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. 


More Idul Adha Photos

By Rebecca Kulik, Clare Volz, and Annabelle Wilmott, 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.

As I watch goats being slaughtered, my vegetarian ideals are negotiated with ancient tradition.

As I watch goats being slaughtered, my vegetarian ideals are negotiated with ancient tradition – Annabelle Wilmott

Idul Adha in Telaga, Gorontalo.  By Rebecca Kulik.

A dying cow bucks at my neighborhood sacrifice in Telaga, Gorontalo.
Some of my neighbors in Telaga check their phone during the sacrifice. Gorontalo.
Blood drips onto the floor of the mosque as the cows are butchered above. Gorontalo.
A little girl in Telaga, Gorontalo stands in front of sacrifices being butchered.

Some of the neighborhood men pose with a sacrificed goat in Telaga, Gorontalo.
A middle-aged man and a boy butcher a goat in Telaga, Gorontalo.
A boy squats next to a sacrificed goat. Telaga, Gorontalo
Ibu Yeni of Telaga, Gorontalo, presents her beef sate. That beef was alive and kicking two hours before.
A cow waits for the sacrifices to start in front of my school, SMA 1 Telaga, Gorontalo.
A man wrestles a cow to the ground at SMA 1 Telaga, Gorontalo.
When a cow is sacrificed, one man covers the neck with a palm branch while another slits its throat, so no one can see the actual cut. Gorontalo, Telaga
A young boy watches a cow dying at SMA 1 Telaga, Gorontalo

Idul Adha in Semarang, Java.  By Clare Volz.

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

Rebecca Kulik is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Telaga, Gorontalo.  She graduated from Grinnell College in 2014 with a degree in history.  Clare Volz is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Semarang, Java.  She graduated from Ohio University in 2014 with a degree in Integrated Language Arts AYA Education in 2014.  Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan and is an Emory University 2014 graduate.


Praying to make the grade

Bang! Bang! Bang! “Miss Elisss, it’s time to wake up. Misssss!” Confused and a tad bit grumpy, I opened my eyes to find myself sprawled across my couch. Peering at my front door, I blurrily made out the shapes of two teachers shivering outside in the pitch-black darkness. Even in Indonesia, it can be somewhat cold at two am. Remembering that I had invited these women to my house, I got up and stumbled to open the front door. As they plopped their tired bodies onto my couch, I heard two other teachers stirring next door in my bedroom. The time had come to perform Shalat Tahajjud, the late night prayer.


Students praying for the Ujian Nasional at SMA 1 Pankalpinang. (Anna DeVries/Indonesiaful)

The Tahajjud prayer is one of the many voluntary prayers Muslims can perform in addition to the five compulsory prayers. Tahajjud, which is performed during the middle or late hours of the night, is said to purify one’s soul and bring one closer to God. Performing Tahajjud can bring many benefits and rewards from God. Given that the Ujian Nasional was in a few days’ time, my school decided that all students would participate in the prayer to show solidarity with their stressed seniors.

The Ujian Nasional, often abbreviated to UN, is Indonesia’s grueling national exam that tests high school seniors. At my school and many others, students are broken into one of two cohorts throughout their high school careers: science or social. For science students, the UN tests their knowledge of English, Bahasa Indonesia, Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Alternatively, social students are tested in English, Bahasa Indonesia, Math, Economics, Geography, and Sociology. The test is a tortuous exercise lasting three days. A student must pass it to graduate from high school. UN scores are also the determining factor for college acceptance and scholarships. With so much riding on a single test, students and their schools do everything possible to ensure high marks, including prayer.

Given that I teach at an Islamic boarding school, prayer is a central part of life. The adzan (call to prayer) breaks my days into five neat periods. I often join my students at the mosque for Shalat Dzuhur and chat with female students as others fulfill their mid-day prayers. Although I am not Muslim, I find my time at the mosque to be calming and peaceful. It brings me closer to my students and gives me ample opportunities to learn more about their faith. Thus, when my colleagues asked me if I wanted to join the Tahajjud prayer (and sleepover at my house beforehand), I quickly agreed.

Back at my house that morning, my teachers and I sat in silence around my living room floor. After watching each of them brush their teeth and wash their faces, we walked to the female dormitory and broke into teams of two. The Bahasa Indonesia teacher and I then began moving in and out of dorm rooms, gently shaking poor little 15, 16, and 17-year-old girls out of their dreams. Some dutifully slid out of bed and into their prayer clothes, while others had to be cajoled into consciousness with a bit more force.

We made the slow procession to the mosque just before 3 am. As I leaned on a brick column, I watched sleepy boys slowly shuffle in and fill the male side of the mosque. The booming adzan seemed even more commanding in the quiet hours of the night. Beyond the mosque I couldn’t see anything but darkness. As usual, there weren’t any stars to light the night sky. Soon, all 300 or so students and teachers lined up in the mosque and began their rak’ahs to initiate to the prayer. Each prayer sent strength and best wishes to the anxious seniors. Along the sides of the mosque, girls who couldn’t participate formed massive cuddle puddles and slept soundly. Among the sleeping beauties sat seniors peering into test prep books. Even at 4 am, every minute was devoted to study. As I rested my head on a particularly comfortable tenth grader’s shoulder, I watched my students and teachers pray together. I’ve had the chance to witness communal worship many times in Indonesia and it always gives me a tingling sense of great power. This power seemed even more pronounced in the quiet stillness of the early morning. Over the next three hours, I witnessed my friends complete Tahajjud and then the obligatory dawn prayer, Fajr.


“Each prayer sent strength and best wishes to the anxious seniors.” (Anna DeVries/Indonesiaful)

Soon the sun broke through the night and began filling the mosque with the pale blue light of day. As prayers finished, I joined my female teachers and formed a line in the cordoned-off area where women pray. The tired students made a procession, gently grabbing my right hand and bringing it to their foreheads in a show of respect. After each student bowed down, I brought my hand to my heart in an expression of love. I gave my best wishes to the exhausted seniors, some of whom had tears quietly falling from their bloodshot eyes. I then turned to my coworkers and affectionately hugged each of them as they apologized for their sins and asked for forgiveness.

The morning sky was streaked with orange and pink by the time the procession ended. Feeling the rising heat of the day, I peeled off my sweatshirt and walked to the cafeteria. Once inside, I quietly ate my bowl of salty Mie Goreng while the teachers chatted around me. I didn’t have the will to speak much Bahasa after only two hours of sleep.
Finally, I returned to my home with a few teachers. After watching ten minutes of celebrity gossip on TV, I excused myself and promptly passed out in my bed. Two hours later I woke up to another bang at my door. This time, it was one of my favorite security guards waking me up with a phone call. Filled with fatigue, I threw on a daster and took the call. My friend reminded me of our plans to watch Captain America at the movie theater. I hastily brushed my teeth and downed some Sumatran coffee before beginning my hour-long journey to the city. Sitting on the minibus, my fuzzy brain recounted the events of a few hours earlier. I suddenly felt awash with joy and remembered just how grateful I am to experience life in Indonesia. My nearly sleepless night was a great reminder of the extraordinary opportunities I’ve had here for love, friendship, and understanding.

About the author: Elizabeth Kennedy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Parung, Indonesia. 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.