Report in March

Since arriving in Indonesia, I’ve made a point to ask all my students and local counterparts about what motivates them to study English. They almost always answer that English is a “global language” and that speaking it makes one more “competitive.” It’s a perfectly sensible answer. But after hearing it so many times, it can start to sound canned. A few nights ago, over dinner, one of the English teachers at my school rephrased it rather pointedly though. “English is money” Pak Narsy said, through a mouthful of grilled fish and rice. “English is a better life for me and my family.”

He proceeded to tell me a story. Many years ago, before he’d gone to college and become a high school teacher and civil servant, he’d worked as a janitor at a hotel. One day, an Australian tourist came down to the lobby to inquire about a piece of lost luggage. When the tourist discovered that none of the receptionists at the front desk could speak English, he became irate. “What’s wrong with this fucking country?” is what flew out of his mouth, according to Pak Narsy. “Why can’t anybody speak English?”

As it happens, Pak Narsy, janitor, could already speak a little bit of broken English. He approached the tourist, offered what help he could, and by the end of the afternoon, the tourist had been reunited with his luggage. Apparently, the hotel manager fired the other receptionists and promoted Pak Narsy on the spot. English is money, alright.

So far, Pak Narsy is the only person I’ve met who’s been willing to come right out with this simple truth. Never mind that “What’s wrong with this fucking country?” and “Why can’t anybody speak English?” seem to perfectly encapsulate how English, and Westerners, for that matter, generally announce themselves as they spread. People still have to live with reality and the local reality is that English is more than just a “global language.” It is a privileged commodity and a status symbol.

This is a reality that I, as an “English Teacher and Teacher Trainer” in the Peace Corps, confront every day. I confront it in every giggle of embarrassment that follows every “Hello mister!” squealed from around a corner. I confront it in the sullen, stone-faced look given to me by a boy in the back of the classroom as I peer over his shoulder at a blank worksheet. I confront it in the hoots of laughter that reverberate around said classroom after every spelling or pronunciation mistake. I confront it in the revelation that the other English teachers bickered over who was going to work with me this semester, because working with me meant looking bad in front of students. I confront it in the revelation that some of my best students risk being considered sombong (arrogant) simply because they speak to me outside of class. I undoubtedly confront a number of other unrelated cultural realities in these experiences. But they all still remind me that my mother tongue is a source of pride and shame for locals who can and can’t speak it—a currency whose value never depreciates. 

You have to try to forget all of this, of course, the moment you walk into the classroom and open your mouth to say something to the students who bolt upright and chant, in unison, “Greetings, one, two, three: good morning, teacher!”

About a month ago, I decided to start boxing again (tinju, in Bahasa Indonesia). The last time I boxed was in college, four or five years ago, when I took a beginner’s course for a PE credit. I was starting from scratch then and can still remember feeling shocked at how draining a few minutes of punching could be, at how counterintuitive and mind-numbingly repetitive the basic movements and techniques were. Adrenaline makes you tense and jumpy though, so beginners always end up expending a lot of unnecessary energy. Learning to box is largely about learning how to override your instincts and intuitions—learning how to stay cool under pressure and move towards, not away, from danger.

At any rate, I made one inquiry, which set off a chain of inquiries on my behalf. And in a single afternoon, I managed to locate a boxing coach without even having to search online—Hermensen Ballo, a former Olympian who represented Indonesia at the Sydney and Atlanta games. He is originally from Kupang and lives in a neighborhood twenty minutes up the hill from mine. If you threw a tarp over the pile of boxing gloves on his porch and took down the heavy bags he had installed in front of his house, you’d have no reason to believe that this otherwise sleepy alleyway was where he put on a come-as-you-are boxing clinic every weekday afternoon for a ragtag bunch of neighborhood kids and now, one bule. We stretch and do ladder drills and run laps around the block for about an hour. And then we shadowbox and pound the heavy bags while stray dogs and chickens scurry around our feet and withered old ibus shuffle up and down the street with their bunches of coconut and cassava and corn for sale.

Former competitive boxers-turned-trainers always seem to have a certain patience and tenderness of affect hidden somewhere on their persons, clinging faintly to them like a smell (maybe a natural counterbalance to the intrinsic violence that surrounds them, or maybe just tiredness). My coach in college was a soft-spoken, silver-haired man in his late forties who never said any more than was necessary and never seemed to break a sweat either. He fit the mold. Pak Hermensen, on the other hand, is short and stocky and never stops talking, grinning, or spitting (a constant, rapid-fire sputter reminiscent of the way baseball players eject sunflower seed shells onto the dugout floor). He barks his commands when simply saying them will do, and his idea of a joke is to startle some eight year-old schoolboy zig-zagging sleepily down the alleyway out of his daydream by bellowing, just as he passes, “Oi, mo pi mana?” (“Where are you off to?”) Now that I think of it, Pak Hermensen acts and carries himself rather like an overexcited bulldog, and I almost wonder if he was one in his previous life or if he will become one in the life to come.

Still, it’s clear that Pak Hermensen is a well-respected member of the community—beloved by children and adults alike, and not just looked up to because he once represented Kupang and Indonesia on the world stage. If he suffers from some excess of spirit, it’s because he still brims with whatever fire drove him to become a world-class boxer in the first place. If he can’t help but inflict this spirit on the people around him, then it’s because he has to find an outlet for his passion besides traveling the globe and competing at the highest level—because he has seen how unforgiving the way up can be and cares to shake people out of their complacency.

Therein lies Pak Hermensen’s well-hidden patience and tenderness. And I have found that the easiest way to strip all the bluster away from it and get it to show on his sleeve is simply to give him what all teachers and coaches have ever wanted from their pupils—a little hard work and a lot of faith. Last week, I ran a fast mile for Pak Hermensen. “No sprint, but fast,” he’d said in broken English, to make sure I understood. At the end of it, I bent over to catch my breath, but suddenly he was in my face, his arms around me, his coarse hands reaching up to my throat. I tried to push him away. “No, no, stand up, quiet,” he said, feeling for my carotid artery. I stood up. “Breathe now,” he instructed. When he found my pulse, he looked down, started his stopwatch, and began to count.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way a boxer’s entourage seems to manhandle him during the rest periods in between the rounds of a fight—by the flurry of hands probing and dabbing and wiping at the fighter’s swollen face and limp limbs. The exchange between coach and athlete in that breathless moment seems so private and so intimate—like an exchange between midwife and mother, or medic and wounded. It’s certainly just as bloody and sweat-soaked. And to be covered in somebody else’s bodily fluids is to breach some fundamental threshold of trust and intimacy, no matter how businesslike you happen to be going about it.

I have yet to get my blood on Pak Hermensen (maybe the opportunity will come—he told me that I can spar some of his other fighters). But I did drip sweat all over him and breathe hard in his face while he wrapped his fingers around my neck. It didn’t matter that I was a bule, or that we had only known each other for a few weeks, or that in the end, all he needed was my pulse—some numbers, some hard data. I was his fighter and he was my trainer. It was my job to trust him. And it was his job to put his hands on me—to convey calm and care through physical touch.

I’ve been wondering what made me decided to pick up boxing again, apart from having time on my hands and a constant sense, as a Peace Corps volunteer, of being on the cusp of an experiment and an adventure. And I guess I’m realizing that the sport is just a wonderfully rich and instructive metaphor for life itself. As a novice, there is a constant temptation to throw all your technique and poise to the wind and just charge forward, bull-fashion. This temptation has got to be resisted, both inside and outside of the ring. Not every punch can be a knockout punch. Boxing helps me to remember this—to practice staying grounded and patient.

Within the past three weeks, I’ve swum in the ocean twice and gone to sit by it at least four times. One of these trips was book-ended by an hour-long bike ride up and then down a mountain. Another, I had to fly twenty minutes to get to and ride two hours on a boat to come back from. The sand at both beaches was fine and white. At the former I ate barbecued chicken with friends and taught a burly Indonesian man the concept of American football. He caught on quickly and blocked me viciously. At the latter I shadowboxed in the sand for five rounds while the sun set behind me.

I also drank beer at all of these beaches and ate bakso from a vendor next to one of them. The “beach” at which I ate the bakso is not really a beach at all, but rather a thin, hundred meter-long strip of rocky, garbage-strewn gravel that the waves lap at on one side and the food stalls crowd on the other. But it is only fifteen minutes away from my house in the city and both the people- and stray cat-watching are excellent. (I witnessed a lean, old tortoiseshell spirit her prize away from a fishmonger, only to be unable to fit it through the chain-link fence that separated her from safety).

On a beach in Ende, on the southern coast of the island of Flores.

Anglers fishing from a pier in the heart of Kupang.

I’ve never really been a beach- or ocean-goer, even though I’ve been a coast-dweller for most of my life. I lived in Honolulu for a year after college and a stone’s-throw away from some of the best beaches in the world. Even then, I hardly ever went and was probably oceanside as many times in one year as I have been in three months here in Kupang (I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself this stupidity). I never disliked beaches outright. But I also never really knew what to do or how to be at one. The few childhood memories I do have of beach trips are somewhat fearful and awestruck—are of strange smells and even stranger textures and of the constant sense of exposure. My parents are not maritime people either and, if an adventure is in order, generally prefer to drive farther into the woods or up the mountains—almost always a greater effort than simply rolling on back towards the water.  

It takes a certain frame of mind (or at the very least, a willingness to enter the correct the frame of mind) to be able to appreciate the beach. An obvious example: one has got to be willing to take his or her shoes off and go barefoot in the sand without thinking twice. A person who is unwilling to do this much will never get acquainted with the ocean. And now that I think of it, the few times I have seen my parents set foot on a beach, they have done so with their shoes on, striding stiffly along, well clear of the creeping tide.  

Oceangoing demands surrender. You cannot expect to know the ocean and keep it out at the same time—not with distance and not with your shoe. You must risk stepping on a sharp piece of coral, getting water up your nose, tracking sand into the car, being touched by kelp’s slimy tendril. It is this consent to entropy, this letting-go, that I have gotten better at in recent years. Even so, I doubt that I’ll ever be interested in living next to the ocean or capable of becoming a weekend beach-goer. I feel that there is a limit to the amount of entropy I am willing to let into my life and that too much time spent at the beach—in the interminable, time-effacing sound of the waves—has an unwelcome, hypnotizing effect on me. The image of the all-American family, bronzed and shiny with sunscreen, laid out on towels beneath an umbrella with cooler and volleyball and polaroid at the ready, has always struck me as one of abject passivity—the sort of position in which I’d wait for the world to end. It isn’t for me. And to this day, I still find that all the excitement is in the initial sprint from car to water, in the first big wave to knock the breath out of you, in the darting of fish and the pinch of the crab: in having your senses sharpened, not dulled, by the astringency of the salt world.

Kupang, Indonesia
March 2020

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