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.

Reflections on My Service in Aceh: Sawyer French

The following is a post from Sawyer French. Sawyer has just completed a month-long term of service with the Sukma Bangsa School in Aceh, Indonesia through AUA’s School in Aceh program. Sawyer taught English in several classes at the school, which serves students impacted by the tsunami that struck the region in 2004.

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I am writing this after a month in Aceh, Indonesia.

This trip has allowed a great deal of cross-cultural learning, both for me and for the students and staff at Sukma Bangsa (my school in Aceh). One of the most interesting aspects of our cultural gap was the way in which we express care for others.

When I first arrived, I was told that in Aceh, “our guest is our king.” I thought this was a nice sentiment, but I initially failed to realize how seriously everyone would take my status as ‘guest/king.’ Eventually, I learned that everyone would seem take my personal well-being as their own responsibility.

This was most evident in the dozens of times daily that I was asked if I was tired, which was inevitably followed up by the suggestion that I go take a nap. In other situations, I would constantly be asked if I was bored, or dissatisfied. As an American, these questions initially did not seem in the least bit polite (as they certainly are in Aceh). In my cultural mindset, being asked if I was tired, bored, or dissatisfied seemed like accusations that I was frail, needy, and picky. Also, the frequent insistence that I take a nap seemed like a polite way to ask me to leave (which it is not—it is a polite way to express your care for someone’s well-being).

There were days when I would get annoyed by these questions, but over the last month I have learned to appreciate the deeper meaning behind them: they are showing that they care for me. When Americans ask each other “how are you?” we are rarely that interested in the response, as asking the question itself conveys our social message. Some staff and students at Sukma even asked me why I was always asking, “how are you?” To them, this was an odd (rather than normal and polite) question. Just as I had initially found their way of expressing care to be bizarre (as I was used to the American way).

Some say that learning a new language requires one to learn a new way of thinking. While this may be true on some levels, these differences in polite inquiries do not show that Acehnese care more about whether I am tired or not, or that Americans are more interested in my overall wellbeing. They are simply different words to express the same idea—care for others—which is not exclusive to any language or culture.

A month ago, I saw the students and staff at Sukma as a crowd of people I didn’t know and whose way of talking and interacting confused me. Now, as I prepare to leave, I know that—despite our linguistic/cultural differences—they are a group that truly cares about me.

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2015 by in Volunteer Related and tagged , .
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