Leila Goldstein '14: Searching for Meaning in Banda Aceh: On Worthiness and Embracing My Inner “Basic Bitch”

Leila Goldstein was the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is her first year narrative.

The poem was good. The poem was meaningful. The poem was interesting. I didn’t understand most of the words.

I start today’s basic poetry class going over why these sentences from my students’ quizzes are not good poetry analysis. These sentences are boring, I explain. They are too generic and don’t really mean anything specific. They could be about any poem. And if you must use these phrases, they must always be followed by a “because.” Be a little original and explain yourself, I am thinking to myself. And with that thought, a lot of my own insecurities become clear.

There is something exhausting about trying to find meaning in your everyday life. Going from one of the most liberal places in America to one of the most conservative places in Indonesia has been a huge adjustment. And being on this fellowship has made me reconsider what it is I am doing here and my own desires for certainty. When I was selected to be a Shansi fellow, I felt proud of myself. It made me feel qualified and professional as I left college. And yet, instead of feeling impressive, adjusting to life in Indonesia has felt a lot like trudging through being bad at everything all day long, everyday.

Leila, cofellow Karl, and friend Ferry Gelluny in Tapak Tuan

Some Colorful Examples/Dumb Things I Have Done In Indonesia

—drove my motorbike, along with my cofellow, onto the median of the road

—told a coworker that I liked a region in Aceh because there is a lot of ganja (marijuana) there; I meant to say gajah (elephants).

—unknowingly got whiteboard marker all over my face and looked like a low-budget orphan Annie during a particularly sweaty class

—mixed up the word for cake and broth (kue vs. kuah) which led to the whole restaurant bursting into laughter when I asked for cake with my chicken; I really don’t think it was that funny

—wore a slightly dirty t-shirt and exercise pants (Aceh swimwear) to class beach day; in fact, going to the beach with the class is mostly about every girl wearing their best clothes and largest sun hats and nobody has any intention of swimming

—had diarrhea in the bathroom of every eating establishment I frequent in Banda Aceh

It’s fun to look at all of my Amelia Bedelia-esque antics with humor now, but I have to admit I was starting to feel a little panicked at my lack of *success* here in Aceh. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, paralyzed in everything I was doing. I hadn’t researched traditional dance, or made a documentary, or organized an event, or mastered the language, or made any art, or read enough books. (First semester I read one book. One. And it was a novella.) I hadn’t done enough, I thought.

Fellows Julie, Ruby and Leila share a meal with Matt Wilmer ’12

There are days where nothing feels normal, from police yelling at me for “dying” my hair and not wearing a jilbab (What would your mother say? I think she’s cool with it.) to seeing the most devastatingly beautiful beaches. From eating anemone in a boat with friends in the shallow waters between uninhabited islands to traipsing down empty mall escalators alone at midnight in Kuala Lumpur. Whether things are awesome or not here, it can sometimes be hard for anything to feel normal.

My slow recovery from feeling bad about everything involved trying to regain a sense of normalcy. I found that embracing my inner basic bitch has improved my quality of life the most. As Urban Dictionary notes, a basic bitch is “an extra regular female”—you can search the blogosphere for which Ugg-wearing, pumpkin-spice-latte-drinking definition most suits you. But I have no shame, the basic bitch has become my spirit animal.

Leila and cofellow Karl at a coffee shop with students

My basic bitch transformation looked a little like this: I started a bookclub. I took zumba classes three times a week. I worked out with my friends to an ebook entitled “Bikini Body Guide” even though there is nowhere in Banda Aceh where you can actually wear a bikini. I read a self help book. I started doing arts and crafts and making collages. I made a list of things I am grateful for. I wrote down meaningful quotes in a little notebook (I know, just kill me now). I downloaded season three (the Jess years) of Gilmore Girls to watch while I sweep up dead mosquitos and do my laundry. I learned to be kind to myself when everything feels hard and miserable. With that, and my new positive outlook on life framed with homemade pink polka-dotted ribbons, here are some things I am proud of:

Yay/Things I Have Accomplished Here

—taught a group of high school students about acting and made an awesome superhero story

—decorated my room

—bought a birthday cake and transported it in the trunk of my motorbike without crushing it

—took care of my cat, who is the most well fed cat in Aceh; sometimes my friends cry “gemuk” (fat) when they see the fabulous Ernie enter a room

—learned how to make a badass bootleg book that looks better than the original

—made friends, real friends, friends who tell me when my clothes are cool, or when my clothes are not cool, or when I’ve been buying a crappy brand of detergent for the last six months

—learned how to be chill about diarrhea in all circumstances

Leila and Jogja fellow Ruby at Borobudur

I used to feel a slight aversion to anything sentimental. But my new devotion to good vibes, self care, and silly stuff has warmed me up to my students’ love for all things cheesy (and I don’t mean the food, which there is none of here). I love the most predictable, gushy, sickly sweet stuff. I like my Milo chocolate drink with added condensed milk AND sugar thank you very much. I like that “motivator” is a recognized profession to my students that can go right next to teacher and mechanic in our list of occupations. And I, too, liked the two marriage proposal videos one of my most “tough-guy” students brought to youtube show and tell day.

Hiking Mount Jalin with friends Ida, Amel, Evie

I feel calmer, still lazy and giddy and unsure, but just more ok with all of the uncertainties of my time here and my future. And more filled with radical self-love and a desire to find the light in the cracks. So while I’m not exactly toting a pumpkin spice latte or wearing Ugg boots, I have learned that having a completely ordinary life here is an accomplishment, and that I am enough. While I still expect more from my students in their writing, maybe I’m not really ready to grapple with the “because.” Maybe there isn’t much more to be said about my experience at this point besides: good, meaningful, interesting, and I don’t understand most of the words.