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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

The New Normal

A few nights ago, we celebrated Sebastian’s birthday with a dinner party at his house. For the special occasion, his family had created a line of banana leaves, in the middle of which was a long array of rice, chicken, and other assorted foods. This is a Javanese tradition for celebration where people sit and eat straight from the leaves with their hands. Since it was an aesthetically pleasing display, I posted a picture of it to my Snapchat story. A good friend of mine from home responded, “What you’re doing is amazing.”

This validation warmed my heart and started me questioning. Is it amazing? The food was delicious and cool, but did it constitute an amazing experience? I again looked at the picture, scanning for clues as to what made my friend say that. I looked at it, not as someone who hears the call to prayer five times a day along with rooster crows, nor as someone who doesn’t use toilet paper, but as me three months ago. I saw food, mostly white rice, on banana leaves placed on the floor. I saw women in hijabs. I saw forms of tofu and fruit that are unfamiliar to most Americans. I realized, yeah this is pretty cool. And though this was a meal for a special occasion, it was still one of the more “ordinary” experiences I have on a daily basis. So it got me thinking, what else is normal for me now that I couldn’t imagine three months ago?

When I get bombarded at museums as if I’m Beyonce with the never before seen twins on my arms, it’s no longer abnormal, though it is still annoying. Receiving gifts and special attention from Javanese people in a parade in Kotagede didn’t feel that strange and I didn’t even seem to notice the hundreds of local eyes glued on me, the one buleh (white foreigner). I don’t stare when I see men with extremely long pinky or thumb nails because here, that is normal.

Something that really strikes me though is how comfortable I’ve become with disabled people. Though disabled people certainly aren’t unique to Indonesia, the disabled community has been an ever-present part of my experience. Every weekday, I volunteer at SAPDA, an advocacy center for disabled women and children. There, I often assist during events that welcome women in wheelchairs, deaf women, dwarfs, and even blind women. I no longer bat an eye when I see a person in a wheelchair. It’s normal for me. I think this is the hope of my NGO, to stop physical impairments from becoming social disabilities as well. But I wonder, when I go back to America and rarely see disabled people, will I give them a second glance that those here do not get from me? Is my altered mindset a result of my different expectations between Indonesia and America? These are questions I’ll continue to think about, but for now I look forward to absorbing more experiences without presumptions while I’m in Indonesia and I hope that when I return to America I have a broadened scope of what normal is.