Sports Meet

Not unlike other colleges throughout China, my college held a Sports Meet this past month. Colleges and Universities here do not have organized team sports to the degree which the United States does. In fact, this 2-day event reminded me how deeply embedded sports is into my own culture from a very early age all the way through adulthood. This meet, akin to a school track and field day, was a competition within the school rather than against other schools.

I would have loved to have participated in some actual sports, but the teachers here, at least at my college, did events such as tug-of-war. We all marched into the track, and then the teachers left for the basketball courts for their events. This was, however, at the same time as the students continued with the opening ceremony. So I was presented with a dilemma: Stand around and watch teachers compete in 3-legged races and maybe be involved in a tug-of-war, or watch the students perform in their opening ceremony.

I chose to watch the students, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Several departments gave performances, and the Foreign Language Department was one of them. Many of my freshmen students donned chearleader-like outfits bearing their mid-drift and danced around to a pop song waving pom-poms. More of my freshmen students participated in a coordinated calisthenics drill on the field together with students from other departments. There were several more performances, including Kung Fu.

Just being on the track with a crowd took me back to my days in high school running in track and cross country. My students were flabbergasted that I competed in 400, 800, and 1600 meters, as well as 5km races. That just doesn’t happen here. High school students in China are hyper-focused on studying and preparing for the college entrance examination, that they don’t have time for such regular sports, not to mention that females aren’t presented with the same opportunities as males in sporting.

The meet lasted two days, but I only attended the first day. I am hoping to coordinate some of my students together to learn about sports, but that hasn’t happened yet.

This opening ceremony took place on a Thursday, so all classes were cancelled for this event. As is typical here, they will be made up at the end of the semester, although we won’t know exactly which day until some day closer to the end of the semester.

Sharing A Christmas Eve Tradition

Growing up, my house was filled with the smell of baking cookies during the month of December. The Christmas of my childhood has the smell and taste of spritz cookies imprinted in my memory. For several weeks leading up to Christmas, my mom would bake batches of several different kinds of cookies. She stored the ones that didn’t get immediately eaten and would not fit in the freezer outside to chill.

One of the dearest family traditions was heading across town to grandma and grandpa’s house on Christmas Eve for cookies and cheeseball. My family, aunt and uncle, cousins, and grandma and grandpa would eat and open presents—and every year, without fail, the gift from the grandparents was a wad of cash, wrapped inside an old check box. This tradition felt as meaningful, if not more, than the other traditional festivities on Christmas Day.

As an adult, I’m no stranger to living abroad and being away for the holidays. This Christmas in China was the 5th time (in 4 different countries) in my life I’ve been out of the country to celebrate, and each time I have had a unique experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am present to teach English and live out cultural exchange. So it felt natural to invite some students over on Christmas Eve for cookies and gifts.

Like my mom, I spent several weeks ahead of time baking (small) batches of cookies. Unlike my mom and grandma, however, I had limited access to supplies here in southwestern China and ran into quirks using a heavier sugar and my small toaster oven.

But oh, did those cookies taste good anyway.

In all, we ate out fill of cookies, snacks, fresh baked pumpkin scones (my new tradition), chili (made by another foreign teacher), and hot cocoa. I orchestrated a white elephant gift exchange and introduced the students to the concept of a party where people just chill out.

My grandparents have both since passed away, and I’m out in the world far from family–yet the tradition still lives on. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share tradition, home, and hospitality with this wonderful group of students.

 

Making Saksang

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and the world’s 4th most populous nation with more than 250 million residents. In the lush area surrounding Sumatra’s Lake Toba in western Indonesia, live the ethnic groups of Batak people. Although the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, ethnic Bataks are mostly Christian. Their homeland around Lake Toba is dotted with towns and villages, rainforest and palm oil plantations, church steeples, rice fields, fruit and other crops of vegetables.

Saksang (pronounced SAHK-sahng) is an important dish in Batak cuisine. Eaten at weddings, funerals, church celebrations and more, it is used for many cultural traditions, especially for Toba Batak people. It is made from pork, and given Indonesia’s Muslim majority, this dish is therefore unique and rare in the country.

Read more

Wedding Crasher

I stood in the yard in front of the church while the crowd began to gather. For once in my life I felt tall—at 5’2” I’m a short American, but next to the young Indonesian women who surrounded me, I could see the tops of their heads without straining.

We had run across the courtyard from our dormitory when we heard the siren that we were certain was the police escort for the wedding procession. People came from every direction to stand in front of the church and wait. Police lined the red carpet keeping the crowd from mobbing the wedding procession, as news cameras rolled and people snapped photos from their cell phones. Life in Balige, a rural town in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, rarely reached this level of excitement.

Read more

Keep Spirit

The elderly woman’s body lies inside the house in a coffin covered only by a thin white veil. Aside from the coffin, the room is void of furniture. A dozen members of the family and surrounding village sit cross-legged on the multi-colored plastic woven mat spread across the tile floor. I add my sandals to the pairs already stacked in front of the open door and step inside.

Delviana Naibaho—a co-worker at the Deaconess Theological School where I teach in a town a three-hour drive away on windy pot-hole ridden roads through the Sumatran rainforest—greets me. I call her “Ibu,” a word that means mother, but is also a polite form of address for women akin to “ma’am.”

Today, to show support to Ibu Naibaho, I attend her mother’s wake with a delegation from the school.

“Turut berduka cita, bu,” (my condolences, ma’am), I tell her as we shake hand and sniff cheeks in the Indonesian manner.

Read more

Life in Indonesia

Here is a image gallery of photos that show a little of what life was like in Indonesia. Most are from Balige and Siantar, the two cities in the province of North Sumatra where I spent most of my time. In 2 of the photos, you’ll notice a pig’s head. Although most Indonesians are Muslim, I lived among the ethnic Bataks, most of whom are Christian, and regularly eat pork. Indonesia is amazingly diverse, and therefore, my life in the region around Lake Toba was different than someone who experienced Java, Bali, Nias, or Sulawesi islands. I hope to make more galleries about different aspects of life there, as well as other places I’ve traveled.

Christmas with my brother

It is now past the middle of February, but here is a story from last Christmas. For Christmas 2014 I had the opportunity to be with my brother in Indonesia. To the Western audience it must be said that I don’t actually have a brother in my immediate family–this brother is my Indonesian family, and I am his sister.

The family system of the Batak Toba culture is more complex than in Western cultures. It is seen not only in how people are addressed in daily situations (the words for mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather), but also at a deeper level. The Batak people have distinct family surnames that are grouped together by ancestral line, which sets them apart from some of the other cultures within Indonesia (many Javanese have only one name). Those Bataks with surnames in the same ancestral group are family, and subsequently prohibited by culture to marry each other. To the Western ear it may ring as a bit harsh, but this is how they have kept true to their ancestors. They know when they meet a person in their group, that they really are family. Given this importance, it has never been nor will it ever be a custom for the woman to change her name in marriage; her family name is of higher importance.

What does this have to do with me? Because there is great pride in their culture and to share about it, some Batak people love to invite others into their family. I posted previously about preaching at a church, and the pastor and I have been close since. His surname is Lumbantobing (or just Tobing for short), and because he asked me, I am also boru Lumbantobing. It makes me think about family and naming, and what those mean. My family now extends far beyond my own blood and borders of my country.

I was glad to see my brother and his family for a few days over Christmas. Most of the time we were in the church, as the HKBP denomination holds worship Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas–but it was a blessing to be there. Mauliate, ito! (thank you, brother)

IMG_3589
Christmas Eve 2014

Preaching

I am back in the US now, and it is long overdue to catch up on some blogging about my time in Indonesia.

At the end of March, I was invited to preach in a congregation in Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra, and some 7 hours from my usual residence in Balige. Actually, we had planned for the visit in 2013, however, I had to cancel due to the time I had to spend renewing my work visa. Finally having the time, I was graciously welcomed in the spirit I have come to know well among the Batak people.

Not only was I nervous about preaching in general, but this task was difficult because my deaconess companion speaks limited English (and I’m not good enough in Indonesian or Batak language to write a full sermon). So, in other words, I had to write a sermon in simple enough English that could be translated, true to Scripture, and all the while interesting enough. The lectionary followed by the HKBP church is different than Lutherans in the US, and the text that I was to preach on came from Ephesians 5:8-14. Thankfully, there is a simple theme in there: Walk as children of light.

It went well, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Below are a few photos:

IMG_0616
A full house
IMG_0630
The Podium was really high, like the old cathedrals in Germany.
IMG_0635
Giving me a blessing and presenting with an ulos, a Batak blanket, as a special symbol of our friendship.
IMG_0693
With the pastor and his wife, and a fellow deaconess

On the Batak Alphabet and Maps that Make Sense of the World

Recently, blog posts about “maps that will help you make sense of the world” (one example) circulated the internets and facebook. My current location in Indonesia, gives me a different perspective when viewing these maps than my friends from North America and Europe.

One of the maps explains population. Indonesia’s population is more than 245 million people, making it the 4th most populous nation in the world. An archipelago of 17,000+ islands, makes it also spread out and incredibly dense in population, part of the circle that contains most of the people on the planet (from reddit user valeriepieris):
valeriepieris' population map

When I saw that map, it didn’t change my world. I’ve lived in Indonesia a year and a half and during that time, haven’t been outside of that circle once, so, yeah, I know. But, Sumatra is less dense than Java, and I live in a rural area. This doesn’t mean the same as it does in North America, however. Even though Balige is a small town, on a day like today (which is traditional market day), the city is bustling. Actually, every day is bustling with people by American standards; life here is is more public. Nevertheless, it’s easy for me to walk about an hour to a village that is difficult to access by car.

Here’s one that made me smile. This map (source), shows writing systems of the world. To my surprise, I see the Batak script listed there in Indonesia. I wasn’t surprised that there is a Batak script, rather that it was noticed at all.
WritingSystemsOfTheWorld

The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as "Surat Batak".
The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as “Surat Batak”.

Although the old alphabet is not all that functional anymore in the lives of the Batak people, it does appear on some signs in the region around Lake Toba in North Sumatra (including the hospital across the street from me now).

To match its high population density, there are a dense amount of languages spoken in Indonesia (more than 700). So I’d add to the maps that will help you make sense of the world, a map that gives the Ethnic groups of Indonesia:
Indonesia_Ethnic_Groups_Map_English

I am living in the heart of Batakland, so I regularly encounter the language Batak Toba–at the market, at my school (although all instruction other than my English class is done in Bahasa Indonesia), and in the church. Strong in their culture, it may seem living among the Bataks, that the language and the lake nearby is the center of the world. I love living here and am happy to see mention of the place where I live. These days Batak writing uses the latin script, but below are two photos of the Batak alphabet in use.

IMG_9494

A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.
A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.

A Slice of the life in Indonesia

Snippets of life in Indonesia for the North American/European:
* I eat rice 3 meals a day and that’s normal.
* It’s considered abnormal here to not eat rice every day.
* While in Balige I eat my lunch with the other staff outside. Every day. We sit at a table outside the entrance to the kitchen and under the stairs to the 2nd floor classrooms.
* Yesterday I washed my clothes by hand and that’s normal.
* I can count on my fingers the number of times I have had access to a washing machine and used it in the last year and a half.
* I can’t count on my fingers the number of times the power has gone out (whether for a few seconds, minutes, or an hour+) in the last month.
* If I have digestion problems I can walk across the street to the hospital, see the doctor, get medicine and be home in less than 20 minutes and less than $10 for everything (true story from back in January).
* But if I have heart disease (which I don’t), it is better to drive the 7 hours to the nearest airport, fly an hour to Penang, Malaysia, and visit the hospital there for treatment and check-ups and medicine than it is in Indonesia.

And this is the view from my desk. I work with the door open. Every day.
IMG_9236

Recent photos

Here are some recent images. There are stories to go with each of these photos, but unfortunately, I have had to take care of other things. What I’ve been up to in the last month: more ministry experience with students, helped lead a retreat, taught the deaconess students and at the university, and in the past week made multiple trips to the immigration office (That last one will perhaps be explained later).

Enjoy the photos:

2nd year class in Siantar on a ministry exposure weekend.
2nd year class in Siantar on a ministry exposure weekend.
IMG_5541
1st year students pose for a photo on their retreat
2nd year students in Bible study at a retreat.
2nd year students in Bible study at a retreat.
Graduation Ceremony. Nommensen University HKBP.27 April 2013
Graduation Ceremony. Nommensen University HKBP.27 April 2013
Batak family culture. The parents say a blessing prayer.
Batak family culture. The parents say a blessing prayer.

Funeral Party

_MG_6041Back in early December, I went to the funeral for the father of the director of the deaconess school where I teach. Here is a glimpse into the funeral celebration for an old grandfather in the Batak culture.

After the death, the body is laid in an open casket in the family home. Family and people from the village come to pay their respects. The party is the final act before burial. Much like the party for a wedding, the funeral party in the Batak tradition is an all-day event.

There are certain traditions and customs that take place on the day–exchanging gifts and traditional dancing called “tortor”. Friends and family come again to pay respects, and a meal of saksang (a dish made of minced pork meat cooked in blood and spices) is shared. Finally, when the customs have been completed, the body is taken to the church for a short worship then placed at the gravesite. It was a long day for me. Along with some of the students, I traveled from Balige to the village of Sidamanik to attend.
IMG_4106
IMG_6194
IMG_4189

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday has just passed in America. I can give thanks for so much in my life here, but I admit that I do miss my family, and the traditions of Thanksgiving. We gather as family, we share a meal, and we live and share our abundance.

I am thankful for my students of the deaconess school, whose sweet smiles and generous hearts light up my life. They are smart young women, diligent to study, and persevere through life’s difficulties both at this school and at home. And their voices…so beautiful. They all participate in the formal choir, and memorize a book full of their songs. However, in their Batak culture, singing is important, so they are always singing something. Not every one of them love to sing, of course, but together they share so much through song. I have assembled a sampling of clips from a few of the many songs—in Batak, Bahasa Indonesia, and English. I’m thankful for each one of them, and for the beauty of music.

July Recap

Here are some long overdue photos from back in July. August was a busy month, which included many hours teaching an intensive English course, celebrating Indonesia’s independence, hiking around Balige, going to a wedding as part of a family, and more. Those stories and photos will have to wait.

The night before going to Jakarta, I attended the opening worship for the gathering of the deaconess community, held in Sipoholon. See below the deaconesses in their uniforms. I have often been asked here if deaconesses in America wear uniforms. No, I say. So it is interesting to me to see them all in uniform. My brief appearance was noted, but I hardly had time to meet anyone at all.

The deaconesses gathered for worship and meeting. In the few days that followed they selected a delegate who will represent the community at the general gathering of the HKBP this month (September). There a new leader for the denomination will be selected.

Deaconess community of the HKBP

Then, in Jakarta, I attended a consultation of the HKBP for their Diakonia ministry. I met some people, but only got a general idea of the conversations. It was good, however, to hear about more of the ministries of the HKBP. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to write a synopsis of the event. Below are two photos.

View of Jakarta from the fancy downtown hotel

Small group work at the Consultation for National Diakonia

After the conference in Jakarta, I went to Bali, which I have previously posted about. Worth mentioning is the time spent in Jakarta with the family of the director of the deaconess school. They are now my family, too. It is customary in Batak culture for people such as myself, to have a Batak family name. So, I have been invited to be a Sitanggang. When introducing myself in a formal manner I can say I am “Megan Ross, boru Sitanggang”.

While staying with the Sitanggang clan, I played with the young children who taught me a few words of Batak such as “modom” (sleep), “male” (hungry — I’m not sure about spelling), and “butong” (full). Below are some photos.

The family with some of the school staff

Eating Pecel lele (pronounced “pechel lay-lay”), a type of fish, in Jakarta.

Playing football in front of the house

Life, Death, and Human Achievement

As NASA’s craft Curiosity made it’s landing on the surface of Mars, I was listening to the live feed while working on phrasal verb flash cards for my students. In the moment the NASA control room waited with baited breath to received the signal and photos from the craft, that it had in fact landed, I also heard the loudspeaker on the local mosque broadcast the muezzin’s chant, sending the faint sound of “Allah u Akbar…” into my office; my Muslim neighbors were praying, and as it is Ramadan, also fasting from food and drink. Some of my students were cooking lunch, others cleaning the school in preparation of the new semester.

In the US, the Sikh community in Milwaukee, WI was reeling from an inexplicable act of violence and hate against them. Six dead, shot in cold blood, desecrating their holy place of worship.

Someone I know lost their mother that day after a fall, and another person’s mother was breathing her last breaths, having walked more than 99 years on this earth.

Athletes from all corners of the world competed to be swifter, higher, stronger at the Olympic Games in London; world records were broken, as humans do indeed push the limits of their own bodies.

On that day, the 6th of August, back in 1945, the US unleashed a weapon of mass destruction on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, instantly killing many thousands and destroying a city.

From the earth to the moon, and now to Mars, we have such capacity to advance technology, to accurately place a craft on a distant planet. We also know how to create total destruction. We dare to run faster and jump higher than any human before. Meanwhile, billions of people live out their daily lives, working, playing, and eventually dying.

In Balige, that evening (6 August 2012), I went with some of my students to see the body of someone who had died; she was 85. In Batak culture, when an old person dies, they do not mourn in black as in western culture. Here, they have a party and they wear their ulos (traditional blanket). As is customary at death, the body is laid in the home and family and community come to visit. And so, beneath large tents, people gathered to sit. A band played traditional Batak music, while other people visited the body.

My students came to pay respects because the woman who was a friend to the deaconess students. We sang hymns, for which the band provided the music; we prayed; and then we greeted each of the family members with the customary handshake, placing the right hand to the heart after shaking.

Life and death—such beauty and mystery…

Below is the photo from the visit to the dead woman’s family:
Visitation of the Dead