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.

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