Archive for March, 2013

March 30, 2013

What do you Think of Indonesian People?

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I meet new people, I always get asked this infuriatingly broad question. If I’m feeling pedantic, I explain that I haven’t yet met all 240 million Indonesian people so I don’t feel comfortable generalizing. If I feel playful, I ask “What do you think of Indonesian people?” But usually I just answer with what is, of course, the correct answer: “I love Indonesian people!”

But what do I really think of Indonesian people? Below are some of the generalizations I can make, at least about the Indonesian people in Central Java that I have interacted with. As generalizations, they aren’t true for every Indonesian I’ve ever met, and, having lived here only 18 months, I’m not the world’s expert on Indonesian culture. These are just my own opinions, based on my own experiences.

Indonesian people are indirect

Saving face is important, so it’s important for Indonesian people to avoid looking stupid, wrong, lazy or ignorant – and to help others avoid the same fate. So when I am planning a meeting and ask my colleague (who has no intention of attending) if she will come, she will answer “maybe” or “insyaallah” (god-willing). This means no. If I ask someone directions and they answer with a vague “keep going straight, it’s still far,” this means they do not know. If I bumble through a speech in Indonesian and my listener has a completely blank expression, then says “You speak Indonesian well,” that means I do not speak Indonesian well. This is often maddening to an American who just wants a straight answer, but I suppose it fosters a more harmonious society.

In America: Just Say No! In Indonesia: Well, we're not going to tell you what to say, but you probably shouldn't say yes...

In America: Just Say No! In Indonesia: Well, we’re not going to tell you what to say, but you probably shouldn’t say yes…

Indonesian people are conformist

Indonesia is often described as a collectivistic culture, while America is an individualistic culture. One of our facilitators during training mentioned a study (which I’m sure is on the internet somewhere, but I can’t find it now) that showed that the US to be one of the most individualistic societies, while Indonesia is one of the most collectivist. One of the ways this manifests itself is that Indonesian people seem to prefer to blend in with the crowd. In America, there is a great value placed on being unique and different from others – this is not so in Indonesia. At an English singing competition I judged, out of 17 competitors, fully NINE of them chose to sing When you Believe by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. And 3 more sang I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly. At one point, we had four versions of When you Believe in a row, including two sisters who sang the same song one after another. No one seemed to be upset that someone else had chosen the same song, let alone that over half the competitors chose the same one!

Indonesian People are cooperative

The day I arrived in Indonesia, while on the way to Salatiga from the Semarang airport, we passed a bunch of sweet potato vendors. I asked my hosts “Why are there so many sweet potatoes here on this street?” They said “This is where you can buy sweet potatoes,” which I had already gathered. “So, do the vendors have, like, a co-operative?” I asked, at which point my hosts looked at me blankly. Despite the fact that they were in direct competition with the other 10 sweet potato vendors on the street, this was the place to set up a sweet potato shop. I asked why they didn’t set up somewhere farther from their competitors, and my host said “That would be unfair competition.” I would call it “good business sense,” but whatever. I’ve since noticed this trend with any number of goods – streets full of shoe vendors, of key-copiers, of fabric shops, of fruit stands. My friend Jonthon told me about how hard it was to buy flowers in his city because all the flower shops were on one street on the opposite side of town. If anyone wanted to open a shop in an area of town that didn’t have a flower shop, they probably would have done great business… but that would be unfair… I guess.

Bag Street

Bag Street

Flower Street

Flower Street

Handicraft Street

Handicraft Street

Indonesian people are comfortable with ambiguity

This is probably along the same lines and being indirect, but it is okay to not have an exact answer to any question. When will you pick me up? After breakfast. When does the ferry go? 3 days a week. When will classes start? Soon.

Which way to Borobudur? Straight... and left...

Which way to Borobudur? Straight… and left…

Indonesian People are thoughtful

Indonesian people are unfailingly kind, and always thinking about other people. For example, when I forgot my camera battery with the bouncers at a bar (you couldn’t take pictures inside, so they kept the battery – whatever), when I returned the next night (when the bar was closed), the battery was wrapped up neatly and left with the security guy out front. So sweet! In America, it would have been tossed in a drawer under the cash register and forgotten.

In English: Camera battery belonging to the foreign girl

In English: Camera battery belonging to the foreign girl

Indonesian people love photos with foreigners

I don’t really have any witty observations about this, mostly because I still don’t really understand why random strangers want me in their photos. My friend Iris says it goes back to the Dutch colonial legacy of telling Indonesians they are not as good as foreigners, but the girls in the photo below were probably born in 1997! Are they really still culturally oppressed by colonization? I don’t know… but I’ve perfected my paparazzi smile.


So those are my very unscientific thoughts about Indonesian people. Some aspects are maddening, some are endearing, some are charming, but they are all part of the reason why… I love Indonesian people!

March 26, 2013

Bugs Bug Me

by Tabitha Kidwell

“I’d really like to know more about all the bugs living in Tabitha’s house.”

Said no one ever.

So if you aren’t into bugs and other gross stuff, you can watch this cute cat video instead.

Still here? Okay… so I totally thought I was winning the war against the vermin in my house, until I got back from Singapore last Sunday night, and as soon as I walked in, I had to immediately take off both shoes so I could kill two cockroaches who had made them selves at home in my absence. Then this guy was hanging out in my bedroom:


Luckily I’ve seen this one before, and when I googled “Gross black bug java pincers stinger” last year I found out it’s called a “false scorpion” or a “vinegaroon” – the first, because it is totally harmless despite that stinger; the second, because it smells like you’re dying easter eggs when you smash it.

Since then, my usual one cockroach per day fatality has been up to two. And the ants are getting a little out of hand. I leave an empty sugary tea cup out for 5 minutes and it’s like Golden Corral. And look what they did to one of the cockroaches I killed:


Lastly, this huge spider spun a giant web in my front yard:

Not the best shot, sorry

Not the best shot, sorry

I thought she was totally beautiful, but anything that brightly colored has to be poisonous, right? I was leaving her there as a kind of experiment, until I realize how bad it would be if she wasn’t there one day and I didn’t know where she had gone – or if she laid eggs! So she had to die:


So the war continues, but I really only need to hold them off for 3 more months… I think I can make it. Then they can regain sovereignty.

March 22, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day in Singapore

by Tabitha Kidwell

Last weekend, I met up with my friends Deirdre, Kate, Holly, Autumn, and Esteban in Singapore. Esteban needed to renew his visa, and we just wanted to get away from Indonesia for a little bit and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We mostly just walked around, checking out Chinatown, little India, and the Riverside areas…

Some people don't cross the street fast enough!

Some people don’t cross the street fast enough!

We also ate a lot of delicious food – Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Pizza. We kinda forgot to eat Singaporean food which is too bad since it is apparently amazing. Oops.


The best part was Saturday night (March 16th, but close enough for St. Patrick’s Day), we happened upon an awesome percussion ensemble on a bridge. We had been looking for a cheap place for a drink (which is impossible – alcohol is so highly taxed that it was hard to find even a beer for less than $10), and we noticed that everyone was just buying 6-packs from the 7-11 and sitting on the bridge. Great idea, we thought… so we joined them.


Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it for my pictures of the trip. But fortunately, I recorded memories in a different form! I used to break out my digital recorder during tailgates on football Saturdays as an excuse to talk to strangers. Turns out the same trick works great in Singapore – even better, actually, because all the strainers here were from different countries all over the world! Here are some of the transcripts from the “interview” recordings I did while hanging out on that bridge Saturday night. This probably gives you a better idea of exactly what I was up to than photos could, anyways!

Tab: So are you guys from Singapore?
Filipino Guy: No, we’re from the Philippines.
Tab: Oh, how long are you here for?
Filipino Girl: 3 years.
Tab: Wow! Long trip!
Filipino couple: …

Tab: So, let’s see, um… your shirt’s very sparkly, do you have a comment?
Girl: What?
Tab: You have a very sparkly shirt, do you have any comments… about the sparkle… of your shirt?… I like, like it.
Girl: Thank you. Are you wasted?
Tab: No!
Girl: Drunk?
Tab: No!
Guy: Why are you doing this?
Tab: For fun!
Guy: No really, why?
Tab: I’m trying to practice my English.
Guy: But you’re from the US.
Tab: You can always get better!
Guy: No, come on!
Tab: Okay, I’m just kidding… it’s just for fun. Do you guys know it’s St. Patrick’s day?
(Blank Stares)
Guy #2: Hey, I’m wearing green!
Tab: Hey, good job!
Guy #2: But that’s because it’s the flag of Pakistan.
Tab: Ah-ha! Are you from Pakistan?
Guy #2: Yeah, I am! But I’m not celebrating St. Patrick’s Day because I don’t know what the hell it is.
Tab: It’s the day that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Pakistan.
(Laughs and protests from group)
Tab: Oh, I always get those two confused! No, she’s right, it’s Ireland.

Tab: How long have you guys been in Singapore?
Irish Guy: Since January
Dutch Guy: About 3 months.
Tab: So since you’ve been in Singapore, what’s the best thing you’ve done?
Dutch Guy: Go to a different country.
Tab: Oooh… the best thing about Singapore is “get the ef out of Singapore?” ouch!
Irish Guy: The best thing about Singapore…
Dutch Guy: The food, yeah, the food.
Latvian Guy: (Inaudible) crabs.
Tab: You have crabs?
Latvian Guy: Chili crabs
Tab: Ooh sounds painful.
(Drums drown out conversation)

Tab: So what’s the best food here?
Guy: No speech English.
Tab: It’s probably for the best…

Irish Guy: We’re going to the parade tomorrow.
Tab: There’s a PARADE? Are there going to be real leprechauns?
Irish Guy: Yes.
Dutch Guy: Yeah, they import them.
Tab: If anyone can import them, like, Singapore, of course they can get leprechauns! Are you one of the leprechauns?
Group: Ohh! Ouch!
Tab: To be fair, I haven’t seen you standing up yet. You look pretty tall, so I think you’re not a leprechaun. But maybe, through the magical powder.
Irish Guy: See, down from my knees, they’re fake. That’s not my real legs.
Tab: You have…? That’s…! The leprechaun union provides you with prosthesis?
Irish guy: Yeah, they subsidize it.
Tab: Where’s the pot of gold?
Irish Guy: If I told you that… Well I can’t tell you that!

Tab: So what are you studying here?
Electrical Engineer Guy: Electrical Engineering.
Tab: Electrical Engineering! Nice! Somebody’s going to make money!
Irish Guy: Not me.
Tab: He’s going to make way more money than you guys!
Irish Guy: Well, that depends.
Tab: Hey, you’re a leprechaun! You don’t even need to worry about money, you have pots of gold!
Irish Guy: See, a lot of places, though, they don’t take gold as a currency.

Tab: What about alchemy? How do you feel about alchemy?
Electrical Engineer Guy: Alchemy, well!
Tab: I feel like that could still happen.
Electrical Engineer Guy: Well, if you get a degree in it, and you work really hard…
Tab: If I get a doctorate in Alchemy?
Electrical Engineer Guy: I mean, that’s up to you to decide, if you want to work that hard, you can make some serious money.
Tab: Can I do a doctorate in Alchemy here in Singapore?
Electrical Engineer Guy: I think they offer that at NCS, not at NTU.
Tab: I’m going to look into it.
Electrical Engineer Guy: Go for it. But warnings – if everyone gets doctorates in alchemy and is suddenly able to turn lead into gold, then gold is no longer going to be valuable.
Tab: But you know what the problem is? I don’t even know where to find lead. What am I going to do, buy a billion bic pencils, that’s not even lead, that’s graphite!
Electrical Engineer Guy: I would recommend buying bullets.
Tab: Always got an idea! Signing out!

Tab: What do you think about the Dutch king? In 10 words or less?
Dutch Guy (who has a beard): He should grow a beard.
Tab: Yes! Everyone should grow a beard! What do you think about my beard? I’ve been working on it for, like 10 years.
Dutch Guy: It sucks.
Tab: I know… I’ve been trying to eat the crusts of bread, but it doesn’t seem to help. Do you have any suggestions?
Electrical Engineer Guy: Eat a lot of peanut butter.
Dutch Guy: Take testosterone.
Tab: I’m going to try the peanut butter before the testosterone.

Tab: Where’d you guys come from just now. You just appeared, as if from nowhere… are you guys leprechauns?
Leprechaun girl: We are…
Black shirt guy: Leprechaun? In a black shirt, grey pants…?
Tab: Well, obviously you’re incognito until tomorrow.
Leprechaun girl: Yeah, we stored our money safely away.
Tab: So where’s the gold? Will you just give us a hint where the gold is?
Leprechaun girl: No
Tab: Just a little hint?
Black shirt guy: It’s a secret.
Tab: You guys are so lucky. What’s your St. Patrick’s day fortune for us?
Black Shirt guy: I think it’s going to be a great time, just like every year.
Tab: That’s a terrible fortune. Do you have a better one?
Leprechaun girl: No. Can you give us an example of a good fortune?
Tab: Ok, an example of a good fortune, okay, I’m going to give a hint for a good fortune for tomorrow. I know you’re incognito, you can’t give your fortune yet, I get it, I know you have a bunch of fortunes saved up. If, IF I were a leprechaun, and it WERE St. Patrick’s day, I would give a fortune like… you’ll find the love of your life under the light of a blue moon on a sad Thursday in July
Black shirt guy: Good fortune, wow! I admire your fortune telling!
Tab: See! And I just made that up, I’m not even a leprechaun.
Leprechaun girl: You should become one!
Tab: Are they hiring?
Leprechaun girl: We are.
Tab: ‘Cause I’ve been checking for like 5 years!
Black shirt guy: Well, maybe we’ll talk to our boss.
Leprechaun girl: We could try.
Tab: That’d be great. Tell them about the fortune!

Tab: … and apparently he got beat up…. What’s this going on here?
German guy: Oh, I dived from a boat into the sea, and the sea was lower than I expected it to be, so I hat the bottom, and there was a stone, and… yeah…
Tab: So you just got in a fight with the ocean?
German Guy: Yeah…
Tab: And you lost…
German Guy: Right.
Tab: You will always lose to the ocean. Remember that! Signing off.

Greek Guy:… Greece.
Tab: Huh! Really? Alpha,beta… zeta?
Greek Guy: Huh?
Tab: What?
Greek Guy: I’m from Greece.
Tab: Cool. I’m from America.
Greek Guy: Oh, you vote for Bush.
Tab: H*ll no… I vote for Obama. I love Obama.
Greek Guy: I like, who is it, the one from the north.
Tab: From Alaska?
Greek Guy: Yes!
Tab: Sarah Palin? You just liked her because she had big boobs!
Greek Guy: Yes!

Tab: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you in Singapore?
Indian Guy: Probably this interview.
Tab: What’s the best thing that’s happened to you? Also this interview?
Indian Guy: No.

I thought that was a good time to stop. But looky-looky what I found later:

Guess this is what happens when you interview a bunch of leprechauns.  Didn't even need a PhD in Alchemy.

Guess this is what happens when you interview a bunch of leprechauns. Didn’t even need a PhD in Alchemy.

March 18, 2013

What’s in a Name?

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I was in high school and the internet was basically brand new, I typed in to see what it was (come on, you did the same, right?). I was surprised to see that it was a logistics and shipping company in Jakarta, Indonesia. I thought that was weird. Now, I pass that shipping company every time I take a taxi to or from the Jakarta airport. I think that is even weirder.

This doesn’t mean that Tabitha is a common name here. Not whatsoever. When I say my name, people give me a confused look that makes me think I don’t know my own name. I’ve gotten misspellings like Capita, Sabina, Zabita, and even if they get close, they have no idea where to put the H: tabitah, tabhita, thabita, tahbita. All this confusion has lead me to typically use my friend Jackie’s name when ordering drinks, reserving a table, etc. But even that doesn’t always work:


Sometimes my last name is even a problem, like on the new calendar for the school I work at:

I'll take that as a compliment

I’ll take that as a compliment

In general, names are used a little differently in Indonesia. In books and articles about Indonesians, you’ll often see the cliché “…who, like many Indonesians, goes only by one name”. Yes, some Indonesians go by only one name. But even more go by 3 or 4. The issue is that Indonesian names don’t conform western ideas about names. There are no first names or last names. There are no family names. Women don’t take their husband’s name at marriage. Kids don’t take their father’s names. Officially, the entire name, whether one or five words, is what is put on documents, announcements, class lists, posters, etc. The western habit of skipping the middle name seems a little odd. Nicknames might come from anywhere in the name, like my students Muchammed Fatmi Latif (just Latif), Indisa Dwi Ciptaputri (just Disa), or Fatihah Fajar Sari (just Ika… I don’t know why, either). This system prompted one of my friends to start calling me “beet” from “Ta-Bee-ta.” Some students use different parts of their names for different parts of their lives, like an Elizabeth who is Beth at home and Liz at school. But some students seem willing to go by anything. I always ask what I can call them on the first day of class, and many say “up to you, miss.” And I always say “no, up to YOU! It’s YOUR name,” and they pick one part for me. I’ve wondered if this apathy about one’s own name might be come back to the collectivistic culture: if individuality isn’t prized, individual names are less important. But that is almost certainly simplistic given the many complicated issues floating around names here. So, while I’m here, I’ll respond to Tab, Bit, Julia, Capita, etc… as long as it’s not Chucky.

March 13, 2013

Bahasa Inggris

by Tabitha Kidwell

A student sent me this text message this morning:

Miss, i’m sorry i can’t attend your class today. I spewed all foods that went to my stomach since yesterday and I don’t feel good today. Sorry I do not send you any license, because i did’t went to doctor, i only use pills to cure it.

I found this message quite clear and even a little charming… but it’s full of errors. This comes from a second year English major, and it is a good illustration of just how low the English levels are here. Now, I do have some very strong students, and students at other universities are typically stronger. Even though it grants an equivalent post-secondary degree, my school is actually classified as a “school of higher learning,” a couple of steps down from a university, so the brightest students typically go elsewhere. Many Indonesians speak better English than my sick student, particularly in the cities. The vast majority, though, cannot string a sentence together. This includes many English teachers – there is no qualifying test to become an English teacher, so out in the villages, even if English is part of the curriculum, it’s the blind leading the blind. Even test prep schools put up signs like these:

...apparently not very well

…apparently not very well

Now, I don’t think people need English just so they can fit into some American imperialist master plan. They don’t all need to be fluent native speakers. But, nationwide, Indonesia does need English. English is the official language of ASEAN and the lingua franca of the region. The latest scholarly research in science and engineering is available in English only. The TOEFL and other language tests are de facto gatekeepers for the best universities worldwide. The lady selling fried bananas on the side of the road in a tiny village might not need English, but if her children don’t learn it in school, they’ll never get out of that tiny village.

It’s important to remember, though, that almost everyone in Indonesia is bilingual, speaking both Bahasa Indonesia and a local language like Javanese or Sundanese or Sasak. That puts them way ahead of the US. In fact, I would bet there are far more people in Indonesia studying English than Americans learning any other language. So Indonesia still has a long way to go… but at least they are better than the US!

March 5, 2013

Last Few Months in Salatiga

by Tabitha Kidwell

Yesterday, the new semester started at STAIN Salatiga. For everyone else, that is. Not for me, since I have Mondays off. I have Fridays off, too, so I spent the day the same way I will spend many of my “weekdays” this semester – going for a long run, lingering over a coffee while reading my Facebook news feed, making an elaborate lunch, and generally relaxing all day. It’s shaping up to be a relaxing semester. I’m teaching as many classes as past semesters, but a scheduling miracle put them all on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. Plus, the classes I’m assigned to teach will be easier to prepare for – the last two semesters, I taught teaching methods classes that really pushed me to research the best teaching practices and present a lot of content in a meaningful way. By that, I mean it was a ton of work! This semester, I am teaching a few sections of reading class, a listening class, and two classes for the other lecturers. I’ll have to find materials and activities, but I can pretty much do whatever I want as long as it improves my students’ overall reading, listening, or general English ability. So I’ll spend far fewer afternoons and weekends researching, planning, or grading.

Besides teaching, my other commitments are getting easier, too. The English camps and the ETA trainings that I put a lot of energy into in October, November, and December are over. The conference invitations that poured in and kept me running all around Central Java in October seem to have dried up. I still have my elementary school teacher group and the STAIN lecturer support group to plan for, but now that I know the participants better, that is easier, too. As an English Language Fellow, you don’t really have a boss – the State Department hires us, Georgetown pays us, and the local Regional English Language Officer oversees us, but we file taxes as independent contractors (and pay the self-employment tax to prove it!). The crazy schedule I kept in the fall was only a result of my own inability to say no and to limit my commitments. I’m glad I did all that extra work- my CV is stacked now! And now that circumstances are different, I don’t feel too bad about taking it easier this semester and basically only doing what my contract says I am supposed to be doing.

So what will I do for the next three months? I’ll train for a marathon and do a sprint triathlon on the way. I’ll try to get through Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire. I’ll read a few of the books I’ve been meaning to read – especially the 5 or 6 actual/non-ebooks that I’d like to read and leave behind. I’ll visit my Indonesian friends’ houses and travel to the last few of places I want to see in the country. I’ll do crosswords and play Words with Friends. I’ll finish all the lessons in the Basic Indonesian book I’ve been working through. I’ll get lots of massages and facials. I’ll write in my journal, pray, and finish A Course in Miracles. I’ll apply for jobs and research PhD schools. I’ll plan my post-fellowship travel in Vietnam. I’ll study for Jeopardy. I’ll (hopefully) decide where I want to live and what I want to do next year. In short, I’ll have a great final 3 months, and I’ll be ready to go back home in June or July!

March 2, 2013

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and…

by Tabitha Kidwell

Yesterday, I traveled from Malang, in East Java, to Salatiga, in Central Java. I started my journey by being driven to the train station by my friend Iris on her motorbike:


Then I took the train:


I was so impressed - the chairs could rotate around so you could face a group of 4 or face forward.  Brilliant!

I was so impressed – the chairs could rotate around so you could face a group of 4 or face forward. Brilliant!

Then I took a beck (a bicycle rickshaw):


Then I took a bus:


Then I took an angkot (a city-wide mini-bus):


Then I walked the last three blocks to my house!

In addition to all that, in the last month, I have used the following modes of transportation: airplane, taxi, private car, motorcycle taxi, ferry, speedboat, carpool, bicycle, and horse cart. Indonesia is great because they seem to embrace every new option without losing the previous ones. I regularly see motorcycles zipping around SUVs trying to pass horse carts that are held up by bicycle rickshaws. This apparently necessitates these signs at the highway on-ramp:

1, no walking, 2, no motorcycles...

1, no walking, 2, no motorcycles…

...3, no rickshaws, 4, no push carts, 5, no pull carts...

…3, no rickshaws, 4, no push carts, 5, no pull carts, 6, no bicycles, 7, no bicycle rickshaws…

... 6, no... um... covered wagons?

… 8, no… um… covered wagons?

So it looks like horse carts are totally allowed! Or maybe they need a few more signs…