A trip to the pesantren

June 12, 2011

On Saturday, we spent the day and night at an Islamic boarding school in the village of Pabelan (pesantren Pabelan). At first, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Boarding schools in the United States aren’t all that common, and most of the time, the kids who attend are either wealthy kids or kids that have behavioral problems. When we arrived, we were greeted with snacks (like everywhere we go in Indonesia!) along with many of the teachers and administrators of the school. Through some jumbled translation, we learned a little bit more about the school, the students and their curriculum. The students are enrolled at the school for seven to eight years, equivalent to the United States middle school and high school years. They get only a few short vacations, and other than that, they live at the school year round. For the first four years, the boys and girls are separated and don’t have class together, and then for the remaining three years, the girls and boys have class together but their interaction outside of class is strictly monitored. Their morning starts at 4am and they go until 10pm at night, talk about a long day!

When we were there, the boys and girls were both preparing for their Scouting ceremony. The pesantren offers both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and it was really cool to see something that I consider to be an American tradition transformed by Indonesian culture! Outside of the girls’ rooms, there was a court-yard where the girls were setting up a camp site to sleep out in tonight. They did it all by themselves and the set up was quite impressive and crafty. The girls put up their own tents and made entrance-ways into the camp ground. They also had some decorations strung up around the campsite, it definitely wasn’t typical of what you might expect but it was cool to be there to see the final product! They were up really early this morning making the final preparations for the ceremony, which we watched as a group.

We stayed in one of the girls rooms and we had only 9 people to the room where they usually sleep 20! In the afternoon, we got the chance to meet with both the boys and girls students. Their English was pretty basic and a lot of them were really nervous to ask questions. Jack asked them what they thought the hardest part about the English language was and they said just finding people to practice with. They said that often times, they take trips to Borobudur Temple to find tourists to practice their English with. I thought that was pretty funny because I just imagined my dad or someone else I know being approached by school kids who just want to practice their English. It was even better because when we went to Borobudur as a group, Anne Marie and I were approached by pesantren boys who wanted to practice their English with us! Anyway, he girl students were really excited to meet Americans and one of them even gave Ellen their bracelet. They love Justin Bieber and they were amazed at how tall I was. It was really surprising to realize that many of the students that we met were 17 or 18 and yet seemed so young to me. These girls were only a few years younger than me, yet because of the different social cultures we grew up in they seemed so… innocent.

Before dinner, I played soccer with many of the older boys. I wasn’t ready for how good they were but I managed to hold my own. Fikar took pictures and I had a whole cheering section, which was especially comforting when I fell down chasing the ball.

My favorite part about the visit was learning more about my favorite figure here in Yogya, Hamzih. He is a well-known entrepreneur in the area and owns several souvenir stores along with three restaurants. Many of them are called Raminten, named for the female character Hamzih played in a local play in Yogyakarta. Hamzih might best be described as a transgender and is someone who constantly pushes boundaries and people’s comfort zones here in Indonesia. Many of the Indonesian students say that he works to empower the minority here in Yogya, and especially works for the LGBT community. As you can imagine, his lifestyle and values faces a lot of scrutiny within the local community. However, Hamzih is a very successful entrepreneur and gives money to institutes and organizations throughout Yogya, even to those who may not support his individual choices. For example, he gave money to the pesantren we visited to build a welcome center. Through this, Hamzih builds respect for himself as people begin to see the good he contributes to the Yogya community. Hamzih uses his philanthropy, stores and restaurants as a way for people to overlook him as a person (a person many people have a hard time respecting) and instead, see him as a citizen that is truly making a difference in the city of Yogyakarta. This way, even though people may not respect him for his lifestyle, they respect him for his professional choices and the positive impact he has on the lives of many. I was talking to Mas Indra about my fascination with Hamzih and his impact on Yogya. As we were talking and I shared with Indra my thoughts, he said that he hadn’t really ever analyzed Hamzih before and now that he had, he thought it was pretty cool the work that Hamzih did for Yogya. I would love to have a figure like Hamzih in my hometown community, someone who is devoted to the betterment of the community no matter if they support him or not. Indra said that Hamzih’s work reminded him of a quote from Batman that goes something like this, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” I think that’s so appropriate for describing Hamzih and is really beautiful when you think about it. Isn’t that something we all should try to do? Anyway, I’m hopeful that I’ll meet Hamzih while I’m here. Everyone has told me that that will probably be near impossible but I’m hopeful!

The days have been really full with activities and I’m trying to appreciate my last couple of days in Indonesia. The Indonesian students are preparing for the United States and I think are getting really stoked for it. I’ve explained to them that in English, first comes excited, then pumped, and then stoked! It’s been fun teaching them some English slang and colloquial phrases. Soon, the tables will be turned and they’ll be the bule! (Bule is foreigner in Indonesian and something we hear almost all the time here…)

Thanks for reading!


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