One year ago, I was living in Manado, Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA). I taught at a local high school, volunteered at a rural community English camp, and organized local English competitions. After four months, I had acclimated to many aspects of Indonesian culture, learned the local language, communicated in an indirect Indonesian manner, and ate extremely spicy food. I also learned to live with limited access to hot showers and reliable Wi-Fi. I developed deeper friendships with teachers at my school and got to know a few of my 300 students more personally. I was fully immersed in an Indonesian community, which taught me to be extremely patient and flexible.
Most importantly, I learned how to handle the process of cultural adaptation. Each stage of cultural adaptation comes with new accomplishments and unexpected challenges. One day I would be feeling confident in my ability to speak Bahasa Indonesia, and the next day I would sometimes feel very frustrated about a misunderstanding at my school.
An ongoing challenge (and a special aspect) of my program was my experience as a Filipino-American in Indonesia. A fellow Fulbrighter used the catchy phrase “secret bule” (literal translation: secret foreigner) to describe me because I physically blended into Indonesian society. In my community, a place with minimal exposure to Americans, I was rarely recognized as a foreigner and often times misunderstood when I explained that I was American. I found it difficult and sometimes frustrating to promote an understanding of American culture when others did not fully accept me as American. But with time, I embraced my individual experience and grew comfortably my role as a Fulbrighter. As a “secret bule,” I was able to connect with locals without them feeling intimidated by my appearance. I was treated as an average person in Indonesian society, which allowed me to interact with the culture in a very genuine sense. I eventually welcomed this role as a secret bule as it enabled me to make others aware of American diversity.
In addition to navigating my personal experience, I was constantly adjusting to my role as a high school teacher. This meant learning about Indonesian professionalism and how to effectively teach students in a culturally appropriate manner. I arrived in Indonesia with prior experience tutoring international students in English, but this alone did not prepare me for the task of teaching 300 students with minimal resources compared to those in a U.S. classroom.
It was useful for me to keep in mind that my Fulbright grant was a two-way learning experience, both for me and for the members of my school. I was the first Fulbright ETA at my school, meaning this was the first time for teachers at my school to work with an American, just as it was my first time working with them.
As an ETA, I had to overcome the combined challenges of adapting to a new work environment with the difficulties of adapting to unfamiliar cultural norms. Patience, a willingness to learn, and adaptability were the key elements that allowed me to have a very rewarding experience. Creativity and a sense of humor helped me in the classroom. It is equally important to have a sense of purpose or find your own role as I did. I came to teach in Indonesia to gain a better understanding of education in a developing country and to learn about Southeast Asia. I left with a better understanding of these things – and a much deeper appreciation for cross-cultural collaboration.