Archive for October, 2011

October 27, 2011

The Sliding Scale

by Tabitha Kidwell

During the 4 years I lived with my sister Katie, any time I was getting dressed for a special occasion (and sometimes when I was getting dressed for downright everyday occasions), I would model the options for her. She did the same thing – making decisions is neither of our strong suits, so it took two of us to make final wardrobe decisions.

So, I am in big trouble now that I live in Indonesia and Katie lives in Denver. Now, not only do I not have her input, I also have to negotiate a totally different set of clothing norms. The first week I was here in Salatiga, before I started teaching, I went into the office to work wearing what I thought was a very appropriate outfit. One of my counterparts (the female one) pulled me aside.

“Tabitha,” she whispered, “you cannot wear that shirt to campus!”

I was puzzled. What could be wrong with the long sleeves and long pants I had worn on this hot September day?

“You can almost see your breasts.”

I looked down at what I considered to be two very well covered breasts and wondered exactly whose breasts she was talking about. I was exposing maybe 5 or 6 square inches of skin below my neck, however, and that would not do. I was mortified. They had informed me that I needed to be covered to the ankle and to the wrist to teach at this Islamic University, but they had neglected to tell me that I also needed to be covered to the neck, maybe thinking that no self-respecting young lady would do something so lascivious as to show a peek of her clavicle. I left at lunch that day, feeling frustrated with the overly rigid social norms in an Islamic society.

Indonesia, is an incredibly conservative society. This is especially true in a smaller city like Salatiga. Most people get married before 23 and have children before 25. Most mothers stay home with the children. Restaurants don’t serve alcohol, bars can only be found in big cities, and wine and spirits are next to impossible to find. I only go to the fancy hotel pool on weekday mornings so that I won’t be gawked at by the fully clothed and headscarfed ladies watching their husbands and children (and me) swim. I’m still coming to understand the meaning of the headscarf, so I don’t intend this to be a commentary on the repression of women. Many Muslim women begin to wear the headscarf at puberty as a sign of their devotion to God, It has a joyful and meaningful connotation to them. They are accustomed to wearing the headscarf and clothing that is comparatively modest. They would feel as uncomfortable going out with their hair on display as I would wearing my bikini to the grocery store. It’s just a different scale. What is perfectly acceptable (and even modest) in western countries is provocative here. And, incidentally, most of the clothing they choose (cotton shirts, long flowy skirts, headscarves with a little visor built in) has the added benefit of protecting the body from the hot tropical sun.

I put that shirt away and didn’t wear it again for a few weeks. During those few weeks, something shifted in my sense of social appropriateness. I put the shirt on and looked at myself in the mirror.

“ Oh no!” I thought.

“I can almost see my breasts.”

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October 18, 2011

It’s the freakin’ weekend, baby, I’m about to pray with some monks….

by Tabitha Kidwell

I had one of the most incredible weekends in recent memory. It was one of those perfect couple of days where good things come one right after another. I had heard that you could pray with the monks at the Buddhist Monastery that is next to the ninth century Candi Mendut (Mendut Temple). It isn’t too far away from where I live, so I knew I wanted to get down there sometime this year. When a student mentioned to me that she lived in Magelang and was going home this weekend, I asked if I could ride the bus with her to see how to get there. So Lulu and I boarded a bus together on Saturday afternoon. We got to town with plenty of time left for me to get down to the monastery before evening prayers, so her uncle picked us up and we went to her house, where her mother had a huge dinner waiting for me, even though it was only 4:30. So Lulu and I ate up, then her uncle took me down to the monastery.

I got there about an hour early, and walked around a little. I went over to Mendut Temple, which is notable because it contains one of the only states of the Buddha where he is sitting in a chair, western-style, rather than cross-legged. It was after dark by this time, and the temple was closed, but the guard asked if I wanted to go in. Apparently “Java Heat,” an action film starring Kellen Lutz and Mickey Rourke, was being filmed in town, and one of the actresses had hired a guide who had bribed the officials to let her in to meditate. So they were willing to let me sneak in after her. I waited a few minutes until she was done, scoped out the actress (who I didn’t recognize), and climbed up to the temple entrance. I didn’t fully realize how incredible it was to be in there alone until the next day when I went back and had to fight the crowds of picture-snapping tourists and incense-burning Buddhists. It was just me and the Buddha in his giant chair. I tried to quiet my mind and meditate, but I was so excited to be there that it was a little tricky. After centuries of prayers had been said in that little chamber, it was an incredible and holy feeling to just sit there alone and soak up the presence of the Divine. I didn’t want to leave, but the guard was lingering outside, waiting for me to wrap up, and anyways I had real live monks to go pray with, so I reluctantly said good-bye to the western-sitting Buddha.

I arrived I the meditation room just a little before the monks, and saw that my actress friend had also come. We waited in silence for the monks to file in. Then there was more silence. And then they started their chanting, which was incredible. I’m sure everyone has heard monks chanting on CDs or on TV or whatever, but this was the first time I had heard it in person, and it was truly moving. They stopped chanting and had silent meditation, then filed back out. One stayed behind to chat with the visitors and to invite us to a ceremony they were having the next day at noon. I didn’t pick up why they were having a Buddhist ceremony, but I felt like if a monk lets me come to his chanting and then invites me to a ceremony, I should probably go.

So then I left the temple and met up with my friend Ken, who lives in Magelang and also teaches English. We headed to dinner but got distracted by a random dance performance in a field. Why were they having a random dance performance in a field? That remains unclear, but it was very cool!

The next morning, I got up at sunrise and ran by Candi Mendut and it’s neighbors 3 km away, Candi Pawon, and the incredible Candi Borobudur. Mendut and Pawon are tiny and can be run around fairly quickly (even by a slowpoke like me), but Borodubur is massive and surrounded by a giant complex. It wasn’t open yet, and you have to pay an admission fee, but the guards just smiled at me when I ran in the entrance that seemed to be for all the employees. So I was able to run around the temple, alone, at dawn. I couldn’t get up to the actual temple area, but it was really wonderful to run around it and feel like I had the place to myself. It was one of those runs you just don’t want to end.

I headed over to the monastery at noon for the ceremony, and was squeezed myself in along with the thousands of people in the tiny monastery. I still didn’t really understand what the ceremony was for, but there was more chanting and more silence, made all the more incredible by the giant crowd’s participation. Then there was a speech by a monk that still did not explain the purpose of the ceremony, but surprised me because I was probably able to understand 70% of what I heard! Maybe monks, having chosen a life of simplicity, also choose simple vocabulary words? I don’t know, but it felt great to be able to follow the speech.

So then I headed home. It dragged into a 3-hour long hot, dusty and uncomfortable bus ride, so I arrived back in Salatiga a little less Zen than I was when I left the monks, but it was still a weekend and an experience to remember.

October 9, 2011

Arisan of fortune

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’m not much of a gambler, and I never win anything.  I had never even been to a casino until July, when I went to Greektown casino in Detroit with my roommates from college.  I didn’t even know what to do in there.  I sat down at a video poker game, put in $10, won $3 immediately, then promptly lost it all.  Later that evening, my friends sat me down at the Pai  Gow poker table and taught me how to play.  I put down my remaining $90 and decided I would just see where it would take me.  I had a few push hands and managed to last an hour or so, but I didn’t have one winning hand the whole time.  Having flushed $100 down the toilet, I decided to go to bed and not bother with gambling ever again.

So it was only through a misunderstanding that I again tempted fate this afternoon.  I got a note under my door yesterday, and with the help of Google translate, I deciphered that I had been invited to the ibu-ibu (mothers) meeting today at 4 PM.  Though I am not a mother (and usually can’t even keep plants alive), I guess I belong in this meeting more than the bapak-bapak (fathers) meeting.   I asked my neighbor about it and she explained that we were meeting to elect officers and collect social dues, money to pay the guards, and trash fees.  Our neighborhood is a new development, so the “civic association” is just getting started.  I dutifully showed up, shook everyone’s hand, and tried to follow as best I could while we chose officers and discussed how much we should all contribute for various funds.  I forked over whatever they asked me to, even if I wasn’t sure what it was for – including 10,000 rupiah for something that sounded like the French word for “hedgehog.”

Once everyone had contributed to the hedgehog, they put all the names in a bowl and shook it until one paper fell out.  I had figured out by this time that a arisan was a raffle or lottery, and I was really hoping I wouldn’t win.  The $30 in the pot would have been a lot more exciting to everyone else in the room.  What were the odds, I thought – there were 25 of us in the room, and some had bought two or three tickets.  Turns out, pretty good.  I didn’t really know how to turn the hedgehog down, so I took home the 320,000 rupiah, feeling a little embarrassed that the only person in the neighborhood without a husband and kids had taken everyone’s money.   I thought my discomfort would end there, but it turns out, the hedgehog winner is also the host of next month’s meeting!  So, on the second Sunday in November, every mother in the neighborhood will be coming to the house of the only single lady.  And then I will know to not contribute to the hedgehog in the first place!

October 8, 2011

Semarang Sunday Afternoon Blues

by Tabitha Kidwell

Back home, I used to get what I called the “Sunday afternoon blues.” The fun plans of Friday and Saturday nights were over and the long work-week loomed in front of me. I usually had to get down to lesson planning, reading, or paper writing that I had put off all weekend. It was a gloomy time of the week.

Now that I don’t work on Mondays (for that matter, now that I don’t really work that much, or go to graduate school at all), I’m free of the Sunday afternoon blues, but I was reminded of them last week when I took the hour-long bus ride up to Semarang, the provincial capital. I had plans to present at Semarang’s American Corner on Monday, so I thought it would be fun to go up a day early and see the town. I ended up walking around Semarang’s Old Town at about 3 PM, and the Sunday afternoon blues hung over the place like a cloud.

Semarang was a major Dutch administrative center and port in colonial times, but has fallen by the wayside since then. It doesn’t have the vibrant Javanese culture of Solo and Yogya, the two other major towns in Central Java; both were once independent Sultanates and retain strong ties to Javanese history. Semarang’s old town felt a bit like downtown Detroit – the empty, crumbling buildings were a reminder of how animated the city had been a generation or two ago. Now, it was an eerie and quiet place. I walked through a market and felt unexpectedly ill-at-ease. Usually, Indonesians are friendly and curious about foreigners, but here, I got several “Hey, bule!” jeers, and quite a few sullen stares. I came across the Chinese Night Market as dusk was falling, and it was more animated, but I was put off by the deserted streets at either end. I didn’t want to have to pass through them alone to get home later on, so I took a becak (pedi-cab) to the mall.

The contrast between the deserted Colonial part of town and the frenzied modern part was incredible. As my becak driver pedaled forward into increasingly busy traffic, the town grew up around us – high-rise hotels, fluorescent-lit restaurants, huge roundabouts. The mall had a Starbucks, a Haagen-Dazs, and a children’s festival with costumed characters on the ground level. I had pizza and salad for dinner, and enjoyed the western-ness of it all. I asked the directors of the American Corner about the Old Town the next day, and they said that people hoped that the government would restore the colonial part – that there were always plans being presented, but nothing ever comes from it. In the meantime, while the plaster of the colonial buildings is crumbling, the stores, restaurants, and malls in the new part of town are thriving and expanding southward. In places like Semarang, the colonialism and capitalism of 20th century history are writ large. The residents might like the idea of restoring the decaying Old Town, and it might even happen one day. But until then, the commercial area to the south will continue rushing forward into the 21st century. Though the Old Town is stuck in the Sunday afternoon blues, the rest of the town has already moved on to Monday morning.

In any case (come on, keeping-tabs.com can only discuss post-colonialism for so long), Monday morning helped me move past the sour taste of Sunday afternoon as well. The directors of the American Corner at IAIN Walisongo picked me up, took me to lunch, and drove me out to campus. They were clearly thrilled to be able to produce an actual American at the American corner. They said that they had had no expatriate visits for over 3 months, and that the students were very excited. That turned out to be a serious understatement. They had told me to expect 50 students, and I secretly thought there might be more like 20. When we walked into the library, though, there was a line down the stairs from the American Corner – and the 50 chairs they had set out were already full!

They set out more chairs, I entertained the students who had already signed in by posing for cell phone pictures, and once all 150 students had registered, we got started. They had asked me to lecture on games for language learning. Since these were students, I took that to mean games they could play with their friends to practice English, and I tried to teach them games fun enough that Americans college students would play as well (of course, the drinking games needed some re-design for a Muslim context). They pushed and shoved in “Have you Ever,” giggled at “Fifteen,” and didn’t quite get “Would you Rather.” After the session ended and I had posed for even more cell phone pictures, the directors insisted on driving me all the way home to Salatiga, over an hour away! They were thrilled by the turnout and asked me to come back again. I said I would be glad to – but next time I might skip Sunday afternoon.

October 2, 2011

The magic of small things

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve been waiting for something big and exciting to happen to warrant a blog post. But no such event has occurred. It turns out, life here is not so different from like in Ohio: I plan classes, teach classes, spend way too much time looking at pictures of my friends’ babies and puppies on facebook, etc. If I keep waiting for something crazy and exotic to happen, I might not blog for a long time. That’s not to say that life isn’t exciting here – it definitely is! But the excitement is more pervasive – instead of one stand-out event, it’s a million little things to wonder about and discover. This is what I love about living abroad – life is still life, with its daily banalities, but it’s just different enough to keep you on your toes. Some of the highlights of life the past few weeks:

After two weeks of practicing on the Scoopy and only driving short distances, I finally got the license plates! After lots of practice, I’m no longer afraid of mowing down small children or running into brick walls. I can now legally drive all over town! Well, not legally, given that I don’t have a motorcycle license (or any form of Indonesian license, actually), but I’m not going to worry about that right now.

I scoopied to the supermarket today, where I bought lettuce! I have really been missing salad, but it’s not often eaten here, so I couldn’t find dressing. I tried to find vinegar to make vinaigrette myself, but couldn’t find that either, so I bought limes to make a citrus vinaigrette. Or, I thought I bought limes: it turns out they were oranges! And it also turns out that orange juice can make a pretty tasty salad dressing. Who knew?

My sprained ankle is still hurting after a month, so my counterpart suggested a Chinese chiropractor/foot reflexologist. Actually, I have no idea what the place was, but it said those things on the door. In America, they really discourage massage for sprained ankles, but I’m not in America anymore, so I thought I’d give it a try. I told the guy about my sprained right ankle and about the tendonitis that has lingered for 18 months in the left ankle. He poked and prodded and stretched and cracked my feet for an hour. Sometimes it felt great, sometimes it hurt like hell, but at the end, both ankles felt better than they have since I fell in that hole a month ago! He said that he made my feet more “symmetrical.” I don’t care what he did. I’m going back next week. Eastern medicine has it figured out!

I’ve been wondering for weeks what “dll” is. It’s on the sign for almost every store – “clothes, shoes, dll,” or “mangoes, apples, bananas, dll.” I really wanted to get some of this dll! Too bad dll means “etc.” Duh.

My mom had heard about a Mennonite couple from Columbus who are here in Salatiga, but hadn’t been able to get their info yet. Then, when I was googling “Pizza Hut Salatiga,” (there isn’t one) I came across their blog and messaged them. We met for coffee last week at a really nice coffee shop that I never would have found on my own. My first bule friends! Then, the opposite thing happened – a girl who teaches at the international school here came across my blog and messaged me, so I met her and her friends at another great coffee shop. More bule friends! And lots of great coffee!

I bought a vial of Britney Spears perfume for 50 cents and a Louis Vuitton clutch for $4. Surely these are authentic… Right?

That wraps it up for this week. I’ll continue to be on the lookout for the exciting and unexpected – both big and small!