Ways of Seeing by Alice Leeds: Our differences hold us together

In 1996 a Muslim teen from Indonesia moved into our home and became part of our family for the next six years, initiating a relationship I value to this day.
Ary’s arrival in June was marked by her excitement that the days were so much longer here than in equatorial Indonesia. Her delight was dampened that first dark, icy winter. Over time, Ary adjusted to our language, food, family traditions and changing seasons. We enjoyed her cheerful presence and the delicious bottles of sweet and spicy hot sauce sent regularly from Indonesia by Ary’s parents along with their generous gifts — batik tablecloths and clothing, brightly-painted masks, a brass candelabra, silver earrings.
We learned about each other as that first year unfolded. Ary fasted through the month of Ramadan while keeping up with fall soccer practice. As winter approached, I lit Hanukah candles. Christmas was everywhere. Ary faced Mecca and performed her ritual prayers five times a day.
Our adjustments were minimal in comparison to Ary’s, yet she remained joyfully open to each new situation. In fact, we noticed she never said no to us, so we learned to read between the lines whenever Ary said yes, she was interested in participating in some activity. An enthusiastic yes was an affirmation, while a weak yes showed reluctance.
In fact, Ary was generally hesitant to share or even consider her own opinion, apparently unfamiliar with free thought and expression. Her Global Studies teacher contacted me when Ary’s research paper was completely plagiarized. It turned out her previous schooling involved learning by rote, memorizing and returning the information transmitted. Ary was thrilled to discover she could insert her own ideas and opinions in her writing. She began expressing herself.
As she became more comfortable, Ary confided in me that people in her homeland could be arrested or even worse for espousing ideas considered subversive. She told the story of a truck driver in her town who criticized some minor aspect of the government. One day he was gone.
There were other clues about the political situation in Ary’s homeland. In April, she joined us on a family trip to visit relatives in Florida. At a dinner gathering, an assertive family member attempted to engage her in what must have felt like a confrontational debate. As I recall, he’d had a few glasses of wine by that point.
“You tell me about Indonesia!” he declared, not realizing how threatening his booming voice sounded to Ary.
She smiled gracefully, hoping this spirited gentleman would move on to another topic. When he repeated the question a third time, Ary stood and ran from the table. We got the message.
Naively, I assumed we would learn all we needed to know about her country from Ary. It was still the pre-internet era, so information was less readily accessible. I subsequently learned Ary grew up during the repressive thirty-two year regime of President Suharto, where free thinking was discouraged and the military kept a tight reign. Suharto’s dictatorship was coming apart at the seams in the late 1990s. Perhaps that’s one reason so many Indonesian families sent their children to Vermont, to avoid the chaos.
After graduating from an American college with a degree in finance management, Ary returned to Jakarta, Indonesia and began a career with Coca Cola Bottling Indonesia, where she works to this day. We keep in touch on Facebook. Apparently, Indonesians have among the highest levels of social media engagement. Her country is no longer governed by a dictator; I wonder how that transition changed Ary’s life.
It would be easy to judge Ary’s youth as more confined than that of a typical American teen. But then I consider the breadth of experience and opportunity she gained as a young woman spending six years living in a foreign culture, learning a language and traditions in such vivid contrast with hers. And it was her adaptability that allowed Ary to navigate this experience successfully, leading directly to her present career.
Our six years with Ary affirmed my understanding that we are each a product of our many environments — physical, cultural, spiritual, familial and the intangible aspect of our own uniqueness. A joyful place in my heart celebrates the places where our lives overlapped.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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