It’s Up to Me

My husband and I moved to Indonesia when I was 23. I was terrified, and in many ways, I was still growing up. Looking back now, I realize that my years in Indonesia have changed me for the better. Indonesia is where I finally learned how to be a friend. How to reach out. How to have a little confidence. I think I had to move all the way to a rural village in the mountains to figure out how much I needed to learn.

I am not naturally a social risk taker. Even a hint of rejection is crushing; my social insecurity is something I have long battled. When I go out on a limb, it is often against my nature. But some things have changed. I ultimately had the revelation I so desperately needed in my most cringe worthy moments as an outsider: It’s up to me.

I first learned this in the village in Sumatra. I had been there for nearly two months. My attempts to fasten myself into this new world felt pathetic. The women I had sought friendships with had families and duties to take care of and maintain, and I was asking more of them. I wanted them to invest in me, take an interest in me, and pursue me. I wanted these women to make up for all the friendships I had left behind in the States. Instead, I would sit quietly in the company of village women as they talked to one another in their gardens, spread out under mango trees and relaxing after a day of working hard in the rice paddies. I had nothing to offer in these moments. I was silent, naturally. I felt overlooked.

My husband’s research required him to have a schedule, meet with people in the village, work on his data. This left a lot of space and time for me to be on my own.

Almost two months of mostly solitude, retreating to our home after frustrating attempts to interact with the women in the village, quiet times of book reading and hiding out were enough for me. My growing loneliness turned into determination, the question was no longer how to get the women to want me around, the question softly turned in to how I can appreciate and invest in them. My heart was getting stretched. I realized: It’s up to me to have a positive experience in this village.

I started waking up early, just as the village women did. I began opening all the windows to our wood home on stilts, making rice before the sun was in position atop the sky, and starting the day with chores: laundry by hand, sweeping the house, standing outside by the edge of my stairs to wait for the tofu delivery man from town. Shortly after adopting their morning structure, I began to enjoy it, and found both a security in routine again and a deepened appreciation for all they do before the day has even begun.

I earnestly sought their help with cooking. This was my next step in reaching out to these women; I had to start asking for help. In my stubbornness, I had believed I needed to prove myself to them, to show them I could make edible meals to their standards. The truth is, I couldn’t. To cook rice, I used what I had, a portable single burner stove with a fickle flame. My meals were mush. When I asked for help from some of my neighbors, their response was gracious, enthusiastic even. They insisted I help with every step and made sure I took copious notes in my notebook.

Soon, I was moving forward as a village woman, navigating the market tents on Saturday alongside my cooking mentors, ordering spices, selecting the right cut of meat, and just the right chilies for my own curries.

But better than learning to cooking a decent meal? I was starting to have things to talk about while sitting under the mango trees. I was starting to make my own stories.

Learning to mimic and appreciate their days was one thing. Learning to cook their dishes was another. Learning the language was the next frontier.

I asked my neighbor if I could pay her to teach me her language, the village language, as they identify it, for two hours a day, five days a week. She was delighted. And so, I began the journey to speak their language. After investing four months into the language, I remember very vividly a moment when I made a basic joke using the words I knew. And those who heard the joke laughed. It was a glorious feeling.

After some dedicated time learning and practicing, it was as if the whole village opened up to me; from black and white to color.

That year in the village changed me. Choosing to learn the village language was my pivotal moment; and from then on, I felt as if I had been given the key to the village. I had the opportunity to show the women of the village that I cared deeply enough about them to learn the language they spoke, which in their opinion, was a language low in status and surprising that I wanted to learn. They in turn trusted me, welcomed me into their sphere, and opened their hearts to me. Initially I wanted them to want me around, with no effort on my behalf. How little I understood in those first few months.

Since those important years in Indonesia, I have moved to California, then moved to Germany, back to California again, and will be moving again soon, all for my husband’s work. I am always in the same perpetual motion of leaving and joining that I am getting accustomed to. I am slowly learning how to carve out my own niche in a new place, and most importantly, how to show kindness to those I meet. For too long, I waited for other’s to bring me into their circle, to invite me to something, or to open up a conversation. From experience, I have learned that waiting for others in this way is most certainly a recipe for solitude.

I have a bit of a pep talk in my heart when I am weary of always being on the outside. I remind myself that if people choose not to reach out to me, or to be my friend, things will be just fine. I have to remember that I have the ability to reach out, same as anyone. It’s up to me — and no one else — to have a positive experience wherever I am.

Originally published at on September 13, 2013.