Angie Kilbane came here in 2007 as a Fulbright scholar, but she couldn’t get enough of the country so she picked up a Darmasiswa scholarship in 2008. Next thing she knew, she was sitting in lecture halls at the University of Indonesia studying Indonesian literature.
Now a few years down the road, Angie, who translated ‘Laskar Pelangi,’ from Indonesian to English, talks about her favorite Indonesian writers, the differences between Americans and Indonesians and what it’s like to be the only non‑Muslim teaching at the Lazuardi Global Islamic School.
Who is your favorite Indonesian writer?
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as cliche as that sounds. He wrote all kinds of things, but what he’s most famous for is the ‘Buru Quartet.’ He came up with them while he was in prison during the Suharto era.
He came up with all these stories, communicated them to all the other prisoners and then eventually wrote them down.
A more modern figure that I like is Ayu Utami. She’s pretty edgy. I like her a lot.
So you could speak Indonesian well enough to understand college lectures?
I studied Indonesian before I came here for two years at Ohio University and then I spent a year living in Singosari, so I had a pretty good base.
How would you describe Indonesia?
My grandfather is really funny. I’ll be talking on the phone with him and say something like: ‘Oh, yeah, I was reading in the newspaper that…’ and he’ll say ‘The have newspapers over there?’ But most of my friends say things like ‘Indonesia? What? Where?’ or they ask why.
Things are really different, but then again things are really the same, like sitting in a coffee shop in Ohio or going to the mall.
There’s definitely more of a communal feel here. When I was in Singosari [East Java], I was sick and three people came to my house to show that they cared. All I wanted was to be alone, but that was their way of showing that they cared and they were there for me.
What other cultural differences come to mind?
A few months ago, a co-worker’s child died and everybody went to his house immediately. My first thought as an American was: ‘Oh, they probably want to be alone so they can grieve.’
But actually the best thing for them was for everyone to be there for them and give support and show that they’re not alone and that they’re going to be there to help them get through this.
Literally being there for them, not just saying ‘I’m here for you.’ An actually physical presence of being there.
What do your friends back home think of Indonesia?
Back home, all the bad stuff makes the news — about earthquakes, tsunamis and the infamous terrorists and terrorism, but it’s really not like that at all. Disasters happen all over the world. And Indonesia is a big place. Like, if there is a forest fire in California, does that affect Ohio?
What do you think of Jakarta?
It’s bigger than anywhere I’ve ever lived in my life. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, which is a relatively medium to small city. And then I went to college in Athens, Ohio, which is a small city with a college campus in the middle.
And Jakarta is just like … craziness.
Do you ever pinch yourself about living in Indonesia?
This morning I was BB-ing with my brother and a friend back home on the train and when I got off, I hopped on an ojek and while I was riding I snapped a photo and sent it to them.
They were like: ‘Are you on the back of a motorcycle?’ ‘Do you even know who this guy is?’ And I was like, ‘I’m on an ojek. It’s like a motorcycle taxi.’ We don’t have that back home.
Do you ever wish you still lived in Singosari?
I do and I don’t — as far as I love that year of my life. The whole Fulbright experience was great. I miss that and my friends in Malang and Surabaya.
I feel like I would like it but it wouldn’t be the same. I’m actually going back to see friends in a few weeks. I’m really excited to visit my old school and my students.
Tell us about where you teach now.
I teach elementary and junior high school at the Lazuardi Global Islamic School in Cinere and Cilandak. This is my third year with them. It’s a great school. They incorporate the national curriculum with the Cambridge curriculum.
So do you have to be Muslim to teach at an Islamic school?
No. I do think that I’m the only non-Muslim there, but they’re very welcoming to me.
We have morning prayer for everyone and they say the opening and then read a hadith and discuss it. And every once in a while, I’m asked to share a story or, I grew up Christian, they ask to discuss a Bible story.
Do you ever think about moving back to the States?
No. I’m happy doing what I do and being where I am. For now, I can see myself here for a few years.
People are always, like: ‘What are you gonna do?’ and I turn it around on them: ‘What are you gonna do?’ Do I have to have a plan? Is there a rule? I’m happy with my life now.
How long did it take to translate ‘Laskar Palangi?’
It took about seven months. It should have taken longer … but you know deadlines [smiles].