Tag Archives: cultural differences

Post-Peace Corps pondering and telling stories

27 Sep

Let’s get right back into it, shall we?

I’ve officially been done with my service for almost four months. That means for nearly four months I’ve been using the line, “Oh, I just got back from finishing my Peace Corps service in Indonesia” when new people I’m meeting or old acquaintances ask what I’m doing. I began thinking more about this question and that reply this last week. More so, I began thinking about how long I can continue to use that line before it becomes obsolete.

Despite it being so long, I have no shame in using it. Though I said my goodbyes in June, it’s fresh. I still feel like “I just finished.”

Some people follow that question with “How long have you been back?” and then “What have you been doing between then and now?” The answer I want to say is “It’s been a blur, non-alcohol induced.” Elbow nudge. Ha. Ha… More often than not I simply say “I’ve been traveling.” And it’s true. I’ve taken more trips between June and August than I had during any other three-month period.

It feels fresh because I’ve gotten to a point where me and my belongings (for the most part) are in one place, and we’re not leaving. I’m excited about that. I’m excited to be able to completely immerse myself in one place again. Fortunately for me this one place is New York City.

Another reason it feels so fresh is because time has escaped me. Volunteers must sometimes grow accustomed to a slower pace of living in their country of service coupled with limited options of what to do with much more free time.  This often leads to volunteers starting projects. And when those don’t work they pick up seemingly random hobbies like gardening, learning a new instrument, cooking or in my case spending three hours with a mortar and pestle to make one handsome jar of homemade peanut butter. To each their own.

On the reverse side, well, it’s the reverse.

So as a returned volunteer with sudden endless ways to fill my time and surrounded with the go-go-go mentality that is particularly palpable while transferring subway lines during rush hour at Time Square, it’s quite easy to wake up and realize September is almost over when you swore yesterday you were planning Labor Day weekend and sending out those first few resumes.

Back in spring, when my Close of Service was in grasp, I began to think more heavily about my return. I thought about the habits I had created and aspects of Indonesian culture and my Peace Corps experience that I would want to retain when I got back to the U.S.  I knew it’d be all too easy to leap back into old patterns without much intention to purposefully do so or resist doing so. During service all that time to kill actually became important as it provided ample opportunity for reflection, journaling or enjoying some sort of stimulating reading, podcast, documentary or movie that I might not ordinarily set time aside to read/listen/watch and digest. That’s a habit I’m trying to make stick—not just quickly consuming everything that’s out there—but rather spending time to fully explore something. I’ve been trying to set aside an hour or two before I go to bed to do this. That’s how I happened upon this podcast: TED Radio Hour: The Next Great Generation?  Which in turn inspired this blog post, the remainder of which was adapted from my journal.

What’s your story?

We’ve been hearing about it for years now, about this emerging adulthood where 20-somethings are lost and living unconventional lives. We’re underemployed and living with our parents. We’re idealists and optimistic. We’ve grown up with social media that has morphed us into narcissists taking any opportunity to post, tweet and squawk about ourselves.


What is it with 20 Somethings? via New York Times Oct. 8, 2010

The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright via New York Magazine Oct. 2011

Educated and Jobless: What’s Next for Millennials? via NPR Nov. 12, 2011

Many ’emerging adults’ are not there yet via USA Today July 7, 2012

A few years back, it fascinated me to see these topics, experiences and attitudes enter the public conscious. Being the “narcissistic” millennial that I am, I thought these were thoughts and feelings exclusive to me and my friends. It was interesting to see that this wasn’t unique to me, but it was part of a larger social trend. It was a generational thing, and it validated a lot. I wasn’t alone in the ambiguity of early 20s, and it was OK to have a quarter-life crisis.

It’s a conversation that doesn’t seem to be going away. Just yesterday I got into yet another conversation about my generation. I’m less enthused to hear about it all now, as it seems there’s nothing to add that hasn’t been said or that doesn’t just state the obvious observations. Regardless I’m still intrigued by what is being said about my generation.

I liked this podcast because it put a positive spin on it all. Instead of focusing on our search for jobs and meaningWe’re creative, innovative… the next greatest generation! We’re changing things up, creating new norms and emanating innovative ideas and energy.

Yet one idea we still abide by, perhaps you’ve encountered it, is the whole “What do you do?” This question has an implicit meaning. It’s an abbreviated version of “What do you do… for a living?” Or more specifically “What do you do from 9-5?” It can appear that the answer to this question is inseparable from our identities. Perhaps for some it is or was. Perhaps it’s the easiest way to sum ourselves up in brief encounters.  It does provide information of value, but does this common question have to be the first one outside of “What is your name?” when meeting someone new. It’s appropriate in an office, but why do we carry it to less formal settings as well?

In Indonesia this was not the case, at least in the area where I lived. I can’t speak to the culture of a big business-centric city or other islands with their differing local cultures. However, with the people I regularly came into contact with, the information they shared about themselves in introductions included 1.) What town, village or region they were from, 2.) Their religion, 3.) Their birth order within their family, 4.) If they were married or single, and 5.) If they had children of their own. I don’t recall getting around to what a person did for a living until a while later into a conversation. In fact sometimes when I asked, it seemed aside from the point.

As I was preparing to leave and considering those elements I appreciated in East Javanese culture… the warmness, hospitality, the focus on working together and supporting one another… this way of identifying ourselves outside of what we do for a living did not occur to me as something I might want to hold onto.

Now it’s in my thoughts after having answered this question frequently upon returning and not having a set title (aside from my former one.)

What if we took this cultural idiosyncrasy and applied it here? What if we broke the U.S. norm derived from a time when “what you do” from 9 to 5, more or less was the same for the duration of your career and perhaps rightfully so displayed something telling about you?

We are finding new ways to identify ourselves outside of that. It’s in the clever quips in the bio sections of personal websites and social media, and it’s perpetuated through the curated images we portray of our lives online. It shows there’s more to us than a title on a business card. Yet why face-to-face does the question “What do you do?” remain one of the first we ask?

Before putting all this thought into it, I noticed a little while back I had started to ask new people I met at social gatherings, “What’s your story?” It’s candid, a good opener to get someone to talk about something. Sometimes it’s a little unclear. We all have multiple stories after all. If the person needed further prompts, I’d provide: “Who are you? What are you interested in? How’d you get here tonight? Tell me something about yourself!”

I’d like to think it opens the door for that person to tell me about whatever he or she feels is important about himself or herself. I hadn’t thought too deeply about my choice in asking this, other than noticing that once I threw it out there, I liked it and continued to use it. Now it’s more conscious and an interesting experiment in seeing how people define themselves through how they respond. When meeting someone new I put effort into avoiding the obvious question because I don’t want the obvious answer. Give me something better to go off of.

This podcast got me brewing as I noticed that the millennials featured had great stories that told who they were without a title. They weren’t defined by a typical job but through what they weren’t getting paid to do whether it was volunteering, pursuing unpaid work, or blogging.

Being that I’m in a transition phase, I can take liberties with my story telling. I can stick with the tried and true whole living in Indonesia/Peace Corps/new to New York/exploring my options story or I can dive right in to any one of the other things I’m currently interested in and pursuing. I dance around these questions. That’s probably why I even started using the whole “What’s your story thing?” My story varies from person to person because I don’t have one single thing I’m doing or have been doing that I can default to as I could if I currently possessed a business card with some cool title on it.  In the interim, as it seems a business card with a title is an important thing to have to answer the question “What do you do?” and because people are less interested in your birth order, religion or marital status, I’m considering something in the likeness of Oskar Schell’s business card which plays to not one single story, but to the variety of stories I have to tell.

Confession Sunday: 5.13.2012

13 May

I’m horrible with names.

It occurred to me the other day when my neighbor called after her three-year-old son to come home so she could give him a bath. He was playing with my four-year-old host niece in the living room. I was in my room reading, and I perked up. She repeated the name several times. Each time I kept thinking now I’ll finally know his name!  But I couldn’t make sense of what she was saying. Is that an “ei” sound or an “ae” sound. Does it end with a d, s, or an f? And then they went home.

I see this kid every day, and I don’t know his name.

I know his father’s because it’s both the word for dawn in Indonesian and Aladdin’s archenemy Jafar’s name jumbled– Fajar.  I know his brother’s because it’s the same as his father’s, and I can mispronounce his mother’s. But I can’t figure out what his little two-syllable name is.

No one was around, so I sat there. Embarrassed at myself.  Sadly this isn’t unusual.

I used to have what I thought was a clever way to handle this situation:

Illustration by Christie Young and published on Good.is.

I can make excuses like, welll…. they’re foreign names to me.

Or they’re names are so long! There’s too many syllables for my clumsy tongue to say that the same way every time I hand you back a graded assignment.

I can make excuses like well… Indonesian names don’t follow a familiar pattern in naming convention. No first name, middle name and family name. Perhaps they have one name or maybe they have like five. And then they go by some variation of it or grab a few syllables from each one and recombine it.

I can make excuses like even the name they tell me they go by, they don’t consistently go by. Sometimes Ibu Mei Lusyana Darawan is Ibu Mei or sometimes she’s Ibu Lusy. And no, she doesn’t have multiple personalities (that I know of.) Or sometimes my host sister, Ervin Vani Pemilia, is Mbak Vani which she told me to call her. Or sometimes, she is what most people call her, Mbak Lia.

*note: Ibu, Bapak, Mas and Mbak are all courtesy titles that are used much more commonly than in the U.S. Ibu= older woman, Bapak=older man, Mas=young man, Mbak=young woman. Adik is also commonly used to refer to friends and family younger than you that you consider like a younger brother or younger sister. In general these courtesy titles can be a great substitute for names also.

I can make excuses like they don’t use these real names on their Facebook accounts, which I originally hailed as my salvation to this name dilemna.  Rather, they use some sort of mash-up of their real name and a perceived alter ego or screen name such as: Haidar Rozzan ‘Rezpectorz’ or Princess Dyach Ayyueor or Vnous Putrifarahayuarianti’s Purplepurplelove  or Guntur Aremania CrazyLion or maybe even Uchauphaulfaceweberzodiakpisces Iiankiingindndridlu. All of those are students or friends on my Indonesian Facebook account.

I can make lots of excuses. But the truth is I’m just bad at learning and remembering names.

Indonesians say the darndest things: round two

30 Jan

Here we go with round two….

From a speaking assessment in which students had to ask me one question in English (unfortunately most were rather unimaginative due to the lack of language skills, but I enjoyed these):

“Why are you not yet married?” Do you hear the connotation in that?

“Do you like tomatoes?” Sure, why not?

More fun words uttered in my general direction:

“Are you an actress?” —Teen girl on a bus

“Sexy price” penjual, or salesman, selling clothes and souvenirs at a shop in Bali

“Sunglasses?” penjual selling sunglasses on a bus from Bali at 2 a.m. in the morning. Super necessary.

“What do you think?” — Male teacher walking out of the school’s administration office with his shirt draped over his shoulders and flexing

The following are the translations from what was said in Bahasa Indonesia:

“Do you have milk? I want milk. I want to drink… [gibberish giberish gibberish]”— 99.9% sure this was toddler speak for I want you to breast feed me…

“Do you want to be my husband’s third wife? I don’t mind. You can stay here with me. It’s no problem.”  — Female neighbor

And my favorite from my three-year-old host niece:

“Do you love me?”  How does that not tug at your heart strings?

Some extra fun goodies (Aka Bonus stuff):

Indonesians say the darndest things

23 Aug

Here are a few of my favorite questions and comments so far (in no particular order):

“Where is your husband?”

“Your pimple is bigger….why?” This brought on the following conversation:

Teacher: “Maybe you miss your family.”
Me: “Yeah, that could be it, or maybe stress, or hormones. I don’t know.
Teacher: “Maybe this week is woman’s monthly disease?”
Me: “Umm… excuse me, what? I didn’t hear you.”
Teacher: “The sickness that women get every month.”
Me (lightbulb goes off, we are clearly talking about menstruation.): “Oh yes, that could be one reason. There are many reasons I might get a pimple.”

 “I hope that you want to sleep here, not just with me, but with the other teachers too.” — Male teacher inviting me to the 10th grade retreat at the school

“How is the economy in America?” Of all the questions you could have asked me, dear student, about life in America, you had to hit us where it hurts.

“I think we are couples. Me with my husband, my sister with her boyfriend, and you are lonely.” ‘Oh so very lonely,” is how it echoed in my mind. I’m so glad someone brought this up because I hadn’t noticed that before.

“Justin Bieber hampir sama Michael Jackson.” Translation: “Justin Bieber is almost the same as Michael Jackson.” This was followed by, “Have you met Michael Jackson?”

“How can husbands and wives be equal in America without there being absolute chaos?” — Teenage boy from an English Camp

“Why do Americans just have free sex, do drugs, drink alcohol…(and pretty much indulge in every other imaginable carnal sin, she listed quite a few) … all the time.” — Paraphrased from a sweet and soft-spoken Muslim teen wearing a jilbab and covered from head to toe. I guarantee you she’d been walking too much TV and American movies.  Sad, though, that this may be the only impression some Indonesians get of Americans.

And my personal favorite, from today:

“You look prettier today.”

Followed several minutes later by…

“You look fat[ter].”

It goes without saying that the two don’t go hand-in-hand in America.  What makes this even better is that my response to both, without hesitation, was an enthusiastic “Thank you.

What I love about all of these comments is they were posed with genuine curiosity by people I hardly know and who wouldn’t have thought twice about any of them being slightly out of line or culturally insensitive.  There’s also, I’m sure, some lost in translation as all were (except the one in Indonesian) coming from people trying to speak English. That doesn’t change the fact that they sound a little odd to American ears. So, there’s a little helping of cultural differences for ya. If you live in Indonesia, it helps to have a sense of humor because Indonesians will say the darndest things.

Aaand…. you might ask, what’s with the picture at the top of this post? I thought it was funny. That is all. Mouse over for a description. (P.S. if you haven’t noticed, most photos in my posts have additional captions when moused over.)