On Small Cities, Big Families, and Thanksgiving

By Katy Rennenkampf

Atambua is a small city, if it even warrants that title. I think of it more as a town, with its population somewhere between 13,000 and 50,000 people[i], and I find living in a small town to be a unique and awesome experience. There are no franchised convenience stores (the nearest Indomaret is in Kupang) or movie theatres (the nearest Cinema 21 is in Ambon)[ii], but there is a large, Catholic church whose painted windows filter colorful light onto well-worn pews and winding, muddy streets full of smiling children, wandering chickens, and delicious home-made meals.

In Atambua, like in much of Timor, the ties to adat are still strong. The closest translation for adat would be “tradition,” but it’s a little deeper, a little older, and a little more omnipresent than that. My friends spend weekends in their villages, wearing woven ikat sarongs, chewing betel[iii], and lounging with families in thatched homes illuminated by lamps. One student’s family is hoping he’ll marry a foreigner so that they do not have to pay a bride price—here, such marital exchanges are still paid in the currency of cows, each of which is valued at around 10 million rupiah. At weddings and communion parties we dance the tebe[iv], and if you get a group of friends together long enough you’ll start to hear the melodic rise and fall of Bahasa Tetun, a local language that sounds very different from Indonesian and is spoken with more musical intonations.

Adat also brings with it the importance of keluarga besar. Literally translated to “big family,” keluarga besar is about getting your parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews together for group trips to the beach and massive family dinners. People are bound together by ties of blood and marriage, but these ties stretch much farther here than I’ve ever experienced. Someone’s uncle’s cousin’s cousin’s nephew is just as much a part of your keluarga besar as your sibling, and these family ties are tracked to degrees of relationships I can’t even fathom. Aunts and uncles, tanta and om, are redefined and the titles mama kecil and papa kecil[v] are added to family trees.

Keluarga besar becomes more like a clan, a massive group of people bound by an idea of “family” that extends from Atambua to Kefa to Kupang to Flores to Java and beyond. Keluarga besar also welcomes those that maybe aren’t “family” in the way that I would think…. your classmate from middle school, the high school boyfriend that you didn’t end up marrying, and maybe even the weird American who showed up in Atambua in September. I have been welcomed into the keluarga besar of my neighbors and my school, such that every time I meet someone new they end up being related to somebody else I know. Long introductions that detail relationships to this person’s family and that other person’s family take so many twists and turns that in the end my mental map often boils down to “this new person is somehow related to Ibu Brin (my neighbor).”

In turn, I have built my own big family of students and friends in and around Atambua. So when November crept up, bringing Thanksgiving with it, I decided it was time to have a proper family dinner. My site partner, Raul, and I teamed up to put on the Thanksgiving ritz with students from our English Clubs. Saturday afternoon, November 29, we invited almost 50 students to come to my house to eat Thanksgiving food and hang out. Ambitious? Yes. Awesome? Also yes.

The plan never would have been possible without help. I quickly realized that my own cooking abilities, combined with my single kerosene stove burner and wee, single-person rice cooker, wouldn’t be able to handle cooking turkey or fowl substitutes for that many people. So the bringing of chicken was delegated to a teacher from Raul’s host school, SMAN1, who volunteered to bring chicken, water, and extra plates and spoons.

On Thursday I went to the market and bought out entire stocks of some of the market stalls. Green beans? I want ‘em all. Potatoes? Load ‘em up. Sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, palm sugar, limes, chili peppers, milk, and butter all came back to my house in copious quantities. After a Friday of worrying, I went back and bought more potatoes.

Saturday morning was sunny and hot. I headed over to school to quickly drop off the study packets I had promised all of my classes. Or at least that was my plan, until I got two minutes away from my house and my motorbike stalled out in the dead center of a four-way intersection. A few awkward conversations and the unbelievable kindness of strangers led to my bike being left at a nearby house, me taking a free ride to school, and a new number being added to my phone. Papers dispersed, I took an ojek[vi] home an hour later, feeling sufficiently stressed out about the time I’d lost and wondering how on earth I was going to collect and repair my bike when I only had time for cooking, cooking, and more cooking.

By 11 am I was feeling hopeless. Raul, site partner and lifesaver, came over and together we sat on my porch, peeling potatoes and sweet potatoes, listening to music, and devising a plan to cook mashed potatoes, green beans, and sweet potatoes with just a rice cooker and a single stove. Potatoes were boiled and green beans were blanched, onions and garlic and chilies were chopped. We were an unstoppable food prep team. By 3:15, the green beans were ready, the candied sweet potatoes were slow-cooking in sweet syrup, and it was time to mash the potatoes.

Students from SMAN1 and SMKN1 play a “getting to know you” game.

Students from SMAN1 and SMKN1 play a “getting to know you” game.

At 3:45 the first few students trickled in, and helped me finish mashing the potatoes. By 3:50, everyone else was 20 minutes late, the chicken still hadn’t arrived, and I was starting to get a little worried. Around 4:00 a slew of students showed up and promptly sorted themselves into two distinct groups: the SMKN1 kids and the SMAN1 kids. I forgot how awkward life is as a high-schooler. So while the rest of the food was kept warm as best as possible, we all went to the front yard to play some name games and work on getting to know each other.

At 4:30 the chicken finally arrived. Before eating commenced, Raul and I attempted to explain the history of Thanksgiving in Indonesian. Mostly, we tried to explain how Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday but a cultural and family holiday. And in Atambua, this is our family. These students, our neighbors, our fellow teachers, and our friends…. these are the people we are grateful for and the people who should fill the seats at our Thanksgiving table.

Time to eat!

Time to eat!

Most importantly, we ate. Students loaded up plates with chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and sweet potatoes. The general consensus was that the mashed potatoes (described as potato porridge) were good, the green beans were too spicy, and the sweet potatoes were great. Raul and I laughed a little over this later, since we thought the mashed potatoes were all wrong (our particular species of potato was too starchy for good mashing) and we couldn’t believe our Indonesian students thought the delicious green beans were too spicy!

As the food ran out, students filtered outside to work on worksheets about Thanksgiving traditions, to throw around an American football with Raul, to help me clean up and wash dishes, and to take selfies in and around my house. Simply put, it was an excellent day. Maybe crazy, maybe stressful, but ultimately filled with laughter, food, and big family, exactly the way Thanksgiving should be.


Students work on a Thanksgiving worksheet with Mam Diana, a teacher who used to work at SMKN1.

    Front-yard selfies.

Front-yard selfies.


Fried chicken and water courtesy of Ibu Selfie (yes, that is her real name)

Green Beans
-snap off ends & wash
-blanch in salted boiling water for 2 minutes, then move into ice water
-prepare pan with butter, chopped garlic, and chopped chili peppers
-add green beans and sauté for 5 minutes; season with lime juice, salt, and pepper to taste

Mashed Potatoes
-wash and peel potatoes
-cut potatoes into small chunks and boil until soft; drain
-heat milk and chopped garlic; while that is warming, mash the potatoes
-add hot milk & garlic mixture and butter to the potatoes; mix until creamy

Sweet Potatoes
-wash & peel -cut into small chunks and boil until soft
-prepare pan with butter and melt in palm sugar
-cut sweet potatoes into smaller pieces if needed, and sauté with butter & sugar. Add salt, pepper, and cinnamon to taste.
-transfer into a rice cooker to keep warm and to allow the syrup to reduce

[i] Wikipedia will tell you the population of Atambua is 50,000, but locals have given us numbers ranging from 13,000 to 35,000. I think it mostly depends on what area we consider to be “Atambua.”

[ii] I highly encourage readers to look at a map, and note that Kupang is a 7-hour bus ride from Atambua.

[iii] Betel leaves are usually packaged with areca nuts, lime powder/crushed shells, and sometimes tobacco and cloves. This mixture, when chewed, can have stimulating or intoxicating effects. It also stains its chewer’s lips and mouth bright orange.

[iv] The “tebe” is a traditional circle dance in the Belu regency, and is usually a part of every party I’ve attended. To see the tebe in action, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5Ki4x29zTM

[v] Mama kecil and papa kecil translate to “little mother” and “little father,” and are used to describe half of the relationships that I would call “Aunt” and “Uncle”—the distinction depends on the gender of your parent and of their siblings. For example: My mom has five siblings. Her brothers I would call Om, uncle. Her sisters, however, I would call mama kecil, because they are the same gender as my mother. And vice versa on my father’s side.

[vi] Motorcycle taxi

About the author: Katy Rennenkampf is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Atambua, East Nusa Tenggara. She graduated from the University of Maryland College Park in 2013 with degrees in math, economics, and English. Katy finds wisdom in the words of Dr. Seuss and is hopelessly addicted to rujak.  

One thought on “On Small Cities, Big Families, and Thanksgiving

  1. Pingback: American Holidays in Indonesia: A Review of 2015 | Indonesiaful.com

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