The seasons are changing. I wake up, shivering, in the middle of the night and grope at my bedside table to turn off my fan. My classes have finished for the semester and now I go into my offices whenever I feel like it and read another story from the never-ending stack of creative writing portfolios that I have left to grade. And Americans are arriving for the summer, more Americans than I’ve seen in a long time. The first group arrived at my language school; another group showed up at the graduate school where I teach. Big groups of Americans and me, suddenly realizing that I’m the one who’s been here for a year, the one with the experience.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and tried to write a piece about helping my dance teacher and her students when they performed at the Kraton. It was supposed to be a piece about how I sat and sewed a gold-painted cardboard cutout of a peacock with pink feathers onto a headpiece. It was supposed to be a piece about how I tucked sashes into scarves and pinned everything together. It was supposed to be a piece about what happens behind the scenes of a performance at the Kraton, a piece about what the tourists don’t see: the banana offerings that we ate afterward, the mats where we sat, the courtyard that you have to push your motorbike out of because engines can’t be turned on inside.
It ended up being a love letter to tourists and a judgement of them, both at the same time. Before that weekend, I hadn’t seen more than one other white person in a very long time. I smiled just watching tourists walking by outside the Kraton’s walls, wearing their wide-brimmed hats and their big sunglasses. I dismissed the women’s bare shoulders. They were just tourists, while I was wearing jeans that covered my knees and a shirt with three-quarter sleeves.
When I stumbled out from the dancers’ quarters into the public space of the Kraton, I stopped short. I’d forgotten what it was like to be in the presence of so many tourists, foreign and local alike. There was a school group with matching Angry Birds t-shirts, a girl with her blond hair pinned up in milkmaid braids, two Australians guys my age constantly fielding requests for photos with Indonesians. I didn’t know where I was supposed to fit in.
Then I found my dance teacher’s mother and fell easily into the role of sticking close to her that I adopt whenever her daughters aren’t around. I turned my attention to the wicker chairs arranged for the audience, looking for an empty one so that she could sit down.
Most of them were filled with the Angry Birds school group, changing seats at random as some kids stood up and other sat down, as some kids picked up backpacks and other kids set down motorcycle helmets. At one point, they left one of the seats completely vacant and a middle-aged white woman with short, dark hair and a camera sat down. The girls next to her laughed nervously and flashed a look at the boy who’d stood up and wouldn’t be getting his chair back.
Several minutes later, the school group decided to move on. The girls stood up, started to collect their things.
I looked at my dance teacher’s mother.
She looked at me.
We clearly had the same idea.
I waded through the group of school children and put my hand on the arm of one of the chairs. “You first,” I said, gesturing at my dance teacher’s mother.
The tourist with the camera looked at me.
I waited till my dance teacher’s mother sat down, then tried to secure my own seat. Not an easy task, as the two school girls were still there, standing now, discussing something but not showing any signs of moving. I smiled. I could wait. No other tourist was close enough to grab this seat.
“Excuse me,” the tourist with the camera said, pulling on one of the girl’s backpacks to get her attention. “Can you move out of the way and let other people sit?”
The girls’ gazes skittered to the tourist, then to me. “Sorry,” they said. “Sorry, sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I told them in Indonesian, but they were already moving away as fast as the possibly could. I sighed and sat down, fiddling with my dance teacher’s camera. I needed to figure out how to take a video for her.
After the performance, Indonesians and foreigners followed the dancers to take photos. The tourist next to me stood up and went to join the small group. I stood off to the side, waiting to go back to that motor-less courtyard, waiting to help unpin pieces of sweaty costumes. There was no reason for me to think ungracious thoughts about that one tourist who spoke rapid English at Indonesian school children as if they could understand, but I did anyway. I held my dance teacher’s camera in my hand.
I found myself living out this same weird duality earlier this week. One of the new Americans at the graduate school, I was told, was interested in dance. Easily catching the implication, I offered to take her along with me to dance class. I even offered to drive her.
Really, I was excited. I babbled about dance. I babbled about the Ramayana. I probably just confused her, but I didn’t care. I never get the chance to talk about dance in English, especially not since my senior fellow left, so this poor, recently arrived American had to deal with all the feelings that I’d been storing away.
When we actually got to dance class, though, things changed. I started introducing her to people, tried to translate everything that was going on, and suddenly started wondering if this was what I was supposed to be doing. On one hand, I wanted to make this easy for her, so that she wouldn’t have to spend all the time that I had—learning what was going on, learning how to act, learning how to put on that stupid jarik. But on the other hand, should I give her all of that? Could I give her all of that?
I wanted to make things easy; I wanted to make things understandable, but could I do that when there’s still so much that I don’t understand myself? I still didn’t understand what time the dance class was really going to start or how to say to the dance teacher, “This is someone I just met today but by virtue of the fact that we’re both foreigners, she’s my friend. Can she take your class even though she speaks no Indonesian?”
At the end of class, like always, the other girls and I shook the dance teacher’s hand, bringing it to our foreheads.
“What should I do?” the American whispered to me.
“Just shake her hand,” I said.
She did, and I wondered if I had just done her a disservice, if I’d kept something back that I shouldn’t have. But that gesture hadn’t held any meaning for me for months, not until I’d built up a relationship with my dance teacher and established a place for myself in the dance group. Only then did it symbolize respect. At this point, I didn’t think it would have any meaning for the American, but maybe I was wrong.
I’m not used to having to make decisions like that. I’m not used to being the authority on how to behave. Most of the time, I don’t know how to behave. Most of the time, I’m making it up, fumbling my way along and hoping that I don’t do something incredibly uncouth.
But today is my one-year anniversary and that means I am the authority now. My senior fellow left a few months ago and while that was a change, I could still rest comfortably on the fact that I was new. No longer. I am the senior fellow now. I’m the one in charge of knowing what’s going on. I’m the one who’s going to have to make the judgment calls about handshakes all the time. I’m the one who has to decide what to teach my junior fellow and what he can only learn by experiencing things for himself, the same way that—one year ago—I had to.