Bondowoso / Culture / Daily Life / Indonesia / Peace Corps / People / Teaching

The Weight of A Cultural Difference

The following was written before in-service training in Surabaya.

I am standing in front of the mirror in my room, analyzing every curve at every angle. Am I fatter? I think to myself. I don’t look any different. I try different clothes on to check. Nothing looks different, but after one-too-many comments on how I “look fatter than before” by certain Indonesians, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to panic.

What have I been eating?

Have I been exercising enough?

I really need to stop eating so much rice. And fried stuff. And es buah!


These are variations of the thoughts of countless women everywhere. Many of us are pressured and plagued with the desire to be thin, that my Western mentality has trouble processing any negative commentary about my weight. My logical mind understands that Indonesians don’t mean to offend me, but emotionally I am offended—especially after a long day of dealing with every other cultural disparity between us.

Here I should mention that in Indonesia it is culturally acceptable to comment on people’s appearance. You look fat! You look thin! Your nose is small or big! Your skin is white! Your skin is black! All are comments you would rarely hear people make in the United States, but here it’s part of the everyday conversation, as common as speaking about the weather.

Unlike other PCVs, I rarely get these comments, but on this particular day, I received many of the kind. What’s different today? I wondered. Later, I came to find out that a picture of me during pre-service training had been pinned up in the computer lab. I suppose I was thinner then due to the stress of moving to a new country, but now as things have normalized, so has my weight.

Before I learned all of the above, I was having my worst day in Indonesia. Teaching was hard, I was having trouble communicating with my counterparts, the students were being bad – it was an all-around off day. Then, as I sat in my school’s office trying to get my mind away from all this, a teacher I rarely speak to kept insisting (in spite of my effort to feign not understanding him) that I am now lebih gemuk or fatter—and that sent me over the edge.

I wish I was one of those people whose frustrations come out in tears, but instead, I burn with fury. It is not acceptable in any culture to act like a Tasmanian devil whenever sh*t hits the fan, so I controlled my anger, which transformed into a splitting headache.

This led to a small crisis—me standing in front of that mirror—and multiple SOS texts to my closest PCV friends about how I can’t deal anymore and hate everything. Do something relaxing! they text back. Do something fun! And they are right. So I go out in my bike in the rain—because it’s the rainy season now—blast Nine Inch Nails and ride, uphill, for an hour.

There’s something magical about externalizing your frustrations by doing hard physical work. After just 15 minutes, I felt so much better. The rain was refreshing and the music pumped in rhythm with my blood. The fog in my head lifted. The mountains glowed gloriously as the sun began to set. Indonesia became beautiful again. As I rode back home, I saw a man standing on a horse, massaging the tall, lanky animal with his feet. The ridiculousness of it made me laugh out loud – and the desire to early-terminate receded.

The next day I was renewed with a little more positive energy. I kept thinking about how often I have heard people refer to certain teachers in conversation as, Bu _____, yang gemuk—the fat one. I’m pretty sure most people I know back home would nearly cry if they were referred to as “the fat one,” so when I met with English club for the teachers at my school, I posed to them the question: What do you feel when people say you are fat?

Because during training we were told that in Indonesia being called fat means you are happy, most of the answers were as I expected. One of the teachers—“the fat one”—told me that being called fat didn’t bother her at all. In Indonesia, she told me, to be called fat means that you look healthy, that you’re prospering or wealthy.

In Indonesia, being fat doesn’t always come from eating a lot, my counterpart chimed in, it can be because of your environment—the air or a condition that suits you.

The teachers during our weekly school meeting. Bu Titin (first teacher on the left) was the one to answer my question during English club.

The next day, I asked the girls in the student English club the same question and received similar answers. Most girls expressed that they are comfortable in their body—and most had no problem announcing: I think I am beautiful, Miss! This struck me. Of course these teenage girls are beautiful, but I didn’t expect them to have the self-confidence to say it. I’m happy to say I was wrong. Today, there’s a lesson to be learned from them: self-esteem and the absurdity of my insecurity.

The following was written after IST.

A few days after the above, I was on a bus to Surabaya for in-service training or IST. Here, all the volunteers in my group—ID6—had ten magnificent days of training in a luxurious hotel, surrounded by malls, restaurants, movie theaters and everything a respectable big city should have. The weight thing was on my mind at first, but it was quickly pushed aside in the face of cheese pizzas, French fries, burritos, Bacardi, French toast and all other manners of food that aren’t nasi or rice. In short, I ate more junk food than I have in awhile and did little other than attend training sessions all day and go out with other PCVs.

Upon my return to site two weeks later, Indonesians here were—unjustifiably—whistling a different tune. Mel, you are thinner than before! Are you sick? asked my counterpart. Kamu kurus! You are skinny! my neighbor commented with a horrified look. Itu jelek! That’s ugly! And just like that, comments I would have taken as a compliment are turned into insults.

In all honesty, I will never be happy to hear that “I look fatter than before” no matter how nice it may seem for an Indonesian. Sadly, the Western mentality is too deeply engrained, but I have come to terms that this weight thing is all about perception. Beauty always is. Since my body isn’t really changing, there must be other factors determining whether I look fat one day or skinny the next. Perhaps, it is the air or environment. Or, maybe, the alignment of the stars? My outfit? Their mood? Mine? The fact I hardly slept in Surabaya? It’s all so arbitrary that as long as I’m healthy—and luckily that’s the one thing I have been in Indonesia so far (knock on wood)—I’m fine with whatever the consensus is today.

But, in case of emergencies, there’s the daily dose of students that scream Miss, you are beautiful today!, which never fails to feel like a compliment beyond the external image they see.

The beautiful girls from advanced English Club. They speak the best English in the whole school and we end up having the most interesting conversations during our weekly 1-hour meeting.

7 thoughts on “The Weight of A Cultural Difference

      • Wait til it all comes together…the “crazy beard,” the bald head…it’s really going to be something special! And you may not like it, but at least concede that I have some range. 😉

  1. Pingback: The Weight of A Cultural Issue, Part II | in the land of dragons

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