the Daughter Next Door

Living in a culture where questioning still seems to pop up daily.Communicating through a foreign language. Following community “norms.” It’s been said. Obvious conclusions have been made.  Life here has had its ups and downs.

 I’m sure I’ve offended many people with my unconscious whistling. I really try hard to avoid it. Whatever I don’t do correctly, I feel I make up with my easily swayed attitude to drop everything and sit with neighbors, or willingness to go on a 4-5 hour road trip (which I know nothing about beforehand) with a group of teachers, or jump in front of a classroom and act like a clown.

And as much as life in a house full of strangers, who I now call my sisters and brothers, is something I’ll cherish for a lifetime, there comes a point when it gets tiring. I feel I must renew our relationship anytime it starts to get ‘blah.’

Recently, a volunteer gave it to me straight. “The novelty wears off…”

At first, our presence is so exciting to the point of overwhelming. The host family and neighbors are constantly in your face space and unintentionally invading your personal time. I will still never forget the first time the electricity went off in our house. At first I felt fortunate to have electricity, but of course after a few weeks it’s expected and when it’s lost what do you do? It was maybe the second or third week at my site when I experienced my first electrical black out. My host parents were at the mosque for evening prayer Maghrib, I was sitting in my room, and the moon shining through my window provided me with the only source of light in the house. Seemingly peaceful, suddenly a white figure flew into my room. I recall reacting with some hiccup –gasp concoction which I was more startled by because I had immediately realized it was my Ibu. It was too dark to see her palms or feet so she resembled  a costume version of an angelic ghost floating around in her prayer ensemble–covered in bleach white from head to toe. That was the first of many creative ways she would catch me off guard.

 8 months go by. …You’re still here…?

The creativity to learn about my culture faded. Instead they got creative in blocking me out. If taking the television into their bedroom and setting up tables to quarantine me to one part of the house (nice until the bathroom became my best friend through sick evenings), didn’t speak loud enough, they called my school asking them to move me. Boy did my school get their stiff government uniforms in a twist. Before they even told me the news they had found two options; one, a staff member’s house who already has 4 kids and pregnant with her 5th, about a 30 minute car ride with no other access to public transport, the second, a widowed 75 year-old-man with grown children who live in different cities. Obviously they were too flustered to think straight. I was relaxed. It all worked out for the best and I got lots of invitations which made me feel loved. I got over it quick, but I can’t help question how a person (“family”) can so easily put someone in that position? As if the challenge of not “fitting in” isn’t complicated enough let’s make this person feel completely unwanted indirectly and see if they can figure it out. Then tell all the neighbors before her. What surprised me the most was that they didn’t even have decency to tell my host sister. Fortunately, I didn’t take it personally. I saw this as a time to reflect and revisit certain curiosities or unanswered questions about the culture and this family in particular. Do they really want me to leave, or was there a some (or many) misunderstandings they feel too uncomfortable confronting me about? And of course, I too am aware of how difficult it can be to live with people of a different culture. It is not a challenge for me alone, but a challenge for them too. There comes a point when people just cannot accept, cannot change or cannot adapt. You should be comfort in your own house, just not sure if I’ll ever understand their form of comfort.

If I was a burden on their life, good! Because I created a lot of positive energy and life into that house. My sister had previously asked if I’d move in with her and her family, to be the daughter who lives next door. I had originally declined because it seemed obnoxious to move next door. Upon being pushed out, I re-accepted. Since I’ve moved over to my sister’s, oh 5 feet away, my Ibu and Bapak have visited and talked with me more than they had the last 2 months I was living beside their bedroom.

I do a lot more by myself now. Other than sharing responsibilities in the kitchen and cooking with my sister, I feel that I spend more time outside of the house. The house is out of place. The addition is new, but it just doesn’t fit the rest of my desa. It feels strange like it’s almost too nice. I fear if I’m there too long throughout the day, I’ll allude to the idea that my community is well off and forget about that neighbor who doesn’t own a septic tank.

At times I feel like family. At times I feel like a roommate. An awesome roommate at that. Not only do I pay rent, I earn my stay. My mama taught me how to clean, so I clean (a tad influenced from ‘the Help’ at the moment, but it’s the truth!). There have been times however when I’m in a rush to leave for school and I do something like drop a spoon in the sink. My 15 year-old-niece will snap, “tante Elen, harus cuci dulu,” telling me to clean that spoon now. And yes she is serious. I have surely never counted the amount of times I’ve done a sink full of dishes. It’s my pleasure to help them in any way possible. But it still doesn’t feel like my place to argue and sometimes I imagine giving it a lick before I put it in the drying rack.

 I buy fruit and it’s for everyone. I’m elated that they’ve now incorporated fruit into their weekly diet (maybe not daily just yet). However, they’ve never once as much as offered to accompany me to the market. It’s only about a 4km bike ride, but with 5 extra kilos strapped to my back (no basket in front) it can feel like I’m backwards pedaling. On top of it is usually the late morning or early afternoon.  I either feel as if I’ll keel over from the heat that seems to prohibit the wind from ‘gusting’ or the smell of rain makes me dig for that power to pedal faster to avoid getting stuck at someone’s house or soaked from the unavoidable rain cloud that some days seems to be waiting for me. My sister rolled her eyes at me when I brought home a juicy watermelon the color of roses in full bloom. She complained that it’s a fruit that makes her blood pressure low. The worst is when I have to ask for money. I don’t even like to think about it. I rehearse it in my head, how I’m going to ask or what I’m going to say. I don’t want my sister to feel obligated but it should really just be automatic at this point. I feel cheap. On the other hand a kilo of apples each week alone really starts to add up. I’d probably buy more than that, especially because we all share it, but I just dread that phrase, “Maaf kakak, saya mau minta uang untuk berbelanja.”

Then there are times, my Ibu, sister, and niece (3 generations), and that kooky aunt (ME!) sit around for hours talking about nothing. I wished that happened more because it can turn into the highlight of my week, or just answer lots of questions I’ve been curious about. But I just never know when those moments will happen and it’s not authentic if it’s planned. It gets me thinking about that one evening when the electricity had gone out. My Ibu, along with my host niece and nephew had stayed in my room most of the night. They were afraid that I’d be frightened if left alone. I was beyond annoyed at first, but then we made shadow puppets and played “tricks” like racing our fingers across the flame of a burning candle.

5 thoughts on “the Daughter Next Door

  1. I was Laughing out loud!!!! What a great way to start my day Thank you Maryellen I love and miss you.. Mommy (mama)

  2. What an adventure you are living!! You have the patience of a saint! I’m sure they are going to miss you when you are gone – they just don’t realize what a treasure you are and how lucky they are to have you! Hang in there! Love, Tish and Bruno

  3. Great read! If you’re buying the fruit for everyone, then you’re doing them a favor, so then when you ask them for money, maybe word it like you’re doing them a favor. You could ask “Would you like me to buy some fruit for you/everyone?” and then ask for the moolah. Then, you don’t have to feel bad because you offered to do them a favor.

    I used to eat fruit daily when I lived at home with my parents. My mom would cut some fruit for everybody, then hand me a bowl of fruit. I don’t get fruit very often now (except for those veggie-fruits you mentioned in your other entry) because I suck at peeling fruit. I’m some combination of slow & meticulous, and sometimes I’ll slip and cut myself. I just need more practice.

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