Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A High School English Teacher in Indonesia

Since the end of this past August, I have been living and working in Medan, Indonesia as a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant) in Northern Sumatra. When I found out last summer that I had been offered a scholarship, and signed the paperwork to accept, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Having lived the experience for four months now, I can say that it has been nothing less than life-changing.
One of my reasons in coming to Indonesia was to learn another culture, and there is no better way to understand a different way of life than total immersion. I teach in a Catholic senior high school (not being Catholic, that has been a new experience unto itself), and I am amazed every day at the level of respect afforded to teachers in Indonesian culture. You are addressed by students and fellow teachers alike as “Bapak guru,” which translates literally to “Father teacher.” I’m only 22 years old; before Indonesia I had never been called “father” anything. When you enter a classroom, all of your uniformed students will rise from their seats, bow politely, and greet you in unison on command from the class president with “Good afternoon, Mister!” They are polite, respectful, and eager to learn. I have never had classroom teaching experience before coming here, but I cannot imagine a better environment to learn in. Teaching here is a joy and a pleasure, and I look forward to coming to work every day. The students are like sponges for the English language and American culture; they want to know as much as possible, and they take in everything. I had a student last week at the end of class raise his hand, and ask, “Mr. John, next week, can you teach us about Abraham Lincoln?” From my own high school days in the United States, I can’t recall very many times the students requested extra lessons.
Being an American in Indonesia is a very interesting experience, and a little like being a local rock star. Foreigners are a rarity in many parts of the country, and most Indonesians never leave their island. I have had many complete strangers just come up to me and touch my arm to feel my skin, as if they didn’t believe I was real. This also has to be one of the friendliest places I have ever been. I cannot go anywhere without people coming up to me out of the blue and starting a conversation, and complete strangers will drop anything they’re doing to help you if they think you need it. The culture is extremely generous, and being invited home for dinner is both a very common occurrence, and a special treat. The sense of community here is amazing, and even in very poor areas, you never see homeless people in the streets. There is almost always someone in the community willing to take them in before they will let them live without a roof over their head.
The Fulbright program affords many opportunities outside of the classroom as well. There is plenty of time to travel, as Indonesia has the most national holidays of any country in Asia. Besides the many cultural events I’ve seen, along with my fellow ETAs and Indonesian friends, I’ve climbed some of the many volcanoes of Indonesia, hiked through dense jungle, enjoyed relaxing hot springs straight from the ground, surfed the beaches of Bali, been SCUBA diving in some of the most diverse marine environments on Earth, and spent weekends relaxing at nearby Lake Toba, the result of an ancient super volcano that is now a lake bigger than Singapore.
However, and thankfully so, not everything here is an easy vacation. Personal growth is the result of rising to meet challenges, and there are ample opportunities in Indonesia to overcome obstacles in your path. Learning Bahasa Indonesia (literally- “the language of Indonesia”) is not required, but if you put in a little work and study it during your time here, your experience will be greatly enriched. The language is often described as very “economical,” and with no articles, tenses, conjugations, or gender, it is actually very easy to pick up quickly. Learning the language is a reward in itself, and the best way is to simply go out and talk to people. Everyone here is always eager for a conversation, and are always happy to help a beginner practice.
For anyone that is at all considering applying for this scholarship, I cannot possibly encourage you enough. This has been one of the best experiences of my life, as well as one of the most educational. For whatever field you choose to go into afterwards, you will enter that field as a stronger individual than you otherwise would. You will learn a lot about Indonesia in your time here, but even more so about yourself.