So if you’re from America…

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After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and finishing a stint as a little fish at a big D.C.-based think tank, I came home to prepare for the next move. My hometown, curiously, is a portal to my high school self. The evidence is in the YA romance novel I just finished, a genre I hadn’t touched in years. My 23-year-old self is still very much gripped by the same quixotic fancies on life, liberty, and love that gripped me at 17…

Now, I’m taking those longings across the pond. As the recipient of a Fulbright grant, I’m teaching English in Manado, Indonesia for the next ten months. The official job descriptor is “cultural ambassador.” It’s fancy diplospeak for “Caroline’ll bumble about and commit any number of cultural faux pas, all the while hoping that if she gives ‘em a toothy, apologetic smile, she’ll manage to reflect well on the good American people back home.” Good American people back home, have faith.

My cohort of twenty-some twenty-something-year-old English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) will be scattered across the archipelago. We bring a wealth of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Some of us have been teaching for years, breathe teaching, were born with a lesson plan in one hand and the attention and admiration of small adults in the other. Others have little to no teaching experience (re: me). Some have been placed in big, bustling cities, while others were assigned to areas far more isolated than we might have expected (re: again, me). Some have studiously learned the language; others have downloaded a crash course on survival bahasa Indonesia to read on the plane (ok, ok, maybe just me). Even so, we’re united in our love for learning about this impossible, improbable country and for exchanging stories and finding commonalities over nasi goreng.

We’ve been set up to make a difference in our new communities simply by being present. My fellow ETAs and I will be the first Americans that many of our students and townspeople will have ever encountered. I’m the first ETA to ever be placed at my school, Madrasah Aliyah Negeri Model 1 Manado, an Islamic public high school on the island of Sulawesi. From the anecdotes shared by ETAs in prior cohorts, I’ve braced myself for the inevitable, “So if you’re from America, why are you yellow?” and, possibly, “Why does the U.S. have a ban on groups of people who practice my religion?”

Well, let me tell you a story… Over nasi goreng, yeah?

Currently reading: American Diplomacy by George F. Kennan.