Life in Indonesia, One Breath at a Time

Try to spot the ETA! Ramon accompanies SMAN 7 students at the English Days Competition.

Try to spot the ETA! Ramon accompanies SMAN 7 students at the English Days Competition.

— By Ramon Caleon —

Breathe in. Breathe out.

As if reciting a mantra, I repeat these words three times to my student. She follows suit with inhales and exhales. She’s nervous, and for good reason. She’s about to deliver a five-minute speech on globalization at the English Days Competition, a province-wide English Club competition organized by the English Society of Universitas Lampung. With this daunting challenge in mere minutes, all I can do as a mentor is calm her nerves. So I tell her to breathe.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

What I don’t reveal to her is that I also tell myself these four words day in and day out.

By now, I’ve spent half a year here in Indonesia. I’ve reached the home stretch of this journey and this country has already taught me so much. I could ramble on about the skills I’ve developed inside an EFL classroom or my growing perspective on Islam. I could even rattle on for hours about my distinct experience as a 1.5 generation Filipino-American living in this region of Southeast Asia. However, if there’s one lesson I’m taking out of this Fulbright grant, it’s the rudimentary yet vital importance of breathing.

A couple of months ago, I dealt with persistent headaches over a week’s period. I visited the doctor and was diagnosed with low blood pressure. Identifying the source of my hypotension, the physician placed the blame on my unhealthy habit of always eating in warungs (small, street-side stalls). Delicious? Certainly. Nutritious? Not so much.

While the doctor’s advice to stay away from all the fried rice, fried chicken, and fried anything was on point, I hypothesized smoke as another reason for my headaches. Whenever I smell smoke, it’s as if my respiratory system completely shuts down—I stop breathing. I feel that sometimes it’s voluntary, and at times it’s a reflex. It’s my body’s way of safeguarding me from the dangerous toxins that come with smoke, but for a price. Ceased breathing means less oxygen to the brain, which in turn causes the headaches (again, this is all a conjecture and I’m still waiting for my research to be published in Nature).

Smoke abounds here in Indonesia, whether it’s cigarette smoke, smoke from burning trash, or just general air pollution. I should even count myself lucky enough to be placed in a part of Sumatra that isn’t regularly engulfed in flames from forest fires. Other ETAs were less fortunate, and had to be evacuated because of the smoke from forest and peat fires in Kalimantan.

Thus, I constantly have to remind myself to breathe every now and then. I’ve done this so much that the process has taken on more symbolic overtones.

Let me breathe. Give me room to breathe. Just breathe. All of these expressions have the connotation of taking things slowly and allowing time to process thoughts.

In the past months, I’ve come to realize that the perceptions of time between the U.S. and Indonesia can be quite different. In Indonesia, a phrase commonly tossed around is jam karet (rubber time), which refers to the average Indonesian’s laidback attitude to schedules and deadlines. On this side of the world, time is flexible, fluid, and outside one’s control. One can easily contrast this to the American notion of time is money. Even the teachers at my school allude to these concepts when comparing work ethic and the importance of punctuality between the two countries.

Earlier in the grant, I was so obsessed with my own productivity. I was bent on fulfilling both the Fulbright grant’s objectives and my own personal goals that I collided with—and was consequently hurled back by—Indonesia’s formidable rubber time. I was left frustrated. I felt restless and unproductive.

It was during these moments of feeling defeat where all the extra oxygen played a key role. Breathing calmed me down. It helped me contemplate on my situation. Ultimately, it led me to realize that this focus on objective productivity prevented me from appreciating all Indonesia has to offer. Caught up in fulfilling quotas and pursuing timelines that did not align with Indonesia, I had essentially forgotten to stop and smell the roses. But now I do. Every now and then, I take a breather.

Although I still get them now and then, the headaches have subsided. While there are moments in the day when I find breathing a challenge, Indonesia also grants me opportunities to not only take in precious oxygen, but also take a step back and let my soul breathe.

When I’m on the western shore of Lampung Bay, I look northward and admire the calm beauty of the city, listen to the gentle pulse of the tides, and I breathe. When the dark storm clouds gather and empty themselves, soaking the earth and purifying the air, I seek shelter in some roofed area, watch the raindrops fall, and I breathe. When it’s dusk and the sky turns into a Monet of amber and lavender, I listen to the mosques’ speakers chorusing the call to prayer, greet my neighbors a friendly selamat malam (good evening), and I breathe.

Ramon Caleon is a Fulbright Teaching Assistant placed in Bandar Lampung, Lampung at SMAN 7. He graduated from Pomona College in 2015, where he studied Biology. He enjoys playing Bananagrams with students, jumping off of boats, and pretending to be Indonesian.

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