by Nur Al-Haqq
I came to Indonesia fresh out of UCLA’s Women’s Studies program. I had seven and a half years of undergraduate study under my belt, and four years of all the vagaries, frustrations, privileges, and discriminations that come with being a light-skinned American, a woman, and recognizably Muslim. That is to say, I came with a lot of baggage. Later I would describe to Yana (who, as her full name Mahyana suggests, truly was my life for the duration of my stay), my mindset at the time of arrival was that of a childish adult who had forgotten how to smile easily or laugh from the heart.
I reached Medan mid-Ramadan after a stomach-twistingly arduous flight from San Francisco to Korea then Singapore to Kuala Namu airport. Arriving into the airport climate was like one step back to a time when I was studying abroad in Accra, Ghana and one step forward into an environment that was very unfamiliar, unsettling and new. Like Accra, the airport’s sliding doors opened to a warm, humid, tropical climate that enveloped me like a comforting blanket. Orderly chaos described the familiar welcome of taxi drivers clamoring toward the exiting travelers crowding outside the terminal doors while somber policemen milled about between them.Unlike Accra, however, the Indonesian train station I entered opposite the airport was a gleaming glass-and-metal affair that reminded me of sterilized surgical equipment and the bullet trains in France.
At the station I was given something that resembled an ATM card, but which turned out to be a ticket one slid into a machine similar to the BART turnstiles in the San Francisco Bay area. Once on the train (which was very unlike the BART), I began to relax and absorbed myself with the countryside that passed by the window at varying speeds. Here everything — the greenery; the children haphazardly playing in various stages of dress or undress; the women and men working in fields or shop-fronts; the stifling cluster of tin shantytowns with open gutters; the juxtaposition of poverty against obscene wealth cloistered inside forbidding walls, guard shacks and gates; the smells of humidity, dust and air pollution mixed with the breakneck traffic — reminded me of Accra. Even my hosts’ kind country-style hospitality, as I awaited the bus to Takengon, mixed with the city’s bustling conglomeration of the desperate, the generous and the greedy — all crowding together to create a soothing, grounding exhale of memory.
Then we passed through the mountains into Tengah Aceh. And this was nothing like Ghana.
Stepping off the bus into the biting early morning cold of the near-empty depot and surrounded by fellow (all-male) passengers, I had my first full realization of my embarrassingly enormous, typically American, faux-pas: I didn’t know the language. In fact, I hardly knew anything at all about the country or this region, except that good coffee came from here and that I was supposed to be staying at an orphanage called Yayasan Noordeen somewhere in Takengon.
Recognizing the reality of my situation I agreed to take a becak, and climbed into the sidecar to stare out in wonder, shivering as we took off past furry cows and young roan horses sleeping or standing near the soft grassy sides of the asphalt roads. Halfway to the orphanage — right around the time I was convinced my hands just might fall off from the cold wind whipping through them — a large grey van bursting with people drove up next to us and honked. The young girls and an elder man with a kind gap-toothed smile and a cigarette waved and laughed, then called something out to the becak driver as we stopped at a light. It wasn’t until the becak driver started to pull over to the side of the road —muttering something to me about the fare — that I finally realized the van had painted in huge yellow letters on all sides “YAYASAN NOORDEEN.” It was from the orphanage!
In a flurry of scarves, shy smiles and greetings, my luggage and I somehow ended up in the van on our way to Noordeen — the becak driver paid and a barrage of names and questions now surrounding me. After driving up the narrow winding road of a hill by the giant lake the town of Takengon rests on, and past a huge white mosque with forest-green accents and the scenic views of fishing neighborhoods down below, we finally pulled in to Pay Noordeen.
Smiling yellow, pastel purple, solid brick red, emerald greens, and blues the color of cloudless sunny skies greeted me as I was showed to the room I would live in for the next two months. As one of the girls — Ridha — ran off to get me chocolate-filled rolls and tea for breakfast, those who remained tested their English on me. I walked around with them as I tried to answer in exaggerated and comical ways to get them to laugh, but in all truth it was hard not to be distracted by the orphanage’s beauty — most notably the plants that made up a small tropical garden on the terrace in front of the green-and-purple masjid that formed the central focal point for Noordeen’s layout. Finally Yana, the oldest of the girls who was studying at college to be an English teacher, took one look at me and suggested I should go to my room and take a rest. Relieved, I agreed and proceeded to pass out for the next 24 hours, waking only to come out for dinner before shuffling back to my cocoon of blankets and the deep restful sleep of the traveler who has reached her final destination. The whole of the next month served as an intense, ongoing lesson in patience, humility, cultures, reading body language, and the frustration found in the gap between ideals and their implementation.
Going in to Noordeen I knew I had the knowledge to tutor basic biology, chemistry and math, and that I could teach basic first responder skills such as how to use a blood pressure cuff or stethoscope and the health implications of the information found with these. I also knew that I was far more versed in the English language than most other people, and I was confident in my knowledge of the language’s history, morphology, grammar, and literature. But it didn’t take long at all to realize the embarrassingly obvious fact that even if you are a walking encyclopedia on any number of topics, if you cannot understand or be understood on the most basic points of communication by those you are trying to teach, there is no point (nor reason) in you teaching. Also, as Yana pointed out once when I was waxing philosophic about the beauties of the different English dialects, English students in Indonesia aren’t interested in the academic aspects of the language: they just want to learn how to speak so they can use it for work.
In all settings I was utterly dependent upon Yana’s ability to translate, or else on the limited English comprehension of other children and staff and my own much greater lack of knowledge of Indonesian and Gayo. Before Ramadan was even over I had given up on the idea of teaching any English and instead worked on learning Indonesian and practiced reading body language. Thankfully, it turns out that human beings — especially children — are remarkably similar the world over, despite different social expressions of the basic stock of fears, hopes, passions and pains that make us up- which now transformed my old habit of people-watching into an extremely useful skill.
So I watched. I watched everyone around me even more intently than I normally do because now my day-to-day interactions utterly depended on it. I watched, and I absorbed, and I learned, and I listened. Through Yana (and Google translate) I shared things I had already learned, as well as parts of my own South Louisiana culture’s traditions and food, just as they shared with me things that made them who they were. I had foolishly come with next to no knowledge of the place, let alone the people and cultures that make it up or how orphanages are run in this area; I had no idea what even constituted an orphan in Indonesia.
I had once heard that anyone who loses at least one parent is considered an orphan in Islam. However, coming from a culture and history where unclaimed children and orphans were often used as indentured labor or slaves, even as a Muslim it made it hard for me to fathom the merciful concept of giving additional kindness and support to a child who has lost only one parent. All I had was my own baggage to go on, and that was showing itself to be a lot heavier than I could carry with all this new information coming in. Something had to give in order for me to interact effectively with my hosts to whom I owed so much and with all the children whom I was supposed to be helping.
I could easily pick up on the moods of the kids and the essence of their conversations even when I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Watching them I saw echoes of children the same as any child in Ghana, England, Louisiana, Florida, Mexico, California; in any place around the world really. They were shy, haughty, smart, introverted, extroverted, cocky, sensitive, bullying, protective, nurturing, competitive, comedic, witty, talented, silly, gifted, awkward, confident, quiet, loud, sweet, mean, respectful, roguish — in short, everything that normal children are. This was extraordinary to me because the fact was that, against all expectations and norms in the United States and Indonesia for orphans, Yayasan Noordeen provided their charges with every opportunity to live as normal children with mercy and care complementing moral structure and material comforts.
The profound effect of this on the children along with being able to stay in contact with their relatives and friends and the freedom to visit them; of having older orphans like kak (“big sister”) Yana and the Imam bang (“big brother”) Arman around to provide parental support at the orphanage and with their schools; of Ayah (the orphanage head who had been driving the van the day I arrived), Ayah’s family, and the rest of the Noordeen staff constantly there as an extended family and guiding support network was immeasurable in concrete terms. It was noticeably able to help mediate the pains of life these children had already gone through at such a young age. The whole home felt just like that: a home.
These children had lost their parents — some had lost only one, others both — but they had gained a family in exchange.Family is not heaven, but it is needed as much as the hope for heaven is. It is also something that money can only help provide. If people do not use both their material resources and the best of their dreams and humanity to ameliorate the pains in the lives of others, no amount of money can help. But Yayasan Noordeen has been able to do just that. And the children’s respect for the people who have created this environment for them is palpable.
As a convert to Islam — as someone who has lost her family and had to accept the ugly reality of how human societies force people into vulnerable life situations based on arbitrary criterion for full acceptance into their fold — I could completely empathize with these children. Our experiences are different in many respects, but they are also similar. Because of this, it was easy to tell that the family these children have found in Yayasan Noordeen has given them the stability, support and hope they had lost when they lost their parent(s). If for any reason they were to lose that again or have that presence wane, I think it would be far more devastating for them than the tragedies they have already been through.
All this I felt as if it was my own life I was seeing in front of me. And although my first month was rough in navigating cultural clashes and language barriers, by the second month the children and I had become familiar enough with our unique idiosyncrasies that interactions became exponentially less shy and strained, especially with the boys. The children — first the girls and then the girls and boys alike — took to sticking their heads into my room’s window or wandering in whenever my door was open. In this way they quickly learned that I draw, for during the highs and lows of my first month of stay I had begun drawing sketches of the children as a way to remember their names. They had me at a disadvantage, you see — they only had to remember my one name, but I had to remember their 40 plus names, including nicknames! Through democratic vote my failed English-teaching experiments were transformed into drawing tutoring experiments: They first drew comics to explain English phrases, and when we switched to just drawing and storytelling in English, Gayo and Indonesian, they drew from the stories. I was still utterly dependent upon Yana and the girls who were more versed in English to communicate the intent of the lessons, which sometimes led to hilarious mistranslations and interesting interpretations of what to draw. But at least with this topic the visual was, thankfully, relied upon more heavily than the verbal.
Outside the classroom, however, we played — chasing, tickling, making silly faces, teasing, laughing and rolling around the masjid floor after prayers, or sharing stories as we tried practicing our respective target languages. These childish delights started on the female side of the orphanage but quickly came to incorporate the boys as well. Since my height allowed me to easily see over the curtain separating the boys and girls in the masjid, I made a habit of setting all the kids off into hysterics before prayer by pretending to mimic the boys calling the adhan or reciting Qur’an, or else by making faces at them and stealing their topis off their heads whenever they walked too near.
When I noticed their great interest in my art, I had the idea to draw portraits of them as a going-away gift. I wasn’t able to finish all of the portraits before I left, but those I could draw began to give me an even deeper insight into and connection with my new little sisters and brothers of Noordeen. As the two months passed and I frolicked and romped about like a child with these young ones- some who were young enough to possibly be my own children — almost imperceptibly my own baggage started dropping off my shoulders and opening me up to look again at what was around me.
What I saw in Yayasan Noordeen was a way of life that tried to provide everything for these most vulnerable, despite Life’s natural imperfect highs and lows and frustrating ups and downs. Through my pencils my own layers dropped away like shavings from the sharpener and I saw instead in every line, in every shading, in every strand of hair or freckle or pimple reproduced on the paper these children’s woes, their concerns, their happiness, their very personalities shining through to work themselves into my heart. The portraits had been started as a gift for the children; but in my drawings I saw what I had been unable to fully reach in my interactions with them because of the language barrier. I saw them as my little brothers and sisters.
When the time came for me to leave, I was both ready and not ready. Before I knew it I was surrounded by the kids to gather my luggage and me, then ushered into the Noordeen van amidst hugs, tears, cards and presents pressed into my hands along with farewells and apologies — then cheers as they all climbed into the van with Yana, Ayah and his daughter, and me to accompany us to the bus station. Once there I promised them that, insha’ Allah, I would learn Indonesian for whenever I would be able to return. I also apologized for not having learnt it before coming — and I meant it, too. However, later on the bus when I opened their handmade cards and presents one by one, I found each of them had written me asking forgiveness for anything they may have done to upset me, and apologizing for not being able to communicate with me more in my mother tongue.
As I read their cards, smiles came easily to my face, tears blinked back from my eyes, and at times a laugh came tumbling out, unhindered, from my heart.