Day Three in IICS: the same day that the first face blessed me with a sense of belonging.
“What’s the next lesson, Ms Farida?”
“You’ve already figured out the next thing: ELSE IF. Would you like to join our programming club training every week starting next Wednesday?”
Even though I just stared at her blankly, in my mind I could hear the loudest “what?” ever.
Three days in a new school and I’m offered a place in the school’s competitive programming team with someone named Jonathan Handoko and someone else named Tania Halim. Prior to coming to this school, I had no idea what coding was. I never really knew that programmers actually write programs.
I left Ms Farida hanging until Wednesday morning when I finally decided to show up that afternoon despite how left behind I probably was or how dumb I would probably look. This school is known for computer programming. I was undeniably intimidated even before meeting these people but I trusted that if this teacher had faith in me and was willing to offer me a place so early on, I would probably belong there.
I showed up that afternoon in Computer Lab 5.2 to find Ms Farida there. Knowing that teachers had fellowship after school that day, I was wondering if we were going to be left on our own and sure enough we were. But before Ms Farida found out that Tania wouldn’t show up this time and left me to the computers, a tall and very skinny young man came in and Ms Farida introduced me to Jonathan Handoko.
We shook hands and Ms Farida left us. Then we sat down with a computer in between us and then got busy turning on the computers and logging in, and then typing in the standard code all over again instead of copy-pasting it from previous codes. We did all this in a very not awkward, but rather professional silence, just the way I liked my silences. Besides, that was the way it was supposed to be. We were supposed to be focused on our coding anyway.
“Jonathan, can you help me figure out what’s my mistake please?” I asked once I had given up in the most polite way possible.
He turned his head towards me considerably slowly, as if he were revealing something, giving me a blank stare with his eyes wide opened and his mouth closed with only a little concave up on the very slight ends of this mouth. After about ten seconds of silent stares, he slowly leaps out of his chair and lands his eyes centimetres away from my computer screen, in a true Jonathan style. Then he lets out what I later learnt to be one of his usual “hmm”s and then nods his head occasionally. When he finally figured out the silly careless mistake that I had made which practically anyone could have made, he points at the misspelt key word which caused my program not to run with his right pointer finger that when stretched out to point is not straight but rather bends very rigidly as if the joints in his finger bone are misplaced to begin with.
I burst in both laughter and frustration, thank him for taking a few seconds off looking at his screen to look at mine and then we both go back to work, back to that professional silence of ours.
But that silence didn’t last long; it ended when Jonathan turns to look at me faster than he did the first time and asks me “by the way, which school did you come from?”
So a conversation began and while he was asking basic questions about me which most people in the school probably had no reason to know the answers to, I was asking questions about things which I probably had no business in knowing because I was basically asking him the same questions he asked me. For example, right after that first question of his, I decided to return the question and ask him which school he came from when he wasn’t even a new student. I did, however, learn that he was newer than I thought as he only had a six month lead.
Upon learning of how new he actually was, I was itching to ask him how his first six months in the school has been like but before I could, he asked me how my first week was going. That was the first time anyone had asked me how I felt about the school (and in context that was a good thing).
In an instant, I replay tapes in my mind on fast forward, recalling not only everything that has happened but also everything that I have felt. I remember the First Face, the first people I met, the first instances of culture shock and the feelings that came with it all. So then I came to the quick but valid conclusion that as amicable everyone was, it was inevitable that, with the short time I have had and the diversely different background I came from, I had not gain a true sense of belonging in the school; both my weird roots and plan to lay low was what held me back the most.
And so I answered “well, it’s all good. Just foresee myself struggling to get along with people here because I come from a really different background. I mean, I come from many very different school cultures so I won’t be surprised if I end up being a weirdo here.”
Then he asks me to tell me about this “different background” of mine, which I did, or at least what I wanted to tell him. But put simply, he goes on to tell me about his “different background” as well. Having experienced the new-student treatment just months before, he went through at least a version of what I would be going through.
For a moment, we both stopped typing and had this conversation where I had the opportunity to listen to some very, very valuable advice.
It amazed me how someone whom I had only met for about an hour suddenly began becoming my mentor. He had so much to offer and so he did share it with me.
After much was said (but not done), I thanked him for the advice and mentioned how I was glad to know that someone had just gone through what I was about to go through. But right away, he too mentioned that he was glad that there was someone else like him and in that moment, I could already see that we would get along.
What that programming club meeting made me realise was how common ground could be so powerful. To belong, you need common ground, whatever it is. Common ground could be interest, train of thought, geography, status, anything really. But there is no sense of belonging without common ground and therefore to belong with someone, you have to find that common ground no matter how insignificant or how unnoticeable it may be.
For Jonathan and I, that common ground was that we both went through the struggle of someone from a unique background being put in a totally different world. This common ground is what we found that afternoon. Since then, implicitly, I had a mentor and it all seemed like it was just part of the program.