hole that they will leave in your spirit.
  22. Veering- Whenever a consistent ‘known’ or persistent individual in your life is suddenly torn away, the world is left a little more chaotic. The search for order and for meaning becomes more challenging, and you are left on a veering course of discovery while searching for personal truth.
  23. Wondering- Is there an order to who dies when? Is there a purpose for grief and loss? Life-altering events leave you with an unrestrained sense of wonder as you are forced to re-evaluate that which gives order and meaning to your life.
  24. X Rayed- Bare, vulnerable, open, unrestricted. Sorrow and grief take the most honest, uninhibited versions of yourself and display them for the world to see.
  25. Yelling- Okay, so this one is more of a verb than an emotional expression, but in my defense, there is an extremely limited number of emotion-related words that begin with the letter ‘Y’, so here goes: I am an advocate for constructively expressing challenging emotions, so in the face of the past two weeks, I have taken to driving with my sister and my best friend to a local parking lot and shouting at the top of my lungs while loading our latest grocery haul into the cart, in spite of the faces of startled/puzzled other shoppers.
  26. Zombie ish- Similar to lethargy, emotions have left me physically and emotionally numb, turned into a zombie-esque being


The Adventures of Bubble-Bule and Wonder Woman

Silver globes of rain plummet from the sky, hammering the ashen pavement with a tenacity designed to cleanse Medan of the insipid layer of silt that smugly garnishes every building and street. Wonder Woman, aptly named as such not because of any physical resemblance to the raven-haired hero (I am fairly certain that the tiara and go-go boots combo would clash with a jilbab, but maybe powerclashing is in now?), but simply because every action that she takes leaves me in wonder of her authority and ability as a woman (During orientation, a main point of interest/concern was the role and expectations of women in a conservative Muslim society. Short answer- they run everything. Schools, homes, families, businesses- women, especially Wonder Woman, successfully govern them all. When I have a stupid question “Where do I put my trash?”, “How does (insert any variable concerning daily life/culture/language here) work?”, Wonder Woman answers it with a patient, understanding smile and helpful suggestion. When my water is mysteriously broken for the third time in a week, she- rusted pliers and plastic Easter-egg-yellow bucket in hand- fixes it effortlessly. She is the pillar of SMA 3, most likely secretly runs the entire city of Medan, and then still has the energy and resolve to raise a beautiful, well-educated, multi-lingual family) -zips through the skeletal alleys and secret passageways of the city on motorbike, her determination matching that of the rain.  Wearing the oh-so-chic superhero’s sidekick garb (plastic blue rain poncho), I cling onto Wonder Woman for dear life as the velocity of her driving launches angry gusts of wind up my sleeves, causing my borrowed rain-poncho to bubble out into a spherical blue globe, complete with a modest pallid face peeking out of the center. You laugh now, but the bubble look will be all the rage next season. One week later, our Superhero/Sidekick costumes have finally dried out from our ‘let’s explore Medan in the climax of rainy season’ escapade, anxiously awaiting their role in the many future adventures of Bubble-Bule and Wonder Woman.


“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

The immaculate white tops of twenty jilbabed heads greet me in unspoken unity, each huddle of students intently focused on some new-found interest adorning their desks, heads bowed as they consciously avoid my gaze.  “What do you think the author is trying to share with this poem? What is he really talking about?” *Brief flash of eye contact* Haha, sucker- I verbally pounce on the unfortunate victim of my pursuant glance, “What do you think the author is talking about in this poem? Is he talking about actual roads?”  Gleaming black eyes pointedly cut up to mine as my student answers in an assured, “This-is-what-you-get-for-calling-on-me” voice, “No. He’s talking about choice.” As I reach down to restore my gaping bottom jaw up to its normal position on my generally noticeably-less-flabbergasted face, I took a minute to reflect on the jilbabed-geniuses that surrounded me. My 14 year-old students had just correctly identified the underlying existential themes in a work of poetry that is not even in their native language, meanwhile, 14 year-old me in America struggled to get the top off of child-proof allergy medicine bottles, a task which, admittedly, 22 year-old me has still not mastered. (Although, for the sake of being impartial, I must divulge that my students do have their occasional incorrect moments. When discussing Langston Hughes “I, Too, Sing America”, I asked them if diversity and prejudice existed in Indonesia, to which they insightfully replied, “Nope.” After further prodding, “Are you sure….? Does everyone in Indonesia look exactly the same?” I was met with the equally insightful, “Yup.” Okay, so apparently the ‘unity in diversity’ motto for Indonesia is actually fairly straightforward, because according to my students, everyone in Indonesia is the same, hence unity in the lack of diversity.)

Proving that their genius extends not only to poetry analysis, but creation, as well, my I-am-secretly-a-genius-but-still-want-to-avoid-you-calling-on-me students spent the remainder of the session authoring their own poems, displayed for viewing pleasure below:

Poem 1- Untitled. This group aimed to capture ‘happiness’ in their poem. Interestingly, they do not mentioned words typically associated with happiness, such as smiles, joy, warmth, or sunshine, but rather, focus on relationships and connection. They capture the fleeting aspect of beauty and happiness, and how we should be mindful of the beauty that surrounds us, ‘Such beauty that for a minute, death and ambition, even love, do not enter into this.’

So early it’s still almost dark out,

I’m near the window with coffee

And the usual early morning stuff that passes for thoughts

When I see the boy and his friend

Walking up the road

To deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters

And one boy has a bag over his shoulder.

They are so happy

They aren’t [talking], these boys.

If they could, they would take each other’s arm.

It’s early in the morning

And they are doing this together.

They come on, slowly.

The sky is taking on light,

Though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute

Death and ambition, even love

Do not enter into this.

Happiness- it comes on unexpectedly

And goes beyond, really,

Any early morning talk.

Poem 2- Regard the Fight. Based on a student experience, this is the story of a school-bribe. One student earned the highest grade in the class, only to have a fellow student bribe the teacher [the devil who ate the money-money] to give the hard-working student a lower grade. The teacher accepted the bribe and the student received a failing grade. This poem reflects the student’s frustration with her teacher and the bribe.

One day I would walk

[Through] the [sun]shine of heaven,

[Be]cause the last that I saw

Was the face of tears, myself.

When I fight [with] myself,

The result- Approached by the Devil.

I want to scream,

Scroll down the fear,

Stop the rain,

And see that I was a winner.

But, it couldn’t be.

Cause she ate the money-money.

You ate the money

You are the devil.

You didn’t have an eye for me,

About my heart

With brain, brave,

Blood and Soul.

Cause she gave the money-money,

You ate the money

You are the devil.

Poem 3- Hurt. This group aimed to capture the word ‘hurt’, and the heaviness and pain that accompany it. Most noticeable is their analogy between the weather (clouds and rain) and emotions.

The tears fall down

And I wipe [them] again.

It feels like [they] cannot stop.

Like the clouds pour the rain,

It feels like there is a storm in my heart

And it is very hurt.

I want to take this pain away

But I can’t.

Poem 4- Warmth. A discussion of connection, this poem focuses on the security and comfort created by a family.

I felt the warmth,

The warmth of love.

It is from a family,

Who always car[es] for each other.

Always loves each other,

Nothing egoist,

No stirs,

And still together.

A togetherness,

A trust,

A careness,

This is the warmth of family.

Does This Bule Belong to You?

74…. 74…. 74…. Armies of traffic storm past my eyes, each vehicle celebrating its own existence with a series of enthusiastic honks and aged squeals – the Morse code of Medan. 74…. I search through the militia of rusted, sagging automobiles for the mustard-colored angkot, my ride home. My cartoonish look of complete doe-eyed bewilderment drawing the attention of every angkot, becak, and taxi driver within a 5 mile radius, the ochre 74 angkot eventually pulled up to my crumbling slice of pavement, absorbing one more passenger into its depthless motorized stomach. Regurgitating me at my proper stop (more due to the assistance of my students than my ability to successfully navigate the labyrinthine streets of Medan, “Teacher, you get off here, yeah?” *hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge* “Uhmmm…yeah!”)  a light, bursting-popcorn-kernel bubble of satisfaction filled my stomach as I entered my community. I, Laurian Della, had successfully navigated the local angkot system from my school to my house, a 30 minute distance. Exploding popping kernels of pride bulging into my dancing mind, I rounded the corner in search of my street. There is was! Or was it that one? Maybe it was this one…?

Aware of the amused stares that I was drawing by not-so-discreetly careening in circles searching for familiar landmarks like a drunken ballerina, I picked a street at random and pretended like I had an ounce of assurance with my surroundings. After 5 minutes of unrecognizable pastel, taffy-hued houses and mazes of chalky shops, my popcorn-bag of pride trampled, I pulled a card containing my address out of my pocket and approached a pair of resting Ibus. “Maaf….Jalan Seroja 6 di mana?  (Sorry….Seroja 6 Street (my street) is where?)” Sharing my own look of forehead-crinkled, squint-eyed confusion as they peered at the address on my card, they began to quickly chirp back and forth with each other in Bahasa Indonesian, each pointing confidently in a precise direction only to be corrected by her counterpart. Well, at least I’m not the only one who doesn’t know where the darn street it. Once again pursuing my inebriated-ballet dance of attempted landmark recognition, I realized that the dueling Ibu’s were addressing me, pointing to my crinkled address card and pulling out their phones. Darn it, those helpful Ibu’s were calling home. Or more accurately, my neighbor’s home, the phone number to which they so kindly provided me in case of troubles. Hoping for a busy signal, a dead connection, or anything that would maintain my sense of pride, I found my popcorned bubble of satisfaction thoroughly stomped on, steamrolled over, and then for added measure, stampeded by a pack of 800 restless gazelle being chased by a  mutant T-rex which fire-breathing abilities. I am 22  years old, a successful college graduate on a Fulbright grant to Indonesia, and got lost approximately 2 minutes from my own house.

Pop. Pop. Pop. My once bursting kernels of pride now crumble as the call goes through, one amused Ibu explaining the situation to Nur, the housekeeper for my neighbors. Having only been in Indonesia for a few weeks, I cannot yet speak Bahasa Indonesian, but the few words that I was able to pick up suggested a rather comical tone to the call. Basically, it was the ‘There’s-a-bule-in-my-yard-and-I-think-she-belongs-to-you-Please-help-me-return-her’ conversation (For any of you who have not yet have this conversation, please contact me and I will gladly offer my translating services for the approximately one word I know in Bahasa- bule). After a quick phone call and a guided walk back home (and by guided, I mean an Ibu grabbed my arm and literally paraded me, my arm grasped in her hand, to my house to ensure that I wouldn’t get lost again) I was deposited safely on my doorstep, feeling about as confident as a can of watery soup.

While my first ride home from school may not have been ideal, it afforded me the opportunity to address frustrations within myself. I am perfectionistic to a flaw. I strive to complete tasks without blemish from the onset and fail to allow myself room for mistakes. While this trait has provided me with numerous world-traversing opportunities, it can also be exhausting, and also, a tad hypocritical.  Each class I so passionately tell my students, ‘It is okay to practice and to make mistakes, because that is how we learn!’ and yet, fail to accept myself when I make errors. I take my mistakes, such as getting deposited on my doorstep by an amused Ibu, as a personal failure and a marker of my individual competence (or incompetence) rather than as an opportunity to learn. If anything, these next 9 months and the many mistakes that will accompany them, will allow me to accept myself for the flawed individual that I am. I am going to screw up. Some poor woman will have to walk me home (and will probably have a GREAT story to tell her family later). I will learn from my mistakes and will extend to myself the same acceptance that I so strongly encourage in my students. Lesson number 1- getting lost is the best way to make friends in your community. Today I passed by the Ibu who walked me home, and she gave me the biggest smile and welcoming wave (and then proceeded to follow me home to make sure that I could remember my way there).

The Hole

There is a distinctive human-shaped hole in my community, the extended, graceful limbs trailing off into the snaking streets and white-water rapids of traffic that surround Medan. The site serves as a pseudo-shrine to Miss K., the previous ETA who worked at SMA 3 before me, her eager face beaming back at me from the candid portraits that adorn the eggshell walls of my house, her name excitedly popping up when I am introduced at school, “Oh, Miss Laurian…the new Miss K?”, creating a nostalgic twinkle in the eye of students and faculty alike, community members unabashedly flooding me with questions delivered in rapid-fire Bahasa Indonesian when they find that I live in Miss K’s old house, only to be disappointed to find that unlike Miss K., I am not fluent in Bahasa, and can only answer with my caveman-like vocabulary, “Ya, saya tinggal di sini (emphatically gestures to K’s house) *whirlwind of excited, inquisitive Bahasa* Maaf! Saya tidak mengerti. (Sorry. I don’t understand) *Wide-eyed look of apologetic confusion as Bahasa tirade continues*” Miss K has left a hole in the heart of Medan, and I am trying to squeeze into this hole Winnie-the-Pooh style (think myriad jolly fat rolls thwarting my desired entry). This analogy is not to suggest that I’m plump (which would be a rather fair assessment considering how colossal I am compared to Indonesian norms. I’m a good 6 inches taller than most of the women (and men) at my site, and look as inconspicuous as a giraffe seeking cover in a penguin enclosure.) but rather, that I am trying to manipulate and forcibly insert myself into a space where I do not yet fit. I am not fluent in Bahasa Indonesian, I have not yet made the connections that are so warmly reflected in Miss K’s pictures embellishing my walls, and I am about 8 million times more clueless about Indonesian culture and norms than Miss K. I am not Miss K, I am Miss Laurian, but I will adapt, I will learn, I will connect and I will dig my own Laurian shaped hole in the community (complete with awkward over-emphatic gestures).

My first day of hole digging has begun, albeit, with a generic plastic spork rather than a shovel. With a year of teaching under my belt and my experiences from Thailand still warm in my heart, I stepped into the grade 12 classroom confidently, careful to introduce myself at a pace that would be understandable for my students, articulating each syllable and taking deliberate pauses to gauge the understanding of the room, which, despite my molasses speech pattern, still returned blank stares. Opening the floor for questions, I was expecting the traditional, “Where are you from?”, “What is your job?”, or even complete silence, but rather, was met with, “Miss- You stated that you studied Psychology in university. I am very interested in hypnosis. Can you please explain more?” I had just deliberately introduced myself at the pace of an inebriated sea-slug only to be met with questions by a group of students more proficient in English than myself. Our discussions ranged from the practice and use of hypnosis in psychology to the ethics of animal research to the existence of the Illuminati in American government and society. My first day has left me trying to squeeze into the Miss K heart-hole while simultaneously trying to dig myself out of my ‘Thailand experience’ hole. With a new school comes a new way of teaching, of understanding. The lessons that I lead in Thailand will not be appropriate for my advanced learners in Indonesia- there will be no emphasis on phonics and vocabulary, there will (hopefully) be no eye-poking injuries from me trying to teach a student how to write the alphabet, students will be able to construct and write not just individual sentences, but full paragraphs and pages. This year will be a learning experience, both for my students and for myself. We will each continue to dig our own holes, using language to explore cultural and individual identity, unearthing fresh and raw parts of ourselves as we dig further, deeper.


Dust-tinged trains of compact houses echoing shades of mustard, cream, and umber drip into the ground, each concrete flake and missing brick contributing to the collective sea of debris that fills the streets. The inhabitants themselves appear to seep into the earth, their aged, leathered bodies consistently found in a secure squatting position, as if gravity were a sui generis affliction exclusive to the community. Seemingly unaffected by the substantial force of gravity that so greatly burdens the local elders, stampedes of children follow us through the narrow alleys on rusted pastel tricycles, their whispering, lambent curiosity at us bules matching our own patent curiosity with their daily life and culture. In the two weeks that I have lived in Indonesia, this is where I have felt the most at home, in a dust-bubble of an Jarkatan alleyway, surrounded not by the waterfalls of ivory comfort that are the Trans Hotel bathrobes, or by the cloudy comforters that made me question daily if I was sleeping on an actual bed, or rather, a pile of large pillows carefully stuffed with mini-marshmallows, but in the simplicity of a rubbish-laden, gravity-afflicted passage, enveloped by the glow of inquisitiveness and of genuine interest. It is in these glimmers of opaline smiles, these uninhibited, gleeful cries of “My name is _______!”, and these sailing tides of laughter that erupt when I practice my stumbling Bahasa Indonesian that I have found my home. I am in Indonesia, and I am at home.