The transformation

21 Apr

I recently celebrated one year of being in Indonesia. This journey has been long and tough, but let’s not kids ourselves; many people go through way more dramatic changes and endure more challenging things than I have or will ever understand.

One thing I find fascinating is that most people who join the Peace Corps say they want to help others or make a difference in the world. That is true, but moving halfway across the world and having the U.S. government pay for it in the name of peace is not a prerequisite. Helping others can be done anywhere. So can making the world a better place.  It’s in what you choose to do and don’t do day in and day out that accumulates into your sole contribution to the world.

One of the volunteers here put it perfectly in summing up her thoughts of before joining the Peace Corps and the reality of it.

“Before my service I thought I’d be saving the world.  Instead, I’m mostly just learning about myself.” – Sarah Sheffield PCV Indonesian 2010-2012

I couldn’t relate to that more. While I didn’t have delusions of changing the world in two years and was certainly looking forward to the personal experiences this would bring about, I quickly realized during my Pre-Service Training that I was here for me more than anyone else.

This last year has continued to shove that idea in my face as I’ve been personally challenged in a number of ways I hadn’t anticipated and thus learned something new about myself. It’s taken me a long time to feel as home here and at peace with who I was, who I am and who I’m becoming.

Before leaving the U.S. I was pretty happy with myself. It didn’t hurt that people were constantly building me up and stoking my ego by telling me how great I was for joining the Peace Corps and what an amazing experience it would be. Getting here I had to start all over where no one knew just how great I was. Shouldn’t someone have warned them? More importantly no one was telling me it. I’m the kind of person who needs that affirmation. I need to know I’m doing things right. I need confirmation from somewhere because otherwise I’ll spend way too long overthinking things and doubting myself.

Well I’ve worked through that a great deal and then some.

I’ve also learned cultural adaptation isn’t about dressing the part or learning how to properly greet someone. (Though you gotta do that stuff too) It runs much deeper, and it takes a heck of a lot more effort — and consistent effort at that.

At this point I still feel plagued with inadequacy in everything I feel I’m doing and not doing in connecting with people and in my work here. Though upon further introspection I realize I’ve come a long way from those first uneasy days in-country when it comes to myself personally and my cultural adaptation.

Here’s a few “AHa!” moments from the past week:

  • I’m picking up Indonesian habits – This week I was eating lunch when the spoon was just too inconvenient, I switched to eating with my hand. I didn’t even think about it, I just did it. I was eating alone too, so it’s not like I was trying to impress anyone with “Look how Indonesian I am, I’m eating with my hand!” Though they still get a kick out of that.
  • I’m no longer the guest. The other day at school I should have felt partially offended when I was asked to help fill dishes of peanuts for the guests meeting with my principal. Usually I’m the one being offered food and drinks, not being asked to prepare them. But I wasn’t. I was preparing for the guests rather than being one and I was doing it alongside the people I work with at school. That gave me an immeasurable amount of satisfaction.
  • I know what to say and how to act. On the way to a wake, I was sitting in the back seat with a teacher and reviewing how you give your condolences to someone in Indonesian. I said the phrase and asked her if that was correct. Afterwards, I said “Saya masih belajar budaya Indonesia.” English translation “I am still learning Indonesian culture.” To this she replied: “Sudah tahu budaya Indonesia. Sudah pintar!”  Or “You already know Indonesian culture. You are good at it!”
  • My students correct me. For a year now I’ve been butchering the Indonesian language both grammatically and in pronunciation. No one corrects me. Even when I ask to be corrected when I make mistakes, more often than not the response is “Tapi sudah pintar Bahasa Indonesia”“But you are so good at Indonesian!” I know I’m not and I can’t get better if no one will correct me. Gah! Well it’s come to the point where now my students are beginning to correct me. Students correcting their teacher? What!? Lo! And for this I am incredibly happy. It means that they’re becoming more and more comfortable with me that we can laugh over my silly mistakes together and that they know that not only can they learn from me, but I can learn from them.

So…the transformation is complete. I am Indonesian.

Or at least I can pull off the look ; ) In truth there is still so much I don’t understand and probably never will, but I’m forever grateful for those Indonesians putting up with me. Furthermore the transformation is not complete, there’s still a lot ahead and I won’t fully know in what ways I’ve changed from this experience until long after this is all said and done.

At this point the only thing I can tell you, is that the more I’m exposed to and the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. I’m filled with so many more questions than answers. And I don’t mind that one bit.  It’s all about the journey right?

And now for a little more fun, some numbers things from the last year:

  • Inches my hair has grown: 8
  • Number of pounds gained: 8
  • Number of pounds lost: 5
  • Number of miles traveled and hours spent traveling: a lot more than I had prior to this
  • Number of new people I’ve met: upwards of 400 ( 400 is the number of people I interact with somewhat regularly. So now you can see why I’m especially so bad with name.)
  • Personal money spent: $0
  • Pictures taken: 5,391
  • Text messages sent/received: 5,831/6,072
  • Number of books read: 12 (One for each month, which is an improvement considering I didn’t take time to do a whole lot of reading for pleasure back in the states)
  • Number of blog posts: 48
  • # of days left: 423
  • # of students taught: 200 +
  • # of times I’ve been sick: 3 tiny colds, nothing life threatening and no vomiting—though loose bowel movements are a given and unaccounted for (sorry if that’s tmi, but that’s Peace Corps!)


  • The number of times I’ve felt insecure, inadequate, like I’m letting people down
  • The number of times I’ve been uncomfortable
  • The number of times I’ve had an experience that I could have never had in the U.S.
  • The number of things I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about me, about the world, life, etc
  • The number of times I’ve been awed by the people around me and felt incredibly fortunate to have this experience

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