Stepping through the manicured gates of the Islamic boarding school where I teach and live in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, you'd never know I live in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The sprawling school campus is an oasis, a literal breath of fresh air amidst the smog and pollution that has been wreaking havoc on my lungs since I arrived here four months ago.
I'm not exactly roughing it here in Indonesia. Many of my colleagues on the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program face far more material struggle. Some ETAs, as we're called, teach upwards of 80 students per class with kids packed into air-condition less rooms lacking desks and school supplies. One teacher sweat so much one day it exposed the tattoo on her back usually concealed by her modest dress. Some suffer daily power outages or water shortages or rat infestations. Not me. My largest class is 21 students. It's spacious and air conditioned. Water abounds. There's even a swimming pool. Food is served on the regular. Ants and cockroaches are my only four-legged nuisance (though some roaches are approaching rat-size).
So what am I doing here? Shouldn't I be in a remote village without running water or power struggling to get by on rice and scraps of tempe? Perhaps. But the swimming pool doesn't help my students string together sentences in English, something a good portion of them still struggle to do despite a decade of English instruction (English is a mandatory subject for Indonesian elementary, junior and senior high school students). A well-stocked cafeteria doesn't mean they've tasted a homemade chocolate chip cookie. My diplomatic strategy: Food + Fun = Cultural Ambassadorship. Call it soft (and gooey!) diplomacy. A two story library doesn't mean that there are English books to read. The English book section consists primarily of old romance novels left from past Fulbrighters. To be fair, living at a boarding school gets lonely.
And air conditioning doesn't blow away misconceptions about the United States. Miss, are Muslims even allowed to go America? Would I be allowed to wear my headscarf there? All African-Americans are gangster, right Miss? Did Jews cause 9/11? Wealthy or not, I'm grateful that I'm here to offer some answers. Of course you can visit. Of course you can cover your hair. Not even close. Let's talk about why you think that. The U.S. is really different from what you see in the movies. I think we have a very different understanding of 9/11. I was in the area on that day. My childhood next door neighbor died. Have you ever learned about it in school?
The prominence of the school also means that I encounter students from all across the Indonesian archipelago, which in turn means I'm offered a fuller view of Indonesian life. I have students from as far east as Jayapura, Papua and as west as Banda Aceh in northern Sumatra. Each brings with them their own local culture and often, their own local language. I know how to say "thank you" in at least twelve different regional languages. I'm not the only one that has to culturally acclimate. Still, Islam and Indonesian identity unite them. They all rise at 4:30 AM each day to pray. They all pray four times a day thereafter. They all salute the Indonesian flag. They all believe in ghosts, a uniquely Indonesian phenomenon with roots in ancient animist beliefs. An apparent ghost invasion prevents the school's use of its impressive greenhouse.
And while most students pay the full, high-priced tuition, many are here on scholarship, either sponsored by their province or directly by the school. The intellectual spectrum is as diverse as the regional spectrum. While many students indeed struggle with English, I have a few exceptionally talented students. For them, my presence offers access to information about opportunities abroad. Indonesia's most prominent universities including University of Indonesia, Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and Bandung Institute of Technology still rank far behind many English-speaking universities. University of Indonesia, the highest ranking among them, fell to #273 according to the 2012 world rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds. Fitri, an 11th grader who reads the English dictionary for fun and gave a speech during a mock election we held in class that could've rivaled Obama's '04 DNC speech, deserves better. Kevin, a budding artist and nearly flawless English speaker, deserves better.
This is not to say that students necessarily need to flee Indonesia to receive a good higher education or that Indonesians are not working hard to better their education system or that learning English will automatically ensure opportunities. Organizations such as the Putera Sampoerna Foundation are making some excellent educational strides with its network of senior high schools and growing university. But for now, at least, the reality is that my most talented students could get a better education elsewhere. No aesthetic veneer or stately surroundings can change that.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed above are the author's own and do not represent those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.