How did you end up in Indonesia? I’ve been asked this question more than a hundred times over the past 30 plus years. So, before I write about my current Asian adventure, I thought I would start by sharing how I found myself in Indonesia in 1982.
When asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, my first response, from a very young age, was “I want to be a sports broadcaster,” followed by, “and travel the world.” In 1978, at around the age of 13, I distinctly remember telling my mother that I would travel to far away places and learn about the culture, food, religion, music, and so on, of people all over the earth. As I have written before, I never really felt as though I fit in while growing up in our small town. I am not sure I can quite put my finger on it, but I remember feeling different, as an outcast, as far back as I can remember. Mrs. Say, my 1st grade teacher, who had also taught Mom, (she said to me during my first week of school “you better not be as chatty as your mother Patty”) announced to our class early in the school year that I was from a broken home. I do not recall why, or what provoked such an announcement from a teacher to a classroom of 1st graders, but I do remember the event clearly, how my classmates turned to look at me, staring with uncertainty, and eventually one of them asking what that meant. Although I do not remember her exact words, Mrs. Say’s response was something to the effect of “her father left her and her mother and lives out of state now.” I do remember exactly how I felt that day. As an outcast. That was Mrs. Say’s last year in education, retiring at the end of the school year. Probably for the best.
In the early 1970’s, I was one of very few, and in most classes, the only child from a “broken family.” Throughout elementary and junior high school, I was reminded of that reality fairly regularly. It was the beginning of that feeling that I just did not fit. It was odd, looking back on it. I am certain that it took a toll, along with some other shit that was going on around me, and shaped who and what I later became . . . fucked up and all.
To complicate things, I didn’t speak like many of my friends and classmates. My paternal grandmother exercised visitation initially after my parents divorced, first picking me up for weekend visits. Eventually, when my biological father started seeing me, we also spent many of those weekends at my Grandmothers. Honor Celeste Berlin. She was very German; very proper and traditional and very particular about proper use of speech and grammar. Even though she also grew up and lived in Western Pennsylvania, she had not adopted any of the local slang or colloquialisms which were common among my friends and relatives, and corrected me when I did. Western Pennsylvania has a distinct dialect, sayings, lingo, and accent, and people love to run words together and shorten words to make new words. Yous guys, youns, younz, or yins for all of you. Slippy for slippery. Crick rather than creek. Red up, meaning to clean up. Warshed for washed. Hisself in place of himself and theirselves rather than themselves. And so on. As soon as I left home at 17 and started traveling, I was grateful for Grammie’s guidance, but throughout elementary and junior high, it separated me even further from my peers.
In 4th grade came another specific source of estrangement when given an assignment by one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Brown, that allowed us to do a report on something unique about each of us, or our family. I was excited to finally explore a bit about my birthplace and share what I learned with my classmates. Naively. In 1964, my biological father was in the Army, stationed at Tachikawa Air Base just outside of Tokyo. Hence, Japan is a part of my current #connectingthedots journey, which is where I was born in August of that year. I spent weeks researching, collecting stories from Mom and my father, who rarely spoke of their time there, reading, and eventually presenting to my class. Mrs. Brown was very supportive during my research, bringing me books from the library from a neighboring community, since our library had very limited information on Japan, and obviously this was long before the internet. Again, I clearly remember the day of my presentation, on the 3rd floor of Bruin Elementary, and the days that followed. At first, when I presented I thought my classmates were interested, and even a bit impressed to learn that I was born in some far away, exotic land. Perhaps they were, initially, until they went home and talked with their parents. I am not sure if it was the next day, but soon after my presentation I arrived at school to find hand-made “Made in Japan” stickers all over my desk and chair, kids holding their eyes out to make them look slanted and chanting incomprehensible words mimicking what were intended to be Asian sounds and laughing at me. Some quit sitting with me, interacting with me, and I remember hearing that two sets of parents had come to school to complain about Mrs. Brown allowing me to make such a presentation. She kindly helped me take the stickers off my desk and chair, stroked my hair warmly, and said, “you were made for bigger places and better things.” It was, for me, yet another point of separation.
None of this even begins to touch on all that was going on at home, within our broken family, in addition to all the normal messed up family stuff we all go through. So I read, a lot, to escape the feeling of not fitting in, and dreamt of exotic, far away lands that I would visit one day. When I thought about where I would travel, returning to where I was born was a natural curiosity, so I started telling people that I wanted to go to Asia, the Far East, to study. Not an incredibly popular desire in an oil refining area in Western PA in the 70’s . . . yet another point of separation.
My step-father’s father was a local Rotarian, one of the few who never discouraged my yearning to travel, and suggested to me for the first time while in 9th grade that I should apply to be a Rotary Exchange Student. Ironically, he passed away while I was in Indonesia. Anyway, Grandpa Parker got an application packet for me to review and I quickly discovered that many of the things that Rotary International viewed as favorable in their selection process were not available to me in our small, rural community. Nonetheless, my Mom and Aunt Becky set out to help me “build my resume,” so to speak. I took the highest level classes available to me and was involved in various extracurricular activities at school: sports, drama (my favorite), cheerleading and year book committee. I began volunteering at our local hospital, which was 14 miles away, and a burden on my family getting me there and back. I started finishing school in Monroeville, more than 50 miles from home, every Saturday, learning proper social graces, international etiquette and protocol, proper speech and manners. Another burden on my family, both financially, and logistically getting me there and back on Saturdays.
Finishing school led to modeling with a local photographer, Pete Decoux, with whom my aunt had a connection, and some print work, doing ads for local department stores, and some fashion show work. Mr. Decoux coaxed me into participating in the Junior Miss Pageant, which would enhance my Rotary International application, thus, my ticket to see the world. For that reason alone, I did it. This tomboy country girl was continuing to blossom, grow, learn, feel more and more confident outside of my comfort zone, but at the same time, have less and less in common with my peers at home, and even with my own family.
Nonetheless, my resume expanded and eventually it was time to complete my Rotary International Exchange Student Application. In some parts of the world you were able to select specific countries where you wished to study: France, Belgium, Brazil. In other parts of the world, only regions. I chose Asia as my preferred place of study as specific countries were not an option in the Far East, and off my packet went. It took months to hear back, and at one point I gave up on the concept, but eventually I received a packet back from Rotary International in Evanston, Indiana. Now I wish I had kept the letter, but it read something like this:
Congratulations, Miss Robin, on your interest in the International Rotary Exchange Student Program, and your acceptance to the 1982-83 Academic Year Program. You will be studying at Diponegoro University, a public university located in Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia, with an academic focus on International Religion, Culture and Dance. Your host family will be ________ and so on.
Mom and I read the letter together, and I am not certain who said it first, or if we said it in unison, but the next words spoke were, “Where the fuck is Indonesia?” (I got my potty mouth from Mom, and Mackenzie gets it from me. Hopefully a cycle we can break in the next generation . . . maybe not.) My brother, who is four years younger than me, had a globe in his room that he anxiously retrieved and we started to look. Near Japan? No. China? No. The three of us continued to search, turning the globe, and finally one of us spotted it, a group of islands, with the equator running through them, south of the Philippines. What? Is that Asia? What language do they speak? What religion will I be studying? So many questions, but none of it really mattered to me. I was going abroad, for a year, to a far away, exotic land. A land where perhaps I would fit in. Far away from home, which was the goal at that point, to begin my year of living dangerously.
That is how, and why, I found myself in Indonesia in 1982, and back here in 2016. Connecting the dots, so to speak. Follow #connectingthedots as I piece together my experiences in this exotic land, and how they shaped me into the woman I have become. I will share more about my experiences here both in 1982 and in 2016. Until then . . .
Terima kasih sudah membaca,
(thanks for reading)