Making the Most of My Time Overseas

On the bus today, I looked out the windows and thought about my last decade. What can I say, it was a long bus ride. So, there I was, thinking about my twenties. We moved to Indonesia when I was 23. I thought about how I'm 29 now, and 23 feels like a short and long time ago. In six short/long years, I feel like I'm finally learning how to be a friend. How to reach out. How to have a little confidence. I think I had to move all the way to a rural village in Indonesia to figure out how much I needed to learn.

 I am not naturally a social risk taker. Even a hint of rejection is crushing; my social insecurity is something I have long battled. When I go out on a limb, it is often against my nature. But some things have changed. I ultimately had the revelation I so desperately needed in my most cringe worthy moments as an outsider: It’s up to me.

 I first learned this in the village in Indonesia. I had been in the village for nearly two months. My attempts to fasten myself into this new world felt somewhat pathetic. The women I had sought friendships with had families and duties to take care of and maintain, and I was asking more of them. I wanted them to invest in me, take an interest in me, and pursue me. I wanted these women to make up for all the friendships I had left behind. Instead, I would sit quietly in the company of village women as they talked to one another in their gardens, spread out under mango trees and relaxing after a day of working hard in the rice paddies. I had nothing to offer in these moments. I was silent, naturally. I felt overlooked.

 The calendar was like a hovering gray cloud. I had more than a year to integrate myself into this village. My husband’s linguistic research required him to have a schedule, meet with people in the village, work on his data. This left a lot of space and time for me to be on my own.

Almost two months of mostly solitude, retreating to our home after frustrating attempts to interact with the women in the village, quiet times of book reading and hiding out were enough for me. My growing loneliness turned into determination, the question was no longer how to get the women to want me around, the question softly turned in to how I can appreciate and invest in them.  In a flash, I realized: It’s up to me to have a positive experience in this village.

 I started waking up early, just as the village women did. I began opening all the windows to our wood home on stilts, making rice before the sun was in position atop the sky, and starting the day with chores: laundry by hand, sweeping the house, standing outside by the edge of my stairs to wait for the tofu delivery man from town. At first, I began to imitate their morning rhythms with a chip on my shoulder. For too long, I had internalized their whispers that I had a weak work ethic and was lazy – and compared to their long days in the field and my sudden lack of work, I was. But shortly after adopting their morning structure, I began to enjoy it, and found both a security in routine again and a deepened appreciation for all they do before the day has even begun.

 I earnestly sought their help with cooking. This was my next step in reaching out to these women; I had to start asking for help. My stubborn will had previously insisted I prove myself to them, and show them I could make edible meals to their standards. The truth is, I couldn’t. To cook rice, I used what I had, a portable single burner stove with a fickle flame. My meals were mush. When I asked for help from some of my neighbors, their response was gracious, enthusiastic even. They insisted I help with every step and made sure I took copious notes in my notebook. Soon, I was moving forward as a village woman, navigating the market tents on Saturday alongside my cooking mentors, ordering spices for Rendang, a cut of meat for the Gulai, and just the right chilies for my own sambal.

 But better than learning to cooking a decent meal? I was starting to have things to talk about while sitting under the mango trees. I was starting to make my own stories.

 Learning to mimic and appreciate their days was one thing. Learning to cook their dishes was another. Learning the language was the next frontier.

 I asked my neighbor if I could pay her to teach me her language, the village language, as they identify it, for two hours a day, five days a week. She was delighted. And so, I began the journey to speak their language.  After investing four months into the language, I remember very vividly a moment when I made a basic joke using the words I knew. And those who heard the joke laughed.

 After some dedicated time learning and practicing, it was as if the whole village opened up to me; from black and white to color. 

 My year in the village changed me. Choosing to learn the village language was my pivotal moment; and from then on, I felt as if I had been given the key to the village. I had the opportunity to show the women of the village that I cared deeply enough about them to learn the language they spoke, which in their opinion, was a language low in status and surprising that I wanted to learn. They in turn trusted me, welcomed me into their sphere, and opened their hearts to me. Initially I wanted them to want me around, with no effort on my behalf.  How little I understood in those first two months.

 And so now, this time I am in Germany, reliving the same perpetual motion of leaving and joining that I am getting accustomed to.  I am slowly learning how to carve out my own niche in a new place, and most importantly, how to show kindness to those I meet. For too long, I waited for other’s to bring me into their circle, to invite me to something, or to open up a conversation. From experience, I have learned that waiting for others in this way is most certainly a recipe for solitude.

 I have a bit of a pep talk in my heart when I am weary of always being on the outside.  I remind myself that if people choose not to reach out to me, or to be my friend, things will be just fine. I have to remember that I have the ability to reach out, same as anyone.  It’s up to me to have a positive experience in Germany.



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