To Love and Love Not

Two posts in one semester? Wow, that’s truly shameful. My apologies readers, but things have been more or less non-stop crazy since February. My parents came to visit for 3 weeks in March, which was really truly wonderful. After that, friends from my ETA cohort rotated in and out of Labuan Bajo for a few weeks. A few days ago I returned from Jakarta where my Fulbright ETA cohort hosted the national WORDS competition, which is an English language and talent event. I took one of my students, the winner of the local WORDS competition. It was very exciting because it was her first time on an airplane and her first time outside of Flores.

It’s hard to imagine that I only have 6 weeks left in Indonesia. This has hands down been the best and most transformative year of my life. The thought of leaving my friends and community here in Labuan Bajo is almost too overwhelming to bear at times. But on the other hand, I can’t wait to return to NYC, my friends, my family, and my lifestyle back in the States. Although this year has been great, it has come with seemingly endless challenges as well. It’s time for me to go back home.

With that being said, this post will be a contrast of the things I will miss the most in Indonesia and the things I am most ready to leave behind. My mom keeps criticizing me for not “really” painting a picture of what my life is like here, so hopefully this helps.

These are a few of my favorite things (read to the tune of the Sound of Music)

  1. I’d like to start with an anecdote from two Saturdays ago. After spending the morning cooking with my sitemate (Sam) and one of our Indonesian friends, Sam and I were heading to the beach when we noticed that my oil tank was leaking. We arrived at a bengkel (repair shop), Sam sat down, and a man immediately asked her if he could play the ukulele that she had in her bag. Although said man had never played a ukulele before, he instantly got the hang of it after Sam taught him a few chords. We proceeded to sit together, singing and talking for about an hour as our motorbikes were being fixed. At one point, the man started playing a famous song from the region and everyone at the bengkel started singing along.

It’s exact moments like this that will make me miss Indonesia the most. The people of Flores (the island that I live on) are well known for being some of the friendliest people in Indonesia. Their kindness has been one of the main contributing factors to my happiness here. I’ll miss being able to go anywhere and making a new friend.

Indonesia is also the most musical place I’ve ever been to. I began noticing this during orientation in Bandung in September because at every restaurant we went to, live music was being played. It’s considered out of the ordinary if someone doesn’t sing or play an instrument (like me lol). Instead of spending time indoors, on technology, or by themselves, Indonesians often pass their time playing music and singing together. It helps to build their already strong sense of community.

  1. The fact that people often forget their shoes at places because a) it’s respectful to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home b) walking around barefoot is totally normal.
  1. Eating ikan bakar (grilled fish), or really any food for that matter, with my bare hands. It’s so much easier and more satisfying this way.
  1. Driving down my road, which is composed of dirt and massive rocks (see also, “Things I won’t miss”), and having the neighborhood children yell “kakak Anna! (or older sister Anna!)” I realized this last night when I was hanging out at my counterpart’s house, but my life in the United States doesn’t involve young children any more. As annoying and “privacy intolerant” as the neighborhood kids can be, I’m really going to miss having them around.
  1. The respect that students have for their elders and educators. The sense of entitlement found in so many American teenagers simply isn’t present here. The students at my school seem to be overwhelmingly grateful for the relationships that they have with their teachers. It was refreshing to come into this type of school environment and has made my experience here all the more rewarding.
  1. Delicious meals that cost less than $3. This one is self-explanatory.
  1. Orang santai (relaxed person). If you ever want to hang out with some chill people, come to Flores, or most places in Indonesia for that matter. I think that part of the reason I’ve been so happy this year is because I’ve rarely been stressed out, aside from times when I have had a lot of work to do at school. In general, people here don’t sweat small the small stuff. Because of this, I’ve learned a lot. Such as…
  • Scorpion in my room? Ain’t no thang, I’ll just spray it with poison and sweep it out!
  • Ants everywhere? No worries, I’ll just kill them with my bare hands!
  • No power? No wifi? That’s okay, I’ll just head into town and chill at a cafe.

I think you get the point. Crazy things happen here all the time, but things end up being fine (almost) all of the time. I learned within the first month of my grant that getting worked up over everything would lead to my ultimate unhappiness and constant stress here, so I’ve grown to work around it. I just hope I can maintain this mentality once I return to NYC, which probably has the most stressed out people on Earth.

  1. Being able to teach during the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon. Again, self-explanatory.

And not so much… 

I need to start this section with a disclaimer. A lot of the issues I am going to discuss in the following paragraphs have not personally affected me. First of all, and most importantly, because I am white blonde female. Secondly because I live in a touristy and predominately Catholic town. There is a sizeable Muslim population here, but they are not nearly as conservative as in Java and Sumatra.

Listening to my cohort’s stories about the every day challenges they face here has given me a glimpse into what life is like on other islands. I have so much respect for the ETAs that have had constant challenges throughout the year, because I honestly don’t think I would have lasted. Indonesia is an incredibly diverse country, and I have been very lucky to have been placed in Labuan Bajo.

  1. I live next to an actual pile of trash. If you’re interested in following the tender relationship I’ve developed with said pile of trash, please follow me on Snapchat (@akatomski).
  1. There are certain minor issues and challenges that I won’t miss about living here. Such as, the suffocating heat, my shitty shower, my dangerous road, and things going awry seemingly all the time. However, I want these next bullets to focus on much more important issues.
  1. Overt racism
  • I have found an overwhelming obsession with whiteness throughout Indonesia, based on both my personal experiences and stories told by ETAs. Whitening products are sold in every pharmacy, convenience, and grocery store. Phones include pre-set filters that will whiten people’s selfies. I often get comments about my “beautiful pointy nose” and am frequently asked by children to play with my hair. Throughout my entire grant, I have tried to generate conversations about the beauty of diversity and how I love my country because of this. Sometimes my efforts are seemingly well received, but most often they’re ignored.
  • A black friend in my cohort who is living on Java told me that she deals with microagressions on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, when I messaged her to ask if it was okay for me to include her story in this post, she told me that 3 shop owners had outright ignored her earlier that same day. She informed me that Indonesians often get visibly angry (and even say things) when she hangs out with her site mate (who is often mistaken for being Indonesian) and their other Indonesian friends. The counterpart of another friend of ours has also refused to acknowledge her presence on multiple occasions. It’s when I hear stories like these that I think, “Wow, I can’t wait to get the f**k out of a country that treats non-white foreigners like shit.” I have nothing but unending respect for my friend. The fact that she has put up with endless bullshit for this long astounds me.
  1. Sense of falsehood
  • I have not had to deal with this nearly as much as the ETAs in more developed areas, but another part of Indonesian culture I really won’t miss is a sense of falsehood. In some ways, this point relates to the bullet above. My site mate and I were recently discussing race in Indonesia, and she expressed to me how last year (this is her second year as an ETA) she often questioned if certain people were her friends only because they wanted to befriend a white person. Instead of developing meaningful relationships, my sitemate felt as though a handful of people really just wanted to take selfies. We’ve both been very lucky in Labuan Bajo because we’ve been able to establish real friendships with a handful of people. This obsession with whiteness doesn’t feel nearly as strong here, because locals are exposed to tourists every day.
  • Also along the lines of falsehood, the obsession with Instagram and social media is nauseating at times. It seems as though Indonesians often go places to take pictures of the food they’re eating and to “selfie dulu,” which is a common phrase in Indonesian meaning “first, selfie.” Also, the number of times I’ve had Indonesians take my picture without asking is too many to count. I had to create a “Fakebook” during the beginning of my grant, because Indonesians have 0 chill on Facebook. I get about 25 new friend requests a day and have over 100 unread messages in my mailbox. During my recent trip to Jakarta, my student was constantly on her cell phone, uploading new pictures to Facebook. It was a bit disturbing actually. Maybe I’m naïve and this is also occurring within younger generations in the United States, but the problem seems a lot worse here.

I guess the main point of this post was to show you all that it’s not always rainbows and butterflies in paradise. In fact, it’s a whole lot of dealing with constant craziness. BUT, the highs of this year have most definitely outweighed the lows, which even the ETAs with some of the most difficult experiences will attest to. Here’s to the next 1.5 months– may they be wonderful, confusing, and full of constant bullshit 🙂


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