pelan-pelan, ya?

"Pelan-Pelan" (slowly-slowly), I'm attempting to jot down some stories and thoughts while living in Kupang, Indonesia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and a "China man," as the locals would rather call me. The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect any organizations I may be affiliated with.

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A friend recently showed me these pictures of Kupang during Dutch colonialism.  And while Kupang has changed quite a lot, there is still an eery feeling of colonial remanence around the sea port.

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Why Does the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky?

A creative writing exercise in my 11th grade English classes prompted some wonderful stories worth sharing.  Happy Reading!

Cef Tandirura (XI IPA 1) Long time ago, there lived a boy named Sun and a girl named Moon. They loved each other and they lived happily on earth. One day, Moon got sick and there was no doctor who could heal her. She was very sad because of it. Then, Sun asked the moon what happened to her.
“What happen with you, dear?” Asked Sun.
“No I’m okay,” said Moon.
“I know you’re not!” Said Sun.
Finally, Moon told to Sun that she wanted to see a beautiful view of the Earth from the sky. And Sun made a very long stairs to reach the sky. And then Sun and Moon climbed to the sky with that stairs. When they were up there, Moon felt really happy and she instead felt healthy. After that Sun asked to moon to climb down. But Moon didn’t want to climb down. Sun felt very confused to decide to climb down or keep staying up there. Finally, Sun decided to keep staying with moon in the sky and they lived happily ever after in the Sky.

Rio Rafael (XI IPA 1) A long time ago, when the world was new, the Sun married the Moon and they lived as happily as can be. They lived in a little cottage near the ocean. One day, the Sun and the Moon invited the Ocean to their house for a visit. The Ocean liked it so much. He wanted to stay in a little cottage. The Sun and the Moon liked the Ocean and hoped the cottage would be big enough for all three of them. So the Sun and the Moon invited the Ocean to stay with them. Then came the Ocean with all his friends. There was the whales, the fish, the tortoises, the crab and all the creatures that lived in the sea. The water rose higher and higher in the cottage. Soon, there was no more room for the Sun and the Moon. Then, they rose up into the skyp and lived up there.

Grace Raga Lawa (XI IPA 1) Long time ago, the sun and the moon lived happily together in the sky. They always appeared together during the day and night. One day, the Sun shone brightly so that it almost burned the moon. The sunlight hurt the moon’s eyes very much. This made the moon blind. The moon left the sun although the sun had apologized to the moon. The sun loved the moon very much so he chased her. He chased and chased through the years and centuries but has never caught the moon. That’s why the sun shines during the day and at night the moon appear. They will never reunite again.

Fransisca Y. Lay (XI IPA 1) Long time ago, there was no day. It was always dark and always summer. This was because the Kachina, a very powerful person, had stolen the sun and the moon and locked them away in a box. In the light, Coyote and Eagle, two friends wandered the desert. Coyote and Eagle had always hunted together, but Coyote could not hunt anymore because he could not see at night. Coyote suggested that they go to find the sun and the moon and make them light up the world. Eagle was worried. He reminded Coyote that the sun and the moon were very strong and it was dangerous to try to trick them. In the end, Eagle agreed to help Coyote. While the Kochina was sleeping, Coyote and Eagle crept into their village, stole the sun and the moon, and headed into the hills. Coyote told Eagle that he wanted to open the box containing the Sun and the Moon. Eagle said, “No!” They had to wait until their travels to open it with their eyes closed. Coyote grumbled. He couldn’t wait to see what was in the box. Finally, he grew so curious that he threw it open. The light of the Sun was so bright that it blinded Coyote’s eyes. The Sun and the Moon laughed and flew far away, up into the sky where they are today.

Nezia M. Rostyana (XI IPA 1) A long time ago, the sun and the moon were a married couple who lived on the earth and were great friends of the sea. One day, they invited the sea to visit them but the sea hesitated, thinking that there might not be enough room in their house. But they reassured him. So the Sea went along with the fish and all the members of his family. Immediately the water began to rise and the sun and the moon, to avoid being drowned, had to climb up onto the roof and then eventually into the sky, where they have been ever since.

Niko Whitford (XI IPA 2) Long time ago when the earth was made, there was no sun and no moon, just darkness. The plants, animals, and human who lived on earth were weak. They needed something bright and warm for their bodies to heat up in the cold darkness. One stormy night, lighting struck down a tree and it caught on fire. The people who lived near the tree were first very scared. But after awhile they noticed the tree on fire was very warm. They all gathered around the tree to be warm. When the fire was out, they tried to make their own fire.

When they all were warm from their fire, they realized the plants and animals needed it too. They then made small fires for every plant and animal. Soon they realized there were too many of them around to be given fire. One man had an idea. He gather all his friends and made the tallest ladder ever up into the sky. Up there they found an empty planet and stored all their fire there. Soon the planet became the sun. It brighten the earth and warmed all living things there. But because the earth rotated away from the sun it was dark again. They climbed up the ladder and stored their last fire on another planet. It was only a little bit bright. That became the moon.

Rezky Bais (XI IPA 2) My father told me, long time ago the sun and the moon were very close to the human, but daily, humans made many sins—everyday, everyday and everyday. So the sun and the moon chose to live in the sky, because in the sky there are no sins.

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Valentine’s Day Haikus

So they say Timorese boys are best known for being romantic.  Today, I decided to put this to test with a lesson in writing Valentine’s Day haikus.  Boy were they right.  On this Valentine’s Day, sending you the most loving and hopeful words from Kupang.

I can’t forget you.
You’re like a star in my heart.
Love you my baby.

Can we meet again?
In Kupang or Palembang
I miss you so much.

I remember you
Where are you now my best friend?
Happy Valentine.

I really need you
You’re important in my life
Please come to me now.

I love you so much
I cannot live without you
You’re my everything.

I love Valentine
You are very beautiful
Be my special girl.

You are my sunshine
Everything will not be fine
If you are not mine.

You are my first love
I cannot live without you
You’re my pretty love.

Love you forever
You are my inspiration
I give you my love.

First you’re my best friend
Second you are my boyfriend
Last you hold my hand.

Happy Vday.

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Ringing in the New Year: December in Images (Part III: The Family Visits)

One of the most challenging part about teaching in Kupang these past five months has been sharing this experience with friends and family at home in an authentic way, that is, making my daily work relevant to them.  What I DON’T mean is the poor internet connection in Kupang that makes it hard to Skype at those few hours when folks at home are awake.  What I mean is sharing my work in such a way that those who truly understand me at my core can also hold stakes in this new community that I am slowly becoming a part of.

I am forever grateful of my family’s hard efforts to make it out to visit me in Indonesia this year.  It was great to show them my stomping ground and finally have them put an image of the country, culture, neighborhood, school, friends and students that I talk about.  Makes it all feel that much more.. homey.

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Ringing in the New Year: December in Images (Part II: Christmas)
On Christmas day, my buddy Ari and I fittingly found a lovely Muslim family to hang out with.  Actually, we kind of look like we fit in!

Ringing in the New Year: December in Images (Part II: Christmas)

On Christmas day, my buddy Ari and I fittingly found a lovely Muslim family to hang out with.  Actually, we kind of look like we fit in!

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Ringing in the New Year: December in Images (Part I: Saigon Round 3)

Saigon is just that city in the world that continues to provide me with the space I need to learn about myself.  My third trip was no different.  In between consecutive nights like the one in the video were thoughtful conversations over Vietnamese coffee with old friends at our favorite spots.  Even as we all have recognized the different paths our lives have taken since we last met a year ago, their understandings of me remains static in the moment of my coming out of my worst into… some type of inexplicable happiness.  I couldn’t help but dig up a story I had written upon arriving back in the U.S. after my second Saigon trip.  Rereading this was comforting, as I re-found a part of me that I thought I had lost.

It is a farewell scene that will forever be etched in my memory.  I walked out of my apartment building and immediately smelt the rain that would come later that day.  Bush followed close behind with my suitcase.  Never before had these streets been this quiet.  Sitting across the gravel road was Mr. Tai on his motorbike like it was any other mornings before work.  I imagined jumping on the back of his bike, the way it had happened for the past three months.  He’d ask:
            “Vo Thi Sau?”
            “Vo Thi Sau,” I’d reply and we’d take off into the sweaty bumper-to-bumper ride that is Saigon traffic.  We had worked out a good system despite the language barrier.  Mr. Tai had memorized my work schedule.  He understood my loyalty to him over all the other motorbike drivers on the street, and so on days when he was busy he’d send a friend to pick me up.
            But we weren’t going to share a twenty-minute bike ride to school this time.  Instead, I handed him a box of mooncakes as a gesture of my appreciation for his service.  Tears built up in his eyes.  He walked me back across the street where Bush had hailed down a taxi that would take me back to the “real world,” as all the expats liked to call it.  As the three of us stood there in silence, neighbors, street vendors, even strangers stopped what they were doing and surrounded us.  I was sobbing at this point.  Bush held me close.  We had no words for each other.  I slowly turned around and stepped into the taxi.  Mr. Tai gently shut the door behind me.  I smiled and waved as the car started to pull away.  Not another tear dropped until the figures of the men, one resembling my father and the other my brother, faded into a blur.  I had said goodbye to Vietnam a second time.

The tears had surprised me because I rarely cry during goodbyes; neither the first time I had left Vietnam or when I had left home for college.  In fact, the only other farewell scene I recall crying was when my family left Taiwan more than twelve years ago.  I remember that summer day in 1998 equally well.  Ah Gong, Ah Mah, Big Uncle, and his wife standing out in the crowd, crying and waving to my family of five as we boarded the plane in the Taiwan airport.  Many years back, my father’s sister in New York had petitioned to sponsor our family for U.S. immigration.  Now, after ten years of waiting for the green cards, we were leaving everything we had known and loved behind for the unknowns.
            I remember wishing desperately that my mother could take her parents along so that she would stop crying.  While watching tears roll down her cheeks, it occurred to me that my father had caused all of this.  We were leaving my mother’s family, who had been our neighbors throughout my childhood, to live with my father’s estranged siblings in New York.  Suddenly, a terrible, piercing sense of loss and fear came over me and I, too, began to uncontrollably cry.  And there my father was, coldly standing next to our bags, not even showing a hint of sadness.  I imagined it was because he didn’t have parents or siblings he was leaving behind, or perhaps what my mother had always joked about was true: the Peng family had no feelings.

* * *

Stories my father told about his parents certainly portrayed the Pengs as unsentimental and detached.  He spoke of our story like it was a passage in a history book:

Your Nai Nai left her family when she was nineteen.  It was 1949, at the end of the Chinese Civil War.  She had met your Yei Yei at a bar in her hometown in Yunan Province, China.  At the time, Yei Yei was a 33-year-old army officer whose infantry was in retreat.  He had joined the National Revolutionary Army in the Second Sino-Japanese War against the Imperial Japanese Army in his early twenties.  After Japan’s surrender, he continued to serve the Kuomingtang (KMT) army as an officer against the communist People’s Liberation Army.

This second war was much tougher than the first for the thought of pointing a gun at his fellow countrymen tormented Yei Yei.  The prospect of winning was also slim.  With the People’s Liberation Army’s past few victories and the promulgation of the Constitution of the Republic of China in Beijing, words had spread that the bulk of the KMT forces were in exile.  Most infantries were preparing to leave for Taiwan.  Posted too far south, however, his infantry was warned to continue south.

Like most Chinese women, Nai Nai was naïve.  She didn’t know much about the conflict or much about love.  She knew Yei Yei’s loyalty remained to his army.  After all, he had left his first wife and his ten-year-old son back in Hunan to continue fighting.  The war was tearing families apart all over the country.  Uncertain about the fate of her future, she decided to leave Yunan with Yei Yei, at least until stability would come about.  They crossed the southern border of Yunan into Vietnam, where they lived and traveled.


It would be sixty-years after these first steps until another Peng would arrive in Vietnam.

* * *

I had only been home for a few days after a busy summer interning at the federal Department of Education in Washington D.C. and was now packing again.  Since I entered college, packing had become habitual; I could never bear suburban Long Island anymore.  Standing in my bedroom doorway with half of her body leaned in was my mother, still trying to convince me not to go:

            “It’s not too late.”

            “Yes, it is.  What would I do for a semester?”

            I knew immediately that my tone of voice had upset her, but it seemed to be the only voice I had lately.  I was always angry.  She certainly regretted ever allowing me to take a personal leave from Vassar or even sending me to Vassar in the first place.  She had worried that I would get hurt at such an affluent school.  She was also angry with my father for supporting all of this.  She hated being the overbearing Chinese mother who can’t let go.

I had decided to take time off from Vassar at the end of my sophomore year.  Before college, I had spent most of my adolescence seeking ownership of an American identity.  Much of what was asked from me was to be less Chinese, which wasn’t a problem because I had never considered myself Chinese.  Yet in college, I found myself disconnected in discussions of race, gender, and class.  The problem wasn’t the realization of my otherness.  I always knew that I was different.  Instead, it was a conflict of my perceived otherness and my lived experience.  Classmates and friends had preconceived notionsof my experiences, vulnerabilities, even capabilities as a first-generation female Asian-American student.  The fight to change that idea and to explain myself was exhausting.  I didn’t know if they would ever understand or if it was even fair for me to have to help them understand.
            “Take your Taiwanese passport,” my mother said, as she tossed it into my suitcase.

            “But, it’s expired,” I mumbled but packed it anyway.  I didn’t want to make this any harder for her; I knew it was difficult for her to watch her 20-year-old daughter leave college to seek refuge in Vietnam.  Plus, I was tired of fighting.

            The car ride to the airport was silent.  I wanted to tell my parents how scared I was but couldn’t.  I had learned well how to protect my parents.  We remained quiet until we were parting ways at John F. Kennedy International airport.  My father took the initiative:

“Good luck to find you and my parents.”

I nodded and smiled.  After nearly eleven years in America, my father’s English was still transliterations of Chinese words.  I looked at my mother expecting her to be crying.  She wasn’t:

“Be safe.  Call if you need us.  I love you,” she hugged me tightly.

I turned around to leave.  I walked straight through security without looking back.  If I had stopped and turned, I might have not gone.  At the boarding gate, I was looking forward to the 20-hour sleep and to wake up in the land where my grandparents had once found refuge.  I had never been so tired.

* * *

            I woke up to silence.  “If only Saigon mornings could be like this,” I thought to myself.  Next to me, my sister, Mandy, was still deep asleep.  After two weeks in Vietnam, her jetlag still had not been fixed.  I quietly opened the wooden door, slipped out through the small crack to make sure the sunlight wouldn’t wake her up.  My father was already on the beach.  He was sitting in the sand.  His beach towel, book and sunglasses were all on the patio table next to me.  He was staring at the ocean.  I stood and watched him for a while, contemplating if I should give him a moment with this land or join him on our last sunny morning on Phu Quoc Island.  It was too late; he had already caught me staring at him.  He smiled but turned right back around to the ocean.  He needed a moment with this land.

            I opened my book to keep myself busy.  Though my eyes skimmed each line of words, my mind was preoccupied with a different story.  Growing up, my father had told this story countless times before, but it all came out differently the night before:

            “After four years as refugees in Vietnam, they would be citizens again.  Your Nai Nai had heard from the other wives that the new military settlements waiting for them in Taiwan had kitchens.  She was looking forward to teach her 3-year-old daughter how to cook her mother’s best dishes.  She stepped out of the house Yei Yei had cheaply built when they first arrived at Phu Quoc.  She couldn’t believe they had lived on this island for more than a year.

            Down at the beach, Yei Yei and the other men were already getting ready.  They were all thrilled.  Many of them would be reunited with their brothers, who had served in other infantries.  Nai Nai went back inside to dress the children.  She dressed them with five layers of clothes each.  The boat would see a few cold nights.”

            I set down the book and stared at my father, who was still staring at the ocean.  He was thrilled.  These waves had taken Yei Yei and Nai Nai to Taiwan, ending their refugee days in Vietnam.  For the first time, I saw my grandparents with feelings.  Nai Nai, at twenty-three years old, couldn’t wait to have a real kitchen for her children.  She was watching the same waves, her eyes beaming as the boat slowly pulled ashore.  Her newborn was on her back and the 3-year-old tight in her hands.  She was only two years old than me.  In Taiwan, Nai Nai had always told my father that they would go back to China and finish the war.  She waited everyday for Yei Yei to receive the telegram and to utter the words, “We’re going back.”

Soon, Mandy would be up.  We would head back to Saigon and part ways.  My sister would head back to New York to start medical school.  I would return to English teaching and my thesis research in Saigon for my final weeks of summer before I say goodbye for the second time.  And my father would pay a visit to the cemetery where his mother was still waiting to go home.

As I travel, I continue to search for another place in the world that is as forgiving as Saigon.  But nothing quite compares.

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Forget flash mobs, it’s all about shuffling.  Hailed from the pop phenomenon of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” shuffling has taken over Kupang.  Kids shuffle whenever and wherever possible: weekend nights at the park, break time in the hallways and classroom corners of our school, at the bus stop, and more.

At the city wide talent show competition my students performed their choreographed shuffling dance and rocked it.  The talent show was also organized by the students themselves for all of the other high schools in town.  Amongst a dance competition, there was also battle of the bands and a ‘fashion’ show, which was more like a beauty pageant.  The event was a huge success.. one of my favorite nights in Kupang so far.