Sunday, July 10, 2011

Feels like Home

I woke up this morning sleeping on a futon on the floor in my sister's beautiful guestroom. The bed had a top sheet and a bottom sheet. A feather duvet kept me warm during the chilly night (anything under 85 feels cold now). As I lay in bed at 5:30am, amazed that the sun was up, that no one was honking or shouting, I realized it felt like home. I grew up sleeping on futons, in fact I didn't move to a bed with springs until... high school?

I realize that a futon on the floor isn't what typically feels like home to most Americans. Maybe home feels like a specific kind of blanket, or your dog whining to be taken out, or the bird singing outside your window. But a comfortable bed, a top sheet (no top sheets in Indonesia!), and a place where the sun rises and sets at different times depending on the time of year feels comfortable, even though I've never actually lived in this city, and this house is not technically my home.

While contemplating my comfy bed,and what I would do without my luggage, since it got lost in customs limbo, I got to thinking, that even though this is what I'm used to, that doesn't make it better than how anyone else sleeps. In Indonesia a lot of people simply unroll a straw mat, sometimes grab a pillow, and go to sleep, no blankets, no privacy. This has nothing to do with how much money the family has, they are just most comfortable sleeping on a straw mat, often with several other people.

Where am I going with this? It has occurred to me that through my presentations of culture, and the manifestations thereof, in the various places I visit, I may have done you and my friends in those places a bit of a disservice. I was hoping to present my experiences with reverence, to show the differences as well as the similarities, as well as to share my reflections on living and working somewhere so different than where I'm from. But instead, it has occurred to me that some of my posts could simply make someone say "phew! I'm glad I don't live there, those people really are uncivilized/undeveloped/in need of help." And while I could see why someone might feel that way, I think there is a different way to look and understand.

I have argued here and in other arenas against the concept of cultural relativism when those things that some claim are cultural infringe upon the human rights and dignity of people, most often women and children, but also other vulnerable groups. So while you may read my descriptions of whether to wear a jilbob (veil) or discussions with people that show me they have different understandings of the roles and rights of members of their society, it was not my intention to present all aspects of that cultural as inherently less valuable or less correct than those of the West.

I was talking with another Western researcher about how she felt in rural areas of Aceh, and her response was that she felt lucky. Lucky to have been raised by parents in a place where education and self determination were a given. We discussed who we might be if we had been raised in Aceh. I commented that I like to imagine I would be like myself, that I would have moved away to somewhere with more liberal laws, but who knows, maybe I would hold as tightly to Islam as I do to humanism. How do people living in Aceh, for instance, feel when they look at me though? It would be conceited and narrow sighted to imagine that everyone looks at me and thinks I am lucky and developed, something to strive to be like. We all cling to our own cultures and backgrounds, seeing everyone else as different, but often forget to imagine what we look like through their eyes.

I was taking a walk in rural Aceh with a researcher and several girls around 13 years old. They were giving us a tour of their town. They all wore veils and I would be genuinely surprised if any of them had left Aceh province. One girl, through the Bahasa Indonesia and English speaking researcher, told me that I should marry an Acehnese so I could move here. (I often get similar suggestions and marriage proposals, so I've got a bit of an arsenal of responses). I told her that that sounded like a good idea, but in return she would have to marry an American man. She looked at me with a mix of shock and disgust and shook her head. The researcher (who is Indonesian) apologized to me for the girl's response, explaining that it was not meant to be disrespectful of America, or some dislike of American men. But to this girl, who had worn a veil since a young age, rises at 5 am to pray, praying 4 more times throughout the day, was appalled by the notion of marrying someone who was so ignorant and uneducated that he was not Muslim. I just laughed, knowing that the vast majority of Americans would react the same way if I suggested they marry a traditional and strictly religious Muslim man in Indonesia.

And so, we must remember not only to observe the world around us, but also to look in the mirror on occasion, seeing ourselves as others see us. Perhaps you read my blogs and feel sorry for the women in Aceh, forced to wear veils and cover from ankles to wrists to neck, punished if caught engaging in premarital relations, prohibited from praying when menstruating, and who must have a male relative present to consent to their marriage. But look back, they may be looking at you and feeling pity too. Pity because you have not accepted Muhammad as the one true prophet, pity because you think that by showing skin and looking "sexy" you are showing your power, when in fact you are demonstrating your weakness rather than demanding respect from men, pity because your country has forgotten the meaning and value of family, pity because you worship money and power instead helping one another and working together.

And so, never forget that neither you nor I are objective observes of culture, nor can we be. And while you may read about the people in the places I go and feel sorry for them or thank your lucky stars for your freedom, the people I describe may be looking back and thinking exactly the same thing about you.

Monday, July 4, 2011

If I called you a misogynist, would you hold it against me?

Is it just me, or is it more socially acceptable to be a misogynist than a racist?

Most people seem to have heard that being racist, at least openly with people you don't know are also racist, is not socially acceptable. Judging people based on their race, hating them or assuming things about them, is relatively widely known to be unacceptable. But generally people at least look a bit sheepish after saying something racist, they realize they've said something that contradicts social norms, and sometimes even apologize.

Why isn't this also the case with misogyny? Somehow it hasn't gotten quite the same publicity. I've had several experiences over the past few weeks that have shown me that while women here may drive cars and go to university, feelings about their inequality with men not only exist, but are the standard. To start with a light example, I have been driving here, a stick shift on the left side of the road for that matter. But I had, up until this point, only driven myself and a friend, whenever the two men I work with were in the car they drove, in my mind because they know the area better and are used to the different traffic laws (and can read the street signs). But then I drove one morning, and both men sat in the back. One of the men continuously called me lady-driver, calling himself and the other man in the back ladyboys (or transgendered). So my driving feminizes you? It makes you more like a woman when a woman drives? It makes you less of a man? Hmm...

Then we were talking about corporal punishment of children. This is a contentious issue in many places, including in the United States, as parents maintain the right to hit their children to teach them discipline. A group of men voiced their disagreement with the promotion of Child Rights here, as it makes children object to being hit, and leaves parents without a means to teach them right from wrong. I commented that this might be true, but on the other hand, the same excuse has been used for hitting women. "I only hit my wife to teach her a lesson, and never with a closed fist." Ah how kind of you, good thing you know so much and can train your wife to act exactly as you want her to, in a situation where she is essentially powerless. As I said this I glanced into the back seat and saw one of the men I work with nod. Nod. As in a "yes yes, but it's only to teach her" nod.

Then today at dinner we were chatting, and another team member brought up a story of a girl who was raped in a rural area of the province. She expressed shock that a member of our team agreed that in this and other similar incidents of sexual assault, the girl always carried the blame. She should not have worn that, been there, enticed him so, smiled at him like that. Girls are sent away in some rural areas after being raped, partially because they have dishonored their families by having pre-marital sex, and partially as punishment for enticing a man to have pre-marital sex.

I know what I would do if either of these situations occurred when I was in the US. I would express my outrage verbally, focusing on the lack of blame placed on men in either of the last two scenarios, despite the fact that they are the violent aggressors. I would ask the men if it would be similarly acceptable to do such a thing to a man, to hit him to teach him a lesson or to rape him because he smiled and wore his shirt a bit tight. Oh no? Why not? He might hit you back? He is your equal? He doesn't need to be taught a lesson because he already knows the right way to act?

I know no one has ever changed such an ingrained opinion over the course of one conversation. No one will decide that women are victims and survivors of sexual violence, rather than its cause and consequence in a day. But I would also be unwilling to bite my tongue, because I would equate my silence with tacit acceptance.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

But what about when the people you're talking to are of a different culture? I don't believe that violence against and hatred of women can be justified via cultural relativism. Cultural norms are important and necessary, but are not worth preserving when they violate the basic human rights of others. But what about when they are people you work with and must continue working with? How do you balance you personal beliefs and morals while maintaining tranquility among colleagues, who will likely only dismiss what you have to say as Western anyhow, claiming you do not understand the Culture here? Can you keep quiet without feeling guilty?  I don't know.

But I do follow the cultural norms here. I don't shake your hand, we gently touch fingertips and touch our hearts. I am quiet when appropriate, as our local male researchers lead introductions and explanations. I express doubt at their overt and covert misogyny, enough to have expressed how I feel, but just little enough to avoid a debate that I know will go no where. Then I come here. And I tell all of you. And then I get in the driver's seat, and let them fight their own feelings of inadequacy, because those are not mine to fight.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Slap Jack

Have you ever played slapjack? It's a bit like the card game war, but with more hitting. You sit facing your opponent(s), cards in hand, as cards are laid down by players one at a time, you may slap the pile every time you see a jack. If you're the first person to slap the pile, you win the jack and all the cards beneath it. The game ends when one player has all the cards. A player who is "out" because he or she is out of cards can "slap back in" by winning a slap when a jack turns up. It can turn into a bit of a violent game (if you play it right).

Now imagine slapjack with food, and some manners. A lot of the food here is Padang food, it is both a style of serving food, as well as the cuisine that hails from Padang, Indonesia. Each person at the table starts with a heaping bowl of white rice. No, you can't have something else. No they don't have brown rice. Next is when the food is dealt, all hands off the table now, no cheating and jumping your turn. Everyone at the table watches as the waiter brings small bowl after small bowl of food. They are all placed on the table, then as more bowls come a second layer is carefully balanced on top of the first, making a small pyramid of bowls.

Everyone at the table watches as the food is delivered, secretly having their eye on one particular dish or another, as the food is different in each bowl. This dish has fried shrimp, that dish has beef with spicy red sauce, this dish has boiled greens, that dish has fried chicken, this dish has big pieces of fish in yellow sauce, that one has shrimp and potatoes in chili, this one omelette with onion, that one many tiny fish mixed in sauce, this one fried tempeh, that one something you can't quite identify. You only pay for the dishes you eat, each ranging from about 50 cents to 2 dollars USD.

Once all the food has been laid out, everyone dips their right hand into a small bowl of water sitting next to their bowl of rice, washing it by dipping it in and out of the water and rubbing the fingers against the palm. Then people start reaching for bowls. They're small bowls so there may only be enough in a particular bowl to serve one, maybe two people. You see someone lifting that bowl of curried oysters off the top layer, your heart skips a beat, but then they set it down, going for the shark beneath. You politely reach over, bringing the oysters to rest beside you, content that you've slapped your jack.

Then you either pour the contents of your bowl over your rice, or spoon it in, making sure to "wet your rice" with lots of delicious sauce that invariably contains lots of chili, and a little coconut milk too if you're lucky. You ask to a share the mixed veggies that someone else has only taken some of, you add a few shrimp to even out the meal. Then you dig in. Using your right hand (right hand only! I tend to keep my left hand in my lap to make sure I don't use it, just like you have to keep your left hand behind your back in slapjack), reach into your bowl. Mush your rice around a bit to make sure it's wet with sauce. Scoop up a shrimp, still in its shell, and some rice you've squished together, then use the four fingers of your left hand like a little shovel. Raise the shovel to your mouth and slide your lunch in. Crunchy (here shrimp shells are viewed as a good source of calcium), spicy!, chewy, delicious. Have another bite. Yikes a chili! Have a bit of cucumber, desperately sip your hot water (it's hot so you know they've just boiled it). No milk here. No bread here. Just you against the chili oil burning your lips.

But it's addictive. You want more. You keep spooning and mushing. When you finish you rinse your right hand in the bowl of water again. Luckily for you, you eat Padang food at least once every day or two, sometimes twice a day. Plus, if you ask nicely, they'll always bring your table a second dish of whichever is your favorite, but it's not nearly as much fun that way.