During Idul Fitri, the biggest Islamic holiday of the year, I had way too much time to think about life and generally, I was having emotional overload with all the new experiences and information. I felt a lot of things that I couldn’t really blog about simply because it just wasn’t very clear. Now, after digesting it a little bit more, I can put all of my jumbled sentiments into somewhat coherent sentences.
Primarily, I felt guilty.
I felt guilty for a lot of things, but mostly for being a privileged United States citizen in Indonesia taking advantage of an opportunity available only to other United States citizens. I often get asked how Indonesians can volunteer abroad, and I am not really sure there are opportunities quite like the Peace Corps available for them. Most volunteer abroad opportunities I know about cost a lot of money.
This feeling of guilt was also brought on by a conversation I had with a girl I’ve befriended that works in an Indomaret, a small convenience store found all over Indonesia. It dawned on me that I could have easily been that Indonesian girl, working at an Indomaret, making $90 a month, saving for my entire life just to buy a plane ticket to anywhere and longing to have the type of life I eagerly left behind in the United States. Why? That real Indonesian girl asks me with puzzled eyes and surprisingly good English. It’s boring here. It sucks here. Why?
The question bore into my brain, in between her comments on how she will likely have an arranged marriage. From my private journal:
The more I get asked the question the less I know why. I wanted to help people and when I realized that that wasn’t really what I would achieve, I told myself that it would be an adventure—it would be a great opportunity—but all of those things pale when it just feels like I’m rubbing it in that I’m lucky, that I’m fortunate and that I think it’s “cute” to participate in her lifestyle for two years and then happily peace out—taking away much more than I gave—while she will have to live here for all her life, still longing for the life I will most likely have upon my return.
I can’t help what family I was born into, and I am unbelievably grateful for all of the blessings in my life; yet, I feel extremely underserving. What did I do to merit this life? Nothing. It doesn’t escape me that I could have easily been someone else, and I know this is just part of the “mystery of life.” No one really knows why they are who they are. Perhaps, in an afterlife—if there is such a thing—it will all come together, but until then, what? That question has no answer. I don’t even know what it fully means or implies.
What do I tell this girl? I wondered. The situation reminded me of another time in New Orleans when I was tutoring an older woman from Honduras who was trying to learn English so she can get a better job. We didn’t really do too much in English, because she seized the opportunity to speak to anyone in her native tongue, and with tears in her eyes she told me her story.
She was working as a maid for an American woman, who was very kind to her. They communicated through notes and drawings about household issues, but the woman was very lonely. She had left behind her family for the dream of a better life, of more money, of more opportunities that did not exist in Honduras. There, she was expected to get married, become a wife and raise as many children as she could bear. The woman wanted to escape this fate, so she went to the United States, where she threw herself into whatever job she could find. She never married and never had children. She spent her youth chasing the elusive American dream, believing that if only she worked hard enough she would make it and that she would have plenty of time for family life later. Twenty years later, as she told me the details of her modest life, she expressed regret for ever leaving her country and missing out on that life. La familia es lo único que importa, she told me, todo lo demás viene y va. Family is the only thing that matters, everything else comes and goes. She was never able to learn English and no matter how much money she saves, some tragedy always seems to strike, depleting any savings she had planned to use for her return to Honduras.
I wanted to tell the Indonesian girl all this, but I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Immigrants go to the United States all the time. Some succeed, like my father in a way, and others don’t. I could tell this Indonesian girl things like: the grass is always greener. She may believe she wants that life, but she has no idea. Perhaps after a year or so of living it, she would change her mind after realizing that everything comes at a very high cost. Bills, insurance, bills, more bills, hard or dull work to pay for all these unnecessary things we are made to believe that we need. Or she could love it; I will never know.
Secondly, I felt powerless and outraged by all the inequality.
One thing is to know that you are extremely blessed and fortunate, knowing inequality and injustices exist, but the deep, mind-blowing awareness only came after removing myself from the people who are just as lucky—if not even more so— and living the injustices every day.
It’s outrageous to hear people talk about Indonesian students being less smart than American students. They do not lack intelligence; they lack the opportunity to learn in an exceptional environment. It is outrageous to think the teachers are less capable than American teachers. They do not lack ability, though they may lack the knowledge as products of a flawed educational system. It is outrageous to me how many people—everywhere, including very privileged individuals—have such a limited understanding of the world they live in, as Sophie tells beautifully on her blog.
I’ve started English club at my school and after school, about 25 students and I spend time discussing general topics about history, geography, culture and just whatever comes up. The students surprise me with their interest and intelligence, though they also surprise me on how little they know about fundamental concepts. It is eye opening to see how much we are a product of our educational circumstance. The students I teach everyday are bright, but their curriculum, books and overall education is so confusing that even as a college graduate I have difficulty understanding anything the teachers are attempting to teach. I can only imagine what the students feel. Some have very clearly given up on learning at all—and some teachers have given up on teaching them. A problem that’s not unique to Indonesia.
Before the Peace Corps, I may have praised my hard work for any of my achievements—and hard work is important— but the truth is people who are just as capable surround me all the time, everywhere I go. They just may not have been born into affluence and the opportunities I’ve had for an excellent education and other privileges, some which only come with a U.S. passport. This makes me feel even more grateful, but also as a blatant epitome of injustice to those that surround me everyday in my Indonesian community.
It’s all so arbitrary! So, because of all this, I had a lasting moment of “everything is so pointless, I am only one person, how can I even begin to change any of these deep-rooted injustices!” and though I’m not obsessing about it to unhealthy amounts as I was before—particularly because I have been so busy with school lately (finally!) — sometimes I think my way into black holes I can’t come out of, where nothing seems possible, and these questions without answers or solutions keep me awake at night.
Also, because I’ve been asked about my safety during these times, I am safe, and the people I directly associate with everyday are some of the most peaceful, godly, good-hearted individuals I have ever encountered, so do not worry. It pains me to think people could be hating them from afar simply because they are Muslim—just as some could be hating and/or endangering the incredible people I know from the U.S.—without ever even meeting them as individuals.
It is terrible to hear about all of the fighting and misunderstanding between Islamic people and Americans, but to associate—or worse—to hate all Muslims because of those extremists is wrong. Just as it is wrong to associate all Americans/Westerners with the ignorance of a few, misguided individuals speaking on matters they clearly know nothing about. The people who suffer are those trying to create peace in the world and that is beyond devastating—a true injustice.
This post touches on people in Indonesia having a limited understanding of the world we live in, but in the moment we think about Muslims or Americans as being evil or deserving of any kind of attack or discrimination, we, too, are portraying a limited knowledge and understanding of the world we all share. Most of the people reading this blog are educated individuals and I trust that you all will recognize this and refrain from fearing, hating or putting down Islamic or American people on account of the few misguided persons—because in reality it is a low number—who give “Islam” or “American” a bad name.
Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you for reading!
Definitely an insightful post, Mel. I think it shows a lot about your character that you think about these things in the first place, but feeling guilty over things that you cannot possibly control is a dangerous road, especially considering the situation of living in a different place with folks who probably can’t empathize to the extent that we’d like. I’ve found that despite that gulf of opportunity and access and despite their limited worldliness, that people here are generally happy because family and community are such important concepts. If the family and neighbors are content, then things are just dandy. They (and everyone, for that matter) understand their environment through the lens of what they have experienced and what they hold to be true, no matter how strange those axioms might be to us.
I’m sure you realized that a long time gone, but it, along with your thoughts on equality, are worth saying aloud every once in a while to remind us of why it is we do what we do. Yes, we have this fantastic opportunity to travel and live outside of our culture on the dime of the U.S. government, and our Indonesian national friends, who have equal potential, may not have that chance. Wouldn’t it be a bigger tragedy, though, if that juicy opportunity existed and you didn’t utilize it? Most people in our country don’t, for a variety of circumstances, and that is a waste. The fact that you have grabbed this particular horse by the mane shows your commitment to equality and social justice and that there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.
See, now this sounds like an arm-swinging “it’ll be okay!” post, but it’s not, as that would probably be pretty condescending. It’s only to say that, I feel ya, and awareness is, at the very least, half the battle.
Thank you for this comment John, as always you really give my random thoughts great perspective colored by your own insights – without sounding condescending at all. I agree with you 100% on the awareness bit.
Yikes, Mel, you really have been thinking about this. Though it really doesn’t matter what I say, i don’t think you have any reason whatsoever to feel guilty. As you mentioned, any one of us could have been born into any number of situations. Even amongst our group there are varying levels of good fortune. Acknowledging the discrepencies is important and as long as you treat all people, regardless of their background, education, creed, etc… with respect and understanding, you have nothing to be ashamed of! Lastly, to add to your point, there will always be worse situations to conjure up and it’s draining, but we also have the choice to put that energy toward being grateful for our many gifts and spreading “goodwill,” which It sounds like you’re doing in spades. Be humble, yes, but be happy too! The only thing that would truly make this a waste is if you didn’t enjoy it to the fullest! *sorry for the long response, but I’ve thought about this for years and wanted to add my two scents.
Thanks for your two cents, Joe!
I’m going to assume you meant that in a non-sarcastic way! If I have more than two cents next time, I’ll through em’ in. 😉
Melanie, It’s crazy to think that your experience in Indonesia was similar to mine in New Orleans when I was teaching. It’s so difficult to see the vast canyon between educational experiences, what is given to one group of people versus what is given to another. I asked myself the same questions– What can I do? I am just one person! But I had to take solace even in just providing love, let alone providing education, English, a different perspective, a role model for some, a mother for some, a big sister, however it comes to the people you encounter. The experience is not yours to control, it is yours to let unfold. Beautiful blog, insightful writing.
Thank you for your compliment Sunny. I can’t even begin to imagine how much more difficult and frustrating it would be to teach in New Orleans – adding all of the issues I seldom encounter in my Indonesian school such as drug abuse, alcohol, gangs, and more. I love the phrase that you use: The experience is not yours to control, it is yours to let unfold. I will try to make that my mantra and not stress out about not being able to do enough about those things beyond my control.
Hi mija!! I often struggle with those feelings of guilt for people so less fortunate all around me, close friends and famiy included! I agree with your friend, it is a dangerous road and pointless to lose sleep over situations we have no control of. The best thing we can do is share is our love, good humor and time. These are priceless to anyone, in every culture. And if you do this…..there will be nothing to feel guilty about.
=) yea I know you’re right, though it’s hard for that to be enough for me! Ugh. Love you!
I understand how you feel too, and agree with everybody else’s comments. I think that if you let people know how important they are and how valuable they are to their families, country, friends, school, teachers, etc.whatever their situation is, it’s nice to be told so and to let them know that the smallest to the biggest person have their great importance in this world no matter how simple the person may seem, or what simple job they may have. Love an miss you, tia SG
I know what you mean. As Americans we grow up feeling and believing that we are in control, we are responsible for our failure or success, knowledge or ignorance. To an extent and within our American context, we are. But coming to Indonesia and is a giant slap in the face. As you say, the kids here aren’t any dumber than American kids. Their lack of knowledge about the world is a result of their environment, as are their lack of opportunities. The inequality is dramatic.
I have one thought to add, however: While it’s critical to empathize, and worthwhile to work to shore up deficiencies in the system here, and important to do what you can to expand people’s world and opportunities, I think it’s also really important not to stray too far into pity. Pitying people is patronizing, because it means judging them and their circumstances from your perspective. And I’m totally NOT saying that’s what you’re doing, btw. What I mean is that I think it’s easy for Americans to come here and feel like these people are so poor, we are so rich, their lives are so limited and ours so expansive, and come away feeling grateful for being born in the rich world. But thoughts like that are not sufficiently self-critical. We have to look at what these people have that we don’t and what we can learn from them. When I see how harmonious society is here, how strong families are, how easily people become friends, how trusting and innocent so many people are, how relaxed, how guileless and goodhearted…well, it’s enough to make me pity Americans. We should look at their example to see how and what we are lacking in our own lives/culture. To my mind, that means not allowing our awareness of inequalities be debased by the patronization that is pity.
Lol did you seriously write blue-footed boobie on the board too? Every word or drawing on this board has funny story behind it. I may write a whole other post just on that.
Good point. I was mostly examining the educational inequalities and the inequalities in opportunities for the indonesian people who are interested in traveling, volunteering or studying/working abroad. But, like you say, the Indonesian family life and many aspects of its society are much healthier than the American counterpart and we can take away good things from it. Pity is definitely patronizing.