Sunday, May 19, 2013

Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy

The Experience of Living in a Different Culture

    I recently heard someone talk about this: there was a comedian on a late-night show whose You-tube video of his appearance has often been sent around in emails. I haven't gotten any of these, so apparently I exchange emails with the wrong crowd... Anyway, I watched the video and loved it. I think he is calling our attention to something really important, and it made me think about how that applies to the experience of living in a different culture. I'll explain some more about the video and then talk about how it is important for those of us living cross-culturally. 

    The theme of the jokes in the video is how amazing the world is and yet how unhappy people are with it. He makes fun of people who complain about their cell phones and airline flights, instead of marveling that we can communicate with people across the planet using something we hold in our hand, or that we can race through the sky like birds while sitting on our backsides. Good points. Here is what he says about the person who complains when the wi-fi on the plane, something impossible just last year, stops working: "How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago." Supervise your kids - there is one word beeped-out.

     The person I heard talking about this was making the same point: the world, the universe, is simply amazing. Many of the things we enjoy daily were only science-fiction only years ago. And yet we tend to focus on what inconveniences us rather than what helps us, and complain instead of rejoice. I think that is true of western culture in general, but it is also my observation that this is especially true of those of us living cross-culturally. It is very easy for us to focus on the things that make us uncomfortable and the things we don't understand rather than the amazing things we have the privilege of experiencing. We saw this when we first came to Indonesia in the ex-pats we were with then, and we see it in people around us now. And we have often seen it in ourselves.

     I think the reason for this is the natural comparisons we are always (often unconsciously) making between our native culture and our adopted culture. We compare conditions, services, infrastructure, people's behavior and their thinking, with the things we're used to. In some of these areas (maybe many of them) our home culture may be superior. In others it may not really be superior, or it may even be inferior when seen objectively, but our discomfort with our adopted culture makes it feel bad. So we don't like it. 

     That's natural, and there isn't anything wrong with in; in fact, we should be critical of things that are wrong, or oppressive, or are wasteful or just unnecessarily difficult. All those things keep people from the quality of life they could have. But the problem comes when we stop recognizing the wonderful things around us because we're so focused on our own discomfort. Here are a couple examples from our life here in Sumatra:
Public city transport locally known as angkot
  • Angkots: These little mini-buses are the primary public transportation across Indonesia, and especially in the town we live in. There are times they aren't fun: they don't run on a schedule, they're hot and often crowded, and these days they sometimes have ridiculous sound systems pumping dance music we don't want to be pounded with. It's easy to complain about them. But on the other hand, they are an amazing value: in our town they will go where we ask them to (within the bounds of their route), and everywhere they pick you up where you want to wait (again, along their route) and drop you off anywhere along the road you ask them to. Sometimes we have to wait for them, but sometimes they pull up right when we look for them. They are amazingly cheap - what we get for the price simply can't be beat. 
  • Food: It is absolutely true that cleanliness standards here in Indonesia are not like what we're used to in the US. The bugs and animals wondering around markets among the food can really be surprising, the way things are cleaned (or not) can be disgusting, and the smells are not reassuring. If we focus on these things we might never eat. But the other side of the coin is that things are amazingly fresh here. The way meat or eggs are transported and marketed may not meet our clean test, but in many cases it is so fresh there has been very little time for anything to
    Traditional fruit stall in Kepahiang
    really be wrong with it. We often eat meat or eggs that was literally harvested yesterday. That certainly isn't the case in Colorado where almost everything we eat gets trucked in from hundreds of miles away. Recent problems with salmonella and other food issues in the US show that the packaging/processing systems there aren't perfect either, however clean they might appear. I am not trying to suggest there are more food-borne illnesses in the US than Indonesia (that would be silly), but I am suggesting that our attitude about what we eat might not need to be as cautious as I often see. We can be suspicious of every bite of food, or we can try to be wise and then enjoy the amazing fresh and abundant variety of food we get to enjoy in this tropical climate.

     The person I heard talking about this suggested that Psalm 104 is a good way to keep our perspective on how amazing things are around us so that we can continue to be thankful and excited about the world, rather than frustrated and grumpy. Everything's amazing (in Indonesia and everywhere else!) so let's enjoy it!

Author: Sean McKelvey Living and learning in Sumatra, Indonesia

No comments:

Post a Comment