Curiosity #68: The Happy Honey Bee

Indonesia, Uncategorized

At the Happy Honey Bee, I was escorted into a green room decorated with English letters and seated in front of a pastry box filled with chocolate and non-refrigerable cheese.

“You just read the sentences and they will respond to you,” said one of the teachers, throwing a flap of her blue veil over one shoulder. She handed me a packet of questions, holding in her own hand a stack of evaluation sheets with which she would grade her students.

I was informed that I would be introduced to 30 children between the ages of 5 and 13, almost none of whom had experienced a single interaction with a native English speaker.

The door opened to admit the first test participant. He slid himself onto the stool across from me: six or seven years old, not more than 40 pounds. His superhero t-shirt hung loosely over his torso and draped across his dangling legs.

“Hello!” I said.

The teacher told me his name was Ijin.

Ijin looked like he was about to pee in his chair.

“Can you name five fruits?” I asked sweetly. As if taunted by a trolling riddle, Ijan glanced away and looked toward his teacher, who translated the question into Indonesian.

Ijin stared blankly at the corner, and the teacher shifted to smile apologetically at me. “Apple” Ijin responded at last with great effort. “Banana…” And the rest were lost to him.

Next up was Amalia, whose responses were slightly more than catatonic. Outside the testing room I could see her chasing the other children in a fury of glee, laughter escaping her mouth and resounding into the garden; but as soon as she stepped inside to meet me, her smile disappeared. She sat down, and I watched her eyes mist over as if she were dissolving into a better place.

“Chopsticks,” she said when I asked her to name several kitchen utensils. Despite being only eight years old, Amalia had already begun sporting the veil as a trend and wore a bright pink hijab that ruffled down to her sternum, polka-dotted with Hello Kitties that smiled to match the patches on her jeans. A rainbow shirt flowed from beneath her veil so from head to toe she looked like a tent for hippies high on LSD.

All bright things grow dim in the face of gravity. To Amalia, my strange voice and stranger smile signified questionable and looming intentions, like a doctor with a needle or a circus animal pressed up against its cage. In the time I waited for her to assemble the courage to speak, I watched the sway of the Eiffel Tower dangling from a bracelet on her wrist.

All afternoon it went like this, with children being led in to my shadow. Five minutes each. Sometimes they were brought in three at a time, leaving me singing the “A, B, Cs” by myself to eyes strung open to various intensities. They shoved their hands between the bench cushions for comfort and, when they breathed through their lips, nothing came out.

The braver ones spoke of Doraemon and fried chicken. They told me that they chose their friends because they were beautiful.

Others spoke with gentle urging from their teachers. Last year I interviewed an eight-year-old girl whose round face, I remember clearly, popped out from her shepherd-style hijab like a swollen moon. The girl’s teacher, a flamboyant college student studying English for tourism, crouched beside her for support. Upon being asked to describe a member of her family, the little girl blinked. Her teacher placed a hand on her back and told her exactly what to say.

“My mother,” the teacher began.

The girl took a deep breath. “My mother.”



“A fat body.”

“A. Fffat. Bodeee.”

“The whole sentence?”

“My. Mother. Has. A. Fat. Body.”

The beauty of freed speech.

After suffering through trials with me, the children were given candy and snacks. Each time the door opened to admit a new student, the other children swarmed to look at me, their mouths stuffed with chocolate and neon chips.

At last the school’s owner, Popi, sat down to discuss his students’ performance. I told him their major struggle was lack of confidence, which clearly didn’t surprise him. He smiled with characteristic Javanese ease and gazed through the open door to where the children ran giggling from room to room. “You know they’re rarely exposed to foreigners,” he said. “And at other locations in Indonesia, it’s even worse. Native speakers are hard to find, and when they come, they don’t stay long.”

Popi’s wife entered with their two-year-old daughter. Popi took her into his arms and bounced her on his knee. Like most of the students, Popi’s daughter carried excess fat on her little bones: a signifier of the upper class.

“It’s hard to give the right resources to all Indonesians,” he said, “but maybe in the future…” and he trailed off like Ijin forgetting his fruits.

Popi’s daughter, undaunted by my alien presence, opened her mouth to sing.

“Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?” she crooned into the otherwise quiet room: and just in time for the sun to sink. From the open window, in the time it took Happy Honey Bee’s students to remember their third kitchen utensil, the classroom filled with dusk.

Curiosity #66: Harry Burger Comes Through


After about a year and a half after my first meeting with Harry Burger (or I suppose now Harry T-shirt), I hardly expected him to follow through with his Christmas promise. Nor had I expected him to get a hold of my work address, since I never gave it to him. Nevertheless, a week before Christmas, stacked atop the family package sent to me from America, was a pristinely-wrapped gift from the Indonesian Saint Nicholas.

In his message, Harry Burger wrote, "My culture is Always to care to anyone, everywhere. I'm glad you understand it. Hope always success, especially for you."

In his message, Harry Burger wrote, “My culture is Always to care to anyone, everywhere. I’m glad you understand it. Hope always success, especially for you.”

Curiosity #65: Purity Has Nothing to do with Skin


On the street where I live, at the corner of the city’s most accredited college campus, stands a billboard depicting a giant female face. In the image, the woman strokes her cheek as if it were not her own. Beside her, gleaming in white letters beside a skin-care logo, are the words “Putih: itu bersih” which means “White: it’s clean.”


Ironically, just down the street is Yogyakarta’s most swanky internet café, where children and religious youths copy R-rated films onto their USB drives, from which they learn just how far the “White World” deviates from Indonesia’s almost-Victorian conception of “clean”.

  Starting with one of the most beloved films among Indonesian youths, Transformers

Starting with one of the most beloved films among Indonesian youths, Transformers

Between advertisements and media, we’re all a bit confused: how should Indonesians see the pale Westerner? I have no wish to invite pity for white “bulehs” whose unfounded privileges far outweigh their flak; nor do I wish overlook my darker-skinned ex-patriot friends, who – just as much or more than I do – exude a sort of Western mystique, but it seems that it is mostly among white-skinned women that “exotic” is often confused with “easy.”

I now have two older men contacting me with aims to establish friendship. Both men I have only seen once; both – without prompting from me whatsoever – have sent me messages via phone and Facebook in apparent hopes to get in touch with my Western-ness. The only difference between these two men is that one is the wholesome-hearted Hary Burger, who is merely curious about my culture, and the other is a 40-something-year-old bachelor (or, who knows, family man) who has singled me out for instant intimacy.

If we compare messages, it looks like this:

Messages from Harry Burger, who now we can only call “Hary” since he no longer works at a burger stand:

“I have a plan to go to cinema and make a dress, blouse, or gown for Miss Julie.”

“But maybe I need preparation, because I’m busy today…Miss Julie too.”

“Right now, Hary works at a business/shop (T-Shirt Store) at Kawasan Wisata Malioboro. Hary works to sell/business/shop T-shirt on the length of Malioboro Street from the Northern point to the South.”

“Does Miss Julie want to visit or come to Malioboro?”

“Would Miss Julie like it if Hary bought a gift especially to anniversary Christmas?”

Let’s compare this with messages from the man I met at my neighbor’s house, to whom I foolishly gave my contact information. Perhaps I’m wrong in presuming his messages have sexual undertones or that his interest in me has anything to do with my skin, but I should also note that it is extremely rare for a Javanese man to contact a self-respecting woman—particularly a stranger— so forwardly:

“Remember me, Jul?”

“We met each other at the place you lived before you moved, when Julie gave American chocolate to the neighbors. You looked beautiful and pure. My name is Iwan.”

“Honestly I want to be close friends with you, Jul.”

“Julie wants, right, to be close friends with me?”

“Thanks ya honey for your number, and thanks also for the delicious chocolate.”

“Honestly I would like it if we got to know each other.”


If we were to combine all messages and shuffle around the words a little, it would sum up the confusing projections I get as a light-skinned foreign woman living in Indonesia:

My name is chocolate. I want a pure American. I have a plan to be close friends with you Jul, right now, but when we met each other, you moved. I want to be close. I want to go to America, but need preparation. Miss Julie. I would like to know your dress, blouse, gown; the look and the length of each; to close in on you. Before Christmas, I want you do be my gift: pure like honey, because pure is delicious. Honestly, are you pure? I would like to know. You are too busy. I want to be friends with an American, but honestly I need chocolate like me. Chocolate is beautiful too, and you, American, have to go back to the place you lived before. But thanks, ya, honey, for your visit. Remember me.