by Choirun Nisa Ristanty
My cultural trip to Roslyn on the first Friday in November was one never to be forgotten. It was a freezing morning—at least me for me—and it brought the first snowfall that I’d ever seen in my life. The other students on the trip regarded the weather with disdain, but I was absolutely enthralled by it. My home is in Indonesia where even the tallest mountain peaks are snowless. But near Roslyn, all the roads were bordered by tall pine trees that glistened with a fresh blanket of that exotic, crystal-white snow. I was speechless and almost cried. As we approached Roslyn village, we even saw an elk wandering among the pine trees.
I was going to Roslyn as a representative of my country to open a cultural and political dialogue with the students at Cle Elum-Roslyn High School as part of the FIUTS (Foundation for International Understanding Through Students) program, and I was accompanied by students from Thailand, China, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia. After we arrived, we went directly to Mr. Wickwire’s Contemporary World Problems class. The first thing that shocked me was that the students and teachers didn’t wear any uniforms, they just wore casual clothes, and they even wore jeans! In Indonesia, from preschool through to secondary school, every student wears a uniform. Even the teachers, especially at public schools, must wear a teacher’s uniform whose color and cloth have been carefully regulated by the Ministry of Education. From pupils to teachers, there’s no opportunity to express one’s individual style. But in Roslyn, the students seemed to enjoy total freedom of expression—many students even pierced their ears or nose, or colored or lengthened their hair. In Indonesia, even those mild body modifications would be considered as impolite, or even rebellious. Even the building itself seemed like a testament to free expression—just in the bathroom, I saw a sticker supporting LGBT rights. Sadly, in my country even talking about LGBT rights is taboo.
I never knew before that American secondary schools implement a liberal arts-style curriculum. In Indonesian senior high schools, students have to choose their department: social studies or science. Some also offer a language department, but that’s rare. (Many students enroll in a different type of high school, a vocational high school, where the course of study is even more limited.) If students choose social studies, then they focus on Sociology, Geography, Economics, and History. Students in the science department focus on Biology, Physics, and Chemistry. The curriculum is rigid, and students have almost no chance to broaden their studies. But here, students have a right to choose their course preferences with a credit system, and they can choose to study so many different things. What made me even more shocked is that there was a cooking class in this school, and that boys are welcome to join it! In Indonesia, something like this is rare—it would usually just be extracurricular, and cooking is always associated with girls.
After our introductions, we were split into small groups in order to engage in discussions about some issues with students. A lot of students came to my desk—I wondered if they were interested in me because I was the only one wearing a hijab, and maybe they wanted to ask me questions about my religion. Or maybe they were interested in Indonesia? But then I found out that the only thing they knew about Indonesia was Bali (and some had the common misconception that Bali is a country). So I explained to them that Indonesia is a richly diverse country with a thousand islands and hundreds of local languages and cultures.
They were especially interested in hearing about the Indonesian education system; I told them that we do not have any sex education, and that just a few weeks ago the government even stopped the distribution of science books that contained pictures of male and female anatomy. They thought that this was crazy, and all I could say was that Indonesia has a culture which makes it very taboo to discuss these sorts of things, and that many people feel that it’s sinful. Some people in Indonesia fear that sex education would lead to sexual promiscuity and moral decay.
They also asked me what the relationship is between Indonesia and the United States, and I answered that we have a very strong relationship in education. There are so many programs like Fulbright or USAID that offer scholarships for Indonesians to pursue their studies in America or for Americans to teach English or to perform research in Indonesia. They also asked me about what I think about the new president here in America, and whether I felt safe. I just laughed and said that Washington is a blue state, so I’m sure I’m safe here. I asked them their opinions about Trump and his antagonistic relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un: they were worried because if North Korea were to launch nuclear missiles at America, Washington state would be one of the closest targets.
I was very impressed with how open-minded these students were, and with how they kept up with currents events and news. When I was in their age, I only cared about how to get good marks on every exam—and that meant I only focused on memorizing facts, not on developing my critical thinking. Students in Indonesia are accustomed to being spoon-fed whatever information the Ministry of Education wants them to believe, but the students in Roslyn had been taught to take in the news, analyze it, and form their own opinions. I was also shocked to find out that students here aren’t burdened by the standard of national examination. In Indonesia, the national examinations are standardized government tests used by the Indonesian government to decide whether a student graduates. Here in America, students only have to worry about the SAT or the ACT, and even then it’s often optional.
After sharing an American-style high school lunch together, my friends and I got a chance to have a school tour followed by a tour to the Roslyn museum. We finally ended our trip with a visit to the local library, where we had a community potluck, discussed local and international students’ cultures, and got to know each other better. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Americans as extremely individualistic, but this trip opened my eyes to the fact that Americans do have a sense of belonging and sharing and helping each other, just like in Indonesia. And before we left, the librarian there asked me, “What are you going to miss most from the USA?” My answer was very simple: first, snow. Second, the freedom to talk about things like LGBT rights or sex education. And third… all the free samples from the farmer’s markets!