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.


Each day of my Peace Corps service, I remind myself that the days may be long, but the years are short. The first two months have raced by at lightening fast speed, and already I find myself nostalgic about the things of yesterday. We had our official swear-in as Peace Corps Volunteers June 17th, and shortly after the 50 of us dissipated throughout East and West Java. The 15-hour train ride from Malang to Bandung provided some much needed time to decompress and let my thoughts crystallize on life thus far in Indonesia. We existed in a simulated reality the first two months with our living conditions, families, daily schedule, and schools pre-determined by the American and Indonesian government. Despite such constraints, I look back on that time as one of the most prolific periods in my life. I’m optimistic that in the next two years the relationships fostered, the language acquired, and the overall saturation in the culture will continue to evolve.
The Westward expansion of the Peace Corps Indonesia program is something all of us are extremely excited to be a part of. Thanks to the success of the program in East Java over the last three years, the Indonesian government invited Peace Corps to expand to West Java (and eventually some of the outlying islands). Members of Bappenas (The National Development Planning Agency for Indonesia), principals, heads of curriculum welcomed us to Bandung. They were eager to initiate the new partnership, and over the next two years our success will be contingent upon one another. Their encouragement made the transition from East to West Java all the more fluid.
It’s hard to distinguish the differences right off the bat between East and West Java; or rather the Javanese and the Sundanese. In fact, there is no real demarcation. The cultures have been shifting and migrating across the island for thousands of years. However, it would be an offense to either islander if you were to confuse the Javanese with the Sundanese, or worst yet, a Madurese (but we won’t get into that just now). The Javanese are a force to be reckoned with, and upon first meeting them, you’ll most likely be overwhelmed by their hospitality and generosity. In all my travels, I have to say that they are the friendliest people I have ever met. Yes, ever. Their friendliness is superhuman. Wandering down the street, don’t be surprised if they ask you, “where do you want to go? What did you just eat? Want to come in for tea? Are you going home?” Their greatest joy is inviting you in for a cup of sickly sweet teh, and exchanging stories. That’s not to say that the Sundanese aren’t friendly either. Another difference noted is the increase in traffic in the West, because it contains two of the three most populous cities in Indonesia. The influence of the “cosmopolitan” cities of Jakarta and Bandung is not merely felt in the traffic, but is also evident in the language. People from all over Indonesia move to Jakarta and Bandung, and communicate with the lingua franca, rather than their native language. Lastly, and in my option, most importantly is that the food over here is a whole lot better. Diabetes isn’t a constant threat, and there’s an ongoing joke that if you can’t find a Sundanese, he’s most likely in the garden. I’m sure in the upcoming months I’ll become more attuned to the cultural differences, but for now I’m just happy to be back in the West.


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