It is an early Monday morning in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia. The quiet of the forest is only broken by the loud calling of the roosters, the flustered, impatient clucking of hens, and the ever familiar morning song of birds. Cats wander here and there with their own purpose, avoiding trash, humans, and piles of wood. The papaya, rambutan, and salak (snake fruit) trees cluster around the small shanty houses in bounty. It is cool in Salatiga; much cooler than my host family’s home in Ungaran. Nonetheless, the natural beauty is the same.Indonesia has not run out on its promise of beauty in the landscape or in the people.
Here, at the house of my host sister’s grandmother, I feel a complicated array of emotions. I came to Ungaran, Indonesia about a week ago to volunteer for 6 months in a small, poor village on the mountain. I am to teach English to children who will most likely not understand most of everything I teach them. I am living with the principal of the school and his family, and they have hosted two other volunteers from Switzerland and Italy. I am the third volunteer; an American and not a “booleh”, or someone with white skin.
The complications that come from that are interesting and perhaps slightly hurtful. Firstly, I do not speak what is termed “broken English”, but what is termed “original English” by my host family. I speak English fluently, and with a very American accent. My host family has informed me that they were able to understand their other volunteers better because they spoke broken English with pronunciation similar to their own. It was contrary to what I had been thinking. I had thought that since my fluency in English was complete and my pronunciation and knowledge of the English language was also so, I would have an easier time communicating. How very wrong I was! When Indonesians speak broken English they pronounce each syllable emphatically. My normal pronunciation of “comfortable” is not understood. However, when I say “come-four-table”, I am understood. I now have to adapt to the community’s way of speaking English, saving the correcting and the teaching for the classroom.
My brown skin is another matter entirely. It is not a matter of equality, but a matter of reaction. My white-skinned friends (called “booleh”) are treated like celebrities. Many small cities and villages have never seen a white person, and so it is an extremely exciting event when one comes to town. Having fair skin is also something many men and women in Indonesia desire greatly. Fair skin is beautiful when darker skin is not. While walking to the market with my friends, Indonesian girls gawked at the boys with wonder and ecstasy. Many times men and women alike stared at them. It is also common for them to touch the arms of white people, snap pictures with their cell-phones, or even ask for their number! Calls of “Booleh! Booleh! Booleh!” surrounded us as we walked to the market. Some of my fair skinned friends tell me that when greeting one person, it quickly changes to greeting a crowd of people.
I did not get the same reaction! It is common for fair-skinned volunteers from Europe to come toIndonesiaand teach the English language. I think, in some places, being a volunteer is associated with having white skin. I’m Pakistani-American, and I might have confused some people. “A brown-skinned person… volunteering? Huh?” I had feelings of inadequacy.
It is a novelty to see people with white skin, here. Not because white skin is superior to brown skin (although some may think so, cosmetically), but because it means change. It means some of the rest of the world is coming toIndonesia. It places a level of importance on a village that otherwise might not have ever been discovered by someone else, white or not.
So far, these are my initial thoughts and reactions aboutIndonesia. I’m here for 6 months, so I can hope, God-willing, that there will be many other experiences to come.