— By Bryan Howard —
“Dua belas ribu,” he says.
I reach for my wallet in my left pocket—it’s always in my left pocket and if it’s ever not there I feel naked and scared and like the world is ending and I’ve been robbed.
I open it and count out the notes, flipping through the jumble of bills nimbly with my fingers.
I’ve found the right ones and pull them out.
I extend my left hand towards him, gingerly offering up the cash.
And then I jerk and spazz out. I swing my right hand around and clutch the wad of bills with it too because OH NO OH NO OH NO I just almost paid him using my left hand and that’s really bad and OH GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE but maybe it’s okay because last minute I plopped my right hand on top of the bills too and giving money with two hands is polite, so I’m totally okay, right?
He takes the money, counts out my change. I accept it—carefully and with my right hand—and dash out the door as fast as I can.
This situation is characteristic of the confusion and awkwardness I often feel here regarding my left hand.
I am left-handed.
I am proud of my left-handedness.
But here using your left hand for just about anything but cleaning yourself after using the kamar kecil [restroom] is taboo.
Give money with your right hand.
Eat with your right hand.
Write with your right hand.
I thought I would be able to let this slide, to just coolly slip my left-handedness past everyone.
But everyone notices.
In fact, being left-handed is so weird and uncool that there’s a single word just for left-handers, kidal. Like “lefty” and “southpaw” the word doesn’t have negative connotations, but still, there’s no Indonesian word for right-handers.
So, I have learned to eat, and give and accept things with my right hand.
But I cannot write with my right hand.
Then again, maybe it’s more I will not write with my right hand.
The first week of school when I wrote my name on the board for all of my students (with my left hand) I had to preface my writing by explaining that in America it’s polite to write with either hand. And every day they see me write on that board with my left hand. And that’s a small bit of cultural exchange, right? With that small, repeated action I’m communicating that in some places it’s okay and normal to be left-handed?
I don’t have any left-handed students, but I wonder what it’s like to be left-handed and Indonesian. I know they exist because one of my fellow teachers at school excitedly sent a creepy covert (albeit sweet and considerate) picture of a student using their left hand at her second school. Is this kid made fun of? Is he bullied? Is he shamed into picking up a hatchet and hacking away at his kidal-ness?
I know I’ve been tempted.
Eating is often confusing. As such, I hone my right-handed eating skills at home.
The go-to utensil is the spoon. Easy. Spoon in right hand. Eat.
Sometimes you also have a fork. In these instances, the fork is in the left hand and acts as a blunt object to shovel food onto the spoon which will in turn shovel into your mouth. Fork stays down, spoon goes up. A little trickier, but got it.
Other times, you eat with just your hands. Or, rather, hand. Rice is easy. Chicken is easy. Fish is trickier. This is when I start panicking. It’s impolite to use your left hand. BUT SOMETIMES YOU NEED ONE HAND TO HOLD THE FISH BECAUSE IT’S ALWAYS A WHOLE ENTIRE FISH AND THE OTHER HAND MUST TEAR. WHICH HAND DOES WHAT?! I never know and so I fumble and paw numbly at the dead fish in front of me and pray for the meat to magically fall off the thousands of miniscule bones that are impossible to pick apart from the meat with just one hand.
When someone hands me chopsticks I give up.
Sometimes I rest my face on my hand. On my left hand. I think this is in poor taste.
I once had a very detailed conversation with a fellow teacher about why using your left hand is so gross. I won’t get into it, but basically everything I learned during potty training was a dirty lie. Thanks, mom and dad.
I often look at things a while before acting because I’m trying to determine which hand should do what.
Can I open that door with my left hand?
Can I turn on that light switch with my left hand?
Can I pick up that soccer ball and toss it to that 8-year-old with my left hand?
Before leaving for Indonesia, we had a pre-departure orientation where we talked about our roles as both English teachers and cultural ambassadors. Since being here I’ve learned that cultural exchange doesn’t just mean teaching about your culture and learning about another. Rather, it means absorbing and living in a new culture with different rules and expectations. Then, once you understand the customs better, pushing the boundaries just enough to allow people to understand your culture and your life, but not so much so that they’re alienated and scared.
And that’s alright in my book.
Bryan Howard is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Wonosari, Yogyakarta. In May 2015 he graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in English and Theatre. He is a proud lefty, though since coming to Indonesia has enjoyed learning to be ambidextrous and can now confidently wield a spoon with his right hand.