Chicken Feet Soup for the Indonesian Soul

In the month of August the Indonesian calendar witnessed the celebration of Ramadan, Idul Fitri, and Independence Day. For those of you not living in Indonesia and looking for some frame of reference, it’s comparable to celebrating Hannukah and Christmas, and then New Years Eve a week later. Only here there seems to be a great deal more family time, and a lot less (no) alcohol to temper the situation. There’s an Indonesian saying that your neighbors are closer to you than your furthest family members. In fact, it’s difficult to determine where one bloodline ends and the other begins. In the end they all just flow together. When I first moved here, it was like meeting the Dugger family as each person came forward to introduce himself or herself as a sister or brother. Since then, my relationship with each of these people has deepened. The renewed focus on friends and family after a month of Ramadan equipped everyone with a heightened social duty to participate in life’s many milestones. The subsequent events made me feel like I was an extra in the movie, Being John Malkovich, as I ventured through the different portals of life. I visited the homes of newborns, went to cemeteries to sing passages of the Koran to the deceased, and paid respect to the dying. What stood out among these events wasn’t a singular event, rather the accessibility and rawness of the emotions from each event. For the first time in my life, I was able to see these events with the perspective of an outsider looking in, rather than from an insider looking out. Which is not to say that these events didn’t affect me personally- they did- but they also allowed me to witness deeper cultural norms that are usually kept at bay.


Perhaps it has something to do with living on the world’s most populous island, but here the frequency that you’re faced with life and death is far greater than what it is back home. In addition to the greater frequency, it’s also much more raw. Whether it’s life or death, we choose to keep these events behind white, sterile curtains (yes, I am aware of the sanitary measures that are in place as well). Somewhere between the curtains you allow yourself to filter through the emotions you want to come to the surface and those you don’t. In the process you lose a bit of the humanness. If it’s not life or death we’re dealing with, we create our own walls that will somehow allow us to keep our deepest sorrows private. Later, it’s possible to seek solace in your own room and process the emotions however you see fit while keeping up the bulletproof image. Here the pain and emotion that you bear is a shared weight, and everyone experiences it in the open.
Monkey-ing around with my favorite 2-year olds in the neighborhood

Monkey-ing around with my favorite 2-year olds in the neighborhood

When we visited the home of the dying man, his mattress had been removed from his room and was positioned in the middle of the living room where it was surrounded by over forty friends and family members. In an earlier post, I made a comment about the Javanese, and their love of slumber parties. No matter whose house you’re at on the island of Java, there will be a full supply of mattresses, lest you decide you want to spend the night there. This first struck me as rather bizarre, and just plain uncomfortable (these aren’t memory foam or extra pillow top mattresses either). It’s still something that I’m getting used to but I have come to accept as common practice. Everyone was there to keep him company and remind him of his fondest memories before passing away.
It was a similar process when my Ibu gave birth. The mattress was drug out into the front room, and all my neighbors came streaming in the house to accompany her while she had her contractions. She later walked herself to the car and was driven to the Bidan’s (midwife’s) house to give birth. Upon her return a few hours later, she miraculously seemed unphased by the whole ordeal. That night she slept with my bapak, four of the neighborhood children and their mothers, and a few aunts from out of town in our living room. I carefully tiptoed over the sprawled out bodies each night on my way to the bathroom-what a gauntlet! When my Ibu wasn’t able to produce milk for the first days after delivery, our neighbor (the mother of a 2-year old) stepped right up to the plate. Sometimes I’m still caught off guard by how communal everyone is over here, but always with the best interests at heart.
Trying to fully engage in the culture here when you know that just across the ocean your family is experiencing the same milestones, albeit in their own ways leaves you feeling like you’ve reached a bittersweet standstill. You have one foot in the water, and the other out. In the back of my head, I can’t help but think that after two years expire I’ll return to one family, and leave the other. When we visited the grave of the deceased, the first number my eye jumped to was the woman’s birth year- 1948. This year happens to be the same birth year as my own mother. I started thinking about her, the portrait of happiness and health, while simultaneously feeling a bit guilty that I was here looking at this gravestone. Proximity is after all the greatest indicator of a relationship’s vitality. A few days later, when my Ibu gave birth and the baby was born on my Mom’s 65th birthday, it was a fortuitous coincidence. I could take a step back and be grateful for experiencing life’s milestones on two continents and even more grateful for my simple, rice-field life. Sipping on a coconut, and watching the sun set on the rice paddies, I was able to ponder and process the weight of these emotions without the usual distractions or feeling like there was somewhere else I needed to be.
We closed the month of August, and the marathon holiday season with a trip to Ujung Genting to see the baby green sea turtles off. They provided a nice microcosm of life, and setting those tenacious buggers out to sea without looking back bolstered my enthusiasm for what’s to come.

*Chicken Feet Soup is a nod to the series, Chicken Soup for the teenage soul. Throughout Ramadan, one of our staple ‘soul-healing’ foods was chicken feet soup.

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West Coast is the Best Coast

This week marked a turning point in cultural integration for me, and many 12-year old boys in Indonesia. I attended not one, not two, but three circumcision parties. At first, I thought I was invited to a wedding, and was very excited to be included in such a special ceremony. I arrived at the party only to discover that there was no bride, and no groom. I made sense of what was happening based on some contextual cues, broken language exchanges, and eventually someone told me that we were at a “cut penis party.” My excitement quickly abated, and the actual Sunatan ceremony was rather boring and anti-climatic. The 12-year old boys sat uncomfortably on a sofa with a cone/box of shame over their lap, a cell phone in one hand, and the other hand open to receive money. Scantily clad Indonesian singers (scantily is a relative term in Islamic society) serenaded the guests while plying us with heaping helpings of cold, oily food and sugary, fried pastries. Perhaps MTV will consider this as a follow up to their wildly successful My Sweet 16 series. Although this was just the beginning of the week, there were a few other happenings around the island of Java that proved to be more exciting in the cultural integration department.

The second cultural happening was our first out-of-site travel. Three volunteers and I ventured out of our mountainous abode in Malang to the coastal plains of Eastern Java. Bondowoso lay just beyond the shadows of the picturesque Kawah Ijen volcano complex. Its well-organized and spacious streets called to mind the Haussmann Plan, however, I’m fairly certain this plan has yet to reach the crowded, and congested metropolitan areas of most Asian cities. The highlights of the trip included eating chocolate lava cakes, and large quantities of melted cheese at Pizza Hut(cheese is a bit of a luxury in Indo). We stayed with a current volunteer, and were able to gain a glimpse of what our life will be like for the next two years. Melanie teaches at an Islamic high school where each class is comprised of nearly 50 students of the same gender. I found it fascinating to observe the marked difference between her male and female classes. The girls were painfully shy, and would not answer any questions until they were certain of the correct answer after referring to their notes or their dictionary, whereas the boys had little trepidation at shouting out whatever answer first came to mind. The trip provided a nice respite from our weekly routine, and exposed us to the craziness of inter-country travel. We arrived home to Batu road-weary and tired, yet unable to sleep because the following day we were to find our permanent site placements.

The Peace Corps heightened the anticipation for our site unveiling by drawing a large map of East and West Java on the main square in front of our University. One by one they called our names, and asked us to stand in our respective regions. This year marked the first time in the history of the Peace Corps Indonesia program that they are sending Volunteers to West Java. After my name was called, I was thrilled to discover that I’ll be living in the Sukabumi District of West Java. I’ll be teaching English at a SMAN school that currently has just over 700 students. My home is 3 miles from the beach, and a Green Turtle Refuge. West-Java-map.mediumthumbIdeas for a possible secondary project are already swirling through my head. My placement in West Java also means that I will be learning a new language, and living in a different culture from the Javanese in Central and East Java. Next week I will resume language classes, but this time I will be learning to speak Sundanese. Apparently the main difference between the Javanese and Sundanese is that the Sundanese are more overtly Islamic, and have a less stratified social hierarchy. In just two weeks we’ll have our swearing in ceremony as official Peace Corps volunteers, and then will make the cross-country journey from East to West Java. Here’s a teaser for my new site: new home

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