Pen Pals: Kelly & Yuwen

This is the first, and hopefully not the last, of a new kind of piece, one where ETAs from around the world talk to each other and share experiences. For a short time, they become pen pals. Indonesiaful has edited their emails for length and clarity.

Kelly Richard is an ETA in Surabaya, Indonesia, and Yuwen Michelson is an ETA in Ban Keun, Laos.

Hi Yuwen!

How long have you been at site for? I have been in Surabaya for just about four months and am only now beginning to feel like I have a handle on things! What does your daily schedule look like? What was the most surprising aspect of your new home and community? What do you love the most? What do you miss the most?

Sorry for all the interrogating questions – I’m just so excited to hear everything!

In addition to teaching two or three classes each day, starting at 6:30 (annoyingly early), I have lesson planning meetings with teachers twice a week, two hours of tutoring in Indonesian, and extracurriculars twice a week as well. I am staying busy, but I love feeling like I am useful!

The most surprising aspect of my new home has been realizing how much independence I need in order to be happy. Little by little I am finding a balance between leaning on others to take care of me and asserting myself when I feel the need to be self sufficient.

On the positive side, I LOVE the school I work at – it is a vocational high school and my students are fantastic. I am also really lucky to have a team of five co-teachers who are all dedicated and perceptive. We have made so much progress this semester and are beginning to discuss plans for a few small pilot programs next semester such as English book reports and personal dictionary creating – I am so excited about them!

80% of the time, I really love where I am, what I am doing, and the new community I get to share it with. Living in a new country means constantly learning and being “on” even when you don’t want to be. I am happy that as time goes on, Surabaya life becomes more and more like my new “normal.”

I can’t wait to hear all about your daily life and adventures!!!

– Kelly


Hey Kelly,

Sounds like you’re bringing a lot of joy and enthusiasm to all of your experiences and relationships.

As for me, I’ve been living in Ban Keun for the last two months. It’s about 90 minutes outside of the city [Vientiane] and is mostly made up of large, open plots of land bordered by green mountains. I’m living about two miles from school in a village of primarily rice farmers. It’s a very peaceful place and the style of life here is pretty mellow.

People from the city joke that in Ban Keun people live the “slow life.” Having been here for a couple months, I’d say slow is accurate but doesn’t have a negative connotation. The pace of life here has really helped me to live in the moment and appreciate all of the little intricacies of my daily life. For example, each morning I chat with the security guard at my school before going into the English building. I’ve taken to bringing him fruit in the morning. So, every day we just take a minute or two to exchange a little bit of English and Lao. He’s seventy-eight and doesn’t look a day over fifty.

Wow, I admire your stamina with regards to your teaching schedule. I teach eleven classes a week at Ban Keun Teacher Training College, but lately, I’ve been trying to focus more on building a strong presence outside of the classroom. Here’s a picture of my General English 3 class’s team picture; we play soccer against the science department students on Tuesdays. Personally, I’ve felt really humbled by the opportunity to set a positive example for students regarding not only how to teach, but also who to be as a teacher.

Where are you living and what’s your community like? Do you find that it is easy to integrate into the social life there?

– Yuwen


Hi Yuwen,

I totally agree that it can be difficult to build a community outside of the school environment. I’m really lucky that I live in a big city, so there are a lot of ways to meet people and make friends. However, pretty much all of my friends here are related to education is some form or fashion. I work very closely with the English Teachers Committee of Surabaya, with a RELO who lives in Surabaya and several university students who organize extracurriculars.

The community here is very diverse – there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all mindset or lifestyle here. Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia so I have friends with a variety of religions, ethnic backgrounds and personal beliefs. I love this about my community – I am always learning something new.

As far as integrating into the community, I really only feel like I have become “normal” now. My students are used to seeing me and my neighborhood knows me pretty well now, so I am old news. People are beginning to stop seeing me as the foreigner and starting to just see me as “Miss Kelly,” which I love. I still struggle daily to understand cultural norms and practices, but even slow progress is still progress.

I know that in 10 months I will still be learning new things, making mistakes and meeting new people, but I will also have come a long way.

What is your community like? I love the picture you sent! I imagine that teaching university students is very different from high schoolers. What are your students interested in? What gets them motivated?

– Kelly


Hey Kelly,

That’s awesome that you’re in a big city; it’s cool that your area is so diverse. Where I’m placed, it’s pretty homogenous. However, I recently found out that some of my students are ethnic minorities. It’s been great getting to know them better and cultivating a deeper understanding of the cultural makeup of the Lao people in general. Next week, I am taking a trip up north to a Khmu village a couple hours away with some students to go hiking and strawberry picking.

Sounds like you’re very qualified to be teaching. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much teacher training, but I am doing my best to implement active, student-centered methodology in the classroom. Luckily, since I recently graduated from college myself I vividly remember what it’s like to be a student; I’m trying really hard to make sure my students stay engaged and motivated while we’re together. I too am making a lot of mistakes, yet overall I’d say everything here has been a positive learning experience in the grand scheme of things.

What has been the highlight of your time in Surabaya so far?

– Yuwen


Hey Yuwen,

That is so exciting about your hiking trip! Strawberries are very expensive and hard to find here so I am definitely jealous. It sounds to me like you are doing an amazing job teaching despite your limited training! Student-centered and active environments do amazing things to promote motivation in my experience. I am so glad that your learning experiences have been so positive.

Highlight of my time here so far is without a doubt the students. I love teaching them and spending time with them so much. I got to go on a field trip with some of the tourism students a few weeks ago and it was so nice to shed a little of the “teacher” persona and become a little bit more of an older sister for a few days. The kids had such a great time and I loved laughing and struggling through Bahasa/English with them.

Here is a picture of some of my kiddos, a few teachers and I on the trip! Let me know how your hiking goes! I love hiking and will take any opportunity to live vicariously.

– Kelly


Hi Kelly,

Wow, I am loving the selfie. I agree with you that the students really make the experience special. That’s so awesome that you’ve taken on the big sister role; I’m sure they really appreciate having you around.

The highlight of time has been joining a soccer league with the students here. I’ve found that sports is a great medium for overcoming the language and cultural barriers between the students. I definitely resonate with your sentiment of feeling like people tend to see you through your ‘teacher’ persona; so, for me, being on a team has really helped to even the playing field, pun intended.

I hope that all goes well with the rest of your time in Indonesia! It’s been great hearing about life as an ETA from your perspective.

– Yuwen

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