Somewhere Between Privilege & Poverty

Before coming to Indonesia, giving back was not something that I did.  When I was a teenager, I was a part of my church’s youth group and we would occasionally visit a children’s home or an old age home.  But throughout most of my adult life, not counting interpersonal relationships, my efforts at giving to others have been almost entirely financial and from a distance.

Before, when my life was all about me, I found it fairly easy to let my eyes hurry past the less fortunate, ensuring that they didn’t register too deeply in my brain so that I didn’t really have to care or actually do something to help them.  My eyes would easily glaze over as they slid past these people and my mind would forget the discomfort of being confronted by their poverty or misfortune the moment I was out of their presence.  I would breathe an internal sigh of relief and move on to whatever was next on my to-do list.

This easy dismissal of those less fortunate than me has come to a grinding halt since I moved to Indonesia.  In fact, since I’ve been living in Jakarta Timur (East Jakarta), my eyes tend to glaze over as a survival mechanism when they slide past any corner of the house I live in, but I’m allowing myself to see just about everything else quite clearly for the first time in my life.

A couple of weeks ago, as I circulated among the crowds on the nights of my brief foray into the fringes of Indonesian high society, I realised that the ex-pats among whom I was circulating have absolutely no idea where Jakarta Timur is located.  They had never even heard of it.  As I shook hands and answered questions about what I’m doing here (my new standard answer is, “I teach English and do a bunch of other things at a very small, extremely poorly run NGO”) and where I live, I watched a blank look come over every face when I answered, “Jakarta Timur.”  It is literally less than 30 minutes away from where we were standing in Jakarta Pusat (Central Jakarta), which is the fancy schmancy part of town where the functions were held, and where I’m guessing just about all of the people at those functions live and work.  Jakarta Timur, where I live and work, is far from fancy schmancy.

Like so many neighbourhoods in so many countries in the world, the neighbourhood where I live in Jakarta Timur is made up of middle class and poor families, living side by side.  The street that we live on is middle class, and a 2-minute walk away is a poorer neighbourhood made up of families that earn about 2 million rupiah (about US$150) a month, some less.

For some reason, it niggled at the back of my mind for a couple of days that these people with whom I was socialising had never even heard of a whole section of the city in which they live.  It niggled for 2 days until the Thursday morning after my hobnobbing was done.  I had awoken ridiculously early again and since I was going on 3 days off starting the next morning, I decided to get up and get a jump start on my to-do list.

It was about 6 am and I was walking back from 7-Eleven (coffee was required that day).  As I strolled past the place where the Go-Jek riders usually hang out, I waited to hear their usual greeting of, “Hallo, miiiiiiiiiiiss!”  It didn’t come so I looked across to see what was up.  What I saw was 4 of them fast asleep, lying on the tables under their hangout tent.  I looked at them as I walked, feeling a little sad and very aware of the fact that they very likely had spent the entire night there.  Yes, they may have been out on calls throughout the night but for whatever reason, this was where they had chosen to get some rest.  Whatever the reasons, they were probably not good (exhaustion from having to work all night, home was far away, there was no home).

Another awareness came along with my observation of these men.  I became very aware that I no longer skate my eyes past misfortune.  I also became very aware that if I was living in Jakarta Pusat with the other privileged ex-patriates, I would likely not have had the opportunity to really see those Go-Jek guys sleeping on those tables.  In this case, there was nothing for me to do for them, but it felt good in a way to know that I was actually allowing myself to see them.

Yes, I’ve been financially helping others for years and I’m glad that God has developed that desire and discipline in me.  That type of help is important and I will always do that.  But I see now that I used money to keep myself insulated against having to give something more valuable and more difficult to give – my time and myself.  I don’t fool myself to think that I can possibly really understand what the lives of the truly less fortunate are like.  After all, to go on one of my monthly weekends, I sometimes spend more than what they earn in an entire month.  But now I’m no longer afraid to feel compassion and empathy when I am confronted with their situations.

So, I suppose my new place of abode is on the fence somewhere between privilege and poverty – I come from privilege and I will always return there but I work in and around poverty.  Perhaps, for me, that’s the greatest privilege of all.


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