The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, June 09, 2013


Sharing is caring

As the family’s only car owner my sister in law is an unpaid de-facto cabbie, carting siblings, nieces, nephews and a saloon of other relatives to schools and shops.

Like many women drivers SIL doesn’t exhibit the brash, bash-through behavior of male road users preferring to be cautious – a fine quality when avoiding the brutal, careless and confrontational drivers.  And that’s just the pedicab pushers.

My admiration goes beyond her skills behind the wheel. For SIL always travels with a full tank of patience.

Not towards other motorists.  They get the heavy horn treatment if they haven’t hit third gear before the lights flick to green. Her tolerance is for others in the car.

An excursion isn’t a journey of one driver and five passengers.  It’s a trip with six drivers.

No matter that most don’t have licenses or have never driven – these are not impediments to giving advice:

“Overtake him, go faster, push in, don’t worry - he’ll brake, ignore him, he’s smaller, you can get through there, turn left, no, sorry right, ha, ha, wrong again …”

At first I thought SIL would boot the brake through the floorboards and scream: “Will you all shut up! If you reckon you’re so smart, drive it yourself,” then jump into the next passing bemo with the keys in her purse, shouting: “Just leave me alone!”

Of course being an Indonesian she’d never display such impoliteness.

I almost succumbed, demonstrating crassness and maladjustment. Instead I swallowed my tongue for I was not in a culture where driving is a job for one – here it’s gotong royong.

This is the communal self-help system (a ‘busy bee’ in some parts of Australasia), not confined to threshing rice and building mosques.  Apart from driving it also extends to education.

After setting an assignment at a prestigious East Java university I was astonished to find the students in the library huddled in clusters.

“This is not a group task,” I raged, impotently. “I want to know what you’ve learned and what you think as an individual.”

I might as well have spoken in ancient Greek because it was clear no one understood.  Independent, alone, solo, unaccompanied – what do such words mean?

A student explained in a voice used for the young and witless:  “We have to work and assist each other so when we graduate and want a job we can call on our former colleagues for help.”

Sharing as an exercise in future proofing.

The West has the do-it-yourself (DIY) cult that keeps home hardware stores hammering – Indonesia’s practise is DIT (do-it-together).  No wonder around 50 million Indonesians use Facebook – the highest number in Southeast Asia.

Scots say too many cooks spoil the broth – Indonesians assume the more chefs the better the meal. Westerners claim a camel is a horse dreamed up by a committee – Indonesians reckon only a group could have designed a horse.

We think two’s company, three’s a crowd, a mass a misery.  The more the merrier; there’s safety in numbers.

Foreigners here try and avoid eye contact with other outsiders.  Why seek out folk we’d never acknowledge at home?  Indonesians abroad seem forever happy to meet fellow expats.  No wonder Indonesian friendliness is world famous.

Demographics determine attitude. In my home state there’s a square kilometer for every human.  In Java, the world’s most populous island, I rub up against 960 people (and a similar number of motorbikes) in the same hundred hectares.  Even soy beans in tempe have more space.

The proverb makan gak makan asal kumpul (even though we have no food we have each other) sums up the situation. A song of the same name celebrates a life compressed.

If English poet William Wordsworth had lived in Indonesia he wouldn’t have wandered lonely as a cloud.  He’d never find himself apart, and certainly wouldn’t get to see a host of golden daffodils – they’d have all been trampled.

Given such a cultural background it’s no wonder my SIL has no problems with backseat drivers.  Me? It’s walk, or adapt and join the car chorus.  No local license but I’m a foreigner and a man so clearly know it all: ‘Hey, keep left …’ 

(First published in The Sunday Post, 9 June 2013)


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