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Gulliver’s Travels


“Kamu memukul kepalamu lagi?” (Did you hit your head again?)

“Ya, seperti biasanya.” (Yup, as usual.)

I had indeed rammed the back of my head into my host brother Amar’s birdcage … for the fifth time. The program house’s slanted roof, several door frames, a car ceiling: these are the growing pains of 6’3″ man living in Indonesia. I even managed to slam my shoulder into a door frame that I had ducked my head under! Quite frankly, it’s a miracle I’m not concussed.

I’ll be the first to admit that being tall has its benefits. If I’m going to a crowded concert, I’m not sweating it. You need the plate on the top shelf of the cupboard? No problem. And the height certainly doesn’t hurt when I’m playing basketball. But being tall in Indonesia is a completely different ball game than in the States.

Coupling my height with my blond-beardedness, I’m frequently gawked at whenever I’m out in public. After your run-of-the-mill Darimana? (Where are you from?) and Nama siapa? (What is your name?), I’m usually asked some version of Apa yang orang team beri makan? (What do your parents feed you?). I’ve taken selfies with a variety of folk, running the gamut from nervous schoolchildren to a policeman. I’ve been the subject of many Instagram photos and, following a 5K, a Facebook promotion for a woman’s food stall. I’ve fielded numerous look-alike comparisons including Conor McGregor, Ed Sheeran, Gandalf, Tom Hanks (specifically from Cast Away), Lionel Messi, Chuck Norris, and—I kid you not—Ronald Raegan. On throw-ins during soccer games with village kids, my teammates will loft the ball high enough so I alone can put a head to it and, ideally, sink it into the back of the net. Moreover, I’ve met only one Indonesian who’s taller than me, and he plays for Indonesia’s national volleyball team.

I find, however, my height difference to be most egregious in my karate classes. My host father, a black belt, registered me for lessons before my arrival to Yogyakarta, so I, someone with no previous karate experience, train as a white belt with nine-year-olds. In routine drills, members of a unit are meant to progress in sync. This task, however, is functionally impossible as my stride is twice as long as that of my training mates. Equally challenging are the sparring exercises. For context, I am as tall if not taller than some of the kids when in a squatting position.

While I wish sometimes that I didn’t have to duck when entering homes or wasn’t treated as a jungle gym on legs, I’ve come to appreciate the joy and wonder I cultivate in others by my “freakishness”. This dynamic was on full display on Sunday when I showed up to my first karate exam. Parents who had come in support their children started filming me. During my routine, the examiners had to shut the windows because too many kids were draped over the sills to watch. Naturally, there was a photo session with a throng of students afterwards. Let’s just say that I was all smiles.