My homestay parents told me about this program called "Teach N Learn" in Rempang, an island south of Batam in Indonesia, which allows Singaporeans to travel to schools in Indonesia to teach English. It's a one-day mission (a literal mission: the program is run by Catholic community members and the schools are run by nuns), so I figured, you know, why not?
The wonderful thing about Southeast Asia is that it's all so close together. Indonesia is right in Singapore's backyard; it's so close, I can see it from my office window—I'm pretty sure the closest point from coast to coast is just five miles away. I had a lesson plan and a round-trip ferry ticket, and I was ready to go!
Why am I awake right now. I thought I was done with this lifestyle. And it's Sunday. I'm going back to bed.
After snoozing my alarm five times and a lot of scrambling, I manage to get out the door. I work at HarbourFront Centre, which doubles as a ferry port, so I hop on the MRT and meet the group at The Tuckshop, a mini food court. I order teh and char siu bao for breakfast, still contemplating my life choices.
A woman named Monica greets me and hands me my ferry ticket. She asks me questions about my stay in Singapore, and explains that she does this trip twice a month, and once a year she does missionary work in Vietnam, which is much more intense. The first time she went, she had to go undercover, as the Communist regime frowns upon outside education. We head downstairs to the terminal. As per usual Singaporean fashion, it's amazingly efficient, and we board the ferry in no time...
...and we end up idling for over an hour, so there's that. But now we're FINALLY off to Indonesia.
I don't quite know what to expect. I've never been to Indonesia, and no one I know has heard of Rempang, so I'm assuming it's a very remote area. I have a vague idea of how it ranks on the poverty scale among third-world countries, but I've heard mixed things about it. I'm hesitant to go to Bali, even though it's so close, because my friend Angeline told me that tourism is actually hurting the Indonesian economy: because Bali is such a hotspot for tourism, resorts are taking over land, displacing locals, and using up Bali's precious natural resources. And many other areas of the country are still very poor. The Indonsian rupiah is worth only $0.000077 USD, and when I exchange currencies, I'm unsure of what to do with Rp 45,000 worth of banknotes, having never handled that amount of cash in my life, even if it is worth less than $50 back home.
Indeed, the government is doing its best to regulate the wealth here, and is very strict. The customs officials don't let us bring anything into the country as gifts for the kids (like electronics) because they want to encourage support of the local industries.
We arrive in Indonesia and immediately board a bus. It's another hour or so to the school. I marvel at the surroundings...it reminds me a lot of Thailand. I wonder if a lot of Southeast Asian countries just all have a similar feel.
It's definitely a third-world country, with a lot of makeshift storefronts alongside the roads fashioned out of scrap metal and cardboard, people brazenly weaving in and out of the lanes on motorcycles, and the abundance of trees.
We reach St. Ignatius Primary School and are introduced to the sisters and the students. They greet us shyly with "hello, Teacher," and we divide into groups. I am assigned to kelas (class) 4 with a young woman named Cherie.
A lot of these kids live in "children's hostels," which are located close to schools, and their parents pay lodging and education fees. Some parents can't afford it, and have to pull their kids out, so their education is a little irregular.
As it turns out, the initial shyness does not last long once we're in the classroom. There are 32 kids total, and it's chaos. Kids are yelling, running around, hitting each other. We finally manage to calm them down long enough to do roll call. I stumble my way through a list of Indonesian names, and we begin the lesson. We go over vocabulary lists and practice spelling, recording everything in little activity books. I'm more of a teacher's assistant, since I'm new, and I go around the room correcting students and checking their work. Some of the kids are very intelligent and disciplined, and others will literally not stop jumping out of their chairs and wandering around the classroom. I've volunteered in a couple of classrooms before, but none like this.
It's also incredibly hot. Worse than Singapore. I feel sticky, there's no circulation in this room, and there are flies everywhere.
Despite their inability to sit still, the kids really are interested in learning—they are in school on a Sunday, after all. But it occurs to me that just talking at them and making them repeat things and copy them down, the way these volunteers always teach, isn't necessarily the right way to communicate with them. I notice that a lot of the better students are frustrated when they can't be heard over the disruptive kids, and some simply give up altogether when they feel they're falling too far behind.
It makes me realize how complex education systems are, even the simplest ones, and how much arrogance we have to think that they are easily fixable. Although we are helping, I can't help but remember this article I read, called "The Reductive Seduction of Other Peoples' Problems," which I feel like both effectively criticizes the "White Savior Complex" and the tendency to romanticize seemingly "urgent and readily solvable" problems, and also draws attention to the fact that there are many domestic issues that are often dismissed. I feel like the best thing for me to do here is listen and observe, to figure out what these kids need and what they respond to, and try to help them as best I can without trying to "fix" the entire system.
School is out! As they exit the classroom, the students take my hand one by one and press it to their foreheads while saying "good afternoon, Teacher," I assume as a sign of respect. It's very cute, and the most well-behaved I've seen them all day.
We arrive back at the terminal, and go to an Indonesian restaurant for lunch/dinner. It's this place where you pick and choose raw food from a buffet-like spread, and then they charge you accordingly and cook it for you. I'm honestly not sure what any of it is, because the signs are all in Indonesian, but I pick the safest-looking things and hope for the best.
"Is that liver?" one of the guys asks me as I'm eating, but I have no idea, and honestly at this point it's better not to know, because it's pretty good and I don't want to ruin it.
We go through immigration and customs. The Indonesian officials are fascinated by my American passport and attempt to speak to me in Chinese. And then, just like that, it's back to Singapore! We board the ferry and prepare for the trip home.
It's been a full 12 hours since I woke up this morning and it feels pretty unreal that I went to another country and back in that time. As exhausting as it was, I actually enjoyed my short time here, and it's something I would do again. I do think a more structured lesson plan or a better method for engaging the kids would be helpful, but it was definitely humbling to see firsthand just how privileged I was to get a good education.
I'm also excited to go more places. I've got my flights booked, my passport ready, and my compass fixed on the next distant star. You can subscribe in the box below, and stay tuned for Malaysia, Bangkok, Taiwan, and possible Cambodia blog posts!
writer/creator. problem-solver. curious cat.