Remembering My Childhood
The recent events in the US made me think a lot about my childhood. It has made me embrace cultural diversity and the concept of a global citizen. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, a small university city in the Midwest region. It hosts a large number of students from overseas along with their families. Some of them decided to stay for a long period, including my parents. This made Madison an international city.
My mom ran a family daycare business at our home in the suburbs, which she started 9 years before I was born. I was raised with the kids in what I would say “my cohort, who were mostly from white-american parents that worked at the university. My mom would sometimes make Indonesian meals like soto ayam and tempe as a way of introducing our culture. I still remember our times playing in the backyard sandbox, going to the farmers market and celebrating 5th birthdays. They were all like family and most of us are still in touch until today.
After daycare, I went to an elementary school challed Shorewood Hills that took pride in its global diversity. A local public school sharing a district with the university housing complexes, it had a logo of a globe surrounded by children of all colors holding hands. Indeed, most students in my grade came from all over the world. It celebrated international month, where we learned about a different country. I remember my 2nd grade class got Australia and I chose koalas for my research project. Mrs Larsson, my teacher, invited Australian locals to share their culture. We also had the choice to perform on international day, the main event. My entire grade was going to do a dance called Bridges, to symbolize the unity among diversity. Since I wasn’t paying to Mrs Larsson’s announcement and just heard practice or recess, I ended up being one of the six kids that didn’t sign up. Nevertheless, I got to see my friends pull an amazing performance. Older students participated in international dances from countries like Japan and Thailand. My brother told me he performed angklung when he was my age, since there were more Indonesian students back then. The next day was the international food fair. Parents from different countries volunteered to serve their national dishes and showcase cultural handicrafts. We were given “passports” to be stamped at each stand with the word “peace” in the country’s language. It is a really beautiful idea once you think about it.
There was a time in first grade when I went to another school called Midvale. My dad missed my name during pre-registration at Shorewood and assumed I got relocated. Although I only spent around 2-3 months here, it was a blessing experience. The student demographic at Midvale is mostly African-American, which built my empathy for the community. I still remember learning sessions during Black History Month. My teacher, Mrs. Bledsoe would tell us about how Harriet Tubman escaped through the underground railroad, how Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, and how Dr. Martin Luther King shared his dream. We were given a task to write about a famous African-American and I chose Michael Jordan. My classmates were really friendly and communal. They are one of the reasons I became a fan of Michael Jackson. Before moving back to Shorewood, they all made me a personalized farewell card during computer class and some even made hand-drawn comic strips.
On Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, my parents would take me and my brother to the local mosque called MSA to learn arabic and principles of Islam. On my first day Mrs Hanadi, my teacher from Palestine, asked for my name. After answering “Freddy”, she said my arabic name is Jum’uah. I was called that for a few weeks until my brother saw my homework and told Mom. Turns out Mrs Hanadi heard me say “Friday”. I quickly became really close with the kids at MSA. They also went to public schools, mostly Shorewood, so we had lots in common. I think sharing the same family values and being assimilated in the American culture is what really brought us together. We prayed together and talked about the Green Bay Packers and Super Nintendo games afterwards. After class, our Pakistani principal would hand out candy bars. On Eid, MSA would host festivals with lots of food (including my mom’s popular roll tart), games and prizes at the park or community center. You could say it had a more modern way of celebrating. There is another mosque that we also went to called As-Sunnah. From being in a small shop space, it moved to an old church building across from a Toys R Us that also functioned as an office for an Islamic magazine called Al-Jumuah. The people there seemed more conservative but had such a peaceful demeanor. Most of the children went to Arabic speaking private schools and didn’t speak much English. This made us enjoy the traditional muslim celebrations, such as sharing meals of lamb and rice while sitting on the carpeted floor during Ramadhan’s Iftar. Such experiences kind of made me feel connected with the Arab culture.
Aside from school, I had two other activities: soccer and karate. My soccer team was called the Shorewood Killer Bees. We might’ve called ourselves the New Bees since our record was 1-10. We did get better after an Iranian kid joined us and scored all of our goals. Both boys and girls played in the same team. The coach would rotate our positions, even the goalkeeper. Parents would always cheer for us, even when we made turnovers. In the end, the purpose is to have fun and learn team spirit. The best part actually happened after the games: getting snacks and juice boxes. Karate was also fun. The lessons focused more on perfecting our forms, usually with the Mortal Kombat theme song in the background. I’m not sure how useful this is for self-defence but our performances looked cool.
I am really grateful to have such a culturally rich childhood in Madison. My Indonesian parents adapted well in the US and raised me with a blend of both cultures. Expressing your creativity is an important part of the American culture. In school, we were encouraged to present our ideas in the most unique way. Shorewood’s library would even publish your handwritten books and some parents volunteered to help with the editing. My Dad also liked to help out with such projects. We were taught to read a lot, teachers would reward us for finishing chapter books. There was even a book club, where we would discuss the themes of a story over lunch. Knowing ourselves is also considered important. Every month someone had to present special information about themselves, like things to be proud of (I remember mine was not littering). I developed a value of respecting others, seeking to understand one's situation and not taking humor in it. The school did not separate students that were still learning English and even those with mental disabilities (who received special assistance). This helped build tolerance, empathy and understanding. Learning was made to be fun, especially during Elementary School, where we did not worry about grades. Classes would have games like Math Baseball where the teacher would show some flashcards as a “pitch” to two students “at bat” and whoever answers the quickest could move to first base. Teachers are considered friends, narrowing the gap with students. These experiences make me realize the importance of early childhood education and the beauty of living in diversity. My image of the US has alway been an open multicultural nation. Seeing recent events, hopefully more people will learn to feel the same way.
In August 1997, my family decided to move back to Indonesia. I was excited at first because of my parent’s stories of their hometown. When we first arrived in Jakarta, I was touched to see the large number of relatives that came to greet us. My aunt was so thrilled to see her little sister after so many years and my uncle welcomed us to Indonesia. I learned both my mom and dad had large families, 7 and 12 siblings respectively, so I have so many cousins! Before then, I only knew Arvin and Rahma who were also born in Madison. After a few days in Jakarta, we flew to Padang to meet my paternal grandparents and many other relatives. My uncles took me to relative homes, beautiful beaches and the green canyons near Bukittinggi. I remember my grandfather used to tell me to eat bananas (I couldn’t speak Indonesian yet but happy to share such conversations before he passed away). There was one time when I came back to the house and wondered why so many people had smelly feet. Apparently this was my first encounter with durian, my uncle bought a truckload of it. I just took a pinch and couldn’t have any more, but learned to love it several years later. I also remember thinking Indonesian homes had uniquely narrow but deep bathtubs that were always filled with water. Turns out it was a large container for bathing water you would scoop with a pail to pour over your body. Good thing I did immerse myself in it.
After a memorable visit to Padang, my family moved to settle in Bandung where my dad would work at the Institute of Technology. We stayed in my aunt's second home with my cousins that just got admitted to the same institute. I went to a nearby elementary school called Ibnu Sina, which was full day like in the US. Since I was a new kid that couldn’t speak Indonesian, it felt fun having a good excuse to goof around. I would run around class when the teacher wasn’t around, draw cartoons in my notebooks, and take two pieces of fried chicken instead of one during school lunch. I used to joke with the older kids and make them buy me es mambo (a local treat I became fond of, basically fruity syrup in a small plastic pouch). Despite the way I acted, everyone was really nice and seemed to enjoy helping me adapt to the country. The school had a really beautiful setting, it was surrounded by trees and rice paddies that we explored by foot during Physical Education class. One of my first culture shocks was when everyone kissed the teacher’s hand after school. It felt really weird since my parents never even asked me to do this. I learned that it is a cultural thing in Java and, unlike the US, a teacher is considered as your parent during school time. Although I only spent three months at that school, it was really memorable for me and most likely my schoolmates. I say this after bumping into many of them in random places years later.
A few months after moving to Indonesia, the Asian financial crisis happened. My family of 5 moved into a one-bedroom house since there were no other university staff housing available. We couldn’t rent or buy since my parents had invested their savings in land and it was too costly to build. I started going to a nearby public school called Sangkuriang 3 (for some reason, there were 6 schools in the same complex). I was greeted very well on my first day. All the boys in my class walked me home, which went on for a few days. I soon learned that the majority of students were from families working in the informal sector. Most of them lived in squatter settlements behind large houses. This was probably my first time witnessing real income inequality. I started speaking Indonesian after a year and learned more about the economic struggles of my schoolmates. I also felt more cultural shocks after understanding what people were saying. I realized several fundamental differences from the US. However, I learned something beautiful about my classmates: the strong sense of community. Living so close together, they treated each other like being part of one big family. The differences I mentioned is due to lack of awareness as they did not have the same exposure as I had. This could be solved with a proper transformation in the education system and pro-poor economic policies so families could spend more on their children’s nutrition and development.
As the economy started to recover, my family moved to a larger house near the high street. I transferred to a private school called Assalaam for my final year (grade 6 in Indonesia) which I briefly attended after Ibnu Sina but couldn’t handle the long distance. It was also the same school as my cousins. Students were from much more affluent families compared to Sangkuriang 3, some even had their own chauffeurs. Like in high school, there is a strongly knowledgeable teacher for every subject. The school had several facilities you would find in Shorewood and Midvale but not Sangkuriang 3; like a computer lab, a library, and a school nurse. I feel blessed to receive proper education, which also helped me get accepted at Bandung’s top public middle school. However, it is concerning that kids at Sangkuriang had far from the same. It is also concerning that there are public school rankings, why would you segregate schools based on academic performance? Shouldn’t the high achievers be able to help the ones struggling? Are people that sad to have the need for such empty pride? It’s good that after over a decade the school admission system finally changed to be based on location instead of test results. From what I hear, people are still adjusting as many parents prefer the former system. Hopefully, one day such prejudice would vanish and every child in Indonesia would enjoy the same learning facilities as children in a developed country. This would bring the equality in opportunity the country needs.
So in retrospect, I feel grateful to have such a childhood that gave exposure to different socioeconomic backgrounds. It allowed me to set personal values, love diversity, build empathy and have the hunger to keep exploring. I believe it is important for all of us to learn other cultures and adapt appropriately. In the end, we are all citizens of the world that want the best for ourselves, our children and the people around us.