“Holy-Bitter”: taking the high road and in search of a new one

My neighbor came up to me the other day and said, “Mary =’holy’, ellen= ‘bitter’…Yes, you here is like holy-bitter, am I false…?” I laughed because 1, he looked up the meaning of my names and 2, I strangely already knew where he was headed with this. When I asked him to farther explain, his response was that he is so happy to have gotten the chance to become friends with a foreigner, to know about an unfamiliar place without the travel and see how people can adapt. “You really same with me, ‘cause I’m not always like Javanese people, I like talk about problem open in conversation to make the persons better in living…” Lining up his arm next to mine he said that my skin is now like “chocolate,” not quite yet, but again I understood what he was ensuing. We discussed what it will be like when I return home and I then explained the more common phrase “bitter-sweet,” how sometimes I label many experiences here as such. However, he said, “Gak Elen, you never sweet, ‘holy-bitter’ aja…hehe.”

That same other day, I was in search of a new rumah. 5 months ago I shifted to the other side of my host family’s compound to ease tension between me and my Ibu (host mother). She is a very short tempted lady and in her eyes I had made one too many cultural faux pas. Since my Ibu and Bapak’s daughter and her family live next door it was preferred that I slept on that side. Apparently this distance was still not enough and after I ran out of fingers trying to count the amount of times she scolded me on things like sitting outside too often, laughing, washing dishes too loudly, or being” too friendly” towards Bapak (host father age 68…ew), I decided it was time to take down my mosquito net and take the plunge–relocate.

It’s OK to move.

As of last week, I live in a new village, in a new rumah, and with a new Ibu. Erm.. I guess it’s like ‘holy-bitter.’ I re-enter the stage of exhausting introductions, name-learning, and good ole community mapping.

I’ve explained in the past, Peace Corps Indonesia requires the volunteer to live with a host family for the duration of service. Prior to receiving my invitation to Peace Corps Indonesia I was informed that this assignment would require me to live with an Indo family the entire time. I immediately thought, if leaving homehome offers the opportunity to experience how others live, why not actually just live with them? I’d argue that the stories which will probably never be erased from my memory were well worth it but all the unnecessary stress that comes with it…I don’t know. I surely could not have predicted such obstacles, however I can’t exactly complain about them either, I knowingly signed up for this.

In my situation, PC was very supportive about the move no questions asked. But we did discuss it and did a lot of eye rolling. Prior to a volunteer’s move, PC staff must approve and meet the family as a formality. Lucky for me, PC was in the area for site visits and new site developments for future volunteers. If I wanted to move I had to get on it. Bu Sari, PC staff member, came to my site on 3 different occasions to help search…!!  I did not anticipate such a strenuous process. Although after being here 18 months I have a clearer picture of how I prefer to live. It took over a week and a half to find the right match. I am really close, relationship-wise to my neighbors, and they were extremely helpful but also discouraging. It was draining from the constant questioning and daily need for answers I didn’t have. Rumors were polluting villagers’ mouths like plastic bags polluting the rivers and everyone was passing out their unwanted advice. Every single neighbor shared a new story about the host family I had been living with for over a year—information, if true, should’ve been shared a long time ago. I love ’em, but c’mon!

At one point during the week the Ibus in the village actually held an impromptu meeting for me and selected a house. When I heard about the meeting and had received an invitation to live with a neighbor and dear friend my heart melted. The joy was short lived as the house was still in the same village. To the host family they were afraid of embarrassment and separation from the village members (as if being the only ones with an entrance gate didn’t say enough). Of course I took it into consideration because after all I’m here to help and not cause additional problems. I explained the situation to my tailor who lives a few kilometers away and she gave me a look that read, “Kak you need to get the hell out of that desa…” Throughout the week I searched. As I met new possible host families and visited new homes nothing really sang to me. I asked my school for help and they were taking me to these extremely nice houses close to the main road. I explained, rumah biasa, or basic house. After the third house that included a spring bed and western toilet (actually harder to use with bucket rinsing), I decided it was best to continue the search for my own rumah biasa, ‘squatty potty’ included. When I thought I had stumbled upon a great place to move, the host family, yet again, complained it was still too close in distance and recommended that I apologize to Ibu and try harder not to make anymore “mistakes.” I know my host sister didn’t want to see me go, but now they were just being ridiculous.

Must a volunteer always take the high road…? Yes. And I took the high and different road.

As that week came to an end I felt burnt out and defeated. I biked around my usual path. I was offered to mempir or invitation to visit. Not in the mood, I automatically thought to decline, then quickly accepted and figured what the heck, maybe some sugary tea and small talk will boost my spirits.

And just like that I found my new rumah biasa. The Bu and I got chit-chatting and she had already known my story and current situation (even 1 kilometer away from my village not too surprised)—then she recommended the house across the street. The owner, Ibu Merpina, was still out at work in the fields, and once she returned, in her farmer hat and all, we met and there was an instant connection. Widowed with two children grown and married, one in Malang and the other in Kalimantan, she had been in search for a housemate. She labels her house as jelek or ugly but the set up to me is perfect. I can foretell some privacy issues; only the two of us and the fact that my room is cornered off with high walls and no ceiling to block out any noises coming in or out of my room, but I have such respect and appreciation for her willingness to open all three of her front doors to me (traditional Javanese house structure).

An overwhelmingly amount of new Bu-s crowded the front part of the house to welcome me to the new village on the day of the move-in. We all sat on a rolled out mat. Lots of “ya Allah-ing,” tea drinking (short on glasses so shared), and feet slapping. After that night that I had honestly enjoyed, not hoping to end, there’s no doubt in my mind that I made the right move and not only into a rumah with one Ibu  but a village with many Ibus.

4 thoughts on ““Holy-Bitter”: taking the high road and in search of a new one

  1. Oh, Maryellen! I’m so glad things are working out! That had to have been so stressful for a while. What’s culturally wrong with sitting outside for too long? And I know there’s not anything going on between you and ANY 68 year old. Sometimes the best things come to us when we’ve given up looking for them…I hope your stay with her is amazing!

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