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.

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One Comment to “Semarang Sunday Afternoon Blues”

  1. What’s Fifteen, Tabs? Give us more good speaking English games!!!

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