In Indonesia every Peace Corps volunteer lives with a host family. Originally, before I came to Indonesia, I wasn’t too thrilled with this prospect. I appreciate autonomy and independence. The challenge of inserting myself into a family as an absolute foreigner and trying to find a balance between two very different cultures seemed like something I didn’t want to go through. Now, however, I could not imagine living in Indonesia without a host family. It has been one of the best parts of my time in the Peace Corps thus far.

A homestay family is the family that trainees live with during PST and a host family is the family that volunteers live with during their two years of service. They are very similar in function and nature.

The reasons volunteers live with a local family are manifold. During training a trainee’s ibu will cook most of their meals. Oftentimes volunteers will continue to have host families make some, or all, of their meals at permanent site. In addition to food, living with a family provides valuable insight into how Indonesians go about doing basic things throughout their day (i.e. mandi, using the kamar kecil, doing laundry, et cetera), and allows for plenty of opportunities to practice using language skills learned each day in class. But the most important part of living with a host family, at least in my opinion, is the foothold it gives trainees and volunteers into the community.

Indonesian communities are notoriously tight knit. Even between neighbors, everyone knows everything about everybody. A desa is like a big, open family. Neighbors are considered aunts and uncles and kids are looked after communally. Because of this very tight web of social ties that binds everyone together, and also slightly because of the Javanese and Indonesian tendency to be indirect, word of mouth travels very quickly. No one wants to cause anybody to “lose face,” so most of the time conflicts and issues between individuals are solved by talking to third parties and gently bringing up the problem after thirty minutes of polite banter and tea.

The rapid dissemination of information throughout the desa is something many volunteers and trainees have experienced firsthand. This type of communication, similar to gossiping, is aided by the fact that Indonesians love to talk about what their anak Amerika (American children) are doing. From how often we mandi, to how we eat, no subject is too mundane.

As mentioned earlier, each trainee’s ibu makes their lunch for the day. My ibu typically provides me with a consistent batch of food: nasi (white rice), tofu, tempe, vegetable soup, and a fried food of some sort. I like to eat my nasi with sambal (a spicy paste sauce), however my ibu never provided me with sambal in my lunchbox. One day, one of the other trainees, Sonam, had extra sambal and offered it to me. I expressed my love for sambal to Sonam and she told her ibu that I liked her sambal. For the next couple days Sonam always had extra sambal to share. A few days after the initial sambal exchange I noticed that my lunch also had packets of sambal. At dinner that night there was a bowl of sambal on the table. My host family asked me if I like sambal and I said that I do. They then said that they knew I liked sambal because a couple people had told them how I was taking Sonam’s sambal at lunch and that if I want sambal I can have it. Somewhat odd for an American, but talking about people is how Indonesians express that they care.

I almost always wash all the dishes after dinner with my family. Since I don’t cook I feel it’s the least that I can do; however, in Javanese culture it is very odd for a man to do the dishes. After one of my first tahlilans (a prayer meeting of sorts), I was putting some of the dirty plates together to consolidate the dishes that needed to be washed when one of the men stopped me to let me know I don’t always have to do to dishes. He was joking of course, and even though I didn’t know him, the interaction seemed like one I could have with my host father or some other close host relative.

My favorite example of desa gossip happened to me on a Sunday morning when another trainee’s host sister invited me to go jog with her. We were supposed to meet at six, but I was too tired to go jogging that morning so I texted her and told her I wasn’t feeling well. At breakfast a little bit later my sister, without any prompt from me or any evidence to justify her question, asked me if I had diarrhea. This was about a month after I had actually had diarrhea so I said, “tidak sekarang,” or “not right now.” It was such an odd question that I didn’t make the link between me not running and being asked if I had diarrhea until the next day.

Community is very important in Indonesia and without a host family volunteers and trainees would struggle with inserting themselves into desa life. Also, we would miss out on a lot of funny stories. Come for the integration, stay for bicara desa (village talk).

2 thoughts on “Community

  1. Nice, clean writing! This reminds me of the local culture in Hawaii when I lived there. I was fortunate to work with the locals everyday and came to appreciate their round-about way of caring and sharing.

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  2. Great to hear the walls of communication coming down! Java doesn’t sound like a place to be an independent cowboy.

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