like anywhere,

You show up to one of your friends’ theater rehearsals to give him a copy of the latest Ramayana video, because for some reason you’re one of the only people who’s copied it so far and no one else is free. When you get there—to this pavilion right next to a mosque in the middle of some little neighborhood where you’ve never been before—everyone’s just sitting around, so you sit down too. They’re talking in Javanese and for once the half-understood sentences (mostly numbers, some other useful words like already and not yet) don’t stress you out. It’s a process; you’ll get there.

You hand your friend your flashdrive and he borrows someone’s laptop, starts copying things. While the files fly across the computer screen, he asks about your plans for later: Where are you going? Who are you going with?

You answer.

(He asked in Javanese. You answered in Javanese.)

That night, your Shansi mentor has a wayang kulit performance, the first time you’ve seen him perform. His daughter, your first dance teacher here, is visiting from Surabaya and you sit with her and ask how things are and realize your Indonesian has gotten better. His son is also performing, wayang kancil. He hands you his camera and the two of you don’t even have to talk about it.

“She’s my photographer,” he says.

You watch the performance from the side, taking pictures on three different cameras, occasionally slipping inside to look at the side of the screen with the shadows or to eat more food. You actually enjoy the clown scene, maybe because you know the dalang or maybe because you understand more of the Javanese than you used to; it’s hard to say which. Maybe both. Either way, you’re on the side actually laughing (not at everything, because let’s be honest you’re still missing 85% of what’s going on), but it feels like you’re finally a part of something.

Near the end of the performance, you’re sitting on a mat behind the gamelan, sleepy and happy. Ravana keeps falling over and coming back to life and yelling about how he can’t die.

Your dance teacher scoots back from the saron where she’d been playing, probably bored. She nods at it, tells you that you should try.

It’s absurd. This is the middle of a performance; you’ve played saron a grand total of twice in your life; you’ve never practiced with this group. Then again, you’ve been following along with the music over her shoulder. You shrug and take her place.

The song is babyishly easy—one note repeated four times and then another note, also four times—but that’s a good thing. It means you can keep up. It means you don’t mess up so much. Well, you think, Gamelan performance. That’s one I can check off the list.

* * *

It’s 10:15, 10:30 at night. You’re tired, emotionally strung out, still not sure what you’re going to teach the next morning. This is obviously the perfect time to lose your motorbike keys. You’ve never lost them before. You’ve always been really careful to take them out of the bike, always been really systematic about which pocket you put them in.

You stand in the darkened parking lot of the student union and check the ground like an idiot. Your friend who walked out with you is probably judging you, but he does turn his motorbike off and he does come back inside to help you look.

As it turns out, when you’re already tired and then stressed and then confused, you stop worrying about language. This isn’t your country. If you have to go around and ask strangers if they’ve seen motorbike keys that you probably lost six hours ago, you might as well let your friend do it. At least he doesn’t have this ridiculous accent that you carry around everywhere (an accent that still makes people look at you funny when you try to order tea). At least he fits in.

* * *

And then there’s all of this: the teaching, the dancing, the corrections that you don’t manage to internalize, the never-ending stack of papers waiting to be graded, the smell of pumpkins in your friend’s cross-cultural understanding class, the hot sun and too-humid nights, meeting people, talking in Indonesian, talking in English, talking in Javanese, hanging out too late on a school night and not caring, folding batik the right way, wondering where your life is heading.


2 thoughts on “like anywhere,

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