A Smile is the Universal Language

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Here we are at the Jakarta international terminal waiting for our first long flight to Tokyo. It’s always a fun and interesting little cultural study to hang out at an international airport. You always see such a wide diversity of people, languages, and clothing styles And it’s so fun to see the way people react and respond to Eli, who is almost a year and a half now. He’s such a little cutie and people from all over the world look at him, smile, wave, make a funny face, whatever. It’s amazing how fast and effective a smile can be. Even from someone who looks so different than me, wearing clothing I would never wear (think Indian Punjabi style with turban), a smile does the job. When someone catches sight of our cute baby all perceived differences melt away and all that’s left is just one human being enjoying another. At the end of the day we’re all just human beings who cross paths from time to time. A smile can cross borders and communicate in an instant. This is what I learned at the international terminal today.

Asian Health Care. Free, Fast and Hot!

I’m so amazed with Asian health care. Guess how much it cost us to see an ear specialist today? Three hundred dollars? Thirty? No, even lower. Our total bill was $3. Yep, that’s correct. We walked into a hospital, saw a doctor, got our medicine and was out the door for a total of three dollars. And I know we won’t be getting any further bills because they didn’t ask for my ID or get a complete address. Ha! Amazing. What’s even more amazing about this is that we didn’t even make an appointment. No phone calls required, no long forms to fill out, no waivers. We just walked in off the street, filled out some basic information (and by basic I mean name, birth date, parents, etc) and got in in less than an hour.

This has been our experience in several medical facilities we’ve been to here in Asia. Some are cheaper than others. Some are nicer than others. This hospital isn’t going to win any awards for amenities but it was by far the cheapest I’ve seen. Three dollars! Seriously.

The only downside to health care here is that a lot of times you don’t quite know what you’re gonna get. It’s a gamble whether you’ll get what you need or not. Some hospitals are really quite nice. We visited some in Singapore that were top of the line. Others not so much. It all just depends where you go. It’s important to go with the recommendation of a friend. We never go somewhere unless at least one other person we know has been there. That way they can scout it out ahead of time and report back. Us foreigners gotta stick together you know.

The other hard thing is that most doctors we meet don’t speak English very well. It can be difficult to understand what they’re saying. We visited a doctor a couple years ago who really struggled to communicate with us. And our Indonesian medical vocabulary was basically non-existent. I remember that being a pretty tough visit. If you have to rely on English only, hospital visits can be stressful.

So visiting a medical facility in Asia can be an interested experience. But I can’t think of a faster, cheaper way to do. Way to go guys!

Mutant Motorbikes and the Indonesian Stare

The other day I was riding home on my motorbike and I saw something kind of unique. A motorbike pulled out onto the road in front of me that was quite strange looking. It sat low to the ground but the handlebars were repositioned way up high. And they weren’t even. Both were up over the driver’s head, but the left one was about hair level and the right handlebar even higher than that. And to make the picture even more interesting, the driver had a bright multi-colored shirt and long straight dreadlocks.

Indonesia is a country that doesn’t value individualism. Fitting in and being part of the group is usually much more desireable than striking out on your own or leaving your personal mark. So that’s why the strange rider on the even stranger looking motorbike fascinated me so much. You rarely see somebody in our town making such a personal statement like that. So I followed the motorbike and it was amazing to me to watch other peoples’ reactions to the souped up bike. Children ran out to the road pointing and laughing. Adults tapped each other on the shoulder and pointed. And just about everybody turned their head to get a better look. From my vantage point 20-30 feet behind him I could see it all but far enough back that nobody noticed me.

It was as if for ten minutes I went invisible and the collective weight of the Indonesian stare was shifted off me and onto something else.

But I wasn’t really interested in the motorbike. I was more interested in the peoples’ reaction to the motorbike. And it was so fascinating. The peoples’ reaction to the strange looking motorbike was the same reaction they give me when I’m spotted. It’s the turn your head and stare reaction. It’s the tap your friend on the shoulder or whisper in their ear reaction. And I know it so well. Any white person in a small town in Indonesia knows it all too well. It felt refreshing not to be the center of their attention. It was as if for ten minutes I went invisible and the collective weight of the Indonesian stare was shifted off me and onto something else. It didn’t last long. I turned off into our house and the strange looking driver kept going, taking all the attention with him. But I realized that all the attention isn’t really even about me. It’s about uniqueness. It doesn’t come around very often. And when it does it needs to be pointed out. I try not to take it personally.

Simple Christmas

It certainly is a different experience preparing for and celebrating Christmas in Indonesia. It’s a little hard to get into the Christmas spirit when you’re sitting in 90 degree weather with sweat rolling down your back, motorcycles whizzing by your house, coconut trees standing tall in your backyard, and not even a hint of a season change. There is no indication that a season change has occurred or that Christmas is upon you. No reminders. No store discounts or people trying to sell you stuff. Everything exists pretty much the same as it did whether it’s December or not.

That’s the hard part about Christmas overseas, but also the beauty of it. It doesn’t come by default. It’s not a given. And if you do nothing at all Christmas will completely pass you by. And so you have the opportunity to make it what you want. Nobody tells you what they think it should be. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed Christmas overseas because it’s so brain-numbingly simple. Christmas overseas is without all the frills and decorations. No shopping or Santa Claus. At first I thought it would be hard to break with our traditions. But when all the things that are normally associated with Christmas are stripped away it forces you to really examine what the season is all about. And without all the distractions it’s a lot easier to get to the heart of it.

Useful

It’s been nice to feel a little appreciated lately. Being needed and useful is hard to come by living overseas. The pervasive feeling most days is that of a child, hardly able to speak much less accomplish things. Dependent on others. So when somebody recognizes something in me, a skill or ability, it’s a HUGE breath of fresh air. I’m reminded that I can in fact DO something, and it’s encouraging.

This childlike feeling sticks with you a long time in Indonesia. It sets on quickly when you first arrive and diminishes only after years of being in country. The process of building confidence in anything is long and slow when you live in a foreign land. Once you get some of the language under your belt, then you have cultural things to figure out. And then when you have some cultural things figured out, you’ll find yourself in a situation you’ve never anticipated before. Sometimes it’s as small as a new word that throws off your whole understanding of a conversation. And many times I understand every word in a sentence, but have no idea the meaning of what is being said. Imagine that. The point is, it takes a long time before you understand what is going on, and even longer before you can contribute.

This week I was able to contribute something- two situations that made me feel useful and appreciated. The first was I taught a few older men how to swim. Well, I didn’t teach them how to swim completely, but I gave them a good first lesson. For the most part Indonesians are afraid of the water. I know it sounds kind of funny to live on an island nation and not be able to swim, but it’s true! Swimming lessons aren’t really available and so people never really learn. So the other day I was swimming laps at a hotel pool and a few guys approached me and asked for a lesson. They were amazed that I could swim all the way to the end and back, and wanted to know how they could do that too. I recalled my swimming lessons and showed them how to do the front crawl. I had them practice holding onto the side wall kicking their feet and putting their face in the water. This was difficult for them and every time their face hit the water they came up sputtering. But they practiced for a while and thanked me for the lesson.

The other encouraging event this week was when a neighbor asked if I could take pictures for her wedding invites. We’re pretty close with this particular family so I felt honored that she wanted me to do that. Kim and I accompanied her and her fiance around town for a couple photo shoots. We took quite a few at the fort and then a few more at the beach. See some of the pictures below.

I mention these two things to illustrate that moving overseas has a humbling effect on you. It strips you of many of the things you used to be good at. In a lot of ways you have to start over from scratch. Learning how to get around town, where to shop for food, and how to ask where the bathroom is are all things you have to relearn. It’s a healthy experience, but it’s hard. And occasionally there are those moments when, like this week, you realize how far you’ve come, you take stock of what you’re really able to do, and the journey to get here doesn’t seem that long after all. And now after four years I finally know how to use the toilet! That’s what I call progress.

Group Mentality

I love it how kids in the village follow us whenever we visit and wherever we go. In this particular picture we dropped in on their village just to park our cars on our way up to the waterfall. I’m sure these kids have been up to that waterfall hundreds of times since they were born and it was no big deal for them. But the fact that there was a large group of us, especially a large group of Westerners, made it seem extra special. So they followed us all the way up. . . swam in the natural pool with us, ate rice on the rocks, and accompanied us all the way down. Such a charming little delegation. It reminds me that everything done in Indonesia is group based. In their minds it’s always more fun to do something as a group. Decisions are made as a group, you travel together as a group, and of course, you vacation together as a group.

This reminds me of one time this ‘group mentality’ almost worked against me. . . almost. My mom was visiting and we had planned a trip to a remote town in the mountains. We like to go to this particular spot because it’s isolated, quiet, and really quite beautiful. We thought it’d be a great spot to unwind a bit and get away from culture shock (for my mom’s sake). We also wanted some quality time with her before she went back to the States. So before she arrived I happened to mention our plans to a friend who was over one day. Big mistake! Never mention a plan or idea you intend to do privately to an Indonesian. As soon as I mentioned we were going up the mountains with my mom he got the idea in his head that, of course, it’d be more fun if he came too. Before I could say a word he immediately got on the phone with his boss to arrange a few days off of work. With dread I could hear the conversation unfolding over the phone. When he was finished he ended his call with a triumphant look on his face and told me that it was all arranged for him AND his boss to accompany us up the mountains. So what do you do in a situation like that?? Well, many times we concede to the culture and ‘go with the flow’. But this was special time with my mom, time that we’d probably never be able to get again. But to outright reject or say no to someone is really rude too. So instead of rejecting him I affirmed his idea and stressed that we could go up the mountains with his boss SOME OTHER TIME. It wasn’t a complete cancellation, only a postponement. After a few repeated uses of ‘some other time’ he got the message and dropped the subject.

So sometimes the group mentality works for you, sometimes it works against you. Overall, I really admire the way people band together here and do things as a community. Group and togetherness is always the first consideration. It’s a little shocking to go back to the States and experience the individualistic society we have there. It feels stark and lonely and incredibly confusing. But here in Indonesia it’s amazing how fast they form bonds and invite you to become part of the family. It’s helped us adjust to living here. It’s helped us feel a part of this community even though we’ll always be so foreign and stick out like sore thumbs. It’s helped us in many ways.

I think this aspect of Indonesian culture will always stick with me. I think group mentality has seeped into my blood. I have a bend toward group now that I didn’t use to have and I see that as a good thing. I suspect I’ll be slower to voice my own opinion and happier to follow the decision of the group. Call me a team player!

Traveling to the Moon.

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Well, we’re back home in Indonesia. Our trip back this time took us a total of 44 hours, 38 minutes, and 19 seconds. That’s a long time to travel, especially with a one year old baby! Eli did well. Towards the end of the trip though he got super tired and fussy. That’s to be expected I guess. We were pretty tired too. I don’t sleep well on airplanes. I can doze a little bit but for the most part I have to wait till the trip is over to really get any sleep. The exhaustion definitely starts to catch up with you after two days though. Walking around our final airport with Eli in my arms I was afraid I was going to fall over and drop him! And when we got home I was so hungry but couldn’t finish a muffin. You know you’re pretty tired when you start to fall asleep in between bites! Our jet lag seems especially wicked this time too. Here it is- 12:40 at night and I’m wide awake after four hours of sleep. I should AT LEAST make it to 3 or 4 am! Going back to bed and fighting through it is probably the smart thing to do, but right now I feel like staying up. There are other things on my mind.

I’m always amazed with the relative ease with which we transition from our life in America to our life overseas, and how we can go from one world to another in a matter of days. It’s comparable, I think, to taking a rocket ship to the moon. All you have to do is just put on your space suit, strap yourself in, and hang on tight. After a couple days of interstellar travel you’ll find yourself disembarking on a foreign planet, in totally new surroundings. That’s sorta what it feels like to come to Indonesia. Only here it’s not quite so desolate. We have a house, a Tv, a living area, bedroom, refrigerator, and can speak the local language. And instead of a barren wasteland like the moon this place is teaming with life and activity. Everything is green. We have goats in our front yard. Coconut trees in the back. You can only take the comparison so far. But I can’t imagine the experience of traveling to the moon to be much different from what we do. Our two lives are worlds apart.

When we finally got to our house, tired, and completely exhausted after a long trip we were informed by our neighbor that our ‘uncle’ passed away earlier that day. We weren’t greeted with a hello, or “how’s your trip?”, but informed of the local news. I guess she wanted to skip to the punch. Our ‘uncle’ is a local man whose extended family we are pretty close to. It turns out he had a sudden stroke, was in a coma for two weeks, and passed away the day we arrived. So today we visited his house to pay our respects to his family. In Cousin belief you have to bury the body the same day they die, and then have prayer services on the 3rd, 7th, 14th, and 100th day after that. By the time we got there it was already the 3rd day service. In typical Cousin fashion all the men had on their long-sleeved batik shirts and kopiah (hat). I showed up dressed similarly and Kim wore a head wrap. Pretty different than the polo shirt and jeans I wore just two days ago in Indiana. When we arrived there were a bunch of people there, but it seemed the event was just finishing up. People were starting to head out. Oh well. There were still quite a few people milling around and I sat down and ate a plate a food, which consisted of rice, beef, chicken, and noodles. Yum!

You can only know so much about another culture when you see it through a pinhole. And oftentimes what you do see is colored by our own perceptions.

Social events, even funerals, are always an interesting experience. It’s hard to know what to talk about, especially when I just stepped off an international flight, jet-lagging pretty badly. They just can’t relate to that. And when I tell them about our time in America (something so fresh and real to me) it always seems like a fairy tale to them, as if I’m describing a magical far off place. They ‘re very curious about America, naturally, but they don’t know much about it apart from what they’ve heard. They ask about the form of government, what snow feels like, and if we eat rice over there. Usually their questions are trying to scratch an itch, answer a rumor perhaps, but they don’t really know for sure. They’re inquisitive but they have such a tiny window, a small frame of reference with which to ask questions from. It’s a similar story in America when people ask us questions about life over here. People in America often ask, ‘Do you feel safe? Do you have to cover your head? Do you drink a lot of coffee?’ etc. These are interesting questions but are usually based on a rumor, or hearsay, or even worse, television. You can only know so much about another culture when you see it through a pinhole. And oftentimes what you do see is colored by our own perceptions. It’s rare to find someone who’s lived in both places and can talk about travel and airports and the struggles of overseas living having done it themselves. It’s hard to find someone like that. Maybe that’s why we appreciate our team so much. We’ve done similar things, gone through similar struggles. You bond quickly with people you share a common experience with. And in our case making rocket ship commutes to the moon and back is a pretty unique experience. We’ve bonded quickly!

Sick Baby = Sick Heart

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We’ve been struggling the last few days with some minor illnesses with our eleven month old, Eli. He had some infections in his diaper for a while (which we just got treated) but now he’s been running a 102 fever for the last few days. I’m sure to all the other parents out there you’re probably thinking, ‘Oh, just a 102 fever?? That’s no biggie!’ And I’ve been reading some things about fevers and it’s probably not a big deal. He’s still active and alert. He smiles and plays after the fever medicine sets in. It’s just that when it’s your first child and he’s been crying and miserable for the last four days you can imagine we’re just a little bit concerned.

I think part of our worry stems from the fact that we’re in Indonesia, a foreign country. If we were in the States we could call our parents, get reassurance from various places, or run to Walgreens and pick up what we need. But here, there is no Walgreens pharmacy. We can’t readily call or talk to people. We’re mostly on our own. And because it’s a foreign country we have to worry about other things like malaria, or dengue, viral infections, or any other random thing we’ve encountered here. Simply because it’s Indonesia the risk and fear factor goes up a a bit. It’s just a fever, but because it’s Indonesia it could be anything.

I admit it’s been hard to trust God with some of this. We’ve been feeling the pull to come back to the States and trying hard to fight against that pull. But when our little guy is sick, and we know the right medicine and treatment exists in America, it’s hard to work up the excitement to be here. We struggle with that from time to time. Right now we’re struggling with it a lot. We need God to fight our battles for us. We’re trusting Him for healing. Healing for Eli, yes, but healing for us too and our attitudes and that He would get us through these trials.

“Lord give us new attitudes today. Help us to trust you with the unknown. Amen”

Trumpet and Guitar. Music is Who You Are, Not What you Play.

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I’ve been playing guitar quite a bit lately and it’s been fun. It’s funny how living overseas strips you of some things, but gives you opportunities in other areas in return. I feel like guitar is one of those things for me.

I picked up guitar quite a few years ago by chance when a friend of mine showed me how to play a praise and worship song with just three chords. She showed me how to hold the guitar, form the chords, and do a basic strum. I was surprised and encouraged that I could learn to play the song so quickly- in just ten minutes. It was motivating to see a song come together that fast! I was also amazed by how easy it is to produce sound from a guitar. With just the slightest flick of your finger you can generate a note. This is quite different from trumpet where you have to pucker your lips and blow your brains out to get a note- and even then it might not be the right pitch. Guitar seemed so much more accessible. I was intrigued.

When we came overseas a few years ago I debated whether I wanted to bring a trumpet with me. See, I’ve been playing trumpet since the 6th grade. I played all the way through high school and college, in jazz bands, symphonic band, marching band, orchestra, combo and small groups, etc. I’m a trumpet player gosh darn it! However, I decided taking a trumpet to Indonesia might not be very practical. After all, trumpets are heavy. They take up space. Trumpets are loud and attract attention. . . and the last thing I need in this country is more attention! I also don’t have access to a band or group to play with which is where a trumpet really shines. So I decided to leave my trumpet in the closet.

However I still wanted to play music. I still wanted that creative outlet. Our first year overseas, seeing an opportunity to expand my guitar abilities, I picked one up at a Yamaha store in town. I’m so glad I did. It’s been a real blessing to play music again. And there’s even a need on our team to lead praise and worship music. So although it’s challenging, and my singing voice isn’t the best, I’ve really done my best to learn and play as much as I can. My sheet music binder now has 67 songs in it!

Art is in the head. It doesn’t really matter what tool you use.

I remember my photography professor once said, “Art is in the head. It doesn’t really matter what tool you use.” That statement has stayed with me all these years. I think it applies to music too, not just art. If music is in your head than it doesn’t really matter what instrument you play. It’s who you are. It’s in you. And it’ll express itself in one way or another. I’m thankful for this time I’ve had overseas to pick up a new instrument, to force me to learn some new things. I think it’s important no matter where you go to take your passions and interests with you. If you can’t do exactly what you want than you need a replacement. Guitar has been that for me and I’m grateful for it.

Toys and Culture.

Toys are an interesting part of another culture, a window into someone else’s worldview. You can tell a lot about people based on their toys. This is true even here in Indonesia, however in this case it’s their lack of toys that is revealing.

I’m always amazed at how the kids from our neighborhood come over, gawk at, and admire Eli’s toys. These kids are much older than Eli but they find his small play area an area of wonder and fascination. We have scattered around the floor various things like blocks, balls, stuffed animals, little cars and people, puzzles, etc. We didn’t have much at first. Traveling across oceans has put a limit on what we’ve been able to bring with us. And what we can buy is limited too. But in the last several months since we’ve come back, Eli has inherited a few other things from Western families- bigger items we would’ve have been able to fit in a suitcase. These are the things our neighbors find most interesting. They come over to ‘play with Eli’ but they always go right to the mechanical plastic toys, the ones with the moving parts and batteries. It’s interesting to watch the kids. Even though the toys are probably intended for babies and toddlers, the older kids love em! They pick them up, turn them around, and age isn’t a factor at all.

My eyes are opened to a whole new world- a lifestyle I can admire even if I’ll never be able to imitate it.

When I see the kids get such a kick out of Eli’s baby toys it’s makes me realize all over again that I come from such a different culture. In their culture, having A TOY, one single toy, is about all they can expect. Toys are a privilege, something above and beyond what’s normal. Having more than one would mean you’re super rich, or excessive, or both. And then I look at the stuff around me- all the stuff we’ve been able to accumulate in our small house over the past three years, and it’s just remarkable. Even though we’ve been limited by what we can buy because a) it just doesn’t exist, or b) it won’t fit on our motorbike or in our suitcase, we still have a lot. By American standards I’d say we have less than most. But compared to those around us, our Indonesian friends and neighbors, we still have so much more. It just makes me realize how much we accumulate, and how fortunate we are to have so much stuff. And my eyes are opened to a whole new world- a lifestyle I can admire, even if I’ll never really be able to imitate it.

Indonesian children teach me that we really don’t need all this stuff to get by. It’s possible to live a much simpler life and be content. They make up for their lack of toys with creativity and ingenuity. It’s fun to watch them play in our front yard. The other day two neighbor boys made a game out of jumping and rolling on an old barrel that appeared in our yard one day. It occupied them for hours. And then another day a patch of leftover sand from a cement project became an impromptu sandbox. Other times I see them playing with sticks and string and paper kites. Some days they come over just to interact with Eli, even if it’s just to make him smile. It’s pretty amazing what they come up with to do, even though they start with nothing.

I’ve been blessed to see this side of life, and I’ve been challenged to do it their way. Eli at 11 months may have more toys than our 6 year old neighbor. I can’t help that. It’s our culture. But I can learn to give and share with those who don’t have as much as me. And by giving it away I’m the richer for it.