I Nearly Had a Breakdown at a Child’s Birthday Party, or, Words of Wisdom from Michelle and Arrested Development
There’s been a lot of joking between my fellow newly minted PCVs and I that we have no idea, at any moment, what the hell is going on. It might even be my catchphrase at this point- “I have zero percent idea what’s happening, one hundred percent of the time.”
While we might have had some situations like such back in training, for the most part we were shepherded about from lessons to activities to events with the aid of PC staff, cultural facilitators, or at least each other, with minimal unknowns and always a way to clarify a situation if we needed it. Now that we’re at permanent site and on our own, there’s a lot more confusion, misunderstandings, and overall what is happening sensations.
It happens to all of us, as our family members or counterparts or neighbors fire off an invitation or plan for the day in what’s at best Bahasa Indonesia that you comprehend in a vague kind of way, at worst a form of Basa Jawa that you were assured would not be spoken in your village, but guess what, it is! So you mostly smile and nod and say okay a lot and blindly jump in a car going to a lake that may be three hours away, or unknowingly board a becak doomed to be the center of a parade**, or start walking, destination unknown, like a poor American lamb to the slaughter.
While I’m being mostly dramatic for the sake of comedy, it can be exhausting dealing with all this unknown, especially if in your past life, pre-PCV, you were practically infamous for your heavy handed planning, and now you’re just bounding out the door without any idea of what you’re actually doing, where you’re going, when you’ll return, or what’s expected of you. And I’ve done a lot to cast aside my “Clipboard of Fun” during PST… I might’ve even uttered, “I don’t know, let’s just play it by ear” NUMEROUS times. It’s getting wild and crazy and WAAAYYY unstructured up in this joint.
In a little over two weeks I have doe-eyed my way through several impromptu speeches at school, judging an English talent competition, surprise car rides to distant cities, a day trip to see ancient temples, a school field trip to an amusement park, a circumcision party, and all the other various wanderings, questionings, and proddings I experience as a new PCV meeting the community. And most of the time, I thrive on the weirdness and the newness and being surrounded by people. But everyone hits an overwhelming wall at some, and I hit mine.
At a children’s birthday party.
In a complete rarity, I even knew about this event days in advance, and I knew when it was happening and where it was going to be. I was going with family, I knew the hosts of the party. I get to the outdoor party and face a mass of what will expand into about one hyperactive adult Emcee, fifty children and maybe another twenty five ibus. I figure I’ll hang out with my adult host sister while the anak-anaks (kids) do the party thing. But I’m ushered towards the center of the rugs, where all the children sit and music blasts, while all the other adults sit and stand at the edges of the patio, talking. I’m digging in my heels- this naïve lamb sees her adult flock back in the other direction, she’d like to stay there, please…
As an aside, I am a bit of an anomaly in my village- well obviously, besides being a crazy bule who wears her hair in a weird bun all the time- in that I am the only unmarried/childless woman over the age of 18. I used to think there just weren’t any young adult women my age, but I realized there are a lot, they all just happen to be married and on their second child already. The lone exemption is my counterpart, who is 24 and getting her Masters in English while also teaching at MAN and her university. She lives at home with her parents still (typical for unmarried Indonesians) and would like to go to America or Australia to live abroad and perfect her English but, direct quote “my daddy won’t let me.” Welp. Maybe it’s easier for my family to lump me in with the children in our household? Whereas I’d obviously like to be seen as an adult, granted an adult who still isn’t sure where the light switch for the mandi is.
There are times when I feel more like a prize show pony than a volunteer, flaunted about at parties like a new addition to a house or a nice grill or something. Maybe a new stereo set. Something to show off to your guests like, oh this little status setter right here? There’s of course a very good chance that this isn’t the case at all for the host of the party, and that she wasn’t trying to show off the new bule (foreigner) on the block. But, in the eternally wise words of my best friend Michelle, “It’s hard to be rational when it’s personal.”
Long, mostly internal feelings at work, story short, I was put on the spot at the party, felt uncomfortable and stressed out by it, resented Indonesian social cues for not picking up on my uncomfortable and stressed American social cues, and had a hard time bouncing back from the frustration. I was at a point where I had no interest in trying to figure out the language, or play the game within the Indonesian cultural goal box. In the eternally delightfully selfish words of Lucille Bluth, “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.” We have lots of training on dealing with miscommunications and cultural differences, but sometimes you just hit a wall and want out for a few hours.
I left the party with a children’s goody bag, a bowl of food that I had been too anxious to eat during the party that the host forced upon me, my ibu, who had shown up to hold my hand for the walk literally around the corner, and some seething resentment towards everything Indonesian. Especially white rice. Suck it, white rice.
It was a hard day for me.
I don’t necessarily like to write about crappy times on the blog, because I don’t want any faithful readers to think I’m not enjoying my time and loving the Peace Corps. But, obviously, the two are not mutually exclusive. It is very possible to love something that is at times incredibly hard. Loving isn’t particularly easy, nor should it be. I would hazard that the more you love something, or someone, the more you are going to dig in and deal with the hard things. Peace Corps isn’t all buckets of equatorial sunshine and spicy peanut sauce, it’s also the inflamed bug bites and the days when the cultural differences make you want to dramatically hurl yourself into bed. But you love it all the more.