Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Recap for MidTESOL

My Time as an EL Fellow in Pontianak, West Kalimantan
 Indonesia, AY 2010-2011
Where I Went
A Culturally Diverse Community
West Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo, is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Indonesia. Pontianak, the capital of the province, is home to three major ethnic groups: the Malays, the Dayaks, and the ethnic Chinese Indonesians. Many other groups, such as the Batak, Madura, Sunda, and Bugis peoples, are also well-represented in Pontianak society.

Islam is the predominant religion throughout most of Indonesia—but not everywhere. About 88% of Indonesians country-wide are Muslim.

 Pontianak has a large Christian community, with many Protestant and Catholic congregations representing the Batak, Dayak, and Chinese-speaking communities.

A drive along the West Kalimantan coast will take most visitors through ethnic Chinese towns and villages, where Buddhists and Confucians often worship in adjoining temples.

Rapid modernization has made provincial capitals, like Pontianak, into places of great contrast where traditional markets….

 exist alongside multi-story, ultra-modern shopping malls.

A Regional State University Focused on Pre-Professional Training

Pontianak is home to Universitas Tanjungpura, a state-run, regional university with pre-professional programs in law, business, medicine, agriculture, engineering, and teaching. The program in English teaching is housed in the same academic unit as the training program for science teachers. 

What I Did

All of my students were 17 to 20-year-olds who were preparing to teach junior high school EFL in the host country. My host institution had not understood that my qualifications were for adult ESOL and not for teaching K-12 methods courses; nevertheless, we were able to utilize my skills as a native speaker for basic speaking, pronunciation coaching, cross-cultural studies, and research writing

classes—thus saving the project. 

My first week at Universitas Tanjungpura was filled with plenty of culture shock, as cattle were slaughtered in the parking lot outside the window of my office for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, and then the meat was hung on the veranda of the education faculty building. Quite a first day at work!
 I always enjoyed office hours, since students would often drop by to practice English. Informal practice was probably the one thing that helped them most, since many had never had the opportunity to hear a native speaker’s voice in person.

 During my time away from campus, I tried to blend into the community as best I could, though unfortunately, I never learned Indonesian. Most of my friends outside work were other English teachers who worked for private schools, and they always wanted to speak in English.
Meanwhile, on campus, students were encouraged to speak with me only in English. This made life interesting—and sometimes frustrating—in almost every public space where I needed to communicate in Indonesian, but could not.

 EL Fellows are encouraged to plan events, and event planning has never really been a great skill of mine.  Still, I was able to put together a reading and speaking competition called Reading Expo, with the help of Angela Potts, another fellow who was visiting Pontianak. Whenever Indonesian students agree to participate in something that is not required, it’s important to acknowledge their work with a certificate. Only the best performers actually got prizes—which of course, were books in English.

 Before leaving for my fellowship, I had been an outreach worker for my local public library, which included visiting schools on a bookmobile. One goal I didn’t get to work toward as much as I would have liked was encouraging more collaboration between the local public library and the university’s English teacher training program, though I did get to ride on a bookmobile in Borneo and introduce a few people to each other who might not have met before. I felt this was an important goal, since second language reading remains an area of opportunity for young adults to develop themselves academically in the community where I was serving.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Culture, Part VI: Dissemination

Finally, our last lesson, and an up-to-date blog. We cannot keep our culture to ourselves. It is meant to be shared; if something is secret, it cannot remain a part of our culture for very long. Some select group of people must be made privy to the knowledge, and pass it along.

Lesson SIX: Culture spreads, because it consists of the things about ourselves and our people that we desire to share with others. These things can be goods, services, or ideas.

Eastern North America's aboriginal people built vast trade networks that can be traced even today by any trained archeologist, based only on the shape and style of pottery found amid ruins. And thanks to Syifa, and the Borneo custom of bringing back oleh-oleh whenever we go away for a visit home, future cultural researchers will wonder how ROLL TIDE sweatshirts came to be distributed so far away from their original place of origin.

Culture, Part V: Expectations

During my recent trip home, I was really shocked at the price of gasoline - more than $3.25/gallon US in most parts of Alabama. It's normal for gas prices to increase, and for Americans to grumble and complain about them. Olaf, my European friend, reminds me that we are complaining about nothing, as far as people in other Western nations are concerned. What isn't normal in the USA are long gas lines. In Pontianak, the city took to bicycles recently, when a local fuel crisis ensued as a result of an accident (never really explained) that prevented the state petroleum concern from delivering fuel into the harbor terminal. The result was something I hadn't seen since Hurricane Katrina paralyzed the southeastern USA in August 2005: marathon gas lines stretching several kilometers down the highway in front of every gas station. I was glad to be a walking, bike-riding foreigner who didn't have to worry so much, but also concerned that my friends and neighbors were spending so much time out in the heat. I could not believe that the international press had not picked up the story, but saw nothing on CNN or BBC. What I saw was a city of almost a million people, where everyone was leaving work at five o'clock in the afternoon, having dinner in line, and arriving home at around 3 A.M. the following day. Ten hours to get your fuel for the week. I began, at last, to glimpse our own future absent alternative fuels, mass transit subsidies, and a national energy policy for the USA. Folks, this is where we're headed, and you can make book on it... But beyond the politics of the impending U.S. fuel and transportation crisis - "Without Trucks, America Stops!" says the bumper sticker - lies the lesson for cultural studies. Why are people forming a line in the first place? Queuing up for gas or any other goods or services isn't an expectation with which we are born, and doesn't happen by instinct. "Every man for himself" or in other words, a melee, would be the natural state of things in this situation. We form an orderly line based on the cultural expectation that we will do so.

Lesson FIVE: Culture establishes the expected behavior for most any given situation, both positive and negative.

Of course, it's not all unpleasantness, like a terrible gas line. Culture will make you do a dragon dance, too.

Culture, Part IV: Let The Music Play!

After we meet our basic needs for food clothing, and shelter, and augment them with the three more necessary for life in the modern world - transportation, education, and healthcare, we choose the ways in which we express what we want to say. Art, music, poetry, drama, media, entertainment - these things all represent the ways in which we attempt to communicate with one another, as soon as the necessities of life have been attended to.

Lesson FOUR: Culture includes our attempts to communicate, and the messages we send to other human beings, in whatever form.

Culture, Part III: Accumulation

Semester break, like life, is "nasty, brutish, and short." Getting to spend three weeks in America talking with family and friends was wonderful, but not so wonderful was my first experience in the wonderful world of extended stay hotel rates, and the realization that Tuscaloosa, for now, isn't exactly home, even though nearly all my stuff is still there. One would think that being without a family, I would have relatively few material possessions to weigh me down, but this is not the case. When I was preparing to come to Indonesia, I had to vacate an apartment where I have lived for more than 20 years, and had to do it in a very short time. Thus, all my possessions came to live in Unit A534.

I had to spend my last Sunday morning in Tuscaloosa rearranging Unit A534, so that I could reach books and computer software I thought it necessary to put hands on, and longingly survey the warm winter clothing that I was never able to reach, it being located all the way at the back of the damn thing, which is quite full top to bottom, front to back. When I had finished, A534 looked just as much in disarray as when I had begun. And the winter clothes were still beyond reach, unavailable for my three more days in freezing cold Atlanta in February. Last August, I just didn't think about this.

Why is there so much junk in Unit A534? Is it because of indecision, or a misapplication of values - the part of culture that tells us what to leave in, and what to leave out?

Perhaps. But that would ignore another terribly important principle for cultural studies - that of accumulation. Culture is not built overnight, or even over 20 years, the time it takes to accumulate 2000 cubic feet of useless junk.

Lesson THREE: Culture represents the accumulation of lessons learned by countless people we will never meet, and their life experiences piled one on top of the other for many generations.

This, of course, is possible because of sentiment, the idea that value can be assigned to places, things, and thank God, people, giving them value beyond their actual material worth. The paper on which all of my college notebooks are printed might be worth a nickel, but I doubt it's worth even that. The same is true of the couch on which I slept as a boy.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Culture, Part II: What's Always Been There

"If you drink the water from the River Kapuas," says the local legend, "then you can never leave Pontianak forever. You will always come back."

It's quite a pronouncement, but one that I have chosen not to resist. The idea is much older than I am, and I tell people that I will probably always visit Kalimantan every other year for the rest of my life, though I don't feel I should live or work here. But what, really, is the significance of a muddy river?

Plenty. It is around rivers that so much of civilization has grown up over thousands of years, and this is one important thing Pontianak has in common with my city, Tuscaloosa, located at the "fall line," or farthest point upriver (ulu, in Dayak) navigable to barges. Historically, this is where cities were built in Alabama. And like our people, the people of the Pontianak Sultanate depended on their river, an ancient source of water, life, and transportation.

The importance of the river "spills over," pun intended, into the spiritual, as well as the physical world. People today are connected not only to the natural world, but also to their ancestors and each other by the knowledge that they have lived their lives looking at what has always been there for those who came before them, and pray it remains for those who come after.

Lesson TWO: Culture is the source of the meaning we assign to what has always been there, for as long as anyone can remember.

As for me, my culture has changed, because I will go through the rest of my life never quite sure whether to think "Kapuas" or "Warrior" every time I hear "river."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Culture, Part I: The Haunting Past

Rushing to catch up with blog postings so that those long overdue don't spill over into April hasn't been the best thing I could have done, but is necessary. Until completed and up-to-date, this blog is a potential distraction. Currently, there are no time slots available for distractions. And, there is a cross-cultural understanding course that's tanking rapidly because so little was planned in advance, and I had no heads-up that I would be mainly on my own. So, let's "kill two birds with one stone." We can incorporate basic lessons about culture into this blog, and have both the "front burner" and the "back burner" available for planning activities for 18 class sessions each week.

Sound the bell, school's in! Our first basic lesson about culture is that it is a force that drives human beings to create collectively, and what has been collectively created will be left behind for others to discover and analyze.
Quite unpredictably, what is left behind takes on a significance for each generation that may or may not resemble what its creators intended. Our mid-year conference in Surabaya came just before my three-week home visit to the USA, and while the timing was great, I was not prepared for the unfamiliar sights we saw while driving through the East Java countryside on the day we were able to escape from duty long enough for sightseeing. Candi (that's CHAHN-dee) are Buddhist-Hindu temples left behind by the Majapahit civilization, an ancient Javanese kingdom that "lost the war" with the advance of Islam at some point during the 14th century. Candi are everywhere in East Java, and an archeological enthusiast would need a month to satisfy curiosity about all the types and variations that exist across the tropical landscape.

Lesson ONE: Others will see what you leave behind. If you know that, and you act on that knowledge, then the ideas you use to decide what to leave are part of what we call culture.

Our outreach reception in Surabaya was warm and welcoming, and probably caused me to talk a little too much about the MLK holiday, which was our theme for outreach this year. Conservative Islamic magazines are letting parents know that when you choose a school for your children, it needs to be one where the Americans have not been giving teacher workshops and spreading "liberalism." At least someone's taking notice ;)