Grace Beyond Regret
At first, I had two places to serve in: Mexico and Indonesia. Mexico would have been a good fit with my talents, interests, and knowledge of Spanish. Indonesia required good communication skills, teaching, and the only thing I was compatible with, willingness. Over a span of a week I had to decide where I was to live for the next 11 ½ months. Despite being compatible with Mexico, I felt Allah wanted me to live in Indonesia, so that was my decision. I hadn’t any idea why because I am not gregarious, being the first to approach people is draining, and I have never taught enough for me to know how to successfully do that.
Fast forward to my arrival, I honestly didn’t feel like I was entering a foreign country – meaning it didn’t feel like when I went to Brasil, Egypt, or Turkey. In those countries I felt the newness all around me, the sound of the constant horn, the chatter in a language I had yet to hear, but I came into Indonesia knowing this was going to be my new home for the next year. However that was as far as I prepared myself for, I only perceived this place as my home because moving to a new home requires adjustment: meeting new neighbours, not knowing where to buy soap, not knowing where you are, asking questions, and finding your way around a new neighbourhood. Being in a new place, even though if it is you home, takes time to become accustomed to, and being in a new country requires going through culture shock, new languages, and being homesick.
Despite knowing this place was my new home, it has taken me a year of adjustment. It was slow because I have never entered Southeast Asia before, I hardly knew the language, and I didn’t know many people before arriving. Also, before coming I had a difficult time trusting people – and when people treat you like some out-of-this-world being, asking for photos when you’ve never met, staring intently, yelling things, people avoiding me, people not being courageous enough to talk to me, when those things happen, from my Western perspective, I became sad, confused, and frustrated. It was difficult to assimilate to the culture of Indonesia, especially the way some people treated me. It was hard to communicate, but after a while, after speaking with my host family and friends, whom have shown me grace beyond my capacity, something clicked. Something whispered, “Hey, you CHOSE to live here, so LIVE here.”
Perhaps this is what Allah wanted to challenge me with: to take me away from comforts, from my home, from everything I know, and situate me in place of learning more than how to ask why men like to roam the streets shirtless (it’s like “turning on the AC”…but still uncomfortable to be around). Allah perchance wanted to turn my American world upside down telling me, “And you thought you knew about this world and it’s occupants.” Oh golly, did Allah teach me differently from USA’s arrogance of “knowing the world.” Previously I have travelled to other countries in Africa, South America, Asia Minor/Middle East, and Europe; however, despite those opportunities, I had no idea about long-term living without the comfort of friends and classmates close-by. Living in Indonesia was the first time I have lived abroad for longer than 3 ½ months, which lead my mind, spirit, body, and heart on a yearlong rollercoaster. Meaning some things happened to my body due to stress and my mind wasn’t fully prepared for culture shock.
While living here, I can truthfully say that my arrogance of this world has decreased, my understanding of “developed,” “undeveloped,” and “third-world” have shifted again and again this year as well as other things have been shifting in my entirely too small world. But the most drastic has been the deflation of my knowledge/ego about this world we live in. My desire to “save the world” has changed into something perhaps more attainable, more natural because it has never been my desire to skip around this world arrogantly or forcibly telling people they are living their lives wrongly and tell them how to successfully live their lives from a Western perspective. I don’t want to give a pretty sermon in English, and then leave thinking I did something to make me feel good without engaging with the people first or living with the people learning about their lives. Overall those things, the best advice I have for living abroad is to push aside your culture, learn a new language, engage with the people with a willingness to learn from the people, learn about their lives, and honour their culture, rather than ignorantly teach things they may not understand. You have to be willing to abandon all previous knowledge and expectations that are usually guided by media and stereotypes.
However this is not always easy or what we want to do because despite all these encouraging words, living like that if coming from a culture who desires assimilation to MY culture, it’s dang difficult. But we have to have the motivation to learn, to adjust, to honour, and those things take time to cultivate. Some things will come more slowly than others, for example it took me a while to call my host mom ‘Mama,’ some more quickly than others, for example eating the food even when it is strange, some you learn by yourself, some by observation, asking questions, but not by locking yourself in your room, removed from everyone when that is the only thing you want to do. You chose to live there, so live there. These adjustments will most likely take a year or longer to nurture because almost 11 months later I feel more comfortable in my host community, with the language, my relationships and being more independent. Of course there will still be some things that are confusing or even frustrating, but there are also frustrating things in my hometown.
And now it is time to return, time to leave everything I have built in Indonesia to go to another home. What’s physical right now will become memories, my language will change again, and I will experience culture shock once more. It’s challenging. It’s sad. It’s frustrating because a year is a quick and slow thing while living abroad. At first it is slow and confusing, but after a while, it becomes fast-paced and now you cannot comprehend why it’s already June and you’re leaving in three weeks time. A storm has settled in your mind and heart, throwing both into a cocktail maker, shaking it vigorously and tossing you back into where ever you land, excited to see your birth family, sad to leave your gained family, happy to hug your grandmother, sad to say a final, “Aku pulang dulu, Oma,” finally able to say “mengunjungi,” but no one being able to understand.
Despite my many struggles (of course many are not mentioned here) I will not let that define my life in Indonesia as I have met many brilliant, lovely friends and family. They helped define my life in Indonesia, helped me with cultural differences, laughed when I said the wrong thing in Indonesian, and became a community of love and peace, but I also choose to live without regrets. We make choices, sometimes they are mistakes, sometimes not, but they shouldn’t define what you are capable of, what you can do in your life. I will always remember this saying from high school, “Whether you can or cannot, they are both correct,” and from the first moment I read those words, I knew they were true. In the end, they helped me to begin trusting people again, as I had, and still have, trouble doing, but they reached out to me when I needed it or when I thought I didn’t need it. I have two more weeks left with this Semarang community, and I am looking forward to the remaining experiences with them. May Allah bless them and each of us who are going home in the coming weeks.