Sunday, November 10, 2013

Now, That's The Stuff

We didn't join the Foreign Service just to interview people for visas and talk to people in our host country's government, as important as those things are. We also wanted to meet ordinary Indonesians and serve them in some way. After a little while getting the lay of the land, we were fortunate to meet a local lawyer who put us in touch with the Yayasan Pemimpin Anak Bangsa, or the National Youth Leader Foundation. Sounds like a big-time NGO, but it's basically a school where both children and adult students come for several hours every Saturday to either get primary or GED education, or help with preparing for the national university exams. 

Lainie's first visit- This is a group of older students who are working
hard on their high school/middle school studies.
*Note the Indonesian bunny ears thing.
Kiki, the founder of the school, wanted to give non-traditional students a place to learn at an accelerated pace, in English (somewhat), and eventually have the students pass the national exams. The location itself is hosted by a retiree from the national power company and is located on the grounds of his house in Central Jakarta. It is not in the glitzy high-rise part of Jakarta, although you can see them past the huge electricity towers located there. It is in an area one step above a slum, with lots of poverty, single-parent families, and people who had to stop their education because they had to work to eat. Besides the land owner and the founder, the school is staffed on a rotating basis by lawyers and other professionals who want to give back to the community. Classes include English, mathematics, and national test preparation for the older students, and basic skills for the younger ones. Lainie went last week to see the school and couldn't stop talking about it. You could say this kind of thing that is right up her alley. She talked me into going back out yesterday with our local friend.

We started our visit by attending the younger kids' class. It was a mob of kids, more students than usual because word spread around the neighborhood that Bule' (white foreigners) were at the school. We led the kids in some English exercises, sang some songs together, and talked about our family, life in America, and watched them fidget and roughhouse. At the end of class, we handed out potato chips from the States, which was a huge hit.

After that we were milling around in the street waiting for the adult classes to start, and I asked one of the kids if he wanted to get launched like a rocket. After some fear and trepidation, he was ready. So "tiga, dua, satu (3,2,1)..." and I hiked him up into the air and put him back down, with rocket noises. Instantly the entire class also wanted to be launched, over the roof, across the river, or to America. After about 15 of these the launch pad had to be closed because the rocket (yours truly) was out of fuel! Then came re-enactments of Bruce Lee movies, tackle the "monster" and everything else possible when a smiling giant is in town. It was panic in the streets for awhile.

Our Indonesian teachers were thrilled with all this, and they brought us to the small teacher's lounge for a meal. The meal was a box of street food and a cup of mineral water. Unlike other posts in SE Asia and around the world, Indonesian street food is NOT safe for Bule'. However, there was no way in the world we were going to insult our hosts and have them and us lose face by refusing the food. Down it went with a prayer to the stomach gods and a promise to find the vodka bottle for a medicinal dose when we got home. So far, so good!

After dinner we were introduced to the adult class. Here my Indonesian language skills were given a workout. These were non traditional students that have jobs and a very busy life but are motivated to continue to learn to better themselves and their families with education. They have my great respect.

They asked about where we were from, what I liked and didn't like about Jakarta, about my job and things they knew about America. I answered those questions with as much humor, humility and proper Indonesian as I had. I asked them about their studies and families. We had a ball together. And then came the inevitable request that I had been dreading. Would I please sing something?

Now, this is a very Asian thing. To refuse would not exactly be an insult, but it would put distance between us. So, I asked what I should sing. My wife, God love her, suggested an Eagles song. No way. Then one of the volunteer teachers suggested our "lagu kebangsaan." I hadn't heard this term but I knew "lagu" was "song" and "bangsa" was national, and the dime dropped as I realized they wanted me to sing the Star Spangled Banner. In public. By myself. The song with the weird rhythm and crazy range that wrecked a thousand sporting events. But, just like dinner, I could not refuse. With a hard swallow, I began belting it out with gusto, and what did I hear but my wife joining in! You can't imagine how good it was having just one more person to sing with in those circumstances.

After that came what I have learned is a Jakarta tradition after any event. Photographs! Always two or three with everyone being serious, and one with everyone acting crazy, putting rabbit ears behind each other's heads, etc. A long walk down a dark alley to the main road later, and it was a taxi ride home. A long, exhausting, exhilarating experience.
As a Consular officer, we meet with people outside the government everyday at the visa window. But the people rich enough to travel to the U.S. are still in the upper 5% of Indonesian society. Our great fortune in meeting our local friend and her connecting us with this school has given us a chance to meet at length with ordinary Indonesians. For some hours yesterday, we were America for the kids and adults we met and talked with. These people would have little chance of meeting us in other circumstances. Now, it was hot and humid and we were surrounded by mosquitos, burning trash, and all the other marks of poor areas in the tropics. We got out of there late, bitten, sticky and tired and then enjoyed a 1.5 hour taxi ride to travel 10 miles in the usual Jakarta traffic. (More singing together as requested by the taxi driver, this time the Rolling Stones). I still have two more days to wait to see if my dinner is going to send me to Singapore.

But, man, THIS was why we joined the State Department. One of our country goals is "Increase people to people contacts," and that was yesterday to a T. Either things like yesterday drive you insane, or you can't get enough of them. Representing America to people we wouldn't normally have access to, eating with them and belting out the national anthem to a room full of strangers? Oh, let me tell you, that's the stuff, my friends. I wouldn't have traded yesterday for the world.