Thursday, October 6, 2011

Circumcision, Repetition, Brainmelt, and Absorption of Wisdom

Last Saturday, my five-year-old host brother got circumcised. 

Normally Muslim boys undergo khitanan (circumcision) at age twelve, and it’s a big to-do.  I’ve gone to a pre-khitanan “party” in my village, and it’s much like any other social gathering that takes place here.  That is, a bunch of men gather at the house of the soon-to-be-foreskin-free youth, sit on the floor with their backs against the wall, and go through a certain catalog of prayers.  They may also pass around a microphone to ensure that everyone in a fifty meter radius can hear.  Then they all eat a plate of food, prepared by the host family, smoke cigarettes, and leave.

Fian—my five-year-old little host brother—had to get the snip because he was having trouble relieving himself, and that certain bit of skin was the culprit.  So on Saturday night his parents took him to the hospital, and the offending dermis was excised.  I was at home when they came back, carrying crying little Fian into the house.  Soon the living room was bustling with family and neighbors coming in to watch him wail, regard him with paternal pity, and grin at each other.  Kasian (poor thing)!

At five years old, the unanesthetized burning in your privatest part must seem like the end of the world, and the tone of his whimpering was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: devoid of anger, conveying only pain and confusion.  My host parents pulled the couch and the armchair into the living room and laid him down on the bigger of the two.  He was truly a pathetic sight, lying there with no pants on, sterile white medical bandage wrapped around his weenie, his diligent mother sitting over him, doing her best to ameliorate the fiery anguish with a handheld fan.  As I mentioned, family and neighbors came in to look at him and discuss what was going on, and most of them wore sympathetic but amused expressions on their faces.  One of them joked with me that it’d have to be me next (the second circumcision gibe I’ve gotten in a month). 

All of this is preface.  Every night since then, he has slept on that couch in the living room, and for the first few days he hardly ever got up to walk.  As I write this on Wednesday night (the fifth since khitanan), he is out there sleeping now.  The experience of the last five days has illuminated two aspects of life in the village that generate exactly opposite reactions in me.  First, the positive.  Every night he’s been out there, he’s been accompanied by both of his parents and his sister.  They all sleep in the living room.  Bapak falls asleep in the armchair, little Fian on the couch, and Ibu and Dela (his sister) on a mattress they dragged out from the bedroom. 

The whole family is together, ostensibly to make sure he doesn’t fall off the couch—though why he’s sleeping there instead of in his bed is also a mystery.  The whole thing is adorable.  I consider my (real) family to be close, but I couldn’t imagine all of us curling up on the floor and in chairs in the living room just so we could all sleep together in the same place.  The family here coexists without privacy and without the desire for it.  They just want to be close to each other—nobody, except perhaps the youngest, is thinking exclusively about his own comfort.  I wrote in an earlier posting about how impressed I was with the harmony and closeness I’ve observed in Javanese families, and this is a prime example. 

That is one facet of life here that has shone with clarity in the last five days.  The other one, however, is much darker.  Because the little one has been basically parked out in the living room, and his family is often sitting around with him, the television has rarely been turned off the last five days.  People here watch a lot of TV.  In my house, they switch on the boob tube at around 5:30am and—barring unusual circumstances—only shut it off when everyone’s gone to sleep, which can be 10:00pm or later.

As I see it, there are multiple things behind this, some harmless and some more ominous.  First off, this is just a noisy country.  People here are incredibly desensitized to sound.  In six months here, I have almost never heard anyone complain about sounds being loud, disturbing, or poor quality.  In fact, I think many people here feel strange if there isn’t any sort of racket shattering the peace of the air.  And that’s fine…there are plenty of Americans who need to have the radio on and can’t stand being in a quiet place. 

Beyond that, however, are some more troubling issues.  I absolutely cannot understand how groups of people here will sit in front of the television for hours and hours and hours, neither truly watching nor truly engaged in conversation.  To my eye, it looks like the worst mode of television watching.  That sort of television watching you might do with your roommates in the mid-morning after a late night party and you’ve got a hangover and you know there are responsibilities you should be taking care of but you’re too lazy and out of it to get started but you still feel bad because you’re not even watching the TV and really the programming is complete shit anyway so you feel even worse because some soulless daytime crap is your pathetic excuse for not doing actually important things.  I’ve watched some of the programming here, and it’s completely inane.  People may be momentarily entertained, but nothing at all is learned or gained. 

What disturbs me is the sheer amount of time that people spend in this sort of stupefied state.  They are 100% passive and not even really engaged in the thing that’s being beamed into their brains.  So many hours every day that could be spent in way more interesting or productive ways—reading a book maybe?—simply tick away.  In my house, when they’re not watching television, my family has liked to pop in the same two or three VCDs of dangdut concerts.  And they watch these things over and over and over, only without any hint of excitement.  I could almost understand it if these things really excited them, but they don’t even seem happy to be watching most of the time.  It’s just…something to look at.  A way to pass the time.  They kind of stare at the television and occasionally say things to one another.  Reminds me of the dropped-out-stoner types from college.

In moments of negativity, it can feel as if I’m surrounded by people who are simply bored as their lives tick away, with no motivation to change things up and really no concept that such a change might be possible or desirable.  Every day I bike to school and back to my house, and in both directions I usually pass the same people on the street, no matter the time of day.  There’s a set of people who are always sitting outside their houses, just staring at the road, making small talk with neighbors.  Some people sit and do nothing every day for years and decades.  How is that possible?  I mean, I’ve certainly fallen into slothfulness and laziness and passivity at times in my life, but even in those periods my brain is still seeking some sort of stimulus—reading a book, watching something I’ve never watched, staring at sports, getting immersed in some sort of storyline.  I just can’t imagine that kind of long-term stagnation not being accompanied by serious stupefaction.

I don’t mean to pick on Indonesians in particular, because there are plenty of people everywhere that live in this way.  I’ve just never felt it so strongly as I do here.  Everything is so predictable and repetitive.  I mean, shit, I think I understand better now why people are so incredibly excited when a foreigner comes around.  There’s so much monotony, so little impetus to change. 

Since arriving I’ve struggled with the uncertainty of how to judge the differences in the culture here.  Should I feel bad for people who live in such a tiny world, or is pity arrogant and inappropriate?  On an intellectual level, I try not to judge, because who the hell am I?  There’s nothing to say that an active and challenging life is, in a cosmic sense, more “meaningful” or worth living than a boring, passive one.  But on an emotional level I just feel sorry for a lot of people.  I could never accept such a passive existence, and in my heart I cannot accept that it is as meaningful as an active life. 

[Note&Disclaimer: This does NOT apply to all Indonesians, nor am I saying that everyone has to go volunteer in another country in order to have an “active” or meaningful existence.  I certainly have Indonesian friends and acquaintances here who are plenty active and whose outlook incorporates a concept of self-improvement.]

I’ve strayed a good way from the television thing.  This is the sort of track my mind gets after my brain is attacked for days on end by the sounds of SpongeBob reruns and dangdut concerts.  It seems like other people are sitting there as their brains melt and their senses and motivations and ambitions are dulled.  I physically cringe upon seeing my little host brother crane his neck around an obstructing person so that he can watch the same sports-drink commercial that he’s already seen dozens of time earlier in the day. 

The repetitiveness of life here can also make me impatient with people who ask me if I’m bored when I’m alone in my room. 

My internal monologue then goes something like:  Are you @#$%ing kidding me?  The stuff I do alone in my room is a million times less boring than the things you all do every single day over and over and over again.  If I’m in there, I’m exercising my mind reading or writing or actively listening to music or recording music or doing work for my job or having necessary venting sessions with my fellow volunteers, not just letting my brain rot in my head from lack of use.  Do you think I’m just lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling?   How can you be so inured to the tedium of routines here?
My external response:  Oh, no I’m not bored.  I’m usually doing stuff, and I like relaxing in my room.

And then my brain goes off in all kinds of directions.  Like, what would this society be capable of if people only blah blah blah, and how much time gets “wasted” every day just by people who blah blah blah, and is this tendency towards sloth and predictably an innate characteristic in blah blah blah, and a million other things. 

Being honest, one reason I wanted to live in a poor country is to see what sort of wisdom there is in poverty.  For all its wealth, there is a shallowness and immaturity in much of my native culture that leaves me yearning for other wisdom.  On the other hand, I was also guarding myself against accepting the wisdom of another culture simply because it was foreign, as so many New Age types do in the US.  Nothing is more annoying than the person who tries to tell you that Some Other Culture has “figured it all out”.  Coming here, my attitude was to look for the wisdom and the folly.  Up to this point, I feel like I’ve noted and absorbed a lot of both.

[End note: My little host brother is doing fine!  He seems very pleased with his new wee-wee, judging by the fact that he enjoys running around naked and staring at it/poking it/showing it to passersby in the living room.]


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