06/08/2012 08:44 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

How I Learned To Embrace Modest Dressing In Indonesia (PHOTOS)

Last fall, I moved to West Timor, Indonesia (an island just north of Australia) on a Fulbright teaching grant. Although I am from New York, the time that I had previously spent in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand mentally prepared me for the year-round blazing heat and humidity. And how could I forget the rainy season, which is exactly how Forrest Gump had described it: "Little bitty stingin' rain...and big ol' fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night..."

Factor in extreme airline baggage policies on my New York-to-Los Angeles-to-Tokyo-to-Singapore-to-Jakarta-to-Kupang journey, and I knew I had to pack light. Without too much stress, I threw a few of my favorite outfits in a suitcase and off I went.

My hasty inclination toward convenience while standing in front of my closet got me in trouble during my first week in Kupang. While riding in one of the bass-thumping public minivans one evening, my girlfriend and I were involuntarily taken for a spin by a group of young men after they had dropped off the other passengers. I calmly asked them to stop the vehicle, thinking they were just trying to work us up. But one of the guys got closer to me and placed his hand on my upper thigh. I freaked out, which startled the driver to stop, and my friend and I immediately jumped out. As we were running away, I became conscious of the short, sleeveless, floral dress that I was wearing. I had completely forgotten how much I must have stood out in a city where most women dressed modestly and tend to cover up more.

While the liberal arts school feminist in me wanted to disregard the social dress code and do me, the more safety-concerned 22-year-old side of me began to put on the layers. I wanted nothing but to deter attention away from my foreign body. And by the end of the month, I was feeling like Charlize Theron in "Monster." I hardly ever felt cute anymore.

Things had to turn around before I'd fall into complete self-despair. And all it really took was a little boost in my attitude. I had to remind myself that my role there was not only to be sensitive, but to also be culturally appreciative. Part of that was to embrace all of what Indonesia had to offer -- even the sweltering weather. Here are the three ways that made me happy to change my look:

1. My hair. To compensate for every inch I was adding below the knees, I would snip off a bit of my hair. Not only did it lift that stiff weight off my neck and shoulders, I also did not have to worry about helmet hair (after the harassment incident, I opted for a motorbike to get around). Though I may have gone a little too far when students started calling me Dora the Explorer.

2. My complexion Embrace the sun! I'd tan, tan, put on sunscreen, then return to tanning. The natural glow lets you get away with not wearing the makeup that would have dripped down your face anyway

3. My style. I took advantage of the beautiful ikat fabrics around me and found a great tailor that made me dresses and skirts for cheap -- like $10-a-piece. I even had a few mini-skirts made to be worn back in the U.S.

Take this as a warning, if you ever find yourself in the tropics feeling all kinds of unattractive and check out the slideshow below to see how my style evolved in one year.

Jessica Peng's Style

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