Monday, July 18, 2011

Poor, Crowded, Hot, and Happy

I suppose when Americans think of places like Indonesia, they aren't flooded with associations.  Not like when you think of England or France or Italy, or even China and India.  Considering its size (the fourth largest country in the world), Indonesia is quiet on the international scene.  Your average American might vaguely connect Indonesia with shoe- and textile-factories that pump out goods for American department stores, or perhaps with terrorism.  Probably relatively few realize that Bali, one of the hottest vacation spots in the world, is an Indonesian island, so they may not have this association (I assume this because even I, the kind of nerd who ought to know such things, was hazy on Bali's sovereignty status before coming here).  Yet the pall of terrorism, thanks to the infamous bombings some years ago, might dim even Bali’s glow.

Compared to America, Indonesia is poor, hot, crowded, and internationally obscure.  Your average family gets along on about $200 a month—on par with a trip to the supermarket in my family.  Serious poverty, by American reckoning.  And in the US, poverty is almost instinctually equated with misery. 

Being here has convinced me that this equation is false.  First, poverty is relative.  A “poor” person in Indonesia is in much worse shape than a person considered poor in the US.  Of course, most Americans would not think twice before calling even an ordinary Indonesian villager poor.

Maybe they are poor.  Judging is difficult for me now.  But I feel confident in this judgment: contentment, happiness, misery, and wretchedness are most definitely not dependent on affluence.  On the whole, Indonesians are happier than Americans, and it’s not really close.  These are people who mostly don't have cars, DVD players, washing machines, computers, air conditioning, or hot water; people who often eat with their hands while sitting on the floor, have the same dish for every meal, and know relatively little of the outside world; people who were born without any material, racial, or cultural advantage—yet they manage to live more content, peaceful lives than those who have been given everything.

Indeed, part of the reason they can be so content is precisely that they do not have these things.  They do not have and they do not miss.  Children here are every bit as carefree and delighted as their American equivalents (if not more), and with far simpler diversions.  A half-flattened plastic ball and a dusty yard are all you need to play a great soccer match; with a sarong and a bubbly kid, you can play ghosts or bandits.  People here work, and they work hard, but they are not consumed by work in the way that Americans are.  I have not met anyone who defines himself first by professional accomplishments, or even anyone who designates professional success as their prime motivator.  From what I have seen, Indonesians seldom worry.

The more you have, the more you have to worry about (I call this the Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems Principle).  Americans have cars and computers and air conditioning and college education, etc. etc.  But they also have mortgages and student loans; insecurities about having enough and having extra; financing future retirement and education for their children; filling up the car; and protecting their assets from people who want to take them away.  On top of that, they worry about living meaningful lives.  Worrying, worrying, worrying—always worrying.  The cumulative stress can be psychologically and spiritually debilitating, not to mention physically hazardous as years and decades wear on.

For Indonesians, taking it easy is an end in itself.  In the villages, at least, materialism is not a real force.  To be sure, motivated, hardworking, creative people can make more money here, but the general thought is: What’s the point?  Yang penting (the important thing) is having time for friends, neighbors, and especially family.  I haven’t seen children suffering for lack of parental attention.  Fathers come home early and spend quality time with their kids.  One of the nicest things to see in the evening is children crawling in the laps of their parents, positively floating in this ether of love and nourishment, magnificently unaware that this level of care is enviable.  Families spend a lot of time together.  Not just parents and children—also grandparents, cousins, second cousins, etc.  It is normal to live next to one’s parents or siblings after getting married.

Living in a comprehensible world

Americans live in a huge world.  News and images from around the globe pour from our televisions and our computers.  We know that there is practically no place in this world where the United States does not involve itself somehow.  We live largely in our minds, in elaborate virtual environments, or in an illimitable digital cosmos.  No wonder then that we may be discouraged by the immensity and insentience of our world—where is our place in it, how can we possibly matter?  And what if there's no God, what does it mean?  Should we live for ourselves or for others?  And how can we avoid the sorrow that always accompanies choice?  The questions go on and on.  Even if many people do not articulate them personally or specifically, these anxieties permeate our culture.

Contrast that with the people I have come across thus far in Indonesia: They live in a world that they understand, and one that makes sense to them.  It’s a small place, and they know how they fit in.  They believe in God, they believe in each other, and they believe in their own basic goodness.  The very Western existential questions (“Why am I here? What does it all mean? What am I to do with myself?”) do not plague them, because the answers are more or less obvious. 

I am here to live happily and morally, to serve God, and hopefully to raise a family.  When I die, there’s nothing I can take with me but my clean or dirty soul.

It's simple, and it thwarts the despair of answerlessness. 

The simplicity, I think, can drive us Americans (even religious ones) bonkers. We aspire to be educated, to be successful, to outdo our parents, to give our children lives with every opportunity.  Indeed, to us, freedom is choice.  We see people who are happy but have few choices as people deserving of pity.  Should we pity them?  Or, do they understand a basic, plain truth about existing contentedly that we, ever seeking new avenues to happiness, have not accepted?  And if they are happy, is that a genuine happiness?  Would they really choose to live that way if they had another choice?  Don’t they know how unfortunate they are? 

I don't have answers.  I am, after all, an American outside of my homeland, and there are multiple ways to interpret this conundrum, the mere existence of which contradicts multiple notions I was raised with.  I sit on both sides.  At various times I find myself admiring, impatient, dismissive, exasperated, or marveling.  Perhaps they should be pitied their lack of options, or perhaps I should be pitied for the inherent assumption that you cannot live fulfilled without thorough freedom of choice.  Perhaps no one should be pitied.  I don't know where to come down, or if I should at all.  (There are obvious arguments for both sides, and several other positions besides.)

Choice as liberator/tormentor

Having choices is freedom, but making decisions is cruelly distressing.  The word for "decide" in Indonesian is memutuskan, which would literally translate to "make severed".  The root of the English word "decide" is the Latin decidere, which, broken down, means "cut off".  When we make decisions, we cut off, even destroy, potential.  Then, we brood about the choices we might have made instead, and their possible outcomes.  We dwell on the opportunity cost, to borrow a term from economics.  Ruminating on opportunity cost almost invariably makes one unhappy.  Thus, we Americans, who have a hundred paths ahead of us, suffer because we can only choose one.

There is not really anywhere to go with this meditation.  Minds far greater than mine have dissected this conundrum.  If nothing else, I can say that from my own observation, I will no longer automatically pity people who are poor.  Compassion is good, but pity, when laced with ignorance and presumption, is patronizing.  Sometimes pity is appropriate, and sometimes it is insulting to the dignity (or wisdom) of the people who receive it.  Better to reserve pity, for it is a judgment.

Note/Disclaimer:  I understand I've been speaking in broad terms here.  It has been necessary to illustrate a general point.  There are people who are not happy here.  There are emotional and psychological casualties of this social structure.   There are drawbacks to the simplicity of the lifestyle, many of which I have or will go into.  Nor does the description of physical/economic conditions apply to all Indonesians.  I think many of the PCVs who have been here over a year would make a fair number of additions or amendments to my portrait.  I don't want to give the impression that people are simply living in bliss here, because they are not.  But it doesn't change the fact that they are, in general, happier.

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