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?”
“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:
While Falin and I, forever the trendsetters, looked pretty much exactly like this:
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.
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.
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.”