America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Connecting with Indonesia: Stephanie Hallinan’s Arrival

By Stephanie Hallinan,

I don’t think I had any idea what to expect before I came to Indonesia. Despite the numerous hours of researching online, and reading what few guidebooks I could find at the local bookstore or library, I had no idea what Indonesia and its people would be like. Unfortunately, I had  hours on a plane, and hours of layovers to spend thinking about it. And think I did, my brain ran wild for hours on end, with my over active iWP_20130713_009magination in the driver’s seat. I imagined students who didn’t want to participate when I was teaching, people who may judge me for their perceptions of Americans, people who may find me hard to get along with as a non-Muslim, an unbreachable language barrier, and an impenetrable cultural divide. I worried that existing within a foreign culture for such an immersing experience would be difficult. And this was a trip different from any I had taken before; this time I would be interning, fulfilling a position in a program I had worked hard to be a part of. I had a job to do, and I wanted to do it well. I had volunteered for the position teaching English at a Muslim all girls boarding school, Madrasah Mu’allimaat  Muhammadiyah, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Here’s where the second set of worries began to arise. I had never taught before. The closest I had come was helping my mom with her English, as her and her family was originally from Panama, and spoke English as a second language. I also had several foreign friends that I helped, but again, this was very different from leading an entire class, deciding what to teach the students, and constructing lesson plans. I found it difficult to even begin planning when I had no idea what size my class would be, if I would have one class or switch between several, and what level of proficiency they were at. I would have to test them during our first class together and calibrate my lessons accordingly. Figuring out the dynamic & mood of the school would be interesting too, and I had no idea how I would fit within that community, entering suddenly, as I was, as a foreigner.

I didn’t know much about the town I would be living in either. I knew I would be living in Yogyakarta, with in the Gadjah Mada University campus, but many Google searches only showed up with information about the university, or were in Indonesian. I was thirsty for information, eager to see what it would be like, and too impatient to wait. This led to many restless and fidgety flights. I fretted over whether the food would be safe, or whether I would find it tasty. I worried about safety, and the housing. Transportation wasn’t a concern with the driverGS glasses smile provided by AUA to get us to and from work, but I worried about getting lost or harassed when we ventured out to restraints, sightseeing, or shopping.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about my worries pre-departure. Yogyakarta is beautiful, but slightly hectic. My favorite part of the city so far has been the graffiti, which is truly artistic expression here. Featuring political or social messages, or rebellious declarations (like my favorite, “I’M JUST WRITING MY NAME…”) cover nearly every surface of the city, only adding to the vibrant nature of the city. We have yet to be harassed, most people just point us out to their friends, whispering “foreigners” in bahasa Indonesia. People are generally courteous and polite, more curious where we’re from than anything (they seem very confused by the concept that not all Americans are blonde haired blue eyed, that we all originate from elsewhere, with the exception of Native Americans, and as a result, are of all different races, complexions, and hair colors.) Most people call me Arab, Pakistani, or Afghani, and are surprised when I say I am in fact American, of Panamanian and Irish descent. Some even claim I look Indonesian, especially when wearing the hijab.

The people have been nicer than I could’ve ever imagined. I am greeted at Mu’allimaat every morning by huge genuine smiles, a handshake from each person I encounter (except for the men, who aren’t supposed to touch women because it’s seen as a sign of intimacy, exchanged only between man and wife, family is excluded from this rule) and what seems to be a never ending supply of snacks left at my desk (I’m pretty sure I’ve gained about 4 or 5 pounds here.) Everyone is so eager to explain their culture to me, excited to share who they are as a people with someone from another country. The Muslim staff at the school is inviting and inclusive, explaining customs to me to I understand their faith and why they do the things they do. Faith is a very big part of everyone’s life, and the day is punctuated often by time for prayer and religious reflection –even conversations are peppered with exclamations of insyaAllah (God willing/with God’s blessing). It seems superfluous at first to take so much time for yourself during a work day, but it is such a vital part of life, it would be imaginable for them to complete a work or school day otherwise. Even schools contain a place of prayer for employees and students.

Teaching has been amazing, the students are so eager and excited to learnWP_20130713_021 (as are the other teachers, who often inadvertently join in, yelling out the answers alongside the students!) They are shy, and very respectful, but want so badly to learn and complete each lesson well. They are eager to impress, and beam hugely every time they’re told they did a “great job!” or answered correctly. They also love to imitate my accent, and giggle at the girlish way I say “okay!” after completing a section of the lesson before moving on to the next, and the class often erupts briefly in a parroting chorus of “okay!” “okay!” before they fall silent, awaiting the next exercise with their pens ready. They also beg me to sing them One Direction songs, one thing I have yet to get used to, since they always beg me and I know none, a fact they refuse to believe so they keep asking. Oy vey:)

So far my stay here has been amazing. It almost seems unreal, and I find myself pausing, realizing at random moments, “I’m halfway around the world, in Indonesia..” It’s unbelievable, and I feel so blessed. But they are so eager to learn about my culture and America, and excited to share their culture with me, that I feel as if I have already made lasting friendships with the people I have met. I can’t wait to see what the rest of my trip and service here holds. I have already been invited to a traditional Indonesian wedding, and the women at work want to take me veil shopping for another hijab (they consider it sort of an accessory of their outfit, and are eager to replace my plain pale pink one with something with more pizzazz) and are all very excited for both outings, saying that afterwards I will see what it’s like to be a true Indonesian woman! I can’t wait, and I hope you stay tuned, Indonesians love photos, so there will be plenty of pictures to share!

Sampai  jumpa lagi!

Ma’a Salamah!



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This entry was posted on July 9, 2013 by in Volunteer Related, Volunteer Voices and tagged , , , .
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