Indonesian people most certainly know how to have a good time. The line that separates serious business and ridiculous tomfoolery is thin. I’ve come to realize that spontaneous singing, dancing, and laughing are commonplace in any Indonesian social setting. So, when I heard that my high school was taking two days off to celebrate SMA Negeri 5 Palembang’s 36th anniversary, I was prepared for some serious fun.
I was told to come to school on Friday morning to go “jogging” with the students. I interpreted this — falsely, I would later find — to mean that the school was going to do some morning exercise on the school grounds. So, I wore my lime-green shorts and t-shirt, the customary attire for morning exercise in the states. I quickly learned upon my arrival that this was not appropriate attire for the day’s activities. I was greeted with the usual undeserved attention from my students and teachers, but this time, there were glances and comments that stank of scandal. I quickly became aware that the bearing of my skinny white legs at this school function was a cultural taboo, as I looked around to see every student and teacher sporting sweatpants and long-sleeved shirts. But alas, it was too late to go change and it was not long before the gossip and glances subsided, so I went through the day with an uneasy awareness of my provocative short-shorts.
The day began with the ceremonial gathering of the students, grouped together with their home-room classes and dressed to impress with costumes and banners celebrating their individual classes and the school’s anniversary. Most of the banners read “Happy Birthday,” though one of my co-teachers expressed his discontent with this labeling, as the term “Anniversary” is more appropriate for the celebration of the school’s creation. After our headmaster addressed the students and rang the gong, a massive helium balloon collection was sent to the heavens — or more accurately around 30 km north-east. The classes then filed out of the school for the “jogging,” which I found to mean that we were going on a parade through the streets of Palembang!
In no time the students had taken over the streets, halting traffic as they sang and danced with their classes in a 2 km loop around town. By the time we returned to the school grounds, all were hot and sweaty, but still full of energy. The students assumed the pre-parade formation and begin, class by class, presenting the songs and dances that they had rehearsed to exhibit their school spirit and, more importantly their creativity and artistic talent.
Afterward, two cakes were cut. The first was a traditional cake composed of a mound of rice decorated with eggs, fried chicken, tempe, noodles, and vegetables. The second, a delicious sugary cake with the students teachers fed each other, was gone in no time. Finally, each class threw a bunch of presents that they had wrapped into a huge pile in the center of the courtyard, and representatives were called up and given ten seconds to grab as many presents as possible. To be honest, I was a bid disappointed with the lack of rough-housing and competitiveness in the students’ fight for presents, but that may just be my American nature showing through.
The festivities continued without missing a beat the next day. First on the agenda was the teacher cooking contest. The dish: nasi goreng, or fried rice. The teams: groups of four teachers, each given five minutes to cook. The atmosphere: serious business. I knew that my fellow teachers could cook — they let me taste their delicious dishes almost every day — but it was a thing of beauty to watch them cook with poise and precision under the pressure of the ticking clock. A significant language barrier still exists between me and many of the teachers, so as the competition began, I knew only that I was to be the team’s anchor. I haven’t yet learned how to say, “You’re making a huge mistake,” in bahasa Indonesia, but that would have been very helpful to know at the time. My poor teammates worked diligently preparing a wonderful array of fried rice, crackers, and chopped vegetables. My only job was to put it all together on the plate in an appetizing arrangement. To their dismay, I only gathered this from the foreign commands and gestures as the clock was winding down. As the clock ran out, my plate looked as if it were arranged by a French master chef and then left alone with a group of toddlers for fifteen minutes. Needless to say, we did not win the competition, and I may have lost some friends.
After the cooking contest, the student bands began taking the stage and rocking out. This continued throughout the rest of the activities, as the judges went around determining the winner of the SMAN 5 Palembang Anniversary poster contest. I was astonished by the level of artistic ability and creativity that my students portrayed, from the music to the costumes to the posters and beyond. The final events included relay races and “Bisa Jadi,” a game where one contestant must guess the word on his or her head based on clues given by the partner.
I must admit that this celebration made me feel more than ever that I am a part of the SMA Negeri 5 family. The cultural and language barriers that exist between me and my school community on a daily basis can sometimes make me feel out of place. But during this weekend, those barriers seemed to collapse. It seems they could not stand against the world’s most powerful weapons of unification: smiles and laughter.
About the author: Matthew Moynihan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant 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.”