Day in and day out, I’m surrounded by women. It’s both the social scene in Indonesia, coupled with my own doing. In many cases, the gender divide is visible. Students self-segregate in some classes: girls in the front, boys in the back. The teachers’ office, called ruang guru, is sectioned off by gender. When I walk in, I turn left to find my table at the end of a long line of female educators. The men turn right. At the end of the day, I come home to a house full of women. But living with women was no accident; I requested it.
Last month, I celebrated my birthday with my host family: the four ladies who keep me company (and help keep me fed) on the daily. The day was packed with celebratory sugar: donuts, cakes, and cookies. My host family prepared nasi kuning, yellow rice, which is a typical Javanese dish for celebrations. Our friend and neighbor, Pretty, dropped by with a homemade cake.
At school, the lines of friends and family blur. Relationships are prioritized, and teachers are in frequent contact with one another—and with students—on Whatsapp. I even teach my host sister’s class each Wednesday. So for an hour and a half, she becomes my student. Coworkers aren’t called colleagues; they’re friends. My work friends are always so nice to include me—offering me a ride to the store, inviting me to their home to meet their family, bringing me food—so much food!—that it feels impossible to return all of the favors.
When school is closed for a national holiday, my counterpart invites me to join her and her daughter for es dawet. What exactly is es dawet? I can only catalog its components: a pale coconut milk base, with a gelatinous glob of white tapioca, a spoonful of red sticky rice, a knob of soft banana, and electric-green jello worms throughout. Es means “ice,” so naturally there are a few ice chunks to keep it all cool. Es disagrees with the American palate: mushy textures, so-sweet liquid, and added dyes. But in Indonesia I’m trying to take all these treats for what they are: sugar. People like sugar, and sugar tastes sweet. Like anywhere else, eating is a social activity.
Just the other weekend, I made my way back to Kediri. There would be an English language speech and storytelling competition for middle and high school students, and I offered to help out. The afternoon before the competition, I dropped by Wonorejo to see my Pre-Service Training family: the three ladies who housed me last fall, back when I didn’t even know how to form a sentence.
When I visited, we ate lontong, rice rolled in banana leaves, and tahu kuning, fried tofu turned golden with turmeric. In the months since I’d moved to Madiun, Ibu Ika had made changes to her house: a new counter for more cooking space, a repaired roof with a clear panel to let in more sunlight, and a newly raised and tiled floor in the prayer room. There was even a new kipas angin. I’ve developed a new appreciation for stand-up fans.
Other things are the same: a crowd of children who join Ibu’s reading lesson each afternoon. A few struggle with my name, but they still call me kak, the short version of “big sister.”
Now, back in Madiun, it’s (almost) time for class again. The 12th grade students have just wrapped up their national exams, so they’re free from school. For the tenth and eleventh graders, we’ve got just a few weeks of regular class before Ramadan kicks off.
For now, we’re just getting back into the swing of things.
Ever wonder how a dragon fruit grows? This plant pet is reaching over the school walls.
Every day is full of surprises.