— By Katerina Barton —
Since I’ve arrived at my site in Kendari, I’ve been following some advice I received and I’m practicing managing my expectations. Not that my expectations are that high, but if something doesn’t go as planned, it’s easy to get upset and feel disheartened. Like, hypothetically, if you’re walking home in 90 degree weather and the sole of one of your brand new shoes peels off and you have to limp the rest of the way home as people pull over on their motor bikes to talk to you (not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything). In these situations it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, lost and annoyed.
That’s exactly how I felt last week in my accommodation in Kendari. When I first got to site I was placed in a hotel. I quite liked the hotel in the beginning, despite the too-sweet breakfasts and the bucket-flush-toilet. After a few days and some mental readjustment it started to feel like home. I unpacked, found places for all my things, and (most of all) enjoyed my high-powered AC. None of the hotel workers spoke English but I welcomed the challenge of communicating with them, thinking it would be a great way to learn and practice my Indonesian.
But as soon as I came back to the hotel after two weeks at orientation, things started feeling strange. Maybe due to naivety or my lack of Indonesian language skills, I paid a hotel worker after she cleaned my room, even though it should have been included in the price that my school pays for rent. I immediately felt uncomfortable when the hotel worker started looking in my closet and admiring all my things, saying I had a lot of stuff. When I stepped out of the room she unzipped my suitcase, still full of my American gifts for my students. I returned and saw what she was doing and tried to get her out of my room as quickly as possible. At this point I was still trying to feel happy in what would be my home for the next eight months, but then things quickly went downhill from there.
One night I came home from dinner and the same hotel worker that cleaned my room asked me for more money. I assumed it was hotel related, maybe for the clean sheets I was just given, but I already knew that I shouldn’t be paying extra for anything. She seemed pretty adamant but I shook her off saying I didn’t understand, and went back to my room. In the morning as I was leaving for school she stopped and asked about the money again. I tried to explain that I didn’t understand what the money was for, but her knowing zero English plus me knowing only a little bit of Indonesian did not make for a coherent conversation.
That night when I came home she was waiting for me outside my door. At this point, I had only been back from orientation for three days. She was even more aggressive about getting the money this time. I finally started to feel desperate. Couldn’t she understand that I didn’t understand! I tried to ask what the money was for but didn’t understand that either, so I explained that I would bring my Pak* (the gentleman at school who looks after me) and he would help solve the situation tomorrow. But she didn’t take that as an acceptable solution. Luckily another hotel guest who knew a little English walked up and was able to translate. Apparently after all this time, she just wanted to “borrow” money from me and somebody in a room upstairs would pay me back. I was surprised, confused and a little uneasy. I told both of them that it made me uncomfortable and I went off to my room. It wasn’t even a lot of money, less than five dollars, but I didn’t want to start a precedent of being the foreigner that hands out cash. Unfortunately, when I got to my room I realized I needed water, which was in the lobby. So I ventured out once more, and there she was again, waiting for me. This time she had written down the request, which I had previously asked her to do so I could translate it word for word with a dictionary. She was asking for more money this time, but now that I knew what it was for I felt more confident in saying I was sorry, but no. I hurried back to my room and she knocked for a while but finally went away.
I never felt like I was in danger or anything, but it was uncomfortable and stressful to have to deal with. I was so stressed about the situation that I didn’t even want to leave my room again that night and quickly left for school the next morning. It was an awful feeling. I texted my site mates and reached out to a few people in my cohort for advice and support. My counterparts, or teachers at school entrusted to take care of me, already knew that the hotel had wrongfully charged me for the room cleaning, but the next day I asked my Pak if he could talk to the hotel owner because one of the workers was making me uncomfortable. He agreed and wanted to make sure I felt comfortable.
Before he even had a chance to go to the hotel that day, we found out that immigration would be checking up on me. As we were on our way to karaoke after school with a car full of teachers, we received a call that immigration was at my hotel and we quickly turned around. Either luckily or unluckily, the hotel worker was there when I rolled up with a huge posse of Indonesians. As I was being interviewed by the immigration officer in the lobby, the hotel worker felt the need to explain herself from the night before. Maybe she thought I had told on her and that’s why all these people were there (which was not an incorrect assumption), but she was also telling a government official that she had asked me for money and that I hadn’t understood her. At the end of the meeting the immigration officer told my Pak that he was not happy about my living situation and that I should move immediately. After several calls between AMINEF (The American Indonesian Exchange Foundation) and my counterparts it was confirmed that I should move.
Luckily, AMINEF had looked at several possible places for my housing before I arrived. I looked at one pre-approved house the next day and immediately fell in love. It was a huge house with a kitchen, two upstairs balconies and a huge space where the owner of the house instructs yoga several times a week. I would have my own room and be living with a family, which I didn’t mind because they spoke English and seemed nice and welcoming — a huge difference from being isolated in the hotel. I moved just a few days later. The only drawback was that it was further away from school, but a 20 minute commute was worth my safety.
I was conflicted about moving at first just because I didn’t want to cause any extra trouble, but I’m happy I did move in the end. I feel like now I can really make a home for myself in Kendari. I have really appreciated what my school and my counterparts have done for me to make me feel safe and how fast they were to fix the situation. Every step of the way my counterpart was asking me how I felt and was making sure I felt comfortable with the move and my new house. I love my school community and now I’m feeling safe and happy in my new home (and doing yoga with my landlady!).
*In Bahasa Indonesia, bapak is the formal term of address for an older man (similar to “sir” in English.) It is commonly shortened to “Pak.” The female equivalent, Ibu, is shortened to “Bu.”
Katerina Barton is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMAN 4 in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. She grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico and recently graduated from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas in 2015. Mie Goreng is the only thing that has rivaled her obsession with breakfast tacos.