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.

The Ramadan Diaries (Indonesia style)

It’s Ramadan, so much to my delight Surade is a shadow of its usual self. For once, my bike and I have free reign of the pockmarked and scarred tarmac, and can explore for hours without exhaust spewing out at us from buses and motos. Small, white faces painted with talc powder periodically emerge from the rice paddies, and run to the road to greet me, “hellooooo hellooooo mistaaaaaaa.” Inside, their parents lay listlessly, biding time until they can break their fast. The torrential rainstorms of late have turned the roads into a series of muddy ponds, and I return home looking like an abstract expressionist painting, much to my ibu’s dismay. It’s times like these I feel like a kid again, and am happy that here it’s so easy to disengage from the pretenses of professional life. However, in this marathon month of fasting, it’s a fine balance to sustain energy from sun up until sun down.

The word Ramadan, which literally means “scorching heat or dryness” is equally appropriate in Indonesia as it is in parts of the Middle East. We’re currently in musim panas or, the hot season, which is usually no misnomer, but for the last week our seasons have been inverted, and the weather is behaving more like we’re in musim hujan or the rainy season. Muslims in Indonesia are also more fortunate than other Muslims around the world, particularly Muslims in Scandinavian countries, because we live close to the equator where the days and nights are of almost equal length. I may reconsider my bandwagon fasting if I were expected to go twenty hours without eating, like some people closer to the poles. Fortunately, there is a clause in the Koran that exempts certain individuals from fasting, including those on a journey (the Peace Corps may count as an extended journey):
Whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.
Despite such exemptions, some Muslims choose to carry on with their fasting. My Ibu is currently 8 months pregnant, and still elects to fast. It’s possible to make up for the days where you missed fasting later in the year, but this is difficult since no one else is fasting with you. Since living in a Muslim country, I’ve noticed that ubiquity is the real problem. I rarely think about alcohol or food, because here they are not constantly surrounding me. The purpose of fasting is meant to teach Muslims about self-restraint, discipline and generosity. This is a novel concept, and I personally can bear testament to the fruit of its labors, however I do have to question its practices when it can potentially harm another individual. A recent study conducted by Columbia University found that pregnant woman who fast during Ramadan are likely to have children born premature and with learning disabilities. I try and imagine how I will package this information and deliver it to my Ibu, but know my effort will be in vain. We live in a very remote town lacking any machine where she can see her baby, learning disabilities are rarely recognized and her response will be what it is to almost everything. Inshallah –God willing.
Since I’ve merely scratched the surface of what it means to be a Muslim during Ramadan, I cannot attest to the degree in which Ramadan impacts ones mental and spiritual being. Beyond abstaining from food and drink, Ramadan is a time to improve your relationship with yourself, and also improve your relationship with others. The suhoor (meal just before sunrise) and iftar (meal just after sunset) have quickly become my favorite times of day (along with my morning bike ride). Yes, I like that they involve food, but I also appreciate that they represent a sacred time for everyone to spend with their families and close friends.

My one complaint about my host family in Batu is that we never had a chance to have a family meal. Rather, we ate in shifts throughout the day. It was later explained to me that if you’re living with a family where one or both of the parents are farmers, their eating times are erratic and dictated by the weather and growing season. I encountered the same problem when I moved in with my new family in Surade. My Bapak spends long hours in the rice paddies, and rarely is there a moment for us to sit down and talk. During Ramadan the time carved out of the day for the suhoor and iftar provide ample time to joke with one another and discuss the events of the day. With my Ibu, this time is used for masak-ing (cooking)101 Indonesian style. We grill snakes from the pond, prepare skin of the cow for my bapak, and on occasion make food that is palatable. The other day while she was teaching me to make my favorite dish, karedok (small green eggplant, cucumber, and bean sprouts in a spicy peanut sauce), I had my trusty dictionary close by so I could transcribe the recipe in English. The recipe calls for a lot of MSG, a heaping spoon full of salt, a hefty pinch palm sugar andddddd acid. Yes, acid! That night the karedok did taste unusually delicious. This is why food is the great cultural unifier, despite what may be lost in translation.

Time to get integrated!

Growing up in an individualistic culture, nothing can quite prepare you for life in a collectivist culture. Ironically, the two times in my life where I’ve felt most alone have been in some of the world’s most densely populated places. Born and raised in America, you’re taught to be self-reliant, and the goals and achievement of the individual are emphasized over any particular group or collective. In Southeast Asia, the cultures emphasize the sense of self as a member of a larger collective. It is fundamental to take care of every member of the family. When I moved to Southeast Asia for the first time I asserted my self-sufficiency and independence, and was left feeling alienated and unsure how to successfully integrate. It took some effort, but gradually I learned to let go of this mindset, and embrace the vibrancy and collectivism surrounding me.

The first three months at permanent site Peace Corps imposes a mandatory community integration period. This time is crucial for relationship building and establishing a strong foundation within the community. It just so happens that our mandatory integration period coincides with the Indonesian school holiday, and also Ramadan. This means that our routine has gone from highly structured and being a part of the densest groups of bules (white people) in Indonesia to no structure, and being the only bule for a 200 km.. Moving to permanent site was difficult not only because it meant severing ties with friends and family, but it also meant mustering up newfound energy to start anew. Maintaining that energy for the next two years will prove to be the ultimate test. In the words of Winston Churchill, “success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” It will be a continual challenge to figure out, get used to, and become effective in unfamiliar circumstances amidst unfamiliar people.

I’m constantly reminding myself that my mere presence may cause a person to consider a new way of doing things. Simply by existing, I may call into question a plurality of behaviors, beliefs, and opinions. Why am I eating such little rice, and why am I not eating it with my hands? Is Hollywood real? Is it true that Barak Obama likes Bakso (a type of meatball soup that is very popular in Indonesia)? Did I ride my bike here from America? Today, I met with a teacher counterpart and his family. His wife and daughter kept motioning towards my face and smiling excitedly. They could not conceal their delight over my nose. Yes, my nose. My nose happens to be big and pointy like the nose of an Arab. They were happy to see such a nose in real life because it’s unlike flat Asian noses, which apparently “look like squatting frogs.” This story reminded me of another nose story that was relayed to me the previous week. The first time my friends’ parents met it was in the Philippines, where her father was serving in the Air Force. He entered the store where her Filipina mother happened to be working and all she could say to him was “you has a noses like Jesus Christ.” It was love at first sight, and they’ve been together ever since. (Keep in mind we’re dealing with a Muslim majority in Indonesia, and a Catholic majority in the Philippines).

The most important thing I can take away from the first few weeks in my new home is to embrace the ambiguity. The flux of day-to-day life is the time meant for exploration and observation. I’ve learned to say yes to all the invitations –well most. I’ve been asked multiple times to spend the night somewhere, but politely decline (that goes back to the collectivist culture mentioned earlier–the whole family sometimes sleeps in one bed). Saying yes to a social invitation in a collectivist culture goes along way. I’ll leave with some parting comments from our Director of Programing and Training, since her message is so apt to what we’re currently experiencing. “Before claiming that nothing is happening, take a step back and notice that people are making their livings, feeding their families, finding solace and joy in their faith, guiding and chiding their children, taking pride in their traditions, and may be truly uncertain about how to involve a foreigner in their lives. Show them that you’d simply like to be with them.”


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