The Privilege of Water

By Grace Wivell

Following two weeks of final examinations, the students at my school were finally able to relax and participate in a week of programming while teachers and administrators put together the final reports for each student. There was singing, dancing, and a fieldtrip to a government office, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself as I bounced between my two campuses, lounging on felt carpets with my students, who kindly translated the various presentations we sat through, covering everything from journalism to conflict resolution styles.

One of the highlights of the week was a presentation by the GoodWater Company, an organization that aims to create a socially-responsible business model that will provide new water technologies to what they call the “BoP” (Bottom of the Pyramid). They talked with the students about why they felt it was important for businesses to be socially responsible, and they demonstrated a few of their products. In many ways, I think the students were more excited about the special guests the GoodWater Company brought with them, a band called Lorong Boys from Singapore, as my students rarely have the opportunity to attend concerts. “Fangirling” (one of the few English words that all of my students know) and general adoration from all abounded, and I don’t think the Lorong Boys were fully prepared for the enthusiasm of the students from SMAN 10.

But after the band had left and their time at the school was just a series of memories and Facebook photographs, it was the lessons from the GoodWater Company that remained. They had created a learning center in one of the academic buildings, and as I sat at my desk and helped my fellow teachers to finish the final reports, I watched students stop in to read the various materials there and experiment with the sample products they had left with us.


I was fascinated by the presentation from the GoodWater Company, mostly because it focused so much on the topic of water. Since coming to Indonesia, my relationship with water has changed dramatically. Saying that I think about water access during my shower every evening and almost every time I take a sip from the re-usable water bottle that has become my constant companion is not hyperbole, but the honest truth. Conceptually, I have always been aware that having regular access to clean drinking water, indoor plumbing, and water in general, is a great privilege, but it was not until I came to Indonesia that I began to see how powerful, and how complex, that privilege can be.

In Indonesia, you cannot drink the tap water. This was it2erated in every online or hard-copy travel guide I read prior to coming here, and was drilled into our heads by various health professionals during orientation. A combination of domestic and industrial pollution has made most water sources in Indonesia unsafe for drinking, due to parasites, bacteria, and heavy metals. Upon arriving at my site, my counterparts once again were sure to tell me, “Only drink bottled water, Grace. If you drink other water you will be sick.” Curious, I asked if this was because I was a foreigner who was unaccustomed to the water, and they told me, “No one should drink the water. We do not drink the water, or we will feel sick too.”

And they did not lie. In the offices, there are boxes of little sealed plastic cups filled with mineral water, and these collect in the corner of my teachers’ desks throughout the day. Earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop with the STEM teachers from my school, during which we toured a bottling facility at a dam near Malang. The technical process of the site was certainly interesting, but as I tried to pay attention to the math teacher who was so kindly translating the tour for me, I kept being distracted by the realization that I was standing next to a huge expanse of seemingly-clear water… that was not safe to drink. Coming from central New York, a part of the United States that is filled with springs that bubble over with what I believe is the coolest and most delicious water a person could possibly consume, it was hard for me to wrap my head around this idea.

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I try to avoid drinking from the aforementioned water cups as much as possible, because I have yet to find any recycling readily available near either of my campuses, and I do not wish to add to the excess of waste that I already see on an everyday basis. My school provided me with a water dispenser in my room, and I begin each day by filling my water bottle to carry with me to my classes, and the first thing I do upon returning home at the end of the day is fill it again. I have always been a reusable water bottle type of girl, so this is not entirely new, but not being able to fill my bottle from my kitchen sink took some adjusting to. At home I have friends who refuse to drink tap water because they do not like the taste; here, I cannot drink it because it could harm my health. I really believe that I will never be able to causally drink tap water ever again.6

It is not only my relationship with drinking water that has changed since coming to Indonesia. Showering is no longer an ordinary part of my everyday existence: it has become an everyday adventure.

I do have a bathroom complete with a showerhead and a western toilet, but the water pressure is mediocre at best, and since most places in Indonesia do not have hot water, I have not taken a warm shower in months. I have given up on conditioning my hair more than once a week, and during the dry season I often had to fill a bucket from a faucet on the first floor with water and use a plastic scooper to bathe at the end of a long day of sweating incessantly in hot, crowded classrooms, because there was not enough water to create the pressure to reach my third-floor apartment. Sometimes, there is simply no water to be had anywhere in the dorms, and my students and I wait patiently for the water to begin working again, so that we can rinse off the day’s exhaustion.

It really is not as bad as it sounds. Even in Malang, one of the cooler parts of Indonesia, it regularly reaches 90° Fahrenheit during the day, so a cold shower at the end of the day can actually be quite refreshing, and I only find myself missing warm water on those rare occasions when I am properly cold, usually when soaked through with rain. And though I cannot always shower whenever I feel like it, I have never gone without the ability to shower for more than two days at a time.


Although my relationship with drinking water and showering is very different from what it is in the States, there is no denying that even in my current situation I am in a position of extreme privilege. I may not have warm water, but I have indoor plumbing. I may not be able to fill my water bottle with the same sort of ease to which I am accustomed at home, but I have constant access to clean, safe water. I constantly joke to friends that I am a princess in Indonesia, but my attempt at humor is really just my attempt to express the uncomfortable reality I find myself in, for even though I live with less access to water than most of my friends at home, I still have far more than many people in this country, even those in my immediate area.

Not a half mile from my school is a river that is muddy at its cleanest and covered in trash at its dirtiest. I regularly see people bathing and washing clothes in this river on my way to school or when I venture outside of the campus walls to go hiking in the surrounding area. I have yet to see people drinking from this river, but it would not surprise me if this is also their source of water, at the very least for cooking. Seeing this almost every day—knowing that I have a full container of drinking water and running water waiting for me in my home—is something that continues to upset me, even after months of being here.


According to a report from The World Bank, 85 percent of Indonesians have access to an improved water source (compare that to 99 percent in the United States), but even if this water source is “improved,” it does not mean that it is actually safe. According to UNICEF, one in six Indonesians still do not have any access to clean drinking water. The Indonesian government hopes that all of its citizens will have access to clean water by 2019, but even as the director general of the Indonesian Public Works Ministry reports great improvement—he claims that 67 percent of Indonesians had access to clean water in 2013, compared to 37 percent in 1993—this country has a long way to go before that goal can be met.

But I hope, and I believe, it will get there. Clean, safe drinking water should be a basic human right. Globally, we have reached the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal for safe drinking water five years ahead of schedule; access for all people is possible, and I believe it will, eventually, happen.

Articles and Websites Linked to Within this Post:

The GoodWater Company’s Sitehttp://egoodwater.com/

Lorong Boys’ Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/lorongboys

The World Bank’s chart of water accesshttp://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.H2O.SAFE.ZS

UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund),“World Water Day 2014: Indonesia still lagging behind on access to safe water,” March 21st, 2014http://www.unicef.org/indonesia/media_22269.html

The Jakarta Post, “All Indonesians to Have Access to Clean Water by 2019,” May 14th, 2014. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/05/14/all-indonesians-have-access-clean-water-2019.html

The Unites Nations, “Global Issues: Water.” http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/water/

Other Articles Worth Reading:

WEPA (Water Environment Partnership in Asia), “State of Water Environmental Issues: Indonesia.” http://www.wepa-db.net/policies/state/indonesia/indonesia.htm

The World Bank, “Indonesia: Communities Work to Improve Sanitation, Access to Clean Water,”March 22nd, 2014.http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2014/03/21/indonesia-communities-work-to-improve-sanitation-access-to-clean-water

About the author: Grace Wivell is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malang, East Java. She graduated from Ithaca College, NY in 2014, with a degree in English Education 


A Tale of Two Wayang

By Rebecca Kulik

It started, as tourist stories in Indonesian metropolises often do, with my driver. I had enjoyed walking down an actual sidewalk for ten minutes when I came to the center of the Jogjakarta Old City. There, the sidewalk ended in a tunnel through which only vehicles were allowed to go. Thus, stranded, I turned to one of the becak drivers.

I can’t help but feel sorry for these drivers. The first one I took, driven by an old man, I paid 4 dollars for—way more than the going rate, but his progress had just been so slow. They’re wiry men, their lives spent pedaling pedicabs behind motorbikes. And they love tourists because we overpay them. I wanted to walk, but I had to get in, and then I was at the driver’s mercy.

All cab drivers used to tourists, from the little pedicabs to the giant SUV taxis, have their stops. Shops, hotels, venues, places they’ll take you, places they know just enough English to describe to you, and places they’ll drive you to before you ask, necessitating pointed comments and quick gear shifts out of parking lots.

So, as we drove towards the Jogja Water Castle (which had 2 inches of water), I was not remotely surprised to hear the driver ask “you want to see shadow puppets?” My knee-jerk denial was foiled because it was not a serious question: he was already pulling into the shadow puppet workshop. The workshop was actually a converted home, and on the front porch sat two men, bent over half-made shadow puppets.

It’s such a strange way to tell a story, by making a shadow on a screen. I’ve been fascinated by it, the wayang of Indonesia. Wayang are puppets, and in Indonesia have long been an essential part of storytelling. Some are dolls on sticks, some are people (dancing is called wayang orang, literally puppet people), and some are pieces of wood or leather carved and held up to be used as shadow puppets. But in Sulawesi there are no wayang, puppets—in fact, as far as I can tell, there’s no storytelling tradition. True, I had seen the puppets as decorations in shops around other Javanese cities. Yet what faced me were not delicate decorations, but real leather being carved into shapes by expert hands.

Wayang Kulit are made by taking a slice of leather and shaving piece after piece off, creating tiny inscriptions and delicate carvings, each one precisely rendered to depict a particular character. Those who deal in Wayang can tell at a glance which character out of the hundreds from the shadow plays has been placed before them, but amateurs like me can have trouble telling whether a character is male or female. Seriously, as far as I can tell, the genders are identical except that the male usually have bare chests.DSCF8155

I ended up craning my neck over the shoulder of first the carver, then the painter. I took photo after photo, asking questions in my poor Indonesian and nodding in completely fake understanding when the shop owner answered in painfully accented streams of totally unintelligible words. Seriously, the Javanese accents are no joke, and people there talk way too fast. I understood nothing, but I kept trying. DSCF8164

The owner took me inside and showed me the different puppets, telling me how long they took to make (anywhere from a week to two months). At one point, I asked whether he knew how to play the shows. He said no, but I should wait a moment, and walked off.

I stood around awkwardly for a moment, and then was ushered to take a seat. There were four stools arrayed before a sheet hung in the middle of the shop, which I had glanced over without seeing, too busy staring at the puppets that lined the walls. I realized now that it was a stage for the ancient plays.

Music started, piped through a loudspeaker. The shop owner sat down next to me, lights came on behind the sheet, and a man started playing the drum as another man’s silhouette sat down behind the curtain. Then the first puppet began whirling through the air.DSCF8184

In this man’s hands, the flat pieces of leather came to life. They bobbed up and down, their arms whirled as they fought, they did backflips when he threw them into the air in circles and caught them in one sure hand. The hero Arjuna fired arrows, one after the other, then was laid down so that demons could stand and be struck by the shadows of war. The shadow puppets danced, the drum played, and the Javanese words of the Ramayana were spoken for an audience of two. In fact, soon the shop owner wandered off, and it was only me, a smile splitting my face and my camera clicking whenever I remembered I was holding it.

When the story ended and I applauded like a child, I was ushered behind the curtain. The puppetmaster was a small middle-aged man, painfully short by American standards, his muscled arms bulging out of his red t-shirt. He showed me the faded pieces of leather he had used, and as I fingered them wonderingly he asked if I’d like to sit down where he had been, under the light, among the puppets. DSCF8212DSCF8205  DSCF8228

And there I was, kneeling on the floor, being showed how to hold a shadow puppet, how to flick the arm to symbolize one puppet striking another. I improvised a puppet slowly moving across the shadows, and behind me I heard the puppetmaster striking the drum in time to my movements. My hands on the wooden crosses, my pure joy evident across any language barrier.

I bought two copies of the puppets I had seen fighting. When I finished paying and had my bundled prizes, I offered DSCF8219the puppetmaster two fifty-thousand rupiah bills. He only took one. There’s nothing for validation of your experience like having overpayment be refused at a shop.

I met the becak driver, my new best friend, and waved goodbye to the wayang workshop.

About the author: Rebecca Kulik is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Telaga, Gorontalo.  She graduated from Grinnell College in 2014 with a degree in history.


A Closer Look at Energy Subsidies in Indonesia: Inefficient and Counterproductive

By Christopher Linnan

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was best-known for his legendary slogan “all politics is local.” In essence, he was saying that one can only be a successful politician if one is able to respond to the everyday concerns of constituents. The complicated theories that often dominate political science classes and policy think tank discussions do not matter to the average citizen. Ultimately, people care most deeply about the issues they face every day rather than ideological warfare. Indonesia’s recent decision to cut its gasoline fuel subsidy is an excellent example of this. On November 18, 2014, President Jokowi followed through with his promise to cut the subsidy, thus fulfilling a campaign pledge, which his opponents regularly criticized.[i] The expected large-scale protests failed to materialize, although this is subject to change if global oil prices surge. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of knowledge about the reasoning or the potential benefit of these cuts. This article seeks to correct this by examining how these subsidies functioned, the rationale for cutting them, and the long-term benefits of eliminating fuel subsidies in Indonesia.


The rising of oil prices are felt by most Indonesians, including the vast amount of students who drive their own motorbikes to school everyday. IMG_4229

In Indonesia fuel distribution is controlled by the state-owned energy company Pertamina. Drivers have to sit in long lines at Pertamina gas stations waiting ten to fifteen minutes and sometimes longer to fill up their cars. However, once they get to the pump the price they pay for gasoline is significantly below market value because the Indonesian government began providing gasoline consumer subsidies in 1967.[ii] That means that the Indonesian government pays a portion of every gallon of gasoline somebody in Indonesia pumps into their car, financed through Indonesian taxpayer dollars. Initially this was economically feasible, if inadvisable, but over the last several decades it has become increasingly economically untenable as the price of gasoline has skyrocketed along with the amount the government has had to subsidize it.[iii]

In 2012, the Indonesia federal government spent over twenty percent of its annual budget on subsidizing energy.[iv] To put this into better perspective, this is three times the amount the government spent on improving and maintaining infrastructure, such as electricity, roads, etc. Eliminating or decreasing fuel subsidies has been discussed in Indonesia for a long time, but Jokowi’s move was necessitated by the increasingly fiscally untenable subsidy, as demonstrated by the graph below. The drastic drop in the price of oil left Indonesia a big winner as it allowed the government to drastically curtail subsidies without a large price shock.[v] Ultimately, most observers agree that the fall in oil prices is due to less demand due to a global economic slowdown and to more supply.[vi] Eventually the price of oil will self-correct and this author among many others is skeptical that it will remain so low. Unfortunately, our ability to forecast oil prices is rather limited, so Indonesia has to deal with an uncertain future.


Indonesia has exhibited prudent fiscal management over the last decade by demonstrating solid economic growth coupled with low budget deficits.[viii] Unfortunately, the volatility of oil prices meant that Indonesia was constantly at risk of oil price shocks, hardly an anomaly over the last decade.[ix] Indonesia only became a net importer of oil about a decade ago and since then has gradually seen its consumption overtake its production, as indicated below. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it demonstrates Indonesia’s robust economic growth as more people are able to buy cars, motorcycles, etc.[x] However, by keeping fuel prices at an artificial low Indonesia was promoting something that “place[d] good economics directly at odds with good politics.”[xi] Energy subsidies are understandably very popular as people benefit directly; however they often miss the hidden costs.


Some of Jokowi’s critics have argued that these oil subsidies serve to lessen economic inequality, but this is not necessarily true. Eighty-four percent of the benefits of these subsidies go to the richest fifty percent of the Indonesian population, while forty percent go to the top ten percent.[xiii] There is nothing inherently wrong with more middle and upper-class Indonesians being able to afford to drive more cars and motorcycles, but there is something wrong if takes the form of a regressive tax. Furthermore, these energy subsidies do not promote economic growth and have no beneficial long-term impact. Jokowi has promised to use the immediate savings generated by his cuts to help fifteen million of the poorer Indonesians affected.[xiv] Hopefully, the long-term consequence of these subsidies cuts is more investment in infrastructure that Indonesia needs badly, but only time will tell.

This issue remains relevant because it is quite possible that the price of oil will rise again in the near future, which will lead to Indonesians facing higher prices at the pump and possible civil unrest. President Jokowi’s administration has been lucky in the sense that low oil prices prevented large-scale unrest. Past Indonesian political leaders have been wary of cutting energy subsidies as a 1998 fuel price increase helped spark the riots that ended the thirty year reign of President Suharto which demonstrates the potential backlash.[xv] However, it is very important that President Jokowi and future Indonesian leaders remain steadfastly opposed to significant energy subsidies as they are inefficient and counterproductive. Ultimately, their resolve has yet to be tested, but in the coming months and years it will be.


About the author: Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014.


[i] Shuli Ren, “Indonesia: Jokowi Hikes Fuel Price, Analysts Cheer,” Barron’s Asia 18 November 2014, http://blogs.barrons.com/asiastocks/2014/11/18/indonesia-jokowi-hikes-fuel-price-analysts-cheer/, accessed 7 January 2015.

[ii]“A Citizens’ Guide to Energy Subsidies in Indonesia,” International Institute for Sustainable Development 2011, http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2011/indonesia_czguide_eng.pdf, accessed 7 January 2015.

[iii] Ibid, 7.

[iv] Ndiame Diop, “Why is Reducing Energy Subsidies a Prudent, Fair, and Transformative Policy for Indonesia,” Economic Premise 136 (2014), 1.

[v] “Cheaper Oil: Winners and Losers,” The Economist 25 October 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/international/21627642-america-and-its-friends-benefit-falling-oil-prices-its-most-strident-critics, accessed 19 December 2014.

[vi] “Why the Oil Price is Falling,” The Economist 8 December 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/12/economist-explains-4, accessed 19 December 2014.

[vii] The Indonesian Finance Ministry, “Indonesia’s Cash Drain,” http://www.wsj.com, accessed 8 January 2015.

[viii] Diop, “Why is Reducing Energy Subsidies,” 2-3.

[ix] Ibid, 2-3.

[x] Yogita Lal and Richard Paddock, “Indonesia Fuel-Subsidy Corruption Sets First Major Test for President-Elect,” Wall Street Journal 21 September 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/indonesia-fuel-subsidy-corruption-sets-first-major-test-for-president-elect-widodo-1411284140, accessed 8 January 2015.

[xi] Jeffrey Frankel, “The Arguments Against Food and Energy Subsidies,” World Economic Forum 18 August 2014, https://agenda.weforum.org/2014/08/food-energy-subsidies-egypt-india-indonesia/?utm_content=bufferb9675&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer, accessed 8 January 2015.

[xii] BP Statistical Review 2013, “Indonesia Oil Production and Consumption,” http://www.crudeoilpeak.info, accessed 7 January 2015.

[xiii] Diop, “Why is Reducing Energy Subsidies,” 4.

[xiv]Mario Ritter, “Some Asian Countries Gain From Low Oil Prices,” VOA 7 December 2014, http://learningenglish.voanews.com/content/some-asian-countries-gain-from-low-oil-prices/2546134.html, accessed 7 January 2015.

[xv]William Pesek, “Oil Subsidies Hold Back Indonesia,” Bloomberg 14 August 2014, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-08-21/oil-subsidies-hold-back-indonesia, accessed 7 January 2015.

Thoughts on Teaching English in Indonesia

By Christopher Linnan

                I should begin this article[i] with the disclaimer that my teaching experience is limited to the three months I have spent as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Palangkaraya, Indonesia and the year I taught English at the Technical University of Dortmund. However, it appears that some experiences are truly universal, such as the fact that the comparison of teaching experiences usually leads to a vast range of reactions from exhilaration to depression. Some of my fellow English teachers cannot stop praising the high-caliber students in their classes and the uplifting class sessions, while others bemoan that their students cannot, and often appear to not want to, understand a word they say. This should sound familiar to teachers of all disciplines across the globe. Of course, when it comes to teaching English in a developing country, such as Indonesia, teachers – including ETAs—often feel the urgent need of doing the best possible job to help their students advance their language skills, so that they can become part of the global economy and help their own country advance economically in turn.   English is still the international lingua franca, and mastering the English language is an important asset in today’s globalized world. Like my fellow ETAs, I believe that helping my students to improve their English is imperative, and I do everything in my power to support them. However, it is often a struggle due to obstacles outside of my students’, the school’s, or my own control. My time in Indonesia has taught me numerous invaluable lessons about teaching English in Indonesia, problems acquiring decent English skills here, and potential remedies. These difficulties include how students are sorted into various classes, the reduction of English language instruction time in the 2013 Curriculum, the use of poorly-written textbooks, and the less than optimum amount of English being spoken in the classroom. In this article I will present some of the problems and offer potential solutions.

I teach at SMAN 2 in Palangkaraya, Indonesia, which is a prestigious public high school. Typically, public schools in Indonesia are regarded as much better than private schools and SMAN 2 is one of the best schools in my area. Thus, my average student’s English language abilities, as well as general academic skills, are fairly advanced. At SMAN 2, like most Indonesian high schools, students are either science, social studies, or language majors. They are sorted into classes with students on the same track and grade. For example, the thirty students in the twelfth grade Science Class-1 in SMAN 2 will take almost all subjects together, physics, calculus, English, etc.; regardless of how advanced their language, math, and science skills are. This makes for some awkward English classes, which tend to be dominated by a few advanced English speakers. For example, in one of my most talented tenth grade classes, I had them read an excerpt from a Rolling Stone article about the Boston Marathon bombing, which focused on the youngest bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.[ii] Some of them absolutely loved it and were enthralled by it, but a significant portion were obviously overwhelmed and complained after class that this task was too difficult. My reasoning for selecting it was that it was interesting, thoughtful, and well-written. I expected my students to not recognize certain words, phrases, etc., but I assumed they would be able to understand it. However, I quickly discovered that while this was true for some students, others were simply not able to engage with the text. This situation is not unique as I have struggled with how to teach students that have such drastically different English skills.

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Chris visiting a class at the local university

While I am not trying to suggest that Indonesia needs to completely revamp its educational system, I do believe that the students’ English abilities could be improved by offering different language levels, e.g. low, medium, and high. This would give the students with less language knowledge a chance to grow without being discouraged. I floated this suggestion to a fellow teacher at my school, who quickly shot it down with the argument that we would be harmful to the students’ feeling. This is a common argument not just in Indonesia, but also in the United States where many American parents and teachers are averse to sorting their students based upon their academic skills and achievements. We are often told that this is insensitive to students, but I think it is extremely naïve to assume that students do not realize which of their peers are good at school, just like children realize which of their friends are good at sports, funny, etc. Typically, science-track students tend to have the best English in my experience,[iii] but there is still a high degree of variance, and many non-science students possess excellent English skills at SMAN 2. If the students took English classes based on their skill levels instead of their chosen field of study, the teachers could better cater to the needs of their various classes. There is no need to bore advanced students with simplistic work, just as there is no point in giving less-skilled students difficult tasks they cannot comprehend. Since the current system of separating students comes directly from the federal government, the initiative to change it has to come from Jakarta instead of provincial educational administrators and instructors.

SMAN 2, like all public high schools in Indonesia, uses the newest Curriculum 2013, which was created by the federal Ministry of Education and Culture (Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan). This article will avoid spending too much time discussing it, as a previous Indonesiaful article does a good job explaining it.[iv] However, it is important that one has a basic understanding of its impact on English language instruction at Indonesian high schools. It cuts the amount of English class time to two hours per week, which translates into ninety minutes of instruction.[v] The reason for this move, and the Curriculum 2013 in general, was that students were seen as more violent and amoral than past generations, and to remedy this, more class time was devoted to religion, civic, and morality training.[vi]

As an English language teacher in Indonesia and a strong believer in the usefulness of learning English for young Indonesians, it was disappointing to learn that the last curriculum cut the amount of weekly lessons in half. To help the students succeed in learning English, it might be worth to consider a compromise, such as teaching morality in English classes. This way, teachers could teach morality and students would have more opportunity to learn more English. However, ultimately Indonesian parents and educators need to make some tough decisions, as the battles for more class time in specific subjects are often zero-sum games. If the Indonesian federal government decides to keep the reduced amount of class time for English, then it is vital that it does everything to make sure students are getting the most out of it.

Language instruction in Indonesian high schools is often hindered by the quality of materials used in class, which teach and reinforce poor English. For example, a fellow American, who also works at a very reputable high school in Kalimantan, once showed me a page from a workbook they had to review with their students. The worksheet was about a cat named Pus-pus and is included below.

“Hello, my…is Sari. This time, I want to describe about my cat. I have a beautiful cat. Her name is Pus-pus. He has soft brown fur. He is so cute that I like to cuddle with her….Every time I arrive at school, she comes and lick me. I love my cat so…She is my best friend. We always play together. Pus-pus likes to eat rice. I don’t know why she has a…taste. She doesn’t want to be given the expensive cat food. I think she wants to teach me how to be humble and not wasting anything. Anyway, I always love pus-pus and I hope that we can be…forever.”[vii]

Besides the bad English this story uses, the same worksheet asked the student questions that it did not provide answers for, such as Pus-pus’s gender. Most of the other high school workbooks I have seen appear to be written by non-native speakers and they may, for the most part, avoid some of the glaring problems presented by the story of Pus-pus, but they often fall far short of expectations as they contain grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, and poor English. It is understandable that Indonesian secondary schools’ English language instructors do not all speak perfect English, but it is disconcerting that the federal government has established a uniform 2013 Curriculum for teaching English, but is unwilling to sponsor well-written textbooks.

Frankly, you could hire any native English speaker with decent editing skills and it would make for a vast improvement. Obviously students cannot learn to speak or write English well, if their workbooks are full of grammar mistakes and written poorly. Hiring decent textbook authors and editors is not prohibitively expensive and would be of great utility to the students. Provincial leaders and individual schools are unlikely to have the resources to solve this problem, thus, the federal government should follow the new Curriculum 2013 with the basic resources necessary for their students to succeed.

The final and most serious problem is the use of too much Bahasa Indonesian in English language classes. In my school, all of my teachers speak English well and the use of Indonesian is limited in English language classes. Unfortunately, that is not the case in other schools. I know countless other English teachers, who wage a daily struggle with the constant use of the Indonesian language in the classroom. Having studied in the U.S. and Germany, this was completely new to me, as in my prior experiences, language classes were conducted entirely in the new language students were learning, beyond the first few months. It seems commonsense that you have to practice hearing and speaking a foreign language if you want to learn it. While this is not a complete immersion program, it clearly develops the students’ communicative competency or proficiency in the language.  For many of our students, we are the first bule, or foreigner, that they have ever had a conversation with. They are unlikely to have extensive English conversations outside of the classroom, and practicing outside of school is very time-consuming and difficult for students, who have many obligations besides learning more English. Hayo Reinders illustrates the issue best when he explains that his students have “busy schedules [that] make it unlikely they will spend much time actively planning and managing their own language learning beyond the requirements of the course. A problem common to all contexts…is that most learners are simply not used to learning on their own.”[viii]

The aforementioned problems are symptoms of deeper problems in the Indonesian educational system. Indonesia has an educational system that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked 64th out of 65 countries surveyed for fifteen year-olds’ achievements in math, science, and English.[ix] For a better perspective, one can compare this number to its neighbors, such as Vietnam, which ranks 17th and Malaysian, which ranks 52nd.[x] Despite all of the aforementioned problems, I am one hundred percent confident in our students’ abilities to succeed. At my own school, I am constantly amazed by the cleverness and aptitude of my students. Two of my best students won the provincial science fair with a brilliant project on a chemical compound they created to help wounds heal faster. This, despite the fact they both come from disadvantaged backgrounds and lack the resources of many of their more well-to-do classmates, let alone the average Western high school student. I see the intelligence, drive, and dedication of my students every day, so I know they are brilliant and hardworking. These students are being disadvantaged, as they are more than capable of competing with and besting their peers in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world, but are unable to due to a lack of resources.

My host school SMAN 2, again widely considered the best in my city, offers some potential solutions, although much of the initiative for reform must come from Jakarta. Indonesian high schools are given several elective hours, which they can use for whatever subject they want. SMAN 2 uses some of its elective hours to increase the amount of English instruction for students. As I mentioned previously, the English language teachers go out of their way to use mostly English in the classroom. The textbooks are also imperfect, but much better than Pus-pus’s story. The school does a great job with the resources it is given. Unfortunately, it often faces obstacles out of its control, and there are many other schools in Kalimantan and Indonesia in general that do not do as good of a job of teaching their students English.

All of the aforementioned problems are very fixable and correcting them would go a long way in improving English language instruction in Indonesian high school classrooms. The solutions are not controversial. Many of these difficulties appear to stem from an overbearing and inefficient federal bureaucracy, which the newly-elected President Jokowi has promised to improve, although only time will tell if he will be successful. Meanwhile, it is a struggle for English language teachers, both Indonesian and foreign, to help their students achieve the necessary English competency to succeed. Hopefully, 2015 will bring new solutions and innovations to English language instruction in Indonesia to allow our students to thrive.


[i] This article is a rough draft of a presentation that the author will give at a conference at the University of Palangkaraya on January 18, 2015 about teaching English in Indonesian High schools.

[ii] Janet Reitman, “Jahar’s World,” Rolling Stone 17 July 2013, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717, accessed 29 November 2014.

[iii] In Indonesia science students are typically considered the most gifted. For example, many of my fellow teachers assume, to be fair often correctly, that their science classes have the best English. In my own experience there are plenty of students in non-science classes, who speak excellent English and others who do not, but the average student in a science class has better English skills than the average one in a non-science class in Indonesia. So, the idea of a system based on being sorted by your English skill-level being insensitive is fairly ironic.

[iv] For a good overview of the topic please see Elizabeth Kennedy’s Indonesiaful article “A Look at the 2013 Curriculum.”

[v] At SMAN 2 each hour of classroom time is actually forty-five minutes of instruction. So, if your English class is two hours, you will teach for ninety minutes.

[vi] Sara Schonhardt, “Indonesia Envisions More Religion in Schools,” New York Times 6 January 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/07/world/asia/in-indonesia-science-may-give-way-to-religion.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&, accessed 7 December 2013.

[vii] CV. Cahaya Pustaka, Bahasa Inggris: Kelompok Mata Pelajaran Wajib (Sukoharjo: CV. Cahaya Pustaka, 2013), 23.

[viii] Hayo Reinders, “Personal Learning Environments for Supporting Out-of-Class Language Learning,” English Teaching Forum 52 (2014), 4: 14.

[ix] Elizabeth Kennedy, “A Look at the 2013 Curriculum,” Indonesiaful 16 January 2014, http://indonesiaful.com/2014/01/16/2013-curriculum-indonesia/, accessed 29 November 2014.

[x] Ibid.

About the author: Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014.


Photo by Nick Hughes

Effects of the Gas Subsidy Reduction in Kupang

By Josh Gehret

If something happens that you don’t like, it’s the government’s fault.

I know enough to know how convenient an excuse that is, and how complex such accusations against the state can be. I usually hesitate to criticize governments, because after all, they have a difficult job. This is especially true in Indonesia, where moving from one island to another means changing cultures, religion, language, values, and basic standards of living. Because of such stark changes from island to island, it is very challenging for the central government (under the newly elected President Joko Widodo) to implement country-wide policies because of the varying levels of infrastructure on each island. Policies which work quite well on Java may have vastly different effects in the more remote parts of the island nation.

In this article, I will address two issues and attempt to show how they are connected: the reduction in government subsidized gas (resulting in a 2,000 Rp increase in the cost of gas per liter) and the poor infrastructure in Kupang, specifically as it relates to electrical supply in the city. I should clarify that my knowledge of Indonesian government bureaucracy is limited primarily to immigration policy (which was no picnic), so I can only imagine how complicated it can get for more difficult issues such as gas subsidies and infrastructure problems.

After a paltry four months in Kupang, even I have gotten to witness (and be frustrated by) some of the on-the-ground effects of national government policy. On the whole, my political bias is one of support for President Widodo (affectionately known to most as President Jokowi), but it’s hard to ignore the harsh impact that the reduction of the gas subsidy has had on Kupang.


In order for you to get a full appreciation of how these recent shifts in government policy and how the poor infrastructure in Kupang has affected people, some background information is necessary about the place I live.

Kupang is on the island of Timur, in the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (hereafter known as NTT), which roughly translates to the South-eastern Island province—timur literally means “east.” NTT is composed of many small islands, but there are larger islands that dominate the region culturally, linguistically, and with respect to religion. These primary islands are Flores, Alor, Rote, Timur, and Sumba, with these larger islands containing several different tribes and ethnic groups with many different languages and dialects.

Roughly 80% of the province’s residents are Christian (about a 50/50 split between Catholicism and Protestantism), with the remaining 20% composed of Muslims, Hindus, and local Animistic religious traditions.

Geographically, NTT is one of the driest regions of Indonesia. The rainy season lasts a paltry three months and even then, it only rains every few days for twenty to thirty minutes on average. Timur is highly dependent on importing food from the wetter regions of Indonesia, and water outages are frequent and long-lasting. I usually only get water for a few hours a day, long enough for me to fill my bak mandi, a large basin that holds spare water, which is enough for my twice-a-day baths, washing my feet when I take a gander through the dusty streets, washing dishes, brushing my teeth, and flushing the toilet. There has only been one water outage that lasted for more than 24 hours since I’ve been here, but it isn’t hard to understand why it is important for someone to be home to fill multiple containers of water (when the water comes on at inconsistent times) to have ample water for one’s family for the day, especially considering many people need water for an additional purpose that I use an outside service for: washing clothes.

Kupang is an interesting place to be because, as the capital city of NTT, it is a place where people of many different languages and cultures come together. Few people consider themselves to be from Kupang, although many were born in the hospital here, and claim themselves as from a surrounding island or neighboring village. Many come here to attend one of the many universities, if they cannot afford to go to university in Java or Bali. Kupang is the crossroads city of NTT, and as such it is a fascinating place.

As the regional capital, one might imagine that Kupang has the resources expected of a “capital city.” At least I did, when I was told I would be placed in Kupang. Being from New York City, I have an (over-bloated) image of what a city is supposed to look like. Kupang certainly does have some resources: universities, hospitals, a bookstore, a Western-style supermarket, and even a few hotels. However, in this author’s opinion it is a city by virtue of being larger than a village. Aside from two or three main streets that act as the center of business and activity, the immediate surroundings beyond these central streets are fairly quiet. Kupang is a place where people come from modest backgrounds and are accustomed to simple lives. There are few places beyond karaoke joints to spend expendable income (no movie theater, for example). Expendable income is not much of a concept in NTT.

However, everyone needs certain things: food and water. In the modern age, one can add electricity and gasoline. In Kupang, these things are provided by the government. In fact, without an organized government, the city would not be able to sustain the population that it does. Timur simply does not have the resources. The city would not be able to exist as such without support from the central government.

Subsidizing gas cost the government about 212 trillion rupiah in 2012 (roughly 21 million US dollars), about 21% of the central government’s budget.  Jokowi’s decision to reduce the gas subsidy has been lauded as a bold and wise move for reform in Indonesia, as the gas subsidy tends to help the upper and middles classes of Indonesians who drive a lot more than the lower classes {1}.

Trimming the gas subsidy (which raises the cost of a liter of gas from 6,500 a liter to 8,500 a liter, a twenty cent increase in US dollars) saves the central government over 100 trillion rupiah a year, and that saved money is supposed to be funneled to bettering the infrastructure of Indonesia (such as improving roads, electricity, and water supply) across the archipelago, according to Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro {2}. In addition, the more disadvantaged people who will be more seriously impacted by the rising gas prices are supposed to be receiving special vouchers to help them afford the rising costs. All this sounds great, right?

When the government fails to provide a resource that it has long provided, the effects are felt strongly in a place like Kupang that is extremely reliant on the central government for things the people view as necessities. Most people in Kupang have a very laissez-faire relationship with the central government. We are far from Jakarta. We have few resources, in our classrooms and in our city. But people are generally happy. They have what they need. Most people do not care about the politics of Java.

On Tuesday, November 18th, 2014, the central government reduced its gasoline subsidy. On Wednesday, November 19th, the bemos went on strike. On Thursday, November 20th, the fare went up.

The subsidy cut sparked protests, largely peaceful, throughout Indonesia {3}. There haven’t been any organized protests apart from the bemo strike in Kupang, but it has been interesting watching the effects unfold in the city.

Bemos are the primary public transportation system for many people in Kupang. (For  more information about bemos as public transportation, see this Indonesiaful article about angkots and bemos.) Generally, the people who use bemos are: A) people who are not yet old enough to drive a motorcycle B) people who are in Kupang temporarily and would not find it financially prudent to purchase a motorcycle C) People who cannot afford a motorcycle and D) people who cannot drive a motorcycle for physical/health reasons.

Photo by Nick Hughes

Photo by Nick Hughes

This means: A) school children B) college students C) poorer people and D) old ladies. While bemos are far from the most efficient means of transport in the city, they are dirt cheap. One of the smallest bills (that is worth something) in Indonesian rupiah is the 2,000 Rp bill. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have a few 2,000 Rp bills crumpled in your pocket or stashed in your wallet. It is the “spare change” bill. If you buy something at the market and get change, you’ll probably get some 2,000 Rp bills, or some 1,000 Rp coins.

(For the interested/informed reader, 1,000 Rp bills exist, but they tend to be rarer than the coin and only found as change in well-frequented supermarkets, at least in Kupang.)

This spare change bill of 2,000 Rp is bemo fare. It will take you anywhere along the route, from down the block to the other side of the city in the pimped out, music blasting, cramped, recklessly driven (and with the occasionally-tipsy-random-friend-of-the-driver collecting fare) bemos, which fill the streets of Kupang. They aren’t always reliable and they run during really weird hours and have odd routes, but once you know the nuances of the system it’s a very convenient one to utilize.

In an all-too-familiar narrative to Americans, rising gas prices affect us universally and leave everyone feeling helpless in the same boat. You must continue living your life, but you must also find a way to weather the cost of rising gas prices.

Bemo fare rose from 2,000 to 3,000 rupiah overnight. A round trip journey now costs three bemo fares instead of two. The number of students coming into the teacher room to ask for a spare 1,000 Rp coin was staggering, because the spare change bill is no longer enough for a bemo. Teachers and students alike rifle through their purses and wallets looking for exact change, because bemo drivers will not hesitate to keep the change from a 5,000 Rp bill or give you only 1,000 Rp back. Students have been walking home in droves. Bemo drivers turn people down (especially students) if they can’t show that they have the required tiga ribu rupiah.


The cost has also impacted ojek prices, the motorcycle taxis that also double as the alternative to bemos that now run about 10,000 Rp, as opposed to the previous 7-8,000. Motorcycles are convenient to those who own them but they guzzle gas pretty quick, and the average joe needs to refuel every two or three days (or more frequently if you do anything outside of the work/home routine) and need to spend an extra 20-25,000 Rp to do so. That’s the cost of two street meals.

Or it would have been, if the street food prices hadn’t gone up, too.

It has been an impact that has been felt by all, but most especially (as in most cases with something like this) by the disadvantaged of the city. The collectivist culture of Indonesia means there are few people who are homeless, because family takes care of family, but not every family is big. There are single moms at my school who have to pay for themselves and their kids on the way back home, and the rise in cost is quite harsh. Some university students are far from home and don’t have jobs and have been resorting to eat at the canteen, the school cafeteria usually frequented by students and the lone bule teacher. School students take the hike home in the heat after an already long day in a hot classroom.

But it’s okay, right? Because the money is going to go towards infrastructure and roads and more consistent water supply and less blackouts, right? What is the infrastructure of such things in Kupang?

Power outages are not uncommon in Indonesia. In fact, they are a certainty of life here.

Kupang is no different. When I first arrived here, I had about one outage a week and it would last for no more than three hours. If they happen during the day, you take a walk, go outside, read, or maybe run some errands. If they happen at night, you put all your plans on hold and either sleep or if you’re desperate, walk (or motorbike, if you have that resource) to a district of the city that has power.

However, since the start of the rainy season the power outages have been more frequent. They generally happen two or three times a week and the serious ones last all day. They’ve been hitting different districts of the city like clockwork, one day Walikota, the next day Oepura, the next day Oebufu, etc., and then repeating the cycle.

I asked a co-teacher if there were usually power outages with greater regularity this time of year, or if there were simply “bad months” where they happen more frequently and there’s nothing anyone can do. Apparently the increasing frequency of power outages has also been an anomaly.

Who is responsible for maintaining the city generators? The local government, with the costs subsidized by the central government, the teacher explained, but apparently the maintenance has been poor and the problems have worsened. To compensate, the power companies are conserving what they have by hitting the kill switch on certain neighborhoods before bringing it back and killing another neighborhood. Again, the power outages aren’t necessarily debilitating. I have had the pleasure of dining with several Indonesian families during blackouts and these dinners have actually been kind of fun. Indonesians know how to roll with the punches.

However, they do halt life. What about the important things that needs to get done? Delayed. As a teacher, I see this debilitation in little ways that don’t necessarily kill me, but I know they hurt students. Exams are very important in the Indonesian education system and a bad exam score can literally make or break your future. That on its own is enough pressure for a student to deal with, but then they have to study in the dark or finish homework in a blackout.

The largest university in Kupang, Undana Penfui, has been without electricity and running water for almost a month.

Infrastructure is a problem, and a problem that Jokowi’s administration has promised to address with the excess money saved from reducing the gas subsidy. Costs have risen for everyone, and not just for transportation services. Even the Ibus at the canteen charge an extra 500 Rp for ramen.

People are reasonable. They recognize that this cut was a necessary one, and one that has long term benefits for the country. Many teachers admit grumpily while rifling for change that it is a necessary step taken by Jokowi, and even that he was brave in following through on an unpopular but necessary step. A cut that has immediate detrimental effects and results in only long-term positive effects is bound to be unpopular though, and it’s no different here.

Kupang is a strange, confusing, and wonderful city. It is complex and fascinating. I have learned a lot about being thankful for what I have and appreciating life that is so different from America. However, everyone needs basic things to live, and when it is the responsibility of the government to supply these necessities to a part of the country that already has so little, the ripples are resounding. Is it something the people of Kupang can survive? Yes. Will they see tangible results in infrastructure improvement (reliable water and power) as a result of the subsidy reduction? We hope so.

Now, one month after the gas subsidy reduction, the dust has settled a little bit. Bemo fares have stabilized at 2,500 Rp. Having a spare 5,000 Rp in your wallet for gas is more of a norm now, instead of an anomaly. People adjust and continue to live life. They continue to laugh, struggle, disappoint and smile as they did before. Their lives are still busy. The semester tests are happening and the holidays are coming up. But people are not invincible. Even something as simple as a slight increase in gas and bemo fare in the name of better infrastructure can weaken the faith of people in the central government in an already remote province. The little things add up. And it scares me to think, if the government doesn’t support the people of NTT in the ways it has promised with water and power improvements, what will be the next little thing that breaks the camel’s back?


{1} Diop, Ndiame. “Why is Reducing Energy Subsidies a Prudent, Fair, and Transformative Policy for Indonesia?” Economic Premise: The World Bank. March 2014, No. 136. Accessed 17 December 2014. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPREMNET/Resources/EP140.pdf

{2} Al Azhari, Muhamad, and Dion Bisara. “Jokowi Eyes Infrastructure Focus with Fuel Subsidy Cut.” The Jakarta Globe. Nov. 18, 2014. Accessed 17 December 2014. http://thejakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/business/jokowi-eyes-infrastructure-focus-fuel-subsidy-cut/

{3} “Fuel’s Errand.” The Economist. Nov. 22, 2014. Accessed 17 December 2014. http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21633877-jokowi-trims-indonesias-inefficient-popular-petrol-subsidies-fuels-errand

About the author: Josh Gehret is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant placed in Kupang, Nusa Tenggara Timur (2014-2015). He graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with degrees in English Communications and Ancient Studies. He enjoys long walks on the beach and watching the sunsets in Kupang and bragging about it, despite severely missing sweater weather. 

Spirit Possession: An Indonesian High School Horror Story

By Chris Martin

When my phone rang, I had just stumbled into the teachers’ office from the blaze of the mid-morning heat. Even for Banjarmasin, a city known for its sweat-inducing temperatures, it was looking to be a hot one. Prior to the call, my school had stood at attention for an extended flag ceremony. It had lasted an hour and a half, but felt far longer. Like wilting flies, a swarm of limp female students had been carried off in stretchers by a crew of male students dressed in uniforms that resembled a cross between the boy scouts and military police.

The display read that the caller was Bu Mei, my counterpart. I pressed my phone against my damp ear, expecting to hear her gravelly voice through the speaker, but instead I heard a muffled sound, like thick pieces of cloth being rubbed together, and then screaming: high-pitched screams that startled me from my heat-induced stupor. It sounded both familiar and yet inhuman. Finally, Bu Mei’s voice replaced the screaming, “Hey, you want to see kesurupan (spirit possession)? Come now to the library!”

Approaching the library, I was met with a crowd of students pressed against the doorway, their attention frozen on whatever was happening inside. Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself through the thick curtain of sweating bodies and took in the sight: four female students, each pinned against the floor by a team of students. Two lay on the floor lifelessly, like balloon animals whose air had escaped, while the other two continued to scream, thrashing against the students holding them down. The humid air was sparked with a thick, silent tension- teachers either bustled back and forth or stood in small groups and talked in hushed tones. Bu Mei finally caught my eye and came over. “Look at my arm,” she ordered, revealing a rash of goosebumps, “Woooh, I’m so scared!”

The tree whose trimmed branches were said to be response for the student possessions

The tree whose trimmed branches were said to be response for the student possessions

Eventually, an electrical engineering teacher named Pak Dasuki entered the room and as if on cue, the two screaming female students quieted down. Kneeling down beside one of them, he pressed his hand on her forehead and began speaking in quick succession, causing the student to writhe furiously, and she began to shout in Indonesian. Curious, I asked a teacher next to me named Pak Subiyan what she was saying. Cocking his head to the side, he listened for a while and then said, “She says, ‘why do you cut down my tree?’” Noting my confusion, he explained to me that recently, the branches of one tree on school campus had been cut off. “The jinn [evil spirit] that lived there, he is not happy. That is why this happened.”

            A second teacher arrived, Pak Abdul Hakim the religion teacher, and he began working on the second female student, pressing his hand against his head, and speaking words over the flailing girl in a commanding voice, which a nearby teacher explained to me were passages of the Qur’an. And then without hesitation, the girls quieted down, their once-taut limbs now limp in the hands of their classmates. Whatever traumatic event that just occurred was now over and the girls sat up, sweeping strands of hair back under their jilbabs (head coverings) and were led outside of the room to perform ceremonial ablutions and then return to class.

One of the female students in the middle of her trance

One of the female students in the middle of her trance


As disconcerting as the events of the morning had been, they were by no means rare; virtually every teacher I spoke to concerning the incident readily admitted to having witnessed a student spirit possession or in some circumstances had been victims themselves.  Nor were such events unfamiliar to other schools in the region. Approximately a month ago, The Borneo Post posted that students at SMAN3, a public high school on the other side of the city, had broken out in a mass trance. “Yes, most of our male and female students [are] possessed again,”[1] stated the high school principal, the last word underpinning the regularity of spirit possession among students.

Coming from a Western worldview that places paranormal activities like spirit possession in the same category as the occult or classic horror films such as The Exorcist, I was intrigued to understand how spirit possession, was understood by my Muslim-majority community, what caused it, and ultimately what role it played within their society.

Recently, I sat down with Pak Robin Hood, an unassuming, plump-faced electronical teacher who doubled as my school’s resident exorcist when the occasion arose. He explained that the belief that jinns, or spiritual creatures, have the ability to inhabit humans and cause them physical or mental harm- spirit possession. Further research revealed that this is a widespread belief shared by other Muslims throughout the world. The belief in jinns is anchored in Islamic writings, such as the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammed). In fact, the word jinn finds its meaning in its Arabic root word that can be translated as “hidden from sight”. Within the Muslim tradition, people possessed with jinns can display a broad range of symptoms that are often “physical, include fevers, convulsions, utterances in strange, unheard of languages, and altered tone of voice.”[2]

            Concerning his method of removing a jinn from the body of a student, Pak Robin Hood’s explanation was straightforward: “While I press on the center of their head, I read the holy Qur’an… I pray to my God and then read the holy Qur’an because it is the holy religion.” I asked him why the top of the head was part of the process. His explanation was that the jinn entered a student’s body through the top of the head or the heel of the foot and would exit the same way.

            As to why some students were possessed and others were not, he replied, “Maybe the student doesn’t have breakfast, doesn’t drink water before going to school- their mind doesn’t work well.” He further noted that the student victims were generally females, a phenomenon I had observed in other reported cases of Indonesian student possessions. “Usually the girl is weak,” he explained, “Maybe they have menstruation. Because of this, it is easy for the spirit to go into their body.”

His statement underpins the dilemma of diagnosing a student as spiritually possessed opposed to suffering from some other mental, psychological, or physical illness. In many cases, the symptoms of reported possessions vary little from those who suffer from various mental illnesses. In an article, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine states that possessions can be interpreted various ways: “a combination of biological, anthropological, sociological, psychopathological and experimental perspectives.”[3] Acknowledging the difficulties in diagnosing a possessed person, Pak Robin explained that sometimes it was genuine, which he could observe through their eyes, but other times it was possibly students faking it.

“But why would anyone fake spirit possession?”, I asked him. Pak Robin did not have the answer to that. However, one anthropological article concerning spiritual possession among an ethnic Micronesian group offered an explanation: “It wins her sympathy, for the victim is treated as a sick person, a special kind of sick person… It also gives her a platform from which to speak.”[4]

Possibly this explained why spirit possession was so commonplace among students, a stage of life that is both stressful and unstable. Although still unsure of what to make of it all, I walked away from my discussion with Pak Robin with a better understanding of the beliefs of the members of my community, which I respect. Rather than existing as terrifying and unknown, spirit possession is accepted as part of one’s reality and simply dealt with as it arises, a common approach to difficulties I have seen time and again during my time here in Indonesia.

As for the four female students, they did not recall anything that occurred to them during their period of possession. Like other students I had questioned concerning their possession, they remembered nothing from the point it occurred until when their trance ended. The students simply regained consciousness, performed ablutions and went back to class, once again returning to another day at an Indonesian high school.

About the author: Chris Martin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan. He currently is a graduate student at Brooklyn College.

[1] The Borneo Post “Mass Trance at SMAN3 Banjarmasin”. (Posted September 25, 2014) http://www.theborneopost.com/2014/09/25/mass-trance-at-sman3-banjarmasin/.
[2] Yaseen Ally, “Cultural Perceptions of Psychological Disturbances: The folklore beliefs of South African Muslim and Hindu Community Members” (University of Witwatersrand), 20. 41. http://mobile.wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/5969/AllyY_0203828K.pdf?sequence=1
[3] Najat Khalifa and Tim Hardie, “Possession and Jinn,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 98, no. 8 (2005): 351-353. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1181833/
[4] Francis X. Hezel, SJ, “Spirit Possession in Chuuk: A Socio-Cultural Interpretation” Micronesian Seminar, http://www.micsem.org/pubs/articles/socprobs/frames/spiritposschkfr.htm



grace 3

World of Difference: A Tale of Two Campuses

By Grace Wivell

“It’s like you teach at two different schools.”

My site mate has accompanied me to English Camp, a new annual event held by my school that takes all of the tenth grade students to Batu, a city near Malang, to spend a day participating in short English games and team-building activities. It was an exciting day for the students, most of

SMAN 10 has two campuses: Campus One is located in a neighborhood called Sawajarjar, within Malang’s city limits; Campus Two is about a half-hour car ride from Campus One, surrounded by rice and sugarcane fields in Tlogowaru, just outside of the city. Each campus is somewhat-affectionately known by the name of its neighborhood. Sawajarjar resembles a fairly typical senior high school, with the exception of a few eleventh-grade students from Papua who live in a kos (boarding house) together, all of the students at Sawajarjar live with their families in Malang—in many cases my students live with only their mother, while their father works in Surabaya or Jakarta and visits on weekends, or sometimes only holidays— and most students have lived in Malang their whole lives.

Tlogowaru is still a public school, although it more closely resembles a private boarding school. There are students from all over Indonesia and even a few from Malaysia, and a number of local students as well. There is a cohort of students in the eleventh grade—predominately from Papua and Sulawesi—who are able to attend this school because of a scholarship funded by Pertamina, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Indonesia, but many students are able to go to SMAN 10 only because their parents can afford to pay for them to go there (the idea of public education is very different here). While students who go to school in Sawajarjar go home every evening, cramming themselves onto shared motorbikes, most of the students who attend school in Tlogowaru live in one of the two dorms on campus, which is also where I live.

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to properly assess a situation, and my site mate had “Hit the nail on the head,” to use the idiom I had taught my students earlier that week. Because I teach on a slightly insane every-other-week schedule in order to be in the classroom with all of the tenth and eleventh grade classes on both campuses, there are some days during which I teach on both campuses. On those days, I experience a kind of pedagogical whiplash as I go from campus to campus: forget teaching in two different schools; sometimes I feel I teach in two different worlds.

Classes at Sawajarjar are much larger than at Tlogowaru. While many of the classes I am in at Sawajarjar sometimes have almost forty students, it is rare for me to have a class at Tlogowaru that has even thirty students, and I even have one class with only ten. This makes learning their names much easier at Tlogowaru, and also makes for some other interesting differences in teaching. While I find it completely possible to meet with each student individually in order to clear up any confusion about content or assignments during my classes at Tlogowaru, I am never able to talk with each student for as long as I would like during my classes at Sawajarjar. At Tlogowaru, I come out of my classes feeling energized and satisfied that most of my students did in fact learn that day, and I am able to walk back to the dorms with those same students, laughing and joking about how excited we are all to mandi (shower), and feel refreshed after a day of being in hot, sticky classrooms. When I am at Sawajarjar, I come home from school feeling harried and exhausted, and wondering if I have managed to make any difference at all.

Each campus also provides its own challenges in regards to my students’ English level. As students come to our English Camp station for a rousing round of charades, my site mate quickly picks up on the fact that all of my high achieving students seem to come from Tlogowaru, and she points out the difference to me. While generally this is true, the different achievement levels on the two campuses are more nuanced than that. My highest achieving students almost all go to school in Tlogowaru, but so do many of my striving students. In fact, those of my students who struggle the most in English class are students in my Tlogowaru classes, not my Sawajarjar classes. I am unsurprised that it is students at Tlogowaru who have the highest English level, as it is usually these students whose parents could afford tutors, or who are English teachers or professors themselves. Without these advantages, it is understandable that the students at Sawajarjar are not already fluent in English as they have only had their once-a-week (or twice-a-week, in junior high school) English classes to aid them in their learning. I am also unsurprised that many of my striving students are also at Tlogowaru: because my students at that campus come from many schools from all across Indonesia, they have not had the same access to quality English education, and I believe this is probably the root cause of the great diversity in achievement that I see on that campus. Certainly, it is not the students’ eagerness to learn that causes this gap, for my striving students are just as enthusiastic and diligent as any of my high achieving students, and sometimes perhaps even more so.

Due to these differences, differentiation has never been more relevant to my teaching: I have learned that I must use separate materials and strategies for the different campuses, classes, and even students when I can, especially when I am teaching at Tlogowaru, where the variation is most extreme. With nineteen classes and over five hundred students, whom I only see in the classroom every other week, I won’t pretend for a moment that this this is easy, or that I know whether I am doing it correctly. I can only promise myself and my students that I do my best, and hope that my best is somehow cukup (enough).

(On the bad days, I just remind myself of the same thing I am always telling my students: what is most important is that kita coba (we try). On the worst days, I find it hard to believe in my own words, and myself as an educator. However, there are always a few good—or at least decent—days to remind me that I will not fail my students in the end, or at least not all of them.)

There is a certain understanding amongst many of the teachers on both campuses that my belief in giving each student the best education that I can is merely a result of my being a young and inexperienced teacher, and that I am in Indonesia only for nine months. My fellow teachers often tell me that “You are young and have more energy” And that “It is easy for you. You are only here a short time.” The negative commentary batters my confidence whenever I tell other teachers—be they English teachers or teachers of other subjects—that I cannot bring myself to give up on a student, or believe that a student simply “cannot.” It is not my first time hearing these arguments as I was once an idealistic education student, and later a student teacher who was often told I would not be able to maintain my dedication throughout my teaching career. There is little I can say in response to these assumptions, because there are some elements of truth in them. I am a single, energetic young woman—or at least I am on the days I am not ill, which I often am in Indonesia—who does not have a family to care for at the end of the day, and is able to focus her excess of energy towards her teaching. I am also belum guru sejati (not yet a real teacher) as I have volunteered in classrooms, been a student teacher, and am now an English Teaching Assistant, but I have not yet held a permanent or even semi-permanent position in a school. I have not endured years of working in education in any country, fighting against a system that fails students and teachers with equal neglect and outright cruelty, and so I cannot yet guarantee that I will not eventually be defeated by the walls I am always trying to tear down. I know this is true, but I hold fast to my belief that my students are worth all the effort I can give them, and I only hope that I can maintain this attitude and prove the cynics wrong.

Whether they teach at one campus or both, most of the SMAN 10 teachers have distinct opinions about the various students at the different campuses. One of my co-teachers, who only teaches at Sawajarjar, is constantly talking about how lucky I am to teach at Tlogowaru: “The students there are so clever,” she tells me, again and again, “Our students are not as smart.” I am continually trying to tell her that our students at Sawajarjar are also very intelligent, pointing out each time I receive a particularly poignant reflection from a student, or when a student is able to make a particularly clever joke in English. As of yet, I have been unable to change her opinion, but I will not berhenti (stop) until I succeed or leave Indonesia, whichever comes first.

At the same time, while this co-teacher firmly believes that the students at Tlogowaru are generally cleverer, she also has distinctly negative views towards my students from Papua, who stand out more than any of my students due to their dark skin. During a visit to Sawajarjar from some of the students from Tlogowaru for a student event, she pointed out the window of the academic room where our desks are, laughing, and said to me “Look, Grace, a Papua student!” I shook my head, not understanding the joke, and she then said, “Many teachers here, we think they are stupid.” More furious than I had yet been since coming to Indonesia—you can cat-call me, try to cheat me at the market, and laugh at my language mistakes, but don’t you dare insult my students in such a blatant manner—I immediately informed her that the Papua students are just as smart as the other students, and that I did not want to hear them called stupid again. I then left the air conditioned comfort of the academic room to sit and eat my lunch in the hot sun with my Tlogowaru students, brilliant individuals from across this great archipelago that claims “Unity in diversity,” but has problems fulfilling this motto just as the United States does with the claim that “all men are created equal.”

I have repeatedly heard teachers who teach on both campuses or only at Tlogowaru speak of the Sawajarjar students with the same derision as my co-teacher. They are “wild,” “impolite,” and “lazy,” it seems, and nothing I have ever said seems to change people’s minds. If varying degrees of access to quality education is the root cause of the different achievement levels between campuses, I predict teacher attitude is what has allowed it to proliferate. Experiencing this attitude is not new for me, as I have seen it time and time again in the U.S. as well, but its familiarity does not keep it from hurting any less. While we were at English camp, one of the math teachers who had come along as a chaperone came up to me and said, “This is my first time to see the students from Sawajarjar. They are not as organized or diligent as our students.”

Bristling at the implication that the Sawajarjar students are not also mine, I found myself being blunt and honest rather than polite as I responded that “I think it is because of the way the teachers treat them. If you don’t tell your students you believe they can do something, of course they probably won’t do it.” He seems taken aback by my passion—more accustomed to the sweet and quiet demeanor I have adopted here as a means of survival—and mumbles something about this maybe having something to do with class size. I conceded that maybe he has a point, but still insisted that “I teach all of these students, and they are all wonderful.”

But not all of the teachers treat the students of SMAN 10 in this way. My second co-teacher, whom I truly believe is an angel on Earth, treats all of her students, no matter what grade or campus, with the same patience and care. When she explained to me that the students from Papua often had a lower English level than the other students, she did so by pointing out that “They did not have good English teachers in junior high school, so English is hard for them. So we need to help them more.” Though she, like me, seems much more drained after a day of teaching in the larger classes of Sawajajar, she still gives everything she has to these students, and when she rests her head on her desk at the end of the day and says to me “Ngantuk (sleepy),” she does so with a smile and never once blames her students for her exhaustion. It is teachers like her who give me hope for the future of education in Indonesia, and everywhere.

Towards the end of our day at English Camp, this same saintly co-teacher takes the microphone and speaks briefly to the students. I may not yet be fluent in Indonesian, but I understand this speech: she is telling the students that it is important that they remember working together today, to remember that they may have different classrooms and different teachers, but they are all one school. It is a speech that is easy to believe in, seeing the students smiling together in matching blue shirts, soaked through with rain, and covered in mud from a day of races and impromptu dancing to “Sakitnya Tuh di Sini,” but I wonder how long this comradery will last, and if it is even the students my fabulous co-teacher should be talking to.

But that is cynics’ talk, and I refuse to conform to that ideology that so often surrounds me. There is always hope for the future, and if anything is the embodiment of Indonesia—and the world’s—future, it is its students.

During the last activity of the day, students work together to create a flag pole and raise the Indonesian flag in the center of a muddy field. As they scramble to beat the countdown being shouted out by the leaders of the team-building activities, the different schools and classes blend more haphazardly than they have all day: a student from Tlogowaru holds two pieces of plastic as a student from Sawajarjar, hastily ties them together. Once the flag is waving above our heads, mostly straight and somehow stable, the students erupt in cheers, the few boundaries that have persisted until now dissolving in their combined success.

I am reminded of an Indonesian saying I learned recently from one of the science teachers: “Sembilas, duabelas.” This saying is used to express when two different things are so similar that they are like the difference between eleven and twelve. This is how I have come to view my students: no matter how many differences I note on my own or have pointed out to me, they are all, at the end of the day, young people with an entire future of challenges and celebrations ahead of them. Even having only spent a little over half a semester in their classrooms, and having only seen one grade truly together for a single day, I know that my students all have the capacity to be just as—or less than, or more—kind, cruel, or apathetic than the generations that have proceeded them, and that they truly seem to be headed towards improvement. In this way, though they vary from campus to campus, and from student to student, each of these individuals is somehow the reflection of the individuals standing next to them. And if they work together, then they, like the flag that represents their nation, have nowhere to go but up.


About the author: Grace Wivell is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malang, East Java. She graduated from Ithaca College, NY in 2014, with a degree in English Education 

An Introvert in Indonesia

By Christopher Linnan

When I first arrived in Palangkaraya, Indonesia to begin my stint as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), I thought I was fully prepared for all obstacles. Of course, I expected to encounter culture shock and problems, but I had talked to many Americans who had spent significant time in Indonesia and I had done enough research beforehand that I thought I was well-prepared. During our orientation in Bandung, Indonesia, we spent countless hours discussing being an American in Indonesia, and were introduced to some of the cultural differences and obstacles that we could expect. Most of them were relatively unsurprising and I spent enough time wandering the streets of Bandung to realize that being a Caucasian foreigner, more commonly known as a bule, often entailed that strangers yelled at me, asked for photographs, or prompted other awkward interactions. However, I was not even close to being prepared for life as a bule in Palangkaraya.

The moment I stepped outside the luggage terminal at the city’s tiny airport I was greeted by a large contingent of cheering teachers and students holding banners. Nor did it stop there as everywhere I went I was an instant celebrity. Whether I was in the classroom, the teachers’ lounge, the canteen, or schoolyard, I was greeted and swarmed by inquisitive students and teachers. My initial trip to the grocery store, a fifty minute walk from my house, was punctuated by constant yells of “bule” and “hey mister”, honking and staring by passing motorists, multiple random strangers stopping me to try conversing with me in English, and even a picture and autograph for a particularly brave young boy. Frankly, this attention quickly became overwhelming as being a celebrity was neither something I had prepared for nor something I was very comfortable with. Furthermore, being an introvert made this attention particularly disconcerting and in the beginning very challenging.

Mr. Christopher and his students building frienships through a game of Futsal."

Mr. Christopher and his students building friendships through Futsal.

Unfortunately, the differences between introverts and extroverts are often misunderstood. Countless news articles and studies, academic and non-academic, often make bold claims that being one or the other is the key to success in life. Thus, one often hears people claim to be introverts when they clearly are not and vice versa. The man who introduced the terms to the general public, Carl Jung, used the story of two young men to illustrate the differences between extraversion and introversion. In his story, the youths, an extrovert and an introvert, are exploring the countryside together when the introvert sees a castle.[i] The introvert voices his desire to go inside, but is hesitant because he is unsure if it is allowed or is wise. The extrovert has no such qualms and harbors romantic visions of adventures to be had. So, he leads them into the castle, only to be surprised that there are only a few rooms containing old manuscripts and an elderly caretaker. The introvert is enthralled by these foreign documents and immediately begins a lively conversation with the curator about them, while the extrovert is disappointed and bored by the contents of the castle. The extrovert resents the introvert for wishing to stay and study these documents, while the introvert is angry that the extrovert wants to leave so quickly for another adventure. The lesson of the story, or at least the way this author sees it, is that without the extrovert’s daring and risk-taking they would not have made this discovery, but it took the introvert’s introspection and attention-to-detail to appreciate and understand it, even if they would be loath to credit each other.

My friends and family would all describe me as an introvert, but that does not mean I have problems interacting with people.[ii] I have spent plenty of time working in jobs that required me to be with others constantly such as being a political organizer, scooping ice cream at Marble Slab, and teaching English at a German university. Like most people I enjoy hanging out with my friends, playing pickup sports, and engaging in other social activities. Many people would describe me as a quiet person, who needs a certain amount of personal space, and enjoys activities typical for introverts such as reading and solving my Rubik’s Cube. In my experience, this is fairly common behavior[iii] in America and rarely, if ever, has anyone told me this is bad or impolite. However, my experience as a Fulbright ETA in Indonesia taught me that my behavior is not common across the globe.

Palangkaraya is a small Indonesian city with over two hundred thousand inhabitants. While it is a decently-sized place, which the former President Sukarno even proposed making the capitol of Indonesia, it is relatively undeveloped and there are relatively few foreigners. The only bule community is about thirty-two kilometers away and many of them rarely venture into town. Thus, I am constantly reminded that I am a novelty, not only at the high school where I teach, SMAN 2, but also in the city at-large. For someone who values his alone time greatly, it was extremely perturbing to be interrupted mid-workout at his house by a stranger who had heard from someone, I am still unsure from whom, that there is a bule living in town. It was even more disconcerting to be unable to walk anywhere without having people yell at you or be bombarded with constant requests for photos.

Typically introverts do not seek a lot of attention, thus being treated like a celebrity was initially very bothersome. I was flattered, yet bothered by the sudden elevation of my social status. Worse yet, the only thing I had done to deserve this was being a regular bule. Everybody wanted to talk to me and they were confused why I was often hesitant to socialize. This was exacerbated by my poor Bahasa Indonesian skills, which often left me confused and uttering phrases like “bisa anda bicara pelan-pelan” (could you speak more slowly) or “saya tidak mengerti” (I do not understand).

I quickly discovered that introversion is extremely rare in Indonesia and in many cases is viewed negatively. Indonesians are the most social and outgoing group of people I have ever met. In my experience, which to be fair is limited, it is very rare to meet a quiet or reserved Indonesian.[iv] For example, in the ruang guru, or teachers’ lounge in SMAN 2, all teachers sit in pairs at desks next to each other. There are two rows on each side of the classroom that face each other with a small space in the middle with a sofa, around which teachers congregate for our daily morning meeting or just to chat if they are in the teachers’ lounge. This spot is where many of the teachers congregate to gossip, share stories, and eat snacks. My own desk is literally in the middle of this room and adjacent to this meeting space, so for better or worse, I am always next to the action. At the beginning I was constantly swarmed by teachers, who were puzzled why I spent much of my time in the ruang guru working and studying instead of socializing. One of my fellow teachers eventually informed me that many Indonesians assume that if you are quiet you are bored or not enjoying yourself. Thus, I was constantly surrounded by teachers who wanted to talk and interact with me to ensure that I was having a good time. It was very difficult to explain that some people are less outgoing, and doing all my work and studying was very important to me, especially in a place where I do not speak the native language fluently. This combined with my newfound stardom to make my initial adjustment to Palangkaraya rather unsmooth.

I should clarify, that I have had an absolutely amazing time in Palangkaraya as SMAN 2 has proven to be an amazing host school and being a bule celebrity does have its perks, most notably that the vast majority of my students listen attentively when I am leading their English classes. Some of my co-teachers have also told me that some of their students who are usually very hesitant to speak are so excited by the presence of an American that they lose all inhibitions and become enthusiastic English speakers. I am blessed that there is no shortage of people who want to hang out with the new bule and help me improve my Indonesian. People at my school always go far out of their way to ensure that I am happy and having a good time. The teachers, students, and administrators at SMAN 2 are some of the most genuinely kind people I have ever met and they have done everything possible to help facilitate a smooth transition to Palangkaraya. When I talk to other ETAs about how their host schools treat them, I quickly realize how blessed I am by the incredibly good care my school takes of me. However, it was still a fairly bumpy adjustment from being a regular college student to being a celebrity.

Frankly, my first few weeks were fairly rough as the only place I could hide was my room and even there, I was not safe from inquisitive strangers. However, the past two months have been a gradual adjustment process. The first step was working on my slowly-improving Bahasa Indonesian skills, which are still very poor, although I have improved from speaking sedikit-sedikit, very little, to speaking sedikit, a little. This has allowed me to better communicate my feelings and has made life immeasurably better. Many of my teachers and students also quickly realized that my personality is different from the average Indonesian, and they have been extremely accommodating. A lot of them still treat me as a celebrity, which means for nine months I am just like Justin Bieber, a phrase I hear quite often.

The hardest part in adjusting, as I am sure is the case for other ETAs and even real celebrities, has been doing simple activities in public. It is still bothersome to look up from eating dinner and see a stranger with his smartphone pointed directly at you, which you are ninety-five percent sure is either recording you or taking a picture, but eventually you learn to use humor to deal with the situation and you develop a set routine. By now, there are literally hundreds of photos of a brown-haired, glasses-wearing bule making silly faces populating the Facebook newsfeeds, Instagram accounts, and Twitter pages of people from Palangkaraya. Initially I treated all photo opportunities as serious affairs because a past ETA had advised me this was the best approach, but I quickly discovered that if you were not having fun in your photos, then you were not having fun in real-life.

Having a set routine has enabled me to decompress after a particularly stressful day and avoid overloading myself. Part of being a Fulbright ETA is not just teaching English, but also being a cultural ambassador, which means interacting with Indonesians outside of the classroom. During my first few weeks in Palangkaraya, I took my job a little too seriously as I attempted to partake in every event possible and to accept every invitation that I received.[v] This culminated in a weekend during which I spent nearly every waking minute at various events and get-togethers, with only a few short breaks between activities. Being the only bule at all of these events meant that I was the center of attention with countless curious people inquiring where I was from, what I thought about Palangkaraya, my marital status, etc. In retrospective this was not the most brilliant idea this author ever had, but we live and we learn. So, during the past few weeks I have tried to emphasize creating a more structured[vi] schedule and ensuring I have time to myself every day. Ultimately, I am still unable to wander the streets of Palangkaraya without being harassed, but living a much better-organized life with planned alone time has made me a much happier and better person and teacher.

Ultimately, living in Palangkaraya has opened my eyes not only to a different culture, but also to a different attitude about life. Indonesians tend to be so outgoing and happy-go-lucky that it can be contagious, even if it is sometimes bothersome. My typical morning in Indonesia involves groggily rolling out of bed and waking up enough to recite Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer to ask God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I find this usually puts me in the right mindset and ready to tackle my challenges that being in introvert in Indonesia may present that day. Living in Palangkaraya as an introvert has helped open my eyes to the beauty of different personality types and hopefully my Indonesian friends feel the same way. Many of them assume that since I am an American I am the loudest and coolest person imaginable. So, I have to explain to them that “saya tidak keren, saya nerd di Amerika” (I am not cool, I am a nerd in America). Conversely, my experiences dispelled many of my own stereotypes about Indonesia. It has been an incredible learning experience living in Palangkaraya, often uncomfortable and sometimes very uncomfortable, but I would not trade it for the world.


About the author: Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014.


[i] Carl Jung, “The problem of the attitude-type,” Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 1966, http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/extrintr.html, accessed 8 November 2014.

[ii] One of the most common misconceptions about introverts is that we are asocial and dislike talking with people, but that is not true. Rather, we enjoy time to ourselves, and many of us dislike large crowds and excessive attention.

[iii] Fine I lied a little bit, doing a Rubik’s Cube is just for nerdy losers in America, but they need to be introverted enough to be willing to practice the moves countless times by themselves.

[iv] This is not a bad thing, merely an observation.

[v] As a bule in Indonesia you will receive countless invitations to weddings, parties, etc.

[vi] This is much more difficult than one might imagine. One will often hear the phrase jam karet, which translates to rubber time, to describe the average Indonesian’s casual indifference to being on time. Many Indonesians consider it completely acceptable to show up late to or even cancel an event at the last second. Furthermore, life in general in Indonesia, or at least Palangkaraya, is much less structured than in the U.S. as people are much more apt to do things at their own pace.

[vii] Carl Jung, “The problem of the attitude-type,” Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 1966, http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/extrintr.html, accessed 8 November 2014.

[viii] One of the most common misconceptions about introverts is that we are asocial and dislike talking with people, but that is not true. Rather, we enjoy time to ourselves, and many of us dislike large crowds and excessive attention.

[ix] Fine I lied a little bit, doing a Rubik’s Cube is just for nerdy losers in America, but they need to be introverted enough to be willing to practice the moves countless times by themselves.

[x] This is not a bad thing, merely an observation.

[xi] As a bule in Indonesia you will receive countless invitations to weddings, parties, etc.

[xii] This is much more difficult than one might imagine. One will often hear the phrase jam karet, which translates to rubber time, to describe the average Indonesian’s casual indifference to being on time. Many Indonesians consider it completely acceptable to show up late to or even cancel an event at the last second. Furthermore, life in general in Indonesia, or at least Palangkaraya, is much less structured than in the



My Indonesian Host Family

By Anna Aronowitz


When I first arrived at the green house, I was met by a flurry of men grinning grins I couldn’t reciprocate due to exhaustion. When my ibu finally arrived home from school, she was shy, with close-mouthed smiles and apologies – all I knew about her at the time was that she had a teenage son and that she spoke almost no English. When she felt comfortable enough to mutter a few English words to me on day three, I realized that I had known nothing about her that first day. Due to a common mistranslation because of the lack of gendered pronouns in Indonesian, my ibu’s son was actually a daughter and her “low-level English skills” miraculously flowered into a rich and vibrant vocabulary within a matter of days. Despite this, our mutual misunderstandings of helping verbs and linking words in Bahasa Indonesia and English stymied our ability to do much more than smile widely at one another whenever we brushed past.
On day four I woke up to a shriek and the sound of something being electrocuted outside my door. I tripped out of my bed and stumbled out of my bedroom to find my ibu giggling gleefully and swinging what appeared to be a pink badminton racket. Nyamuk! She shouted at me and grinned. Only after electrocuting myself with this “badminton racket” later the same day and losing feeling in my three middle fingers for several hours did I realize the sole purpose of this apparatus- it was a weapon designed to wipe out the whole mosquito race. NOW ibu was getting on my level.
When ibu asked me what my favorite Indonesian food was later that night, I replied “nyamuk goreng” (fried mosquito) and gave her a little wink. She dissolved into a fit of shaking, polite Javanese laughter. Within a week, this racket became the emblem of our budding friendship with one another. We would stand back-to-back in the foyer taking turns obliterating any mosquito that flew past, not entirely unlike a real-life incarnation of Frodo and Sam.
It’s my unwavering belief that every time a person laughs with someone else – like, rib-splitting, genuine, cheek-aching laughter – that another wall between them comes down. In this way, that pink racket facilitated a growing appreciation for one another and, as a result, an uncontrollably growing desire to overcome the less-permeable language barrier that separated us.
Every night since then, we’ve sat at the dinner table with a dictionary between us, scribbling down every second word said that we don’t understand. Because of this, my vocabulary has expanded from being able to talk about food, my father and mother and how to instruct a taxi to stop (a probable sum total of ~20 words) to being able to talk about popular opinion on Indonesia’s new president, the mafia, and how to negotiate the purchase of a motorbike. Two months into this grant, much of the conversation that happens between my ibu and myself is still nonverbal, but our ability to better supplement smiles and hand motions with guttural, often-mispronounced Indonesian and English words has transformed our relationship from one of guest and host to one of friendship.
Living with a family that doesn’t speak the same language has been exhausting, isolating, transformative, and immensely gratifying, all at once. After two months here the early-morning unwillingness to leave my room to be a part of an immersive Indonesian experience has morphed into gratitude and love for my ibu and this vibrant mountaintop community for accepting the bumbling foreigner into their homes, schools and families.


About the author: Anna is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant placed in Wonosari, a district of the Yogyakarta region on the island of Java.  She is a graduate of Oberlin College, Ohio, where she studied Neuroscience. She is a San Francisco Bay Area native.


A Weekend of Weddings, The Javanese Way

By Grace Wivell

“While you are here, you must go to a Javanese wedding.”

Teachers at my school, fellow ETAs, and even taxi drivers insisted that I experience the wedding ceremony that is so unique to Indonesia, and especially it seems, to the island of Java. The idea of just popping into someone’s wedding for the sake of a “cultural experience” made me a little uncomfortable. Although I was told that the Javanese tend to embrace a “the more the merrier” attitude for weddings, any experience that I had with weddings in the United States—which, to be fair, was pretty limited—told me that marriage ceremonies are too personal for random guests. I worried far more than I should have about how I would navigate the experience, if and when it would arrive. Fortunately, when I was eventually handed my first invitation to an elaborate Javanese wedding, it was from one of the math teachers who had helped make me feel so welcome here in my first few weeks, and I was happy to go.

grace 3I did not attend the wedding itself—those who accompanied me informed me this was usually limited to family and very close friends—instead we went to the reception afterwards. A bright yellow tent marked the location of the festivities, and English language love ballads blared from a tower of speakers I was not entirely sure was stable. Flowers in every hue draped gracefully above a raised platform where guests posed for photos with the bride and groom. The food was prepared by the bride’s family and was plentiful and delicious, and everyone dressed in the bright colors I have come to associate with this country. I was told that the bride was no longer wearing “the real dress,” but there was no denying that even her attire for the reception was the kind of beautiful I’m more accustomed to seeing behind museum glass than in real life. Perhaps the most memorable part of attending this wedding was how happy the bride and groom were: love outshines every other form of beauty, regardless if one is in Indonesia or America.

The wedding reception was in the town where the bride and groom were raised, a five hour van ride through mountains, rice paddies, small villages, and larger cites whose names I could never seem to glean from the signs we passed. I attended with the rest of the math teachers, our lovely Japanese teacher, and an English teacher who used to teach at SMAN 10. They were a lively, lovely crew, and the long ride was filled with stories and jokes in Indonesian and English, and even when they babbled a mile a minute in Javanese, a language I only know a handful of words in, just sitting and watching their animated faces and listening to their laughter quickly became one of my favorite car ride memories. I could not have asked for better company.

Later that same weekend, my site mate’s counterpart took her and myself to the wedding of one of her friend’s daughters. We attended the actual ceremony this time, also known as the pernikahan, at an immense mosque on the campus of Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang, or U.M.M. I watched as the couple prayed and was prayed over, vows were exchanged, and marriage certificates were received. My limited Indonesian does not extend to wedding vernacular, but I was mostly able to keep up through a combination of whispered translations from my site mate—who was an ETA in Sumatra last year, and whose Indonesian far exceeds my own—and by watching the reactions of the other guests.

In many ways, this wedding was precisely the experience I had feared. I was encouraged to step towards the front to take pictures, when I would have been perfectly content to stay in the back of the mosque and accept what photographs I could manage. I’m an ETA who would like to document some of her experiences, not a photojournalist, and at the end of the ceremony I was brought to the couple and their families to extend my selamat (congratulations), although I had never met them before. More than once I felt awkward and wanted nothing more than to disappear into the carpet on which I kneeled, so that I could hide my uncovered head and foreign dress.

grace2However, in between those moments, I found myself truly enjoying the experience of learning about one more set of Indonesian traditions, and watching two people begin their lives together, although I did not speak their language or even know their names. I could not stop myself from being surprised when a price for the bride was discussed and agreed to, and I adored the way both sets of parents prayed fervently over the new couple, blessing the new marriage. And at the end of the ceremony, when the putri dan putra (bride and groom) stood in front of the guests and grinned wider than the ocean that separates me from my home, I smiled too.

It has been quite a while since I have attended a wedding in any culture. The last time I watched two people exchange vows, I was more concerned with whether my cousins would play tag with me later than any promises of love. These weddings were not only my first Indonesian weddings, but they were also my first weddings as an adult, able to fully appreciate what I was witnessing. And though I may have been uncomfortable sometimes and could not recognize most of what was said at either wedding experience, I could understand the happiness that surrounded the occasion. The weddings I will eventually attend back home may not be as colorful as the weddings I saw here, but I can only hope that the overall feeling of love will permeate those events in the same way.


About the author: Grace Wivell is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malang, East Java. She graduated from Ithaca College, NY in 2014, with a degree in English (Teaching) Honors.

Football Sunday in West Timor

By Raul Quintana

At four in the afternoon a daily ritual begins in the small town of Atambua. The dry air and the parched earth shrug off the sluggishness of the afternoon and people start to leave their homes, relieved by the blessings of the breeze. The field in the center of town fills up with soccer players. The one-room shops along the main street re-open for business and people from all backgrounds converge upon one of the best afternoon gathering spots in town: the airport runway on the north side of town.


The Island of Timor – Photo Courtesy of The Magellan Art Gallery

Atambua receives approximately five flights a week, all of which land around noon. As the heat of the day starts to fade, the simple utilitarian airport transforms into a magical gathering place. Instead of planes, the runway welcomes joggers who come here for daily workouts on smooth pavement free from the traffic of motorbikes and trucks. Children explore the tarmac on their bicycles under the watchful eye of relaxing parents. High schoolers congregate with friends, learning to pop wheelies or slouching against the seats of their motorbikes, as the memories that they will eventually romanticize slowly form. Cows graze in the adjacent field, occasionally stopping human traffic to reach the small water reservoir on the other side. A military helicopter sometimes appears next to the airport’s one-room terminal, an indication that the nearby base has received a guest. The stillness of the cool, afternoon air fills with the constant thrum of laughter interspersed with motorbike revs and soccer ball kicks.

The scene is beautiful and, to an American, surreal. Red and orange streaks change the hue of the world. The small mountains that dominate the Eastern and Western horizons of the runway transform into a muted purple in ritual preparation for their embrace of the sun that night and its eventual release in the morning. The landscape provides a mythical backdrop, lending the afternoons an air of the inevitable and the destined. As you drive onto the runway, you look towards the mountains in the distance and, for a moment, you are iconic. Admirals look across oceans. Luke Skywalker gazes across Tatooine. You sit on your bike and look into the distance and contemplate the unknown.

Every Sunday, I come here to jog with my friends and decompress before the school week begins. The routine has taken the place of my American Sunday routine, which primarily revolved around watching football games and being perpetually disappointed by the Chicago Bears. On this particular Sunday, I have combined the two past times. I leaned against my bike while holding a bright green mini football, bought from a Wal-Mart during my last week in the States. I had given myself two goals as an American cultural ambassador, and I had already started to teach my students to say y’all. Now, I prepared to start the second task, fresh with the carefree buoyancy that comes from holding a newly inflated ball. I was ready to teach.

My friends soon arrived, three Indonesians interested in learning this new game and the other American ETA, who I hoped could help me teach what I had slowly realized is one of the more complicated games in sports. My friend Untung, whose name means “lucky” in Indonesian (his name and the small spot of white hair on his right temple remain the only legacies of his flirtation with death as a newborn), walked over and picked up the ball while we stretched. He inspected it with a combination of care and confusion. He attempted to dribble it, first like a basketball, then like a soccer ball. Its elliptic shape caused the football to bounce erratically and skitter off the runway into the dry, faded grass.

I ran to grab it and came back to explain that you throw it. With a circle formed, we started to practice and I explained the concept of a spiral. Kak Yun and Pak Cypri, who both teach English at local schools, got the hang of it pretty quickly, especially since they had never seen a football before. Untung decided not to throw in a spiral manner. He threw the ball in a quasi-lob pattern over his shoulder. It quickly became clear that he was the best passer out of all of us.

“Where does the keeper go?” Kak Yan, Untung’s older brother, asked with interest. This led to a brief explanation of offense and defense, particularly the fact that they are two different parts of the same team. An onslaught of questions soon followed, as the other ETA and I tried to walk through each of the game’s parts: what it means to have four downs, why you only kick on fourth down, how exactly each play stops (describing the process of a tackle is more difficult than it seems), the unnecessarily complicated point system. We speak in a strange hybrid of body movements, basic Indonesian words, and English football terms. We have already developed a new language to define and explain this game, and each of us improve our fluency as we start moving down the runway, throwing the ball between us as we go.

Atambua’s relative proximity to Australia means that people here know the basic rules of rugby, even if they never play it. “It’s like rugby,” quickly became my refrain for the afternoon. And the combination of catching and jogging resembled an easy game of rugby more so than American football. There were a few forward throws, some behind-the-back show off moves, and a lot of sideways laterals. A new game developed as quickly as the new language that we had used to explain it. We had created something fluid, a constant interchange between passer, receiver, and defender as we marched down the runway and avoided the groups that loomed like obstacles in our path. It wasn’t football exactly, but it was a good start, and we agreed to meet the next Sunday for practice. We watched as the sun set, a lazy game of catch replacing the need for words, and quietly absorbed the tranquility of the world.

When I came home, the two high-school students who live in my boarding house were sitting in the courtyard. I handed them the ball and started, once again, to explain the concept of a spiral in this new language of movement and hybrid sounds. Guided by the light bulb at the front gate, we played catch into the night, our movements an intricate dance of shadows across the courtyard. They both threw with the lob motion over their shoulders. The ball floated freely, perfectly, through the darkness before landing safely in the other person’s arms.

About the Author: Raul Quintana is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Atambua, West Timor. Hailing from San Antonio, Texas, he graduated from Harvard University in 2014 with a degree in Social Studies.



Water = Life: An Inside Look on Tourism, Yogyakarta

By Annabelle Wilmott

Unlike other parts of Indonesia, it is not uncommon to see a café in Yogyakarta filled with only bules (foreigners, usually Caucasian) and their knapsacks. Yogyakarta, affectionately called Jogja, is known as the backpacker hotspot of Indonesia. Lonely Planet, the popular tourist guidebook, calls Jogja “Java’s premier tourist city, with countless hotels, restaurants and attractions.”[i] Unfortunately, too often, vacationers and even many locals, are not aware of the negative impact that tourism is having on the city.

anna1On Thursday, October 2, local artists cried out, or rather painted out, in protest with the theme “Jogja Asat,” meaning, “Jogja is drying up” in Javanese. That evening, local artists came together to spray paint a mural under the railway bridge Kleringan, commonly known as the Kewek bridge, which once thrived as the cultural center of the city. On March 1, 2013, the bridge was reclaimed from advertisers when young people joined together to rally against the commercialization of public space. Since then, the bridge has become a community art space where locals raise awareness of pertinent issues.

anna2“The murals were created to show the anxiety of citizens who experience droughts as a result of the construction of hotels and malls that have been rampant in Yogyakarta,” said Zent Prozent, 23, a local street artist. Zent spray-painted the words “Jogja Asat” on the mural, tagging the event with its theme.

According to The Jakarta Post, the exploitation of groundwater has caused the water table to decrease by 20 to 30 centimeters in Yogyakarta annually since 2011.[ii] The groundwater’s depletion corresponds “with the increasing population and economic activity.”[iii]

“The event had no name, no real leaders, and the focus came into being on the Tuesday night preceding the paint,” said Jonthon Coulson, 31, a Fulbright alumnus that was part of the event’s loose organization efforts.

On the Tuesday night before the event, artists and organizers gathered at the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive (IVAA) and the Indonesian Contemporary Arts Network (ICAN). That evening, the decision was made to shift the focus of the event from “Jogja Ora Didol,” which is Javanese for “Jogja is Not for Sale”, to “Jogja Asat.”

“ ‘Jogja Ora Didol’ was arguable,” said Coulson. “They wanted to pick an issue that no one could justifiably argue with.”

“Jogja Ora Didol” had been the theme of previous murals under the Kewek Bridge, which had been painted over by some unknown people. Similarly, this theme criticized the government for allowing hotel construction, which displaces numerous houses and cultural heritage sites.

“We hate our government,” said Zent. “They always give permission to anyone who’s willing to pay and provide benefits to them.”

Just one day after the “Jogja Asat” mural was painted, sentences that criticized the government were covered up with grey paint. Though the paint may hide the words of the message, the images allow the community’s message to still ring clear: they have had enough.

[i] Lonely Planet. (n.d.). Introducing Yogyakarta. Retrieved from http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/java/yogyakarta

[ii] Muryanto, B. (2014, October 18). Over-exploitation of water a threat to Yogyakarta. The Jakarta Post. Retrieved from http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/10/18/over-exploitation-water-a-threat-yogyakarta.html

[iii] Ibid.


About the author: Annabelle Wilmott is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant  living in Yogyakarta, Jawa. She graduated from Saint Louis University Madrid Campus in 2014. She earned her degree in Political Science, Communication, and International Studies, with a minor in Spanish.


Burning the forest to make way for palm oil plantations. 

 Photo Credit: Centre for Orangutan Protection

Pollution in Palangkaraya: A People-Centered Case for More Environmental Concern

By Christopher Linnan

Photo Credit: Centre for Orangutang Protection and Emily Masters 

Nothing compares to the feeling of sitting at school on a dreary Monday morning and having your vice-principal inform you that school is cancelled for the rest of the day, as well as Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly longer.  Excitement immediately ensues with the endless possibilities that await the next few days—until the realization hits,  the reason for cancelling school[i] is the permanent haze of smog that envelops your city during Indonesian dry season from June to October, also known as musim kemarau.  This means activities such as running, swimming, or just walking to the grocery store will involve inhaling much more smoke than one would like.  You can only enjoy the gorgeous nature around your city, Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, in thick, noxious smog.  Palangkaraya is a truly wonderful city populated by remarkable people who are amazing hosts, fantastic cooks, and genial human beings.  Yet, the omnipresent smog casts a literal and figurative shadow on this lovely Central Kalimantan town.  Articles on environmental issues often focus on the plight of animals and abstract[ii] issues such as global warming, but fail to establish a link between peoples’ everyday lives and the impact of unabated pollution.  Palangkaraya offers a clear case study where the population suffers greatly and directly from the actions of a few individuals, namely palm oil farmers.  In this article, I will explore the root of Palangkaraya’s pollution woes, obstacles to curtailing it, and potential solutions.  Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not unique to Central Kalimantan, but is fairly widespread throughout Indonesia as well, which means one has to look at the country as a whole for further context and solutions.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) global crop analyst Michael Shean describes palm oil as “the edible oil of choice, if you will, for much of the world.”[iii]  Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of oil palms and is used in a plethora of products such as food, biofuel, and cosmetic products.  It is a very popular crop in underdeveloped regions with tropical climates, such as Central Kalimantan, due to the crop’s high yield and the jobs it creates for residents.[iv]  According to the USDA, 86 percent of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, an obvious boon for both countries’ economies, but which also has enormous negative implications for these countries’ ecosystems on multiple levels.[v]  Palm oil plantations in Indonesia are usually built on rainforest land after workers have burned and destroyed all wildlife there. [vi]  These burnings lead to the constant smog that makes life so unpleasant and unhealthy for people living in areas with a large amount of oil palm plantations.  Anybody who drives on the highway in Central Kalimantan can see long stretches of desolate wasteland, formerly occupied by luscious rainforests, which look like they came out of a movie about the end of the world.

Driving on a smog-filled road in Central Kalimantan. Photo Credit: Centre for Orangutan Protection

Driving on a smog-filled road in Central Kalimantan.
Photo Credit: Centre for Orangutan Protection

In the 2008 documentary The Burning Season, environmentalist Patrick Anderson bemoans that “using fire to clear forests is illegal [in Indonesia], but the legal system doesn’t work here.”[vii]  Furthermore, Transparency International’s ranked Indonesia 114th out of 175 nations in the world on its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.[viii]  In this author’s experience, most Indonesians accept corruption as a way of life whether they are haggling with a cop to avoid a traffic ticket, receiving a package that was looted by customs officials, or discussing their local government officials.  Given this mindset, many people in Indonesia accept and expect that palm oil plantations will break the law. Unfortunately, the repercussions of this acceptance of corruption leads to unhealthy and unsustainable harvesting techniques. For example, Central Kalimantan lost an average of 1.3 percent of its forests each year from 2000-2010.[ix]  The rate of deforestation continues to increase, as demand for palm oil continues to rise.  Furthermore,  any increase in the quality of life of the palm oil workers due to more employment opportunities and higher wages is offset by the health risks and general unpleasantness created by these plantations.

The most obvious solution to help curb deforestation in Central Kalimantan is to limit the use of products containing palm oil, but this is close to impossible due to the high demand for palm oil around the world.  The New York Times points out that:

 “whether you start your day with a shave or an application of lipstick, you are probably putting the oil from the tree’s fruits on your face. You buy a donut on the way to work, and with each bite, you swallow some of the palm oil in which it was cooked. After work, you stop at the supermarket, and about half the products on the shelves contain palm oil. Before bed, you scrub your face with soap and brush your teeth with toothpaste. They’re both palm oil’s way of   wishing you good night.”[x]

Ironically enough, the oversized role that palm oil plays in our lives is at least partially due to health food advocates’ battle to do away with trans fats[xi] and the use of palm oil in biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuels.[xii]  So, the most prescient lessons we can learn from these experiences is that activists should be careful about what they wish for.

The aftereffects of palm oil plantations. Photo Credit: Centre for Orangutan Protection

The aftereffects of palm oil plantations.
Photo Credit: Centre for Orangutan Protection

As consumers it is important that we do everything in our power to limit our intake of palm oil and if we do use them we should make informed decisions.  Many of the industry’s leaders, such as Wilmar International, Golden Agri-Resources, among others have pledged to end deforestation.[xiii]  These companies, which control 60 percent of the global palm oil represent a promising new trend, but a lot of work remains.[xiv]  The remaining 40 percent of palm oil producers have not made any such commitment, which is especially alarming because many of the worst offenders tend to be small farms.  These small farms tend to go unchecked as they have no incentive to reform their practices unless their owners are threatened with serious consequences.[xv]  Thus, if Indonesia, specifically Central Kalimantan, wishes to solve this crisis, local governments need to provide feasible solutions.

An example of this can be seen in Central Kalimantan’s new palm oil monitoring system. This system tracks individual plantation productivity, deforestation, and other key statistics in an effort to identify and punish companies that break the law.[xvi]  The program is wonderful in theory, but the local government has to ensure that it works.  Unfortunately, the sad truth is that Indonesian[xvii] authorities will not catch most people flouting its environmental laws, and without a serious deterrent, people and companies will continue to ignore these rules.  Despite general skepticism in Indonesia about government officials’ willpower to enforce laws, there are numerous cases where local officials do the right thing.  For example, Sudirman Djajaleksana, a member of local government bureaucracy in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan uses the story of fining a local business owner Rp. 5 million[xviii] for cutting down a tree planted by conservationists that he found annoying to illustrate how Balikpapan is battling lawbreakers.[xix]  While it is impossible to quantify the impact of such a story on a local community, the actual arrest and punishment of a local criminal serves as a deterrent.  If authorities in Central Kalimantan are able to catch and severely punish illegal polluters then the region has a real chance of reducing air pollution and deforestation.

A smoggy day in Palangkaraya. Photo Credit: Emily Masters

A smoggy day in Palangkaraya.
Photo Credit: Emily Masters

Even if one does not believe in global warming or have any compassion for the wildlife being destroyed by palm oil plantations, one has to empathize with the people in Central Kalimantan, as their quality of life constantly suffers.  Furthermore, this practice is wholly unsustainable and any short-term financial incentives should be weighed against the negative short and long-term effects of uncontrolled palm oil plantation growth.  The last few days have brought much-needed rain to Palangkaraya, which means that the rainy season, or musim hujan, has finally arrived.  The town’s residents will have a short respite from the constant smog that dominates the dry season; however the smog will return every year until all the forests in Central Kalimantan are cut down or more effective steps are taken to curtail palm oil plantations, whichever comes first.


[i] For the last three weeks we missed at least two days of school each week due to excessive smog.  According to my fellow teachers at SMAN 2 in Palangkaraya, this is not a rare occurrence and during one recent dry season two consecutive weeks of class were cancelled.
[ii] I use abstract because the short-term effects of global warming are not significant enough to cause people to make serious adjustments to their lifestyles.
[iii] Ben Block, “Global Palm Oil Demand Fueling Deforestation,” Worldwatch Institute, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6059, accessed 19 October 2014.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Sharon Chen, et al, “Haze Return Amid Drought Stokes Concern of Repeat Choking,” Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-05/haze-return-amid-drought-sparks-calls-for-action.html, accessed 19 October 2014.
[vi] Dana MacLean, “Palm Oil Fuels Indonesian Deforestation,” Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/04/palm-oil-fuels-indonesia-deforestation-indigenous-displa-201443145636809366.html, accessed 19 October 2014.
[vii] Cathy Henkel, The Burning Season, DVD, directed by Cathy Henkel (2008; Washington D.C.: National Geographic International, 2009), DVD.
[viii] Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2013,” Transparency International, http://www.transparency.org/cpi2013/results, accessed 19 October 2014.
[ix] MacLean, “Palm Oil Fuels Indonesian Deforestation.”
[x] Carl Zimmer, “Looking at Oil Palm’s Genome for Keys to Productivity,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/24/science/looking-at-oil-palms-genome-for-keys-to-productivity.html, accessed 19 October 2014.
[xi] Allison Aubrey, “Palm Oil in the Food Supply: What You Should Know,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/07/25/205486197/palm-oil-in-the-food-supply-what-you-should-know, accessed 19 October 2014.
[xii] Huileng Tan, “Asian Biofuel Motorists Drive Palm-Oil Prices Higher,” Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/articles/asian-biofuel-motorists-drive-palm-oil-prices-higher-1401354565, accessed 19 October 2014.
[xiii] Laurel Neme, “Endangered Orangutans Gain From Eco-Friendly Shifts in Palm Oil Market,” National Geographic,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141009-orangutans-palm-oil-malaysia-indonesia-tigers-rhinos/, accessed 19 October 2014.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Rhett Butler, “Central Kalimantan to Set Up Palm Oil Monitoring System in Bid to Cut Deforestation 80%,” Mongabay, http://news.mongabay.com/2014/1005-central-kalimantan-roadmap.html, accessed 19 October 2014
[xvii] Or authorities anywhere for that matter.
[xviii] This is about ten percent of the average Indonesian’s yearly salary, so a very substantial amount.
[xix] “The Many Faces of Illegal Logging in Kalimantan,” The Jakarta Globe, http://thejakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/news/the-many-faces-of-illegal-logging-2/, accessed 20 October 2014.


About the Author: Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014.








A post-competition photo session; Anas strikes a pose.

Happiness in the Eyes of Indonesia’s Youth: the 2014 WORDS Competition

By Taylor Saia

“What is happiness?” For centuries, philosophers, artists, spiritual masters, religious leaders, psychologists, economists, researchers, and humans of all kinds have debated this essential question of life. 

 On April 26, thirty-five high school students from all across Indonesia gathered in Jakarta to answer this question at the 2014 National WORDS Competition, sponsored by the American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF). Each student was challenged to prepare a 5-minute speech in English and creative performance duo to enlighten us on the meaning of “happiness” and to demonstrate what makes them happy.

 These kids were brilliant. They talked about the importance of family and community, the value of owning one’s identity, the joy of expressing oneself through art, music, and dance, the power of sharing one’s happiness with others and helping a friend, and the pride of perfecting one’s craft. They wrote and sang passionate, original songs, played guitar and piano pieces, rapped Eminem, danced with burning candles, performed love stories through puppetry, did stand-up comedy, made video compilations of happiness interviews in their communities, showed their original graffiti and artwork, told stories and folktales, and brought the house down with their incredible speeches and unique talents.

 More than anything, the WORDS Competition was a powerful outlet for the youth of Indonesia to give a fresh perspective on the world through their eyes and an inspiring venue for the Fulbright ETAs to hear their stories.

 Prior to the national competition, each Fulbright ETA organized an English competition at their school to select one winner that would move to the national competition in Jakarta. They had a month to work with their student-winner, to perfect their speeches and talents, and to ready them to perform in front of a panel of judges and audience.

 The winner of my school’s competition was a young man named, Muhammad Al Anas.

 World, meet Anas.

 He’s an eleventh-grader at SMAN 8 Pekanbaru, and as of April 26th, the national champion of the AMINEF WORDS Competition. He’s also one of the sassiest, bravest, and most outspoken kids at my school. His WORDS presentation moved the room to tears and rounds of raucous applause.

Anas and Mr. Taylor, his American English teacher, smile wide after Anas is announced the overall winner of the 2014 WORDS Competition.

Anas and Mr. Taylor, his American English teacher, smile wide after Anas is announced the overall winner of the 2014 WORDS Competition.

 This kid has got skills.

 “For me, happiness is that amazing feeling when you have the confidence and courage to be yourself, and suddenly you can sing better than Beyoncé and dance better than Michael Jackson,” Anas said.

 “No matter if you’re Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu, black or white, short or tall, gay, lesbian, or straight, or Indonesian or American like me and my teacher, Mr. Taylor… all of us deserve to find happiness.”

 I mean, this kid is fearless.

 “For me, happiness is when I can be who I am, without following any stereotypes that hold me down. I love dancing. In this society, a male teenager dancing with a scarf is a big no-no. But thank God, here I stand. I can dance freely and my society accepts me. You don’t need to be someone else to be accepted. Feeling the magic of our identity is our solution.”

 He concluded his presentation with a captivating story about a prince who couldn’t find happiness through riches or beauty, but unlocked a world of joy through dancing and letting loose.

 “You see, even to a prince, happiness is not about riches or beauty. Happiness is about letting loose and being yourself.”

 (Did I mention he’s brilliant?)

 At WORDS, Anas talked about our most difficult task: the courage to love and accept yourself for who you are. How special for a little dude to be so unapologetically himself!

 A lot of things make Anas’s success special to me. First of all, I’m so inspired by what he has to say and am insanely proud of his courage to speak up about taboo subjects in Indonesia. Secondly, I am encouraged by the knowledge that preparation and hard work – all of the afternoons and lunch breaks spent refining and timing his speech – are the real conduits of success. And thirdly, I am proud to know that I made a difference in his life, as a teacher and a friend.

 When people tried to change Anas’s speech for being too open and honest (read: controversial), he stuck to his guns and said it was important that he got the chance to present his message. His grit and charisma is contagious.

 Later, after the smiles and tears had settled, the trophies given out, I took Anas aside and asked him how he was feeling.

 “I thought everybody would mock me, Mr. Taylor,” he said. “But I won. This is my dream. I’m living my dream.”


About the author: Taylor Saia was a Fulbright English Teaching Grantee placed in the capital city of Pekanbaru in the Riau Province, located in Sumatra, Indonesia. He was a grantee for the 2013/2014 school year.


Students at MAN1 in Semarang, Java find fun in their work.

Idul Adha in Malang, East Java

By Grace Wivell, introduction by Chris Linnan

Eid al-Adha, commonly known as Idul Adha in Indonesia, is the second of two official Muslim holidays. Idul Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son Ishmael. In Indonesia the holiday is an occasion for celebration with your friends and neighbors. Muslim families that can afford to will sacrifice cows, goats, etc. The family keeps one-third of the meat, distributes one-third to the community, and the remainder goes to the poor. At many ETAs’ sites our schools are a hub for the sacrifice and distribution of the food.

Idul Adha began on my high school campus on Saturday night with “Epic el Adha,” an evening of student performances: storytelling and singing, intense emotion and comic relief, and the loudest supportive cheering I have ever heard. This wonderful gala was followed by a parade that weaved through the village which surrounds the school: a loud and smoky experience with torches, flashlights, and noise-makers. I cannot fully express how thankful I am to have been swept along by students as they laughed, smiled, and called out phrases I could not understand.

Though I was not present for the actual sacrifices on Sunday morning, I was able to help my students portion out the meat from the animals using a small knife too dull for the task and a scale from one of the science labs. The bapak-bapak, male teachers and staff from the school, who supervised the affair hacked away at joints, and gave the occasional direction and advice to the students. It seems that the air of learning never leaves the atmosphere of a school. Using my upbringing as a farm girl and my years of involvement in my local 4-H club as a reference point, I even gave an impromptu lesson on the parts of the ruminant stomach as we sorted the organs, much to the amusement of the bapak-bapak. We laughed and talked about everything and nothing in their broken English and my hopeless Indonesian, and I realized that this celebration, just like any other, has more to do with the people you share it with than any of the traditions that it upholds. Idul Adha was a somewhat familiar experience that was unlike any I have ever had, and one in which I am extremely grateful to have taken part.

About the authors: Grace Wivell is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malang, East Java. She graduated from Ithaca College, NY in 2014, with a degree in English (Teaching) Honors.  Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in 2014.   

"In his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes." (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

Searching for the semangat

He took off his wire-rimmed glasses, drew his hand across his face, and breathed out the Bahasa Indonesia equivalent of “This is horse hockey.” He had left his class in a funk, not so much frustrated as deflated, whoopee cushion-style. As he walked among cracked concrete and posters for field trips long past, he recognized an increasingly familiar something in his chest.

"In his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes." (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

“In his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes.” (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

He’d been teaching English at SMA Negeri Whatever for three years now, and with each passing month he felt this grayish ache in his ribcage, growing like a durian tree on his heart. It wasn’t that his students were unenthusiastic about learning. On the contrary, he plainly observed their zeal each time they strummed their guitars outside of class or batted their volleyballs around semangat-ly in the courtyeard. What made this feeling grow, he realized (not without horror), was that in his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes.

He had to do something, and that something manifested itself — as it often does with the frustrated — as that desperate pointer finger we call blame. It really wasn’t all his fault! Each week, he was given only an hour and a half with his students. 90 minutes. 5,400 seconds a week to help them construct an entirely foreign system of expression, a new map of reality.

Then there was the government’s new curriculum to worry about, which focused on solving social problems and building moral character. As a result, the new workbooks were a literary mess of landslides and slums and global warming, and English grammar seemed to be lost somewhere between “soil erosion” and “The empirically dubious G8 Summit.” Social problems were important, sure, but trying to have a meaningful discussion about foreign aid and the urban poor seemed pretty silly if his students could barely string a sentence together in English, and admittedly, when it came to phrases like “empirically dubious,” he was just as clueless as they were. The government wanted his students to cook lingual rendang. Meanwhile, their English skills were busy trying to figure out how to boil water (“Do these correctly!” the book insists). And as for moral character, he was convinced that was something that could not be learned from a book or taught by another person. That was one of the many lessons that only life could teach.

He walked into the school’s small kitchen and sat down on a wooden bench with some of the other male teachers. They were a pleasant bunch. They joked and laughed. They poured their tea from a big metal kettle. They looked at their watches absent-mindedly. They smoked their cigarettes. And as they did, he observed an ease of movement about them that had long ago packed up and hitched a ride from his body. He silently regarded the knowledge that he could no longer conduct his rokok as they did, instead strangling each smoke between his fingers until flame met filter. Aware as he was that he was trying to suck something out of them other than tar and rat poison, he still did not know what that something was. At the same time, though, he was pretty yakin it had to do with the fact that so many of his co-gurus seemed content to sit in class and watch students write in their books, and then go home and sit with their families. He couldn’t decide if that was somehow wrong, or if nothing was wrong, or if everything was.

Restless again and feeling the durian tree sprouting new branches, he said his “pulang dulu“s and exited. The search continued. He glanced into classrooms full of students’ heads, many of which were white-hijabed like those tissue lollipop ghosts you get on Halloween, which he had never seen because he did not celebrate Halloween and therefore only thought of the students’ heads as students’ heads, which is how they should be thought of, if one is inclined to think about such things. But he, in fact, was not thinking about his students’ heads. He was thinking about their hearts.

His students did not use their hearts. They strove for perfection of grammar without bothering to learn what their writing was revealing. They were afraid of saying anything incorrectly, so they copied sentences from each others’ notebooks word for word without so much as an “apa artinya?” — “What does it mean?” English for them meant studying a code of rules which, if written in the correct sequence, could get them a good score on a test. It did not seem to occur to them that it was possible to use this strange tongue to give life to feelings within them that lay undiscovered by Bahasa Indonesia, to open doors with invisible knobs.

And the Americans were even worse. They used their hearts too much. They did not listen to the new language, did not let themselves become absorbed by it or surrender their important thoughts to make space for it. Rather, they sought to exert their own will upon it. Hungry for knowledge, they wrestled with Indonesian words and tried to bend them into American thoughts. They still said things like, “lihat Anda nanti” (see…you…later) as if translating individual words could convey a perfect one-to-one meaning, and they still could not understand how Indonesians could “get by” without verb tenses. They were so used to dividing all their time into digestible verbal nuggets like “had gone” and “has gone” and “went” and “has been going” and “will go” and “will have gone” and “would have been going,” that they were left helpless with only sudah, sedang, and akan at their disposal. Pas, present, and future. They could not clear their overactive minds long enough to unlearn what they thought they knew. They were so busy trying to understand this new world, to take it in their fists and capture it, that they did not even notice it right at their feed, ready to be understood if they would only sit still and let it capture them.

It could be worse, though. He found the American teacher’s attempts to recruit students for projects and write proposals in Bahasa Indonesia both endearing and ridiculous, for though it was clear he cared about his students “getting things done,” it was also quite clear that he didn’t understand the first thing about them.

And then it hit him, “it” being a volleyball which hit him square in the face, and him being the American trying to recruit students. He had been thinking about what learning looked like, if it had a recognizable face that one could point to, but now he looked up to find another English teacher laughing at him from across the courtyard, a glint in his eye showing through wire-rimmed glasses. This made the American angry. Couldn’t they see that he was trying to do serious work? For the past few months he had been busting his butt to spark something in the classrooms, working to rid himself of the same strange crabapple tree that felt like it was growing roots on his heart. But he knew (it’s always foolish people who seem to know things) that the other Enlgish teachers at his school couldn’t understand. He saw the way his co-teacher did not enter class, instead seemingly content enough to watch the students bop volleyballs to and fro and sing songs around a guitar. He wanted to yell to the laughing man, “Don’t you CARE?! Don’t you want your students to know how magical learning can be?!” But instead the American kept silent. If only there were others who longed for passion in their school, and were willing to voice it.

Meanwhile, the students sat on their benches and listened to lungs respond to guitar strings, waiting for a teacher to enter their class who could help them understand what their songs really mean.

About the author: Tommy McAree is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Tanjung Pandan, Belitung Island. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2013 and has a big-hearted family. He also has great friends, who he hopes will solve this whole “global poverty” thing.  

Cigarette in hand, Erwin strums his guitar during a klotok tour through Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan. (Emily Denny/Indonesiaful)

How smoking saved this man’s life

By Taylor Saia and Amelia Murphy

Deep in the jungles of Borneo, a man wearing a Volcom hat and an orangutan-emblazoned t-shirt leans back in his chair and says, “Describe Indonesia in two words.”

Cigarette in hand, Erwin strums his guitar during a klotok tour through Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan. (Emily Denny/Indonesiaful)

Cigarette in hand, Erwin strums his guitar during a klotok tour through Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan. (Emily Denny/Indonesiaful)

His name is Erwin. As Lonely Planet Indonesia describes him, he’s “intelligent, well-read, and good company” – but he also holds an incredible life story. For years, he has been leading klotok (river boat) tours through Kalimantan’s Tanjung Puting National Park to show scruffy tourists the park’s star residents: red-haired orangutans.

“I love my job. I’m always on vacation!” he says. In the past, he has led tours throughout Bali, Lombok, Java, and Kalimantan. If anyone can describe Indonesia in two words, it’s Erwin.

“What is your answer?” we ask.

“Dangerously beautiful,” he says as he takes a drag of his cigarette.

Erwin is no ordinary man. In fact, he claims to be a 17-year-old hailing from Mars. Furthermore, he maintains he is an orangutan stuck in a human body. In actuality, he is 36 and fully human to the best of our knowledge. Yet, it is not Erwin’s Martian roots or inner ape that make him famous in Pangkalanbun, the nearest town outside the park.

As we trekked through the humid Borneo jungle, Erwin recounted a series of star-crossed events in his life.

Seven Decembers ago, in 2006, Erwin was riding on Senopati Nusantara, a ferry traveling from Kumai to Semarang. Leaving at 8 pm on December 28th, the ferry was scheduled to reach Semarang Harbour in 24 hours, where Erwin intended to join his brother’s wedding. During the trip, however, the ferry started heading through a disastrous storm with violent winds, strong sea currents, and waves reaching 7 meters (23 feet) high. Feeling seasick in his cramped compartment in the lower deck, Erwin moved to the top deck’s coffee shop to smoke a cigarette.

Suddenly, a very loud noise erupted from below — an excavator on the ship detached, struck one of the ferry’s walls, and punctured a large hole. All at once, the ferry rolled over into the Java Sea and began to sink. Erwin scurried to grab one of the lifejackets from a man who had taken three. Though Erwin lives on a boat giving tours, he does not know how to swim. Panicked and trapped inside the boat, Erwin began kicking at the closed windows. The glass was too thick, and he wasn’t able to break it.

Luckily for Erwin, the pressure of the water against the window shattered the glass, breaking his arm and leg in the process and giving him a space to escape.

Many people below deck were not as fortunate. The ferry was carrying 628 passengers, including a crew of 57. According to reports, at least 400-500 passengers are believed to have drowned.

For five days after the fateful accident, Erwin floated on a broken life raft with 29 other people, including a 10-year-old boy. Lost at sea, the shipwrecked passengers floated with their bodies in the water, day and night.

“There was no food or water. It was like the movie The Day After Tomorrow,” he said.

Erwin and the other survivors in the life raft were found five days later when a cargo ship bringing timber from Sulawesi found them in the Masalembo Sea, in the middle of nowhere. They had floated 190 miles (300 km) from the wreck.

In the end, only 25 of the 30 passengers on the life raft survived: 3 died and 2 jumped overboard hoping to swim to shore. “But we didn’t see any shore,” Erwin recounted. “Then, they took us to the hospital.” It took still another 24 hours to get to the closest hospital in Surabaya, East Java.

As he marched us through the jungle barefoot, we asked him what he made of this.

“It was only because of that cigarette that I survived.”

About the authors:

Taylor Saia is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Pekanbaru, Sumatra. He graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. in 2013, where he studied business, marketing research, and French. In addition to his insatiable thirst for adventure and international travel, Taylor can be found strumming a ukulele, admiring office supplies, or sipping on a jus alpukat.

Amelia Murphy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Semarang, Central Java. She graduated from Smith College in 2013 with a degree in Psychology and Italian Studies. She can be found singing karaoke, playing tennis, or eating as much tropical fruit as possible.



Indonesian snow comes to Jogja

On the morning of Friday, February 14, 2014, residents of Yogyakarta, Indonesia woke up to an unwelcome surprise: the so-called “Indonesian snow.” Yogya, as well as many other cities and villages in Central and East Java, were covered in hujan apu (ash rain) from Kediri, East Java’s Mount Kelud, which erupted with little warning during the night.


The ash caused a multitude of problems for cities, one of which was impaired visibility on the roads. Not many people ventured outside on the morning of the 14th, but those who did could barely see meters in front of them on the dusty main streets. Six of Java’s airports were closed for days following the eruption.


Although Yogyakarta’s own Mount Merapi erupted in 2010, causing over 300 deaths, the ash from Mount Kelud’s eruption is much worse, despite Kelud being nearly 300 kilometers from Yogya. As a result, most of the Indonesian students I live with in my boarding house had never seen ash like this before, either—and so it was the perfect time for a photo op, outfitted with necessary ash masks and umbrellas to protect from the still-falling particles.


After two days off from school due to the ash, students finally returned to SMA N 3, the local public high school I teach at in Yogyakarta. Not for classes, however: predictably, ash had gotten everywhere and Sunday’s short rain shower had turned much of it into mud, caking our expansive courtyard with the hard-to-remove substance. On Monday, students and teachers worked together to clean up the school by dusting and wiping down classrooms, mopping floors, and doing other work. Here, students use a variety of tools to scrape mud off of bricks and put it in buckets.


The tricky thing about cleaning up ash is that unlike snow, it doesn’t just melt away eventually. Instead, the ash is packed away into bags. For days, these bags have lined the streets, waiting to be disposed of.


*Author’s Note:

By now, two months after the eruption, most of the ash is gone from the streets, only gathering in neglected cracks and corners. Monuments like Candi Borobudur and Candi Prambanan were closed for about a week after the eruption, but now are filled with visitors again. Bags of ash were shipped and sold as building materials and fertilizer, and now there are only a few sacks left on the street corners.

About the author: Gillian Irwin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Yogyakarta Special Region. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 with a degree in Music and English.


“To is, or not to is?” That is a question

I have ever been to Indonesia by following a Fulbright Program. Although I think I am success person, my only mother asks me how about the food. I tell him I love noodles chicken.

For a native English speaker, not to mention one that is tasked with teaching English, the above sentences are gross perversions of our native tongue. I have had the urge to tie sentences like these to a chair and torture them with a pen, until they have confessed that they were wrong…oh so wrong.

But I have begun to see fewer issues with sentences like these. Have I become accustomed to the grating dissonance of “where will you go?” for instance? Absolutely not. This phrase will haunt my dreams into my early 40’s. However, it is both grammatically sound, and it communicates a perfectly intelligible question.

I do not believe it is difficult to convince other ESL teachers to hold our tongues when it comes to correcting grammar when students of English are still rehearsing a basic expression of their ideas. In sentences where so much is going right, correcting an apostrophe can open Pandora’s box (which was actually a large jar). When we make corrections to words and sentences that don’t betray communication, these corrections can be so discouraging that the act of doing so may undermine our very efforts to teach (though attitudes towards correction surely vary amongst individuals, neighborhoods, and nations).

But what if I were to tell you that there was in fact nothing wrong with the initial sentences? I do not mean to say that we should just tolerate their utterance with a reluctant smile; I mean that there are no grounds for their alteration.

Knee-jerk objections should range from the fact that noun/pronoun (dis)agreement and an improper placement of an adjective and adverb produce confusion. However, when I met a group of Australians with delight to hear the soothing tones of English, I reckon I was not too keen on it because this one bloke was accusing us of codswallop when we were, in retrospect, fair dinkum. Their English produced confusion for me as well. Take what we should hesitantly call, “Ebonics” or “Southern English” which might could confuse an “English” speaker too, and we can see that amongst English-speaking countries, and even within one, we still misunderstand each other due to differences in vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation. Considering the variance of these essential components of language, does “English” even exist?

The proponent of English’s definite existence, which profoundly objects to standing idly by while innocent English sentences are massacred, is called prescriptivism. Prescriptivism proclaims the necessity of a language’s standardization and dies a little inside every time someone says “revert back” or enters a “10 items or less” line with fewer than 10 items. Surely we cannot ignore the need for a standard. Despite those who continue to wage the revolutionary war against the Oxford comma, our agreement on “Standard English” theoretically allows every English speaker to understand another. If in that communication there are appeals for clarification concerning meaning the standardization of our language also allows us this recourse.


The vocabulary we choose can be interpreted as a grammatical error or an acceptable colloquialism. (Max Bevilacqua/Indonesiaful)


But what about the way we actually speak? What about playing with words? What about the colorful neologisms and the expressions that are the result of saying, “prescriptivism be some bull****” and that give flavor to poetry and prose alike? Playing with a standard can only exist because of the existence of a standard. However, I think we can agree that hardline prescriptivism that wags fingers at “y’alls,” “yo’s,” and “aint’s,” is yucky.

So where is the bright line between grammatical error and acceptable colloquialism? When and why are we irritated as opposed to fascinated by linguistic idiosyncrasies? Let’s have an example. Close your eyes and imagine a friend from America commenting on your jeans. She says, “I like your trousers.” Now imagine that friend is Indonesian…

My American friend’s quirky word choice mutates into something that is wrong for my Indonesian friend to say. This may be because I can assume my American friend knows the word for “jeans” and “pants” and is simply choosing to play off of them. The line between grammatical error and acceptable deviation from contemporary English here is an issue of entitlement based on having information. We may have a tendency to correct “awkward sentences” (a debatable grammatical error) because they come from a lack of information, which we have in abundance.

But what if our American friend never knew the word “pants”. And let’s say that my Indonesian friend is well aware of the word “pants” having worked in an American pants factory, but revels in the reverberation of the word “trousers.” What do we make of that?

Mrs. Day, my High School English teacher, used to say, “You can break the rules, but first you have to know them.” Yet, if we still feel that the American English speaker’s use of the word “trousers” is more acceptable than the Indonesian’s maybe there is a deeper issue here. Maybe it is pride. Maybe we earn our language. Maybe no amount of information someone else gathers learning English supplants that that we were told we were loved in English by our parents before they tucked us in, that we read the backs of cereal boxes in English while we tried to ignore our siblings, that we passed notes in English to our best friends during English – that we lived in a place where English reported our deepest moments and formed the basis of our deepest relationships. Is it possible that non-native speakers have not earned the “right” to play with our language?

Well, allow me to introduce “Bahasa English”. Alongside any other regional and national flavor of English, I proclaim that Indonesians, based on their own experiences, the books they read, and the advertisements they see, have their own English too. It may be pointed out that one person does not have the grounds to invent a dialect. But language is not sui generis; it is a second order label for a range of phenomena that exist independently. The identification of these particular phenomena, which loosen up the barriers between “different languages”, can only add color to our own. If you see a fundamental error in arguing the likeness of more domestic dialects with a foreign one, reflect upon the namesake of English and also “Woles mas bro.” *

My college philosophy professor once told our class that we are always becoming and never are. “For example,” he said, “maybe you play the piano and you are really good – but you are not a piano player because tomorrow your hands could get chopped off.” I take what may have been a thinly veiled threat to heart in that I am not, no matter how much I would like to be, determinately anything. I am not an English speaker. I only perform and play with English because tomorrow my tongue could get chopped off. My set of experiences, though wedded to an English-speaking country, do not make my English performance or play normatively better, only more rehearsed. So teach Bahasa Inggris so that we can teach the rules; but if you see fit, allow for the possibility of Bahasa English so that they can be broken too.

About the author: Max Bevilacqua is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Magelang, Central Java. He graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in Religious Studies.


* “Woles” (“slow” spelled backwards) is a popular Indonesian phrase to express, “Take it easy.”

“Mas” (the way one addresses a young male) can be paired with “bro” to form an Indonesian/English phrase to address, most often, another young male in a way that is “cool”.





Matthew Moynihan navigates Indonesian culture as he winds through the streets on his motorbike.  (Matthew Moynihan/Indonesiaful)

The Ride Home

 Pop the kickstarter out and give it a good go,
the machine and my knee are both screaming ‘sakeeet!’
All the stares manifest like I’m putting on a show,
sweaty back, hot sun, and now some pain in my feet.

 Impatiently I wait as she warms up her pipes.
Onlookers look on, judge and jury of this trial.
One more try – there she goes, now she’s singing just right.
Say my red-faced goodbyes and move on bule-style.

Matthew Moynihan navigates Indonesian culture as he winds through the streets on his motorbike.  (Matthew Moynihan/Indonesiaful)

Matthew Moynihan navigates Indonesian culture as he winds through the streets on his motorbike. (Matthew Moynihan/Indonesiaful)

 The warm wind’s friendly but the smell’s unfamiliar,
my bike and my belly both let out low groans.
Not sure where I’m going but it must be far,
I’m passing endless houses but could any be my home?

 Odometer’s broken so I can’t check my speed.
Should I stop and smell the durian or just ride on?
No time to question whether or not I should be
on this road I’m dodging traffic flow and pylons.

 Day becomes night but I neglect the sun’s tumble,
busy questioning the question of my purpose.
Awakened at times by my bike’s alluring rumble,
she says, “ride through this rickety road, it’s worth it.”

 In my mirror I glimpse a warm moon too distant:
the cat and the fiddle play tunes I can follow.
An urge to stop and listen- but I resist it,
the shine of moonlight makes the street seem less hollow.

 Soon my bike is singin’ a silky lullaby,
smoke clears and the faces on the street now appear
as faces to which I am pained to say ‘goodbye’.
Now stern stares turn to wide smiles that ignite no fear.

 Tank’s empty so I stop, but the timing’s just right,
I watch the faded moon fall gently behind me.
The shine of the sun reveals a most inviting sight:
a thousand lips resounding one “Selamat pagi”.


bule: Indonesian word for ‘tourist’ or ‘foreigner’
durian: a very smelly but tasty Indonesian fruit
Selamat pagi: Indonesian greeting meaning ‘good morning’

 About the author: Matthew Moynihan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMA Negeri  5 in Palembang, South Sumatra. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013 with a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology. He has been greatly impacted by the Indonesian cultural phenomenon known as ‘Keep Smile’.     

On Fridays, when school ends at 11:15 for Muslims' Friday prayer, students wear colorful batik shirts. The shortened school day also means that students are a little less likely to concentrate on their schoolwork and a little more likely to take pictures with their English Teaching Assistant! (Gillian Irwin/Indonesiaful)

Structure of a school day

One of the topics my Indonesian students are always most interested to hear about is how American high schools differ from their own—in the case of my students, a well-renowned public high school in the special region of Yogyakarta, Central Java. They are always curious about cultural differences (“American proms include dancing?”), but what they’re often most surprised about is how class schedules differ in structure. For me, as an American raised in a standard public high school in southeast Pennsylvania, the Indonesian class structure was just as unusual.

On Fridays, when school ends at 11:15 for Muslims' Friday prayer, students wear colorful batik shirts. The shortened school day also means that students are a little less likely to concentrate on their schoolwork and a little more likely to take pictures with their English Teaching Assistant! (Gillian Irwin/Indonesiaful)

On Fridays, when school ends at 11:15 for Muslims’ Friday prayer, students wear colorful batik shirts. The shortened school day also means that students are a little less likely to concentrate on their schoolwork and a little more likely to take pictures with their English Teaching Assistant! (Gillian Irwin/Indonesiaful)

In my public school there are eight forty-five minute class periods each day, beginning at 7:15 am and lasting until 2:00 pm. Classes run Monday through Saturday—my students are dumbfounded with jealousy when I tell them that American students have off on Saturdays— but end at 11:15 on Fridays for prayer. Two breaks are included at the same time each day for all students: the first break lasts for fifteen minutes between third and fourth periods, and the second break (used for lunch, group meetings, and noon prayer for Muslim students) takes thirty minutes between periods six and seven. For many classes, two periods are scheduled back-to-back, so teachers actually get an hour and a half block of teaching time for their subject. Occasionally, three or even four classes are put together; this allows extra time for lab sciences and other activities. Some classes, like the English Conversation classes I assist in for eleventh graders, are taught by assistant teachers and only take up one period.

Methods of changing classes vary throughout Indonesia. Some schools use stationary classes, meaning that groups of students (often numbered for convenience: X-1, X-2, etc. for tenth grade, for example) stay together in the same classroom while teachers move from room to room. Other schools, like mine, use moving classes. This means that students still stay in their assigned classes (and develop a lot of class pride as a result!), but move around to different classrooms throughout the day along with teachers. This can be a little confusing, since my fellow co-teachers and I still forget which classroom belongs to which class sometimes, but students are always willing to point out where we should be.

The most surprising thing for my students to learn about the typical American school day isn’t lockers, specific classrooms for each teacher, or the absence of class groups for students, though—it’s the difference in class scheduling itself. Students in Indonesia take a staggering amount of classes in a semester, as many as twenty-two in some schools. This accounts for art and music classes, religion courses, multiple languages (which can include various combinations of Indonesian, Javanese, English, French, German and Japanese—although this is changing with the new curriculum), and Chemistry, Biology, and Physics all at once. In order to account for the large number of classes, students usually end up seeing each of their teachers only once a week. To compensate, many students take courses outside of school in the evenings or on weekends to get extra help in classes they may struggle with or to get ahead in classes they show promise in. I’ve learned that many of my best English speakers do so well because they work tirelessly both inside and outside class.

Especially with the recent implementation of the new curriculum, the structure of Indonesian students’ school schedules is often in flux, but teachers and students are flexible and determined to provide and receive the best education possible—even if they’re jealous that Americans have Saturdays off.

About the author: Gillian Irwin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMAN 3 Yogyakarta in Yogyakarta Special Region. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 with a degree in Music and English.      

Nick_SMAN3 entrance

Poverty in Kupang

Nick_SMAN3 entrance

The main entrance to SMA Negeri 3 Kupang, one of the best public schools in the city.

It’s a common sight in Kupang—a thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy collecting fare money from uniformed school children as they pile out of his crowded bemo. The boy, like many others his age or even younger, works as a konjak, riding around on the bemo (minivans that serve as Kupang’s public transit system) that buzz around the city, hanging out the open side door, collecting fares from passengers, and trying to cram as many people into the vehicle as possible.

These konjak perform their duties with great enthusiasm. They shout at idle pedestrians as their bemo speeds past, jump out of the still-moving van to usher passengers inside when they call for a ride, and show hesitant customers where the few inches of free space are on the deluged benches inside the car. This is a typical job for a teenage Kupangnese boy. In the poverty-stricken capital of East Nusa Tenggara, it’s a pretty good job to have—working as a konjak for a few years puts you on track to become a driver of your own bemo. However, as the tragically ironic image of a konjak collecting money from school children his same age reminds us, this boy should be in school. For one reason or another, he isn’t.

The monthly tuition to attend SMA Negeri 3 Kupang is 125,000 rupiah a month, which is just over ten U.S. dollars. Even though this does not seem like a lot of money to pay for school, for the poorest families in Kupang, it is too much. The 750,000 IDR (around $70) that it costs per month to attend SMA Kristen Mercusuar, a private Christian school in Kupang, is more than many families will even make in a month.

On top of this, employment opportunities in Kupang are not as bountiful as you would expect for a provincial capital, especially for young, less-educated workers. Jobs in the service industry, for example, which in America would normally be filled by low-educated workers, are hard to come by or non-existent altogether. Girls in their late teens or early twenties often find work as maids in the homes of wealthier families, but many boys this age have trouble finding work and settle for occasionally giving rides as an ojek, or motorcycle taxi.

There are certainly a multitude of factors that contribute to the high unemployment rate in Kupang, but it is hard to not look first at the education system in the city and across the entire province of East Nusa Tenggara when searching for culprits. East Nusa Tenggara ranked second-to-last among the 33 Indonesian provinces in the National Exam administered to junior high schools during the 2012-2013 academic year. Although there are around 30 universities in Kupang, the majority of high school graduates from the city’s public schools will not attend college for academic as well as financial reasons. Another problem is the physical state of the schools in the city. At the public school where I teach, the classrooms, although functional, are out-of-date and in some cases in disrepair. At the privately owned Christian school, where the tuition is almost seven-times higher than that of the public schools, the facilities are not much better. Although there are many diligent students at the schools in Kupang, those that can afford high school and university fees go to Java or Bali for the superior quality of education.

The year 2013 marked the lowest poverty level in Indonesia’s history, with a Gross National Product (GNP) four times higher than that of 1998. However, the apparent poverty level of Kupang begs the question of how much the poorer provinces of the country, like East Nusa Tenggara, are factored into that statistic, and how accurate a depiction of the nation’s economy can be revealed by Indonesia-wide economic generalizations.

About the author: Nicholas Hughes is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. He graduated from Rutgers University in 2013 with a double major in English and Anthropology.

The film delivers on the poster's  promise of ruthless chaos.  (The Raid: Redemption/IMDB)

The Raid: Redemption Movie Review

The poster for 2011’s The Raid: Redemption, originally Serbuan Maut or “The Deadly Raid” in bahasa Indonesia, is dominated by a dilapidated building looming over a single figure. The tagline is breathless in its brevity: “1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos.” The Raid: Redemption, directed by Welsh expatriate Gareth Huw Evans, delivers upon the poster’s promise with a strong emphasis on the “ruthless” and “chaos.”

The film delivers on the poster's  promise of ruthless chaos.  (The Raid: Redemption/IMDB)

The film delivers on the poster’s promise of ruthless chaos. (The Raid: Redemption/IMDB)

To backtrack on the plot, the hero, rookie officer Rama (Iko Uwais), joins an elite task force led by no-nonsense Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) and Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), a graying veteran. Their mission is simple: infiltrate an apartment block in Jakarta’s slums and take out the building’s owner, a crime lord named Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), who has offered protection to a bevy of criminals. While they are initially successful in subduing the first five floors without alerting the paranoid Tama, who has the building crawling with cameras, they fail to quiet a lookout. In retaliation, Tama shuts off the lights, bars the exits, executes their back-up, and offers the residents of the building free rent if they take down the officers. As can be imagined, the residents take to this directive with gusto. It is soon discovered that this raid is unauthorized; no help is coming. The rest of the movie is thus spent on the squad’s desperate push to survive the attacks from Tama’s right-hand men, Andi (Donny Alamsyah) and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), and take down Tama.

Evans described his film as more of a “survival horror film,” which is an apt description. This is an action movie pared down to its ass-kicking essence. The movie is limited almost entirely to the one building. Plotting and character development are minimal. It’s a lean and mean 100 minutes of brutal, inventively choreographed fight scenes.

And it’s freaking awesome.

Most of my notes jotted while watching the film boil down to, “Holy [censored], did that guy just shove that guy through a window to break his fall?”

Why, yes, he did.

The badass, bleeding heart of the film lies in its hero, Rama, who is the first person we see in the film, praying, exercising, and saying farewell to his pregnant wife in the early morning hours before leaving for work. That scene establishes his bonafides as a decent man who will spend the rest of the movie breaking people against walls. Uwais, a silat national champion Evans discovered and cast in his debut feature, Merantau, choreographed the film with Ruhian, who plays the bloodthirsty yet strangely honorable Mad Dog.

The action is the movie’s main selling point, and The Raid doesn’t scrimp. The fight scenes are choreographed thoughtfully, pragmatically, and realistically (or at least as realistic as one can get in a movie in which one man can fend off dozens of mooks). The space and props are used creatively with the characters’ capabilities and situation kept in mind. The older Lieutenant Wahyu, for instance, lacks the stamina and strength of his younger colleagues and compensates by smartly using items such as a file cabinet and a chair to take down his opponents. It’s a trait I noticed and admired in Evan’s debut, Merantau, and am glad to see continued in his later films.

All other technical elements add to the propulsive energy of the film. The camerawork, fluid and kinetic, follows the action — closing in on a loaded gun, peeping through a hatch — without being distracting. Evans, blessedly, hasn’t joined the trend of near-constant shaky cam in action films, which are guaranteed to give me a headache. The production team also did marvels with the sets. The apartment building becomes its own character: the flickering lights, the stained and graffitied walls, the shadowy corners, the hidden crawlspaces. You can feel the claustrophobia and the fear the characters must have, trapped in that nightmarish deathtrap.

This is not a movie for those seeking, well, depth. The plot is straightforward and doesn’t seek any nuance or surprise, although it does touch on institutional corruption, which is a hot-button issue in Indonesia. The characters are, with few exceptions, merely competently acted and archetypal. In my notes, I refer to most of them as “dude,” and since many die quickly, there’s no real need to get attached. And yes, the relentlessness of the fight scenes did get a little old near the end of the film.

Still, when this movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was greeted with wide critical acclaim for its originality in the action genre. This was a pleasant surprise for the Indonesian film industry which, up until this point, was relatively overlooked in the international film scene. For a budget of approximately $1 million, it made about $20 million worldwide. Its financial and critical success ensured that a sequel would be made, The Raid 2: Berandal, which recently premiered to positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Evans, cementing his reputation as a promising talent, is currently planning another Raid film to complete the trilogy.

Between this film and the recently Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, which takes a different tack in depicting violence, the Indonesian film industry is getting into the spotlight. Despite The Raid’s flaws, it’s hard not to see why it first caught the film world’s attention. It’s brutal and brisk, and knows exactly what it is, delivering the goods with a knockout punch.

About the author: Anna Cabe is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palembang, South Sumatra. She graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2013 with a degree in English Literature-Creative Writing.


Parading for Jokowi


“As April’s parliamentary elections approach, Indonesians get more and more passionate about their favorite presidential candidates. In Yogyakarta, a parade promotes Joko Widodo (affectionately known as Jokowi) with masks, dancers, and trademark ‘Jokowi’ plaid shirts. Jokowi, who appeals to the public because of his honest and approachable image, is not yet an official candidate, but many Indonesians hope that his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) will nominate him come April.”

Gillian Irwin | Yogyakarta

Students take a break from studying with their new English textbooks to pose for a picture. (Elizabeth Kennedy/ Indonesiaful)

A look at the 2013 Curriculum

Children seem to be everywhere one looks in Indonesia. The central importance of family within Indonesian culture means that people have a lot of children and those children must be educated. It is a key duty of the Indonesian government to provide a sound education system. In fact, it is constitutionally mandated that education account for twenty percent of the country’s national budget.

Students take a break from studying with their new English textbooks to pose for a picture. (Elizabeth Kennedy/ Indonesiaful)

Students take a break from studying with their new English textbooks to pose for a picture. (Elizabeth Kennedy/ Indonesiaful)

Since 1947, the Indonesian government has created and implemented no less than ten different national curricula. The latest curriculum reboot came earlier this year with Indonesia’s new 2013 Curriculum. Although the last curriculum change occurred as recently as 2006, many felt another curricular iteration was necessary to address what some Indonesians see as a rising flood of immorality and intolerance among Indonesia’s youth. Indeed, the Deputy Minister of Education, Musliar Kasim, explained the push for a new, morally focused curriculum, stating, “Right now, many students don’t have character, tolerance for others, [or] empathy for others.”

In addition to the moral component, the 2013 curriculum aims to improve Indonesian education by reorganizing required subjects. At the primary level, the Ministry of Education cut required subjects from ten to six per day. English, Science, and IT courses were eliminated in favor of courses viewed as character-boosting, such as Bahasa Indonesia, Civics, and Religious Studies. At the secondary level, teaching hours in English and IT classes decreased in exchange for history and local language classes. At my high school, 10th graders receive one and a half hours of English instruction per week instead of three. This change allows time for a course in Bahasa Sunda, the local language in West Java.

The new curriculum officially launched for 4th, 7th, and 10th graders on July 15th. About 6,000 schools throughout the country implemented it this school year, but the Ministry of Education hopes to apply the curriculum in all schools by 2015. Before the school year began, teachers at participating schools received five days of training to familiarize themselves with the curriculum and its corresponding textbooks.

Of central importance to the new curriculum is a change in teaching style. It pushes teachers to move away from the traditional teacher-centered classroom and towards a student-centered classroom. In real terms, this means that teachers are to spend less time lecturing students and more time teaching through inquiry. Teachers should facilitate the learning process by asking guided questions that help students discover content for themselves. Students are expected to become active and engaged learners. The new approach hopes to stir curiosity in students in order to build their critical-thinking and communication skills.

My high school was selected by the provincial government to participate in the initial roll-out of the new curriculum. Some of the teachers here will serve as teacher-trainers to other teachers in the region as the curriculum expands to all schools. As one can imagine, there is immense pressure to successfully apply the curriculum and improve student success.

After one semester teaching with the new curriculum, reactions are mixed. Generally, all of the teachers I spoke to agree with the overarching goals of the new curriculum. Citing the frequency of student brawls and the dissolution of cultural traditions among youth, they support the move towards a morally focused curriculum.

Complaints about the curriculum mostly surround implementation of the new teaching approach. Teachers worry that students are confused and lost. Students seem uncomfortable asking their teachers questions. Their struggles could be partially due to culture – asking questions of teachers may feel disrespectful in Indonesia’s hierarchical society. After the first semester’s round of mid-term tests, remedial classes (after-school courses required for students with lackluster scores) were atypically bloated with students. Some teachers connected this fact to the curriculum transition, also noting that many remedial students were eager to receive and record content in the traditional fashion.

Teachers have many interpretations of how to apply the new teaching style. A history teacher told me that he gives his students a history topic and sends them to the library to study the topic individually. An English teacher admitted that after allowing some time for inquiry, she falls back upon lectures due to student confusion. She’s also finding it difficult to teach the required content in half the instructional hours. Yet another teacher with a son at a different high school has decided to put her son in chemistry courses outside of school. Her son didn’t receive his new chemistry textbook until halfway through the semester and is struggling in class after years of receiving high chemistry marks. She worries about students from families who can’t afford outside educational assistance.

I’ve noticed an emphasis on culture and moral issues within my own classroom. During a lesson on simile and metaphor, students created poems based on their favorite national heroes. My students taught me about Indonesian leaders like Kartini and Jendral Sudirman. In regards to morality, the newest English textbook is full of lessons about problems facing Indonesia. The first three chapters, for instance, focus on floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Language exercises include information about NGOs and ask students to consider how they can help their fellow countrymen after disasters. I actually enjoy the cultural and moral focus, as it enables me to learn about Indonesia and sometimes stirs interesting discussion among both teachers and students.

A shared sentiment I heard from all the teachers is simply that they need more time to adjust to the new curriculum. They support its overarching goals and believe the new teaching style will become more natural as they gain experience. Recalling that the last curriculum change only occurred in 2006, many hope that the government will give teachers the necessary time to adjust to the 2013 curriculum before scratching it for another new program.

Every three years the OECD studies the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in math, science, and English through the PISA (Programme for International Scholastic Assessment). In 2012, Indonesia ranked 64 out of 65 countries studied. The archipelago ranks lower than all its neighbors in the region – including Malaysia, which scored 52nd and Vietnam, which scored 17th. Indonesia’s PISA score is a worrisome indicator for the rising middle-income nation seen as a leader in Southeast Asia. Hopefully the changes embodied in the 2013 curriculum serve to make students both morally sound and intellectually competitive for the demands of the 21st century.

About the author: Elizabeth Kennedy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Parung, West Java. She graduated from Occidental College in 2012 with a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs. When Elizabeth is not sitting in traffic or running from a rainstorm, she enjoys dancing with her students and eating rujak.     

Angklung students perform at Saung Angklung Udjo in Bandung, West Java. (RaiNesha Miller/Indonesiaful)

Something for everyone: An introduction to Indonesian music

Indonesian music isn’t terribly well-known outside of academic circles, which is truly a shame — as one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, Indonesia is also incredibly musically diverse, and there’s something for everyone. Here’s a sampling of some of Indonesia’s most interesting musical styles:

Balinese Gamelan

A brightly colored Balinese gamelan prepares to accompany dancers at a traditional wedding ceremony near Karangasem, East Bali. (Gillian Irwin/Indonesiaful)

A brightly colored Balinese gamelan prepares to accompany dancers at a traditional wedding ceremony near Karangasem, East Bali. (Gillian Irwin/Indonesiaful)

You can’t get very far in Bali without being hit by the arresting sound of a gamelan gong kebyar. “Gamelan” most closely translates to “orchestra,” in that it refers to a group of instruments that play together, but there aren’t many instruments that closely resemble those in Western music.

The main instruments of the Balinese gamelan are the gangsa, instruments that look a little like xylophones but consist of bronze keys suspended over bamboo resonators. They vary in size and range, but are all struck with the same kind of wooden hammer, called a pangul. Balinese gamelan also uses hanging gongs of various sizes, wooden flutes (suling), two drums (kendang), a bronze pot as timekeeper (kajar), and, sometimes, a two-stringed bowed instrument called the rebab.

Gong kebyar, currently the most popular style of Balinese gamelan music, is so named because of its exciting and bombastic nature: kebyar refers to something like the exploding of a firework or the bursting of a flower into bloom.

Javanese Gamelan

Javanese gamelan is the Balinese style’s older brother. It uses similar instruments (although usually with different scale tones), but the music is of a completely different style. Whereas gong kebyar is modern (in musical terms; it started growing as a genre in the early 1900s), Javanese gamelan is of the ancient court. It is slow, refined, and gentle. This is mirrored in the accompanying dance, which usually uses small but precise steps and hand gestures.

Angklung students perform at Saung Angklung Udjo in Bandung, West Java. (RaiNesha Miller/Indonesiaful)

Angklung students perform at Saung Angklung Udjo in Bandung, West Java. (RaiNesha Miller/Indonesiaful)


Angklung is a Sundanese musical style from West Java. Angklung refers to single-tone bamboo instruments. The instruments are hung along a bar and the musician shakes each angklung separately to make each tone. Therefore, even to play a very simple melody, one either needs an entire orchestra of musicians, ready to play their notes quickly and in time, or some very nimble fingers. It’s like a piano, but with a lot more effort.


Kroncong is a relaxed and old-fashioned style, but it is still popular at restaurants as background music. It usually consists of a kroncong (similar to a ukulele), flute, modified cello or violin, string bass, melody, and a male or female singer. These instruments, however, may change depending on what is available or needed for a particular song. The result is a swaying, beachy style of music that acts as an interesting bridge between Western tonality and a more traditional Javanese sound.


Dangdut is another immensely popular new musical genre in Indonesia. It draws from Indian popular music in terms of style and scale choices, and has been deemed inappropriate by some critics due to the style of dancing that usually accompanies its infectious, pulsing table rhythms. Modern dangdut draws influence from Middle Eastern pop, Western rock, hip-hop, R&B, and reggae, in addition to Indian Hindustani music, and you don’t have to look far to find its influence on many popular dance tracks.

The music of Indonesia is well-worth investigating, and these styles are just the beginning. A simple Google search will bring up many more genres popular all over the archipelago. Which is your favorite?

About the author: Gillian Irwin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMAN 3 Yogyakarta in Yogyakarta Special Region. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 with a degree in Music and English.      

Fulbright ETA, Anna Cabe, with her students

Confessions of a “Secret Bule”

Fulbright ETA, Anna Cabe, with her students

Which one is the “bule”? (Anna Cabe/Indonesiaful)

It often starts with a changed expression. Furrowed eyebrows. An uncertain smile. Blinking.

The person, usually a cashier or a waiter, has just realized something is off about me. Why is this Indonesian-looking person seeking assistance? they wonder. Why is she mumbling only a word or two at a time? Why does she only smile at polite enquiries? What are those weird things she’s buying?

The realization slowly dawns. This is not an Indonesian.

A half-Malay, half-Caucasian ETA coined the term “secret bule” for the ETAs who could pass as Indonesians, usually some flavor of Asian. We, unlike many other ETAs, can glide through Indonesia undisturbed. As long as we keep our sentences few (unless we speak excellent Bahasa), we can shop in the mall or relax in a coffee shop as we please. We don’t get charged the inflated “bule price” while shopping or visiting attractions. We don’t get mobbed with requests for “foto, foto!” by random passersby when we walk down the street.

Yet, while we don’t go through the downsides of being a visible bule in Indonesia, passing for Indonesian comes with its own issues. As a Filipino-American navigating an unfamiliar culture, almost all my conversations with new people made aware of my American citizenship start with a variation of this: “Why do you have an Asian face?”

I have a standard answer: “Lahir di Amerika tapi keluarga saya dari Pilipina.” (I was born in America, but my family is from the Philippines.)

It’s not the most comprehensive answer. I learned later some people labored under the misapprehension that I was half-Caucasian because surely, there’s no way I can be American if I don’t have a white parent. Still, inundated with back-to-back inquiries about my appearance and citizenship, it gets the job done. I save my protestations for people who keep pressing the point:

“No, I know only five words of Tagalog. No, I do not know much about Filipino pop culture. No, I have only been to the Philippines a few times, so I have no idea what your favorite place is like.”

I also give a standard lesson delineating race, ethnicity, and nationality/citizenship to my high school students, using myself as an example:

Race = Asian, Ethnicity = Filipino, Nationality/Citizenship = American.

Melissa*, a fellow ETA and “secret bule”, is stricter about her boundaries, preferring to be quiet among strangers but clear about her citizenship to people she knows. “I want to be acknowledged as American in my social circles,” she explained. Discovering that some people at her site continue to believe she is not American, she wonders at times, “Is there a point to all this if they still think I’m from Malaysia?”

The endless attention white ETAs receive can become a source of envy, even if the “secret bule” doesn’t necessarily want it. Hannah*, another ETA who can pass as an Indonesian, generally likes that she can out herself as an American at her convenience. She said, “Everyone wants to show off their trophy bule, but that doesn’t happen to me.” She further struggles with what she feels are expectations placed on her because of her appearance, fearing that because she passes, people unfamiliar with her background can be less forgiving of any unknowing violation of social mores. At her site, she said of some strangers who hear her speak English or limited bahasa Indonesia, “It’s not always a friendly response.”

Additionally, looking like an Indonesian can make it harder to do our jobs as ETAs, when our “expertise” in American language and culture is not complemented with a stereotypically white American body. Melissa points out that because “the narrative of being an American doesn’t match [her] appearance,” her achievements can be undervalued compared to other Americans who don’t pass. Speaking Bahasa Indonesia well may earn her praise, but her white friends’ command of the language is cause for even greater celebration.

It’s not all struggle, though. Even if we don’t get instant and constant attention and adulation, our “Indonesian” looks can break down some boundaries between ourselves and the people around us. Hannah feels like her interactions with Indonesian people are more genuine: “They treat me like everyone else….I really like that.” Melissa, of Malaysian descent, benefits from her familiarity with the language and culture: “People feel closer to me. People feel less anxiety about practicing English with [me].”

In the end, I try not to let it get to me. There are many daily reminders of the overwhelming narrative that Americans are white, a narrative bulwarked by centuries of imperialism, media, and popular culture. They wear on me, and it’s impossible for them not to. So I cling to moments like this:

“[Last year’s ETA] had trouble eating rice all the time, but Anna does not because she is Asian,” my counterpart said, smiling.

It’s silly, but hearing anything positive about my bicultural identity is nothing to sneeze at. If being willing and able to eat mountains of rice will make me less alien and more approachable to the people around me, being a “secret bule” needn’t always be a source of stress. I prefer to think of it as being a “strategic bule.” I can choose to blend in or not, and that’s a rare privilege for American ETAs.

*Names have been changed.

About the author: Anna Cabe is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palembang, South Sumatra. She graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2013 with a degree in English Literature-Creative Writing.

School Pics + Holocuast MaterialsSB

No, Hitler is not cool: Reflections on teaching my Indonesian students about the Holocaust

School Pics + Holocuast MaterialsSB

Students adopted new identities to follow the lives of people affected by the Holocaust. (Sarah Brafman/Indonesiaful)

Over the course of my year teaching in Indonesia, I have had some troubling encounters with Nazi symbolism. I have repeatedly seen several students walking around the halls “Heiling” Hitler. I have cringed as I walked past swastika doodles on desks, notebook covers and body parts. I have seen students put their fingers over their mouth mimicking Hitler’s mustache or go so far as to affix black tape to their upper lip in Hitler fashion.

One student drew a fairly accurate picture of Hitler holding a Nazi banner and saluting onto a bingo worksheet. He titled the picture “Heil Hitler.”

Needless to say, I have privately reacted to each display with pain and angst. Both my grandfathers served in the U.S. Army during World War II. My family includes ethnic ancestors from Germany and parts of Poland and Russia where their and other ethnic populations were targeted and ultimately exterminated by the Nazis. I have countless friends whose grandparents survived the Holocaust.

On a broader scale, no one in my community would dare question the gravity and legitimacy of the Holocaust. Its undeniability is a fact of life long since established and relentlessly researched and validated.

But I am far from home — away from the security of indisputable history and assumptions of interdenominational religious understanding. I spoke with a close friend and colleague who teaches German (although she herself is Indonesian, not German), and she remarked that she too had heard and seen similar displays. One day Frau, as the students refer to her, came into the office and said, “Sarah, I am worried that the students think Hitler is cool….They just have no idea about World War II.” She continued with a suggestion and a request — “Can you come teach my classes about it?” — since she knew I majored in history. My degree never felt more useful.

I jumped at the opportunity. This seemed like the perfect way to approach the topic. I didn’t want to simply barge into my classes and arbitrarily teach about this seemingly unrelated and often controversial topic. I knew I would accept Frau’s offer but immediately began to feel a great weight. How would I be able to encapsulate the gravity of the Holocaust in one 90-minute class?

I consulted friends teaching in Indonesia who would be able to conceptualize what might work in an Indonesian classroom, as well as teachers back home who have taught the Holocaust (though my students have little to no connection to this particular era in Western history). I wanted to ensure some level of objectivity considering that the topic is so personal.

I lost sleep. I had vivid nightmares.

In order to personalize the Holocaust I told the students that they were each going to be someone else during that day’s class — someone who had lived during World War II and/or the Holocaust. Drawing from various sources, primarily the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I crafted an identity card for each student. Some students became Jews sent to the concentration camps; some were German SS soldiers; others Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust. Others still were Jewish resistance fighters or gypsies or homosexuals who also suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis.

I decided I would parcel out different pieces of the student’s “alternative” biography as the lesson progressed. I handed the students their first ID card with an introduction to who they were. I wanted to be sure the students could personalize this immense topic since the numbers six million or eleven million people murdered are too great to fathom.

I tried to center the lesson on the idea of symbols. What ideas and history is one supporting by “Heiling” Hitler or drawing a swastika? I spoke about Hitler’s rise to power and the evolution of Nazi ideology, specifically pan-Germanism. I drew from Hitler’s own words in Mein Kampf and other writings. I explained about Aryanism and about Hitler’s blaming Jews and other specific groups of people for Germany’s problems following WWI. I spoke about the gradual reviling and exclusion of Jews from German society first through the Nuremberg Laws, then by the requirement for physical separation by wearing a Jewish star, sequestering all Jews in ghettos, and finally sending them to concentration camps for ultimate debasement and murder. I showed the students videos: of Auschwitz, President Obama’s visit to Buchenwald (thank goodness for an American president that my students actually respect), an American soldier’s recounting of liberating Dachau, and footage taken by American soldiers the day after liberating Dachau.

Finally, I handed the students a last slip of paper with the question: “What happened to you?” The paper revealed to the students whether or not they survived the war. The students reacted strongly, each caring deeply about his or her alternative fate.

Finally, we sat in a circle and the students shared their “alter-ego” narratives with each other. We then talked about what we can learn from this history and how they think it may pertain to their lives. We then revisited in conversation how we feel about those original symbols we spoke about at the beginning of class.

Questions ranged from the straightforward “What is a synagogue?” and “What is Hebrew?” to the philosophical “Had Hitler not lost the war would he have come to Indonesia and killed us?” The inevitable question arose about conspiracy theories that the Holocaust never happened. Before I had a chance to reply to this question, one of my students named Radit responded, “But look at all this proof!” It was one of the prouder moments of my year.

I added the following:

Sometimes history is difficult to accept because it is just too embarrassing or painful. Sometimes we do not want to believe humankind is capable of such things as the Holocaust. A sad corollary to historical examination is sometimes the desire to forget rather than admit to the truth of a heinous act or event. But ultimately, I explained, it would simply be dishonest and counterproductive to try and push it aside or create false narratives. It is only by admitting to our mistakes that we can then correct and learn from them.

Was the lesson groundbreaking? Hardly. Did my students walk away changed? Who knows? I would like to think that maybe one of them will have a thoughtful discussion with the student I just noticed walking by as I write this ending. She has a swastika doodled on her arm.

About the author: Sarah Brafman is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Parung, West Java. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in history. Prior to living in Indonesia, she worked as a paralegal in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. Contact her at sarah.j.brafman@gmail.com.


Blacksweet: Grappling with skin color in Indonesia

“You are blacksweet!” a teacher says, smiling at me.

Fulbright ETA Nina Bhattacharya gazes at wall art depicting Mohandas Ghandi at an Indian restaurant in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Being a non-white American in Indonesia can be a lonely experience that forces an occupation of dual identities — one of race and one of nationality. (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

There isn’t anything denigrating in her tone of voice, but I can’t help but feel confused. It isn’t the first time someone here has said that to me.

I look at my brown arms. “Apa artinya ‘blacksweet’? Kulit saya bukan warna hitam.” In rudimentary Indonesian, I ask for the meaning of the phrase, adding that my skin was not black.

The teacher frowns, as she struggles to find a definition for me. “Sweet, ya?” Another big smile, a touch on my arm.

Terima kasih.” I thank her and smile back, still feeling a little puzzled. My smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes.

Blacksweet, I later found out, is a literal translation of “hitam manis,” which darker-skinned people from eastern Indonesia proudly call themselves. The delivery is non-threatening and usually intended as a compliment. The underlying implications, however, are a bit darker. Beautiful because of my darker skin? Or beautiful, despite my darker skin?


Indonesians idealize whiteness. It permeates every aspect of an Indonesian woman’s life, from clothing to beauty regimens. Before hopping onto their scooters, many of my female students pull on thick, winter gloves to fend off the sun’s rays. The female teachers delicately powder their faces with foundation two shades lighter. When I go to the drugstore, it is a challenge to find lotion that doesn’t proclaim its whitening properties. There are even whitening products for women’s vaginas. You can’t watch TV without seeing a minimum of five advertisements proclaiming this brand of whitening cream will help you keep your boyfriend. (But, really. It will.)

In the Asia-Pacific region, the skin-whitening business is currently valued at over $13 billion. Large companies have taken note: From January to October 2004, Unilever alone spent $14.6 million on television advertising in Indonesia for just one of its skin-whitening brands. The market is continuing to grow rapidly “because of a rising middle-class with increasing disposable income and centuries-old entrenched cultural impressions of beauty.” Dark complexions are traditionally associated with menial labor while fairness is associated with higher social standing and cultural refinement.

Whitewashing is also rampant in American media. Most of us can remember the controversy when Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air transformed from the fiery, dark-skinned Janet Hubert-Whitten to the more submissive, much fairer Daphne Maxwell Reid. More recently, discussions of skin color routinely pop up every time Beyonce joins a make-up campaign or actress Gabby Sidibe appears on a magazine cover. Americans debate whether or not the country is “post-racial,” but we’re far from immune to these continuing conversations of skin color and beauty.


My relationship with skin color is complicated in Indonesia. Having brown skin allows me to blend in more in crowds. Although I am often called “bule” – the catch-all word for foreigners – it is not yelled at me as I ride my bicycle through town. Most Indonesians love Indians, having been raised on a plethora of ‘90s Bollywood movies.

At the same time, I sometimes find myself wishing for a little of the unwanted attention my white Fulbright friends receive. Indonesians don’t clamor to take pictures with me or seek to practice their English – I’m hitam manis. Instead, my skin color means I have to fight for my claim to be American.

“Americans, I thought they all had blue eyes?”

“Is only your mother Indian?”

“What are the biggest differences between Indonesia and India?”

“But real Americans have white skin, right?”

“American? But your face is like an Indian?”

The innocuous question, “Dari mana?” (where are you from?) is one I sometimes dread in the taxi. It is difficult for many Indonesians to understand how I can simultaneously occupy two identities – “Indian” and “American.” It often requires describing my family’s immigration narrative and explaining that my parents had lived in the United States for over thirty years. That my entire life has existed in the United States.

Every time someone denies my claim to call myself an American, I have to remind myself that facilitating cross-cultural exchange is one of Fulbright’s goals. I try not to forget that my small interactions are contributing to a larger change in perspective and that these discussions about my skin color and heritage are integral in articulating America’s diversity to the rest of the world.

They just don’t know that their words sometimes hurt me.


“Miss Nina” poses for a photo with some of her high-school students after class. Many Indonesians associate whiteness with beauty and see dark skin as undesirable, ugly and even shameful. (Nina Bhattacharya/Indonesiaful)

I think of some of the other Indian-American girls from college. A friend once snatched my camera to study the photo I had just taken with a critical eye. “Ugh, delete that picture! I’m way too dark.” She is 20 or 21 and already believing dark is not beautiful.

My heart breaks when my female students tell me that they are not pretty because of their skin color. “Hitam manis, Miss. Too dark,” they say to me with a smile, over my protests. I think of my college friend. These girls are only fifteen, sixteen, and already internalizing that they are not worth it.

Low self-esteem and worship of Western beauty ideals seem to be the gifts of post-colonialism wherever you go in the world.


As an Indian-American, this fixation on whiteness is not new to my life. “Ki kalo!” I remember one of my aunts exclaiming upon greeting me last summer, after my internship in a rural Indian village. “How dark!”  It was a statement of fact, but her tone was critical. I cringed.

One of my close Indonesian friends recently told me how relatives would always call her hitam manis, but her fairer-skinned cousins “beautiful.” It separates those with darker complexions into a completely different category. Even as a compliment, it marks people as “other.” Pretty, but not ideal.

My students should not have to live in a society where skin color dictates their social status or self-esteem. During the 1960s, “black is beautiful” became a mantra for many African Americans trying to dispel the notions that their natural features were inherently ugly or lesser. I sometimes think of teaching something similar to my students, but when every level of Indonesian society preaches that “fair is lovely,” the task seems daunting. But these conversations have to start somewhere, and maybe – just maybe – the classroom is a good place for them to begin.

About the author: Nina Bhattacharya is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Krian, East Java. Nina graduated from the University of Michigan in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in public policy focusing on public-health issues. Prior to her Fulbright grant, Nina studied Indonesian for three years with assistance from the Foreign Language and Area Studies program. In her free time, Nina enjoys drinking Nescafe, eating nasi pecel, and dancing Gangnam Style with her students.