Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Excuse me, why are you so rude?

It is the first day of the Lebaran holiday.  An opportunity for me to sleep in as long as I wish.  After eating at half past three in the morning, I return to bed.  For the next five hours, I drift in and out of sleep.  My room is dark and cool, while outside the day is heating up.  Above my room’s door and window, built into the wooden frames, are large open rectangles meant to enable air flow, but to me their primary function seems to be to let any and every sound penetrate my sanctuary, no matter the time of day. 

I lie there in my bed and listen, reminded how noisy this country is.  Four and a half months in, I have learned what kinds of noises a pillow over the head will block effectively and what kinds require headphones.  In Florida, I could lie in my bed all day—chances are I would hear very little aside from the air conditioning, the occasional car engine starting up, and the other doors in the house opening and closing from time to time.  But here, all sorts of sounds reach my ears through those openings above my door and window.

The dopplered rumble of motorcycles on the main road; the first fifteen seconds of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—my host mother’s SMS alert—sounding off; several jabbering neighborhood children stomping in and out of the house; a handful of neighborhood women milling in and out, chattering about who-knows-what in those elongated, exaggerated Javanese tones, as if they were constantly surprised or scandalized; the manic laughter of television cartoon characters at high volume; the periodic pattering of grandfather’s flip-flops in the back area as he goes to the bathroom (prostate issues mean frequent trips to the toilet); dangdut music coming from the radio function of my host father’s cell phone; Qur’an recitation, the call to prayer, and extra praises sung and broadcasted from the nearby mosque; the screech of wandering roosters; the infant next door crying in that desperate, full-throated way that newborns do, as if all their existence depended on communicating utter panic.

Most of the buildings here are made of brick.  Walls are smoothly finished with cement and painted bright colors.  My house is entirely green on the inside.  The ceilings are high—usually at least twelve feet—as you would expect in a hot climate.  All floors are tiled, because anyone dense enough to lay down carpet on an island this close to the equator, where it can rain for months on end, would soon be living in a forest of mold.  These elements of construction mean that most rooms reflect and carry sound to an extraordinary degree.  The resonance is fantastic for playing music, but terrible if you are seeking quiet.  It can also make teaching difficult, as the din of thirty-plus boisterous children is ever amplified by the classroom’s acoustics.


Politeness vs. Privacy

Broadly speaking, when it comes to deciding what is socially permissible in the West, the prevailing attitude is: do what you want as long as you don’t disturb other people.  I was raised always to be mindful of the effect of my actions on others.  On the whole, the culture here operates on a different principle.  Paradoxical as it may seem, politeness is far more important here.  It’s just that the concept of politeness occupies a different social space.  To be polite here means never to undermine another person’s dignity or pride, while always showing them proper respect according to their social position. The latter is done by using the appropriate speech and body language.  There is a certain way to shake hands with someone who is your superior, a certain way to address them, and a certain, crouching way to hold your body if you are walking by them. 

An example: When children leave or enter their home or “shake hands” with a teacher or parent, or any old person, they are expected to salim.  Rather than shaking hands, they take the elder’s hand and touch it to their face as they bow.  Sometimes they bring the hand to their forehead, sometimes to their cheek, and sometimes they go all the way and kiss the hand.  Despite the fact that I am only seven or eight years older than my students, they will often salim with me, because I am their teacher and it is the suitable gesture between teacher and student.

Despite this high degree of sophistication, the concept of politeness seems not to encompass privacy.  Encroaching on the privacy of others is not impolite, or at least is not high on the list of mannerly considerations.  I think that the sense of personal or private space as it exists in the West is absent here.  There may be some embryonic version of a private sphere, but it does not come near to the elaborate Western system.  Men will smoke in confined spaces with non-smokers, pregnant women, and children.  The world of sound is completely public domain, and disturbing everyone for the benefit of a few is not rude.  Certain personal characteristics often deemed off limits in the West, such as one’s religion or physical appearance, are assumed to be open to inquiry and comment here.  Though men and women may not touch, it is not unacceptable to touch or grab someone of the same sex.  Once or twice, I have bristled at an older man’s attempt to guide me somewhere by taking a firm grip on my upper arm—for me, an extremely rude way to touch someone.


When I talk about my assumptions frequently being challenged, this is an example of my meaning.  As an American/European, I have always assumed that respecting privacy is an integral part of politeness.  I knew abstractly that there were societies with different ideas of privacy, but grasping what life in such a culture might be like was beyond my imaginative power.  I knew my privacy would be greatly restricted coming to Southeast Asia, but I did not yet expressly understand how closely I (and Westerners in general, probably) linked the notions of privacy and politeness.  It has become clear on those mornings when I am jarred awake by the blaring of the adzan and droning of pujian and find myself not just frustrated, but angry at the blatant rudeness and disrespect inherent in the concept of broadcasting religious services.

Yet calling it rude or disrespectful is too simple.  If people here don’t think it’s rude, then it isn’t rude.  Perhaps, raised as I was in a culture that cherishes and guards privacy, I am beyond help in this matter.  My notion of right and wrong here, especially at an emotional level, is already formed (“It is wrong to disturb people unnecessarily”).   People here don’t even apply the idea of right and wrong to the matter.  Which, of course, makes it even more perplexing.  It’s always strange to see people attach no importance either way to something about which you care deeply. 

[A parallel example in politics: While Americans argue bitterly over the right of the government to mandate its citizens to purchase health insurance, the question simply does not enter into most Europeans’ minds.  The right is assumed and everyone agrees on it, so there is nothing to debate in that regard.  How amusing, and perhaps vaguely alarming, it must be for Europeans as they observe the life-and-death rhetoric employed by American ideologues.]

Or how about when people call out to me as I am walking by, even if I’m already engaged in conversation.  There’s almost never any ill intention, but the act itself presumes that it’s okay to distract me from whatever I was doing or thinking before, or that I want to be drawn into some kind of exchange.  It also demonstrates a lack of empathy—after all, so many people call out, yet none think of the cumulative effect this might have.  Then again, from their perspective, why would I ever feel negatively about it?  In this culture, you should call out to people as a sign of friendliness.  You should invite people to join you wherever you go.  People here very rarely seek privacy, so it doesn’t occur to them that I might just wish to be left alone.

Really, I find it much easier to incorporate the Indonesian notion of politeness into my own deportment than to ignore the conspicuous absence of respect for privacy on the part of others.  Though, let me set it straight—it’s not as if people are barging into my room and I never have time to myself and everyone is invading all my stuff all the time.  I have plenty of physical privacy.  I find my host family to be very respectful, all things considered, and I think I succeed in drawing the line where I don’t want people to step over it.  But there is still the whole issue with sound and the general cultural insensitivity to privacy.  Day to day, it can be a grind.

It’s also interesting where one draws the line for adaptation.  I don’t mind holding my arm in a certain way for a handshake or bowing a bit when I greet someone, and sometimes I even do the Indonesian crouch-a-bit-as-you-pass-between-people thing, but there are limits.  There is a little too much deference to authority here.  I don’t salim with my elders (except under exceptional circumstances) and I don’t go out of my way to appear obsequious to my “betters”.  I also don’t lie about things I dislike if people ask me.  Many people ask my opinion of Indonesian students or music, and I tell them pretty honestly what I think.  Okay, maybe not everything I think, but I don’t just say I love everything when I don’t.  I also make a point to bring up cultural differences with Indonesians, especially regarding politeness, both so that they will be more aware of what is likely to make me uncomfortable, and because it’s good to make them a little bit uncomfortable.  People get too cushy when they never get a taste of the outside world—so why not let ‘em have a real taste of it, rather than pretending that their way is perfect/the only way?  Despite what manners here might say, being honest doesn’t mean being disrespectful.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some photos!

I know I keep it pretty dry here in Thought Porridge.  So many words, no images.  Occasionally, a video with lots of words and no images.  I don't own a camera, ergo I didn't bring a camera to Indonesia.  I generally don't like carrying cameras, because they make me feel pressured to record everything that happens, and then I start thinking about whether there's any artistic merit to the photographs, which makes me hesitant to take them, and then I'm thinking about taking photos instead of thinking about whatever it is I'm looking at, and then everything quickly turns to a poopy mess in my head.  In principle, I just dislike the whole "we have to have something to remember this by" mentality.  If you let an event truly shape you, then you are the record of that experience.  It leaves a mark on you.  Plus, photos are frames of reality, and frames don't reflect reality if there is no context.  

But, of course, there are plenty of times that I regret not having photos of certain events.  I do have some pictures of stuff that has happened here.  Either I took them myself while borrowing a friend's camera or I got copies of a friend's pictures.  So, without further ado, a small and random collection of photos that I like:


Left to right: Me, Dan, Cody.  Cody and I had gone shopping for clothes at the same time, and we decided to buy the same shirt in different colors.  That kind of shirt is called baju koko.  The hats are variously called peci, kopiah, or songkok.  The style we're rocking is usually called by the first or second of those terms.  A songkok looks a bit different, as I understand it.  Of course, Dan steals the show in this pic, because he's wearing someone else's peci, and it's way too small for his head.  Also, he's doing his best impression of a smile (a strangely foreign expression to him when there are cameras nearby).  We were on our way to dinner at the mayor of Batu's place.  Cody and I knew everyone else would be wearing batik, so we decided to one-up them all by wearing baju koko.  It was a smashing success.  Some of our cultural facilitators told us that we looked like we were ready to get married (not to each other, duh).


This photo was in my village's video.  As you should know by now, Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day, and the first prayer (solat fajr) is around 4:30 in the morning--some ten to fifteen minutes before sunrise.  One morning I wanted to get photographs and footage of this prayer.  Incidentally, it was a good way to stop me being so angry at the mushollah that would broadcast the call to prayer and keep me awake for half an hour every morning.  Just going to the mushollah and meeting the people, watching their prayers, made me a bit more tolerant than I had been.  Anyway, Muslims pray differently than Christians.  The prayers are prescribed, and there are very specific positions one must make.  My favorite physical motion with regard to Muslim prayer is how they raise their hands in front of their faces and whisper into the hands.  Then they cover their faces with the hands, making a downward wiping motion, as if they are washing away some impurity.  I like the idea of whispering to God behind your hands.  It's so personal.

U mad?

Look at those shirts!!  On the left is Cody, on the right is Mawan.  I just love the shirts.  Stylin' so hard.  Those are batik, and Cody's looks like silk.  These two were the stylinest bros at our swearing-in ceremony.  Anyone who knows me would agree that I'm not very fashion-conscious (putting it kindly), but you can more or less sum up my taste as: I like things that are simple and elegant.  I never go for those crazy shirts with wild patterns and dragons and meaningless nonsense written all over the place.  But things are different here.  There is some wild, wild stuff, and I have become a fan.  Also, Mawan, despite being closer to five feet than six, is awesome at soccer.

Masters of the Universe

This is from my training host family's house.  This is how some men like to hang out in the evenings.  They're wearing sarongs, not skirts.  Sarongs are manly and multifunctional.  Note how they're all looking relaxed, all smiling, all wearing peci hats, and (all?) smoking cigarettes.  This is what it means to be a man in Indonesia.  The fellow in the blue jacket usually does the morning call to prayer and therefore was responsible for a lot of lost sleep over the course of training.  But he's a nice guy, of course.  Usually if the men all come over, the wife/mother of the house will serve coffee to all of them, set down makanan ringan (light food/snacks) on the table, and stick to the background.  Being social with the neighbors--dropping by, sitting down, chatting, smoking--is one of the most important social aspects of living in an Indonesian village.  My host father is the one on the left.

>::Insert The Lonely Island Reference Here::<

This photo is from a trip we took in the third or fifth week of training to Sempu Island, just off the south coast of Java.  It's a relatively popular little spot for people to go to the beach.  They're painted in lovely colors, which, however, does not offset how rickety they look.  The engines are rarely covered, so you could be sitting on the deck with this motor going insane next to you, wondering what would happen if some screw came loose or you lost your balance and fell into the furious pumping of an iron piston.  Additionally, sights such as the following do little to inspire confidence in these noble vessels' seaworthiness:

She don't look like much, but she'll get you there!

 Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink

As you can see, on that day we did all make it to the beach.  It was nothing like a beach in Florida.  Later on, some of us tried to hike across the island to a different beach, but were thwarted by mud like you could never believe without seeing.  It had rained for several hours earlier that day, so the hiking trail was completely wrecked, and fifteen intrepid PCTs were defeated by the elements.  But the water was fun to play in.

Left to Right: Ahmad, Pak Rodli, Zarohtul, Bu Siti

These are the main members of my training host family.  There was also a 19-year-old named Wahyu, but he wasn't around that much.  These four were my family for ten weeks, and I've visited them a couple times since moving away from that village.  Getting the kids to sit still was a bit difficult, and I had to remind them to smile for the picture.  Indonesians are wonderfully smiley people in everyday life, but when you get them to pose for a picture, they instinctively put on neutral expressions.  I do not yet know the reason for this.

Future Scholar

I have no particular connection to this boy or picture, but it was taken in my training village.  The canal right there looks real nice, but you have to imagine that a lot of people poo in it and throw their garbage directly in it.  The little kid is probably about five years old, but even at that age kids have to wear uniforms.  I don't know of any students anywhere in Indonesia who don't wear uniforms to school. 

The drive to work

This isn't really my drive to work.  But it was one of the views on the way to our practicum school, where we taught for three weeks during pre-service training.  We happened to live in a very beautiful part of the province.  The school itself had spectacular mountains right outside the window.  Because that area of is sort of high-elevation and cooler than most of its surroundings, there are many more crops grown.  Not to poo-poo my current site, but the spot where we did training was definitely more beautiful if we're talking scenery. 

The stuff of life

This is what rice looks like when it's still being grown, before being harvested.  Rice is king.  When it's fully grown and ready to harvest, the plant is this lovely golden color that contrasts pleasingly with the lush green of most of the vegetation around here.  Workers take knives and cut the stalks in whole fields, after which the rice is threshed (i.e. bundles are taken and beaten against this wooden thing so that the grains fall down onto a tarp) and the grains are collected for hulling/husking.  Hulling/husking is getting the rice out of its little husk.  I haven't seen how this is done.  As you can imagine, there are zillions of rice fields around here, as rice is eaten three times a day by just about everyone in this country of 240 million. 

Hope you enjoyed the random pics!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yet Mystery and Reality Emerge from the Same Source: A Fortune Cookie Caper

Some evening about a year and a half ago (I don't remember how long exactly), I eagerly opened a bag filled with hot, greasy, freshly delivered Chinese food.  Like any normal American, I made for the fortune cookie first.  I'm not sure how it started, but in my family we believe you have to eat the whole cookie before reading the fortune in order for the thing to be valid.  So I ate my cookie, turned over the slip of paper with the lottery numbers and Chinese ideogram, and confronted my fate.

"Yet mystery and reality emerge from the same source."

I read it a few times, head cocked to the side like a puzzled canine.  Obviously, this wasn't a fortune.  That's not what stumped me--most fortune cookies don't actually talk about the future.  But this seemed like an actual piece of wisdom.  I thought about the quote while I ate. 

I started wondering who had written it.  Some tragic fortune cookie scribe, toiling in a dark cell somewhere fashioning destinies for America's hungry families?  I imagined some intense philosophy graduate student working at a small desk in a fortune cookie factory, punching at his typewriter next to a bunch of happy-go-lucky halfwits (the ones who put smiley faces on your fortune).  I also imagined someone picking randomly from a bank of words happening to assemble a sentence both uncanny and profound.

Yet mystery and reality emerge from the same source.

I kept the fortune with me for the next few days, meditating on it.  I memorized the words so I could think about them after disposing of the actual paper.  Eventually, I stopped thinking about its origin, but the sentence has stayed with me ever since.  My first thought reading it was, "This fortune cookie is about God."  It seems to me that mystery is everything in the world and in ourselves that we don't understand: Those questions of whence, whither, and wherefore; the ones that human beings usually leave it up to God to answer.  Reality, it seems to me, encompasses all that we can see and perceive and understand.  I don't know where the line between mystery and reality lies, but it's there, even if it's blurry.  And this little bit of paper was telling me that mystery and reality emerge from the same source.  What source? 

The mystery of the fortune's origin was unraveled today, more than a year later on a different continent.  And I am surprised at how many coincidences seem to be involved.  My interpretation of the quote wasn't exactly apt, as it turns out.  I was browsing something on the internet that reminded me of the quote, and for the first time it dawned on me to search for it on Google in case it was copied out of some famous text.  Lo and behold, there it lay in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching.  So this is not a case of monkeys producing Shakespeare.  Someone copied the fortune out of the Tao.

I felt slightly embarrassed, considering the Tao Te Ching is one of the few books I brought with me to Indonesia, and I read it for the second time within a week of arriving.  I should have seen the quote in my book.  But of course!  That little volume is among the world's most notoriously difficult pieces of philosophy to translate.  The original is terse and repetitive, presuming a sophisticated understanding of the many connotations of individual Chinese ideograms on the part of the reader.  Translators all put their own spin on it.  The translation containing the line as I saw it on the fortune cookie reads:

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.
Yet mystery and reality
emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.
(McDonald, 1996)

But the translation in my version of the Tao Te Ching, which tries to mimic the terse and repetitive style of the original, reads:

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.
These have the same source, but different names.
Call them both deep--
Deep and again deep:
The gateway to all mystery.
(Addiss 1993)

So it's obvious how I missed it.  Just for a good idea of the wild variation in how that single passage is translated, have a look at this third take on it:

The unwanting soul
sees what's hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
(Le Guin 1998)

I absolve myself of any guilt with regard to my failure to recognize what has been under my nose for well over a year.  Blame it on Chinese. 

A few coincidences I find remarkable:

  1. That I got the fortune cookie at all.
  2. That I brought the Tao Te Ching with me to Indonesia.
  3. That I recently read the Tao.
  4. That earlier this very day, I was speaking about Taoism with Bu Ani, one of my teaching counterparts, and mentioned that I had brought the Tao Te Ching with me to Indonesia, going as far as to comment on the terse style, its profundity, and the necessity to meditate for a long time on each passage.

Call this mystery solved!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing/Reading - Creation/Consumption

Throughout most of college I only wrote for school, never for myself, and I hated that.  I was always so harsh with my own creations—smothering all my own children, as it were.   I wanted to write, just could never get it going. 

Entering my final semester of university, I was in the lowest of low periods.  At first I was confused in the wake of a difficult breakup; later I was devastated by its emotionally brutal aftermath.  Right around September and October 2009, I was as down as I’ve ever been in my life.  I’d never ever felt so alone in the world. 

And rather suddenly, I stopped being such a vicious critic of my own compositions.  Normally when I write, I want to be fair and thoughtful and make sure I’m considering all sides of whatever the topic happens to be.  I always try to anticipate objections and address them pre-emptively.  If I see a logical weakness or notice some inconsistently applied standard, my brain pounces.  But in that onerous time, my brain was teeming with words, sentiments, arguments, accusations, pleas, and rebuttals, and they needed a way out.  Somehow the perfectionist in me just retreated, and finally I allowed myself to vomit out all the poison.  Thousands and thousands and thousands of words, unedited.  Sometimes hot-blooded or hyperbolic or cold or dramatic or unfair or irrational.  But most importantly, they came out freely, and I stopped judging myself.  I stopped feeling guilty for feeling.  For a couple months I just wrote everything that came to mind regarding my feelings, until the torrent relented.

In the moment, the catharsis was important.  The pressure had built and built until the old perfectionist had been forced to relinquish his grip on my self-expression.  It let me move from a sort of unbearable tempestuous fullness to a black-and-white peaceful melancholy.  Calmness and sadness like a still winter meadow, blanketed in snow.  Yet more important than that catharsis was this: the inner pedant was gone.  Free, free, I was free!  Not happy or healed or confident, but no longer shackled to that cruel master.  I could write, as much and as badly as I pleased—I no longer cared about the imperfections.

After graduating I moved to Switzerland, where the winter outside perfectly complemented the winter I felt in my heart.  I spent so much time thinking and writing, sorting out my feelings about the break-up and about life after college.  I had various small jobs, none of which had any long-term potential, and I spent some time traveling.  Soon after deciding to join the Peace Corps and starting my application, I traveled in Germany and Ireland alone for a month.  As it regards writing, this solo journey was an important moment.  I started keeping a journal, and for the first time in my life I was actually successful.  I kept up with it, and it never began to feel like a burden.  It wasn’t driven by an overwhelming emotional impulse.  Rather, this was probably the first time in my life that I had written consistently and purely out of inspiration.  The sense of accomplishment was amazing.

Since that time, I’ve become ever more comfortable with my own writing.  I have always read a lot, and the more I read, the more I understand my differences with all the writers I admire.  It just doesn’t bother me anymore.  I am who I am, warts and all.  No more insecurity about whether the writing is good enough—what’s important is the expression.  In the last three months, I’ve produced far more writing than any other three-month period of my life.  This makes me happy.

On the subject of writing, there are some things that I want to address.

Years ago, Stöff told me something that has always stuck: 

It’s better to write than to read.

God, that is so true.

I took him at his word, but I barely ever wrote back then.  It seemed a bit strange coming from him, a person who has read many thousands of books in his lifetime.  I’ve always been a reader, and at times I’ve been a little too pleased with how many books I had squirreled away in my home library (it’s always a good thing when I come across a person who’s burned through more books than I have).  But Stöff’s assertion stayed with me, and at some point in early college I stopped thinking of reading as a purely healthy/commendable pursuit.  Don’t get me wrong—reading is a fantastic thing, and everyone should read plenty.  But the idea that a person’s intellectual worth or achievement is correlated to the number of books they have read is false, and toxic at that.  Reading can open your mind, improve your understanding of language and the world, and make you feel in ways and see from perspectives you never could have without a book. 

Generally speaking, however, it is a passive activity.  Like tourists in an art gallery taking pleasure in the paintings, most bookworms move from one volume to the next with little or no downtime to truly process what they’ve read.  They delight in the text and sigh—oh how interesting!—and then move along to the next world.  Time goes on, details fade, and after interval they retain only the barest familiarity with the book.  How exactly is this different from watching television or movies, or going to a museum and seeing all the expensive artwork?  At the moment of exposure, it feels like you’ve encountered something profound, yet invariably the impressions fade away.  In the end, you saw the book/painting, but it never truly made it past your eyes.

 And in this way reading is just entertainment—something diverting, the ultimate purpose of which is the pleasurable passage of time.  This itself is no evil, but can you really call it a virtue?  Can such readers really look down on sports fans and roll their eyes, saying “bread and circuses”?

Please, don’t mistake me.  Reading is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  To my mind, the only shame is when people proclaim it as an end in itself, rather than the tool it should be.  Perhaps books are like bricks: you need a few if you want to build something, but a pile of bricks isn't the same as a house. 

Like watching movies or sports, reading (especially fiction) is passively immersing oneself in the lives and labors of active people. 

·      You see those sweaty, fist-pumping athletes, pushing the limits of human physical ability: focused, disciplined.  All in.  But you don’t see the hours they spend practicing, the care in their diet, the endless travel, the struggle to overcome injuries.

·      You read a book that is the product of long, intensive research, thought, writing, editing, wrangling with editors and publishers.  You get the finished merchandise, but you don’t see the first fifteen drafts of the manuscript.  Someone dedicated himself heart and soul for months or years to produce that volume that you blew through in one sitting while listening to music. 

·      You watch a movie for 90 minutes, enjoy the pithy dialogue, the special effects, the emotional payoff.  But you don’t see the coordinated effort of hundreds of specialists or the jitters of the screenplay author as he watches his baby grow under the aegis of a bunch of other artists with their own visions. 

Those diversions and entertainments are the product of active people, people who are creating something, or who at least demonstrate the kind of passion and discipline that make almost any pursuit compelling.  They are really alive.  We hunger for that.  I know I do.  It’s how I want to be.  To feel alive, I have to do

That’s why writing is better than reading, even if I can never produce something that is the equal of the authors and artists (and human beings in general) that I revere.  Fittingly, reading is one thing that brought me to this realization—specifically, the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  I think I can say that it is the most important and influential book I have read as an adult.  It helped me to understand something I had felt at a deeper level for a long time, namely the difference between art and entertainment, and my discomfort with the thoughtless consumption of both of those things.  We consume so much, and our appetites are never sated. 


·      Education is not intelligence. 
·      Intelligence is not wisdom.
·      No matter how many books you read, you will never read all the worthwhile ones. 
·      No matter how many books you read, you will never read your way to wisdom, fulfillment, or contentment.
·      Reading a book—even a great one—is only as profitable as the growth it provokes in you.

Again, this is not to vilify entertainment or escapist reading or watching sports or any of that stuff.  I partake of all these things myself (more than I would like), and they serve a real purpose.  Just let’s not delude ourselves about the actual value of our diversions, and let’s not set ourselves above others because we choose a more esoteric way to waste time. 

The greater point behind writing is better than reading is: Creation is better than consumption.  Creating is being yourself, exploring yourself, expanding yourself; it’s living in your own reality rather than imbibing someone else’s. 

Maybe you ask: why is it better to toil in my own reality rather than revel in the majestic, variegated, already developed realities of other human beings?  In that case, I don’t have an answer.  I just know that in order to feel truly alive, you need to live in your own reality.

Friday, August 5, 2011


What Ramadan Is

Islam operates on a lunar calendar.  The ninth month of that calendar is called Ramadan, which is designated as a month of fasting and purification.  It is a religious obligation for all Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse between sunrise and sunset for the whole month.  Naturally there are exceptions, namely children, sick people, the mentally ill, people who are traveling great distances, pregnant or nursing mothers, menstruating women, and the elderly.  You have to be able-bodied for the rules to apply.

Because the calendar is lunar, it is about 11 days shorter than the standard 365-day solar calendar.  Therefore, each year Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier than the year before.  I remember first really hearing about Ramadan back when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.  Suicide bombings and coalition deaths would spike each year around Ramadan.  Back then the fasting month fell in mid-autumn, which is why it may surprise some Westerners unaware of the yearly 11-day shift that Muslims are already fasting. 

Well, so it is.  I’ve been fasting for five days.  Coming into the month, I’d heard a variety of opinions ranging from “fasting is a fate worse than death” to “Ramadan is the best time of the year”.  Last year, most, if not all, Volunteers chose to join in the fast, and I’m sure it’s the same this year.  Some are lured by the challenge, some by the prospect of cleansing, some by curiosity, and all by social pressure and the desire to fit in.  Indonesians love to ask if you are fasting and how you’re handling it.  I don’t know how many PCVs have cheated—sneaking gulps of water and snacks in their rooms—but I think it must be a significant percentage.


The Routine

Generally, families wake up at 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning to eat.  They want to finish their food before the first call to prayer around 4:10.  After that, your mouth is dry as the Arabian Desert until about 5:30pm, when the sun sets (side note: can you imagine Ramadan in northern Europe right now, where days are like 16 hours long?).  Anyway, after breakfast, it’s completely fine to go back to sleep for a couple hours if you’ve got nothing else to do.  For me it’s impossible to get back to sleep before 4:30, because by the time I’ve eaten, it’s time for the morning call to prayer, which is terribly loud and lasts 30 minutes in my village.  So I lose about an hour of sleep.

During Ramadan, school schedules are modified.  In my school, which is a madrasah (religious school), students must still take all their classes, but periods are shortened from 45 to 25 minutes, and the first half-hour of the day is dedicated to tadarus, or recitation of the Qur’an.  In previous years, kids only had to take religion classes during Ramadan, but apparently this year they’ve changed it up.  School starts later and ends earlier than normal, and everyone is taking it easy.  People are tired and hungry—the last thing they want is waste energy trying extra hard to make all 25 minutes count.  Students fall asleep.  Sometimes teachers fall asleep.  No big deal.  After school ends around noon, people go home and rest some more.  Extracurricular activities are canceled for the month. 

A lot of people sleep in the afternoon.  Finally, when 5:30pm rolls around, everyone is ready to eat.  In my village, someone beats a huge drum at the mosque the moment it becomes permissible to break the fast.  Interestingly, this is more or less the quietest part of the day in this very noisy country, because everyone is inside eating.  Families all eat together, and it’s common to invite friends and neighbors to share in the meal.  In other Muslim countries, this breaking of the fast is known as Iftar, but I have yet to hear that word used in Indonesia.  Everyone here says berbuka puasa (open the fast). Apparently in the Middle East it is normal to break the fast by eating dates, after which everyone does solat Maghrib (Maghrib prayers, fourth of the five daily prayers, to be said around 6:00pm).  When the prayers finish, the real meal begins.  But, by Jove, this is Southeast Asia, not the Middle East.  Here we eat the whole meal directly.  Well, at least in my family. 

After eating, many Muslims go to the mosque for solat Maghrib, and the prayer schedule is somewhat longer during Ramadan.  Some people participate in additional prayer activities in the evening, while others just rest or go to sleep. It’s also common to eat again in the late evening if you want—I’ve definitely helped myself to seconds around 10:00pm, or made myself a magnificent bowl of oatmeal.  If you haven’t rested adequately during the day, you might fall asleep directly after eating dinner (around 6:00pm).  Doing this, as I have on a couple of occasions, is horribly stupid, because then I wake up around 8:00pm and can’t fall asleep until past midnight, only to have to wake up AGAIN at 3:00am and restart the whole blasted cycle.  No matter how you dice it, though, you have to break up sleep to two or more sessions per 24 hours.


What fasting does to people

This is a tropical climate.  It’s hot and humid and there’s no air conditioning.  If you go outside or move around indoors, you’re going to sweat—a lot—which can be dangerous for people who aren’t drinking any water.  Normal sleeping and eating schedules are trashed, so people are low-energy during the daytime.  Vices, including tobacco usage, should also be curbed, which can make the men irritable, since they’re all smokers.  Because everyone is tired and prone to dehydration, everything slows down.  Businesses close early; street vendors and small restaurants are closed during the day; people lounge about; nobody is interested in playing sports. 

There is a lot more excitement in the air with regard to eating.  Everyone is suffering together, and the fact that everyone is less busy with responsibilities means you have more time to be with your family and neighbors.  Indonesians are accustomed to eating three meals per day, shoveling rice down their gullets like it’s the coal that keeps their fire burning.  They grow very concerned if they think you’ve skipped a meal and chide you for neglecting to eat.  (Fun fact: Whereas in the US it’s polite to ask about the weather or inquire if someone had a good evening yesterday, in Indo it’s common to ask if someone has already eaten and what he/she had for breakfast). 

Deprived of food, some people have more trouble than others.  Some people become miserable and irritable and think only about food, wrestling with constant temptation to break the fast early (for a fantastic write-up on this perspective, see Elle’s article).  For me, at least, I just feel very hungry, but there’s no urge to cheat.  For whatever reason, my brain processes the discomfort as if it were due to something outside my own will.  Kind of like a day that’s way too hot—you can whine about it (and I do), but you can’t make the sun cool off.  Plus, I’m used to not eating.  Often at college I would go way too long without eating, because I was either trying to be thrifty or I was too lazy to cook/go to a restaurant/pick up the phone and order food.  Missing meals never got to me that much.  But it’s still tough, especially combined with not drinking anything (yes, that includes water!) and getting screwed out of proper sleep.  I usually have a headache in the afternoon before breaking the fast.

Also, the lack of water means I don’t dare ride my bicycle any significant distance during the day, because fainting from dehydration seems worse to me than being stuck in my village.


Why fasting is worth it, even if you’re not Muslim or religious

A lot of people here like to say that fasting is a healthy, cleansing experience for your body.  I nod my head when Indonesians tell me this, but really I’m quite skeptical (like a lot of other PCVs).  It’s not like people are changing what they eat.  Some people aren’t even changing how much they eat.  They just alter the time, and something tells me it’s not the best idea to wait until you’re starving to absolutely gorge yourself on food and drink, nor is it advisable to go to sleep so soon after eating.  And foregoing daytime exercise for a month can’t be great either.  But I’m no nutritionist, what do I know?

For Muslims, the first and foremost reason to fast is because God commands it.  Secondly, fasting is a way to erase the stain that sin leaves on your soul.  Thirdly, you score big points with The Man Upstairs for doing good things during Ramadan (most people choose to pay zakat, or the almsgiving required by the faith, during this month).  Yet there are several spiritual/moral reasons to fast during Ramadan that may also apply to non-Muslims.

Fasting is self-denial, and it requires discipline.  It requires your mind to master your body.  It requires you to make yourself suffer for the sake of a greater spiritual or devotional goal.  In essence, it asks you to put yourself second.  You might say that the capacity and willingness to delay gratification is the hallmark of civilization.  It’s also one important feature that distinguishes humans from other animals (mostly, anyway).  For some people, there is a certain spiritual focus that comes with self-denial.  Certainly, if you aren’t able to focus on your work due to hunger and weakness, you are going to be less caught up with the daily run of things.  For Muslims, this is to be accompanied by a greater inner focus on prayer and mindfulness of God.

In my host family, empathy for the poor is the most oft-cited rationale for fasting. Spending a month being hungry and fatigued is an excellent way to cultivate empathy for poor people in the world, who may depend on charity for survival.  This is an important reason for all Muslims, and I daresay it’s one that can resonate with people of any belief.  In my opinion, this alone is justification enough to participate in the fast without cheating, even if you don’t buy into the spiritual/cleansing argument.  But I’m not dogmatic about such things—to each his own.

There's also the collective aspect of the fast.  You are hungry with your community.  You “suffer” with everyone.  Shoot, if empathy for the poor isn’t reason enough, how about just empathizing with others who fast?  As a foreigner, fasting helps me to feel like a part of this village, and I know it commands respect from the people here, who are aware that I have no religious obligation to join them in this.  It just brings people together. 

Defending the rationale of the fast from a religious perspective is easy: So what if productivity is squashed and the pace of life slows to a crawl?  Those things are unimportant when compared to your devotion to God, closeness to community, and striving for spiritual growth/self-mastery.  The fact that focusing on those things (devotion, community, spiritual growth, etc.) disrupts productivity and daily routines only reinforces the necessity that you acknowledge their primacy.  It’s a compact system. 

But, damn, do I get hungry and sleepy sometimes.


If you’re still super curious about Ramadan after reading this, I joyfully direct to you to the blog links on the right-hand side of my page, all of which contain photographs and far better, more detailed descriptions of what it’s actually like to be here during Ramadan.  I tend to focus more on the conceptual than the concrete (hence Thought Porridge), though there are certainly some physical descriptions in my writings.  Anyway, the other PCVs are all brilliant writers with totally different styles, and it’s 100% worth it to read about this from their perspectives.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Videolog: School, ramadan, spare time, challenges, etc.

For those who don't like reading, but will sit and watch me talk for 25 minutes straight....

School, ramadan, spare time, challenges, etc.