Lonely in a foreign country? I was. When I was hired by Cita Hati Sekolah in Surabaya thirteen years ago, I had three weeks to pack up my house in Vermont, New England, USA, and head to the airport.
I wasn’t sure where Indonesia was and didn’t have much time to look at a map.
After adjusting to many different things as much as I could and feeling comfortable with the routine of school and the essentials of life, I realised I was lonely. My school colleagues were friendly but Indonesia is a family-centred culture and they were busy with their families.
I heard about a dating site called IndonesianCupid and took a look. Why not? I didn’t have anything in mind honestly, just some friendly contact with a woman. I was raised by women. I like women. I knew no Bahasa Indonesia at that time which made things difficult but not impossible as many Indonesian people know some English. I saw a picture of a young woman I liked very much – for the right reasons, I think. She had a fun face and a positive aura about her, something special.
So, I sent her a message and found out she lived not too far away, maybe 30 minutes by taxi. We arranged to meet at Food Fest in Pakuwon City, the place where I ate dinner almost every night. “Let’s meet at The Wok,” I said.
Her mother delivered her to our date, so I had a chance to meet her and say something. She left saying she would return an hour or so later to pick up her daughter. All this seemed good to me as her mother cared and wanted to be part of the picture.
How do you start in a situation like this?
We walked across to the Wok and I noticed she was very thin and walking unsteadily in high heels. I grew up with three sisters so I know things about girl stuff. I would say she had very little experience wearing high heels. It was charming to me that she was making an effort, risking breaking an ankle, or a leg! And she was very thin and small. That charmed me too for some unknown reason. More than that, I saw in person the honesty, humour, and positivity I had seen in the photo.
I touched her shoulder, to support her as we crossed the street. Or maybe I just wanted to touch her.
“Too small?” she asked.
“No,” I said. I like it.
“My name is Kwee Liang Yien,” she said, “but call me Jovita.”
I don’t remember if we ate. We talked for an hour straight, standing up while getting bitten by mosquitoes. She couldn’t sit comfortably because she was recovering from a serious endometriosis operation. The surgery didn’t seem to have been particularly successful as she was still bleeding weeks after.
This would be the place where the man might call a cab and send his date back to where she came from, but I already cared about her for some mysterious reason. We talked and I asked her what kind of a man she was looking for. She answered, “faithful, God-fearing, responsible, kind, gentle,” and on like that. I said, “I’m not sure I’m all those things but I think it’s great that you want a man like that.” And I did and do think it’s great.
I was 65 at the time. Now, when I think about it, I wonder how I could’ve been so bold as to enter into a relationship with someone 24 years younger. How could that make any sense? Well, we are who we are.
Mom came to pick her up and we arranged to go to church on the weekend for our next date. In the meantime, I thought about it a lot. We did go to church at Bethany, a space that can hold 35,000 people on big occasions. When leaving with the big crowd, she looked for my hand and held it, leading me through the throng. Back at her house, which she shared with her mom and her daughter Grace, I learned more. She had studied at the best Secretarial College here, Widya Mandala, and had a good job in export administration at a big Chinese company working six days a week for many years to support her daughter and her shared life with Mom.
Together with Grace, who was about 16 at the time, they shared a small room with a tiny window. Jovita had a computer in the corner where she listened to music and did some online chatting with “pen pals” as they used to be called.
This seemed amazing to me and still does. I respected her life, her sense of responsibility, and her commitment to raising her daughter and to helping her mother. After all these years I still think about that with the same sense of respect and awe I did then.
Someone at school suggested I send her flowers and they helped me do that. A giant bouquet was delivered and soon, I saw a picture of her with it on Facebook with the caption “Who?” It was very cute and sweet.
We established a routine. Most evenings after school and when she got home from work, I took a taxi to her house and sit on the couch in the parlour area. Then we would all go shopping or sometimes Mom would take us to a restaurant. It went on like that for a long time.
We also went to her old gynaecologist many times to check on her condition. I even contacted a top gynaecologist in Singapore. Finally, the condition healed and Jovita was healthy again.
Some things back home in Vermont were a problem for me. The people who lived in my house decided not to pay any more rent. That couldn’t continue and I also had some problems with my situation in Surabaya, especially the little house the school provided. I prepared to go back.
A lot of things happened during that time. Jovita had some lumps in her breast. Previously, some fibroid tumours had been removed but now there were more symptoms. We went to the oncology clinic. While we were waiting for the results of all the tests, I thought about what I would do if she had cancer. I come from a cancer family and know more about it than I would wish anyone to know. I also knew about Indonesian health care, and the expenses involved in good care. What would I do? I’m a teacher, not a wealthy person. But I had a good house in Vermont worth something. I decided I would sell it if I had to do what I could to help my darling Jovita. That was a turning point as I’m a selfish person. Coming to that decision was transformational for me.
The tests came back negative. We had dodged another bullet. The next problem was that Mom didn’t want to let go of her daughter. We had decided for me to go back to the states and then for Jovita to follow. It did happen like that but not without a lot of drama and effort from her side, escaping from Mom to live in a boarding house, several trips to Jakarta for medical checkups to qualify for a fiancé visa, and more.
I went back “home” and then had to fly back to Surabaya another time to pick her up and bring her to America. We were married in Bradford, Vermont; in a beautiful field full of autumn leaves by the Justice of the Peace. We stayed a year, then travelled to Trinidad and Tobago for a teaching job for two years, then to Bali for two years, and finally settled in Jovita’s hometown, Surabaya.
We’re concluding this story or it would have to go on for many more pages. The unusual way our relationship developed depended on solving problems together one by one, and not dodging any of them. That’s what made the difference and still does. We’re a great team. Our latest project was the two-year process of buying and renovating a house in Surabaya where we are finally moved in and are very comfortable.
We developed the deep affectionate relationship everyone wants but few people to have. We consider it a gift. Happy Valentine’s Day.