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.