Friday, January 13, 2012

Movin' Out

Dear Blogger,

We had a good run, but I'm seeing somebody else now.

Don't be mad. Her name is Wordpress, and you two really have a lot in common. To be honest, though, my new place there is a lot nicer. I know... I know. Lava lamps and Mexican jumping beans are still great. John Travolta, too. But your ranch house with maroon carpeting and wood paneling? I can't do it anymore. I need a refined lady with modern sensibilities to give me the confidence to succeed in the new year.

Don't worry. I know you'll be okay.

Many fond memories,

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Like Standing between a Grizzly and Its Cub

Addison, the man who once bested Miss South Carolina in a karaoke contest (it's true), just brightened my Christmas with this new single release.


Southeast Asians eat a lot of rice. You get it.

But do you really? It’s certainly the bulk of every meal, and the Indonesian government suggests I’ll have eaten 693 pounds of it by the time I finish service. But there’s more. Rice is so important to Indonesians that its significance transcends diet. To understand, suspend rationality, and accept this: it’s gastronomically impossible to feel full after a riceless meal. Where I live, most villagers believe that's true, and as a result, they’re fiercely invested in the grain.

It doesn’t matter that corn and cassava may be cheaper and readily available. Indonesians won’t settle for substitutes. It’s pony up for the good stuff or go home. NPR’s Planet Money just published a podcast on how of a perceived shortage sparked both a run on rice and a tripling of global prices from $350/ton to $1200/ton in 2007. High prices were no hurdle for demand. Stephen Colbert noted that even in America,

“CostCo and Sam’s Club are now both rationing rice. You can’t buy more than eighty pounds in a single visit. Only eighty pounds! How am I supposed to make my famous kiddy pool jambalaya!”

Now you get it: Southeast Asians really care about their grain. And extrapolating further, you can imagine that standing between an Indonesian and his grain is like standing between a grizzly mom and its newborn cub. Outcome? Trouble.


And that’s more or less what drew a few hundred angry demonstrators, some tv cameras, and sixty police to my village office on Monday. The background: it’s Javanese tradition for well-off community members to donate a certain portion of their harvests to the poor. These farmers bring a share of their unrefined rice—called beras—to the local village office. The officials are then charged with distributing the rice to the needy.

At least they’re supposed to…

My community suspects at least one of the administrators has been embezzling rice to benefit friends and family (pretty common here). So they stormed the office, forced their way in, and demanded a hearing. The police then pulled up in their regency paddywagons and kept order. Women and children flocked to the spectacle, and even though the shouting got heated (heard from my house), nobody was arrested or hurt. And though I have no idea how the situation will play out, it’s safe to say that the grizzly mother-cub metaphor has really struck home. If you’re interested in more, you can run this Indonesian article through Google Translate for a better scoop.

On to this week in photos…

Yes, they do wear those.

A neighbor chopping down his mango tree in the rain because it had
the audacity to drop a limb on his roof.

Local paddy and local volcano.

Kids eating chocolate... real chocolate.

New friends.

Old friends.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Improving the Wheel

Somewhere in Jakarta, there's a man--because it's usually a man--who works for Graha Pustaka, a prominent publisher of high school textbooks. One evening, our guy brought home a bulging folder from the office. Inside the folder was a draft of a new text for Class XI English students, meticulously organized and ready to be dropped at the press first thing in the morning.

Our executive set the folder down by the door, and didn't think twice about its security. But that was a fatal mistake because later that evening, while our man slipped off to the masjid for prayers, his three-year-old gleefully tottered upon the papers, made it rain like Fat Joe , and had just enough sense to stuff the mess back into the folder before his bapak returned home. Later, our publisher was so fatigued from work that he didn't consider examining the stack before heading to the press.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I believe my Class XIs' questionable English text came into being. How else could we find advice, warnings, grants and requests, storytelling, past continuous tense, gerunds, and advertisements all crammed into the same six week unit? The level of discontinuity alone is staggering.

Nevertheless, I think my counterpart and I struck gold amidst the panic these past few weeks. Remember those "choose your own adventure" books you loved when you were a kid? Well, we looked at this mess of a unit, and realized we could cover both storytelling (past tense) and giving advice through a storybook project.

The kids rocked the assignment, and turned in some pretty impressive projects. Spongebob, Shaun the Sheep, fairytale myths, polygamous relationships, a trip to the zoo... the topics ranged widely. If your game, I've digitized one for your reading pleasure. "Broken Heart" probably isn't the best project students turned in, but it is colorful and offers some insight into Indonesian values.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Embracing the Amibguity

Akmal agrees the new SLR is the hottest thing since mango season.

Am I a commodity or a multi-talented instrument of change? Every PCV and their ibu seem to have doubts at some point. Because even though site usually leans toward the rad, there are definitely days where I feel more like one of these than the Toyota Tundra of foreign aid, justifiably or not.

Exhibit A (Two weeks ago, some teachers approached me at school.)

“Mr. Danil, we go to hospital now to visit [teacher x’s] husband. Do you want to follow?”
“Sure, where’s the hospital?”
“That’s over an hour away.”
“And then we come back?”
Insya Alloh.”
“… Okay. I’ll prepare my bag.”
“Good. You will bring good spirit to [teacher x’s] husband.”
“Yeah, I hope so.”

--- Leaving Sragen hospital 2 hours later ---
“Do we go back to school now?”
“Not yet. We first visit [teacher y’s] mother in-law in Solo hospital.”
“I didn't know. That's very far.”
“Yes, we have car.”

--- Leaving Solo hospital 2 hours later ---
“Great, back to school now, right?”
“No, no yet.”
“Yes. Now we must pray.”
“And after that?”
“Then we eat lunch.”

--- After Lunch 1.5 hours later ---
“I’m stuffed… can’t wait to sleep in the car.”
“We no drive yet.”
“What? Why?”
“Now we go to school at university.”
“. . . Until when?”
“Maybe six. But please, no worry. There is good chair for you outside.”

--- Watching teachers leave class at sunset 3 hours later ---
“Great. I still need to plan three lessons tomorrow for classes—“
“We pray again, now.”
“Yes. Then we eat dinner.”

--- after dinner 1 hour later ---
“If I’d known earlier that—“
“Mr. Jak is not here.”
“What? Where?”
“I do not know.”
“Can we call him?”
[a moment later]
“He doesn’t answer. We wait here.”
“And then?
“Then, Insya Alloh, we go home.”

Every PCV here can identify. At one time or another, we’ve all been misinformed. We’ve all felt duped, ditched, and neglected. Frustrating stuff happens. On the day above, I left school with teachers around ten AM on a supposedly quick hospital visit. Call it a hunch, but I bet my counterparts knew we were in for an eleven hour trip from the beginning too. And in light of that, I think it’s easy for me to focus on assigning blame when it's clearly due. After all I think my PC success here depends on making genuine, Indonesian friendships. Honestly, sI haven’t been this eager to extend BFF status since I wanted a turn on the swings in first grade, so I’m definitely committed to sorting the promising friends from the less so.

The sifting is tough, though, because I often have a hard time telling cultural misunderstanding from disrespect. See Exhibit B: I offered to buy a friend dinner; then, he self-invited two more friends. I felt like a JaTim ATM… the three totally cleared more than 100,000 Rp from my wallet. But at the same time, I couldn’t be sure if i was wronged or not. Javanese friends are always picking up tabs for one another without complaint. And maybe my co-teachers were just giving me the chance to be one of the guys (albeit at a steep price).

I think the significance here is highlighting the strange cultural limbo that Indo PCVs often find themselves straddling. Because while Java sometimes seems western—smartphones everywhere, spaghetti sauce at my local minimarket, my cousin’s ritual Green Day pump-up session every morning, social life here is still overwhelmingly… well… Asian. And because of that, I think it will always be difficult to consider Indo “home,” to build intelligible relationships amidst all this eastern stoicism, communalism, discipline, and humility. The rules just aren't the same.

Thankfully none of us signed up for a challenge-free ride. It just happens to be an awkward one, riddled not so much with jarring bumps and jolts as terrible signage. And although embracing the ambiguity is far easier said than done, quickly accepting and moving on from frustration will probably be a necessary prerequisite for Indo PCV success.

And finally the video that made my week. Ladies and gentleman, meet Addison Howard. Friend. Confidant. Triathlete. Accountant. Heart breaker. President of everything. Winner of free cars. Guitar dabbler...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Remember Your Knives!

According to legend, Lincoln filed away scathing letters for three days before finally deciding to post them or not. In the same spirit, I'm not posting the critical entry I initially wrote for today. At least not yet. If the weekend doesn't mellow me, an unadulterated version will still show up on Monday. But for now, we're keepin' it light.

Skip to preparations for last week's "First Annual MAN-Ngrambe Pumpkin Carving Contest." Students were given simple instructions: (1) show up and (2) bring a pisau (knife). If Indonesia were America, half of English Club would now be expelled and I'd have a court date. But Indonesia thankfully isn't America, and our school security guard is totally down with meat cleavers making it into classrooms.

I recruited a few teachers to help me scour the regency for pumpkins beforehand, so by Thursday, I had six delivered to my home. Some boys helped me walk them over after school, and then English Club began. Thanks to a new, handy Firefox add-on (courtesy of PCV Jay), I downloaded a few pumpkin carving tutorials off Youtube. The students watched these videos, and afterwards, my counterpart and I randomly divided everyone into teams and assigned pumpkins.

My students continually amaze me with their creativity. Even though they didn't have any prior pumpkin carving experience, it was astonishing to watch them quickly pick up on little innovations like using pre-made stencils, shaving the pumpkins' skins to create new textures and colors, and using smaller, more delicate tools like nails and scissors for finer cuts.

On Friday all six jack-o'-lanterns were put on display, and teachers voted to determine the top three. The boys took home 1st place, team Spongebob edged into 2nd, and team angry pumpkin came in a comfortable 3rd (photo #2). Oreo and M&M prizes were liberally awarded to these groups.

The photos tell the rest.