By Christopher Linnan
When I first arrived in Palangkaraya, Indonesia to begin my stint as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), I thought I was fully prepared for all obstacles. Of course, I expected to encounter culture shock and problems, but I had talked to many Americans who had spent significant time in Indonesia and I had done enough research beforehand that I thought I was well-prepared. During our orientation in Bandung, Indonesia, we spent countless hours discussing being an American in Indonesia, and were introduced to some of the cultural differences and obstacles that we could expect. Most of them were relatively unsurprising and I spent enough time wandering the streets of Bandung to realize that being a Caucasian foreigner, more commonly known as a bule, often entailed that strangers yelled at me, asked for photographs, or prompted other awkward interactions. However, I was not even close to being prepared for life as a bule in Palangkaraya.
The moment I stepped outside the luggage terminal at the city’s tiny airport I was greeted by a large contingent of cheering teachers and students holding banners. Nor did it stop there as everywhere I went I was an instant celebrity. Whether I was in the classroom, the teachers’ lounge, the canteen, or schoolyard, I was greeted and swarmed by inquisitive students and teachers. My initial trip to the grocery store, a fifty minute walk from my house, was punctuated by constant yells of “bule” and “hey mister”, honking and staring by passing motorists, multiple random strangers stopping me to try conversing with me in English, and even a picture and autograph for a particularly brave young boy. Frankly, this attention quickly became overwhelming as being a celebrity was neither something I had prepared for nor something I was very comfortable with. Furthermore, being an introvert made this attention particularly disconcerting and in the beginning very challenging.
Unfortunately, the differences between introverts and extroverts are often misunderstood. Countless news articles and studies, academic and non-academic, often make bold claims that being one or the other is the key to success in life. Thus, one often hears people claim to be introverts when they clearly are not and vice versa. The man who introduced the terms to the general public, Carl Jung, used the story of two young men to illustrate the differences between extraversion and introversion. In his story, the youths, an extrovert and an introvert, are exploring the countryside together when the introvert sees a castle.[i] The introvert voices his desire to go inside, but is hesitant because he is unsure if it is allowed or is wise. The extrovert has no such qualms and harbors romantic visions of adventures to be had. So, he leads them into the castle, only to be surprised that there are only a few rooms containing old manuscripts and an elderly caretaker. The introvert is enthralled by these foreign documents and immediately begins a lively conversation with the curator about them, while the extrovert is disappointed and bored by the contents of the castle. The extrovert resents the introvert for wishing to stay and study these documents, while the introvert is angry that the extrovert wants to leave so quickly for another adventure. The lesson of the story, or at least the way this author sees it, is that without the extrovert’s daring and risk-taking they would not have made this discovery, but it took the introvert’s introspection and attention-to-detail to appreciate and understand it, even if they would be loath to credit each other.
My friends and family would all describe me as an introvert, but that does not mean I have problems interacting with people.[ii] I have spent plenty of time working in jobs that required me to be with others constantly such as being a political organizer, scooping ice cream at Marble Slab, and teaching English at a German university. Like most people I enjoy hanging out with my friends, playing pickup sports, and engaging in other social activities. Many people would describe me as a quiet person, who needs a certain amount of personal space, and enjoys activities typical for introverts such as reading and solving my Rubik’s Cube. In my experience, this is fairly common behavior[iii] in America and rarely, if ever, has anyone told me this is bad or impolite. However, my experience as a Fulbright ETA in Indonesia taught me that my behavior is not common across the globe.
Palangkaraya is a small Indonesian city with over two hundred thousand inhabitants. While it is a decently-sized place, which the former President Sukarno even proposed making the capitol of Indonesia, it is relatively undeveloped and there are relatively few foreigners. The only bule community is about thirty-two kilometers away and many of them rarely venture into town. Thus, I am constantly reminded that I am a novelty, not only at the high school where I teach, SMAN 2, but also in the city at-large. For someone who values his alone time greatly, it was extremely perturbing to be interrupted mid-workout at his house by a stranger who had heard from someone, I am still unsure from whom, that there is a bule living in town. It was even more disconcerting to be unable to walk anywhere without having people yell at you or be bombarded with constant requests for photos.
Typically introverts do not seek a lot of attention, thus being treated like a celebrity was initially very bothersome. I was flattered, yet bothered by the sudden elevation of my social status. Worse yet, the only thing I had done to deserve this was being a regular bule. Everybody wanted to talk to me and they were confused why I was often hesitant to socialize. This was exacerbated by my poor Bahasa Indonesian skills, which often left me confused and uttering phrases like “bisa anda bicara pelan-pelan” (could you speak more slowly) or “saya tidak mengerti” (I do not understand).
I quickly discovered that introversion is extremely rare in Indonesia and in many cases is viewed negatively. Indonesians are the most social and outgoing group of people I have ever met. In my experience, which to be fair is limited, it is very rare to meet a quiet or reserved Indonesian.[iv] For example, in the ruang guru, or teachers’ lounge in SMAN 2, all teachers sit in pairs at desks next to each other. There are two rows on each side of the classroom that face each other with a small space in the middle with a sofa, around which teachers congregate for our daily morning meeting or just to chat if they are in the teachers’ lounge. This spot is where many of the teachers congregate to gossip, share stories, and eat snacks. My own desk is literally in the middle of this room and adjacent to this meeting space, so for better or worse, I am always next to the action. At the beginning I was constantly swarmed by teachers, who were puzzled why I spent much of my time in the ruang guru working and studying instead of socializing. One of my fellow teachers eventually informed me that many Indonesians assume that if you are quiet you are bored or not enjoying yourself. Thus, I was constantly surrounded by teachers who wanted to talk and interact with me to ensure that I was having a good time. It was very difficult to explain that some people are less outgoing, and doing all my work and studying was very important to me, especially in a place where I do not speak the native language fluently. This combined with my newfound stardom to make my initial adjustment to Palangkaraya rather unsmooth.
I should clarify, that I have had an absolutely amazing time in Palangkaraya as SMAN 2 has proven to be an amazing host school and being a bule celebrity does have its perks, most notably that the vast majority of my students listen attentively when I am leading their English classes. Some of my co-teachers have also told me that some of their students who are usually very hesitant to speak are so excited by the presence of an American that they lose all inhibitions and become enthusiastic English speakers. I am blessed that there is no shortage of people who want to hang out with the new bule and help me improve my Indonesian. People at my school always go far out of their way to ensure that I am happy and having a good time. The teachers, students, and administrators at SMAN 2 are some of the most genuinely kind people I have ever met and they have done everything possible to help facilitate a smooth transition to Palangkaraya. When I talk to other ETAs about how their host schools treat them, I quickly realize how blessed I am by the incredibly good care my school takes of me. However, it was still a fairly bumpy adjustment from being a regular college student to being a celebrity.
Frankly, my first few weeks were fairly rough as the only place I could hide was my room and even there, I was not safe from inquisitive strangers. However, the past two months have been a gradual adjustment process. The first step was working on my slowly-improving Bahasa Indonesian skills, which are still very poor, although I have improved from speaking sedikit-sedikit, very little, to speaking sedikit, a little. This has allowed me to better communicate my feelings and has made life immeasurably better. Many of my teachers and students also quickly realized that my personality is different from the average Indonesian, and they have been extremely accommodating. A lot of them still treat me as a celebrity, which means for nine months I am just like Justin Bieber, a phrase I hear quite often.
The hardest part in adjusting, as I am sure is the case for other ETAs and even real celebrities, has been doing simple activities in public. It is still bothersome to look up from eating dinner and see a stranger with his smartphone pointed directly at you, which you are ninety-five percent sure is either recording you or taking a picture, but eventually you learn to use humor to deal with the situation and you develop a set routine. By now, there are literally hundreds of photos of a brown-haired, glasses-wearing bule making silly faces populating the Facebook newsfeeds, Instagram accounts, and Twitter pages of people from Palangkaraya. Initially I treated all photo opportunities as serious affairs because a past ETA had advised me this was the best approach, but I quickly discovered that if you were not having fun in your photos, then you were not having fun in real-life.
Having a set routine has enabled me to decompress after a particularly stressful day and avoid overloading myself. Part of being a Fulbright ETA is not just teaching English, but also being a cultural ambassador, which means interacting with Indonesians outside of the classroom. During my first few weeks in Palangkaraya, I took my job a little too seriously as I attempted to partake in every event possible and to accept every invitation that I received.[v] This culminated in a weekend during which I spent nearly every waking minute at various events and get-togethers, with only a few short breaks between activities. Being the only bule at all of these events meant that I was the center of attention with countless curious people inquiring where I was from, what I thought about Palangkaraya, my marital status, etc. In retrospective this was not the most brilliant idea this author ever had, but we live and we learn. So, during the past few weeks I have tried to emphasize creating a more structured[vi] schedule and ensuring I have time to myself every day. Ultimately, I am still unable to wander the streets of Palangkaraya without being harassed, but living a much better-organized life with planned alone time has made me a much happier and better person and teacher.
Ultimately, living in Palangkaraya has opened my eyes not only to a different culture, but also to a different attitude about life. Indonesians tend to be so outgoing and happy-go-lucky that it can be contagious, even if it is sometimes bothersome. My typical morning in Indonesia involves groggily rolling out of bed and waking up enough to recite Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer to ask God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I find this usually puts me in the right mindset and ready to tackle my challenges that being in introvert in Indonesia may present that day. Living in Palangkaraya as an introvert has helped open my eyes to the beauty of different personality types and hopefully my Indonesian friends feel the same way. Many of them assume that since I am an American I am the loudest and coolest person imaginable. So, I have to explain to them that “saya tidak keren, saya nerd di Amerika” (I am not cool, I am a nerd in America). Conversely, my experiences dispelled many of my own stereotypes about Indonesia. It has been an incredible learning experience living in Palangkaraya, often uncomfortable and sometimes very uncomfortable, but I would not trade it for the world.
About the author: Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014.
[i] Carl Jung, “The problem of the attitude-type,” Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 1966, http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/extrintr.html, accessed 8 November 2014.
[ii] One of the most common misconceptions about introverts is that we are asocial and dislike talking with people, but that is not true. Rather, we enjoy time to ourselves, and many of us dislike large crowds and excessive attention.
[iii] Fine I lied a little bit, doing a Rubik’s Cube is just for nerdy losers in America, but they need to be introverted enough to be willing to practice the moves countless times by themselves.
[iv] This is not a bad thing, merely an observation.
[v] As a bule in Indonesia you will receive countless invitations to weddings, parties, etc.
[vi] This is much more difficult than one might imagine. One will often hear the phrase jam karet, which translates to rubber time, to describe the average Indonesian’s casual indifference to being on time. Many Indonesians consider it completely acceptable to show up late to or even cancel an event at the last second. Furthermore, life in general in Indonesia, or at least Palangkaraya, is much less structured than in the U.S. as people are much more apt to do things at their own pace.
[vii] Carl Jung, “The problem of the attitude-type,” Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 1966, http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/extrintr.html, accessed 8 November 2014.
[viii] One of the most common misconceptions about introverts is that we are asocial and dislike talking with people, but that is not true. Rather, we enjoy time to ourselves, and many of us dislike large crowds and excessive attention.
[ix] Fine I lied a little bit, doing a Rubik’s Cube is just for nerdy losers in America, but they need to be introverted enough to be willing to practice the moves countless times by themselves.
[x] This is not a bad thing, merely an observation.
[xi] As a bule in Indonesia you will receive countless invitations to weddings, parties, etc.
[xii] This is much more difficult than one might imagine. One will often hear the phrase jam karet, which translates to rubber time, to describe the average Indonesian’s casual indifference to being on time. Many Indonesians consider it completely acceptable to show up late to or even cancel an event at the last second. Furthermore, life in general in Indonesia, or at least Palangkaraya, is much less structured than in the