26 September 2010


In my opinion, the biggest cultural difference between America and Indonesia is the idea of boundaries. Indonesian society has a very communal nature and therefore there isn't really a concept of boundaries or personal space. Being from America--the land of individualism--this takes some getting used to. Now since this is my third time living in Indonesia, I'm largely used to it. However, there are a few occasions when I'm still caught off guard. These examples all come from a good place but...

  • One of my co-teachers insisted on living at my home in Toraja for the first two nights because she thought I'd be scared. It became a problem when on day three she was still planning on sleeping over. That's when I knew it was time to be blunt and set boundaries. 
  • The students often ask me for my phone number, address, facebook and email. They also ask my religion, marital status, who I live with, what I wear when I get home from school, what I do just before going to bed and why I don't go to church.
  • Yesterday six of my male students surprised me at my house and asked if they could come in to practice their English. 1. This is a major boundary issue and 2. A major cultural taboo given the gender breakdown. I didn't want to be rude so I agreed to spend some time with them practicing English if it was a public place. The only option really available was to hang out in the rice paddies. I thought I had handled the situation appropriately until a neighbor joked in the Torajan language: "Are you boys trying to marry her?" Yikes. I suggested they bring some female friends next time they decide to knock on my door. 
  • Ooh recent update: I'm sitting in an internet cafe in a little cubbie where you sit on the floor. A boy just peered over into my cubbie. He then came back a few minutes later and stepped into my cubbie to take a look at my computer screen. No words. Hello cultural understanding 


I really adore teaching at SMA Negeri 1 Makale. SMA means high school in Indonesian.

Why my students are the sweetest:
  • They all stand up and say "Good morning maam. How are you today?" or "Thank you maam. Have a nice day" When I enter or exit the classroom.
  • They often begin oral presentations with "Thank you for giving me this time to speak..."
  • They love to ask me if i've met with Justin Bieber. 
  • We sometimes sing Ya Sudahlah together. It's best if one of the students has a guitar with them.
  • They call me "Meees Yudeeet." I'm not really sure why. J's are not pronounced like Y's in this country. But i've gone with it because it's so adorable.
  • They love to ask me if I have a husband. This question is always followed by immense giggling from the rest of the class.
  • They all personally thank me when I've confirmed their facebook friend requests. 
  • They're eager to learn English.
One of the other teachers has his students start their presentations by saying "Thank you, Her Excellency, Miss Yudiit, English teacher of SMA 1 Makale" or "Thank you, Her Excellency, Miss Yudiit, representative of AMINEF." Uncomfortable. 

Buffalo Fight

Hello world. I apologize for the neglect.

Let me recap: I am currently teaching high school English in a small town in South Sulawesi. The region is called Tana Toraja. The people practice a mixture of Christianity, animism and magic. I live amongst rice paddies, banana trees, palm  trees and mountains. Livestock is plentiful. I've never seen so many buffalo, roosters, pigs and stray dogs in my life. I've seen many people holding chickens recently. Like a baby.

Yesterday I went to my first Torajan funeral. The ceremony was held in a small village. Many of the men wore sarongs. We began with a buffalo fight. It was a gladiator-like situation except the buffalos didn't seem very interested in fighting. There was a big circle of men around the area the buffalos were meant to fight and the rest of the village watched from a nearby hill. Occasionally the buffalos would get into it and clash horns. I watched with a fellow Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant) from a nearby hill. It felt safe until the two buffalos ran out of the fighting circle and began making their way up the hill--right towards us. I think the scariest part was seeing the look of fear in the villagers' faces around us. I did think for a moment: this would be a very bizarre way to die. We climbed higher up into the forest but at this point one buffalo was within five feet of us. My counterpart reminded me that it was better to stay still. Waiting. Fortunately at the last moment a farmer was able to grab the buffalo by its nose ring.

After the buffalo fighting, the village chief invited us into his rice barn/gazebo. A few of the women poured us Torajan coffee. Torajan coffee is supposed to be some of the best in the world. Starbucks gets many of its beans from Toraja. The Torajans serve it in a large silver kettle with tons of sugar. It's delicious in small quantities. We also were given a traditional funeral snack of sticky rice infused with coconut and wrapped in banana leaf. Meanwhile, we talked with the village chief about everything from terrorism in Indonesia to the rights of indigenous populations around the world.

Next came the ritual animal sacrifice. It is traditionally believed in Torajan culture that a deceased person's livestock can travel to the afterlife with him or her. Today the animal sacrifice also serves as a status symbol. The more buffalos that are slaughtered, the richer and more important the family is. Rich families may slaughter 50 to 100 buffalos during a relative's funeral. The kicker is that a buffalo can sell for $8,000 to over $20,000. Yes, dollars. Funerals last about a week so I only saw one buffalo get slaughtered. It was sad to see the buffalo lick its nose, totally oblivious before--whack. The blood was an incredibly bright shade of red.

After a few more rounds of buffalo fighting, the sacrificed buffalo was laid on palm branches and cut into pieces. The meat was then placed in a huge iron container and roasted over a fire. The villagers all partake in the roasted buffalo meat. The best piece (near the neck) goes to the master butcher. He often will sell it.