Riley Yuan

@rileyzyuan

Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia. Boston born-and-raised.

28,321 words

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Rain

Yesterday, during the daytime, it was blazing hot. Today it is hot again and cloudless. But early this morning it was overcast and yesterday evening it rained for the first time since March. Not a heavy rain, but enough for the neighborhood to start steaming and the dirt alleyways to bloom with petrichor.

It is mid-August as I write this. I have gotten most of the way through my first proper dry season in a part of the world where dry season exists. I am told that we still have another two months of scorching heat left before it starts to rain with any regularity. But in my mind, yesterday's preemptory shower marked some kind of turning point nonetheless. It was the first time I can ever remember the coming of clouds and rain feeling like the return of an old friend. And when they did, I felt sort of wide-eyed—like I was waking up to or reentering a world that I hadn't realized I'd drifted away from in the first place.


"Sleepy" is a word one often hears used to describe remote, undeveloped places. I have been thinking about whether or not there is anything "sleepy" about Kupang or its way of life. Kupang is a city. But it is a small city. It is also a port and therefore not especially remote. But for an island nation like Indonesia, that isn't saying much either. Kupang is a minor port in a poor province that regularly gets left behind socially and economically. There are plenty of signs that it is trying strenuously to stand up on its own two feet. But these too only prove the depth of its preceding slumber.

What's sleepy, then, about sleepy places?

In the end, I think it has something to do with contentedness and calibration of expectations. The less a people and a place crave constant change and progress and the more content they are with the status quo, the sleepier their way of life feels. I don't want to pretend that there's anything groundbreaking about this conclusion. I certainly am not trying to make any judgments about more or less sleepiness in a culture. If anything, stating the difference explicitly is simply a way to help me make sense of my own baggage and understand why I feel what I sometimes feel. And what I sometimes feel is restlessness, paralysis, nameless anxiety, irrevocable mediocrity, and desensitization to the world around me.

"Sleepy" people and places experience these feelings too—experience surges of energy and abstract, worldly purpose (or despair). It's a question of frequency and predisposition. Years ago, E.B. White had this to say about mid-century New York City in his brilliant essay, "Here is New York":

Although New York often imparts a feeling of great forlorness or forsakenness, it seldom seems dead or unresourceful; and you always feel that by shifting your location ten blocks or by reducing your fortune by five dollars you can experience rejuvenation. Many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the city's tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale. In the country there are few chances of sudden rejuvenation—a shift in weather, perhaps, or something arriving in the mail. But in New York the chances are endless. I think that although many persons are here from some excess of spirit (which caused them to break away from their small town), some too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in New York a protection, or an easy substitution.

Forlorn? Forsaken? You can't describe a bustling metropolis like that unless it is already consumed by a fever of meritocracy and productivity and identity-seeking in the first place. One only feels a near-constant desire for "rejuvenation" if he or she is also in a near-constant state of expectation—for self-betterment, affirmation, and signs from the universe that, to borrow another phrase from White, "the way is up." Whatever you want to call this fever and this expectation, it is the crazy-making antithesis of the aforementioned sleepiness. And it is the state of mind that I was born into, have grown up in ever since, and will probably continue to inhabit for the rest of my life.

Many locals with whom I interact daily, on the other hand, are not so constitutionally obsessed with the idea of success. Around me, they might reference "progress" and "development" and acknowledge knowingly that Indonesia hasn't achieved either yet. But in their own daily lives, they are generally content with the way things are and have been. The people whom I have in mind are as immersed in mass media and consumer culture as anybody else in 2019. But at bottom, if they rely on anything for true "spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale," it is probably each other and God, both of which stay put and fulfill far more reliably than career, wealth, status, beauty, etc. All of these latter idols are still worshipped here, of course. There are plenty of people whose ambitions, attentions, and energies are stretched as thin as mine sometimes feel. The more Kupang develops, the more of these people there will be. But as of now, they are still the exception and not the rule. By and large, the highs and lows of everyday existence still seem less extreme and the need for frequent rejuvenation less acute than what I've known in the past.

Or, maybe "sleepiness" is just what it feels like to get up in the morning and not expect the day or the self to be ten times better simply because it isn't yesterday.


Every morning at 5am, the family next door blares music from a Christian radio station over a loudspeaker. The music has a tinny, carnival quality and is audible throughout the neighborhood. It is as reliable as an alarm clock, at any rate, and inspires the same trance-like quietude and feeling of monotony.

The rest of my host family usually wakes up at around this time. My two host sisters, Desy and Evin, and host mother, Mama Emy, start doing chores: washing the previous night's dishes, cooking breakfast, sweeping and mopping the floor. My host father, Bapak John, lounges about in his underclothes before taking a bath, getting dressed (on a school day), eating his breakfast, and brushing his teeth. If he has no class to teach, he may leave early on his moped and come back at mid-morning with vegetables and fish or, sometimes, a live chicken for the girls to slaughter. On Sundays and occasional weekdays, my host parents leave early for mass while my sisters stay behind to finish up the cooking and cleaning (they attend afternoon service, along with the other children and young adults of the neighborhood, at 5pm).

Desy and Evin are now second-year students at the local public university, studying accounting. Their school year lasts longer than mine, but their breaks are longer too, so we are somewhat out of sync and have had the opportunity to observe each other at leisure from the vantage point of busyness, and vice versa.

My guess is that from their perspective, my frequent comings and goings seem like a lot of effort—maybe even a mystifying waste of energy that can only be explained by the fact that I am a foreigner. On a typical weekday, I am up early with the rest of the family so as to squeeze in some writing and at school from 7am until 1pm, sometimes until 2pm. Besides that, I am frequently out of the house at track practice (five or six times per week from 4pm until 6 or 7pm), hanging out with the other volunteers or my girlfriend (easily four evenings per week, sometimes until quite late), or otherwise puttering around the city for more or less sensible reasons (running errands, having coffee or beer, trying to overcome restlessness or jumpstart productivity through a change of scene, watching the sunset, parting ways with my money, etc.). It is only on the weekends that I am at the house for hours at a time and even then, I am always holed up in my room, fooling with my books or laptop, probably trying to make up for all the stunted, sidetracked hours that I felt like I wasted during the week. I don't remember the last time I didn't leave home all day.

Desy and Evin, on the other hand, only leave the house regularly to go to church or their university campus. When classes are in session, they leave at mid-morning and come back by early afternoon. Occasionally, they may attend an evening prayer meeting or chorus practice at another house in the neighborhood. Otherwise, they are at home, doing chores, chatting, listening to music, or watching Korean dramas and Javanese soap operas on television. Like me, they drink coffee frequently, but have no taste for frequenting cafes and paying for "ambience." They take their coffee at home and in the afternoon, often with a batch of bananas or cassava tubers that they have fried up or boiled. Mama Emy, a housewife, is a holy woman to whom a steady stream of guests come everyday to receive consultations and be prayed over. When Bapak John gets home from school, he changes back into his undershirt and sarung and plays chess on his phone for hours at a time and with unshakeable focus.

At one point during my first few months in Kupang, I asked Desy and Evin why they didn't go out more often to spend time with friends and do whatever it is that I imagined young people should do. In retrospect, this was an insensitive question, asked before I had perceived that as both women and the youngest members of the household, it is their job to be ready at a moment's notice to meet the needs of the other adults—mine included. If they went out even a quarter as frequently as I did, who would stay behind to cook the meals? Do the laundry? Clean the floors and the bathroom? Tidy up the yard? Make tea for the guests? When would they do their homework? It's not that these responsibilities take up too much time. It's that they are done (with the exception of the last one, and even that is debatable) in the service of others and must be spread evenly throughout the day—that they are responsive to the schedules of others.

"Do you want there to be food on the table when you come back? Or do you want us to go out?" That's what they should have thrown back at me. Instead, they smiled sheepishly and said, "Kami malas saja"—"We're just lazy."


Late afternoons in TDM (Tuak Daun Merah—the name of my neighborhood on the east side of Kupang) are a magical time. The midday heat relents. Shafts of sunlight slant in low over the roofs of houses, bathing streets and yards and alleyways in a warm incandescence. There is usually a light breeze blowing, which further helps with the heat and sets the banana leaves and palm fronds a-waving and a-rustling. The usual cast of characters passes my host family's front gate: schoolgirls and schoolboys weaving lackadaisically home with their ties loosened and shirts untucked, adolescents on motorbikes zooming by at reckless speeds, helmet- and khaki-clad civil servants coming home from work and rounding the same corner much more conservatively, young mothers with toddlers in tow, old grandmothers carrying bags of groceries, the vegetable cart man ringing his bell and pushing his cargo along.

As of two months ago, a new pangkas rambut has opened shop across and fifty yards down the street from us. These tiny barbering outfits abound in Kupang. I could have started going long ago to one of many that dot the surrounding neighborhoods and line the main street—could have saved myself a good deal of time and money and probably gotten a better haircut to boot. But old habits and haunts are hard to take leave of (especially in the grooming department—visiting a familiar barbershop is like going to therapy) and for months I kept trekking twenty minutes up the hill to the first place I ever went to in Kupang—a "real" shop with a "real" storefront that charges about 15,000 rupiah too much for a cut but that seemed safe when I was still afraid of the side of the road.

With a new shop now just a thirty second walk away and not even on the side of a busy thoroughfare, I have no more excuses. So last week, after getting home from school one afternoon and deciding that it was about time, I went down the street to have a look.

Most pangkas rambuts are tiny things—about the size of a tool shed. This one was also exceptionally clean, on account of how new it was. Its walls were constructed out of sheet metal and freshly covered in A5-sized print-outs of barbershop-related clip art and quotes ("Be the kind of barber whom a client needs, not a barber who needs clients."). And aside from tufts of black hair, the concrete floor was still bright and spotless. Out in front was a small wooden sign, spray-painted gray with black lettering, that read: "Pangkas." Inside were several colorful, plastic chairs—one in the center for the customer, one pushed up against the wall, which was occupied by a student of mine who lives in the neighborhood, and another by the door, which contained the barber himself. When I walked in, they put their phones down and grinned at each other as if to say, "He's here!" My student, who was shirtless, looked a little bit embarrassed too.

I have never seen a female or older barber at a pangkas rambut. They seem to exclusively service and be serviced by males between the ages of eight and twenty-eight. I am not sure if this is the reason for or result of another fact, which is that the average pangkas rambut is a sort of hangout spot for the young men of the block—a kind of communal front stoop where one drinks instant coffee out of a glass cup instead of beer out of a can in a brown paper bag. There is often a thicket of mopeds parked in front of the pangkas and perched on top of them, or in the aforementioned plastic chairs, are the adolescents and twenty-somethings, smoking cigarettes and playing multiplayer first-person shooters on their smartphones. At night, somebody is either strumming on a guitar or blasting dangdut remixes from portable speakers.

It was still too hot and too early in the afternoon for there to be much of a crowd when I went for my haircut though. I sat down in the chair in the center of the room and showed the barber a picture of what I wanted: a high-and-tight with the sides and back nearly shaved down to the skin and the top buzzed to number two. It's about as simple of a cut as you can get, but as I watched him in the mirror, I noticed that he was much more skillful than the barbers at the other shop—that he paid much more attention to detail and approached the cut much more sensibly (he tapered the transition after finishing with the number two on top, instead of before). At the end, before trimming my sideburns and neck with a straight razor, he dabbed on some shaving cream, which felt astonishingly cool on my skin.

I paid 10,000 rupiah for my cut, or about 70 cents. The thing about a pangkas rambut is that, as far as I can tell, it doesn't really exist to make the barber money. There are way too many of them for that. And they all rely more on frequency and volume than on charging a premium for any sort of "experience," the way a fancier outfit might. In this way, they're like the city's bemos, which only charge a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah (30 cents) for a ride of any length, but which do so much business that breaking even is never a question.

Unlike the bemos each pangkas rambut also has to stay put and rely on the loyalty and the restlessness of the young men on the block. Earlier I said that the need for frequent rejuvenation in Kupang is less acute than it is where I come from. I stand by that statement. But now that I think of it, it's also true that sitting at home on a cool night has never cut it anywhere, anytime, and that the side of the street has beckoned to us all, like a lightbulb to a moth, since time immemorial. Haircuts are just a front.

Papaya Tree

The papaya tree in the alleyway outside my window, where my host family hangs their wet laundry to dry, is now nearly as tall as the neighbor's house. It appears to be still growing too—at the tip of its not-quite-wrist-thick trunk stands a confused cluster of miniature, celery-green branches and leaves, all of which are still tender and pointing straight up and in each other's way. It is especially this last quality—this density at the apex of new plant-growth—that creates the feeling of urgency, expansion, and potential. The base of the trunk, on the other hand, is at least two wrists thick and already brown and scaly. The thing really is a tree now and not just a shrub.

When I arrived in Kupang, it had not yet appeared above ground. It was in the middle of December and the onset of rainy season over the next few months is what jumpstarted the germination process, I guess. One day around late February or early March, it suddenly showed up—first as a shoot that I could have crushed with a single misstep and then, within a week or two, as a spindly weed that I could have easily yanked out by hand. I gave some thought to doing so (it was more or less directly beneath the clothesline and seemingly in the way after all), but it was growing fast and my host family didn't seem to mind, so I let it be.

Now, in early July, it is a tree. And we would have to take a machete to it if we still wanted to fell it, which none of us do. The clothesline, which it missed by about an inch, is still only a foot and a half away from the wall of the neighbor's house. So the tree is still seriously hemmed in. Some of its early branches grew straight into and were stunted by the wall, their leaves yellowing and riddled with holes from bugs who had an easy time crawling directly off the plaster and onto the living green (branches just as old but growing away from the wall are not so severely damaged). The branches further up have a little more space. It really is an awkward place for a tree to be growing and I often wonder how the seed ended up in our alley in the first place—how long it had lain there dormant in the sandy, gravelly dirt before I showed up to watch it become what it is.

I love this alleyway. I love this tree and the thought of it bearing fruit. I love how my host sisters, out hanging the Sunday wash, have to duck beneath its branches, in and out of its patchwork shade, as they pass to and fro. I love its tenacity and gall and the way it jostles for breathing room with the trappings of man—the way it presses itself up (patiently, unyieldingly) against bras and tank tops on one side and brick and concrete and yellow paint on the other, promising in the meantime to exceed them all.

A Book in the Mail

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of Scott Elledge's biography of E.B. White from a graduate student friend of mine at Berkeley who had found the volume at a used book sale. Actually, he texted at least a month ago to ask if I would be interested in having the book and it arrived here in Kupang at least two weeks ago, but I have simply been procrastinating. The day before yesterday, I finally mustered up the energy and initiative to go pick it up from school, where the package was being held for me. But the administrative office was empty by the time I arrived at noon. "They've all gone home already," one of the other teachers explained. "Come back tomorrow morning at nine or ten o'clock," she said before pointing at my forearm and adding disapprovingly, as she does every time she sees me, "Your skin is getting dark!" It is a silly and, at this point, quite tired comment that gets less innocent the more often it is repeated. It also does not get any less annoying because it is summer vacation and I don't have to hear it at least every other day. If anything, it is even more annoying when it comes out of the blue on a quiet, July morning and interrupts me as I am just trying to go about my business and get done what I ought to have gotten done already.

At any rate, I did as I was told and retrieved the book yesterday morning at an earlier hour. It is now finally sitting on my desk where it belongs. I knew what I was getting all along and that it was something that I had wanted to read for quite a while. But opening the package and handling the object inside filled me with a totally fresh and unexpected feeling of anticipation and enthusiasm. It was as if I was getting excited for the first time all over again about something tremendously promising—something that had been tailor-made for my personal fulfillment and edification.

For one thing, I didn't know until I looked at the inside-back flap of the book jacket that the author, Mr. Scott Elledge, had himself been Goldwin Smith Professor of English (and later, Professor Emeritus) at Cornell University—my own and White's alma mater too. This link between the three of us—subject, biographer, and reader/admirer—feels fortuitous and makes me believe (or want to believe) that I will both receive anew and have recalled to me certain feelings and images and bits of wisdom that perhaps only fellow Cornellians can fully enjoy and appreciate. The exclusivity—the aura of prestige—is not the point. The feeling of shared experience and of communing in the memory of a place where we have all buried pieces of our hearts, is.

The inside-front cover confirms as much. The blurb reads: "In this book, which contains previously unpublished letters and New Yorker 'capsule essays' written by White, Scott Elledge describes the writer's childhood, his undergraduate career at Cornell, and the often difficult pre-New Yorker years when he struggled to find himself as a writer and a man." I myself am struggling to find myself as a writer and a man and have been since I discovered, slowly and painfully, at Cornell, that I was only a boy who hoped one day to deal with words. I hope to take some solace and derive some sense of spiritual companionship from the story of one who wandered that same path years before—some sense of being watched and guided from above.

It's also important and, I expect, instructive, that White's story is in fact an older one and that my youth and his are separated by almost a century. Time lends credibility—is proof of the reliability and integrity of the very thing that has withstood it. And these days, as I read The New Yorker and other "smart" publications, I sense only the anxiety of modernity, the fragmentation of the digital, interconnected world, and the despair that comes from our cultural hyperfocus on nothing but the loudest, the most extreme, the least average—a kind of neurosis that White seemed to have aligned himself against with every patient pen stroke and fiber of his being. Nobody seems to write anymore as he once did in his "Notes & Comment" column, or in the Harper's columns that would go on to comprise One Man's Meat, or about the same things—about big, worldly ideas, sure, but also always about physical objects and daily life and all the mundanities that define human existence everywhere. I don't yet know what is meant by a "capsule essay." But I know that I am always hungry for more of White's humble wisdom and eager to have him remind me of what is simple and good and true.

But perhaps what is most tantalizing about this object that I have received in the mail is its very, physical presence. Its being here, halfway across the globe, not just as a book, but as an artifact and capsule of meaning and memory. It has a navy, cloth-bound, hardcover and a rough-cut, deckle edge. The book jacket is a similar dark blue, with bold, off-white, serif-font lettering and worn, fraying edges. On the first blank page (the first book sale), in the bottom-left corner, is "2.50" in pencil. On the back of the last blank page (a later book sale), "7.50 bio-White"—also in pencil, but less shaky and smudged. And at the bottom of the title page, scrawled at a slant: "To Afton, Merry Christmas '94, Love, Bob & Joan." I have never wanted to know so desperately who three people were and what became of them, never wished so fervently that I could transport myself to a time and a place and see for myself the circumstances under which certain acts of giving and of leave-taking transpired. I cannot remember the last time I was so fascinated by the moment-to-moment history of a thing in our midst, so overcome by wistful longing for the retelling and preservation of it story, so aware of and enthralled by the passage of time, the colliding and interconnectedness of worlds.

Some secrets this book will never give up. Some things I will never learn from its pages. It promises other worlds though—just as rich and full of personality. It has begun to immerse me already, even without my having to open it or read a single word. On the front cover is a picture of the man himself, busily typing away in the floating, wooden writing cabin he kept docked in Allen Cove. The picture is clearly from a series of environmental portraits that the photographer Jill Krementz took—he is wearing the same shirt as in one of the other, more famous photographs from the set and the lighting is the same too. But in this one, which is taken up close and from a front-facing angle, I can see more of White's face and figure and in greater detail—the thinning hair, the wrinkles on his forehead, the criss-cross of his Gingham button-down, the watch, the glasses, the expression of concentration, the blur of his hand as he lifts it to type another word, or perhaps to slide the carriage-return lever back across to the right. I can hear the typewriter ding. I can smell the wood and the water. I can see my friend on a Berkeley street corner, scanning spines and titles and stopping at one. I can imagine him folding the cardboard and stepping out of the post office. It's all right there on the desk in front of me, half a world away.

Pointlessness

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

School break is much shorter in Indonesia than in the United States. Technically, we only have the month of June and half of July off. But boredom sets on more quickly here. Locals seem to agree too, even without having the same standards of comparison as I have. I have been asked several times when I will be going back to work. "The middle of July," I say, "but who knows when classes will really start." They nod knowingly and invariably add, "Aduh, lama sekali" ("Wow, lots of time"), or something along those lines.

Still, I think my restlessness and that of the locals have different sources. Mine comes from a creeping, ever-present awareness of what I cannot help but consider to be the ultimate uselessness of my presence here. Theirs stems from the way they have been conditioned to spend and perceive time. I feel like I am just pointlessly taking up space in somebody else's country while simultaneously wasting my own countrymen's dollars. Locals probably just feel like we've all been sitting at home long enough and are ready to fall back into line and habit.

These two forms of restlessness could be similar if they were both rooted in anxiety about productivity. But I doubt that my Indonesian counterparts share that particular concern with me. In my mind, "work" is intimately connected with and validated by its results—by whatever one has to show for the time and energy invested in said "work." And a lack of results (or of tangible feedback to suggest that results are on the way) bothers me whether I like it or not—a bother that is only intensified by the very theory of being a volunteer whose ostensible purpose is to be useful. Many locals, including, say, the teachers at my school and a good number of other civil servants, think and behave differently. To them, "results" or "progress" are not really the point and haven't been for a long time. Day after day, they don their khaki uniforms and pin on their name tags as a way of announcing, "Here I am, doing what a good citizen is supposed to be doing, doing my part to keep the wheel of civilization turning." And if I momentarily and perhaps inexcusably ignore the incalculable amount of sweat that is wrung out of communities like these for the creature comforts of civilization in other, more smug parts of the world, then indeed, on any given day, it seems that not much has to be done by any one citizen to make the wheel turn here. That effort is spread thinly and evenly across time and the community and rarely ever reaches a fever pitch in any one pocket of society or another. And because there is no need to push very hard, there is no need to rest very long either.

Let me address head-on the tired but inevitable questions it must seem like I am dancing around: are these differences in attitude and thinking attributable to fundamental differences in culture? Is one (attitude, way of thinking, culture) better than the other?

The answers depend, of course, on who one asks, on how one interprets "better," and, most significantly, on the intentions of the asker. I sometimes ask these questions of myself. And sometimes I respond in the predictable, self-pitying way, falling hastily into the role of the well-meaning but frustrated volunteer who throws his hands up at local reticence and inefficiency and privately judges these as cultural shortcomings. Such episodes are frequent. But they are also short-lived. They end abruptly when I realize that I am merely venting my own minor inconveniences. They end when I remember that culture is arbitrary and progress relative. They end when I remind myself that the same, annoying phenomenon happens frequently enough in my own country and that both Indonesia and the United States are much too big and much too diverse for the aforementioned questions to have meaningfully generalizable answers. They end when I acknowledge that I am actually not very interested in having answers in the first place.

Meanwhile, my counterparts and I will continue to think differently. We will continue to work together, in starts and stops, wondering what to make of each other. The wheel will keep turning, slowly now, faster later, constantly and imperceptibly shedding baggage and rebuilding itself across the long arc of history. I will make my morning cup of coffee, teach one word, write another one, remember to take my malaria prophylaxis and smile.


The island of Semau takes twenty-five minutes to get to by one the wooden skiffs that depart several times each day form the port of Tenau on the west coast of the island of Timor. Three weekends ago, I accompanied the woman who is now my girlfriend on a short trip there. She was technically traveling for work, I technically for leisure, and both of us to see if we couldn't also find an excuse to move things along.

Anchored halfway across the narrow strait between the two islands is a Chinese fishing boat—the Fu Yuan Yu 831, abandoned since its interdiction in late 2017 and now covered in rust and seagrowth. Since returning from the trip, I have done some research and learned that illegal boats like these are quite common throughout Indonesian waters, risking similar fates for a chance at a lucrative catch. At the time of its seizure by Indonesian authorities, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was reportedly carrying 35 tons of fish, including hundreds of protected tiger sharks. I saw a picture of the carcasses online, piled high with their bellies slashed open and entrails oozing out. The image itself didn't hit me especially hard, but the mere thought of the smell that must have smacked the photographer square in the face made me sick to my stomach. Apparently, Indonesia's minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, had previously and famously ordered all confiscated foreign vessels to be blown up or burnt. In 2016, 23 were accordingly disposed of by the Indonesian navy before the practice was retired in favor of a slower, more inauspicious sinking. I don't know if Mr. Susi himself had ever set foot in the dank cargo hold of such a vessel. But if so, then I can imagine at least one reason why he gave that splashy order—maybe he felt that only fire could get rid of the stink.

I also learned during my research that the Fu Yuan Yu 831 was caught carrying the flags of six different nations—an attempt at evading fishing regulators and other maritime watchdogs. This strikes me as a particularly futile and laughable move, seeing as there are enormous Chinese characters, along with the words "Fu Zhou," emblazoned on the stern of the boat. I don't see how flying, say, a Vietnamese flag could fool anyone about its origin. Maybe I just don't know enough about how the fishing and maritime worlds work. Maybe these ships are built, named, and slathered in paint by the Chinese before they get shipped off to and piloted by crews in other countries. Maybe there is something to the flag trick. But it clearly wasn't enough to keep the Fu Yuan Yu 831 and plenty of other illicit craft from meeting their watery ends.

I knew none of this backstory, though, passing by a shipwreck-to-be in a little fishing boat on a fine morning in mid-June. The water was calm and blue. A light breeze was blowing and my girl was wearing sandals and squinting and struggling keep her long hair out of her face. At the time, seeing the ship still above water, decrepit and grimy, gave me a creepy sensation—as of something obviously outcast, disreputable, even cursed, slowly but surely poisoning otherwise clean and innocent environs. The crew of the skiff didn't just steer clear of it either. We pulled up so close that one of them had to flip the port-side bumper tires overboard to prevent scraping—so close that I could have grabbed onto and climbed up a rope dangling over the side of the ship's hull—and spent several minutes just idling there in the shade and staring up.

The rest of the weekend was nothing but time-effacing purity: small villages, Sunday service, beehives and honey, coconuts, the shy tenderness of newfound companionship, coral, campfires, sunburns and sand and seawater up the nose. In the meantime, the Fu Yuan Yu 831 sank, and quickly too. After more than a year and a half of mouldering in the strait, it began to rapidly take on water this past month. And by the time we passed it again at dusk on Sunday, this time from a distance and without stopping, the water level had crept a good ten feet up the side of the hull so that the the telling Chinese characters were at last beneath the surface—at last hidden permanently from view.


Last week I had my first-ever sparring match. It was a trainwreck. The technique I had been practicing for the preceding few months went up in smoke and within a round, I was completely out of control. I couldn't figure out how to deliver a clean combination against my taller opponent. Nor could I muster up the energy and presence of mind to defend or counterattack effectively. Instead, I spend most of the three rounds frozen inside of the "danger zone"—the range where he can reach you with his longer arm but you can't reach him—and ate many withering punches to the face and body. In the days immediately following the fight, with the exception of my ears and the bridge of my nose, my head felt surprisingly pain-free. The left side of my torso and upper abdominals hurt significantly more and for at least 48 hours, coughing, lying down, and sitting up were slow-going ordeals.

Everything I ever heard about getting hit in the body now strikes me as true in the way that only personal experience can make it so. I believed it all before. But now I know it. Knockouts resulting from clean shots to the chin are brilliant but never guaranteed. Pounding away at a man's liver and guts, on the other hand, will slowly but surely crumble him.

Most of the bout is a blur in my mind. I hardly remember anything that happened during the three rounds and I think this is probably due to the nervous, frantic state of mind I was in beforehand. One moment does stick out relatively clearly, however. It was the moment at which it actually dawned on me that I was underprepared and very much struggling—when any remaining illusions I might have harbored about my readiness to "apply" what I'd "learned" and box with a semblance of legitimacy dissolved before my eyes. Hours after the bout and out for some celebratory (or perhaps compensatory) drinks with friends, I described that moment as one in which I felt suddenly overcome by a feeling of "pointlessness." I am still not sure if this is the right description. It's not as if I forgot what my purpose was inside of the ring. Nor was it the simple agony and desperation you feel at the tail end of a workout that brings you to the very edge of your capacity and forces you to look over the edge into the abyss. I've had those and the sparring didn't get me there—at least not fitness and conditioning-wise.

I guess what getting punched and struggling to return fire in a calm, efficient manner does to your mind and body is a little different. Well before it actually puts you down and out, it intimidates you and infects you with fear. It suffocates you with a feeling of unpredictable, looming danger that mere fatigue never produces by itself. Other sports involve human opponents, physical contact, psychological warfare and intimidation too. But in those sports, the specter of live resistance gets filtered through the "game" itself—through balls and hoops and nets and chalk lines and and protective gear and the sense of having an objective besides the literal felling of your adversary. This creates, in turn, a sense of safety and distance.

Put it this way. If I am getting beaten in a sport that isn't boxing, it usually only means that I am not as far along as my opponent in achieving a common goal that exists outside of us both. And in an attempt to regain my footing, I can try to focus on this goal and everything else that isn't the other human being trying to beat me. Boxers are also buffered and protected by the rules and regulations of "sport," the most obvious of which is the wearing of gloves for the express purpose of minimizing damage. But still, if I am losing a boxing match, then I am quite literally being beaten with my opponent's fists, which, gloved though they may be, are still meant to cause me physical pain. In the meantime, there is nothing for me to focus on except this threat in front of me—the very person who, even if he is not trying to put me directly to sleep, is trying to hurt me enough so that I cannot hurt him back. Indeed, a boxer's skill is largely measured by his ability to "ignore" this violence and this hurt to whatever extent possible and treat the purposeful, human threat in front of him as mere, mechanical stimulus—to respond equally mechanically and efficiently (thus the art of counterpunching). But an inexperienced fighter will clam up instinctively when he realizes what is actually happening to him and thereby turn into a human punching bag. (Actually, this happens to experienced, skillful boxers too. Less frequently, perhaps. But a fight is still a fight and it is only a matter of time before somebody succumbs).

Therein lies the pointlessness—in the juxtaposition between activity and passivity, in the inescapability of a storm, in the ridiculous impossibility of taking shelter from it. The boxer on the offensive is indeed a kind of storm. Escaping him is a lot like trying to escape a tornado that is already upon you. And like a tornado, he does not have to or know how to stop, allow for a change of possession, get back on rule- or protocol-mandated defense, or give the other side any kind of fair chance at scoring or even breathing. It is in his best interest to simply ramp up the onslaught while his paralyzed opponent descends further within himself, experiencing all the feelings of helplessness and futility that punching bags probably would if they could feel.


In 2019, the best part of dating somebody who doesn't share your native language is the way that this nullifies all the unspoken intimations of text-speak—all the nonsense about punctuation and timing and tone that usually feeds overthinking. When a language barrier forces you to talk and be talked to like a five year-old, you remember all over again that most what you and your partner have to say to each other isn't that complicated after all.


Today I watched a video on Youtube of eleven established writers giving advice to young writers. One of them said that writing simply has to be the "most important thing in your life," ahead of "money," "friendships," and "all other pleasures in life." Ahead of those three particular things, I can understand. But I guess I am still in trouble, because in coming up with my daily routine last week, I very deliberately decided that I would always do my chores before sitting down to write in the morning, out of the simple conviction that nothing will ever be more important than household routine.

I am adamant about this. But that writer seemed adamant too. It may be that in fifty years I will look back and realize that I gave up a writing life for a clean floor and a made bed.

Just A Simple Boy

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

Kupang's primary form of public transportation is the bemo. I know locals—working adults—who have not ridden one since they were in grade school, having opted for the ubiquitous scooter as soon as they were old enough. Still, just as many, if not more, depend on them to get around in a reasonably timely manner. The bemos thus ply a brisk, daily trade, transporting throughout the city people and goods, young and old, and, on occasion, unoffending animals. I once rode alongside a chicken who happened to be resting in the crook of a man's arm, clucking contentedly away.

In the same way that a Christmas tree starts out as an immature evergreen in the five to ten-foot range, a bemo is, at bottom, a gutted-out, low-riding minibus of 80's, Japanese vintage (though it is standard for one to have a shiny, oversized, Mercedes emblem pasted to its front bumper). The real fun is in the ornamentation and decoration. Most bemos are green or white, though I have seen yellow, blue, and red ones too. I have never seen one that doesn't bear some name, slogan, or callsign (usually multiple) painted on its side in a garish, technicolor font or stickered onto its windshield and passenger windows. These do not necessarily tell you what route the bemo belongs to or where it is going (that is the job of the light-up numeral that perches diminutively on the roof). But they do bestow a lot of character and a little credibility. The louder and more attention-grabbing a bemo is, the more confident I (and some locals) somehow become that it and its crew are really up for the job of shuttling us to our destinations. I don't want to overstate the difference and should say that ultimately, I'll get on any bemo that comes along. But some do seem to try a little harder, get a little deeper into character, want it a little more.

As far as character is concerned, bemos can be divided into a few themes and categories, which are themselves evenly distributed throughout all the different routes and neighborhoods. There is the religious bemo, which proclaims, "Jesus Christ," "Yesus Malole," "Bapa Yesus," or, more straightforwardly, "Jesus." Some of these have elaborate tint- or sticker-jobs that obscure one's view out of their windows but look like stained glass from the outside. The playboy bemo, on the other hand, probably couldn't be too explicit, for fear of offending older, more uptight passengers. But it is suggestive enough, with its girly decals (exclusively white, Western babes—cartoonish, with long, flowing hair and full lips) and such coy quips as "Otomatis Romantis" ("Automatic Romance"). I have yet to see it with my own eyes, but a fellow volunteer who lives on the far west side of the island informs us that one regularly passes by her front door, flashing, in big, bubble letters, "BOOBS."

Finally, there is the stud category of bemo, which I could probably further divide into distinguishable sub-groups (hustler, punk, pretty boy, angsty teen, footballer, happy-go-lucky, Napoleon complex, etc.) but which seems to cohere better as a general, catch-all category for the preponderance of bemos that, more than simple piety or lust, broadcast some flavor of heavy-handed, posturing masculinity. One claims the title, "King of Kings." Another, bulldog-like in disposition and crouching a little lower than the rest (Or am I imagining that?) calls itself "Boss Kici" ("Little Boss"). One reminds us, in English, that "Time is Money" while its cousin confesses to being the "Money Hunter" himself and drives home the point with dollar sign stickers. The classy gentleman of the family glides around with a handle of Johnny Walker Black and an empty rocks glass in its back window (it is no drunkard and knows how to handle itself). I usually ride the number 6—a sprawling fleet in shades of lime, turquoise, and jade—which sometimes whispers in my ear as I pass through its door, "Cinta diawali dengan senyuman tapi diakhiri dengang kesedihan" ("Love begins with smiles but ends in sadness") or, "Uang bukanlah segala2nya tapi segala2nya butuhkan uang" (Money isn't everything but everything needs money"), or, pensively and again, in English, "I am just a simple boy."

It is clear, at any rate, that the personalities of bemos reflect the tastes and personalities of their crews, which are always male and frequently adolescent. A bemo, like a cab driver's cab or a mailman's truck, is its sopir's (driver's) charge—the steed he depends on for a living. But more than this, it is his outlet and his sanctuary—the den in which he spends many hours between each sunrise and sunset and the literal backdrop against which much of the drama of his youth and manhood necessarily unfolds. As such, bemos inevitably become four-wheeled bulletins of desire and insecurity and swagger and yearning and whatever else occupies the minds and hearts of young men and boys.

It helps that apart from the price of a fare (a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah for adults, 2,000 rupiah for children and students, and 5,000 rupiah for two people, though I have seen more than these sums paid unwittingly and less paid without issue), the city does not regulate bemo operation at all. The crews can set their own schedules and routes and do whatever they like with the vehicles themselves. Some speed their bemos along, swerving around slow-moving traffic, screeching to sudden halts, accelerating like startled horses, and tumbling their passengers around all the while. Others putter slowly up the street, pausing at and peering down every alleyway so as not to miss any potential customers. Some crews blast their USB-contained playlists of dangdut and C-list pop and EDM remixes at such earsplitting volumes that they are audible long before and after they are visible. Others—marginally less keen on the party bus vibe, I suppose—lean towards the Indonesian equivalents of Michael Bolton and Phil Collins and keep the crooning and wailing down relatively low (by which I mean that I can almost begin to hear myself think). Some festoon every square inch of exposed dashboard space with grimy, dust-caked blankets and dangle so many plush toys from suction cups attached to the windshield that you wonder how the driver still manages to see out of it. Others leave it all bare so that you can see the loose bolts and rusting shafts and exposed wires, and wonder instead about how something that looks like it's about to fall apart is getting along at such a startling clip.

In the end, however, such differences are only differences of style and degree. If you are paying attention (and it is impossible not to, so in-your-face and, at times, comical, is the queer miracle of the bemo), you will notice them. But let yourself begin to embrace the routine and the necessity of the daily ride—to think of the various routes, collectively, as a system of public transportation—and all of these minor variations begin to blur together into a single, uniform texture and experience of transit-by-bemo. Certain features of the ritual remain constant from ride to ride. Unspoken rules and protocols exist. There are no designated stops. If you want to board, you wait by the side of the road with an expectant look on your face. If you want to get off, you clap your hands or clink a coin against the handrail attached to the ceiling. If you have baggage (a sack of rice, a plastic bag full of meat or fish, a bunch of cassava leaves, a load of laundry, a cardboard box with a flat-screen TV inside of it, etc.) you stow it right behind the driver's seat. If the bemo is crowded but more people have somehow been persuaded to get on, you shift forward, towards the open door, and let the newcomers clamber past you towards the back. If it so crowded that not even this movement seems possible, then you sit still until somebody more or less falls into your lap. There is only one, main terminal, which is right next to a famous beach in the old, coastal heart of the city and which serves as an endpoint for virtually all of the different routes. The driver's job is to navigate the free-for-all that is Indonesian traffic and react in a timely manner to stop requests. The konjak's (hawker's) job is to sit or stand in the doorway, handle the cash, call out the bemo's direction ("Kupang! Kupang!" if it is inbound, heading towards the terminal, or the name of the neighborhood at the other end of the line, if it is outbound) and flag down or be flagged down by potential passengers. These drivers and hawkers wear the same flip-flops and cut-off jeans and graphic tees, crouch on the same raggedy crates and stools and upended buckets, sport the same haircuts, chainsmoke the same cigarettes (bought three at a time from kiosks along the route), shuffle and fold stacks of bills the same way (always lengthwise, never along its width), taunt and laugh at each other with the same hyena laughs, loiter and nap and change shifts in front of the same warungs (roadside eateries) and bengkels (roadside mechanics). In six months, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have bumped into somebody on a bemo whom I recognized from a previous ride. Even so, my fellow passengers hardly seem varied or diverse. Sitting on the same, parallel benches and facing each other, are the schoolboys in their too-short pants, the schoolgirls whispering in each other's ears, khaki-clad civil servants with their tired expressions and shoulder patches, nonas (young women) on their way to campus, nyongs (young men) on their way to work, middle-aged mothers with babies in tow, toddlers smushing their sticky cheeks and noses against the windows, wrinkled ibus coming back from the market, grizzled, old bapaks chewing betel nut and staring into space. I know they are all different people. But in the back of a bemo, I find that I can no longer tell them apart.

Even the vehicles themselves, when thought of en masse, hardly seem so different from each other. Just like the teenagers and twenty-somethings who drive them, bemos are simultaneously all unique and all alike. And if I have said much about the distinctness of their personalities, it is only because I have tasked myself with describing a reality that I already take for granted in clear and imaginable terms—in other words, because I find myself, once again, paying attention. Colors and themes and decals and routes aside, a bemo is and will always be a rustbucket—a trumped up, goofy rustbucket with a nightmare horn, busted-up seat cushion, and amateur operator, solving for Kupang the problem of connection and mobility that subways and buses and trams solve for bigger, richer cities and making up for a lack of infrastructure and efficiency with sheer pluck and nerve. At 6am, a quiet bemo carrying two other passengers besides yourself takes you to school. Twelve hours later, a loud one filled to the brim and piloted through rush-hour traffic by a sixteen year-old nearly sideswipes a motorcyclist, who then gets off his bike just to punch your scrawny driver through the open window. It's true: no two bemos or bemo rides are exactly alike. And yet, it is this very unpredictability that leaves you no choice but to believe in the highly predictable outcome of you getting to wherever you need to go, this very inconsistency that somehow points consistently forward, this very jankiness that seems to say, reassuringly, "If I'm running today, I'll be running tomorrow."


By 7pm, any bemo you see is probably on its last or second to last circuit. And by eight o'clock, the streets are usually clear of them.

Up until about three weeks ago, I couldn't be certain where the bemos and their crews went after hours. At one point I imagined a central garage somewhere in the hills outside of the city that they all withdrew to at dark and came charging out of at first light. Maybe a sopirs' and konjaks' "barracks" to go along with it. It didn't seem realistic. But it was a lively image.

And then, three weeks ago, I walked through an unfamiliar neighborhood late at night and stumbled across my answer. There, parked in the driveway of a perfectly average house, was a white, number 2 bemo with its doors shut and engine quiet. This particular neighborhood was actually quite out of number 2's usual way, but that didn't matter. At least one member of the crew lived here. And after dropping off his last passenger, he had simply gone home like anybody else.

It all seems perfectly obvious to me now. But in that moment, the thought of a hundred bemos dotting Kupang's labyrinthian, residential complexes, parked in little side streets and beneath awnings, proved overwhelming. I paused, walked up to the number 2, peered through its window, and did a double-take. Inside, sitting where their passengers usually sat, were four young men, each one staring intently at his phone. Only their faces were illuminated by the pale glow of the screens and in the surrounding darkness, they looked like four, ghostly, disembodied heads suspended in midair, bowed in communion or prayer.

A dog barked in the distance. More joined in. Behind the bemo, apart from a single, naked bulb shining weakly above the front door, the house stood dark and empty. I backed slowly away before they could notice me and hurried onward into the night.

A Report in May

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

One morning several weeks ago, as I walked through the front gate at school, I noticed one of my students, Albert, loitering by some parked scooters about ten feet to my right. His class was starting in ten minutes. I was on my way to retrieve a whiteboard marker before going to it. I knew, however, the instant that I saw him, that he would not be there, and passed wordlessly by.

Of the three boys in that class whose attendance on any given day is a toss-up, Albert is the most boisterous, liable to crow the first words in English that come to mind, whether relevant to the situation or not. Yanus has only ever said to me, "I lapar" ("I hungry") and, on one occasion, something about "banyak cewek" ("many girls") which I did not understand fully but which seemed lewd. And Godris, I have never heard say anything. On the days that he comes to class, he sits in the back of the room with a quizzical smirk on his face, as if after five months he still hasn't decided what to make of this bule trying to teach him English. Or he just falls asleep.

Another day, not long after the morning I saw Albert by the front gate, I lost my patience with the class, cut the lesson short, and asked each student to write down on a slip of paper what he or she really wanted from me and from their English class. Godris wrote that I should be more "tegang" ("strict") and further explained that if I was too easygoing in the classroom, then the students would be too. At the time, I didn't know what "tegang" meant, so I pulled him aside after class and asked him. But before Godris could answer, we were interrupted by Ibu Fauziah, my counterpart, who smacked him shockingly hard across the backside with a ruler and sidled out of the classroom, muttering something that would translate roughly to: "Strict my ass..."

I never got an answer from Godris and later looked up "tegang" on my own. Both my surprise and my relief upon learning its meaning were immense. I should have been able to figure it out simply based on context, but hadn't the presence of mind to do so. I'd been so sure—so dreadfully afraid—the moment I read "Mr. Riley harus jadi..." ("Mr. Riley should be..."), that he was about to tell me to be more relaxed.


Describing his daily routine when in the thick of writing a novel, Haruki Murakami said that "the repetition itself becomes the important thing; it's a form of mesmerism" and that this mesmerism allows him to "reach a deeper state of mind." He also noted that "to hold to such a repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength." Murakami's repetitive, mesmerizing routine evidently consisted of getting up at 4am every morning, writing for five to six hours, running 10 kilometers or swimming 1500 meters (or both) in the afternoon, unwinding with some reading and music in the evening, and dropping off to sleep by 9pm.

I have been thinking a lot about Murakami's routine and how elegantly simple it is. About how it seems so tailor-made for doing just one particular thing—writing a novel (at no extra cost to his health and sanity)—and absolutely nothing else. In an age of ever-increasing distraction and anxiety, this kind of focus holds an irresistible appeal.

I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to be able to commit to a routine like that. Strength, for sure, just like Murakami said. But that can't be it. Strong enough or not, he had to have decided at some earlier point that writing a novel (and staying healthy and sane along the way) was in fact the only thing that he wanted or needed to do (Was there a difference?) for at least six months to a year. And I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a decision like that—a decision as single-minded and seemingly oblivious to the simple realities of earning a living, being a social creature, and navigating the unpredictables of daily existence, as that.

I have been thinking about these things partly because, at times, my task here in the Peace Corps feels similarly single-minded and oblivious to reality. I am ignoring Murakami's acclaim and a whole host of other resources and conditions that have probably conspired to make his routine much more reasonable than it sounds out of context. That said, there is still one key difference between Murakami's literary task and my pedagogical one that remains constant, no matter the circumstances: Murakami can cut himself off from others and work alone if he wishes, while my job as an English teacher and teacher trainer is collaborative by definition. This difference explains why I cannot singlehandedly defy reality and accomplish my task through sheer willpower—it is not only my decision to make. I am not the only party facing a ludicrously unrealistic national curriculum, a pervasive culture of hierarchy and shame, widespread apathy and bureaucratic graft, and a dire lack of opportunities to use English outside of rarefied or strictly academic settings. My teaching, and my counterparts' and students' learning English, depend on our joint readiness to surmount these realities. More than that, they depend on our having comparable interpretations of these realities and of what ostensibly common goal lies beyond them.

What does it take to stick to a strenuous routine? It takes mental and emotional readiness and a sense of purpose and trajectory—in a word, motivation. And motivation, in turn, requires no trivial amount of thought and effort and experience to muster up in the first place. Strength, along with the curious and intoxicating mesmerism of repetition it enables, come later.


There are two pieces of paper taped to the wall above my desk. One of them reads:

GOALS

  • Get into graduate school.
  • Intern in a newsroom.
  • Get published.
  • Win an amateur boxing match.
  • Leave something tangible and useful behind in Kupang.

The other:

WEEKLY ROUTINE

  • Work/At School: 30 hrs/week (per Peace Corps policy; negotiable)
  • Writing: 14 hrs/week
  • Reading: 10 hrs/week
  • Photography: 14 hrs/week
  • Research & Study: 12 hrs/week (negotiable)
  • Training: 12 hrs/week
  • Socializing: 8hrs/week
  • Chores, travel, etc: 12 hrs/week
  • Sleep: 56 hrs/week

Contrary to what he said in March, Pak Hermensen, the boxing coach and former Olympian, has nobody for me to spar. But as of two weeks ago, he has given me permission to attend practices with his Team Indonesia squad at their training facility in Kupang.

The space is airy and cavernous like a hotel banquet hall. Red and white banners have been stretched across the ceiling lengthwise and metal posts line the walls, spaced apart at intervals of about twenty feet, a heavy bag dangling from each one. The floor is made of white tiles, which become dangerously slick after a few minutes of shadowboxing and sweating. To help with this, hard, foam mats have been laid underneath all of the heavy bags and over half of the floorspace (the other half remains bare). In the middle of it all is a regulation-size boxing ring raised three feet off the ground, complete with a stretched canvas surface, ropes, and red and blue corners.

The athletes—eight men and three women—are being put up in a hotel down the street from the facility, right next to an open-air produce market. They will stay there until December—even the ones who are local. This much is proof of just how official the whole outfit is and of how much money and sway Pak Hermensen and the other powers that be have at their disposal. Nevertheless, like many other "official" institutions and proceedings I have observed in Indonesia, this one displays a curious commingling of refinement and roughness, high-minded seriousness and casual nonchalance. There is the tile floor, for one thing—an obvious sign that the space was not originally meant to be a training facility and was simply converted into one due to its size and proximity to the athletes' living quarters. Behind the heavy bags (brand new) hanging from their posts (sturdy and installed especially for the purpose), long lines of ants march across pale yellow walls and smoke from trash fires drifts through glass window slats (some cracked). On sparring days, the referees, who I assume must be licensed, arrive and referee the matches dressed in graphic tees, jeans, and leather slippers while throngs of local children crowd in to watch or attack the heavy bags. The athletes themselves certainly look the part, bedecked in official Team Indonesia gear and working up a sweat beneath polyester track suits. Today, though, after practice, Libertus, a soft-spoken light welterweight, took his trainers off and walked back to the hotel barefoot, his shapely, rock-like calves glistening as he tip-toed nimbly around broken glass and litter and the market's fly-bitten refuse.

There is no better demonstration of the juxtaposition of formality and informality, however, than my very presence at practice—than the fact that they have allowed a foreigner and complete novice to flounder alongside them while they try to give Indonesian amateur boxing a name.


Earlier this month, I accompanied a colleague from school and two of our students on a trip to the remote district of Amfoang Utara (North Amfoang), right on the border with the East Timorese enclave of Oecusse. One of the students is originally from that district. Her parents still live there in a little, beachside village that she last saw three years ago when she moved away to attend high school in Kupang. It is no more than 60 miles away from the city, as the crow flies. But the circuitous, inland route, which, for much of the journey, constitutes nothing more than an unpaved donkey path over mountains and involves multiple river fordings, takes 14 hours to traverse. At times, the bus must groan along while tilted 10 or 20 degrees to one side or the other, forcing the flip-flop-clad, betel nut-chewing baggage attendants to climb up onto the roof and sit on the opposite side to provide counterweight—so rocky and uneven is the ground underneath. Even when the bus is upright, the way is so bumpy that you are constantly banging your head against the window or against the head of your fellow passenger and being jolted out of your seat and your sleep. During the rainy season, the rivers flood and the road becomes impassable, leaving the coastal villages almost completely isolated.

We stayed with my student's family for three nights. On one of them, I snuck away from the house with a flashlight and my camera and jogged 400 meters down the path to the ocean. I was in search of a man whom I had seen passing in front of our gate at dusk with a bucket, headlamp, and spear, and had assumed was going night-fishing.

The moon was bright and the tide low, revealing a wide swathe of craggy boulders and mostly-dead coral, stretching at least 100 meters out from the edge of the beach and into the shallows. There, I found him with his spear raised overhead, approached tentatively, and asked the obvious: "Bapak memancing ikan?" ("Mister is fishing?") He replied in the affirmative and gave something in the water a couple of quick pokes before moving onto the next big rock. I removed my camera's lens cap and metered for exposure by shining my flashlight at some exposed coral and focusing on it. In my viewfinder, everything surrounding that one, glistening spot of squishy, green-gray sponginess (it looked like a brain) was pitch black. My own eyes fared little better.

I kept up with him for what felt like hours—him, wading steadily and methodically along, poking and probing with his spear, illuminating patches of sandy seabed and nooks and crannies in the coral with his headlamp, and I, twenty feet further ashore, snapping a couple of pictures, splashing awkwardly after him, taking a couple more shadowy, underexposed photographs (except for a lamplit foot here, a ghostly hand there), trying to stay abreast. Shallow as it was, the water was not calm. It was lapping restlessly against the boulders and was murky with sand and silt. I glimpsed a couple of crabs slinking out of the beam of my flashlight and a few minnow-sized fish darting into dark corners. But besides these, there was no trace of anything big enough to spear and eat, which I assumed, given the time of day and effort already expended, was the man's purpose. At some point, I stopped deliberately trying to anticipate his next move and angle myself into position for a decent composition. Instead, I let my instincts take over and my mind wander. I would hop precariously from one slippery ledge to the next, looking only at where my feet were going and listening only to the whoosh of the waves. When there was a pause in the sound of his sloshing, I would pause along with it, raise my camera to eye-level, and press the shutter almost immediately after finding focus, content to let luck, the camera, and whatever, hypnotic sense of synchronization I had achieved with the man and with the night itself capture whatever it is that they wished to capture. In the meantime, I wondered. What on earth was there to catch among these boulders? Was this a good night or a bad night? Was he feeling patient and clear-headed or as fuzzy and benumbed as I was? How late would he stay out? How often did this man go fishing? And for how many years had this been his nightly or weekly (Could it be less frequent?) routine? Was he, by local standards, skillful at what he was doing? And if so, how long had it taken him to achieve this level of skill? Who, if anybody, had taught him? How many times, along the way, had he returned home with an empty bucket? And what then? Would he or his family go without a meal? Did he have a family? Were they waiting for him right now? With an open flame and empty stomachs?

I was startled out of my reverie by a sudden, violent movement out of the corner of my eye and a hollow thunk. The man was now crouching waist-deep in the water and had plunged one arm beneath the surface, reaching for something. With the other, he gripped the shaft of the spear tightly and drove it downwards. Then, having gotten a firm hold with the reaching hand, he relaxed the other and stood up. At the end of the spear, pierced straight through its fleshy mantle, was an octopus—pink, wriggling, and as big as a soccer ball.

As he proceeded to remove it from his spear tip, I clambered forward for a better look. He was trying to pry the octopus's tentacles off of his forearms. Once he had gotten them all off, he gathered the tentacles in a bunch, swung the octopus around like a sling, and bashed it several times against the rock he was standing on. It was still writhing. He proceeded to pin it down and strike it between the eyes with a sharp piece of coral, before finally dumping it into his bucket. This last step he performed by the light of my flashlight, for his own lamp had slipped off his head and gone out while swinging the octopus. I was sure that it had gone out for good and was prepared to light the man's way home. But he simply plucked the lamp out of the water, gave it a couple of whacks until it flickered on again, and waded back out into the waves.

Presently, I noticed three more lights approaching us from the opposite direction. Their up-and-down, bobbing motion indicated that they too were worn on the heads of fishermen. Feeling spent, I watched, but did not follow, as the one light and the three lights crept closer towards each other, met haltingly, swiveled this way and that, and then, all together, continued bobbing and pausing, bobbing and pausing their way down the beach.

I stood still in the enveloping darkness, feeling the waves licking at my ankles. A light breeze was blowing and I shivered a little. I watched them for a long time before turning back towards the village—watched them recede into the distance, twinkling and fading like stars.

This Crap Is Rigged!

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

I have spent the better part of the last three months trying to figure out how to accurately describe local school culture to an American audience—trying to think of some metaphor that will singlehandedly account for every class missed, ear twisted, uniform tucked, speech delivered, and empty hour wiled away in a breathless classroom at midday. It is hard to sum up. The school I work at is not like a poor, rural high school in America, transmigrated to the tropics. Nor is it like a big-city high school in China or Korea, minus the rigor and facilities. It is not college prep by default, or a pipeline to anything or anyplace else in particular. (Students enter and graduate and go off to do whatever it is that they or their families had intended for them to do.) National exams and the threat of accountability loom large, but academics seem to be few students' or administrators' top priority. Here in West Timor, school means as much or as little as one cares for it to mean. It fills the rest of the social, emotional, and intellectual space in a young person's life between the stalwarts of family, church, and work. On some days, our school has more in common with a second-rate cubicle farm than with an educational institution. On other days, with a day care. But each day always reminds me that there is a wide range of possibility between a job well done and a job not done at all and that most of life is necessarily spent floundering somewhere in the middle.

Technically, my job is to teach English to students and to train local English teachers to be better at their jobs. Between doing it well on any given day and not doing it all, I tend to lean closer to not doing it at all, especially if you factor in class cancellations due to testing, holidays, official business (mine or somebody else's), or totally random, unforeseen interruptions. When I do get to spend time with my students and colleagues, I find general study skills so lacking and the classroom dynamic so unfocused as to make sustained, meaningful language acquisition nearly impossible. A few of my more driven students are going to learn how to read, write, and speak English some day. But the bulk of their learning will take place after they have graduated from high school and in spite of a scarcity of opportunities to practice consistently.

All of this begs the question: what am I really doing here? Realistically, what can come of my presence in this community? I just got back from my first Peace Corps-sponsored conference in Surabaya, which seemed to be the government's way of saying "Maybe a plushy week of hot showers and hotel food will help you figure it out." The food and showers did help a little with morale at the same time that they managed to make me feel guilty. The pedagogical sessions themselves were a mixed bag. One of them, about the use of games in the classroom, stood out to me though. There was nothing theoretical about it at all. The fellow volunteer who facilitated it simply walked us through a sampling of games that he'd found to be particularly effective in his own classroom. One of them, called "Marble Race," literally amounted to us screaming encouragement at a four-minute long video of some colorful marbles rolling down a channel in the sand. Of course, all the cheering had to be done in the target language, so before the game started, we reviewed a few basic words and phrases in Bahasa Indonesia: colors (corresponding to the marbles) and equivalents for "C'mon!", Faster!", and "This sucks!" or "This crap is rigged!" I imagined my own students playing this game in English and the thought of them yelling "This crap is rigged!" at my laptop screen made me laugh involuntarily.

This session stood out at least in part because of how much more fun it was than all the other sessions—how much less canned and stuffy it felt in comparison. Indeed, by purporting to have no point besides fun, it actually managed to drive home the most important point of all: that our students remember not what we tell them but rather how we make them feel in our classrooms. I had definitely heard that before. But I had never had a chance to yell myself hoarse at a bunch of marbles rolling around on screen, or to feel sheepish about it afterwards. The other obvious takeaway is this: humor and enjoyment can make anything worth doing. If you want somebody to expend effort learning or working on something—especially if he or she isn't personally invested yet—then fun is as good a source of motivation as any other. I did not always find this idea to be so self-evident. In fact, it has always been a difficult one to swallow for somebody like me—for somebody who grew up believing that learning and fun had little, if anything to do with each other.

My parents were immigrants, which meant that most of what they did in between arriving in the US and my early childhood years was driven more by a sense of duty and responsibility than by the promise of reward and fulfillment. Growing up, I managed to turn this frank reality into a personal value system. I came to believe that work isn't supposed to be fun—that work is what you do because you have to and fun is the break you earn for having worked hard and long enough. If I went to school, or took piano lessons, or volunteered at the hospital, or did anything else remotely "productive," then I did it because it was the right thing to do or because self-betterment demanded that I do it. If I happened to have fun in the process, then I was either extraordinarily lucky or, more likely, not working hard enough. And if I felt like I needed fun in order to get through something, then I was a bum. To this day, I feel a wave of disgust pass through me when students tell me that they find the material "uninteresting" or "unrelatable" or when they act as if their learning depends on their enjoyment. "You don't have to enjoy everything in life." I want to sneer. "You can do it just because you have to."

That's just the thing, though. The idea of "having" to do something is completely relative. In the end, I never had to do anything in the same way that my parents had to. Which is to say, I've never had to do anything just to make ends meet. The truth is that I've always been free to choose what I wanted to do with my time and energy. And the fact that I was able to pretend otherwise—to pretend that my studies and extracurriculars were do-or-die responsibilities—says more about the culture and privilege I grew up in than it does about any innate capacity of mine to work hard. My current students don't have the luxury of being able to pretend like that. They can't pretend that their ability to lead happy, productive lives in their own society depends on their ability to learn English (it so, patently doesn't).They can't pretend that achieving and sustaining a basic level of conversational English is anything other than an aspiration. And they certainly can't pretend that it's their "duty" to come to my class everyday and study English like their lives depend on it.

What I've come to accept is that under such circumstances, a bit of fun can actually be the more realistic, grounding, and accessible source of motivation than so-called "productivity"—the difference between doing any part of a job and doing none of it at all. It's just odd though: not having a better—or at least, a more pressing—reason for showing up at work than the fun that might come of it. I'm sure my students won't have a problem with it though. On Monday, it will have been three weeks since I've seen my them. I will come to class and explain to them the meaning of "This crap is rigged!" And then we will cheer for marbles rolling through the sand. If I know them at all, they will laugh and scream and turn over a couple of chairs. We'll see if we can't get any farther than that.

A Report in March

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

Since arriving in Indonesia, I have made a habit of asking my local counterparts about their underlying reasons and motivations for learning English. The answer is almost always that English is a "global language" and that knowing English makes one more "competitive." There is nothing at all confusing or ill-fitting about this answer in and of itself. But after hearing it so many times, it can start to sound canned. A few nights ago, over dinner, one of the other English teachers at my school rephrased it rather pointedly though. "English is money" Pak Narsy said, through a mouthful of grilled fish and rice. "English is a better job and a better life for me and my family."

He proceeded to tell me a story. Many years ago, before he'd gone to college and become a high school English teacher, he'd worked as a janitor at a hotel. One day, an Australian tourist came down to the lobby to inquire about a piece of lost luggage. When the tourist discovered that none of the receptionists at the front desk could speak English, he became irate. "What's wrong with this fucking country?" is what came out of his mouth, according to Pak Narsy. "Why can't anybody speak English?"

As it happens, Pak Narsy, janitor, could already speak a little bit of broken English. He approached the tourist, offered what help he could, and by the end of the afternoon, the tourist had been reunited with his luggage. Apparently, the hotel manager fired the other receptionists and promoted Pak Narsy on the spot. English is money, alright.

Pak Narsy can't be the only person who thinks and feels this way. But so far, he is the only person I've met who has been willing to articulate so plainly the simple truth that I suspect everybody already knows. Never mind that "What's wrong with this fucking country?" and "Why can't anybody speak English?" seem to perfectly encapsulate how English, and Westerners, for that matter, generally announce themselves as they spread. People still have to live with reality and the local reality is that English is more than just a "global language." It is a privileged commodity and a status symbol.

This is a reality that I, as an "English Teacher and Teacher Trainer" in the Peace Corps, confront every day. I confront it in every giggle of embarrassment that follows every "Hello, how are you mister!" squealed from around a corner. I confront it in the sullen, stone-faced look given to me by a boy in the back of the classroom as I peer over his shoulder at a blank worksheet. I confront it in the hoots of laughter that reverberate around said classroom after every spelling or pronunciation mistake. I confront it in the revelation that the other English teachers bickered over who was going to work with me this semester, because working with me meant looking bad in front of students. I confront it in the revelation that some of my best students risk being called sombong (arrogant) by their friends simply because they speak to me outside of class. I undoubtedly confront a number of other unrelated cultural realities in these experiences. But they all still remind me that my mother tongue is a source of pride and shame for locals who can and can't speak it—a currency whose value never depreciates.

You have to forget all of this, of course, the moment you walk into the classroom and open your mouth to say something to the students who bolt upright and chant, in unison, "Greetings, one, two, three: good morning, teacher!"


About a month ago, I decided to start boxing again—tinju, in Bahasa Indonesia. The last time I boxed was in college, four or five years ago, when I took a beginner's course for physical education credit. I was starting from scratch then and can still remember feeling shocked at how draining a few minutes of punching could be, at how counterintuitive and mind-numbingly repetitive the basic movements and techniques were. Adrenaline makes you tense and jumpy though, so beginners always end up expending a lot of unnecessary energy. Learning to box is largely about learning how to override your instincts and intuitions—learning how to stay cool under pressure and move towards, not away from, danger.

Several factors went into my decision to pick the sport back up. A stint in the Peace Corps just seems like the right time and place for experiments. I also knew that I wanted some kind of athletic outlet while abroad and suspected that compared to track and field, my main sport over the last decade, boxing would be more culturally accessible and translatable here in Timor. In other words, locals would probably find my sprinting up and down the alley far stranger than my shadowboxing and skipping rope in the front yard. And by extension, I would probably be much more likely to find a community of boxers than a community of sprinters with whom to train or even compete. (I have no proof of this, but I am willing to bet that boxing is the more popular sport in most places around the world. Not everybody understands how much finesse and control boxing requires. But most people can get excited about a good fight).

Recent experience has borne me out. I made one inquiry, which set off a chain of inquiries on my behalf. And in a single afternoon, I managed to locate a boxing coach without even having to search the internet. His name is Hermensen Ballo and he represented Indonesia at the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics. He is originally from Kupang and still lives here, in a neighborhood twenty minutes up the mountain from mine. And every afternoon except Sunday, at four o'clock, Pak Hermen puts on an informal, come-as-you-are boxing clinic in the alley in front of his house. If you took down the heavy bags hanging from the rack he had made especially for the purpose and threw a tarp over the pile of boxing gloves on his cluttered porch, you would have no reason to believe that this was where a rotating, ragtag bunch of neighborhood kids, one bule (slang for "foreigner" in Bahasa Indonesia), and a former olympian gathered to train together. At any rate, I am grateful for—and still slightly amazed by—this odd little arrangement. And three or four times per week, I ride up the mountain to see Pak Hermen and pound his heavy bags while the dogs and chickens scurry around our feet and withered old ibus go up and down the street with their bunches of coconut and cassava and corn for sale.

Former competitive boxers-turned-trainers always seem to have a certain patience and tenderness of affect hidden somewhere about them, or perhaps clinging faintly to them like a smell (a natural counterbalance, perhaps, to the intrinsic violence that surrounds them). My coach in college was a soft-spoken, silver-haired man in his late forties who never said any more than was necessary and never broke a sweat either. He fit the mold. Pak Hermen, on the other hand, is short and stocky and never stops talking, grinning, or spitting (a constant, rapid-fire sputter reminiscent of the way baseball players eject sunflower seed shells onto the dugout floor). He barks his commands when simply saying them will do, and his idea of a joke is to startle some eight year-old schoolboy zig-zagging sleepily down the alleyway out of his daydream by bellowing, just as he passes, "Oi, mo pi mana?" ("Oi, where are you going?") Now that I think of it, Pak Hermen acts and carries himself rather like an overexcited bulldog, and I almost wonder if he was one in his previous life or if he will become one in the life to come.

Still, it is obvious that Pak Hermen is a well-respected member of the community—beloved by children and adults alike, and not just because he once represented Kupang and Indonesia on the world stage. If he suffers from some excess of spirit, then it is because he is still brimming with whatever passion and hunger drove him to come out of nothing and become a world-class boxer in the first place. If he cannot help but inflict this spirit on the people around him, then it is because he must find an outlet for his passion besides traveling the globe and competing at the highest level—because he has seen how unforgiving the way up can be and cares to shake people out of their complacency and prepare them to face reality.

Therein lies Pak Hermen's well-hidden patience and tenderness. And I have found that the easiest way to strip all the bluster away from it and get it to show on his sleeve is simply to give him what all teachers and coaches have ever wanted from their pupils—a little hard work and a lot of faith. Last week, I ran a fast mile for Pak Hermen. "No sprint, but fast," he'd said in broken English, to make sure I understood. At the end of it, I bent over to catch my breath, but suddenly he was in my face, his arms around me, his coarse hands reaching up to my throat. I tried to push him away. "No, no, stand up, quiet," he said, feeling for my carotid artery. I stood up. "Breathe now," he instructed. When he found my pulse, he looked down, started his stopwatch, and began to count.

I've always been fascinated by the way a boxer's entourage seems to manhandle him during the rest periods in between the rounds of a fight—by the flurry of hands probing and dabbing and wiping at the fighter's swollen face and limp limbs. The exchange between coach and athlete in that breathless moment seems so private and so intimate—like an exchange between midwife and mother, or medic and wounded. It is certainly just as raw and physical, just as drenched in blood and sweat. And to be covered in somebody else's bodily fluids is to breach some fundamental threshold of intimacy, no matter how businesslike you happen to be going about it.

I have yet to get my blood on Pak Hermen (though the opportunity might come soon enough—he tells me that I will start sparring his other fighters at the end of March and that there is a city-wide tournament I can join in April). But I did drip sweat all over him and breathe hard in his face while he wrapped his fingers around my neck. It didn't matter that I was a bule, or that we had only known each other for a few weeks, or that in the end, all he needed was my pulse—some numbers, some hard data. I was his fighter and he was my trainer. It was my job to trust him. And it was his job to put his hands on me—to convey calm and care through physical touch.

I have thought of another reason why I have decided to box again. The sport is a wonderfully rich and instructive metaphor for life itself. As a novice, there is a constant temptation to throw all your technique and poise to the wind and just charge forward, bull-fashion. This temptation has got to be resisted, both inside and outside of the ring. Not every punch can be a knockout punch. Boxing helps me to remember this—to practice staying grounded and patient.


Within the past three weeks, I have gone to swim in the ocean twice and to sit next to it at least four times. One of these visits was book-ended by an hour-long bike ride up and then down a mountain. Another, I had to fly twenty minutes to get to and ride two hours on a boat to come back from. Both beaches were fine and white. At the former I ate barbecued chicken with friends and taught a burly Indonesian man the concept of American football. He caught on quickly and blocked me viciously. At the latter I shadowboxed in the sand for five rounds while the sun set behind me.

I also drank beer at most of these beaches and ate bakso from a vendor next to one of them. The "beach" at which I ate the bakso is not really a beach at all, but rather a thin, hundred meter-long strip of rocky, garbage-strewn gravel that the waves lap at on one side and the food stalls crowd on the other. But it is only fifteen minutes away from my house in the city and both the people and stray cat-watching are excellent. (I witnessed a lean, old tortoiseshell spirit her prize away from a fishmonger, only to be unable to fit it through the chain-link fence that separated her from safety).

I have never really been a beach or ocean-goer, even though I have been a coast-dweller for most of my life. I lived in Honolulu for a year after college and a stone's-throw away from some of the best beaches in the world. But even then, I hardly ever went and was probably oceanside as many times in one year as I have been in three months, here in Kupang (I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself this stupidity). I have never disliked beaches outright. But I have also never really known what to do or how to be at one. The few childhood memories I do have of beach trips are somewhat fearful and awestruck—are of strange smells and even stranger textures and of the constant sense of exposure. My parents are not maritime people either and, if an adventure is in order, generally prefer to drive farther into the woods or up the mountains, which is almost always a greater effort than simply rolling on back towards the water. 

Of course, it takes a certain frame of mind (or at the very least, a willingness to enter the correct the frame of mind) to be able to appreciate the beach. For example, one has got to be willing to take his or her shoes off and go barefoot in the sand without thinking twice about it. A person who is unwilling to do this much will never truly get acquainted with the ocean. And now that I think of it, the few times I have seen my parents set foot on a beach, they have done so with their shoes on, striding stiff-legged, well clear of the creeping tide. 

Oceangoing demands surrender. You cannot expect to know the ocean and keep it out at the same time—not with distance and not with your shoe. You must risk stepping on a sharp piece of coral, getting water up your nose, tracking sand into the car, being touched by kelp's slimy tendril. It is this consent to entropy, this letting-go, that I have gotten better at in recent years. Even so, I doubt that I'll ever be capable of becoming a conventional, weekend beach-goer—certainly not a "beach bum." I feel that there is a limit to the amount of entropy I am willing to let into my life and that too much time spent at the beach—in the interminable, time-effacing sound of the waves—has an unwelcome, hypnotizing effect on me. The image of the all-American family, bronzed and shiny with sunscreen, laid out insensate on towels beneath an umbrella, cooler and volleyball and polaroid at hand, has always struck me as one of abject laziness and passivity—the sort of position in which I'd wait for the world to end. It isn't for me. And to this day, I still find that all the excitement is in the initial sprint from car to water, in the first big wave to knock the breath out of you, in the darting of fish and the pinch of the crab—in having your senses sharpened, not dulled, by the astringency of the salt world.

Mostly Weary

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

In high school, I asked a Vietnam veteran-turned writer who had come to speak if he had ever killed a man in battle. My teachers and classmates were aghast. I don't remember what the speaker's response was. But I do remember its tone—a little reproachful and mostly weary.

The memory is mortifying and I have all but pushed it out of my mind. It did not even resurface last Fall, when I was reading Tim O'Brien's
The Things They Carried with my own sophomore English class. In one chapter, titled "The Man I Killed," O'Brien describes in searing detail the mental and emotional contortions that result from having killed an enemy fighter. The chapter makes painfully obvious (if it was not already) why you should never ask a veteran such a question unless he clearly wants to talk about it.

Why, then, wasn't this simple code of conduct obvious to high school me? What was going through my mind when I asked that question?

I think there are two explanations, both of which contain some truth. The harsh explanation is that I was an ignorant kid who was trying to appear edgy for any number of pathetic, attention-seeking reasons. The forgiving explanation is that I wanted to better understand an experience that is famously difficult to understand. In other words, I wanted to strike hard and fast at the truth and thought I might to do so by being straightforward—even a little provocative. Recently, I read something from Kurt Vonnegut's essay "Do you know what a twerp is?" that gave me some perspective on the whole ordeal. He wrote it only a few years before he died and it is refreshingly wry and crotchety:

Ernest Hemingway wrote a story after the First World War called "A Soldier's Home" about how it was very rude to ask a soldier what he'd seen when he got back home. I think a lot of people including me, clammed up when a civilian asked about battle, about war. It was fashionable. One of the most impressive ways to tell your war story is to refuse to tell it, you know. Civilians would then have to imagine all kinds of deeds of derring-do.

But I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff. You're not expecting it.

Of course, another reason not to talk about war is that it's unspeakable.

Whether or not it was my place to go digging for the truth in that moment (and it almost certainly wasn't), I went ahead and did so anyways, in the most selfish, ham-fisted, insensitive way possible. But I also didn't realize that even if I could have corrected my approach towards the truth, sometimes there just aren't any words for it.

Nerve and Verve

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

I tell people that I'm from Boston, but I actually grew up in the suburbs, thirty minutes outside of the city. And it's the suburbs that I involuntarily recall sights and smells from when I think of home. To most people the distinction is inconsequential. But when escaping that sheltered suburb and making it out in the "real" world has always been a point of honor, the distinction matters. I say "Boston" not only for the sake of convenience, but also because that is where I want to be from.

I do have many childhood memories of being in the city. Watching Barnie in my grandmother's apartment, say, surrounded by potted plants. The smell of boiled cabbage, oil paints, and incense inside of that apartment. Shafts of afternoon sunlight slanting across the green line's faux wood paneling. Prodding crabs in buckets at the Super 88 grocery in Chinatown. Standing transfixed before John Singleton Copley's, "Watson and the Shark" at the MFA. I treasure these memories. They are as real and vivid to me as every memory of my quieter, daily life in the suburbs. Still, they are the memories of a visitor and not of a city-dweller. They smack of anxiety and romance and excitement and, to this day, bear none of the tarnish that comes with habit. Such is the difference that thirty minutes can make.

Last February, I was living and working in Vermont but started driving to Boston at least once per week. At first, out of a desperate need to escape and soon, to see a girl. She lived in a neighborhood that I'd rarely visited as a child, and I appreciated the opportunity to see a new part of the city. Driving so many miles each week was also a unique pleasure and I did so with nerve and verve—like a true local. Boston is a notoriously convoluted city for drivers. But I relearned the streets and highways and tunnels with an ease that my parents never came by. Never mind that I had a smartphone while they had only had a spiral-bound book of paper maps. (I can still see them hunched over it in the front seats, tight-lipped and white-knuckled). I felt proud of my newfound familiarity and hogged the driver's seat all spring and summer long. My girlfriend didn't mind. She drove out of necessity and actually quite liked staring out of the window. I drove, on the other hand, to feel more like I belonged.

What I didn't realize is that while she stared and I drove, we were still experiencing Boston together. As much as I was reacquainting myself with the city, I was also sharing it with somebody else. Boston became our city. Every place that we went to became one of our places. And just as we became inseparable over the course of ten months, the city became inseparable from our relationship. I hadn't realized this by the time I left for the Peace Corps in late September. I hadn't realized this by the time we broke up three months later, on Christmas Eve. And I only gradually began to realize this during the following weeks, when pictures of Boston on Instagram began to fill me with sadness—when I found that I could not look at them without imagining her face at the windows or her footprints in the snow.

I trust that this sadness will pass and that at some point in the future, I will again feel eager to belong. But now, halfway around the globe and very much out in the "real" world, I feel only a neurotic revanchism. I realize that I have little ownership of the city that I tell people I am from. And like any human partner, it haunts my dreams and memories and taunts me with its steadiness, its beauty—with the thought of its life without me. The end result is that I am constantly looking backwards and wrenching myself out of the past and back into the present. I have also grown wary of the very yearning and eagerness that I hope to restore and afraid of the pain that it exposes me to. I think what I have learned is that it is not always a sign of mediocrity or stagnation to have few expectations. That routine and habit can be gifts and solitude and loneliness blessings. That to truly know and love a place is to demand nothing from it and to merely coexist with it—to become as much a fixture of it as its air or its soil. And until I have felt such solitude and routine and habit and loneliness in Boston—until I have learned to expect nothing from it but my daily reality—I will always be its heartfelt, awestruck visitor.

First Impressions of School

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

Most students at SMAN 5 Kota Kupang live inside of the city. A few in the 11th and 12th grades are originally from small villages further inland, but have already moved in with relatives within the city boundaries. As of last year, the government has mandated that no public school student shall attend a school farther than 3km from his or her residence. The point, evidently, is to prevent overcrowding at "preferred" or "reputable" schools and to create a more equitable distribution of the student population in general.

School costs 100.000 IDR per month, paid every three months. About a third of the students receive a government scholarship amounting to 1.000.000 IDR per year, but my principal informs me that an unknown quantity of other students and families, who would otherwise qualify for the scholarship, choose not to apply for it because they do not want to be considered poor. Instead, they sacrifice what they have to in order to make ends meet, perhaps missing some payments here or there and making up for them later.

I have made a few general observations about school culture. The most basic is that girls outnumber boys and are generally more "well-behaved" and "studious." Girls are also considered and treated as such by the adults. So we have a feedback loop, from which both girls and boys must suffer. It is very obvious how boys suffer though—they internalize the fact that they are troublemakers and less capable scholars because of differential treatment, and so they learn to play the role. The face grows to fit the mask.

Specialization begins in grade school and there are generally three tracks: the science track (IPA), the social studies track (IPS) and the language track (Bahasa). What is most tragic is that I have listed these tracks in order of prestige. The longstanding stereotype is that, again, the smartest and most motivated students (boys and girls) enter the science track and that the humanities are for the leftovers, the dregs, the hopeless cases—anybody who doesn't have what it takes to study science. Actually, this is more than just a stereotype. Literal policy has been built up around it in other Indonesian institutions besides public schools. Employers look more favorably upon IPA students. So do universities. And in general, there are more opportunities for IPA students. You are simply barred from considering certain majors, jobs, and/or career paths if you weren't on the science track.

I have asked about the origins of this stereotype in Indonesian society, but cannot get a straight answer, which doesn't surprise me. Who knows where it started? In the end, I think it reflects a nefarious but extremely common and fundamental misunderstanding that exists throughout the modern world, in developed and developing societies alike: that the STEM fields are the true key to progress and are worth more than the humanities. No scientist has ever had to justify his or her pursuit. But humanists are always trying to prove that what they think about and produce are in fact valuable to society. The value of the humanities, at any rate, is less obvious to most people. And the irony is that the people and the societies who stand to benefit most from a healthy dose of the humanities are, invariably, the ones who find their value the most dubious.

SMAN 5 Kota Kupang shows some potential though. My principal is a fairly worldly man. He has implemented a few forward-thinking policies, including the deliberate spreading of "good" and "bad" students throughout all of the three academic tracks. I have no way to verify this, for the time being, and do not yet know how "good" and "bad" are quantified. But it's encouraging to see my principal explicitly reject a bad idea, at least in theory. He and the other teachers have also agreed to forbid any student who has failed one grade from moving onto the next and to stop accepting mid-year transfer students from other public high schools throughout the city. These are related policies aimed at improving accountability. According to my principal (and I believe him), too many students are used to fudging their scores and gaming the system and doing whatever it takes to pass (besides actually studying, of course). If one school won't pass them, they transfer to another. Nobody fails. There are no real consequences. My principal wants to draw a line in the sand.

How effective are any of these policies? It's difficult to say. But the cynic in me is inclined to say not very, no matter how forward-thinking they are. It's not just pure cynicism either—it's observable reality. Just the other day, virtually the entire student body was walking around with their latest report cards in hand, accosting teachers at every opportunity and requesting grade changes. "On what basis?" I inquired of a few students. "Because the score is wrong!" they replied. "Yes, but how do you know that the score is wrong?" I pressed. "Because in Indonesia, you cannot let your scores drop—they must improve, if you want to get into university." What's funny is that most teachers seem to be equally unable to speak for the meaning and the integrity of whatever numbers appear on those report cards. They would grumble and rant and generally make a show of being very put out by these requests. But there did not appear to be much re-calculation or verification going on and almost all of the time, the signature would be handed over and the grade would change.

There were a few notable exceptions though. One girl, seeking to improve her biology grade, approached one of her male teachers in the teacher's room. Evidently fed up with the steady stream of grade-grubbers, or with some other annoyance that I had not yet perceived, the teacher slapped her squarely across the face and yelled at her to get out. I'd already seen some ear-pinching and switch-brandishing, but this went well beyond, and it made my blood boil. I followed the girl out, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, over and over again in English, "I'm sorry." She began to cry quietly to herself.

Aspirations are just that—aspirational. And policies only ever go so far. Reality—the weight of culture and habit—is what you are up against on any given day. It is a heavy weight.

In the Mind and the Heart

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

For the past three months, I have been languishing in the tropical heat of Indonesia and watching the seasons change in my native New England, some 10,000 miles away. When I left Boston at the end of September, the leaves were just starting to turn and the temperature had barely begun to dip. Soon after that, as if in realization of some vague desire to remain tethered to an origin point (a common desire among Peace Corps volunteers, I think), I followed several landscape photographers and aggregators on Instagram, whose main subject was the quintessential scenery of the Northeast states. All through October and November, they rubbed the ensuing, woodsmoke-smelling dream of fall in my face. Acorn Street, with its glistening cobblestones covered in yellow and orange leaves. A row of sailboats bobbing dockside on a bright, cold morning in Maine. A barn door and a tire swing in Vermont. The White Mountains all aflame, as seen from Franconia Notch. When the first snowstorm hit around Thanksgiving, my feed dutifully changed tune and showed all the same things as before, "crowned," now, as E.B. White put it, "with a cold, inexpensive glory." Also, the cornucopias and Jack-O-Lanterns had been exchanged for wreaths and Christmas trees, which gave all the front stoops of Back Bay and Charlestown a familiar, consecrated look.

For it is indeed a dream that these pictures are showing me, and not just a collection of objects and scenery, confined to a specific corner of America. More than just a place, these pictures convey a sense of place—a mood, a feeling, and an idea of New England, at a particular time of year, that exists partly in reality, and mostly in the mind and the heart. Reality came first, of course, in the form of a specific climate and landscape, and the dream has depended on it ever since. But the dream has also depended, for its continuous development and survival, on the imaginations of people—on our endless search for familiarity and belonging. A hundred years ago, I suppose that it was primarily poets and artists who made a deliberate effort to narrate this dream, even as their audience lived it and contributed to it just by going about their daily business. Today, anybody with a smartphone and a sufficiently potent yearning can sing the lullaby to him or herself, or to anybody else who will listen.

It is worth noting that it never occurred to me to follow any of these Instagrammers while they were still my neighbors. Why should I have? I was a local. Presumably, if I wanted what they were offering, I could just step outside and partake in the real thing. This must have been the thought in the back of my mind and any identification I felt with the dream in the pictures, or the dream all around me, I must have felt subconsciously. It took moving to the other side of the Earth and exposure to a brand new climate, landscape, and grounding reality for me to feel like there was some "origin point" worth "tethering" myself to explicitly. And now, in the late nights and early mornings, I lie naked and sweating atop my bed and scroll absent-mindedly through all of the pretty pictures. Do I feel tethered, then? Conversely, have I felt lost or adrift? What has been the effect of this sudden proliferation of lullaby-singers and dream-keepers on my mental horizon?

It's difficult to say. On the one hand, there is no question that the dream of fall and winter in New England devolved long ago into an enormous cliche and that each predictable, idealized picture of it further recycles and compresses the cliche. Business thrives on the season's mere image (beats it to death) and gives us pumpkin spice and L.L. Bean boots and mall Santa in return. The irony, on the other hand, is that there seems to be no better proof than a deluge of more or less identical posts on social media that the dream is in fact alive and well—that beneath the caked-on layers of kitsch, some powerful, collective memory continues to endure and to inspire. I feel tethered to something alright. But I am not sure to what, exactly, or whether my own desperate, backwards glances actually net me the aforementioned grails of familiarity and belonging. The triggers are abrupt, at any rate. The mental grooves that lead back are roundabout. And the endpoints are, for now, all consumed by angst and trauma. A dry palm frond blows down the alleyway outside my window. The sound of it scraping along the pavement completes the picture I have just seen that morning of a sedan parked on a suburban street, its wheels nearly obscured by fallen leaves, and suddenly I feel the chill at the school bus stop—the teeth-chattering anxiety that accompanies a new notebook and a new school year. At dusk, I walk past an empty lot in which two children are burning a pile of trash. The smoke rises off of the fire in much the same way that somebody yesterday saw smoke rising out of the chimney of a log cabin, and I instinctively quicken step, desiring nothing more than to be indoors. My girlfriend and I break up on Christmas eve. That night, as I examine Boston's city lights and festive street corners, it is her face that I see at every window, her upright silhouette beneath every street lamp, her footprints that trail down every snowy sidewalk. I want only to be far, far away from that city—from New England, the backdrop in fact or in spirit of every troublesome drama of my callow youth. And then I remember that I already am.

The dream is dreamt in piecemeal fashion. Its flavor is muddled and inflected with whatever perverse mood I happen to be stuck in. Sometimes, it is a nightmare.


A mile and a half from where my host family lives, in the direction of the ocean, there is a neighborhood where the locals have erected a gigantic twenty-foot Christmas tree, using nothing but plastic bottles and other litter. They have strung it with lights that blink and pulse late into the night. They do not know it, but in a way, their plastic bottle-Christmas tree symbolizes my dream: mesmerizing and spectacular from afar, strenuously cobbled-together out of mediocrities and detritus upon closer examination, endlessly celebrated, and forever overambitious—forever reaching for something a little more than the reality from whence it came. When I look at it, I feel glad for its existence and confident that year after year, here or there, such idols will continue to exist—to nurse and sustain my dream and keep it warm and alive against the day when I can do so myself.

High Water

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

It is nine o'clock at night and I am writing this from the desk by my bedroom window. Outside, "it is raining," as E.B. White once put it, "to beat the cars." Except that in my case, it is raining to beat my brand-new mountain bike, my host family's forlorn motorcycle, and our collective, corrugated-tin roof like a drum. (In a tropical country with a wet season, where motorcycles seem to outnumber cars by about five to one, people either vegetate indoors during a storm, or don a poncho and speed off on their usual two wheels, puddles and mud and poor visibility be damned. Driving around on four—dry and enclosed—feels like having it both ways.) At any rate, the roof of our house does not leak much at all, except through a few dime-sized holes above the kitchen counter. But the sound of the downpour against the sheet metal is constant and deafening, so that I can hardly hear myself think.

I have seen it rain hard before, but not for this long. The torrents have been coming in waves since midday, with each successive one seeming more severe than the last. After lunch, while it was still only raining hard enough for such an act to be spunky and not simply eyebrow-raising, I went out into the yard and stood beneath the spot where the rainwater collects and comes rushing off the edge of the roof in a steady stream—just for the fun of it. My host family got a good laugh out of that. An hour later, they had all sobered up, dragged a plastic barrel over to the same spot, and retreated to their bedrooms. It really is impossible to be productive when it sounds like it is raining inside of one's own skull. All one can do is wait Nature out and hope that in the meantime, she will spare one tall drum of clean water and a trip from the delivery company.

Round about three o'clock, there was an earsplitting clap of thunder directly overhead and a commotion in the alleyway next to our house. My host sisters, host mother, and I rushed over to the gate, peered outside, and found that the entire alleyway, along with the central lot and adjacent yards it opened into, were submerged, knee-deep, in fast-flowing, murky water that looked exactly like coffee with added creamer. The family next door was pushing along a drenched, sorry-looking mattress like a raft. Others, who I later learned were college students trying to save their term papers, were hastily bundling armfuls of books and loose papers out of the windows of flooded rooms and stacking them on the porch of the only dry house left (the water was lapping ominously against its top step, though, and threatening to deprive us of our last few square meters of high ground). More neighbors from down the street were streaming into the yard by the minute—both to help and to gape. Bottles, wrappers, and other bits of trash and debris bobbed here and there and some joker yelled to keep an eye out for catfish.

My host mother has told me that in the fifteen years since she and her husband moved to this neighborhood, it never once rained to the point of such severe flooding. Most days, the alleyway is idyllic—it dips down beneath street level and the wide, green banana leaves throw their shade invitingly over it. Now, a two-foot difference in elevation is responsible for turning it and our neighbors' yards into a shallow, roiling swamp. As I looked around, however, I saw that nobody seemed to be particularly surprised or upset by this apparently unprecedented turn of events. Even the college students could not be described as frantic. "At least our front yards are not four feet beneath street level and the water not up to our chests," seemed to be the prevailing thought (and relief, the corollary feeling) in the air. A few small children were splashing around gleefully and the most visibly emotional person in the crowd was a middle-aged housewife who appeared to be cursing and gesturing accusingly at the water swirling around her knees.

Presently, the crowd began to split into two discernible groups. One, comprised of young men, went to scoop floodwater into the neighborhood well with large, plastic washbasins. The other—a mixture of wives and husbands and the remaining adolescent boys and girls—clustered at the entrance of the alleyway and began to dam it up with fallen banana trees. Here, then, was a clear choice between ingenuity and brute force. And wanting to help, but not feeling particularly ingenious, I stripped down to my trunks and waded over to the well, feeling around gingerly for sharp rocks, potholes, or anything else that might make a fool out of me. I had previously met only one of the young men, and very briefly, at that. But as soon as I got over to them and laid hands on a washbasin, I felt a strange thrill come over me. It was an unspoken, even primal feeling of connectedness with the otherwise unfamiliar bodies around me—a basic awareness of our shared brawn and of the cumulative manpower that together we might amount to. In the back of mind, I had already accepted what the situation probably looked like from a distance—a well-meaning, conspicuously light-skinned foreigner, trying strenuously to be useful. But as far as I could tell, there was no such feeling of disconnect or misplacement around that well. Not one of the young men gave me the usual sidelong glance and knowing grin that I have come to expect on the streets, when I am actually trying to go quietly about my business. A pair of them wordlessly exchanged the small basin that they had been sharing for my larger one. And together we threw ourselves at the task before us with animal zeal, none of us certain or caring if we were making even the slightest difference. The neighborhood had never flooded before.

One basinful crashing down the well after another! From all around, the undifferentiated, all-enveloping rumble of thunder and rain and floodwater! I am reminded of the very first act of Disney's Fantasia—of Mickey Mouse, the sorcerer's witless apprentice, hacking one broomstick into many, of each broomstick with two pails in hand, sloshing its way down the endless hallways, of its terrifying dedication to its mission, come hell or, quite literally, high water. We were similarly single-minded. For a few minutes, we were deaf and dumb, feeling nothing but the mud and sand between our toes, solely possessed by the shapeless mystery of current and volume, tonnage and pressure, pounds per square inch, depth, suffocation, and the latent, menacing dreams of the evening bath-taker and the weekend beachgoer and the deep-sea diver alike—anybody who has ever been naked in the water. At some point my foot slipped and I felt the edge of a broken patio tile slice through my skin. I imagined blood seeping out of the cut, germs and parasites seeping in. But the pain was an afterthought.

Suddenly, there was a different sound, of metal against rock. Somebody had found what appeared to be an iron tamping rod and was driving the spiked end of it against the base of the well, in an apparent attempt to punch through its sidewall. It was an arresting sound—a reverberating clang that cut through the din of the storm. The rest of us stopped to watch and listen—clang, clang, clang! We knew, by its hollowness, and by the subsequent roar, that the last strike went home, and we all peered over the edge at the brown jet spewing from a jagged, gaping hole. The water level around the well was still much too high to watch our improvised drain at work from the other side. But it was clear that our job was done. We stacked the washbasins on the porch and the pair that exchanged theirs for mine now broke out into broad smiles and turned their newly-recovered attention towards me. What is your name? Where are you from? Are you married? The usual. It was about four o'clock. Somebody noticed that my foot was bleeding and there was a great fuss about it that I only managed to quell by agreeing to wear a pair of sandals. My host father laughed and mimed the action of dumping out a basinful of water, and I smiled sheepishly back.

I felt like I had proven something—my initiative and my willingness to get my hands dirty, perhaps. But I am not sure that anybody else saw it this way. At any rate, there was no question that the spell around the well had been broken and that the situation was once again assuming its true proportions. I loitered around the banana tree-dam for about another hour, shivering and watching my neighbors turn wayward cars back up the street, before my host mother summoned me back inside for dinner and a mandi. I am sure that by now, the floodwater has all but receded, leaving behind a trail of litter, waterlogged possessions, and a thin layer of reddish-brown silt caked over all surfaces. We will clean it up tomorrow.

Emptying the Mandi

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

This afternoon, Bapak Jon was changing the mandi water. We had all been using it for about a week and what was left in the tub before he started to empty it out was about a foot deep and very hard, with dirt, drowned mosquitoes, and other debris floating throughout. I would have happily bathed in it, just to escape the heat. But before I could do so, at around four o'clock, Bapak was at it with a bucket.

I was sitting on the front porch at the time, reading, and proceeded to watch him carry the water out the kitchen door and into the front yard, one bucketful at a time. In his free hand, he held the mandi scoop, which is typically used for bathing or flushing the squat toilet. Presently, he was using it to water the palms and other tropical shrubbery lining the edge of the property. Every time he returned to the yard with a fresh bucketful, he would pick a different shrub or cluster of shrubs to douse, always at the roots, and so managed to both empty the mandi and quench each shrub's thirst over the course of seven or eight trips. Whether they really were thirsty for our week-old, leftover mandi water, I can't say. But the whole process still struck me as a simple demonstration of effortless, local resourcefulness and efficiency.

It was also just an awfully amusing and lovely sight—my Bapak, wearing nothing but an oversized wifebeater and grey boxers, brandishing a bright pink mandi scoop in the middle of our font yard while all around us the wide, green fronds rustled and nodded gently in the breeze.

Your Teachers Are Many Things

Kediri, East Java

Brief remarks that my supervisors asked me to deliver to students at a local junior high school on the morning of Nov 26th—national Teachers’ Day in Indonesia.


Today is Teachers’ Day in Indonesia. So this morning, I have been asked to say something to you about your teachers and who they are.

Your teachers are many things. They are people who have to get up in the morning and get dressed and boil themselves an egg before they go to school. They are working people who must earn a living and do something productive with their day. Like you, they wear uniforms and follow routines and move in groups. Even so, they are as different from each other as you are from your friends.

We Americans are clearly very different from your Indonesian teachers. But our presence is also a reminder of what all teachers have in common: skills and wisdom worth sharing. Working together, across culture, will feel new and surprising to Americans and Indonesians alike. This feeling of newness proves that we are learning from each other. It reminds us that at bottom, a teacher is somebody or something that challenges us to grow.

What distinguishes your egg-boiling, uniform-wearing, officially-employed teachers from anything else that challenges you? Again, it is simply the fact that we are flesh-and-blood people who have had more life experience than you. What does that mean? It does not mean that we are smarter or better than you. It certainly means that we have made more mistakes and experienced more failures. And it likely means that we have had more time to practice the skills needed for a happy, meaningful life.

A textbook or a robot can tell you the right answer to a question that has a right answer. But neither can show you what it is like to be alive or advise you on how to live a better life. Only people can do that. And some of those people we call teachers.

What Really Matters

Kediri, East Java

In one week, my fellow Peace Corps trainees and I will “swear-in” as full-fledged Peace Corps volunteers and disperse throughout the provinces of East Java, West Java, and East Nusa Tenggara to begin our two years of service. I will deliver the following remarks at our swearing-in ceremony, translated into Bahasa Indonesia.


A few weeks ago, the director of Peace Corps Indonesia introduced us to the acronym "EPIC." It stands for "empowerment," "protection," "integration," and "connection." And it is Peace Corp's way of describing the various ways in which we will struggle or succeed—the goals we will need to be "resilient" in our pursuit of.

This is nothing that we didn't already know. There is nothing in that acronym that we didn't already understand to be a part of a decent, fulfilling life. Who isn't trying to feel more empowered, protected, integrated, and connected? When is it ever easy to achieve and maintain these qualities of life? The past ten weeks have proved that being thrust into a new culture causes one to regress. But being a local somewhere is no guarantee of success either. The "EPIC" qualities are not black-and-white—qualities you either have or don't have. They are relative and subjective—works-in-progress. This is true for everybody, always.

In fact, the more desperate we are to be "empowered," "integrated," etc., the less likely we are to become any one of those things. We will become paranoid imposters and slaves to appearance and abstractions. Instead of trying to be more "EPIC," we ought to focus on what really matters: developing a genuine sense of familiarity and belonging.

Familiarity and belonging! Or, the feeling that you have some stake in and ownership of what is going on around you. The presence of this feeling is what exempts a people and a place from criticism and absolves them of their sins—is what gives homesickness its bite. (E.B. White once wrote of his trips home to Maine: "...my critical faculties are retarded almost to the vanishing point, like a frog's heartbeat in winter"). And the lack of it is what produces restlessness and resentment. Think back to our first week in-country. How many of you got used to—perhaps even grew to appreciate—something that shocked or offended you then? Think back to site visit. How many of you found, during a quiet moment in the night, that you missed Kediri and your host family? How many of you already feel fondly about the mandi? The call to prayer? The stray cat that comes to your porch every morning? The little backroads that cut through the sugarcane and offer up a view of the mountains? A hundred other minor but necessary details, without which your daily life would no longer feel complete? If you answered in the affirmative to any of these questions—consider it one of your greatest accomplishments from pre-service training. It is a testament to your open-mindedness and big-heartedness.

My point is that you have some control over how quickly you develop a sense of familiarity and belonging. Starting from scratch in the face of culture shock is without a doubt uncomfortable. But if you respond to that discomfort with judgment and comparison, then you will feel like a victim. You will feel helpless at the same time that you feel guilty for not being EPIC enough. If you remember instead that there is no predestined reason for why you are visitor in one place and a local in another—that you are just a person like every other—then you will feel fluid and generous and ready to become somebody new. True resilience, then, is about resisting that temptation to judgment and comparison. It's about remembering that you are dignified and competent, even when you feel least so.

That said, we are far from the only people who deserve credit for whatever familiarity and belonging we already feel. I am referring to our Indonesian host families and counterparts. Our adopted mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents. Our language teachers and community liasons. The entire staff of Peace Corps Indonesia and the local friends we've already made. If we have adapted at all to our new lives, it is in large part because these people have gone out of their way to make their homes feel like our homes too. It is nothing short of a logistical nightmare to house, feed, train, and generally cater to sixty-odd Americans for three months. And as they would for their own children, they have worried on our behalf about everything that we either couldn't or forgot to worry about.

Notice how you have come to expect and count upon their presence and attentiveness. And consider how helpless you would be without them. Did they do everything perfectly? Did they always understand us and our needs? Of course not. But by and large, they held steady for us while we floundered. So tired as we are, ready as we may be to move on, we ought to allow ourselves a moment of genuine humility and appreciation.

I'll tell you when I first felt that pang of appreciation—felt humbled and small in the face of all I did not know and could not do. It was on the night that I returned to Kediri from my site visit in Kupang. As we pulled into the parking lot of IAIN, late and deliriously tired, I noticed that the lights in the first floor office were still on. Nobody was inside. But in that moment, the pale, fluorescent glow revealed to me an interior of perfect security: Helena and Ananda and the regional managers huddled around the conference table, Rusli and Listia tapping away at their keyboards, Oki and the CL's giggling in the corner, Ayu and Zainah deep in conversation, Sarah grading TEFL assignments, Dipa and Teguh chatting with some RV's. I sat down on the stone wall in front of the office and dozed until my Bapak arrived in his rickety van and took me home.

Less is More

Acton, Massachusetts

I sort of fell into teaching as a last resort. My years at college were equal parts misguided, lonely, and humbling, and by the time I was looking for work at the end of my senior year, teaching seemed like the only job that anybody might conceivably consider me qualified for. I'd matriculated on the pre-med track. Multiple failures and rude awakenings—both personal and academic in nature—had forced me to confront the simple fact that I was meant for the humanities, and not science. And I'd barely managed to pick up an English minor and cobble together some relevant tutoring experience, before I shotgunned a patchwork resume and a horrifyingly earnest cover letter to as many private schools as I could stomach.

The veteran educator and mentor who hired me for my first, year-long internship would later comment that all I wanted for my students was "sincerity" and "transformation." At the time, I don't think I understood myself well enough to authentically agree with that assessment. But in retrospect, and after landing my first "real," salaried job as an English teacher and doing it well as I knew how for two years, I think my mentor was right. Sincerity and transformation are all I want out of teaching and life in general. An opportunity, in other words, to be honest with myself and others, and to refine my understanding of the world. Crafting good prose in good English is the only way I know how to seize that opportunity. I have no choice but to believe in the life-or-death importance of words, ideas, and their effective usage.

As a teacher, then, I am a sort of proselytizer. Whether I am teaching the English alphabet, or teaching Shakespeare, I will always be trying to set my students up to care about and take language seriously. But I should acknowledge that this is my own ulterior motivation and not necessarily a realistic or compelling one for all of my students—that someone who is learning the alphabet has very different immediate needs and goals than someone who is reading Shakespeare. I need to accept that some of my students may never care as much about language for language's sake as I do, or for the same reasons (and adjust my expectations accordingly), while simultaneously hoping and teaching as if one day they will.

This can be a hard balance to strike, and striking it gracefully is certainly what I've done most poorly as an inexperienced and at times, overzealous, young teacher. My expectations have routinely been too high, my standards too abstract, and my methods too insistent. And this has caused both me and my students unnecessary anxiety and disappointment. If I want my students to be sincere and to experience meaningful intellectual transformation, then I ought to better appreciate their immediate needs and goals. In a sense, I ought to listen more and impose less.

Listen more, impose less. Others have been trying to teach me this lesson for a long time. But I wasn't able to learn it until I accidentally became a teacher myself.

Scene in July

Boston, Massachusetts

A fire truck rumbles down a cramped street in Chinatown and pulls up in front of an old brownstone. Its alarms have been sounding off all afternoon. The first and second floors are occupied by three different Thai-Vietnamese fusion eateries—Pho, Bahn Mi, bubble tea, etc. The upper floors are nondescript but probably consist of dingy apartment and office space. A few windows are boarded. A few more contain rusting AC units. A lone pigeon struts and bobs on a sill. In the air is the lingering odor of hot garbage.

Three firemen—all burly, white men dressed in Navy t-shirts and overalls—emerge from the truck and saunter towards the building. Five Asian cooks in kitchen whites and a manager wearing a tweed blazer step out of a narrow doorway in between two of the street-level storefronts. The manager's coat is coat is too big on him. He stands with his hands clasped behind his back in the universal manner of all managers, while the cooks lean against the building and cast long looks up and down the sidewalk.

The firemen have stopped and congregated in the street, short of engaging with their culinary counterparts. The alarm is faulty. All can see this—eight men standing in a Chinatown street at four o'clock on a sweltering, midsummer afternoon. For a few minutes, they all hem and haw and stare up at the screeching building, while the crowds swirl around them. Two professions. Two languages. Two simultaneous, slack-jawed conversations. A shared indifference.

The firemen, deciding that there is nothing to be done, shrug, clamber back into their truck, and drive off into the July heat. The cooks and manager, having nobody left to standoff with, grind out their butts and retreat back through the doorway. The alarm screams on.

Travel Thought

Putney, Vermont

I like to be on the road. I have a strong sense of direction and decisive instincts. I scan signs, watch people, and walk quickly. Confusion is inevitable. Movement is key. It's the stopping, staring, and wringing your hands that makes you lost. As long as you move, you are getting closer.

There is another benefit to being a little bit reckless and overconfident while traveling. Because it's counterintuitive and taxing on your instincts, it intensifies the pleasure and relief you feel at finally coming to a stop—at a boarding gate, hotel, bar, park bench, coffee shop, train platform, front stoop, wherever. Whether you had a final, "intended" destination or were just wandering aimlessly like a stray dog, being in constant motion allows you to appreciate the brief interludes of rest in surprising, deeply affirming ways. Crowds shuffle by. Somebody yells something in a language you don't understand. A pair of pigeons peck for crumbs. In that moment, you feel brave for having overcome your natural inclination towards timidity and paralysis, and like you are truly a part of things. You feel like you earned the stillness and weren't just granted it. You feel a surprising twinge of familiarity and belonging. You recognize that wherever you come from or call home is arbitrary and that there is no predestined reason for why you are visitor in one place and a local in another. You remember that your needs, your culture, and your individuality are totally relative—products of chance. You take comfort in the realization that you are just a person.

Stucco Revisited

South Hadley, Massachusetts

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, my parents moved from the suburbs of Boston, where we had spent my childhood years, to Chandler, Arizona, where they would be able to escape the New England winters and be closer to my father’s place of work. They drove our old van across the country in September of 2012, spent a few months settling in, and, naturally, invited me to stay with them in Arizona over Christmas break. The thought of keeping my disastrous Fall semester a secret in such close quarters and fielding questions about school in general filled me with dread. But they insisted, so I packed a bag and went.

The three week-long visit was as uncomfortable and neurotic as I had anticipated. My parents and I visited a local optometrist so I could renew a long overdue prescription, hiked around Sedona and the Grand Canyon for a few days, and at one point, got into a nasty row over the cost of the disposable safety razor blades I’d started shaving with. I told them that I was getting straight A’s (I was failing classes) and they crowed about it over the phone to all our relatives on the east coast. I went for frequent runs—anything to get myself out of the house.

This was five years ago. I guess I was in a different place: angsty, ashamed, and filled with loathing. But on those long runs under the blinding, midday sun, all of Chandler looked ugly and brain-dead. Every stuccoed strip mall, every dusty construction lot lined with a mile of chain-link fence, every SUV making a lazy left turn onto a wide boulevard, seemed to be an affront—a gigantic mediocrity—and I could feel myself getting angrier with each step. One afternoon, I went to a local barbershop. It was a standalone building—a beige box in the middle of a blistering parking lot. I was the only non-white customer, and the youngest by what seemed to be around 50 years. I buried myself in a magazine and imagined, with a perverse mixture of disgust and pride, that everyone was staring at me.
A few months later, the university sent my parents a letter about my grades, to fearful effect. I did some crying and groveling and soul-searching, and scraped through two more disfigured years of school. My grades improved though, and after graduation, I found decently-paying work as a high school English teacher. In any case, I’ve gone back to visit my parents in Arizona since then and it felt a lot better. We ate at some of the same restaurants and hiked some of the same trails. I went on more runs and added late-night drives to the routine. I still didn’t like Chandler, but I was certainly less tense and impatient, and more willing to simply observe.

For one, I began to understand (perhaps subconsciously) why Chandler’s architecture and planning—its bountiful, commercial sprawl—had annoyed me so severely two years prior. Let me compress. First, you notice a scorpion in the garage and suddenly remember that the wide-open desert is always right there on your doorstep, anywhere in the American Southwest, and that it’s really up to you to go out into it. So maybe you do go out into it—camping or a road trip or something. Or maybe you just stare through your windshield at the mountains in the distance, and imagine yourself there. Either way, this passage from the opening chapter of Thomas de Zengotita’s book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, describes what happens next:

Pretty soon you notice how everything around you just happens to be there. And it just happens to be there in this very precise but unfamiliar way. You are so not used to this. Every tuft of weed, the scattered pebbles, the lapsing fence, the cracks in the asphalt, the buzz of insects in the field, the flow of cloud against the sky, everything is very specifically exactly the way it is—and none of it is for you. Nothing here was designed to affect you. It isn’t arranged so that you can experience it, you didn’t plan to experience it, there isn’t any screen, there isn’t any display, there isn’t any entrance, no brochure, nothing special to look at, no dramatic scenery or wildlife, no tour guide, no campsites, no benches, no paths, no viewing platforms with natural-historical information posted under slanted Plexiglas lectern things—whatever is there is just there, and so are you. And your options are limited. You begin to get a sense of your real place in the great scheme of things.

Very small.

Then, somebody honks and you look up and realize that the light has turned green. It all comes roaring back and in that moment, you make a snap comparison between your ostensible needs—how strenuously it's been insisted upon that these people, these cars, these buildings, these options really are all for and about you—and the totally, massively indifferent canvas of Nature, which, you remember, underpins it all. You come under the impression that the streets and peoples’ lives alike have been literally grafted onto the landscape—an impression that the vast emptiness of the desert intensifies in a way that no temperate forest ever can—and you feel pathetic for it.

Again, all of this happens more or less subconsciously. When it finally does bubble up to the surface, I find that the awareness doesn’t actually spare me from feeling pathetic or annoyed. It makes feel better for a different reason. I guess what I have now is an explanation, a choice, permission to lapse into bad faith if I really can’t help it. By honestly articulating my experience, whatever it may be, I acknowledge that I am not condemned, without irony, to be the helpless victim of a shallow and corrupt culture. Rather, I recognize that I am nothing more than a dignified, albeit tentative, participant in a strange and awkward life. I’m free to step outside of and forgive myself for whatever I might feel. I’m free to feel above my circumstances or at their whim. I’m free to slip consciously or unconsciously between these states. I'm free to retain some dignity, simply by telling the story of it all. I’m free to embrace—indeed, to feel fondly for—all the schtick, as often I did, speeding down the freeway at dusk amidst a sea of red tail lights, wondering with my heart of hearts what lay beyond the distant mesas, or where all the people and cars around me were going.