It’s amazing how your perception of a situation can be so dramatically influenced by your own point of reference. This collection of past experiences, what you’ve learned, your religion (or lacktherof), your spirituality, your political stances…they all factor into your view of the world around you.
Last week I had two fourth grade students say hello to me in the corridor and then continue to give me a very sweet compliment:
“Miss Amanda, you look like a Princess…from…from…from…New Zealand—NO, Las Vegas!”
The two girls had pride written all over their faces, they had thought of a U.S. city that they felt worthy of princesses. Pulling from their limited knowledge of the United States and lack of personal experience there, they probably know Las Vegas to be a place full of glitter and beauty making it a worthy kingdom for any princess. Of course, for anyone who has ever been to Sin City, the experience can be quite different. Men in dirty clothes flick stacks of business cards advertising sex and excess and college students clutching credit cards stumble down the block with highlighter-toned cups filled with liquor dangling around their necks like feeding troughs.
When I came to Indonesia I barely had a point of reference—at least not one rooted in reality. I had visions of volcanoes and wild jungles and temples rising from the mist, but these were all fueled by television and fiction novels. I had no idea what to expect.
So far, plenty of my ideas have changed.
Some are as simple as my idea of the food. I thought Indonesian food would be very tropical. What I’ve discovered is that it is, in fact, often very greasy and full of fried everything. Fried rice (nasi goreng), fried noodles (mie goreng), fried veggie fritters, fried fish and fried bits of sweet batter. The tropical fruits are left mostly untouched, simply given whole at the end of the meal as dessert or blended with ice and sugar.
Based on the information I’d gleaned from the Internet and my short interview via Skype, I had surmised that my life was to be that of someone living in a wild and exotic jungle filled with amazing natural feats. I envisioned seeing elephants and hearing tropical birds outside my window. Instead, I now see that I am living in a polluted, slightly desolate area surrounded by manmade jungles of palm tree plantations. The elephants were driven out by deforestation and the birds rarely sing in our hazy air. I do, of course, have Kevin though, my backyard beast of a water monitor.
Other changes in my perception are more involved, such as my idea of the culture of Sumatra. I assumed, being an island filled with few cities, that the smaller towns would lend themselves to being less astringent in “norms” and instead be filled with their own unique cultures. In my head I was picturing what is actually more of a Balinese lifestyle—rooted in Hindu and Buddhist ideals. I am discovering that Sumatran culture is mostly based in Muslim ideals that have a stronghold on the lives of everyone (Muslim or not). Shoulders are not shown, women feel highly pressured to marry before the age of 25, children are let out at 11:45 a.m. on Fridays for Friday prayers and signs are seen everywhere telling whether or not items are halal.
I blame my ignorance on my idealized visions, influenced by movies like Eat, Pray, Love and television shows like The Amazing Race as well as my hasty decision to come to Indonesia. I was given one week to decide to take the job or not and three weeks later I landed in Sumatra. But reference points aren’t all bad. My previous knowledge of durian made the experience of trying it a bit heightened, with myself having intense apprehension as I bit into the “fruit that smells and tastes like feet”. My warnings from neighbors and co-teachers who had lived in Vietnam and rural South Korea helped me to prepare for a life less outwardly expressive and saved me from packing all the wrong clothing. And my readings on expat online forums hinted at how my life was about to be invaded daily by people curious of my white skin helped me to feel less self-concious of all the staring. But none of my preconceived notions stopped me from exploring, trying, learning or allowing myself the opportunity to “see for myself.” That’s the thing about reference points, they may play a part in your perception but they should never dictate your story.