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.