Ramadan is Coming … And other fun Indonesian holidays

I arrived at my permanent site June 21st. Ramadan didn’t begin until July 8th/9th so there was plenty of time to meet people, settle in, move about, and explore. Sort of.

School was still on vacation when I arrived and there were no small humans in my household. This made it particularly difficult to make friends. At my last house (and in many other situations in my life), I made friends with the small humans roaming around (you all met Noreen and Safa in previous posts). Once the locals see you are in good with the little ones, that endears you to them and you start to befriend their parents. It’s a nice little niche I’ve found for myself as a faux Mary Poppins. This doesn’t exactly work when there are no small humans. Since I also had not started teaching, my exposure to other teachers was limited. This put the kibosh on a ton of immediate teacher friends.

This is something we were sort of warned about. If perhaps less by PC officially and more by current volunteers. Be warned: Ramadan is Coming. What does that mean for us non-Muslim volunteers?

The motto of House PC Indo...

The motto of House PC Indo…

Well, we are given the option to fast or not. Most of you probably don’t actually know what fasting is in this context, as I certainly did not. It is not the lack of eating for days on end, but instead the lack of eating, drinking, smoking, and other things from Sahur (Vocab: the early morning prayer, this happens around 4:30a) to Maghrib (Vocab: the evening prayer, it happens around 6p). The no eating isn’t that much of a challenge for me. For those of you who are in theatre I think we can all recall at least one 14-15 hour work day during tech week in which we forgot to eat. I know I can. I often forget to drink water unless reminded. (I know, I’m a goldfish.) But here, 7 degrees above the equator, a day without water is a little more daunting. I would happily give up food for an extra few hours if it meant I could drink water all day. The result is staggering. I don’t really leave my house much and the bike ride to school seems arduous and daunting (a mere kilometer at most). People take a lot of naps and there’s not a lot else that’s done. Soooo, I watch movies. I sit. I read. I go to class occasionally, though not to teach. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

New question: Why do they fast? Very good question, reader! It’s important to understand the why before you jump into the do. Well, I was informed that Muslims fast during Ramadan in order to better understand the suffering of those less fortunate. How can you truly want to give to the poor if you have never felt hunger like they feel it? Seems like a legit reason, so, I figured why not ikut! (Vocab: follow) It also helps that fasting is a great way to ingratiate myself to my host family and my friends. It’s a way for me to participate and belong in a place where I am so often the outsider.

The kids were goofing off when they asked for a photo.

The kids were goofing off when they asked for a photo.

But now we’re here, in the midst of Ramadan. I’m always thirsty and my tolerance for other human beings dwindles to near-nothing. I fail to see, at present, why Peace Corps chooses to send volunteers into this environment to begin service. I don’t see a viable alternative as of yet, but trust me, I’m looking.

So, I still go to school on occasion, if only to remind myself I might be useful someday. I talk to the classes and say hi to the kids. I’ve already promised to help with English Club, Theatre Club, and to learn Pencak Silat (the local martial art) with the kids twice a week. On top of that I’ll be teaching more than I’m supposed to every week with classes I’m not really supposed to teach. It will either be really good or really bad, only time will tell. But none of this starts until mid to late August (no one really knows because schedules aren’t really a thing here).

Sit back, folks, because we will continue to wait. My blog will continue to be boring because I will likely continue to do nothing until the fasting month is over. We will all be happy to know that Ramadan is followed by what I understand to be a week-long party known as Idul Fitri. This is where most people return to their original villages and visit. There is supposed to be a great deal of parties and eating. The next week is one of the biggest holidays in Indonesia: Hari Raya or Independence Day.

I know that we have a thing for the Fourth of July in America. For those of us who aren’t the most patriotic we take a day to ignore all the things that piss us off and focus on all the good America can do. For the already bleeding red, white, and blue it’s a day to hoot and holler about how proud you are of your country. Super. We drink, we have a BBQ, we watch fireworks (or maybe burn ourselves trying to light our own), and we have a grand ol’ time. But do any of us remember a time we weren’t free? Do any of us actually trace the pride we carry to fighting for our freedom from the British? Naw. Not really, no. On the Fourth of July here the most common question I got was: How old is your country today? And you know what? I didn’t know. I had to do the math. (237 years old. I know that now.) Indonesia is 68 years old. That’s younger than my grandmother. There are people alive who were born in a Dutch occupied Indonesia. There are people whose parents remembered it. Needless to say (any more than I already have) Hari Raya is a big freaking deal and I’m kind of stoked.

Dissenting Compromise

Things are different here. That isn’t particularly surprising, it’s just a simple statement of fact. They are different here than they were in Malang. They were different in Bandung than they are here. Each place has been different. Each city a change.

I suppose before I continue rambling on about cities you’ve seldom heard of and places you’ve never seen I should provide you all with a brief lesson in Java’s geography and a little history of Indonesia (just the pertinent bits, I promise). I live on the island of Java in Indonesia. In Java there are a series of, let’s call them provinces: West Java, East Java, Central Java, and a few more I am unlikely to ever mention. Now, Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch for about 350 years. This has affected their languages, their culture, and their lives to this day. Indonesia finally gained its independence in 1945. While Indonesia was now one free country, it was still comprised of over 1700 islands with wildly different cultures and languages. For this reason, the representatives of the islands came together and decided to instate a national language and dubbed it, you guessed it, Indonesian.

Geo Lesson

Here we go, folks. There will be a quiz.

Alright, you say. Enough with the informational bit, you say. Ya, ya, ok, fine. You needed the back story to understand where I’m going with this so just calm yourself. In East Java there are primarily Javanese people. They have a very specific culture and their own language (Javanese) which is spoken at home. Children here grow up learning first their local language (generally), then Indonesian, and maybe English later (Makes you feel a little badly about your single language skills, doesn’t it, America?). I learned Indonesian in East Java, I lived with a Javanese family, I learned about their culture and values. Then I moved to West Java. West Java is composed of mostly Sundanese people. They speak, yes, Sundanese. This is not just a little switch from the South East Coast of America to the North East Coast of America, this is vaguely akin to moving from America to Canada. Probably Quebec. The people mostly look kind of the same, they can speak the language you know (if they’re young), but everything else is a whole new world. (Sing it. SING IT. You know you want to.)

Not only have I moved to a new culture, I’ve moved from a community outside of a large city to the middle of nowhere Desa-Desa land (Vocab: Desa – A small village or town). Things are different here. My community in Malang was open and somewhat modern and very liberal (comparatively speaking). Tattoos and piercings were not normal, but not bad. It was slowly understood that I am a strong and opinionated adult. It is different here. People are slow to understand and even more slow to accept certain things. I am a single woman who cannot cook. That is not ok. I’ve been told I must learn. I’ve been told I may not spend so much time in the company of men. That it’s unseemly for a woman to be so familiar with men and not women. They spend ten weeks trying to prepare me for this and I don’t know that it is possible. I don’t know that I can look Peace Corps in the face and tell them they did it wrong or poorly but I don’t think I was ready for what I found here. I come from a different culture and no matter how many cultures we are exposed to by living in a proverbial melting pot, it’s not like this. Well, it wasn’t for me.

This would be my normal state of being. Some people are not used to such things.

This would be my normal state of being. Some people are not used to such things.

What’s the moral here? Where’s the sunny side? What’s the solution? Well, we wait. School hasn’t even started yet, we’re still on their version of Summer Vacation. I’m still new in town. I’m still a crazy, eccentric, white girl from America (some Americans have trouble swallowing my eccentricities, the poor Indonesians didn’t know what they were signing up for!). I’m never going to be able to change the way they see women here but that’s not the goal. The goal is to assimilate enough that I become a member of the community, no longer a guest among strangers. The ultimate success is to assimilate without changing how I do things. Meeting in the middle and sharing ideas instead of one side triumphing over the other. This isn’t tug of war, this is a cultural exchange. For anyone who wants to join the Peace Corps, any strangers who may be reading this entry, if you take nothing else away, take that. This is a two way street. The people in my community may not always remember that but that’s when I offer a gentle reminder. It’s not just me to has to assimilate and compromise. And, while I may not be able to change everyone’s view on women or Americans, I can change a few. I can plant an idea. An idea is the most dangerous weapon in the world, yes? It starts as a small seed deep in the minds of a few and grows into something bigger than me. It will take years and it may only affect a few people but that would be the greatest success in the world. To see one of these girls grow up to become anything she wants to be.

So. Things are different. Different so often has the connotation of polite discontent or dislike. Like interesting. I don’t mean that here. I mean, denotatively, not the same as another or each other; unlike in nature, form, or quality. Things are here, as always, exactly what I make them. I will get out of this exactly what I put in. If I don’t like something, I need to change it on my own. Not enough space in my room? Build a shelf. Not a shelf in the mandi? Use smaller bottles. Don’t like what’s being asked of me? Explain why I’m not going to do it. When I was younger I took Hapkido, a Korean martial art. My particular brand was called Yu-Shim Hapkido, or, Bending Willow Hapkido. The willow flows and moves in the winds but its branches are strong and hard to break. You have to be flexible and move with circumstances but strong enough to stand your ground and preserve what makes you who you are. I’m not going to be the same person when I leave this place but I’m not going to change what I believe or how I act to suit anyone, save myself. It’s a tenuous line but I’ve spent my entire life being told I’m too stubborn to be afraid of anything.