Guest post by Liana Engie
“Are you a bastard?”
“I’m sorry – what?”
The boys repeat the question, looking at me earnestly. We had been discussing my racial origins, and diversity in America, which I was determined to address with the enthusiasm and patience that these innocent high school boys deserved. Actually, it was the fifth time that morning — during which I was judging an English competition — that I was forced to delve into the topic when I was sidelined by the “bastard” question.
For several moments I wasn’t sure if I just didn’t understand their accents. They were repeating a word that sounded more like “blasterd,” but there’s only so long you can ignore what they actually mean. They flung their hands out, shaking one hand (“one American”) and then the other (“one Asian parent?”) and I realized that they were wondering if I am mixed. “Bastard!” they hoot, happy to see I comprehended their question.
“Well, that word doesn’t exactly mean what you think it does,” I start. With the diplomacy I have honed over my last year and a half in Indonesia, I inform the kids what bastard means — and its more colloquial modern use as a derogatory term.
“It’s not a good word, right?” one of the more informed boys asks. I give them a look that says, “Welp, sorry, it ain’t” and nod.
Immediately, all of the boys start on the boy who first asked the question for having insulted me. With humility, the boy apologizes for inadvertently insulting me, someone he just met who is about to judge the competition he’s practiced really hard for. The poor boy is totally embarrassed and apologizes over and over.
I wasn’t offended, and tried to convince the shrinking boy that really, it was okay. Practically every interaction I have with a new acquaintance revolves around ethnicity, and I continue to have these discussions with people I’ve known for some time. People are curious about diversity in America, and often during these discussions something mildly offensive but innocent will come out. Mostly, questions are just ridiculous and thus hilarious, but this is one reason why I became a teacher abroad — and also one reason why I’ve stayed.
About the author: Liana Engie was a 2011-12 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in West Kalimantan (Borneo). She graduated from Pitzer College in 2011, where she studied physics and molecular biology. Engie currently works in Jakarta, where she is helping start a new university for a local foundation.