A friend of my senior fellow’s along with another girl recently came to visit. We all went out to dinner one night, at a place just a block away from my house that serves delicious tempe. Every evening, this food place sets up on the side of the road–erecting tables and chairs and a canopy to protect from the rain. They serve food all evening and close after I’ve gone to bed.
I am a regular customer. So much so, in fact, that when our food came I was the only one to be given a fork and spoon. The woman who runs the food stand knows by now that I always request them.
We got everyone else utensils and then settled down to eat. As we chatted, I was overcome by a strong feeling of unfamiliarity. Or, rather, the kind of feeling you get when you encounter something once familiar that was then forgotten.
I spent several minutes feeling unsettled, but then I figured it out: it’s been a long time since I’ve spent more than a few minutes in the presence of more than one Westerner. All my friends from language school have moved to other cities in Indonesia or back to their home countries. I do, of course, spend a good deal of time with my senior fellow, but rarely in a group. My social life (as much as I have a social life) revolves mainly around chatting with my teachers at language school and going to dance class. If I talk to anyone, it’s in a painful mix of English and Indonesian (usually heavily slanted towards the Indonesian). A conversation about anything even approaching the complex leaves both me and the person I’m talking to exhausted. No matter how you shake out the group, I’m the only native English speaker in it. Frequently, my social interactions are reduced to sitting with people while they talk to each other, eating with people while they talk to each other, and smiling when people say my name in greeting.
All this means that I never really express myself. Even on the rare occasions when I manage to have an extended conversation with someone–either in English if they understand enough or in Indonesian if they’re patient enough–I don’t say everything I’m thinking. I don’t know enough about social norms to be able to tell what would be saying too much, what might cause offense. Even with my one language teacher, who frequently asks how I’m adjusting and what, so far, has surprised or confused me about Indonesian culture; who recently answered all my questions about how mosques work and all my questions about wearing a jilbab; even with her I don’t feel comfortable enough to say everything.
But suddenly, in the presence of more Westerners than just my senior fellow, I had a whole group of people with whom I shared a common understanding. I could say anything and we’d all interpret it in much the same way. It was refreshing. It was also strange.