It just so happened that this year, I spent thanksgiving in a kampung. My school’s “service week” aligned with the week of Thanksgiving, so the day found me, along with a group of seventh and eighth graders, in a Jakarta village. Needless to say, if there was ever a reminder of how blessed I am, this was it.
I think the best way to break down my scattered thoughts is to make a list. (Otherwise, these words will end up save in my drafts as a series of incomplete thoughts. (Side note: blogging is a challenge for me, because I want to be able to write these nice, flowing posts, but I don’t have time to construct them as artfully as I would like. So, instead, I give you lists to read! Sorry about that…))
1. The Incredible Gap
One of the first things that I realized about Indonesia was the dichotomy between the rich and the poor. It is an idea that has stayed with me since last year, and one that becomes more and more evident as I actually start to be exposed to “real” Indonesia. Poverty here is so incredibly different than poverty in the United States, but the need to break free from the cycle of poverty is still a key factor. It’s not just a lack of money: it’s something that requires a lifestyle change.
Our school partnered with an organization that spends a year working with kampungs that experience some of the worst living conditions in Indonesia. When it rains, even a small amount, their homes flood. During the storms of rainy season, their lives practically float away. The organization spends that first year evaluating the needs to that community, and the people of that kampung can choose to enroll in the programs offered by the group. They then will not only receive donations and aid, they will also learn and implement lifestyle changes that will help them break out of the cycle of poverty.
2. It’s Not About Race (…Kinda)
An extremely frustrating facet of American poverty is the dynamic between races, specifically that between white people and black people. Whenever there are attempts by white people to help impoverished people of another race, things get nasty. I specifically think of the “white savior” phrase that gets viciously thrown around. The idea that white people have a rescue-the-impoverished-other-race-children is something that, for me, has been an uncomfortable and stifling impediment to my desire to help those in need.
In Indonesia, things are different. At least…. kinda. There is still a “richer” race, that holds the majority of the wealth. (The Chinese Indonesians hold a lot of the money in Indonesia, which is a major source of tension.) However, there is no Chinese Indonesian versions of “white guilt” involved at all: all is fair in love and business, and Indonesia is a booming and growing economy. Regardless, the population of the school where I teach is quite diversified, with a mixture of Chinese Indonesians, Indonesians, and Koreans. That means that instead of this racially charged image of white teens playing with black babies, you have Indonesians playing with Indonesians. (I would show you how beautiful such a thing is, but for confidentiality’s sake I am not allowed to post photos of my students online.)
3. Subconscious Privilege (It’s Not Just For White Americans )
Only a few hours before we left to visit the kampung for the first time, we all watched a video produced by G.K. that discussed how many of the families in the kampungs live off 30,000 rupiah a day, which equals less than 3.00 USD. As part of our gift to the children we were working with, we provided lunch for the kids. I sat down to eat with some of my students, and they asked if they can drink some of the extra sodas. No, I told them, those are for the children and their families. Can they buy a soda? Certainly not. Why not? Because the 13,000 rupiah they are so willing to spend on a soda is half of a day’s wage for most of these families. It’s not about what you want. It’s about serving these people. The boys who asked me still didn’t get it– they wanted a soda, and were used to getting almost everything they wanted. The idea that they would sacrifice something as small as a soda for the sake of making another group of people feel valued was totally foreign to them. They simply couldn’t understand why spending that money, in that place, at that time, was not serving.
When for your whole life, you have been served and pampered, it’s hard to realize that you are one of the privileged. Many of my students consider themselves to be “middle class,” even though they live lifestyles of international travel, private planes and London apartments, of summers in Europe and Christmas in the Alps. They think that they are middle class largely because there is always someone who has more money, and with that knowledge they judge themselves on a scale that is already tipped towards the upper class. They know they are wealthy, but they don’t really realize the astonishing impact that has had on their lives. So, when it comes time to drink a water instead of a soda, it is normal for them to get what they want. They don’t look at what the majority of what Indonesia eats and think, “I am so blessed,” they look at it and say, “But why can’t I go buy a Pepsi?”
For more photos of the village kids, you can check out the link to the photography section of my blog, under “Kampung Kids.”