53

A single balloon shivers in the air,

Sending flashes of synthetic silver dancing through the mute summer sky.

A balloon laden with tender birthday wishes and slippery hidden tears

For you are not here to grasp it.

A balloon released with the hope that with it, the wind

Would carry along our sorrow and grief, as well,

Only to taunt us as we realize that our sadness still has weight,

While our wishes float away before us.

A balloon that reveals that heaven must lie beyond the pines,

Because that is where your solitary gift is carried,

Floating on,

As we watch from a distance,

Hoping that our love will somehow reach you.

Happy 53rd birthday, Mom.

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Halfway

Travel is an uncontested creator and a silent, whispering destroyer. It has the ability to synthesize and mend the strewn and tattered aspects of an individual’s self, creating a single, cooperative, reflective unit, a ‘whole’, or to bring to surface all of the challenges and subsequent struggles that work to define and shatter one’s character.

It is an entity of blatant contradictions. It is both unifying and alienating, it provides a welcoming place in the hearts of those all over the world, yet displaces you  from the relationships, stability, and comforts that were once associated with home. It opens your mind, heart, and soul to new cultures, while making you a foreigner in your own. It is both a willing sacrifice and an incomparable reward.

It is a riddle that can create connections so strong and passionate

that the world and its inhabitants

are reduced to a mere glass marble because you know

that such strong love must counteract physical distance.

That your soul is directly fused by invisible silk strings

of once-shared memories, of secrets,  of whispers and laughter,

to those who you have grown to love,

to those who have become your heart and your home.

And that you are holding this marble,

looking in,

because home is no longer with you and those silk strings

have been cut.

That you still share this love, these memories

but now the world feels larger and you are drowning

because your home and your heart and your self are scattered,

and the silk strings don’t stretch, and you are left midway

one foot in Indonesia and one foot in America,

tied to both but belonging to neither.

I have been living back in the States for three months, but have yet to find the satisfaction of being ‘home’. Home comes in flashes, in glimmers of conversations with friends as we discuss our recent travels and the frustrations of emerging adulthood, it settles into the worn ridges of my sofa as I battle my sister in a game of Crazy Taxi (an obsolete, but wonderfully maniacal driving game for the Dreamcast), it is in the filth and grime of Medan that has permanently seeped into my daily wardrobe, it is in the memories, secrets, and whispers that I share with those half-a-world away, and it is in the invisible silk strings that have left me dangling, halfway here, a bridge between my two selves.

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One Wrong Turn

ENTP. INFJ. Any half-educated psychology major or overzealous Cosmo quiz enthusiast can effortlessly rattle off the accompanying personality traits for these acronyms. I, however, like to assert that my personality is simply a plethora of P’s- peppy, positive, professional, patient, perfectionistic. But in direct violation of my ‘P’ dominant personality, my last day at SMA 3 culminated in a verbal explosion- in a fit of rage I am not proud to admit that I am capable of, I ended up engaged in an impromptu shouting match with a senior teacher at my school. I somehow get the inkling that this was not in the repertoire of behaviors that the Fulbright committee envisioned for the ‘cultural ambassador’ tenant of their program.

Months later and now comfortably settled into the predictability and routine of American life, smoky tendrils of the remnants of my time in Indonesia still plague my brain, leaving me wondering where this experience, this year that was supposed to be so earth-shrinking, mind-opening, and revealing, became so sour. Was there a single turning point, some invisible, intractable event that determined, “Yup, from here on out, your year is going to suck”? Was it that my behaviors and actions somehow conflicted with those around me? Or was it simply that I did not fit?

I came into this year with an open heart and an open mind, and left with anger and whole lot of diarrhea (which may or may not explain the anger. It’s hard to retain a genuine smile and persona when you feel like you are pooping out your own intestines on a daily/hourly basis). I had high goals for my students and even higher expectations for myself. But what I hadn’t previously realized is how dependent goals and expectations are on one’s immediate environment. I did not mesh with Medan, not then, not now, and certainly not in the future. My overly sensitive nature was constantly squandered by the blunt and abrasive communication style that is unique to Medan. My feelings were constantly hurt, and, like a petty 2 year old, I responded by lashing out, leaving myself embarrassed at the triviality of my own behavior and the recipients of my verbal tirades feeling moderately shocked and more-than-moderately disrespected. Teachers failed to show up, and those who did were unprepared and uninspired, and I took this as a personal affront and excuse to wage war.

I am a passionate (another P characteristic) individual, and I was not willing to sacrifice my beliefs in education in order to more easily mesh with my environment. I believe that each of my students is capable of greatness, that creative lessons foster an excitement for learning, and that it is the role of educators to inspire students and instill within them a thirst and enthusiasm for studying. And while it is acceptable for me to hold these beliefs, they need to be expressed in the correct environment. Medan was not that environment, and while I wished and fought for it to be so, I burnt out and was left with hostility and the sting of failure. But that does not mean that I have given up. If anything, Indonesia has affirmed my desire to teach, to search for the ‘right’ environment, to learn how to respectfully express my beliefs and ideals if I do teach in a personality-mismatched environment again. Indonesia is just chapter one, and chapter one ended in failure. But it has set the stage for chapters two through _, providing me with invaluable information as to which environment myself and my students can flourish in, which comforts I am able to sacrifice, and which ideals are steadfast and will remain ingrained in my teaching practices. Just because I took a wrong turn does not mean that I cannot get back on track, and I will enthusiastically continue my journey through teaching despite the bumps and wrong turns along the way, but with hopefully fewer explosions (verbal or otherwise) the next time ‘round.

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In Search of the Exotic

Sleeping stone temples sporadically adorn the vast forest, their pointed peaks slicing through the thick, verdurous canopy, allowing the sly beams of the rising sun to illuminate and awaken the array of wildlife slumbering below. Vibrant birds begin their morning song as chattering monkeys dart and spring enthusiastically through ancient Buddhist architecture, their playful calls the only glimmers of mischief in the otherwise serene structures.

Sadly, this is not a scene from one of my travel adventures, but rather, a mere preview from the Disney Nature movie which tauntingly graced the presence of the TV screen three times today (note to self: watch less TV. This is perhaps the most notable distinction between travel-Laurian and America-Laurian. Travel Laurian does not even know what a television is, and if confronted with a television screen, would bumble over it in a caveman-esque fashion, while America-Laurian makes a personal competition out of television watching, binging on endless seasons of Friends and other forgettable sitcoms), sending pangs of wanderlust careening sharply through my brain to settle deep within my gut. World travel spoils you. I have witnessed infant monkeys scampering up dewy trees to seek the comfort of their mothers, woken up to wild buffalo trekking through lush rice fields, the white cranes settled on their backs attesting to the slow pace of the journey. I have gone swimming in crystalline waterfalls and seas so vibrantly blue they rather resemble the Kool-aid dyed water of miniature-golf courses, and have ridden frenetic elephants through dense rainforests and rushing streams. I have witnessed the exotic- the unwavering natural beauty that leaves your eyes excitedly twinkling with wonder, your mouth hanging open in an expression of stupid-disbelief, and your stomach feeling like you are currently descending the tallest peak on the world’s largest roller-coaster.

The exotic crashes down on you with a deluge of contradiction, convincing you that nature and the beauty that it holds is honest, absolute, and universal, yet simultaneously fleeting, quick to escape and slither away unless one deliberately searches and strains to grasp it. That you and this moment are infinite, but also small and forgettable in comparison the unfathomable scale and force of existence that surrounds you. That this one, singular moment, this connection with nature, with the exotic, will bring both immense joy, but also an insatiable yearning for more.

It is this unsatisfied yearning for the exotic which so abruptly crept into my TV-binging self earlier today, leaving me feel both unbelievably spoiled with the richness of the experiences that I have been able to participate in, and guiltily dissatisfied with my current state of being. Oh, wanderlust, you capricious little devil. I have had the fortune to experience the exotic, but also have been ailed with its little known, ill-fated side effect of the average life seeming a bit bland and monochromatic in comparison. I have a routine. I wake up to the same alarm each morning, eat the same five things each day (I try to fool my brain into thinking that I am eating  a larger variety of foods by switching up the pairs, but there are only so many ‘fruit-cereal–pasta-chocolate-some form of protein’ pairings that you can make), brush my hair (optional), go for a jog if feeling inspired (so, never), read, read some more, watch TV, read while watching TV (bonus points for multi-tasking, right?), eventually throw on some presentable clothes, go to work, and then sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. My life has become the antithesis of the exotic, it has become predictable, and there is nothing like the drudge of routine to make me feel both like a functioning, successful adult and a raving hypocrite to my inherent curious, artistic nature. I equate routine with the destruction of creativity, and have yet to find a balance between the necessities/routines of life and the exotic/creative. So as I re-enter my life back home, it remains my goal to coalesce my two different lives, to merge my routine-centered American life with my art-centered travel life, searching for the beauty of stability, to find the exotic within the average.

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The Art of Saying Goodbye

Some words simply have no direct translation to English, but in Indonesia, the ‘goodbye’ often  becomes a unique idiom reflecting the inquisitive, open nature of the culture and individual, and is articulated not as a single word, ‘bye’ or ‘goodbye’, but rather as a memorable sentiment like the gems of expressions below:

  1. I hope that you go home and get fat. In Indonesia, the word ‘fat’ is used synonymously with ‘happy’. Given my recent excessively slender figure (forget Weighwatchers, typhoid is the way to go in terms of diet plans), many Indonesians bestowed upon me sincere wishes for morbid obesity as I returned home.
  2. Goodbye, Miss Kelsey! Apparently all white girls look the same, so despite the fact that I have worked at my school for 6 months , am roughly 5 inches taller than ‘Miss Kelsey’, and quite noticeably do not have blue eyes, a majority of teachers managed to confuse me with Kelsey, the English teacher who served in my position last year.
  3. Okay, but can we take a picture together first? Welcome to Indonesia, where even rushed goodbyes posed before last minute medical evacuations can serve as the opportunity for a photo shoot *cue pale and clammy foreigner hunched over a gaggle of smiling students*.
  4. Happy fake birthday. Since my birthday is coming up in a week, my students decided to throw me a premature surprise birthday party before my departure. My very merry unbirthday involved a soft-spoken serenade while simultaneously being handfed scrumptious chocolate cake by my students, so essentially, I was a spoiled princess for a span of 5 minutes. No complaints on my end.
  5. I hope that your diarrhea goes away. This one is pretty self explanatory as all of Indonesia seemed to be privy to information regarding my bowel movements but I rather hope that this becomes a greeting or Valentine’s Day card in the immediate to near future, because, hey, who doesn’t need this genuine sentiment in their life?

Akin to a mathematical formula, the art of the goodbye dictates that memorable farewells should  include at least one reference to the person’s weight and/or bowel movements, so next time you issue a statement of departure, remember the Indonesian art of farewell greetings, and ensure that your unique goodbye is memorable for years to come.

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Great Expectations and Subsequent Realities

Expectations are the Swiss Army knives of cognitive functioning- one tool serving myriad and occasionally useless purposes (just what exactly are those flimsy tweezers for?). Expectations serve as preparatory devices, allowing the user to create a mental check list of “What to do in the case of [squat toilet/persistent diarrhea while on said squat toilet/cow sacrifice/other Indonesian right of passage] encounter”. They can motivate a person to perform based on the predicted outcome/reward, and prove useful for an a priori transformation of an individual into a novel setting or culture, allowing for a seamless transition. But expectations, by nature, are inherently damaging. Expectations are no more than wishful predictions, and as any mediocre statistician can verify, predictions are far from guarantees.

I had high expectations for this year. Rich cherry blossoms of anticipation rooted and bloomed in my mind, their soft pink tendrils creating a frosty rose mist of excitement in my entire being as I pondered the prestigious grant which I was awarded. I could pursue my passion for teaching, engaging with my students and fellow teachers as I immersed myself in a new culture and community. I could reflect on the influences of my own culture through meaningful dialogue with individuals of an upbringing different from my own. I could use what little expertise and unrestrainable enthusiasm that I had to make a difference in my host school, enticing a generation of young learners to pursue their studies in English, opening up a world of opportunities in scientific and mathematic fields. Due to the renowned nature of the Fulbright program, I had high expectations of my school, I had high expectations of my fellow teachers, and I had high expectations of myself. And I ultimately failed in regard to every single expectation that I formed for this year, and that remains no one’s fault but my own, for expectations are not meant to take the place of reality. My school did not meet my own expectations, and I did not meet my schools expectations. We were both unwilling to alter our own expectations, and thus behavior, in order to accommodate the needs/desires of the other, leaving us both ultimately dissatisfied. Indonesia will forever remain the land of ‘What if?’ What if my school and myself had been able to voice our needs from each other to work in a spirit of cooperation, rather than frustration? Considering the measurable changes that we made despite endless arguments, what obstacles could we have tackled if only we were more flexible in altering our own expectations in favor of the less-desirable, but more present and veritable reality? Expectations undeniably have their value, but it is only with the acknowledgement of reality and the subsequent ability to remain flexible with the veracities of everyday existence that expectations can truly prove beneficial.

A Whole New World

As I prepare to depart for America within a matter of days, visions of shimmering flurries and clearly defined boundaries of personal space consume my dreams.  But with the expectations that I am forming of my familiar and once-again home country comes the stark reality of how remarkably different America and Indonesia are. Medan has been a whole new world, full of unique challenges and perceptions, and as I pack up the uncountable pairs of aquamarine floral leggings and other obscure clothing items that I have accumulated during my months here, my excitement for the comfort of American life steadily grows.

  1. I will no longer be targeted by the ‘Barney and Friends’ aged Indonesia mafia.

Young students here are vicious.  Often not intentionally, but brutal nonetheless. They are often so excited to practice their English with a foreigner that they end up swarming/mobbing/overwhelming said bule, shouting at the top of their lungs, desperate to be heard over the pleas of their friends, retreating only when the bule pulls an unexpected turtle move  in the middle of their mob (aka, sudden fetal position intended for self-preservation/If-I-manage-to-pull-my-knees-up-close-to-my-ears-it-may-be-able-to-block-out-the-shrieking-war-cries-of-the-twenty-overzealous-students-attacking-me-with-their-well-intentioned-English).

  1. I can get from one end of town to the other without wondering who (or what) will be sitting on my lap for the journey.

In Indonesia, personal space boundaries do not exist. Remotely. I have ridden an angkot (the local form of transportation) with a stranger’s two fighting toddlers resting on my lap- one screaming child for each knee. I have had natives pull the ‘Here. Hold this.’ card and pass me sleeping babies, shopping bags filled with freshly butchered fish and other odorous market goodies, and the occasional live farm animal as they burrow their way into the back of the cavernous vehicle, leaving me to ponder when I am to return said item/child/miniature baby pig.

  1. I will deserve every single stare that I draw.

I yearn for the day where I am stared at not because I am white, but because I am doing something entirely ridiculous and embarrassing. Proposing to random strangers in the middle of the mall? Being the only person above age 10 on the swing-set? Dancing awkwardly in the car with my sister? Sure, go ahead and stare.  But I want to earn  my stares, and not just be the center of attention because I am the novel white girl.

  1. I can officially retire my medical degree.

In Indonesia, diagnosis by medical professionals simply does not exist. Rather, it follows the fast-food method of ordering- you choose what you want and get nothing more, nothing less, but they sometimes will mix up your order anyway.  If you are sick with some unknown illness you must ask which diseases you would like to be tested for, which renders the patient, often uneducated in the field of medicine, to essentially diagnose themselves. I had untreated typhoid for 2 ½ months and it was only when my friend/typhoid-twin specifically asked for me to be tested for typhoid that I was successfully diagnosed. I long for the moment when I can sit back, relax, and let the doctor do the diagnosing, because let’s face it, WebMD-ing every symptom that I have often gives me psychological distress when I have to decide whether I am more excited about having a potential diagnosis of cancer or the bubonic plague.

Despite the humor and jesting attitude in which this post was written, I truly will miss Indonesia. Yes, I will have my personal space back. Yes, I can eat a burrito whenever I want. But with the dreams of swirling silver snowflakes and the yearning to be surrounded by the familiar, there also settles a heaviness in my heart as the parades of memories from the past 6 months triumphantly storm my mind, demanding to be heard lest they be casually filed away into the conveniently labeled “Indonesia” section of my brain. The old woman gently tying a jilbab around my head as she openly welcomed me into her mosque, her inner sanctuary of worship. The rush of water running through my chlorine-tangled hair as I taught my Indonesian sisters to swim at a local pool. The raucous laughter and guiding arm of a neighbor as she escorted me home when I got lost two blocks away from my own house.  The endless squeals of delight from my students when I speak my rudimentary caveman Indonesian to them. Sunshine, smiles, and hot-silver flashes of memories. These are the precious items that I carry with me as I return home a more inquisitive, more understanding, and soon-to-be less typhoid-ridden woman.

Tell Me a Story

Usually I receive the same mildly inappropriate questions in the classroom when I open the floor for discussion. How old are you? 22- too young to be taken seriously, and just old enough to know it. Miss, are you single? Yes. Perpetually. *Cheers and high-fives emanating from the male population in my classroom* As a shimmery-eyed student bashfully raised her hand, I mentally prepared for the next round of Generic Introduction Jeopardy. No, I am not married. Yes, I can speak a little Indonesian. My favorite food in Indonesia is sate. No, I am not friends with Obama or One Direction. But these words, these rehearsed and re-rehearsed and re-re-re-rehearsed statements that my students are so comfortable asking did not fall from her lips. Rather, they were replaced with the soft request of, “Miss, can you tell us a story…..” Wait, wait, wait. Pause, rewind, stop, hammertime. Was this a new  question?! Something that was not rehearsed or practiced over and over and over until it becomes no longer a question designed to quench a freshly discovered curiosity but a statement spewed out with the repetitious dread that can only be found in a language classroom? “…..about your mom?” Definitely something new- a question or a statement about my mom that was not uttered with grotesque curiosity/blatant insensitivity, or delivered in the form of an awkward condolence expressed while the speaker openly picked his/her nose, but rather, a simple, innocent request for a story, for connection.

‘Sure, I can tell you a story about my mom, but I might be a little sad, if that’s okay.’

‘It’s okay, miss. I know your heart. My dad is the same as your mom. I miss him, but they live on through stories, so I want to know what she [your mom] was like.’

They live on through stories. For the past few months I had avoided talking about my mom because I didn’t want to have an emotional meltdown, and when I had worked up the emotional strength to talk about her, I had often been met with insensitive responses that even furthered my grief and silence. But this student was right. They do live on through stories, and sometimes those stories hurt to tell, but it is a way to keep that person around, to share their spirit with others, and to keep a piece of them in your own life. By not talking about my mom, I was shutting her away in a mental vault where I could contain and harness my sadness in an efficient little solitary compartment. But if this vault is never opened by the power of stories, the sadness will forever remain there, locked away, becoming a part of myself and my actions. However, if I can release this sadness, piece by piece, through telling stories about my mom, slowly the sadness will dissipate and all I will be left with are the shining memories of the time we shared together. And so I told a story. My students giggled as I explained to them how my mom could, and would, talk to anyone. And everyone. And I don’t just mean detached ‘How’s the weather today, buddy?’ babble, but by the time she left a conversation, she would recount in vivid detail the soap-opera worthy life/drama of the complete stranger she just chatted up for 4 hours.

We swapped stories, me about my mom’s magical/infuriating ability to talk nonstop, and my student about how her dad was (and still is) her personal superhero. And for those brief moments, our parents were there with us, smiling as we shared our happy, but painful memories with each other, because as a 14 year old so wisely reminded me today, ‘they live on through stories’.

A Reason to Stare

Indonesia- the land of blunt remarks and open stares- both of which are generally attributed to the fact that I have blindingly white skin and possess the size and grace of an adolescent giraffe. In America, my generic brown hair, brown eyes, and skin tone allow me to blend into the background, to hide in the comfort of the majority, but in Indonesia, the same commercial features often cause ‘the gawk’- the open-mouthed, dead-eyed, unabashed stare that is typically reserved only for the vacant minds of nursing home patients or inebriated college students binging on reality television while they greedily consume McDonald’s french-fries and chicken nuggets.  I receive the ‘I am about to drool all over myself if I don’t close my mouth in approximately 5 seconds’ stares on a daily basis, wholly undeserved, accredited only to the color of my skin. I am white, I know. I will not magically change color during the 1 minute of your existence that you waste by gaping at me. *BAM* Tan skin *PEW PEW PEW * White skin. Introducing Laurian Della, the one and only chameleon bule. No. No, no, no. Doesn’t happen. Won’t happen. Stop staring and waiting for it to do so.

While I generally feel that staring should be reserved only for improbable events, roadside accidents, and circus clowns, I must admit that sometimes I am entirely deserving of the looks of disbelief that I receive.

My attire

In America, I dressed fairly fashionably, making an effort to appear immaculate and well-polished at all moments. My pristine eye for detail has since been neglected in Indonesia, instead replaced with any articles of clothing that are comfortable and will provide a degree of relief from the stifling Medan heat while still respecting the conservative culture. Often, this means that I sport a uniform of floral-patterned hammer pants, a rainbow polka-dot Barbie shirt, and neon flats. If I came across a foreigner who looked like she was dressed by a pack of colorblind preschoolers caught in the thralls of a serious Ritalin addiction, I would probably stare too.

My behavior

I have toted an aquarium full of live fish on an angkot across Medan. (For the blissfully ignorant Westerners who are not familiar with Indonesian public transportation, an angkot is basically a hollowed-out minivan whose comfortable plush seats have been removed and replaced with metal church pews, haphazardly welded to the sides of the ‘Mystery Machine’ shaped vehicle. Comfortably seating 8-12 people, but usually seating 16-24, angkots are simultaneously filthy death traps/tetanus vaccines waiting to happen, and conveniently fabulous modes of transport.)

I rarely know what I am doing, or where I am going, or anything at all really. There was that time that I drank the water that was intended to rinse my hands, and that other time where I fell in a gutter full of watery garbage, complete with a few sewer rats thrown in for extra kicks, and oh yeah, that other other time where it took me 4 months to finally master the art of unlocking my front gate. Everything is foreign and new, with each object and experience serving as a learning opportunity. While this sounds pleasant and optimistic and oh-my-gosh-magical-sparkles-of-curiosity-are-dancing-around-my-head, it’s not, trust me. The one thing that people don’t tell you about learning is that it’s stupid. Or rather, you are stupid. You have to start out stupid to learn- if you already capable and aware, it’s not learning, it’s practice and repetition. When you are thrown into an environment where everything is fresh, you are overwhelmed with novel items to explore and experience and while it is exhilarating to challenge your brain, you cannot learn everything at once, and so you stay stupid for a very long time. I learn something new every day, so I become less dense in one specific area, but I am also challenged by dozens of fresh questions as I continue to explore the culture and environment around me.

So here I sit, 4 months later, perpetually curious, forever learning, and increasingly stupid- the stare-worthy bule on an angkot full of fish.

The Watchmen

By day they stalk the shores of Bali, ribbons of forgettable goods adorning their bronzed arms sway to and fro, matching the rhythm of the waves, creating a personal symphony as their sun-weary gait carries them from one victim to the next. The sharp snap of glass beads rubbing together, the heavy, warm scent of recently fried food, and the detached, rehearsed calls of “Darling, do you want to buy?” announce their presence. Their eyes, narrowed from the vindictive, self-assured sun, pursue any willing glance, equating the slightest resemblance of eye-contact as interest in their product. They are invasive, they are persistent, they are hunters.

By night they haunt the streets of Bali, the limp bodies of their sleeping children cradled in their fatigued arms. The midnight moon illuminates their desperate eyes, the eyes which so predatory by day, now reveal an anxious, protective alertness as they guard their families from the potential hazards of the street. They have no shelter, they have no food- they did not sell enough that day. Tomorrow they will be more aggressive, they will call out ‘Darling’ more loudly as you pretend that you don’t hear, they will stand at the foot of your beach towel as you persist to look through them, they will demand your eye contact and attention. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. But for tonight, they must remain awake, alert, protective.

For by day they are predators, but by night they are prey.