“You are so bad at this!”
My friends shriek at me, laughing and holding their bellies as I use a traditional knife in their presence.
With the sloping blade firmly in my grip and the sharp end tucked between my thumb and index finger, I make scraping movements, back and forth from the top of the chicken foot to the parts where each individual claw dangles like little hooks. I hold the still-warm chicken foot in one hand, and with my other, use my knife to loosen small bits of skin, which are flaking off with each stroke and landing in my lap. My neighbors think I am doing a terrible job, but I, on the other hand, feel victorious. Even though it is with forced bravery, I am finally conquering my fear.
The Sumatran village where I live takes three things very seriously: crops, cooking, and knives. The villagers are farmers, after all, and tend to their rice fields and coffee plantations with expert skill. When a village-wide wedding or blessing ceremony takes place, all three of their most important components come together at once. In the case of a blessing ceremony for a newborn baby, I have come, knife in hand, to join the rest of the women from the village. We will spend the day cooking on outdoor wood fires for the evening ceremony.
It is a fact that I am terrified – TERRIFIED – of preparing food from chickens, goats, and cows. I have been at these cooking events numerous times, cutting potatoes and carrots for wedding curries, washing dishes for a funeral ceremony using the fur from a coconut as my sponge and pond water for rinsing, and picking and cleaning at least 500 individual bean sprouts. And yet, I have successfully avoided the cooking circles where the women are slicing and dicing goat meat and handling chicken innards for these events.
But now here I am, stuck with the women from my adopted family clan who have been given this job of preparing chicken feet for a stew, and so I take a deep breath, hunker down, grab a chicken foot, and try to mimic what I have seen. Beside me, my daughter plays with her friends, running through the tall grass after live chickens and occasionally stopping to rest an arm on my shoulder, curious to see what I’m doing.
The village, nestled in a volcanic and mountainous region of south Sumatra, is a complicated place to learn how to live. I know this now from almost four years of experience, which is how long my husband and I have lived here, tacking together these years from various yearlong trips.
My husband selected this village as his location for studying the local language and I came along, eager to learn with him and write stories about our adventures. Our daughter was born during a time we were back in California, and she has spent her third year of life here. Aside from knowing Indonesian and having some general insights about Indonesian culture, when we first arrived back in 2008, we knew knowing nothing about village life or what it would be like to live with Sumatran farmers.
The first skill I learned was to mimic what I saw because asking for clarification wasn’t going to get me anywhere unless it was with a trusted friend. Any questions I asked, or any information about us, spread quickly throughout the village, from what we threw away to how mushy my rice was. Neighbors were more amused then helpful, and we often learned it was better to just stand back and observe. There also wasn’t a grace period for beginners, and that meant it was also fair game for me to get ripped off at the market. I learned this the hard way when I asked my neighbor Arli how much I should pay for eggs at the Saturday market. Arli laughed at me, “How much for eggs? How much are you paying?” I told her the price I had been given and she cringed, “Na, you are paying double what you should!”
The next week, I joined Arli down the path to the market a few villages away. We knelt down in front of the tarps where sellers sold rambutan, water spinach, and still-wriggling fish, and I watched as Arli asked the sellers to name their price. “What!?!” She’d respond back to the sellers, “That’s too much!” And then she’d talk them down with a smile spread across her face. If I had been taking notes, I would have written in a moleskin: ‘How to buy at the market: Declarations of shock and lots and lots of smiles.’
I stopped going to the market alone, even when I became more confident with the theatrical bargaining and smiling, mostly because I learned how fun it was to bargain with a friend. There is something infinitely more satisfying about walking away with a kilo of potatoes that a friend and I have worked hard for. In many cases, I also began to befriend the sellers and then the agreed-upon price gradually became unspoken. My daughter has also begun to join me at the market and she now insists on being the one who pays, which manages to charm the sellers and often results in a gifted mango or two.
The second skill that I learned in order to successfully live here is to join in; that’s why I grabbed the chicken foot and gave it my best scraping efforts, despite my fear. That’s also why I’m not offended when the women can’t stop teasing me about how poorly I am holding their prized knife; instead I just tease right back. I used to be timid, now I am anything but. I was once a novice village woman, but now I like to think of myself as an aspiring village woman.
When people tell me that I am crazy to live in a village, or that I am so brave to move so far away, I tell them the truth: it take a little bit of crazy to get through, but I definitely don’t think of myself as brave. I am often fearful and hesitant, but it’s a forced bravery, the kind that feels like a whisper, telling me I can get through the hard moments if I just muster up a little more courage then what I think I have. It’s how I can say that I thrive here, and what gives me confidence to mimic what I see and join in on village life. The result is always that I surprise myself, this time by jumping right in to make chicken foot stew.