The first time I think I realized that I truly fit in at SMAN 8 was on National Education Day. It was a Saturday, and although AMINEF essentially prohibited me from teaching on Saturdays, but that didn’t stop me from showing up every weekend morning in school attire, ready to take advantage of free wi-fi (when it was turned on) and a few spare hours to catch up on my own work before Falin finished her class and we could continue our culinary adventures across Pekanbaru for lunch. The best part about Saturday mornings (apart from the wi-fi) was the fact that at 6:20 a.m. everyone with an office job was happily asleep in their beds, so I could comfortably speed to school without laying on my horn or zigzagging in and out of traffic (sorry, Mom). That, and seeing how creative kids were at finding a hiding spot to skip the mandatory cub scout activities after class. This particular Saturday was more eventful than usual: it was National Education Day, so we were required to participate in an extra flag ceremony (usually reserved for Monday mornings, and an activity I secretly enjoyed).  The only redeeming part about this was that Risna was supposed to be the leader, something I ribbed her about for days until she found a way to wriggle out of her duties, dammit.  The bigger problem? Picking out which uniform to wear.

Most of the time, my attire was pretty simple: on Mondays, the civil servant uniform. Tuesday through Thursday, whatever I wanted, granted that it was a long, loose skirt and a blouse that came down past my rear with 3/4 length sleeves, minimum. (Actually, Tuesdays were the beige uniform that I never did get sewn at the tailor’s, whoops.) Friday was *supposed* to be the Jum’at style dress, though I almost always forgot.  The 17th of each month was the civil servant batik. The 25th of each month was the national teacher’s batik. And every so often someone would decide that we would wear the matching school batik for the day, be it blue (yes!) green (meh), or orange (don’t have, commence sulkiness). Risna was always in the know about what to wear. Falin and I…not so much.

So come Saturday morning on May 2: Falin and I were running late, as per usual, except this time we were still in our pajamas standing clueless in front of the closet, at a loss as to the day’s dress code:

“Just ask Risna.”

“Yeah right, she’ll know we’re running late. She’s probably on her motorcycle by now.”

“What if we wear the teacher’s batik?”

“You sure?”

“Isn’t it National Education Day? Doesn’t that mean teachers?”

“Yeah, that sounds right.”

“We don’t have to iron it….”

“Okay, just put it on, let’s go.”

We pulled into school miraculously on time, lug our backpacks/lunchbox/laptop case to the teacher’s room, where everybody was dressed like this:

Civil servant batik

Civil servant batik

While Falin and I, forever the trendsetters, looked pretty much exactly like this:

Teacher's batik

Teacher’s batik

Which is to say, wrong.  We were two black-and-white fish swimming into a sea of royal blue.  Ibu Afni, my rock for filling up on phone minutes and Internet data, smirked as she passed by my desk.

“I didn’t know it was Teacher’s Day, Moniek.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m just a really dedicated teacher.”

I got so much crap for my outfit choice that day, from demure Sensei to the usually grumpy vice principal. And it was great! Eight months after my whirlwind arrival to this crazy place, I of course knew beyond a doubt that I fit in around here. The laughs, the jokes, and the copious amounts of breakfast thrust upon me was more than enough evidence that I was accepted.  But there’s nothing like hearing someone rag on you like any other Joe Schmoe off the block that lets you know that hey, you’re part of the inner circle. We can talk smack on you, and you can dish it right back. (Plus later we found three other teachers wearing the wrong shirt so we all high-fived and formed a club. Everybody wins.)

~ ~ ~

Which brings us now to the star of our story, Pak Ibra.

I could spend all day ranting at my keyboard about internalized misogyny.  I have been the brunt of inappropriate comments while appropriately dressed at the mall; I have sworn profusely at trainee police officers who grab my arm in the street; I despise the fact that whatever I do, from standing immobile on an escalator to surreptitiously picking my teeth after a delicious plate of rendang, will automatically be characterized as “sexy.” I could list all of the times that I, as a woman, have felt uncomfortable in my own genderized skin.

Today is not that day.

Pak Ibra is, to put it bluntly, absolutely nuts. He’s one of the history teachers at SMAN 8, and compared to Bu Fau’s trademark temper and no-nonsense attitude  he’s obviously the “good cop” version in  the quest for knowledge about Dutch colonialism and the Soekarno regime, and wildly popular among the students. He’s an incorrigible jokester, and once he’s zeroed in on his unassuming prey, there’s no escape. In that case, his newest victim was yours truly.

Here’ s a couple well-known facts about Pak Ibra. First of all, he puffs on cigarettes like a smoke bomb on the 4th of July, with black clouds billowing out and clogging the airwaves. Second, he’s notoriously stingy. Third, the volume of his voice is only second to the roar of military jets that race across the skies like clockwork every time I’m explaining the most crucial part of my lesson. Fourth, his English vocabulary is essentially limited to words such as “you” “love” (pronounced lo-pe) and “me,” which doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the rest of this story is going.

“Monieeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!” I distractedly tore my gaze from the papers shuffled around haphazardly at my desk; every other teacher sat straight up, eyes alert, ready for the show.  Pak Ibra made a big show of sauntering into the teacher’s room, smirking. “You lo-pe me, yaaaa? You…me…” he pointed at each of us, then hooked his pinkies together. “Pacaran, yaaaa?”

“Nooooooo,” Risna and Mia cried out in unison as one of the math teachers came up and slapped him playfully on the forearm. “Jelek,” she said to me, “he’s so ugly! And too old, dia udah kakek.” Ibu Alman looked acrossed the room bemusedly. “Just marry him already, poison him, and take his inheritance,” she quipped, and several others nodded enthusiastically.

I turned to Pak Ibra, already used to his daily shenanigans.  “Monieeeeeeeeek!” he’d yell down the hallway, and I’d feign running away as my students looked on and giggled. “Miss, he is so crazy!” they’d tell me, and I’d just grin, making a show of ducking low past the windows if I ever had to pass his class. So for this, I was prepared. I turned my gaze upwards.

“Pak, what about when I go back to America soon? You’ll be too sad.”

“I’ll just come with you.”

“Oh, I’m sure your first wife will love that.”

“Just have him send money! You don’t need a grumpy old man coming along!” Mia guffawed.

“Monieeeeek, I lo-pe you, you lope-me! I abang, you adek,” he said, using the Malay terms that couples use for one another.

“No no no no, Pak.”

“Monieeeeeek, what do you want?”

At that, the whole room exploded with suggestions; every female teacher for the past two weeks had been giving her two-cents towards my ever-increasing list of demands.  I cocked my head to the side and pretended to think.

“Hmmm….no more smoking.”

He fished a pack of Camels from his breast pocket and tossed them dramatically over his shoulder–but close enough that they were still within easy reach.

“No more smoking in front of Moniek.”

“No, Pak, no more smoking, ever. And I want a car. A red one. Automatic. Brand new.”

Everybody “ooooh’ed;” this was by far the most popular demand.

Ibra’s head bobbed up and down like an overeager puppy. “Done. Red car. You and me, jalan-jalan malam minggu.” He grinned as the other teachers shouted at me. “Don’t go!!!! You’ll end up paying for dinner yourself! He’s stingy!!!!!”

“Wait, I’m not done! I want a batu akik ring, the same color as my new car. Red.”

Batu akik is something I can roughly translate as “gemstone,” but it seemed so much more than that. An absolute craze had ravaged the archipelago; people would park for a quarter-mile up and down a busy street just to squat down and analyze the stones littered in shallow pails, bargaining seriously with the vendors.  Nearly all of the male teachers wore at least two monstrous rings, one on each hand, and it wasn’t so much seen as a “hobby” as much as it had become a status symbol.

The infamous batu akik rings.

The infamous batu akik rings.

Ibra’s eyes lit up; now I was speaking his language. “A ruby! A ruby!” he crowed, tugging his huge pinkish gem off his thick fingers, a goofy grin plastered across his face, me shaking my head with the rest of the room in laughter. “Tomorrow! I buy you car tomorrow!”

At that point Falin would come marching into the room, hands on her hips, palms open ready to smack some sense into the crazy old man; my little savior. He’d take one look at her intense stare (partially for show), mutter under his breath, “oh shit, Mama’s here, gotta go,” and hightail it to the rest of his cronies, casually puffing their cigarettes under the “no smoking” sign in the lobby.

He never followed through on his promises. Every day were the same silly outbursts:

“Ibra, where’s Moniek’s car?”

“Moniek, why did I see you on your motorbike again? Didn’t Ibra buy you a car yet?”

“Moniek don’t listen to him, he’s a panduto!”

At that point I could fluently follow a conversation in the Minangkabau dialect, though my conversation skills left much to be desired. “Panduto” was one of my favorite words  so far (besides the swearwords, those I was good at) and meant “liar.” The next morning he came in and I was feeling a little cocky as all attention swiveled towards our daily banter.


“No, Pak! Bapak panduto. Alun ado oto.”

The entire room erupted into a mix of cheers and roaring laughter. I glanced back at Falin, a look of pride etched across her high cheekbones. “Was that right?” I mouthed, and she nodded, cheeks glowing with mirth. What I had told him was “You’re a liar, there is no car,”  but the fact that I had said so in dialect–and did so spontaneously– had made it that much funnier to the rest of my fellow teachers. I received scores of high-fives, half-a-dozen hugs, and countless petitions to reenact the conversation as everyone congratulated me: “Moniek, you are officially one of us, orang Minang.”

~ ~ ~

A few weeks later found me balancing a giant cardboard box on my hip and snatching frantically at a stack of notebooks perched precariously on the edge of my desk. The bell had just rung and I had already been ambushed by the principal with instructions to give the kids a mock TOEFL as part of some class-action research that a colleague of hers was doing. It caught me off-guard, leaving me worrying about how to restructure my day and not lose lesson time over someone else’s last-minute project. Pak Ibra came barreling into the room and made a beeline for my desk.

“Monieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek, where have you been?!”

“Woi, little help here, Pak?”

He grabbed the box and set it impatiently on my desk amid my protests; that’s not what I had meant. Half a stack of paper slid all over the floor. I scowled as he held out his stupid pinkish ring.

“Ada ruby, ada ruby, ada ruby….”

“Whatever Pak,” I grumbled as I grabbed the ring and shoved it on my finger. “See, it’s just your big ugly pink old man ring as usual….” I trailed off, then looked down at my finger.

It fit. I couldn’t believe it. The damn thing fit. It was pretty; a lavender stone set in a tasteful base of zirconium crystals. When the light hit it just right, a five-point star glistened on the surface.

my beautiful

my beautiful “ruby” ring.

I stared at him open-mouthed as the rest of the room giggled; evidently they’d all been in on the joke since the afternoon before. “No more panduto, no more panduto,” he sang, winking exaggeratedly.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait.” My heart rate picked up; I could just hear my mother’s voice echoing in the back of my head. “What is this?”

“Duh, it’s a ruby. American Star.”

“This doesn’t mean anything, right? Like, we’re not engaged or anything weird like that…right???”

His gave me a genuinely sincere look. “Just something to bring back to America so you don’t forget crazy ole Pak Ibra,” he said gently, then raised his voice back to maximum volume. “Monieeeeeeeeeeeek, you lo-pe meeeeeeee?”

“Sure thing, Pak, I lo-pe you, you lo-pe me, we are happy,” I played along, but not before sincerely thanking him for the gem now wrapped around my ring finger.

The rest of my free time between class was spent being dragged behind Pak Ibra, showing off the ring to anyone who would stop to look. “Watch this, watch this,” he’d chant, then look to me. “Monieeeeeek, you lo-pe me, yaaaaa?” I’d nod my head with fervor, then the minute he turned his back I’d shake my head vigorously, to the hilarity of his audience.

~ ~ ~

I wore that ring every single day, and it became as much of our routine as everything else.

“Monieeeeeeek, you lo-pe me? You, me, lope, yaaaaaa? No more panduto, yaaaa? Ada rubyyyy!”

“Not anymore, Pak, now I want that car.”

Uni Mia, yours truly, and the ineffable Pak Ibra, showing off our akik rings.

Uni Mia, yours truly, and the ineffable Pak Ibra, showing off our matching rings.


loss, and life.

Loss will always be a part of leaving.  When I studied abroad in Spain my junior year at Cornell I left my group of friends–affectionately dubbed the “Psycho Ward”–behind, only to find myself feeling estranged when I returned, pushed and pulled into some ‘other’ version of what was once myself. Things were difficult when one of the girls passed away unexpectedly that same year; feeling like I was on the outside looking in, I never found a way to say my goodbyes in the only way I could.  Last night I sat cross-legged on my bed scribbling letters, thumbing through notecards when I needed Google to help me double-check an address for PJ and Lew, the elderly couple I spent four years visiting at the nursing home while at Cornell.  Little did I know that the first hit would be an obituary: Lew passed away in December, and my heart lurched painfully because our last farewell was supposed to be temporary. I know: life moves forward. People move in cities, through countries, across oceans. But the sudden impact of loss still leaves my heart in upheaval, because I realize that I can’t be with everyone I love all at once, and it hurts.

Last April was a busy month to say the least. Yasmin and I were preparing for the national WORDS competition in Jakarta, I had a handful of AMINEF reports to muddle through, and the big Senior Send-Off was right around the corner as the twelfth graders sat tediously through grueling national exams, computer-based this year. Classes were hectic; I was still groping for a way to tell my parents that I wanted to extend my visa for two months after my grant ended.  Messages from Popon would vibrate on my phone the minute the bell rang: “Maaaaaam are you free this period to practice speechhhhh????” It was crazy, and I loved it.

So it was just another busy day when Risna and I were sitting in the teacher’s room between periods–it was probably a Tuesday, when I taught most of my classes with her.  I don’t know where Falin was; at that point, it was strange to see one of us without the other. The teacher’s room was louder than normal. Bu Al was bustling about, rounding up teachers for a hospital visit; Ibu Rosmaini had been admitted the night before due to breathing complications. I tried in vain to conjure up her likeness in my mind–she sat near the Social track teachers, I near Science, and I couldn’t recall any specific conversation we might have had. Risna glanced up from her notes, her usually smiley face drawn tight across her brow.

“We have about an hour before class again…what do you think, is it enough time to go?”

Knowing full well how things work at SMAN 8–and if I may say, Indonesia in general–the answer was no, we did not have enough time. I shrugged noncommittally; it was up to Risna, I supposed, because she knew better than I did. Sure enough, we grabbed our purses and seated ourselves on the awful orange couches in the reception area, chatting animatedly with Uci Yen as the other women scurried about, looking for the gym teacher to be our chauffer. Twelve robust women piled into the back of the school van and I found myself squished in the back row as they whooped and hollered in typical fashion, once in a while stopping mid-sentence to make sure I got the joke.

We didn’t go straight to the hospital. Bu Febny’s mother-in-law had passed away, and we were stopping at her house first to pray. Risna kept glancing at her watch. I was texting Falin–I remember now, it was a Thursday, we had arrived home from a solo trip to West Sumatra the night before, and she was resting at home on her day off while I taught my one class for the day. Once inside, we shook hands with the family and sat in a circle on the rug in the foyer. Bu Al pulled out a dog-eared copy of Al-Quran and began to lead the women in the. verses I sat in awe, listening to the uneven rhythm of their voices in Arabic. Innalillahiwainnailaihirajiun. Surely we belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.

The recitations went on for a while. I caught Uci checking Facebook as she mumbled the words softly from memory; Risna ducked outside for a moment to call a colleague to get our class started with some book exercises, because there was no way on God’s green Earth that we would be on time. After passing around sliced watermelon and sweets–“Moniek, have some more!”– we dug our shoes out from the pile of big-buckled flats and wedges and climbed into the van again to the hospital, still another 15 minutes away. Risna fidgeted nervously with her Blackberry as I stared across Uci’s shoulder out the window.

I didn’t know what to expect at the hospital. I’d tagged along once to visit someone’s 19-year-old son with dengue at the police academy’s treatment center, which was more of a glorified barracks equipped with IVs than anything else. Rumah Sakit Awal Bros was much more like your standard American hospital, beige and fluorescent and sterile. We clambered into the elevator (I shrunk as small as possible in the corner; I hate elevators) and the questions began buzzing back and forth. Did Rosmaini have asthma? When was she admitted? Wasn’t her daughter a 12th grader? In my mind I saw my brother on the nebulizer, puffing on Albuterol through a plastic mask.

The women jostled each other to be first into the room as I hung back tentatively between Risna and Ibu Afni. We shuffled forward in a two-way line in and out of the tiny doorframe, stopping to shake hands with who I assumed was Ibu Rosmaini’s son, dutifully bowing his head to each veiled teacher as she passed by.

Somehow I was the last one into the room. A grey-haired woman lay in a railed hospital  bed covered in a thin gown, looking small next to the machines that beeped and blipped beside her. Her eyes darted back and forth and lit up with recognition as I approached; it was I who scanned her facial features, disoriented at seeing her so…intimately, I suppose, without her patterned jilbab or colorful dresses. I found myself at a complete loss for words, in any language. All I could do was take her hand as I studied her unfamiliarly familiar features and squeeze, trying to force all of my unvoiced healing thoughts into that single grasp. And just as soon as it happened, I found myself shuffled out of the room, her fingers uncurled from between mine, Risna and I giggling as we stealthily tried to find our way to class without anyone realizing we were chronically late.

Innalillahiwainnailaihirajiun. The teacher’s room was eerily quiet on April 19. Ibu Rosmaini had passed away. The students milled about, hauntingly free from the daily grind; I’d never felt such a restless stillness among them. It was a Monday, we were clad in our mustard-brown civil servant uniforms. The flag ceremony was forgotten. I looked to Falin, lost–what on earth do you do when a woman with a sudden onset of asthma suddenly dies in the early hours of the morning?

As everyone coordinated rides we sat in silence at our desks, one in front of the other, our thoughts crossing the air on separate planes. Finally, after most of the room had emptied, we walked arm and arm to her white Mitsubishi and drove to Ibu Rosmaini’s home. “Her daughter is still in testing, she doesn’t know yet,” I had heard one teacher whisper to another. I balked. How does no one tell you that your own mother has died?

We parked three blocks away from the house; there was no other thinkable option. The cracked, narrow road was packed;  the entire school, it seemed, had found a way to come pay final respects to their Bahasa Indonesia teacher. “She was supposed to retire next year,” someone muttered. I recognized individual faces amid the throng of white and grey uniforms: Zahra. Azzura. Celine. We made our way to the front of the house and were ushered in by the privilege of our uniforms, the air stale with the recycled breath of too many people in such a tiny space. A thin white mat topped with a gauzy shroud lay in the center of the room; following Islamic tradition, the body had been brought home to be bathed by the immediate family before the proceeding prayer and burial. At the sight of the shroud Falin stopped short, her eyes frantic, breaths sharp. She went reeling out of the house, and I at her heels; having suddenly lost her eldest sister only eight months before, the memories were too much to bear. We found ourselves perched on a lopsided sofa in the front garden until my own inhales became rasp– the man chain smoking beside me had put me short of breath. I quickly excused myself to grab my inhaler from the car, panting at the throng of students asking me where was I going, Miss?

Two puffs later, Falin found me at the car and we began walking slowly down the bumpy road to the mosque when a quick glance around led me to what should have been obvious: I was the only one without my head covered.  We stopped awkwardly under the blazing sun; religion, which on the surface had never felt like a division between us, suddenly stood as high as the smog-filled sky. “You could…wait for me? At the car?” she asked, her eyes hesitant as mine blinked away tears. I wordlessly took the keys and we walked in two different directions, for the first time feeling alienated by the Sign of the Cross I make before every prayer, or the tight ringlets that spiral over my shoulders and down my back.

The car was hot. Too hot. I slithered out and slunk over to a gaggle of nearby students, self-consciousness blazing red across my temple. “Can I sit with you guys?” I mumbled, tail between my legs, and they nodded as I sank down on a withered tree stump. My spirits soon skyrocketed as I got to chat in Indonesian with some of my shyer students about American culture; today was not a day for classroom English.  Before I knew it, Falin had already wandered back before I’d even heard the call to prayer. “I felt terrible thinking you were waiting alone,” she admitted. “I’ll do an extra prayer on my own, let’s just go home.”

It was a quiet ride to Falin’s house; I still felt marked as being utterly different, for belonging to the 2% of Pekanbaru’s population that wasn’t Muslim. It left me feeling raw, exposed. As always, Falin sensed that there was something wrong, but how do you tell your best friend that you all of a sudden feel ostracized for not following the ‘right’ religion–her religion– all because of a few flyaway locks and an unassuming veil?

There was more to it. I had this inexplicable, irrational need for closure. For every person who has passed away in my life, I never felt like I had the goodbye I needed. My great uncle. A previous soccer coach. Sanya. My beloved Oma. In 22 years, I had never been to a funeral, never had that sense of finality.  Something inside me yearned to follow my fellow teachers and students to the burial. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was because out of that singular hospital visit, I was the last one to squeeze her hand. Maybe it was because I was part of a community and I felt as if I really belonged. I had to be there with my school. For her.

The emotions came tumbling out of me in a torrent of sobs to a totally off-guard Falin, who in her extreme goodness pulled me into a hug and listened patiently as I stammered through my overwhelming surge of emotions until we cried together. We pulled two black dresses from her closet–Falin gently straightened my hijab for me–and wound our way through the back roads to a humble cemetery, stopping every once in a while to call Bu Al for directions.

They were already solemnly shoveling soil into the grave when we had picked our way through thistles to the small crowd gathered. A young woman wailed, knees buried in the freshly tilled soil; the air around her smelled of the earth. (Later I would learn that this was Bu Rosmaini’s middle daughter; her youngest, the senior at SMAN 8, had opted to finish her university entrance exams instead of watch her mother be laid to rest; the proctor told us later that her answer sheet was smudged with tears.) A weathered old woman stood close behind, ramrod straight, face drawn; Ibu Rosmaini’s mother, bearing what no mother should ever have to go through. We stood near the back as the other teachers shifted quietly, still in their Monday uniforms. I felt fingertips at my wrist, my shoulder; there we stood, together.

We bowed our heads together as the imam led us in final prayer; lilies were sprinkled across the mound; people touched their hands to their hearts and slowly made their way back to cars, husbands waiting at home, daily chores. A small group of students stepped forward and surrounded the grave of their beloved teacher, girls kneeling, boys standing stoically behind the wooden marker. Together they raised their hands and, in incredibly moving unison that will forever stain my memory, they prayed.

In every corner of this world, there is loss. But there is also life.








For the past two weeks I’ve been telling myself to write. Everything else has come at its own pace–the four burners on the gas stovetop, the produce section at Giant Eagle, drinking tap water straight from the faucet–but the words, myriad that they are, remain stubbornly bottled up in my chest. The excuses run rampant: my laptop keyboard has been out of commission since I flew to Bali last December. I have to unpack. Id rather read Nabokov’s Lolita on my tiny smartphone screen (because if there’s one thing I desperately need right now it’s a library card) because it seems infinitely more interesting to read about a suave Frenchman’s sexual perversions than go rifling through my own thoughts. To be honest, the writer’s block–if that’s what I should call it–has been ongoing for months, ever since I made the unconscious decision to live in my emotions and experiences rather than write them all down. But I’m rambling, and the point is that I have a lot to say, and writing for me has always been therapeutic.

I’m back in America now, which is weird to say and even weirder when you find yourself in the terminal of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport after sprinting half-dazedly to catch your connection in Seattle, four flights down of a 40+ hour journey, and suddenly it hits you that there’s a group of 50 year old women in Daisy Dukes and cowboy hats gossiping about their trip to Vegas. There’s pork on the menu at the Quizno’s, and out of habit you sputter in protest when the kind-eyed woman behind the counter lifts a hash of grease-soaked bacon for your Turkey Club. Hell, there are water fountains, and even the tap water is friendly on your weathered immune system. All of a sudden, America feels like more skin and hair and sex and decadence than you’ve seen in ten months, and it’s only Minneapolis. You call your mother–first your American mom, then your Indonesian mama–and tearfully voice the deep-seeded doubts that you can’t do this.

But you can. You nearly faceplant on the escalator in the rush to hug your parents in the empty Pittsburgh baggage claim, blubbering because you didn’t think your dad would be there and there he was, beside your mom, and they’re a lot taller than you remembered, because in Indonesia you were the tall one. Even  your mom’s Honda feels strange: too low to the ground, with the steering wheel on the wrong side. You stare out the window at what’s supposedly Pittsburgh, but all you see is one dark, generic building after another because it’s already after 11 pm and your body doesn’t know if you should be asleep or awake. Red lights feel like an eternity; gas is down to $2.89 a gallon. Your house–you don’t dare call it home yet–is familiar only through staged pictures on a real estate website, grainy camera phone images, and anecdotes about the monstrously steep hill that you always brushed off as hyperbole (fact: it isn’t). You take the brief tour (it’s not a big house), nod politely at the pots and pans hanging from the ceiling and new-age rocking chairs in front of the fireplace; Ikea is a thing here. Your suitcases get dragged down thirteen steps to your new bedroom, complete with storage space, linen closet, and access to the laundry room. It feels lonely. After a much-needed shower (where’s the bucket? why is the water warm?) you kiss your parents goodnight, tuck yourself into bed, and text Falin from under the covers because you miss her. The tears haven’t come, yet. Tomorrow, life begins again.

Being back in America is strange, exciting, uncomfortable, lonely, homesick, new.  It’s reading messages at 7:00 am when you know that their day is already ending; it’s listening for the call to prayer and hearing radio silence.  It’s sending flowers and cake and chocolates for the first day of Cibi English and watching the surprise video over and over again because as happy as you are to see them, to hear them…you’re not there. It’s never having wanted to leave in the first place; but at the same time, there’s something good–whatever ‘good’ may be– about being here.

There are so many laughs and tears and emotions and moments to share, and now that the words are finally trickling out I’m hoping I’ll be able to sort through my memory box and dust them off, one by one, and lay them on the shelf. So here’s to experiences that never quite end, but overlap with new beginnings.

Read, read, read, and read some more

Looking back on the elementary school nostalgia that is scented markers and the freedom of outdoor recess, for several reasons third gradeis stands out most in my mind as formative to my early adulthood. Being separated in class from my brother was already the norm–he was in 3-K while I was in 3-C–but I was thrown for a loop when my best childhood friend, Mary Ann, was sorted into 3-A, and I was a lonely little tugboat lost in the big blue sea without a playmate or partner-in-crime. Or so poor little me thought, on the first day of school. In actuality, it became a year of new friends, new knowledge, and new experiences, from tracing life-size diagrams of the human digestive and circulatory systems to being that kid who “killed the guinea pig” when I took the class pet home for the weekend and he died peacefully in his sleep (I cried for days). It’s the seemingly insignificant moments that stick out most in my mind: rubbing pure aloe extract right from the leaf in science; singing “I’ve Got the Whole World in My Hands” in social studies; borrowing the book Capyboppy from the classroom library and sobbing when Tommy Peet kicked Capy the capybara (in retrospect, I cried a lot in third grade). Even though I ended the school year two weeks early in order to take a trip to visit my grandmother in the Netherlands (precisely after the annual Share Bears assembly, I do recall; the longer I type the more I remember), third grade at Chestnut Hill Elementary School was hands-down the best a kid could get, both then and now.

In third grade I was also immensely blessed to have Mrs. Carey* as my teacher that year, since retired but no less one of the kindest, warmest teachers who knew how to make learning fun for a class of squirmy eight-year-old, and I absolutely adored her. She never yelled, ever, which was a big plus in my book as the shyest little nugget at Chestnut Hill (and a chatty little ragamuffin at home, go figure). She knew how to make each of us feel special, and what third grader on this planet never secretly wished that their teacher could  become his or her mother/father/grandparent/ aunt/uncle at one point or another? Early childhood is in part a yearning for love and acceptance, and Mrs. Carey’s hugs every afternoon before going home gave us just that. We celebrated the 100th day of school by reading for 100 minutes in our pajamas and sleeping bags (mine ironically had Barbie on it, little did I know) and spent Friday afternoons watching movies and spending our hard-earned funny money on Twizzlers and Lemonheads and silently praying that it was finally our turn to sit in the beanbag chair. And every week, one of us was selected to be ‘Student of the Week,’ with rights and priviliges including, but not limited to, (1) being Line Leader, (2) sitting in the faded  blue rocking chair during reading time, (3) having your friends trace your body on a roll of paper, color it to look more like you and less like Gumbi, and write compliments around it that couldn’t include the words “nice” or “good” because that’s boring and we were much more articulate than that. We also got to have lunch with Mrs. Carey and three friends of our choosing, and even though fraternization between 3-A and 3-C  was highly discouraged (in my eight-year-old mind), Mrs. Carey let me invite Mary Ann to join my luncheon and I was (still am) eternally grateful.

Before I get too carried away with the good ‘ole days, if there is anything that I will remember from third grade when I am old/gray-haired/totally rocking the blinged-out walker is reading. I was that naughty little girl who kept a flashlight under my pillow for the purpose of reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle at the oh-so-late hour of 10 p.m., which felt so sneaky and secretive but in retrospect my parents totally knew. If I learned anything in third grade, I learned to love reading. Mrs. Carey’s catchphrase was “Read, read, read, and read some more,” and I’d be damned if that isn’t one of my lifelong mantras, alongside “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and “let [me] eat cake.” In all seriousness, truer words in elementary education have never been spoken. My reputation as an insatiably voracious junior reader led me to become a Cornell English major and eventual Teacher of the English Language. To say that learning to love to read in third grade changed my life is a gross understatement, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Flash forward 15 (!) years. I am sitting in a Starbucks at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta with my debate team, wondering (a) why Starbucks is so damn expensive because I can get my morning cappucino at SMAN 8’s canteen for all of 50 cents and (b) pulling out my wallet anyway to treat my nuggets because even though we lost I was bursting with pride at the poise, determination and spirit they brought to each preliminary round, and Starbucks here is kind of like the epitome of Cool coming from a city that doesn’t even have Dunkin’. Even more exciting than Hazelnut Macchiatos, however, is the bookstore across the way. Apart from our government-issued textbook, crumbling dictionaries, and the questionable bootlegged pdfs, in my experience books written in English are hard to come by, especially concerning the likes of John Green novels, the Divergent series, and anything considered remotely “fun.” I watch my kids explore that bookstore like they had just discovered the Lost Ark: carefully, but with the famished desire to devour each novel whole. “What do you recommend, Moniek?” they ask wistfully, their thumbs absently rubbing the price tags. Not only are English books few and far between; they are expensive, so decisions must be made wisely, and some are inevitably left behind.

During these nine months, I have been so incredibly blessed with the best students I could have ever asked for in my first “official” year of teaching. They are smart, polite, and hard-working, with just the right amount of sass to keep me on my toes. They love Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars and the Avengers and Elmo. The Fault in Our Stars was a huge hit at the movie theater when I first came. Yasmin loves Boy Meets World. Anas loves the Kardashians. With all of the access to Western pop culture embodied in music, movies, television, and social media, these kids were lacking in reading material, and not by choice.

I wanted to change that. For a school that has given me so much this year, I wanted to give back in a way that would outlast my nine months and lay the foundation of a legacy that would last far into the future. Following the model of the brilliant Katy in Atambua and amazing Sarah in Medan, I began to build my own English Language Library. My headmistress generously gave me permission to use an empty, spacious classroom to construct my castle. Slowly but surely, the walls have been splashed with paint the color of egg yolks; dusty bookshelves are moving their way in; the all-important air conditioner is getting a much-needed repair. Even more inspiring, however, was the response I got from my students. I was absolutely inundated by book recommendations, including anything by John Green, The BFGThe Great Gatsby, and the infamous Fifty Shades of Gray series (which I hastily shot down). With the generosity of family and friends** on social media, I have been able to buy over $500 worth of books from, which has a great selection at great prices and–most importantly–offers free shipping worldwide. We have almost 80 books in our collection so far, and seeing the look on my students’ faces whenever a new delivery comes in leaves me grinning all day.

I don’t like to ask for much, but as I wrap up my Fulbright grant in this wild and crazy country that’s become another home, I  desperately want to leave my students and fellow teachers with resources that will stay with them long after their curly-haired resident native speaker has made the long journey back to the States. The third-grader in me still fiercely believes in “read, read, read, and read some more,” no matter how old we get or what side of the world we we end up on. If you are feeling generous and would like to add a book to the first English Language Library of its kind in Pekanbaru, feel free to follow the link here, check out my “Keep in Touch!” tab on the blog, or simply comment below. Feel free to share with family and friends as well! Getting this project off the ground is one of my proudest achievements this year, and I am eternally grateful for those who are able to help open my student’s eyes to the joy of reading.

So thank you, thank you, thank you, from a little elementary school student long ago with frizzy bangs and round glasses, who believes that books are the thread that link my star-spangled family in America and my colorful family in Pekanbaru. More updates to come soon!


*Mrs. Carey, if you’re reading this, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.

**Infinite thanks to the Hosea family, Michael Alan, Meghan Dowdle, Jennifer Wertz, Vera de Bot, June & Dick Shone, Suzanne Harwyliw, Ernofalina Rusli, and Erik van Rheenen; my students and I are forever grateful for your kindness and generosity and all-around awesomenesss!


Here and there

A stolen minute, a quiet hotel room (synonymous with ‘free wi-fi’) and my current favorite song on repeat make for what feels like the first free moment in months to sit and reflect on the whirlwind that my life has become. The setting is almost antithetical–the presence of CNN/potentially hot water/carpet being almost too much to bear–to the overwhelming flood of feelings spilling from my oversaturated heart and settling weightedly above my ribcage, pressing painfully against my breastbone. Tonight this will be the fourth bed I’ve slept in over the course of five days. I am no longer an ETA. The blog posts have been on the back burner for months as I tune out their high-pitched squeals of “write me!” that plague the inner recesses of my mind duringg the precisely three and a half minutes of self-reflection I give myself just after 6:00 p.m., as the call to prayer echoes through concrete alleyways and I promptly fall asleep for twelve hours due to sheer fatigue; because let’s face it: being foreign is exhausting.

[This post is mostly for my benefit; for the opportunity to sort through my mind and my heart to find what conversations just can’t say. I have so many stories to share: in the past weeks, I have experienced grief over the death of a fellow teacher, motherly warmth from women I hardly knew nine months ago, heavy disappointment followed by enormous joy, and a life that simultaneously breaks my heart and sews it back together in all the right places. There is a time and a place for my stories. But plese bear with me, my dear reader, today is not one of them.]

I am still Here. Ten days after my fellow American teachers left their sites for the land of Abercrombie cutoffs and tacos stuffed with refried beans and tan lines that fade at the first frost and a different flavor of red and white found in the billowing banner that squeaks its way up the flag pole every Monday morning. And I. Am. Still. Here. Still here, for the unfinished projects. Still here, for the cultural experience of Ramadan and Idul Fitri. Still here, because the word “goodbye” hurts too much and isn’t getting easier. Still here, because there’s still so much to say and not enough words, not enough time, never enough time. Still here, because despite my blond-ish hair and blue-ish eyes and pale-ish skin people have begun to mistake me as One Of Us, and not so deep down I am afraid of coming back home and becoming One Of Them, the girl who showers with a bucket and dances alone on a rain-spattered rooftop and can’t go a moment without rice, or necklines above the collarbone, or dropping our bags at the end of the day in favor of hugs because finally, we are home. The girl who chose to dive headlong into Indonesian waters and filter oxygen through newfound gills, because to come up for air is to straddle two continents, There and Here, and to choose both is to choose neither. As is evident in my sporadic communication (see also: Neglect of Grad School Apps), unconscious outbursts of “Alhamdullilah” and “Bismillah,” and love of all things fresh mango, I chose Here.

My life There no longer feels like mine. A de-facto Erieite of 16+ years, my homecoming will be composed of “yins” and “jimmies” that intersect at Three Rivers, and the minute I tediously undo the laces of my sneakers in the security line of Pittsburgh International I will, indeed, be “home.” The weathered raised ranch with a yellow bedroom glowing with sunrise belongs to another happy family as of a few weeks ago; never again will I sit with my nose frozen against frosted windows, giggling satanically at little children falling on their bums on the patch of sidewalk that freezes over before everything else, or fervently blessing Mr. Karle on the corner for snowblowing the base of the driveway on blustery mornings, though my father will have you know that it was his achy back that bore hunched-over shovefuls of grimy slush left behind by the plows. I won’t see Dave’s wiry frame striding across the Invisble Fence as his ‘baby girls’ yap frantically in the yard, the sweet scent of his everlasting cigar lingering in the stagnant summer air. I don’t know what “home” looks like, whether our ‘riverview cottage’ in Aspenwall is white or grey or a wholesome shade of Suburban Beige. (As far as I’m aware, riverview is a misnomer for the freeway that provides a soothing white noise background for intimate conversation, or the freight train that rolls along like clockwork along rusty railroad tracks.) Hell, I don’t even know my own ‘permanent’ address, because as far as I’m concerned it’s On Top of a Hill, Somewhere Near My Uncle’s House, Pittsburgh, PA, USA. As for now, you can find me Somewhere Near The Indian Ocean With No Beach In Sight, On An Island, In A City With Smoke and Haze and Lots of Love. Don’t get me wrong; I am thrilled that my parents finally made the move from Gannon–if not to a sleepy coastal town with their own B&B, then at least to somewhere with better career opportunities and a much-needed change of pace. With every static-filled phone call home the wanderer in me does pirouettes imagining fresh farmer’s markets and riverside runs and paying homage to Randy Paush’s computer lab at Carnegie Mellon. A recent jaunt through Singapore and consequent meetup with a good friend from Cornell reminded me that I am 22-going-on-23, that my friends are leading these exciting, independent, sophisticated young-adult lives in NYC and New Orleans and Napa, even though none of use have the slightest clue about what we’re doing, that I will join their ranks. And all of a sudden, fantasies of sipping on a G&T at a breezy outdoor cafe are erased by the unerasable image of my beautiful English teachers–of Mam Nursri, Mam Rau, Mam Mursyidah, Uci Yen, Mam Tap, Uni Mia, Risna, and of course my forever-by-my-side Mama Falin–laughing raucously over lunch, their colorful hijabs bobbing to the beat of their rapid-fire Minangese, sharing fried chicken and one-liners and more love than I ever thought I deserved during nine short months. I see Ica winning her very first speech contest, Popon sharing secrets with me in an empty classroom, Raras twirling around the multimedia room, Azzahra taking the long way to the canteen just  for an extra half-minute of conversation. And suddenly the 46 extra days ahead of me aren’t enough.

Then again, they never were to begin with.

So here’s to 46 more days of self-reflection: of anecdotes, of pictures, of finding a way to accurately share the spirit and warmth and love of a world 9000 miles away, a world that most of you will never see and I will never forget, not in this lifetime. Yet for today, the camera card remains empty, the stories carefully stored away for another stolen moment when Here and There become much closer than they actually feel. And I remain stubbornly Here while life marches on There, caught in the middle of Us and Them, where being “only 22” makes me feel as if I’ve already lived another lifetime.

A Saturday worth a thousand WORDS

“I’m your fairy godfather, and I’m here to tell you today that love…is one.”

Last Saturday was undeniably one of my most favorite days in Indonesia so far. I’ve wandered through ochre rice paddies at the foot of somber hills and luscious mountains in West Sumatra; I’ve ridden a motorcycle through sleepy villages and hideaway beaches in Bali; I’ve stayed up until midnight staring out at the heat lightning and counting stars from my rooftop, only to wake up five hours later to watch the orange sun rise drowsily above Pekanbaru’s haze from my same perch. I’ve been blessed with more beauty than I ever could have hoped for in a lifetime. But my happiest moments are undoubtedly with my students. I’ve taken my all-star debaters to Jakarta for national competitions, joking together and calming their nerves and treating them to Starbucks. I’ve sat one-on-one with a struggling student after class to learn that he loves English and understands a ton but is too shy to ask for help with grammar. I reenact embarrassing childhood stories to a class of rapt tenth graders, who freak out when they learn that yes, Miss Moniek ate ants when she was six because the neighborhood boys told her to. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve cursed in frustration at 2:00 a.m., but when I say that I do it all for my kids, I mean it.

March 14 was the culmination of all of the joy and anxiety and exuberance and frustration that epitomizes the life of any teacher. Every year, AMINEF hosts a national speech and talent competition for 10th and 11th grade students from 35 high schools across the archipelago. Each ETA hosts a local competition at his or her school, and the winner is invited with the ETA to compete at the national competition in Jakarta. It’s an all-expenses-paid trip, from the five-star hotel to the fancy meals at the ambassador’s home to adventures playing laser tag and going ice skating in Jakarta’s playground of outlandish malls, an urban jungle. Obviously, I told my students, the best part about winning isn’t the awesome free trip…it’s the fact that it’s an awesome free trip WITH MISS MONIEK. And, bless their hearts, some of them might have believed me.

A month before the competition, Falin and I bombarded the students with propaganda to join the WORDS Competition in SMAN 8. It just so happened that our frenzied promoting coincided nicely with a chapter about announcements—thank you, Curriculum 2013!—so I could shamelessly solicit students to proclaim the details about the competition, over and over and over again. I had my loyal CIBI kids running around frantically to slap hand-drawn posters up in every classroom hours before I was supposed to accompany a student to Yogyakarta for a storytelling competition. I miraculously gathered all 350 of my students in one room and watched them squirm in their seats as I bounced up and down in the front of the room like a five-year-old at the peak of a sugar rush, colorful PowerPoint slides flashing on the wall behind me. Falin—God bless her—called out students in class and threatened to lower their scores if they didn’t join, and despite that sweet smile I think there were a handful who were legitimately scared of her empty threat (in fact, everyone who joined got bonus points!). After a whopping 54 students signed up the first week, the number whittled down to a solid 32. I was stoked.

My incredible WORDS crew

My incredible WORDS crew

A week before WORDS, the messages started pouring in, starting out as a slow trickle and morphing into a raging downpour the night before the competition. I had held three meetings to help my students think about a topic, outline their speech, and get a grasp on that elusive talent, but attendance dwindled when the kiddos found out Miss Barbie wasn’t bringing snacks anymore. Then, the messages. It was like Mt. Vesuvius erupted on my poor little Samsung:

“I feel scared right now miss
hmm we see it soon
I will join the competition or not”

“Miss, i’m afraid that I couldn’t join the WORDS tomorrow._.I’m not ready for the speech”

“Misss monieek i need you huhu for discuss about my ideaaa about words”

“im still confused about my speech miss D:”

“im not ready yet oh gosh”

Fact: these are some of the actual messages I received, and damn it if every. single. one. of those kids joined and did fantastically. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that just the smallest bit of confidence and encouragement can go a long way.

Fast forward to Saturday morning, 5:00 a.m. Miss Moniek is running on four hours of sleep after staying up way too late making nametags and attendance sheets and God knows what else in a state of near delirium. There is no coffee in sight. The medals for first, second, and third place shine gaily, courtesy of the wizened Punjabi man on Jalan Sudirman. The official WORDS banner—featuring yours truly in a sassy pose on the lower left hand corner—is hanging straight and true in the auditorium, thanks to my dedicated CIBI kids who stayed for two hours after school to help me set up. Falin and I stubbornly combed through three separate bakeries just so we had enough of the same stupid little pastries for the kids to munch on in the morning. At school, I toddled my way up the stairs, laden with bags and water bottles and my laptop and everything but the kitchen sink, while at least a dozen of my students swarm like vultures.

“Miss, I’m not joining but I don’t want to go to class, can you put me on the permission letter anyway?”

“Just kidding, Miss, I decided to join after all, hehe.”


Thankfully, Falin came up the stairs, shooed the kids away, helped me set my bags down, took my face in her hands, and told me to breathe. She was my unyielding support system throughout the entire process, and her quiet humility deserves a thunderous round of applause.

Varrel looking fabulous as he derailed stereotypes.

Varrel looking fabulous as he derailed stereotypes.

We started an hour behind schedule, in part due to one frazzled Moniek trying to do sixteen things at once, one temperamental English teacher who wouldn’t excuse my kids from her class, and one late judge (hem, hem). Anas was my fabulous Master of Ceremonies, sharp as a whip and witty to boot. The first participant was Iman, an enthusiastic 11th grader and one of the sweetest, most polite boys I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. “Do you believe in magic?” he asked, and a silver coin flashed between his fingertips, only to disappear in thin air. He twisted a napkin into the shape of a rose, made it float languidly in midair, then set it alight; in a burst of flame, the paper napkin transformed into a beautiful red rose. I still have ZERO idea how he did it, and Iman isn’t sharing his secrets.

The following five hours passed in the blink of an eye; for 28 kids who were supposedly “not ready” the night before, they blew me away. Nicholas, one of the quiet boys in the back of my X IPA 7 class, talked about religious tolerance and demonstrated designing a logo on Photoshop. Kevin, who never sits still ever, played piano in a way that totally doesn’t fit with his ADD personality. Aryo, who only talks to me on Facebook chat and not in person, was filled with zest and spirit as he performed a traditional Minangese dance. Aldo spiced things up with intense karate moves. Varrel painted half of his face with makeup and preached about stereotypes and labelling. Sweet little Raras was expressive while telling stories about why good outweighs evil in this world. Popon, always the entertainer, shocked the audience by talking about homosexual love and inevitably stole the show as our “fairy godfather” with oodles of pizzazz. Anggun, one of my little underdogs from the social track, summoned up all of her courage to talk about her Javanese heritage. Ica was tenderly honest talking about her experience trying to fit in at a new high school; when she played Maroon 5 on the keyboard, everyone sang along. And that’s what I loved most about Saturday—the kids were so overwhelmingly supportive of one another. Tito’s iPod wouldn’t hook up to the sound system, so Timothy played backup for him as he sang “Heal the World.” When Dela forgot the words to her poem, everyone pushed her to keep going…and she did. The amount of love and respect in that stuffy auditorium moved me to tears.

Yasmin rapping like the incredible girl she is. I have all the love in the world for this girl!

Yasmin rapping like the incredible girl she is. I have all the love in the world for this girl!

Actually, a lot of things moved me to tears that day. Vani, whose amazing voice sends chills down my spine every time, composed a song about her parents. While Azzura performed her sassy fan dance and tae kwon do moves, I saw her smiling at her little sister in the audience. Vio told us that she was seriously ill as a child and had the odds stacked against her for a chance at life—today, she’s 100% healthy. Sarah talked about her autistic brother and how they make music together, then gave a phenomenal drum performance that I know was for him. Timothy composed a hauntingly beautiful song about bringing peace to our world that had me choked up the first time I heard it, much to his pleasure. The whole week he’d been teasing me, “Miss, I won’t perform again unless you promise to cry again.” On the premise that I would bake cookies for his entire class if my eyes remained dry, I sat beside him onstage as a human mike stand, salty tears dribbling down my proud cheeks.

In the end, it was Celine who won the award for Performance Most Likely to Make Miss Moniek Sob Like a Baby. I’d been pestering her for a hint about the topic of her speech for weeks, but she remained stubbornly silent. That Saturday, she stood up and told the world that her message was about her older sister, her teacher, her friend, the one who took her to the mall to shop for party supplies for CIBI, who sends silly Snapchats, who stands up for her students and cheers them on and makes them believe in themselves. She spoke about how I leave all too soon, how it must be difficult to be torn between two worlds: my family in America, and my family here. Her message was to my family and friends: “Don’t worry about Moniek here. She’s just fine.” Anas handed me tissue after tissue as he and Vio squeezed my shoulders tight, their eyes damp, too. I could make out Falin’s shadow just outside the door and knew that if I looked at her, we’d never stop crying. Afterwards, Celine tried to slip quietly out the back door, but not until I could sprint behind her, catch her arm and hug her tightly in wordless thanks.

The judges had one hell of a time deciding the winner—and how could they, when everyone was so phenomenal? In the end, the decision was unanimous: Yasmin, my super posh tenth grader with the flawless British accent, would join me in Jakarta for the national competition. Her speech was incredibly rousing: Be a rebel, she proclaimed, as the rest of the students cheered. To top it all off, she’s an amazing rapper. Picture a quiet girl in thick-rimmed glasses laying out Eminem like she was born in the hood, and you’ll see why I’m so excited that she’s the one representing my beloved school. “Bet you never thought a girl wearing a hijab could rap,” she smirked at the end of her speech, and it was all I could do not to stand up on my seat and cheer.

Selfie with Sarah and Iman

Selfie with Sarah and Iman

Sarah’s energetic performance won her a silver medal, and Iman’s classic charm earned him bronze. After the handshakes and the hugs and the endless photos, Anas helped Falin and I load everything back into her tiny Mitsubishi, and I promptly fell asleep on the car ride home. What I wasn’t expecting was the flood of texts that I would receive the very same evening:

“Hi, Miss Monieeek! Thank you so much for everything! Thank you so much for your help on my speech and encouraging me to face the competition!”

“hmm, it was a great moment to be on stage with you, miss.. I’m sorry for made you cry again. it’s hard to saw you cry, but I just stay cool when I saw that..”

“Hii moniek. Thank you so much for your help, i really love you. You are awesome.”

And, my personal favorite:

“Thank you misss…I did it for you.”


Last Friday, Miss Moniek was an emotional train wreck. Before I begin, I want to start with a HUGE apology for my unintended blogging hiatus, due in part to one broken keyboard, one crashed hard drive, a lack of wifi at school for a month (because I can’t have nice things) and a stream of adventures I can’t even begin to explain, from the sweetest surprises on Teacher’s Day to staying at a Mormon family’s home in Bogor to coastal motorcycle rides in Bali to walking hand-in-hand along the rice paddies near Falin’s childhood home in Bukittinggi. As of January 15 I am officially past the halfway point of my grant period, and the way that time runs ahead of me leaves me short of breath. On Groundhog’s Day I half waited for “I Got You, Babe,” to ring from my radio alarm a la Bill

my beautiful students

my beautiful students

Murray, if only to spend endless Mondays at SMAN 8.  No such luck. I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank the adorable Anna de Mesa and my fantastic Aunt Liz for kicking my butt back into the blogosphere. You guys rock. There’s so much to say—about six unfinished posts right now, if I had to estimate, carefully crafted and stored in the recesses of my overactive mind—but let’s start with the recent past. Ever since the new semester started off with a bang on January 4—just after returning feverish and exhausted from my “winter” holiday—I feel like I hit the ground running with little room to rest, let alone reflect. My journal lies neglected on the floor near the bookshelf as I run around frantically, preparing my students for speech and debate, creating Powerpoints about my schoolwide English competition, and building my own legacy via an English Language Library (more to follow!). Even with my steaming mug of instant Nescafe in the wee hours of the morning, it’s all I can do not to nod off in the car as Falin steers us back to Panam, Ed Sheeran crooning my lullabies. When the lack of time overwhelms me to the point of extreme restlessness, I grab my new cross-stitch project (thanks, Mom!) like an AARP member and stitch my sorrows away, soothed by the constant up-and-down motion of the needle and the whir of the merciful air conditioner overhead. “It’s all about the journey,” the sample spells out. Ain’t that the truth. Between my mid-year conference in Jakarta and the fact that my students are too busy for their own good, it’s been nearly impossible to gather my CIBI English students together in one place, so I’ve had to make do with high-fives in the hallway and snippets of small talk after class. I can’t remember if I’ve explained before, but my CIBI kids are the cream of the crop and the bee’s knees. My hands sting from clapping as I watch them perform at competitions, as do my eyes when I become emotional listening to Popon speak about the type of husband he will be in 2045, or watch Iman tenderly put his arm around Azka while enacting the life of Kartini, Indonesia’s legendary female figure. My heart swells when Syifa performs in her first drama and wins second place, and when my debaters compete with such passion and fierceness that it takes all of my self-control not to stand up and applaud mid-argument. They know I am their cheerleader, their advocate, and most of all, their sister and friend. “Kak Moniek” is synonymous with “Miss Barbie” among my CIBI kiddos. If teaching tenth grade at SMAN 8 is the beautiful tapestry that adorns my life right now, they are my golden thread.

Friday morning photo shoot with the most narcissistic teachers.

Friday morning photo shoot with the most narcissistic teachers.

Last Friday, after triumphantly completing my exasperating Fulbright midyear report for the U.S. State Department (if only so I can keep receiving my monthly stipend), I shot a typical Miss Moniek message to our CIBI English group in Line Messenger: “Yo, nuggets, who is meeting in the multimedia room later?” [Side note: The Multimedia Room used to be CIBI headquarters until the headmistress unceremoniously asked for our key, tore out all of the tables and chairs, stole our poster, and declared it a space for God knows what as part of her renovation rampage. Little did she know that we kept a circulation of spare keys…whoops. As of this week, after a pleasant conversation with Miss Moniek and two selfies, the room is ours again.]

cheesin' with my Kepala Sekolah

cheesin’ with my Kepala Sekolah on Picture Day

After two or three responded with the usual “Yes, Miss,” and one “the most fabulous bitch at SMAN 8 is on his way,” Falin and I picked our way through the broken bricks and miscellaneous rubble, giggling underneath the sweltering afternoon sun. In the multimedia room about a dozen of my kids were lounging around, chatting animatedly on the bamboo mat and bickering over the music selection from someone’s laptop. I pulled out my notebook as we sorted through various invitations for upcoming competitions, choosing participants for speech, storytelling, cosplay and love letters. With all of our dates settled, Falin nodded at me and I took the floor to explain the WORDS competition to my kids. In short, the WORDS competition is held annually and hosts a representative from each of the 35 ETA schools in Indonesia, from Pekanbaru to Pontianak to Atambua to Malang and Manado. Each ETA brings the winner from his or her school to compete nationally in Jakarta, but more than that it promotes a sense of pride and diversity that unites students from every corner of the archipelago. Ask any of my kids and you’ll know that I’ve been ridiculously excited for it since September, and I didn’t even know what WORDS was yet. Anyway, this intimate meeting was my grand kickoff, and I was stoked. After my tenth and eleventh graders bobbed their heads amusedly as Miss Moniek scrawled the details across the whiteboard, I turned to look at Anas, the too-cool-for-school twelfth grader resting languidly against his backpack. “Anas, you know WORDS better than I do. Care to share?” For those of you who didn’t see the glorious Facebook hack he posted on my wall a few months ago—complete with a duckface selfie—Muhammad al Anas is unabashedly, incorrigibly himself, which is such a rarity among high school students anywhere in this wide world. On my first day at CIBI, he asked me to do my best valley girl accent and introduced

Anas and I in a nutshell.

Anas and I in a nutshell.

himself as a long-lost Kardashian. Anas overflows with self-confidence and an altogether innovative perspective on the world—“Fish ain’t dead, honey, they just stop swimming because they’re sick of all the drama in this world”—but after so many chats and impromptu heart-to-hearts I know deep down he’s a sensitive, insightful young man with one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known. Call him arrogant, call him over-the-top, but there’s a reason Anas is the fabled senior who was chosen unanimously as the national WORDS champion last April. Anas’ description of his experience was animated and wildly humorous as he imitated the other ETAs congratulating him when he won and imitating Taylor (last year’s ETA) drumming his hands up and down in eager anticipation before Anas’ name was called. My juniors hung on to his every word; thanks to my fabulous storyteller, I had them hook, line, and sinker. What I wasn’t expecting was for Anas to change the topic mid-sentence, from talking about making friends from all over the country to something that will stick with me forever. “You’ll go to Jakarta with Miss Moniek,” he explained, “and you will do everything together: eat breakfast together, go bowling together, sit on the plane together. She’ll be the one to announce your performance, to find you in the morning to practice your speech.” He paused. “One day, you’ll realize that she’s far away, back in a country we’ve only dreamed of. You won’t be able to reach out and touch her, or hear her voice easily, or chat because there’s a twelve-hour time difference between here and New York. You’ll realize how much she meant to you while she was here, and you’d give anything to have her back again. You’ll miss her. I still miss Sir Taylor, and in June I know I’ll miss Moniek, too. So spend as much time as possible with her while she’s still here.” The room was silent as unwanted tears slid wordlessly down my cheeks. Celine, my self-proclaimed little sister, sobbed quietly into her knees, while a crying Sarah wrapped an arm around her. Popon’s eyes were watery as he sat cross-legged beside Raras, her face filled with emotion. I stared at the dozen that sat in front of me, my knees pulled close to my chest: Azzahra, a shy girl who doesn’t realize how talented she is. Indah, chatty and blessed with an incredible amount of stick-to-itiveness. Lidya, with her poofy ponytail and goofy grin. Yasmin, whose perfect British accent and rap skills blow me away. Dewi. Sara. Rana. Cindy. Even the ones that were missing: Varrel, Azzura. Rio. Jihan. Rifan. All of them. I couldn’t bring myself to glance at Falin in the corner, who has long ago become my mama and my Siamese twin here, for whom I can’t be more grateful. It was in that blurred moment of intense emotions that a singular, clarifying thought burst through: I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to say goodbye.

1000 reasons to smile.

CIBI English: 1000 reasons to smile.

The stillness lingered until a small voice rose from my chest and snapped the silence in two. “Shit, Anas,” I whispered, and everyone laughed as I reached over and pulled him into a one-armed hug. Mama Falin cleared her throat. “Stop it, Anas, she’s still here for another four months,” she joked, but it didn’t stop every single one of my kids from lining up to wrap their arms around me, Anas’ words still fresh in their minds. As they gathered up their bags to go home, three of my quieter tenth graders pulled me aside. “Miss, do you really think one of us could win?” I grinned and reached forward to squeeze their hands. “I would be proud to take any single one of you to Jakarta with me.” They beamed at me, and from the look in their eyes I saw a newfound confidence glowing from within. Later that evening I sobbed to my Indonesian mama, a torrent of emotion rushing forth and spilling over onto her narrow shoulder. When our tears ran dry and all we were left with were salty cheeks and watery hugs, I reached for my cellphone and texted Anas. “Thank you for everything today.”

Family portrait

Family portrait

Two minutes later, my phone buzzed on the table. “You are special, Moniek. You are going to do big things.” In all of his seventeen years, Anas articulated exactly what I want every single one of my students to know. In ten years, my biggest hope is that they think back on that crazy American English teacher who believed fiercely in them, and to feel that old confidence seep back into their veins. And for myself, I will always remember my first students, wise beyond their years, who still manage to teach me something new every single day, who make it incredibly difficult to imagine ever saying farewell.