The Art of Pulkam

– by Grace Wivell

This fall, Fulbright ETAs share their experiences adjusting and adapting to new cultures – and the challenges, humor, and new ways of seeing the world that come with diving into life in another country.  Read the full series here.

This piece was written by Grace Wivell, a 2016-2017 ETA at CIn Jakarta, Indonesia. This article was originally published in Indonesiaful. 

Pulkam is short for pulang kampung, or “a return to one’s hometown.” As a Fulbright Researcher/Coordinator, I travelled to placement sites across Indonesia in order to find ways to improve the Fulbright program for both ETAs and schools.  My work brought me back to both of the sites where I served as an ETA: Malang in East Java, and Gorontalo in Northern Sulawesi.  While the visits were primarily research-oriented, I was able to make time to visit the people I had met during my time as an ETA.  These were whirlwind trips, and there were certainly people I missed, but I managed to spend at least a little time with most of the people I wanted to see.

Last year, as an ETA in Gorontalo, I made my first pulkam to Malang.  Since then, I have been fortunate enough to have been able to re-visit the various places that I have called home here several times, something few ETA alumni have the chance to do.  I’ve noticed a few patterns that hold true across my pulkam experiences, and so I offer my observations as a sort of “Grace’s Guide to Pulkam” (with the caveat, of course, that these are based only on my own experiences, and may not apply for everyone).

 Expect to eat a lot.  It sometimes seems as though Indonesians express their love through food (this is something I have found to be true across the archipelago).  Ibu-Ibu, or Indonesian matriarchs, insist that they cannot send me back to my mother thinner than I was when I arrived (regardless of how I might be feeling about my own bodyweight), because that would mean they had not properly cared for me.  Every time I pulkam, it feels almost as though people are trying to feed me as much during the few days I am there as they did during my nine months as an ETA.  Not that I necessarily mind.  Each region of Indonesia has its own cuisine, and heaven knows I miss the foods from the places I lived in.   I had been craving the ikan bakar (grilled fish), binte biluhuta (fish and corn soup), and tinutuan (pumpkin porridge) of northern Sulawesi ever since I left. And until you visit Malang, you won’t understand why bakso (meatballs, usually served in broth) is the best thing since sliced bread (which really isn’t all that great in comparison), why I worship tempe as the goddess of all proteins, or why I make my best apple crisp in Indonesia using just a toaster oven (those apel Malang are just magical).   Just as I miss dishes from the States when I am in Indonesia, and miss Indonesian food when I’m in the States, I also miss these daerah (area)-specific dishes when I move from one Indonesian city to another.  I am not all that bothered by the excess of lunch and dinner invites I receive (so long as I get to treat my friends to one or two) or the few pounds I put on every time I pulkam. 


Bring gifts, but more importantly, bring stories.  At least for Fulbright Indonesia ETAs, there is an expectation that you will bring gifts or oleh-oleh (souvenirs) back for friends and acquaintances.  I have always tried to oblige as best as my budget and suitcase-space will allow.  This gift-giving is a way to show people that you have remembered them, and I am one hundred percent in favor of that kind of thoughtfulness.  But because I’ve always struggled with what I perceive as the materialism so prevalent in Indonesian culture (Why does the size and cost of a gift matter so much here?), I try not to simply bring gifts, but gifts that come with a story.  Last year I brought kerawang, the traditional fabric of Gorontalo, to my friends in Malang, because it allowed me a chance to talk about the ways in which Gorontalo culture differs from Javanese culture, something which had made an enormous impression on me.  This year, in addition to some trinkets from Jakarta, I brought souvenirs from Korea, which allowed me to talk to about my time there visiting the South Korean Fulbright Commission and learning about the ETA program.  Ultimately, the stories you tell matter more than the gifts you bring.  If your oleh-oleh doesn’t have a story attached to it, you will find that people’s attention will quickly shift as they ask you a million questions about what you have been up to, and fill you in on the latest gossip on their end.  There is a cultural expectation that you bring something material, but people are still more excited about you than anything you bring.

Anticipate a lot of selfies.  Selfies are a bit like food.  They are a way for people to show you that they missed you, and that they are excited to see you again.  While requests for photos may come from teachers and other adult friends, they will probably come from your students more than anyone else.  Be prepared to smile for so many selfies that your face hurts.  Then make sure that someone sends those photos to you.  One of my housemates, a Fulbright Research Alumna and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (in Indonesia both times), often says that no matter how many photographs she has of beautiful vistas, it is the foto-foto of the people she met that she values the most.  At home I have beautiful fabrics and USBs full of photos from the places I visited in Indonesia, but it is the class photos I took at the end of each year, and the group shots I have with fellow teachers and friends, that I treasure most from my two years as an ETA.  Though you might have the opportunity to pulkam once, you may not have the opportunity to do so again.  Those sweaty selfies will be priceless later.  Make sure someone sends them to you.

Prepare yourself for the less-pleasant parts.  It won’t all be bliss.  You may see people you had hoped you would never see again.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I narrowly escaped meeting a particular teacher during my first pulkam to Malang; when I ran into him during my most recent pulkam, it was a moment of panic.  My pulkam to Gorontalo had its share of awkward interactions with men from my neighborhood.  The bentor (becak motor, a rickshaw with a motorbike instead of a bicycle) drivers in Gorontalo are still amongst the most persistent harassers I have dealt with in Indonesia, and it only took one bentor ride on my way to rent a motorbike for me to remember why I rode a motorbike as an ETA.

I spent my nine months in Malang navigating the politics of my school’s two campuses, including the poor treatment of my Papuan students, and was yet again smacked in the face by notions of Javanese superiority during my pulkam by a group that mostly consisted of teachers who did not work at the school when I was an ETA there and did not know of my ardent stance against racism. When I mentioned my work in Sulawesi, they began making derogatory jokes about the people of Sulawesi.  The more exasperating characteristics of my former locations have not disappeared just because I moved away.  But in the end, all of these irritations were like mosquito bites from an incredible hike: I noticed them and was highly displeased, but I did not regret my decision to go.

Assume there will have been changes.  Whether you were gone for a few months or a few years, you will not be going back to the same place where you lived as an ETA.  In Gorontalo, one of the few placements last year that had no Indomaret or Alfamart convenience store, there is now one or the other on every corner.  This change has happened in the mere nine months since I left.  Gorontalo also has more traffic lights now, some of which play audio recordings reminding motorcyclists to wear helmets.  I had been accustomed to hearing these only in larger Indonesian cities.  I found myself exclaiming over and over, “Gorontalo so mo jadi kota besar!” (“Gorontalo is already becoming a big city!”).  In Malang, the two campuses of my school split into two schools, one of which is a military academy.  If I do have the opportunity to visit Malang again, SMAN 10, as I knew it, will not even exist.  In both places, some of the teachers I loved no longer teach at my school; a few have passed away.  My students are older, and some of them have graduated.  And I have changed.  I’m no longer the fresh-faced ETA that came to Malang her first year in Indonesia: I’m a little more haggard, a little wiser, though somehow still just as stubbornly optimistic about my kiddos’ futures in spite of what other teachers may say (some things never change).  Though I’ll never call myself a city girl, living in Jakarta has changed me, and it shows in everything from my confidence to my accent, as noted by my friends in both of my old sites.  These changes in your school, in your community, and in yourself, are often, though not always, positive.  They are almost always jarring.  Take them all in: you’ll have time to digest them when you are finished with your pulkam.

Know that it will not be enough time.  You will probably not get to see everyone.  Even if you do, you will likely feel you did not get to catch up with them fully.  You will not be able to visit all of your favorite haunts.  You will not get to eat all of your favorite dishes.  The fact is, there is a reason this is pulkam: you no longer live in this place. And you cannot fit nine months of an ETA experience into a few days.  Pulkam is bittersweet.  If you are the crying type (and I am) you might cry harder when you leave than when you first left at the end of your grant.

Breathe deep.  Take it all in.  It is an emotional rollercoaster, but it a privilege of a ride. In the end, my advice is this: feel what feelings come, and then feel lucky to have felt them.  That is the art of the ETA pulang kampung.  It is also the art of being an ETA.

From 2016-17, Grace Wivell was the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF) ETA Researcher/Coordinator in Jakarta. Prior to fulfilling that role, she completed two years as an ETA, first in Malang, East Java, and then in Gorontalo, Sulawesi. A 2014 graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied English Education, Grace is currently a graduate student at Stony Brook University, where she is pursuing an MA in Applied Linguistics (TESOL).  This post first appeared on her personal blog, which you can follow at

 *Binte biluhuta is Bahasa Gorontalo; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as milu siram.

*Tinituan is Bahasa Manado; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as Bubur (porridge) Manado.


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