Unity in Culture Shock

After our beautiful week in Jakarta and Bogor, the Surabaya group has not fared so well with the beginning of the main portion of our scholarship. We have been plagued by miscommunication, disorganization and general frustration with the city and the arts center hosting us.
A lot of this stems from an Indonesian cultural value that is taking a lot for us to handle. The concept translates more or less to “saving face” and the basic sense of it is that one should not express negativity in public, so that you don’t embarrass yourself by saying something you’d regret later. However, this has led to Indonesians frequently telling us whatever we want to hear, not the truth.
For example, during their presentation last week, the center mentioned we’d have plenty of opportunities to explore the arts that interest us (we don’t; it’s a very non-flexible schedule) and upon arriving said we can talk about any problems we have (unless, it turns out, they’re actual problems that need to be addressed). Slowly, we are learning to adapt and follow suit, smiling and agreeing but then doing our own thing, but it has been a pretty brutal shattering of expectations.
What was particularly disheartening at first, and has reinforced itself over the week, is the fact that, while we came here to learn a variety of arts, including music, batik, dance and Indonesian language, our program consists of four hours of dance every day and all other subjects share a two hour morning slot. Consequently, we only have about one language class per week, and even less for music and batik. However, the arts center insists that there is no room to change this around, which has dampened everybody’s spirits.
 Our first day here was a heritage tour of the city. This started with a visit to the top attraction: the House of Sampoerna, a renowned Indonesian cigarette company famous for putting cloves in its smokes. We toured the museum, learning about how awesome these cigarettes are, and then took a colorful trolley around the city. The stops included a post office (of no cultural value, but with delicious sate outside) and another building that, while beautiful, also is not particularly relevant to the scholarship or to Surabaya. The entire day felt disorganized and thrown together at the last minute, despite the fact that this is the center’s eleventh year working with the program.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we kept our hopes up for the next day (Thursday), where we would have our first music and dance classes. Everybody was ready by 9am and then waited until 10:30 for the drivers to pick us up. One of them had forgotten. At that point, we went to the middle school at which we will have music lessons and received a very warm and excited welcome from a group of students, many of whom had never seen bule (boo-lay: white people) before. Immediately following their presentation, because we were late and had no time for our lesson, we were rushed out of the school to the dance studio for lunch and our first lesson, which didn’t go terribly.
On Friday, we waited for an hour after we were supposed to be ready and then went to a batik house. Seeing such beautiful art raised our spirits and optimism slightly. This was quickly and thoroughly negated after dance practice when we waited for the drivers for two hours, sitting alone in the studio. One of them had forgotten again.
Saturday became the breaking point for many, if not all, of us. Upon arrival the arts center told us there was no way to have Saturday off because they had already planned a tour for us that was impossible to change. It turned out this unalterable program was a visit to one of the infinite supermalls that exist in big Indonesian cities. And then on Saturday morning we waited three hours for the drivers (nobody told them about this). Many of us missed the opportunity to get an extra batik lesson or explore the city because of this staunch inflexibility and disorganization. The fact that this was over bringing us to the mall amplified the anger.
Sunday, finally, was free time. Excited to finally see Surabaya on our own, we set out to the historical district. Nobody else was there. Plenty of cars drove through, but never to stop, except outside another supermall. We did stumble upon a beautiful Buddhist temple in Chinatown. Apart from this temple and these malls, the impression of our first week in Surabaya was that it’s just a large, dirty city without much to offer culturally. Even Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet pages lack many suggestions for things to do.
Needless to say, we don’t have a positive outlook of the city or our arts center. We’re trying to stay optimistic, but that has reached its breaking point.
“Saving face” has been a major part in these letdowns because every day the leaders have been able to mislead us, telling the next day will be different regarding lateness or lessons. Then things just get worse. Also, as we voice our concerns about the program and its organization, they offer compromises, and then retract them at the last minute, saying that things had to change suddenly. It has become obvious that these were never actually concessions, but absent-minded agreements meant to end unpleasant conversations without actually solving problems.
The Indonesian participant in our group has explained how engrained into their culture this is, and how frustrating it is to deal with since it prevents everybody from accomplishing things properly. There appears to be no solution to this either, beyond the brute force of reiterating the issues every day until the other side breaks down and acknowledges them. It is definitely going to take a long time to get used to, and will make the next three months very challenging.

On the bright side, this has greatly increased cohesion throughout the group. We have become a very strong unit in the face of this frustration. Also, we have laughed far more than average due to the absurdity of our first week. It is very cathartic, and it seems at this point that all we can do is laugh. So here’s to the next three months and a challenge like none faced before.

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