For my friends who are not yet home

Potable water comes out of fountains here. Store clerks employ sarcasm. Everything is large and efficient. There is no water on the bathroom floor. People use blinkers and honk when they get cut off. There are bagels. Most people are look white. It’s super cold. You can hear every conversation around you and you can understand it (it feels like being Professor Xavier). People care about coupons and spend a Bapak’s monthly wage on slacks. Strangers don’t care about you, or how baru you sampaied, or how pandai you are at anything. There is abundance and commercials. Don’t go to Costco. You’ll have a panic attack.

They’re such little things, they probably aren’t worth mentioning. You’re freaking out about a water fountain? Chill.When you get back, it will feel like you have woken up, and the last nine months have been a dream. It will feel like Inception. You will hug the same people you hugged nine months ago. You will sit on the same couch you sat on nine months ago. You will talk about the same things you talked about nine months ago. You will breathe the same kind of air you breathed nine months ago. And the scary part is, no one will remember what you remember. No one will know what an Ibu is. No one will ask the waiter for a Bintang atau es teh manis. No one will have sudah cobesed. And you’ll be tempted to say “maaf”, and you’ll be tempted to say “oh no, just lansung grab it”, but you won’t, because you won’t want to feel stupid, and you won’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable. You will feel pressured to act like you don’t remember either, because a private history is not a history, and a story that stands in contrast to what people know is a not a rose, it is a thorn. people won’t know what to say to you, and you won’t know what to say to them, so you’ll ask about the Stanley Cup or Michelle’s baby shower. And maybe these things are important and you’re just being self-centered. Who knows. But believe this my lil ibufuckers: You are fish that has flopped onto land and grown legs, but now you have returned to water, and no one notices your legs because they mean nothing in a place where everyone uses fins. So you will be tempted to deny your legs. Because it’s easier.

listen carefully, though. You have grown legs. The last nine months were not a dream. The people you met there still exist, and still get dressed, and still pray, and still go to school, and still sweat during upacara, and still main bolah, and still cook rice, and still menjual roko, and still whisper about boys, and still have dreams, and still have worries, and still think about you, and still miss you. You still have legs.Use them. Use them to run and to catwalk. Use them to dance. Shamelessly. Tell stories shamelessly. Say what you gotta. Cuz fuck ‘em babe. Water fountains are fuckin’ crazy. But listen intently, because people have grown things here too. Maybe just nose hairs, but maybe a whole new set of lungs or something.

It’s gonna get weird. Embrace it. That’s what Grace is all about. Please know I am so proud of you. I’m hugging you. Now go feel it all. And seriously, don’t go to Costco. At least on your first day back.

For crazy people and funny shirts

There is a woman who I see walking down the highway sometimes when I drive by. She has wavy grey hair and wears a flannel shirt that I like. She kind of saunters when she walks, like she has nowhere to go so she just decided to go. Other people have told me that she’s crazy. Sometimes I see people laugh at her and shake their heads. I always wave to her as I go by, but she never waves back and never smiles, which is shocking because everyone here waves or smiles or yells something at me when I go by. She could be my mother or my teacher or the love of my life, but she doesn’t seem to care about my existence, or anyone’s really. I’ve always wanted to talk to her and always tell myself that I will, but whenever I see her I’m always moving much faster than she is, so it’s easier to just pass her by and I do. The other people make me scared to, because you aren’t supposed to talk to crazy people. I’ve talked to crazy people before, but it’s usually more out of novelty or a kind of misguided self-righteousness than something that’s actually meaningful. Plus, I always end up worrying they will try to steal my wallet or that I won’t be able to get rid of them once they start following me. It’s much easier to pass them by.

I chose to ride my bicycle today, and I chose to pedal slowly, and as I approached a hill I saw her again, gray and sauntering and dressed in flannel, walking the same road as my tires. I slowed up next to her and said hello, and I almost got off my bike, but I could feel people staring at us and their eyes made me hesitate and then the moment passed and I pedaled on.

I think she’s quite old, but something about the way she holds her chin up makes me very attracted to her. I want to ask her where she’s always walking, and if she has some place to sleep, and what she was like as I little girl, if she ever was one. I want to tell her that she makes me want to write about her. Maybe if we are brave enough to talk to crazy people, we can be brave enough to talk to our fathers, or our spouses, or each other.

Lots of people here have funny shirts that aren’t ruined by knowing how to use English all “correctly”. They say “touch the untouch” or “I have ever love anyone” and things like that. After I passed the gray woman, a mother rode on a scooter with her son behind her, facing backwards. His shirt said, 

night

speci

alist

I’m not sure what a night specialist is, but I think I’d like to be one. To specialize in the night, so when people ask me what my specialty is, I can say “night”, like it was my major, or the subject of my research, or the dish that I am best at cooking. But that seems like something a crazy person would say, so I don’t pursue my interest in night, instead I just pass it by.

I think the world would be a better place without shoulds and supposed to’s

Aside

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French.  Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge,” he smiled.

“It doesn’t sound very practical,” she said.

 

The Razor’s Edge

 

    He took off his  wire-rimmed glasses, drew his hand across his face, and breathed out the bahasa Indonesia equivalent of “This is horse hockey.”  He had left his class in a funk, not so much frustrated as deflated, whoopee cushion style. As he walked among cracked concrete and posters for field trips long past, he recognized an increasingly familiar something in his chest.

     He’d been teaching English at SMA Negeri Wherever for three years now, and with each passing month he felt this grayish ache in his ribcage, growing like a durian tree on his heart.  It wasn’t that his students were unenthusiastic about learning.  On the contrary, he plainly observed their zeal each time they strummed their guitars outside of class or batted their volleyballs around smangatly in the courtyard.  What made this feeling grow, he realized (not without horror), was that in his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes.

     He had to do something, and that something, as it often does with the frustrated, manifested itself as that desperate pointer finger we call blame. It really wasn’t all his fault though! Each week, he was given only an hour and a half with his students. 90 minutes. 5,400 seconds a week to help them construct an entirely foreign system of expression, a new map of reality.

    Then there was the government’s new curriculum to worry about, which focused on solving social problems and building moral character. As a result, the new workbooks were a literary mess of landslides and slums and global warming, and English grammar seemed to be lost somewhere between “soil erosion” and “The empirically dubious G8 Summit”. Social problems were important, sure, but trying to have a meaningful discussion about foreign aid and the urban poor seemed pretty silly if his students could barely string a sentence together in English, and admittedly, when it came to phrases like “empirically dubious”, he was just as clueless as they were.  The government wanted his students to cook lingual rendang. Meanwhile, their English skills were busy trying to figure out how to boil water (“Do these correctly!” the book insists). And as for moral character, he was convinced that that was something that could not be learned from a book or taught by another person. That was one of the many subjects that only life could teach.

    He walked into the school’s small kitchen and sat down on a wooden bench with some of the other male teachers. They were a pleasant bunch. They joked and laughed. They poured their tea from a big metal kettle. They looked at their watches absent-mindedly. They smoked their cigarettes. And as they did, he observed an ease of movement about them that had long ago packed up and hitched a ride from his body. He silently regarded the knowledge that could he no longer conduct his rokos as they did, instead strangling each smoke between his fingers until flame met filter. Aware as he was that he was trying to suck something out of them other than tar and rat poison, he still did not know what that something was. At the same time, though, he was pretty yakin it had to do with the fact that so many of his co-gurus seemed content to sit in class and watch students write in their books, and then go home and sit with their families. He couldn’t decide if that was somehow wrong, or if nothing was wrong, or if everything was.

    Restless again and feeling the durian tree sprouting new branches, he said his pulang dulus and exited. The search continued. He glanced into classrooms full of students’ heads, many of which were white-hijabed like those tissue lollipop ghosts you get on Halloween, which he had never seen because he did not celebrate Halloween and therefore only thought of the students’ heads as students’ heads, which is how they should be thought of, if one is inclined to think about such things. But he, in fact, was not thinking about his students’ heads. He was thinking about their hearts.

    His students did not use their hearts. They strove for perfection of grammar without bothering to learn what their writing was revealing. They were afraid of saying anything incorrectly, so they copied sentences from each others’ notebooks word for word without so much as an “apa artinya?”. English for them meant studying a code of rules which, if written in the correct sequence, could get them a good score on a test. It did not seem to occur to them that it was possible to use this strange tongue to give life to feelings within them that lay undiscovered by bahasa Indonesia, to open doors with invisibles knobs.

      And the Americans were even worse. They used their hearts too much.  They did not listen to the new language, did not let themselves become absorbed by it or surrender their important thoughts to make space for it. Rather, they sought to exert their own will upon it.  Hungry for knowledge, they wrestled with Indonesian words and tried to bend them into American thoughts. They still said things like lihat anda nanti as if translating individual words could convey a perfect one to one meaning, and they still could not understand how Indonesians could “get by” without verb tenses. They were so used to dividing all their time into digestable verbal nuggets like “had gone” and “has gone” and “went” and “has been going” and “will go” and “will have gone” and “would have been going”, that they were left helpless  with only sudah, sedang, and akan at their disposal. past, present and future.  They could not clear their overactive minds long enough to unlearn what they thought they knew. They were so busy trying to understand this new world, to take it in their fists and capture it, that they did not even notice it right at their feet, ready to be understood if they would only sit still and let it capture them.

     It could be worse, though. He found the American teacher’s attempts to recruit students for projects and write proposals in bahasa both endearing and ridiculous, for though it was clear he cared about his students “getting things done”, it was also quite clear that he didn’t understand the first thing about them.  

     And then it hit him, it being a volleyball which hit him square in the face, and him being the American trying to recruit students. He had been thinking about what learning looked like, if it had a recognizable face that one could point to, but now he looked up to find another English teacher laughing at him from across the courtyard, a glint in his eye showing through wire-rimmed glasses. This made the American angry. Couldn’t they see that he was trying to do serious work? For the past few months he had been busting his butt to spark something in the classrooms, working to rid himself of the some strange crabapple tree that felt like it was growing  roots on his heart.  But he knew (it’s always foolish people that seem to know things) that the other English teachers at his school couldn’t understand.  He saw the way his co-teacher did not enter class, instead seemingly content enough to watch the students bop volleyballs to and fro and sing songs around a guitar.  He wanted to yell to the laughing man, “Don’t you CARE?! Don’t you want your students to know how magical learning can be?!” But instead he kept silent. If only there were others who longed for passion in their school, and were willing to voice it.

     Meanwhile, the students sat on their benches and listened to lungs respond to guitar strings, waiting for a teacher to enter their class who could help them understand what their songs really meant.

 

“Maybe not,” he said. “But it sure is fun.”

a couple great things

    My neighbor speaks the most beautiful broken English in the world. More beautiful than French people. Not because of the way she sounds, but because of the sentences she creates. She says things like “I go take a pray now. You know, to the God” as if it were a piss. “Charlie, sit here and watch the bar, I gotta go take a pray.”  If you read the “You know, to the God part” with the same intonation as Ron Burgandy says “in a book”, it’s quite lovely I think.

There’s a dude who sometimes walks by near the dock where I read.  I’m pretty sure the only English words he can say are “I love you.”  Every time he sees me there he just starts spouting out I-love-yous, not necessarily directed toward me, but just in my presence, showering the empty space with them the way crazy people mumble to themselves. I love you….I love you. I love you..I love you.  I wonder if he even knows what it means, and then I think that’s a pretty silly to wonder. 

For stamps and Cyndi Lauper

damnthatwentshittywhyIamsohopelesslyinadequateatteachingmaybeit’sbecausemystudentshavenoideawhatI’msayingbecauseIcan’tspeaktheirlanguageIhopeIdon’tsweatthroughmyuniformthesekidswillneverunderstandpresentperfectdoesitevenmatteriftheydoyou’dthinkthestifledgigglesfromgirlswouldhavestoppedafterI’vewalkedbythemalmosteverydayforfivemonthsGodthisnewcurriculumsucksisthiswhatIshouldbeteachingwhat’smyrealgoalhereShitIforgotthatIbu’snamepagiiiiwhatamIdoingherewhydoesnoonecarethatthereissomuchtrashonthegroundwhydon’tIpickituphowcomenobodycaresifclassstarts10minuteslatebuteveryone’supinarmswhenIgo3minutesovertheendoftheperiodclassicwhydon’tthesestupidteacherseverentertheirclassesI’msolazywhydon’tIeverjustgetupearlyandjustironmypantsamIevenmakingadifferencewhatshouldIdooooo?

At this time, the internal neurosis above was broken by the school’s security guard, who promptly dropped a red envelope on my desk postmarked “Little Egg Harbor, NJ.”  Inside was a letter from my Aunt Kathy thanking me for the Christmas gifts and giving a few details about her holiday season with the rest of the family. .

I was jarred.  It wasn’t that the letter contained anything groundbreaking or particularly poetic, but the fact of its Little Egg Harbor existence on my Tanjungpandan desk threw a stick into the spokes of my brain.  The same thing happens when I hear “Time after Time” on a butcher’s radio while searching for garlic among rambutan and fish salesmen.   It’s the feeling that I imagine people getting when they see the moon out during the day and are shocked to realize once again that while we bang out emails and sign things and plan events and tweet about the news, we are also, rather miraculously, on a planet.  It’s “Aunt Kathy? Cyndi Lauper? Wait a minute, what are yoooou doing here?!”

What’s great about letters is that they are out of place.  Emails are on computer screens because they are emails and that’s where emails are. Otherwise, they’re some kind of amalgamation of esoteric microscopic dots of information flying through the air at the speed of light, bouncing off satellites like that kid from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who loves TV.   They come from nowhere and are sent back into nowhere.

What’s great about letters is that they will never travel faster than the speed of life (which, even though other people keep trying to speed it up, can remain nice and molassesy if you do it right).  Their presence makes you instantly aware of a journey, of hands that wrote it and sealed it and put it in a mailbox and a mailman and a mail truck and post offices and airplanes and a woman on a motorbike who handed it to a man in front of a school who put it on your desk. It was there, and now it’s here. And here is very different from there.

On the internet, time and place cease to exist because everyone is in the same place at the same time (the time being now and the place being the internet). But letters punch you in the face and say “Bang! You are in a different place than someone else and that place has stamps and paper and people who have whole lives unfurling every second just like you! What does that mean?”   Its physical out-of-place-ness reminds you that there are other places, moving and churning and happening, and maybe even makes you question why you are surprised that the Indonesian butcher rocks Cyndi Lauper or why you thought Aunt Kathy doesn’t belong in Southeast Asia. If you let them, letters can reveal your own psychology to you, can show you how hard your brain works at taking beautiful existence and scrunching it into mundane, disparate chunks that it can more easily process. House/Indonesia/white person/there/here. When a letter comes, it is a physical reminder that your categorization process is an unspirited shorthand for existence, that the suchness does not fit into easily separated boxes, that in fact there are no boxes at all, that your family and Belitung and French fries and Republicans and ants are all happening at once, swirling around in one chaotic inseparable glob of story. And life is much truer as a story than as a bunch of little dots.  “Alert! Alert!” says the letter. “It’s all happening right now! It’s all super dope! Your brain’s got it wrong!”

Our minds are frustratingly efficient at taking the totallyfuckinincrediblyspectular and disguising it as the routine.  Only last week I sat in a van headed for my host family’s pepper farm, mother, father and brother all saying nothing, and I almost didn’t notice that as we zoomed through the forest, Flo Rida happened to be shouting “She turned around and gave that big boo-ty a slaaaap!” My Ibu didn’t so much as flinch toward the channel dial, her face remaining stoic. That, ladies and gentleman, is a fucking incredibly spectacular moment that almost passed me by. So send someone a letter, throw a stick into their brain spokes. Plus, stamps are adorable.

For Lukey B and the Sea

     Something they don’t tell you is that serenity costs money. It’s true. It costs nearabouts 30 cents depending on the exchange rate that day. Another thing they don’t tell you is that you can get there by motorbike. 

      See if you drive fast enough, your thoughts can’t catch up with you, and soon there are only bananas trees, roads, and the dirty faces of other travelers. They’re piled in old yellow trucks or riding sidesaddle on motorcycles, and they seem drab and unhappy, but that’s a trick, because whenever you catch their eyes they zip you one of those zerotosixty-type smiles. Indonesians are master smile zippers.  One moment the guy next to you will look like the sorriest sucker in the world, and the next moment, zip!,  you’re looking at joy incarnate, minus a few teeth.  I like to let their eyes lead me down all the million paths my life could take. I wonder where they’re all going, with their fish and their children and their gasoline, and I wonder who that really pretty girl is. Wow. 

    Trees give way to concrete and warung, and over the next bend minarets and government buildings begin to poke modestly at tufts of gold purple sky. The woman in front of me wears a Winnie the Pooh motorcycle helmet that reads, “you are my happy.” As I pass through the city’s center I avoid all three potholes on the edge of the road. Zig zig zag. Today is a good day.

   Traffic flows steadily and earnestly, but there is a tension missing, as if no one feels any pressure to get somewhere. Everyone moves in a great river of metal and lights, like water over bedrock. I breathe in burning trash and fried chicken and forest rain, then turn left after the motor repair shop. I pass a bustling market and giant crates from Jakarta, and then there are only ships and sea. 

   I sit on the dock reading this book or that, and stop every so often to look around.  I must not have learned very much about the Southeast in school, because in almost every direction I look I am reminded of the Vietnam war. Palm trees and boats. Words like “authenticity” and “neocolonialism” lurk in the shadows, and I teeter on the edge of intellectual thought. Luckily, intellectual thought is in spitting distance of cynicism, and cynicism is no match for clouds and ocean. Fuckembabe. Instead I think “it’s going to rain soon, and that will be fine too.”

     The boats rub against one another like hobos shifting in their sleep, lazily awaiting the arrival of passengers who wish to cross the inlet. Old tires line their outsides and old men line their insides, sleeping on empty bags of rice or lighting their cigarettes using someone else’s. Chipped paint and cracked wood might be enough to make some boats self-conscious, but these are still full of a nostalgic pride, as if their hulls were made with wood from a boy’s treehouse. When enough people and packages and bicycles are aboard, the captain hand-cranks the motor into action and squats down between two long sticks, which manage the rudder and the speed of the motor. Sometimes I pay the fare and climb in for no reason, but today I want to watch it leave. As the boat sputters away, it puffs black smoke from the exhaust pipe in its roof like an old whale that smoked too many Marlboros.

   The romance is interrupted by plastic floating through the inlet. “Hi,” it says. But even in watery trash there lives a thousand metaphors, and despite being too lazy to snatch at them, the knowledge of their existence is enough to be content about.

    I start to get a good longing going, the kind that reminds you that your heart can feel an awful lot without forcing you to feel it all right then and there.  I think about friends and beer and ruckuses, and wonder whose ears are taking in what drunken ramble in which nook of the earth right now.

    I don’t know where I will be next year, but not knowing is much more thrilling in front of a harbor than it is in front of a computer, where dreams of steamships and prairies are squashed by applications and something called a CV.  So I dream on, right through rice patties and newspapers, pineapple husks and Christmas. Nothing insightful or hard-hitting comes to mind.

   When I’m done with all that nothing, I take three crumpled rupiah notes from my shorts and go pay for my serenity.  I enter the shack that sits on the edge of the dock and ask for a cup of instant coffee. The men in the shack, forever playing dominoes, invite me to sit and play a round or two. As we sit around I listen to them have a confusing discussion about fishing nets and John F. Kennedy, but I don’t strain hard enough to try and understand. They throw down each domino forcefully, exclaiming, “yaaa INI MISTERRR!” and laugh hysterically when I try and do the same. Their laughter helps me forget; I start tossing away every reason why I thought it necessary to take myself seriously, why I ever thought being laughed at was something I should try to avoid. It turns out it is hilarious that I’m here. What the heck am I doing here? What the heck is anyone doing anywhere? And why do we pretend to know? What a hilarious mad world. I laugh my head off and they laugh back at me, and there we are all laughing like crazy people for completely different reasons, or maybe for all the same ones. I teach them the word “hilar” and now they begin throwing their dominoes and shouting, “hilar iiiini mister!!”

     I pay for my coffee and wave goodbye.  They holler farewells without looking up from their game because they know I’ll be back tomorrow. I like goodbyes like that.

     If you sit with people, you’ll learn strange and useless things, like how to jump a knight through 23 chess pieces all crowded together or how to stare at the rain for two hours without saying anything (the trick is to wonder where the mosquitoes hide during a storm. You could wonder about that forever). They’ll never get you a job, but it’s exactly these types of secret tricks that later make parents into magicians. So for my next trick, I decide to try and make it all the way home without making any left turns.  And accompanying me will be Billy Joel singing his chart-topping hit, “Vienna”.

      On the way I stop to buy a mango. I decide it is the only fruit that there can never be too many poems about. The fact that it rhymes with tango is also perfect.