Saturday, September 12, 2009

Everywhere is not America

A few days ago I almost wrote a post lamenting that everywhere is America, that is, everywhere seems to have taken on the pop culture and social assumptions and expectations of the U.S. I knew better. Where there is imitation, it is sometimes humorous, sometimes pitiful, and sometimes simply to be expected with economic development. Besides, such a view is rather shallow, and indicates one hasn't gone out of his way to find the differences that still very much remain.

Even though I won't have much of that opportunity because of my occupational obligations and the preferences of my host, I am still able to get my feet wet in the differences between Indonesia and the U.S. (Not all of these are unique to Jakarta, of course, either.)

One great thing is bargaining. In the States you can actually bargain, even in big box stores or malls, if you ask the right person (i.e., manager). But here (like most places), it is expected, and I don't have to run to find the manager if I want to make a deal.

Now I actually don't like confrontations with strangers, so you'd think I'd get ripped off every time because I'm not tough enough to stand my ground. But I am also enough of a cheapskate, which tends to win out over my mild personality. Here's an example:

Vendor to me (walking by wares as casually as possible, hoping no one will actually start showing me things): Can I help you? Maybe you like this special Indonesian cloth? Here, in red, or blue, green, yellow (starts pulling out what seems to be half of her supply).
I (slowing to look, because I am actually interested, but trying to stay casual): Well, I'm not looking for exactly that design (non-committally, but really having little idea yet of what I want).
Vendor: How about this? (Unfolds cloth) See how beautiful? You like this size? You want bigger?
I (getting sucked in): Yeah, maybe bigger. It needs to cover a big dining room table.
Vendor: OK, how about this? You like this design?
I (getting serious, examining the weave and quality of the cloth, and the quality of the print): Do you have something nicer?
Vendor: Oh, you want handmade? Over here we have our handmade items. Come. (She leads me to the center of the display area and pulls out cloth that is clearly of higher quality: a stronger weave with irregularities of a handmade process).
I (noticing the prices are about three times as much): Oh, that's nice (returning to non-committal state).
Vendor: For you, I make a deal (knocks 15% of the price).
I (knowing that I actually planned to buy something like this so I better take it seriously. I'm also emboldened by how easy it was to get the first discount): Let's find something in blue. Let's look through these.
(the Vendor starts pulling out ones I indicate I'm interested in. I note the marked prices as well as the quality of each one, and the ones I like)
I (paying attention mostly to those which are a bit under my budget, while occasionally admiring the nicer ones, one of which I'm really after): Well, let me think about these here. Let's hold them up. I wonder how this would look on the table....That other one there is really nice, but probably out of my price range.
Vendor (knocks 25 % off). OK, for you I can give you this price.
I: No, that's a little high. I'll have to go with one of these other ones. What can you offer me for these?
Vendor (20% off the cheaper ones): This price.
I: That's pretty good. (Looks back at better one.) My budget is around this much (mentions about 1/3 of the actual price of the one I want. This is the key counter offer. You have to start really low, even if it sounds outlandish. Some people who are actually good at this claim you should start at 10% of the asking price.) What do you think you could offer me for that?
Vendor (definitely focused on the cheaper ones after hearing my offer!): I can offer you one of these at this price (knocks 30 or 35% off).
I (just stand there and look). I don't know. It's not exactly what I want, I suppose.
Vendor: You get this for your wife? A special gift? Birthday?
I: No, just a souvenir for the trip. Nothing special.
Vendor: OK, I can give you this (cheaper one) for this much (knocks about 40-45% off the price).
I: Hmmm. This other one is the nicest. Do you think you could sell me that for the same price (which is 50% off the price of the nicer one, the one I really want).
Vendor (Looking surprised, and a little disgusted, starting to scold me): No, I couldn't do that.
I just stand there and look at the item.
Vendor: OK, for you, 50% off.

And that's the story of how I got a pretty good souvenir for half price. In a mall, no less. Without being too confrontational. And, actually, it is not a piece of cloth, but the item in the story has been changed to keep the recipient in suspense until I arrive home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Moria's audacious statement of the day

The American Midwest is more humid than Southeast Asia.

I have actually speculated that this is the case for a number of years now. I recall my days trekking around Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, hot and sweaty, but not unbearably so. Years later I moved to the Midwest, and always struggled through the summers. There would be days I would go lay out--perfectly still--and still sweat like a glass of ice tea.

That's the evidence. In the Midwest, you can break a severe sweat doing nothing. But in Southeast Asia, it takes some intense working to get that sweaty. I was walking around outside in Jakarta Sunday afternoon and didn't break a sweat. I sit outside for my meals here and don't break a sweat. It's hot, and not that comfortable, but not that humid, either.

To be fair, not every day in the Midwest is like that, and this past summer was amazingly mild. Really enjoyable, actually. But it still seems that, in general, the Midwest is more humid than Southeast Asia.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I keep hearing how awful the traffic is in Jakarta--from others who have visited, from the guidebook, from my hosts. I have yet to experience the traffic, because I have only been here on the weekend. Hopefully I won't have to experience the traffic. My acquaintances here are duly cautious of it, and practically refuse to go out in it at all.

We did manage to get out and about a little yesterday, being Sunday. There is a church supply store here, which we only spent a little while at, because it closes early enough in the afternoon. The products are certainly inexpensive, although there was not quite the selection of things that I had been expecting based on reports from others who had visited before me. There is a huge selection of crucifixes, and while I suppose one can't have too many crucifixes, I'm not sure how many I really need to pick up at this point.

Kota is the old colonial center of the city, a large plaza with a few buildings originally used by Dutch rules, such as the governor's office and courthouse. The buildings are various states of disrepair, although a few house museums. One building that is restored similar to its 1930s appearance houses the Cafe Batavia, a coffeehouse, restaurant, and bar with high ceilings, polished wood decor, and portraits of various figures, some famous and some not, some in risque poses or dress, covering most of the wall area. Huge shutters adorn large framed windows, which now remain permanently closed thanks to the air conditioning.

I ate dim sum while I was there. It was decent, although I've had better.

We managed to get to a couple different malls, too. Sunday is a shopping day for many people, again, because of the traffic on other days of the week. I picked up a few necessities since my own suitcase had only made it as far as Detroit. I also found a few souvenirs.

The first photo is the plaza at Kota. The second is the bar in Cafe Batavia, and the third is the restroom--pictures even there.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How has travel in Asia changed in the past 10-15 years?

Not much, really. At least air travel. Airports are airports, and airplanes are airplanes. And it's not that I expected it to have changed that much, anyway. Security is a little tighter, obviously. The same kinds of limits to liquids in ziploc bags in carry-ons apply as it does in the States, except everything is expressed in metric. 500 ml bg, 100 ml of each liquid.

Seems like I am always flying to the same places. When I first traveled around Asia in 1994, I flew to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and a few other places, all from my main destination of Tokyo. This trip, I'm flying through Tokyo and Bangkok to Jakarta, and back through Singapore and Tokyo. The Bangkok airport is brand new, built three years ago, but, as I say, it's hard to remember any real differences from the old one, as airports are airports.

I guess that's not completely true. The Jakarta airport is small enough that it reminds me of a regional airport. The corridor floors are a reddish color, and the large windows invite in the greens, oranges, blues of the flora: all kinds of trees, grasses, bushes and flowers. I am struck by the variety of flora here. It is very beautiful.

15 years ago the language most often heard in Asia travel seemed to be Japanese. I suppose that had to do with how I traveled, since I went through Tokyo so much. Still, I remember that many of the passengers I heard, even going to SE Asia, were speaking Japanese. That is no longer the case. Japanese was still used for announcements flying out of Japan, but Mandarin seems to be much more prevalent now. And most of the travelers on my flights were not Japanese.

There doesn't seem to be much sightseeing to do in Jakarta, and since I am here to work, I won't get away to other destinations. That is a slight pity, considering the promising beauty I've glimpsed. Maybe some day I'll have to come back for a vacation :).

Monday, August 17, 2009

I Think We're Alone Now

It used to be that families weren't merely people to live with, but one's family actually gave meaning and opportunity to a person. The family was the built-in relationships that a person had, more established and longstanding than even the best of friendships. And for those who had difficulty making friends, for whatever reason, the family provided at least the potential that one never need be lonely.

I don't mean that "in the old days" people weren't lonely. Loneliness is part of the fallen human condition. We might be lonely even with many people around. But there is at least one particular way of life that is more common today and increases the chances of loneliness: the single adult.

I also don't mean there have never been single adults. But I would venture to suggest that in the last 100 years, and surely in the last 50 years, the number of single adults who live alone in their own households has greatly increased. And the single adult who lives alone is already at a disadvantage when it comes to loneliness; he or she doesn't have the built-in family in the household.

I know there are plenty of exceptions and caveats: family may still live nearby; single adults have roommates; single adults take advantage of and enjoy this lack of attachment. That's fine, but it's not really what I'm musing about. I'm thinking about the single adult who basically lives alone (or with a roommate who has his or her own life), and doesn't have the schedule and obligations of other family members filling the day.

Many people may think of this as a blessing, as an opportunity for the person to make the most of the lack of obligation. But at some point, sooner or later, the person will want more permanent companionship. Marriage is what many look for, but sometimes marriage doesn't avail itself right away, or ever. And, sadly, marriages sometimes end, leaving them alone again.

I have often encouraged such single adults to combat this loneliness by volunteering, by inserting themselves, so to speak, into the lives of other families, helping them in the busy-ness and craziness of their schedules, babysitting, doing chores, running errands, whatever. But this does, in a way, seem to leave the family as the focus, and the individual as someone who has to fit him- or herself into the established family. Some singles have responded to me that families should be just as intentional in interacting with and interesting themselves in the activities and interests of the singles. Yet anyone who has spent time with a busy family knows that this also is a difficult request.

So, what do we do to combat this kind of loneliness? Are established families being selfish? How do they balance their God-given responsibilities of raising their children and caring for others in their households with the call to interact with others outside of their households? Especially, what should the church, as the new household of God, do?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"...just when you were becoming interesting!"

Growing up takes time, of course, but there are certain events that mark significant transitions in this maturing process. I'm sure that the further we move from the recent Higher Things Conference, the more we will recognize this as one of those events for Alena.

It all happened rather by accident. She's not really quite of the standard age for attending. But one youth member had to back out of the conference after registering, and, because there was a no refund policy, a replacement had to be found. I suppose there are others, a little older than Alena, that could have gone, but she was suggested by a couple people, and then practically begged for by another, so I could hardly say no. Thanks are due, by the way, to one female chaperon who offered to keep a special eye on her throughout the conference. That made the whole decision and the subsequent enjoying of the conference must easier.

So, for the first time in her life, and for a few days, Alena was basically on her own. Not that she was alone, of course, but she was largely responsible for her own decisions. She ate what she wanted, attended the sessions she wanted, and interacted with the people that she wanted to. (Apparently she couldn't sleep in as late as she wanted though; Karen had her up every day to be one of the first at breakfast :). ) There were other young people to help her and advise her, but that, more than anything strikes me as part of what it means to grow up: to engage with others who are peers, learn to do good and worthy things, and then actually to carry them out.

She appreciated all her sessions and seemed to follow them well. She took notes, and has been thinking about things she learned. She claims to have had the most fun of any child on the trip, and the ear-to-ear grin she wore every time that I saw her during the week supports that claim. She asked questions, met new people, both youth and adults, played games, and sang in the choir. You can also see it in the way she relates to her mother now that she's home again. They talk and converse about ideas; they share advice; she takes on greater responsibility each day.

So, just like that, the girl is becoming a woman. Of course she will mature much more in coming years, but I don't think it's incorrect to see this as a turning point. It also doesn't mean that I expect to burden her with the anxieties of adulthood. That's the joyless part that I'll keep from her as long as I can, without a bit of regret. But she is at the age where she still has the young spirit, with a mind that is beginning to think about ideas, consequences, meaning, and deep friendship. This is the fun age; the beginning of the best age, perhaps.

There is an ironic and perhaps melancholy line in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," where Indiana and Henry are discussing the relationship they had when Indiana was a child. Finally, Henry declares abruptly, "You left just when you were becoming interesting!"

Thankfully, it looks like it will still be a number of years before Alena leaves.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What To Do When There's No Wireless

I don't think I'd ever played Red Rover in my life until yesterday.

We're wandering around Calvin College during conference free time. The campus is beautiful--almost wooded--with wandering paths and many grass fields and small patios for taking a break from walking. But there isn't a centrally located area where everyone can congregate, hang out, and look for people they know. So unless you have a plan already before free time begins, you're left wandering around with a couple people, wondering if you should swim, karaoke, or try to go off campus for a while.

So I'm wandering around campus with three youth, and we stumble upon a group of kids playing Red Rover. Nat is known by one of them, so we get invited to play. Needless to say, the game is very different when young adults are playing. Matthew, the smallest person playing, gets called over as soon as we join up, comes leaping into my arm and the guy's next to me, flips over our arms and lands on his head. "Is your back OK?" "My back's fine; it's my neck that hurts." I guess that's why we fill out the medical releases. ("Don't worry," Karin, he seems to be fine this morning. He can still move all his limbs.)

Over the next 30 minutes or so, young ladies are getting clotheslined, everyone's getting abrasions on their arms, and large young men are barreling others over. At one point the other team was down to five people, but we kept asking passersby to join us, so the teams just kept getting bigger and bigger. I think at is largest our team had about 50-60 people on it.

This reminds me of the other game I've been playing recently, "British Bulldog," a game I hadn't played since I was a boy. After church many Sundays we kids would gather on the open field and play: one kid in the middle, the others on one side of the field. After the guy in the middle yells "British Bulldog," the others run across the field, trying to reach the other side without being tackled by the one in the middle. When tackled, you join the "bulldog" in the middle, till there are none left.

I had not seen this game played nor heard of it since I was about 11, till just a couple weeks ago, when the kids at our church now are playing it. "British Bulldog!" I exclaim, immediately joining in. Thankfully, I'm bigger than everyone else, so I don't get hit too hard.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Waiting for Pandora

In the Greek myth, Pandora is both the recipient of gifts from every god, and the giver of "gifts" to mankind. Once the box is opened, Pandora is unable to stop the emergence of every kind of pain and hardship.

Our modern Pandora, however, seems to fall a little short of her namesake.

It is probably the case that I need some advice on how to adjust and modify what she has to offer. Still, I expected that on Pandora I would hear all kinds of music related to the seeds I name, especially songs and artists not typically heard on the radio or highlighted on CDs. If the ancient Pandora releases every variety of trouble, the contemporary Pandora should play every variety of a seed or genre, right?

I could understand if I didn't like the songs played, especially if I weren't providing enough feedback/seeds. But my complaint isn't about the genre of songs, but their commonness. What I especially don't understand is that I don't hear on Pandora the songs and artists that aren't regularly played on the radio. I would think that with so many artists and songs out there, there would be no need to repeat a song for days. I also would think that besides playing the popular songs of artists that we are already familiar with, they would try to introduce songs that aren't as well known, to expand my horizon. You know, the infinite variety thing. Yet both of these happened to me:

I create a new station with the seeds "Yes" and "Rush." Within a few hours I have heard the Who song "Behind Blue Eyes" not only once, but twice, even though I didn't click on the thumbs up sign the first time it came through.

I have a another rock station with a number of band seeds, Van Halen, Def Leppard, yada yada yada, and it plays "Jump," but nothing from 5150, Diver Down, Fair Warning, High 'n' Dry, etc.

I still have Hope, though. Today on my local radio stations I heard "Best of Both Worlds" and "Whip It."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Inviting Gossip

Often the worst kind of gossip is the kind that is not malicious. People gossip about their enemies with evil intent, and this is often harmful. But the worst gossip is the gossip spread by friends who intend only good.

How does this happen? Friends think they know what is going on with their friends. They may be concerned, they may admire, or they may simply think they are passing on the truth, and they go and tell others what their impression of the situation is. Usually this impression fails to capture all the details or factors of a situation, and a false report is given. This false report becomes accepted as the truth by friends, and the character and reputation of a person are injured, perhaps more greatly than by an enemy, because nobody thinks to question the report.

The solution, however, is not simply to stop saying anything about anybody. When we say things, we should do everything we can to verify the truth. Talk to the person about whom you were going to talk. Talk with them. I find it odd that we so willing to say all kinds of things about others when they aren't around, even good things, but it is almost impossible for us to address things of any weight face to face.

Part of that is because we're afraid our friends will be offended if we question or challenge them. I can't bring up my concern directly with my friend, because it would cause a confrontation! But a confrontation is better than gossip.

A lot of people wish their friends would butt out when it comes to personal decisions. This happens a lot with raising children. Two families may be the best of friends, but God forbid one start giving advice to the other on how to raise kids. Much of this reaction comes from a sense that I am the best person to make a decision for or about myself or my family. I know the full context, the potential repercussions, the alternatives. I know the traditions of my family, the effect my decisions and actions have on myself and others. I probably am the best person to make a decision for myself.

But none of this means a person can't stop and listen to other opinions. We should even be willing to be challenged by our friends and families, to be questioned by them. Because, after all, family traditions really might just be ruts; expected repercussions might just be conditioned assumptions; alternatives are never as varied in one person's mind as in two or more. We should all be willing to hear advice, opinions, alternatives, and even challenges from those who love us and care for us. My way may not be the best way! After all, for as many families as there are, there are ways for raising children. Maybe one technique that I hadn't heard of before will help me out. Maybe the way I've been doing it all along hasn't worked out quite right.

So, the thin-skinned kind of person that won't engage with those close to him who have serious and helpful opinions might just be inviting gossip. Because if they don't bring their opinion to him, they might just end up taking it to someone else.

Friday, July 10, 2009

People try to put us down...

I am a kid at heart. By this, I don't mean that I embrace or try to follow the fads of the youth culture. I don't think it means, necessarily, that I am immature. It means something along the lines of having a free spirit and not being anxious about things.

I like to live in the moment, enjoy myself, and seek fulfillment in things that I do. I don't worry about the future, nor do I think age and responsibility require me to give up these characteristics. And I think this is a good thing.

In many ways, my teen years were the best years of my life. I actually liked high school. It was not an awkward, fearful time of trying to fit in. I did my thing, had my friends, and enjoyed myself. Some people didn't like me, and that was OK. I didn't hold grudges. Who has time to do that? There were places to go, people to see, things to do.

By this, I don't mean that my life now is less fulfilling or less enjoyable, but that my teen years taught me how to appreciate and take advantage of life. Because of things I did and learned as a teenager, I have made choices in my 30s that have been good for me and for my family.

So I, for one, defend the youth. Not everything they do, or the fads they follow, but simply being young. The young have the energy, attitude, and naivete to step out of a comfort zone, try something new, learn from it, and become a better person.

None of this has to be done in a selfish way. Being a young person deosn't mean one has to be selfish. To seek self-fulfillment can and ought to be done for the sake of other people. Who but the teenager (and some retired people) has hours and the ability to spend tutoring young children, visiting the homebound and sick, or serving up food and clothing to those who need it? Who but the teenager and twenty-something has the time and capacity to learn advanced philosophy, science, fine arts, or fine trades? Who but the young person typically can travel all over the globe, meeting the Chinese, Nigerian, or German in his home setting? And what horizons, skills, and worldviews are opened up by this service, learning, and exploration? On the outside it may seem like selfish self-fulfillment. But self-fulfillment is self-development and education. It makes a person more capable of loving and serving others.

Young people should be young people for the sake of others: their friends, their families, neighbors, strangers.

What comes to the one who loses his free spirit, his outlook of self-fulfillment--the opportunity continually to grow? Mid-life crises. Anxiety that things won't ever change. Burden from what has become a rut, even if this "rut" is a wonderful and loving spouse and children. Grudges and bitterness.

St. Paul says that when he became a man, he gave up childish ways. So be it. Let us give up the selfishness and ignorance. Let us embrace the maturity and fullness of who we are in the image of God. But let us never give up that heart of a child, which eagerly receives all good things set before it, and sometimes even goes and seeks them out.