The form, the mind, our emotions, and their balance. It starts back in those days — in those far remote days — and back in those nights, in those long-ago nights — back in that time when the wise ones were wise, the wisest of us all were still trying to figure “us” out. The question of who people are, what their purpose is, and how should they exist, have often been a question that leads to some of most personal of all; Identity: Who are we?, “Who am I?”.
We know that children listen to and draw from their surroundings in order to feel comfortable enough to explore the big, novel world. This all starts at a young age. Whether it’s because of scripts, developing paradigms, genes or the ecosystem, babies look to absorb. It is why my youngest sister back home is able to nod her head yes, and shake her head no, for just about anything that that is fed to her. She knows this because I made it a point to gesture more when we talked to each other in front of her. We look to other people to show us who we are. Sometimes we find whatever is at the bottom of the barrel. Sometimes we are blessed to travel. Nonetheless, We can draw strength in knowing what -and- where we came from. Even if we don’t have all the Wisdom in the world, we each have a part of it. And, what we have is real. So its our job to share that. It’s hard to connect with people if you think you know everything.
And that’s why the key to a healthy relationship is great communication. The key to healthy conversations are great follow-up questions. While I do my best to draw simply from what I listen, some recurring questions I have are the two following:
1. What made you smile today?
2. What about yourself are you really appreciative of?
I want people to feel proud of who they are. Are we to reserve this kind of feeling for just a limited few?
In a black, slick SUV right right on the outskirts of Padang was me, Mr. Anto, and two other teachers. Interested in their new colleague, they wanted to be the first to see me for who I am, behind all the shots of warm smiles on Instagram. Right outside the airport were some residential roads, lined with some humble homes adjacent to photo-worthy rice farms, with everything surrounding us green and powerfully rural. Inside the vehicle was me just as I arrived, in as casual an outfit I could wear in an airport while agreeing with the wildness outside. I was in my worn jeans, a T-shirt wearing the logo of a charity ride and shoes with some white paint on it from when I volunteered for the homeless. Its company in the car were slacks, collars and dress shoes… and yet it was me who had been asking all the questions.
Mr. Anto — who sat directly to my left — more than kept up the conversation. He, a young middle aged Indonesian man, who not to long ago served as a head for the nation’s only radio broadcast, was an experienced guide for all things Minang Kabau, and a celebrated English teacher, who decided to settle down in the city of Bukittinggi, for the purpose of being selfless. He, taunted and inspired by memories of a distant childhood, burned with the knowledge that his students deserved more. He wanted to give his students “power” and that “there happens to be a language of power, Alex. For better of for worse, we all know which that is.”
If he could, he would promote the beauty of Bahasa Minang, which all in the kingdom are blessed to be surrounded by. But… with compromise comes contradictions. Mr. Anto and I used the two hour ride to the Bukittinggi (literally, tall hill), to talk. We discussed Language, Education, and their intersections. I was sitting next to Paulo Freire. I was accompanied by someone who reminded me a lot of the teachers I had back home. Beyond the tinted windows, there was also clay.
“Alex, when my students see you, they are going to be shocked. Certainly, they are excited. But you, when they see you they will be shocked!
I had a hard time trying to understand exactly what the meaning of the exclamation meant. So, I smile a reply with “Oh, yeah I’m sure. I guess it is exciting”
“Alex, you’re Indonesian.”
“My students are going to be shocked”
But I wasn’t shocked. I mean, I’m not the first American abroad who had his nationality questioned. I signed up for this fully prepared to use the fellowship as an opportunity to meet people who’ve asked, “what is American.” (especially when television has given them an answer).
I reply with “yeah that’s pretty much understandable. I’ve also been mistaken for Filipino, Ecuadorian, or mixes of two different races. But actually, my family have origins in Mexico.”
“We are similar!”
“Well… the collective ‘American’ identity isn’t defined by skin (at least, that’s the promise).”
“But Mr. Anto, I guess I should ask now… do you think my appearance will mean that the students will not listen to what I’d have to say about Bahasa ingress?”
I was okay with waiting for Mr. Anto’s reply to my question. I was already content with the challenge that my inexotic skin brought, but immediately Mr. Anto said; “Alex, this is GREAT!”
-Really :,o ?
“Yes, my students… will be very comfortable with you! They are and will now be very excited to talk to you. You, as you are, as an American, will show them America. They’ve already seen what you can do. And I can already see they’re already feeling… proud”
I would be lying if I didn’t feel a bit of relief.
I asked, “what do you mean by feeling ‘proud’… I mean, why haven’t they already?”
I wondered about what the students felt about America. What kind of pedestal is English being put on? I wondered what exactly they saw on television and news. A wonder about the ideas they’ve consumed regarding what life should look like, and how they’ve been instructed to attain it. I was kidding myself; I already knew the answer.
“Alex, I need your help. Students should believe and capitalize on the talents they have. My students certainly have it. But there exists a hurdle to that confidence. The kind they need to have in themselves direct those talents at home, and in honor of own’s home. My students are distracted by the influence they see in western films, the internet. Fast and furious and fastly furious food. They feel proud to buy KFC and look for creams that promote the nurture “bule” skin. Many of my students come from far away, even in Bukittinggi. Perhaps Jakarta may know the truth, but news like that gets lost on the way here. There is magic in Minang Kabau that deserves to be shown. Alex, you will connect with them just as you are connecting with me. On the Bright-side, you are already trending in MAN2. I know that you will tell them the truth that will encourage them.”
This is for my students who I know are reading right now. A little reminder for the web, while I’m at orientation. 😉
To learn English is not to forget or neglecting your Minang Kabau or your Bahasa. You are more than just the one thing people tell you, just as you are a kemist and a Futbol player. I am American, as I am also Hispanic/Mexican (and proud of it too). I can find the words I’m looking for in three different languages. I love that you teach me both Bahasa and Minang. They are the words you speak to your family in. Words that our Ibu’s find just right enough for love they carry are usually in the language she finds most comfortable. That is why we call it our mother tongue. Your look is a history that is rich and beautiful, as you have already shown me through your food, language, and generosity. My students, you are more than just one!
I want you to be proud of who you are.