Christina Aguila’s Last Month in Indonesia

Looking back: Where did the last 8 months go?

With only 2.5 more weeks of my grant left, I’m starting to get anxious and excited about returning home. Looking back at an old blog about acclimating and achieving my goals, I’m surprised to learn that I’ve come a long way from the culture shock slump I found myself in 7 months ago.

Personal Blog from October 8,, 2013:

“It’s been 3 months already and I’m still learning to adjust. I’m not feeling very accomplished. I seem to have missed the ‘honey moon phase’ of the culture shock experience. I’m having less than the awesome time that it seems my fellow ETAs are experiencing here. As a secret bule, or secret foreigner, [Note: Christina is Filipino-American] I’m not going on the wonderful excursions that I see others participating in, no dressing in cool traditional outfits, no encounters with exotic animals, no invitations to the mayor’s house. No one is writing news articles about me or asking me to interview on radio stations. I am not treated like a local celebrity as some of my ETA friends. These things have not been a part of my experience in Indonesia, and it is sometimes difficult for me to relate to my fellow ETAs’ experiences here.

“My experience teaching English to international students feels quite useless here, and I’m no natural in an Indonesian classroom. Indonesian schools feel      quite inefficient and disorganized by U.S. standards. I don’t feel  confident communicating in Indonesian, I’m in a constant state of   cultural confusion, and I haven’t started the long process of applying to graduate school. I feel busy, but unaccomplished. Whether I am accomplishing my personal or professional goals, or improving my cultural awareness, it would be nice to feel that I am moving forward. But right now I am feeling quite stuck.”

At my orientation we discussed the culture shock curve and how each ETA would have different experiences of ups and downs throughout the grant. After 1 month at my site, I concluded that teaching in Indonesia was a lot more challenging than I expected it to be. I started my program feeling very ambitious, and I was quickly deflated when I realized that things were not so simple. Even though I have tutoring experience and I prepared myself with many classroom ideas, what worked for me in a U.S. classroom did not necessarily work in an Indonesian classroom. Although people at my school are eager to help, cultural misunderstandings and an inefficient system make it difficult to work at my school. Digital resources are unreliable, the school often has blackouts, and student discipline is handled differently than in the U.S. Before coming to Indonesia, I knew that the environment would be challenging, but I still could not prepare myself enough for it. I’ve learned to accept this situation. After all, I am the first ETA at my school and the first American many people at my school have met. They are still learning how to work with me as I am still learning how to work with them.

Though at times I felt I was far from achieving much, I did reach my main goal of getting accepted to graduate school during my grant. I applied to a Fulbright ETA grant because I felt that a Fulbright program would give me valuable insights for graduate studies in my field of international development. It was challenging to apply to grad school while still figuring out how to live at my site. It can be extremely frustrating dealing with unreliable internet, and people at your site may not understand the stress and pressure of applying to grad school. At the time I applied, I was constantly balancing my current duties as an ETA with finishing my applications. People at my site didn’t understand why I was always tired or so busy. With that said, it is possible to apply to graduate school during your grant as I and several other ETAs in my program did. In order to successfully apply to graduate school while making the most of your grant, I strongly suggest that incoming ETAs gather as many details as possible about their applications and programs in advance of their departure. Consider bringing brochures from the schools you want to apply to in case your internet is not reliable. Completing the GRE, requesting references, and knowing the programs you want to apply to prior to your departure will make the process much smoother.

Besides achieving my goal of getting accepted to grad school, this 9-month grant has been full of other accomplishments and opportunities that have been personal, professional, big and small. I went from zero Bahasa Indonesia to a good conversational level of Indonesian. I tried yoga classes for the first time. I’ve become a more confident person in unfamiliar situations. I volunteered at an English camp at a church in my community. I closely mentored 10 students to compete in a Fulbright English and creativity competition. I encouraged students to participate in their first English competition. I exposed teachers to ideas for being more creative and resourceful in the classroom. I facilitated an American – Indonesian pen pal exchange for my students. I’ve had some special opportunities to meet the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, attend consulate events, and have Thanksgiving dinner at the Chargé d’Affaire’s home. Lastly, I’ve become a part of a large and close network of bright and driven Fulbright Indonesia ETAs.

Christina is a Fulbright ETA in Manado, Indonesia. She graduated from UCSD with her B.A. in International Studies-Political Science. She will pursue her Master’s in Public Administration at NYU Wagner School of Public Service.


Christina Aguila Reflects on her First Month in Indonesia

Month 1: First Impressions, and Why am I Here?

I can’t believe it’s already been over 1 month since I left for Indonesia. I sure don’t feel adjusted yet. There’s a lot to learn. There are moments that I find myself reflecting on my reasons for being here and the things I hope to achieve during my time in Indonesia.

I graduated from UCSD in 2012 and completed my undergrad in International Studies – Political Science. After graduating, I worked in D.C. arranging a professional international exchange program. It seemed I was taking all the right steps towards a career in international exchange and development. When I applied for the Fulbright ETA, I was already working, but I have always wanted to live abroad and fully immerse myself in a new culture. After all, how can I continue working in an international field with little experience abroad? I have been very fortunate for the opportunity to do summer- and semester-abroad programs, yet I still have little experience compared to that of my classmates and colleagues. I wanted an experience abroad that would expose me to life and reality in a developing country. I knew that a Fulbright ETA in Indonesia would be an ideal opportunity for the experience I am seeking, personally and professionally. As an English Teaching Assistant, I would have a first-hand look at education in developing countries, which has become an area of growing interest to me. After being offered the Fulbright grant, I knew that this was an opportunity that I had to accept.

So why Indonesia specifically? Indonesia is a large and diverse country. It is often cited as the country with the 4th largest population in the world. With my interest in international development, I think it is crucial for me to see the reality of a majority of the world’s population. Being such a large country, Indonesia is an ideal case to observe.  I am also interested in culture and diversity. Indonesia, as a modern state, is an incredible example for bringing together many different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups from across the world’s largest archipelago. Such diversity adds to the rich culture of Indonesia. But this diversity also creates lots of challenges to maintaining a cohesive Indonesian identity.  Although I have only been in Indonesia for one month, I am starting to see the challenges of having so much diversity across a vast number of islands.

When I arrived back in Manado from orientation, I wanted to show off my new Indonesian language skills. I realized that every time I spoke to teachers at my school they would tell me how to say the phrase in Manado malay, although they could understand my Indonesian. Manado malay is the colloquial language in my region of North Sulwesi. Manadonese people are very proud of their language, and this is their preferred way of connecting with others. Learning bahasa Indonesia will help me in practical terms and will make be feel confident about getting around, but I feel I will not be able to personally connect with people through bahasa Indonesia as much as I would like to.  Because Indonesian is the national language, not a language of the home for Manadonese, it does not carry the same significance in developing strong personal relationships with Manadonese people. Every Indonesian who has gone to school has been educated in Indonesian, but many cultures across Indonesia still have a different mother tongue language. Bahasa Indonesia is the result of trying to linguistically unify a diverse country for the purposes of practical communication.

I am also beginning to see the problem with services here. Services in a developing country are already a challenge to attain. How much more of a challenge can it be to provide services to hundreds of islands across a distance larger than the continental U.S.? Blackouts are common in remote areas of Indonesia. Even here in Manado, a regional capital, there are blackouts almost every day. Homes cannot handle large usages of electricity like in the U.S. It is quite uncommon to have a microwave or oven in an Indonesian kitchen, and these luxuries are only available to the wealthy.  Access to internet and good plumbing can be difficult as well.

Aside from the language and environmental adjustments, I am making many personal adjustments to the culture here as well. My experience here will be quite different than some of the other “true bule” ETAs in my program. Bule is an Indonesian word referring to a foreigner. I was told by Indonesians that the word bule actually originates from referring to a color that is faded. As a Filipino-American, I completely blend into Indonesian society. Indonesians, Filipinos, and Malaysians look very similar. The only time people recognize me as a foreigner is when I open my mouth to speak poor Indonesian or when I am speaking in English. I don’t get noticed like other bules, and certainly do not receive the celebrity-like attention that some of my fellow ETAs receive. I hear the attention for some of my friends can be overwhelming because Indonesians are so curious about them. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about unwanted attention or people following me home because they find me peculiar. I can be incognito until I talk to someone.  My challenges as a foreigner here are different. Many people assume that I am Indonesian and are surprised when they realize I cannot speak their language. I get many different reactions, anything from a laugh attack, to being completely spooked, to unfriendly looks…Even when I try to explain that I am American, people continue to ask where I am really from. I can’t expect everyone to understand here, but it does wear on me having to convince people that yes, I really am a foreigner as much as anyone else from America. Because people often think I am Indonesian, I am conscious about being judged as an Indonesian for something that a person from here would know, but I am not aware of, such as what constitutes appropriate clothing, how to eat, how to address people, etc. I might be doing something against social norms that I am not aware of, and unfortunately I do not have the apparent excuse of being a bule. People may not pardon me in the same way they would a Caucasian-looking foreigner.

Sometimes I am surprised that in such a diverse country, the concepts of mixed race and identity are not understood as they would be in the U.S., but I suppose the concept of foreigner is a stereotype here just as racial stereotypes exist in the U.S. Although it can be annoying to convince people again and again that I really am an American, I realize that I am in a unique position to educate and make others aware. I have the privilege of introducing my students, teachers, and other Indonesians to the conversation about racial diversity and identity. For those who are open to learning, I hope that I can show that a person’s identity (in my case being American) is more than just your race and appearance. Through my interactions with others, I hope that Indonesians can see how Americans are just as diverse and mixed as the people here. During my year here, I am happy to take on the special role of educating people on the reality of American identity and how being American means different things for each person. As a “secret bule” (foreigner in Indonesian disguise) I can get the real price for goods at the market instead of the bule price. I can also see Indonesian culture in its most genuine form because people will not treat me differently. My familiar appearance makes some people feel more comfortable talking to me when they otherwise may be too shy. I guess it makes me more approachable for some. To others I’m suspicious, or perhaps I seem arrogant by speaking in English. This is all part of my privilege of being a secret bule in Indonesia.

Introduction to Christina Aguila

[Note from FPA: Christina just started an ETA grant in Indonesia.]

Adapting to Jam Karet – Indonesian time.

I finally received my flight itinerary 5 days ago for my flight to Jakarta, Indonesia. This is thrilling news! Suddenly, the reality is setting in that in 7 days I will be at my site in Manado, North Sulawesi, where I will teach English to Indonesian high school students. As of now, I have no visa for Indonesia, as all visas for my program have been delayed. I am told that I will apply for my visa in Singapore just before arriving in Jakarta. I would be writing from Jakarta and finishing my first week in Indonesia if visas were not delayed. Despite this situation, I haven’t lost any enthusiasm about starting my ETA program. I’m told there’s nothing to worry about the delays; it’s just another aspect of life in Indonesia, jam karet. In my Indonesian class earlier this summer, my Bahasa instructor made the class aware early on about jam karet (elastic or rubber time). After the first few classes, it became clear that class starts about 10 minutes later than the published start time, nothing compared to the 15 minutes or more delay in Indonesia.

It seems that most people would have freaked out by now, wondering why they hadn’t received their itinerary or an address where they would be staying. The Fulbright Commission in Indonesia has done a fantastic job of handling this situation. Several of last year’s Indonesia ETAs have connected with the 2013-2014 grantees to offer a wealth of information and advice. Several of these ETA alumni have welcomed my contact via Skype chats and Facebook to answer any questions that I have. This has given me a lot of comfort and has really helped me to prepare for my ETA experience in Indonesia. The fact that the ETA program is relatively large in Indonesia has been very helpful because it has offered a supportive network of people before I have even arrived in country.

Now that I have all this great advice on packing, travel, and logistics from former ETAs, I can focus on more substantial things like ideas for teaching, learning more about Indonesia and its diverse cultures, and learning to speak Bahasa Indonesia. A constant reminder from former ETAs is the importance of flexibility. Indonesia has very diverse cultures across its 17,000 something islands, and life on each of these islands can be very distinct. A popular answer to many ETA questions, regarding almost anything from what is appropriate to wear to what kind of toilet will I have in my home, is, “It depends on your site.” This is the answer to many questions due to the range of different lifestyles in Indonesia. My site in Manado is one of the few dominantly Christian regions in Muslim majority Indonesia. What is considered appropriate in Manado is more moderate than other regions, at least I am told. [Note from FPA: I don’t know what she means by “more moderate.”]  The diversity of this country is captured in the national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (unity in diversity). There is surely a proud sense of diversity in this country. I’m quickly learning that flexibility is key to adjusting to the diverse lifestyle and pace in Indonesia.