It Begins: UNPAR’s International Student Conference
Approximately 100 students from around the world, nine days chock-full of cultural immersion, seven distinguished lecturers, one organizing committee working around the clock, hundreds of lessons learned, and countless memories made. The Universitas Katolik Parahyangan International Student Conference was an experience unlike any other. In just nine days, I forged new friendships, tried new things, visited new places, saw through new eyes and came away with a new perspective.
Sitting in my Global Politics class in November of 2013, I would have laughed in your face if you told me I would be flying halfway across the world and immersing myself in Indonesian culture. When an UNPAR exchange student named Elisa stood before our class and explained the premise of her university’s international student conference, my interest was piqued, but it still seemed a distant possibility – I couldn’t even say Parahyangan, never mind jet off to participate in a conference there.
But a tentative inquiry was all it took…and suddenly, I was making travel arrangements and packing my bags. After getting a feel for the country in my two week tour of Java, Sumatra and Bali, I came back to where it all began – Bandung.
If there’s one thing I took away from the conference, it is that the Indonesian people are some of the friendliest, hospitable and welcoming people you’ll ever meet. Elisa and her friend Sam were incredible hosts during my time in Bandung, and I am so grateful to have had them by my side through lost luggage, wifi fiascos, laundry runs and navigating menus in Indonesian.
When I arrived at the conference hotel though, it was clear that Elisa and Sam were not the exception, but the rule. The student committee (or the “comedy,” as they pronounced it) made us feel like royalty throughout the conference – from making sure we didn’t get lost, to feeding us before we even knew were hungry.
Our first evening of the conference began with an opening ceremony – awkward mingling quickly turned into fascinating conversation, where I learned the stories of my fellow participants – there was an African student studying in China, a Japanese student studying in Australia, an English student studying in Japan…it was hard to keep track of everyone! But, all of the Indonesian students wore their very stylish batik outfits, which made it easy to spot them. 🙂
Being the only American student was quite a lot of pressure – it’s not often that you think about how your accent sounds to others, but in a room full of international students, you certainly stand out. The Brits and the Aussies playfully mocked my long vowel sounds and odd word choices – “the traaash can? do you mean the rubbish bin?” or “aloooominum” or “where’s the baaaathroom?” But of course, it was easy to return the favor – “g’day mate!” or “have you been to the cinema lately?” or “how’re you going? don’t you mean where am I going?” Caroline from Australia and I joked many times that we could practically write a book with all of the phrases that don’t carry over from American to Australian English – and vice versa.
As if being the only American wasn’t enough pressure, there was the added bonus that James Madison University was actually a partner in the conference. Seeing my school logo on the posters and paraphernalia was a constant reminder that I was representing my fellow dukes wherever I went! It was an honor, really. 🙂
On the second day of the conference, bonds had formed, and it was clear that the week ahead would be filled with laughter, learning, and cultural exchange. But before we learned all about each other, there was a day dedicated to learning about our host culture. The morning was spent playing traditional Indonesian games – which were an absolute blast!
First, we had to learn to sing a popular Indonesian song, “Ayo Mama,” which tells the silly story of a girl and a boy who want to date, but the girl’s mother doesn’t approve. In addition to learning the lyrics – in bahasa – we also had to choreograph a dance! Then, we faced off against another team, “Sing-Off” style, and a champion was crowned.
But the dancing wasn’t over – next, we were taught an Indonesian line-style dance, very similar to Cotton Eye Joe or the Electric Slide. My group was all left feet, but we still had a blast. It was especially fun watching Mheljor (from the Philippines) – the most eccentric person you’ll ever meet – busting a move!
The rest of the games relied on skill – but obscure skill! There was the sack race and the marble in a spoon race, which seemed to be universal concepts, but then things got interesting! “Pencil in a bottle,” involved five team members standing in a circle facing outward. A pencil was suspended in the center of the group, tied to each person with twine. Then, someone directs the group to move side to side so that they can lower the pencil into a soda bottle on the floor – without turning around to look at it! The next game, which I affectionately called the “snowshoe” race, had three people slip their feet into metal rungs on two long wooden planks. Standing one in front of the other, they had to synchronize their steps so that the planks swooshed forward at the same time, making them look like a very tight team of cross country skiiers. Then, we had to balance stones on the tops of our feet and toss them toward a tower of stones, with the aim of knocking the tower over. It proved to be surprisingly difficult to aim with your foot! Finally, there was the classic “food on a string” eating contest. But instead of a donut, there was a crunchy fried Indonesian snack that is typically served at weddings! It was a lot noisier – and the competitors were very thirsty by the end!
When the day’s activities were over, we had some free time to head out into the city of Bandung! Getting there was a little tricky. Our group was rather large – 17 of us in total. To avoid splitting up, we tried to fit in just one angkot. An angkot is a brightly painted utility van (what some may call a “creeper van”) that runs certain routes around the city, like a bus. Fitting 17 people in the back of a mid-size utility van was no easy task – almost everyone was sitting on someone else, and a few were on the floor. We got some interesting stares from cars passing by, but we didn’t care.
We had dinner and explored the main mall, which was huge! There wasn’t a single thing you could think of that didn’t have Hello Kitty’s face on it. Our Indonesian hosts, Alex and Caroline, wanted to make us feel at home and suggested foods like pizza or burgers – but we were all eager to try local cuisine, so we had nasi goreng and ayam goreng and really enjoyed it!
Back at the hotel (after another trip in the clown car), a band was playing music for a live karaoke night! A few of us took a turn, singing international favorites like “La Bamba,” “My Heart Will Go On,” and a few Beatles classics. Both Carolines (from Indonesia and Australia) had fantastic voices! It was so fun to watch Caroline from Australia sing the love song from “10 Things I Hate About You” with one of the Indonesian hotel guests.
Before we turned in for the night, we did a little more dancing, exchanging the classic “party” dances from our own cultures. Mhelj from the Philippines taught us Whoops Kiri, Caroline from Australia taught us the NutBush, I contributed the Rednex classic, Cotton Eye Joe, and Jon from Sweden showed us his Salsa moves!
The first two days were simply amazing, and they set the tone for an even better week to come! Stay tuned for the next post, where we get our hands dirty in the city dump and check out a floating fish farm! I hope you’ll enjoy reading about the next adventures – and lots more exciting characters! 🙂
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