I confess. While filling out the pre-arrival survey that determined site placements, I channeled a far braver Caroline than exists. How comfortable are you living in an area where you are the only native English speaker? Ehh, whatever. Very comfortable. How important is it for you to have reliable Internet access during your grant period? Anything Henry David Thoreau can do, I can do better, amirite? Not! Important! At! All!
And that is how I ended up at an underserved Islamic public high school governed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the city of Manado, on the island of Sulawesi, in the fourth largest country in the world. While some of the ETAs from my cohort were flown in by private charter planes owned by their schools or, at the very least, have access to basic technology in their classrooms, I have only a ratty, tattered whiteboard and two markers, one of which is dried out. My classrooms don’t have AC.
It’s how I ended up in the most religiously diverse and tolerant city in all of Indonesia. The national motto of Indonesia is Bhinekka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity. The motto of the city of Manado is Torang Samua Basudara, or We Are All Family. Each morning I wake up to the 4:21 a.m. Islamic call to prayer. I take the long way to school, so I can pass by the ocean and the Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and Buddhist temples that coexist in close proximity.
It’s how I came to meet my ibus, Ibu Sri, Ibu Eka, Ibu Lastri, and Ibu Rahayu, all fiercely dedicated to giving their students every chance to be competitive and cosmopolitan. The majority of the students at MAN Model Manado have little to no English language skills and have little to no motivation to learn. But, in many parts of the world, English is currency. English can allow global agility and economic mobility. So my ibus applied for the Fulbright Program in hopes that I, a native English speaker, would motivate the students.
And motivate I have. But most likely not in the way that the U.S. government intended. If you’ve noticed the considerable jump in numbers of my Instagram follower count, I swear I didn’t buy fake followers. Those are my students. Indonesian high school students are certifiably crazy over South Korean pop culture, yet many have never met a living, breathing Korean. Until now. I’ve fielded more inquiries about the Koreanness of my Korean American identity than my Americanness. They’re not as interested in knowing that I’m from Bakersfield, California as they are in knowing that my parents are from Busan, South Korea. BUSAN!!? My oppas come from Busan!! Students squeal, Mister! Mister! 안녕하세요! Anyeonghasaeyo! before demanding to know which Korean skincare products I use and my favorite K-pop idol group.
I’m touched, if not disoriented, by how readily Indonesians accept that I can be both Korean and American at the same time. That I am a chronically-underdressed, ever-sweating American with Korean heritage. That my mother and father put the brown in my eyes, and that my spirit is as Americana as apple pie. With hints of kimchi.