An unequal exchange

On a sweaty September afternoon, silver wrappers and small mounds of spat-out chocolates litter the campus of MAN Model Manado. In my overzealousness to rid my apartment of flying cockroaches and black worms, I’d doused/drenched/demolished my living space in bug repellent spray and camphor balls… the chemicals of which had seeped into the bags of Hershey’s Kisses that I’d brought from the States… which I’d then handed out to teachers and students… who could now be seen gagging…

Is this what all American candies taste like??

In exchange for nearly poisoning the good people of Manado with contaminated chocolates, I have been shown nothing short of selfless kindness. They welcome me into their homes, introduce me to their mothers, and hand me their babies to kiss. In the mornings, they place mangos and mangosteens on my desk; in the evenings, they treat me to ikan bakar and fresh coconuts. They invite me to their sons’ college graduations and their nieces’ aqiqah, the Islamic tradition of sacrificing a goat on the occasion of a child’s birth. They show up at my doorstep with a broom when I send frantic WhatsApp messages about finding the mother of all cockroaches in my room. They clothe me in tailor-made batik dresses. They chip away at my jaded heart.

I am happy.

My community has so meaningfully invited me to share in their lives. Each time I am deeply grateful for their willingness to entertain my ignorance, especially when I’ve come to realize that teaching, while gratifying work, is still a form of physical and emotional labor. No, seriously. I once tried—true to my own brand of stubborn hospitality—to force feed someone who didn’t know to express in English that she was fasting. Maaf, bu. Lesson in cultural sensitivity duly noted.

This exchange seems so unequal. For a few hours of English language instruction, I receive a community, with all the love and nuance that entails. But perhaps one of the gifts of nurturing local relationships can be an invigorated commitment to finding how I can learn and grow over the next year, return to the United States, and address the lack of knowledge as it pertains to Indonesia and Islam. As I round out month 2 of my ten-month grant, I promise I’m reflecting critically on the following question: What are the most genuinely reciprocal ways for me to benefit from the learning that will take place in my new community?

Currently reading: Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani.