I watched helplessly as one tear, then two more slid down his sweet, small, brown face. I walked over, bent down, put my hand on his back in a way I hoped conveyed empathy and asked “what’s wrong?”, knowing full well he couldn’t tell me in English and I couldn’t understand Bahasa.
We were in the only indoor classroom at the Yayasan (technically translated as “orphanage”, actually a “learning center” in Bali where we were volunteering to teach English). The Yayasan was located in Tianyar, a tiny, dusty, very poor village, looking far from the picture of what a tourist might envision Bali to be. At least 39 other students surrounded us as I crouched next to him where he was seated on the floor with an English test paper in front of him on one of the long, low benches the students used as desks. It was hot, I was sweating under my mandatory shoulders covered, knees covered outfit, and all of these eight to ten year olds had already had a very long day at their regular school before coming to see me to recite the days of the week, months of the year, and to practice basic conversation such as “what is he/she doing?”, ” is it….sunny/cloudy/rainy?”, ” what day is it?”, “how old are you?” and ” When is your birthday?” in English.
Presently, the class was going over the answers to a written test on this material and, as I finally deciphered from the other students, it was this last question that had this little boy so upset–he didn’t know his birthday.
I found out later from our program director, Ketut, many Balinese students do not know what day they were born and do not celebrate birthdays. Life is just too busy and focused on the day-to-day of living to be planning these kinds of celebrations. Instead, the Balinese focus on getting food on the table, school, work, and religion. We learned that most Balinese follow a specific form of Hinduism (different from what is practiced in India) and engage in many, many ceremonies and rituals at the temple and in their homes that keep them very busy.
Generally, each Balinese home has a separate temple building which the family prays at every day. Each night and every morning small offerings are left in front of every building, some high up in shrines shrouded by little umbrellas (these are for the gods) and some on the ground (these are for the lower spirits). Most of these offerings serve as a sort of protection for the buildings and the people inside.
Life here at the Yayasan was a classroom for me as well. I watched and learned as the youngest members of Ketut’s family engaged in these daily rituals: burning incense and splashing each offering with a bit of water as they set it out each night. During meals Ketut and the volunteers discussed life, religion and Balinese customs. We learned that Balinese Hindu practitioners make sacrifices to the gods during ceremonies–generally animals, the likes of chickens, ducks, pigs and……puppies. Ketut, having much influence from western volunteers, relayed to us that he took a rational approach to religion and questioned where he felt questioning was warranted. Although we also learned much about general life in Bali, I mention mostly religious things as these seemed to take such a prominent role in daily routines, and because beautiful, colorful reminders of Hinduism in the form of offerings and aging temples were everywhere I turned.
Back in the classroom my little student quickly recovered when he found that several classmates had the same difficulty as he did and I was faced with my first “ah ha” ( or more like “duh”) moment, realizing that yes, even the small things you least expect can be different in other cultures.
Having the opportunity to meet these students, even for a short time, was an immeasurable blessing. I think we were very lucky to have this place as our first volunteer opportunity. It is truly “grass roots” and run by an amazing man who is so dedicated to the students. There were a number of other wonderful volunteers from Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Italy and Romania that we quickly became friends with, trading travel tips and stories, sharing the home cooked meals made by Ketut’s mother, and discussing next steps for the Yayasan’s projects.
It is impossible to portray all of the emotions, lessons and memories that were packed into our short time here except to say that the culminating effect was: we wanted badly to stay longer, are now sponsoring a child, and vow to somehow return each year. I also have quite a bit of research to do, as another volunteer and I hope to come up with some type of structured curriculum for the program to use, as well as a list of scholarships to foreign universities that some of the older students can apply for.
At the end of our time at the Yayasan, when I told the students it was my last day, I was nearly knocked over by 40 hugs all at once–an unexpected and priceless gift. The students also all stayed late, waiting for me to finish teaching two other classes before running down the short, nearby path to the ocean with myself, Mo and Ketut for a sort of swimming party, including my little, birthday-less student, who, splashing around in the murky sea, now had a smile on his face so bright that it will remain a picture in my mind for years to come.
If, by any chance anyone has any experience with or knowledge about ESL curriculum and/or university scholarships for foreign students, please let me know or forward any resources my way, thank you!!!!
If anyone would like more information on this amazing organization, volunteering, or sponsoring a child, please refer to this link:
*****Based on our experience, here at the Yayasan, resources or donations are highly needed and used wisely for the benefit of the children.*****