Sometimes Peace Corps isn’t sunshine and rainbows. This is is a post about those days. I should start with a disclaimer – I got lucky in PST. I loved Bu Manis, my host mom, and we got along really well. Her food was so delicious and her Bahasa Indonesia was some of the most articulate I’ve heard. I ate well and was able to understand almost every situation. Transitioning to Subang, my permanent site, has not been easy.
Every day I am asked Betah di sini? I get asked by the stranger I just met and people I see all the time. It literally translates to “At home here?” and is a way of asking if I am comfortable and whether or not I have settled into my new life here. And every day I tell a white lie; I say yes. Every day I feel a mix of both comfort and discomfort, often in the same situation. But it would be almost impossible for me to explain the whole range of emotions I feel that result in my daily frustrations and triumphs.
An easy example. I was immediately very comfortable riding my bike around the chaotic roads of Java. This island is three times more densely populated than New Jersey. In medium sized cities there might be one or two stop lights, otherwise traffic is controlled by a jobless dude working for 2,000 Rr tips (15 cents). What would be a one lane road in America is a two lane road here. I regularly ride my bike going the wrong way on a one-way road in the middle of town, usually following behind a stream of motorcycles. I ride my bike in the wrong lane while waiting to merge into the right lane. It’s just how you get around here and I’m completely unfazed about it. However what is extremely uncomfortable is the insane amount of street harassment I get. People are yelling at me left and right. Sometimes it is innocent, sometimes it isn’t. I’m actually happy I don’t really understand Bahasa perfectly because it makes it easier to ignore them. Either way some days it’s hard to suppress the temptation to yell back mean things in English.
Every day I am uncomfortable as I try to understand Bu Mimin, my new host mom. Her Bahasa Indonesia is always mixed with Sundanese, the local language I don’t speak. She speaks with an accent I am just now starting to understand and does not use the formal Bahasa we were taught, but casual Bahasa. We can communicate about the basics of showering, going to school and eating this or that. But I can’t have conversations about what I don’t understand because I don’t understand what she says most of the time. This is a far cry from the time I talked to Bu Manis about why Jews are so poorly viewed in Indonesia and I explained to her that some Jewish people support the state of Palestine.
However what is comfortable is that Bu Mimin gives me an incredible amount of personal space. Most volunteers struggle with Ibus that are constantly smothering them, but once I go into my room my Ibu leaves me alone and it’s gold. I’ve realized that I need a lot of down time after being “on” for much of the day in a different language. Having uninterrupted quiet time in my room has been a life saver. I get a lot of independence and privacy in my host family.
Another comfort/discomfort has been around food. Unfortunately Bu Manis spoiled me with Indonesian home cooking. I loved every dish she made and though I wanted to learn how to cook from her, PST had us so busy learning Peace Corps stuff I didn’t have time to join her in the kitchen. And unfortunately I don’t love the food in my new host family. It’s standard Indonesian fare – rice, fried tofu, fried tempe and fried fish, everyday. There is some variety, but not much. It doesn’t help that I don’t like the fish or tofu that Ibu cooks. Indonesians eat rice at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. They assume that in America we eat bread as the base of every meal, at breakfast lunch and dinner. I always struggle to explain that I eat something different at every meal and describe the variety of international food available in an American supermarket.
Learning to cook on my own here has been an interesting challenge. I can’t buy anything I want at the supermarket and I have to be careful about raw food because germs here lead to diarrhea. Hunting the grocery store in town (20 minutes away by bike) has been been an adventure of it’s own. Then when I get home Ibu and I disagree about how to cook stuff; no tomatoes are not too sour and no I don’t need more salt. For the most part she tells me what to do and I say “I don’t understand” because chances are I don’t actually understand her language. All of these little things lead to every day feeling like a struggle to feed myself food I enjoy.
All of that being said what is comfortable is that there is ALWAYS food around. I never worry about whether I will starve if I don’t manage to feed myself. If Ibu ran out of food, which would never happen, any neighbor would gladly fill my plate with rice and tofu or tempe. This is especially comforting when I return home from a 7 hour bus ride or I just don’t have the energy for the 20 minute bike ride into town. Ibu will never let me go to bed hungry and that is comforting.
Uncomfortable? I get asked “Do you like rice?” every day. And when I eat in public, especially around new people, I am often watched like an animal at the zoo during feeding time. I’ve been eating the same oatmeal every morning for the last 22 days. Every morning Ibu asks “No rice?!” Comfortable? I get free food all the time. Every time I go to someone’s house I am fed sweet snacks or a meal. I am often given fruit to take home and eat later. It’s awesome.
Uncomfortable? People comment on your appearance every day. I’m always told that I’m cantik (beautiful) and I that I have pretty white skin and a pointy nose. Annoying but I ignore it or explain that in American everyone wants to be tan like an Indonesian. But the worst is when people ask about my acne. I’ve always been super anxious and self-conscious about my skin which means that this specific comment always gets me more frustrated. Supposedly it’s not rude to comment on people’s appearance here. But when you try to tease out what comments are and aren’t rude it’s a movable line that varies from person to person. Calling people fat is common, but everyone is always making comments about wanting to be skinny. It’s complicated.
Comfortable? Being a foreigner means I can take advantage of being rude because I can always fall back on Maaf, saya tidak mengerti, Sorry, I don’t understand. While taking a photo once one of the men called the woman I was standing next to “the fat one”. I guessed (possibly inaccurately) that this was one of those times when it was not okay to call someone fat. So I immediately told him that he was being tidak sopan (not polite). That’s a big deal here. Saving face is very important in Indonesia so publicly shaming someone is a powerful way to get your point across. I didn’t even think twice about whether or not I was shaming him. I consider myself lucky that I haven’t been sexually assaulted yet, it’s already happened to some of my female peers and it’s highly likely it will happen to me. I am already mentally prepared to publicly shame the shit out some hypothetical man if this unfortunately happens to me.
All things considered most days I feel mostly betah (comfortable). But at the end of the day I’ll always be a little bit uncomfortable telling white lies and being limited by language.