More than Wanderlust (awkwardly inserting the blog title)
Everyday I think about why I’m such an anomaly in the countries I have travelled to. Back home I’m not typically thoroughly stared at, I can go about my tasks without being badgered by curious people, and people don’t normally hide from me or point out my outward differences. Sometimes I feel alien, not from this world, and I want to tell the people who constantly stare that I am from the same planet as them. But they still stare and yell at me for my attention.
And the question of “why” still rattles around my thoughts. It could be because I am a minority, one of the only long-term foreigners in Semarang, but something tells me it could relate to the colour of my skin, the fact I am Caucasian in a place influenced by Hollywood. I don’t want to admit what my skin colour means to people because being a certain race, ethnicity, or culture is not sin, but what people release from themselves is sin, what people say or do can be sin. However there exist controversies such as “white privilege” and the “white saviour” complex, which is a reality that needs to be recognized and acknowledged.
I’m reluctant to speak of race and ethnicity because there exist so many races around the world. Various cultures experience them differently from what I am used to, and my journey through this is to be reflective of my position, not to spite others.
Let’s begin with who I am. I am a volunteer through Mennonite Central Committee who lives and serves in Indonesia. My purpose is to assimilate with the Indonesian culture, to honour the culture, and learn the language by immersion. Although I do not agree with everything, I have been humbled by finally being the minority. Of course being the minority here will look different from being the minority elsewhere, but I am part of the community nonetheless. So far I have achieved basic understanding of the language, a few good photographs, and met some of the most amazing people who are continuing to teach me so much.
My purpose is not to enter this country to theoretically save the people. My purpose is not of “white saviour,” but as a learner to be humbled, to be communicative, to be someone to absorb what I see, hear, and taste. There is nothing wrong with people being “behind the times,” or whatever it is people mention about “developing countries.” And no I will not dive into clean water, food supplies, government, and finances, which are things that I acknowledge, but I don’t feel I have the right to rant about. I’m thinking in terms of tradition, technology, and way of life. My purpose will never be that of white saviour, but of learner and sharing life, doing life together.
When I think of other people who explain their “saving” abilities, I can only think about those travellers of the earlier days to countries in Africa or to Hawaii. Those people who took advantage of the word and put it into their own terms—in terms of acquisition, of colonization. Of course not all travellers past or current do those things, but when thinking of “developing countries,” do we think of creative people doing their best with what they are given, with what they find themselves or do we think of uneducated and backwards people who need our abilities to be “better?” Do we believe we can learn from them or do they have to learn from us?
From my short splices of time around the world, I don’t want to become the idolized foreigner so many organizations proclaim, the one to save the people. When I go to those places, I know next to nothing about their cultures, way of life, language, where people live, how they work, or whatever else may concern their livelihood. With my lack of knowledge, I am not qualified as a person who knows what that culture needs, to give life tips through an interpreter. At best I am a tourist, a guest, but the most important, I am a learner. If there is something already established by the local people, and I have the knowledge and skill set to efficiently help the people, then I see no problem going into that situation to help. But I must have a strong desire to learn form the people rather than only to teach others my ways.
But sometimes I see organizations sending groups of youth to various countries under construction projects. Typically these trips are approximately 2 to 3 week and include some vacation time. The big mistake is these groups of youth don’t have the skill set, the knowledge to help build structures the community is in need of. And their time is so short that there would be little time for learning how. I like to call these the tourist service trips. Tourists who do random things and then go off to vacation never (sometimes) to return again.
I have been on a few of these trips in the past, but the tasks the leaders gave us were easily accomplished by under skilled students. We painted walls while the local construction workers built around us, who also taught us curious few to stir cement correctly so those who wanted or knew a little about it, could do that. That was the difference, we worked alongside locals who also taught us, and we went to places that were already established with people knowledgeable in what the communities needed. Now I won’t begin on thoughts of our egos, and pre-established social concerns, but doing those tasks I felt a sense of accomplishment. A wall needed to be painted, and we did that for them. Not in terms of saving others, but in terms of connecting with the people and giving them something that was worthwhile, not a leaning wall of bricks that people will have to later reconstruct.
Skills and a job, whether international or domestic, have to be agreeable with each other. They have to compliment each other. If there were a construction job in the States, would they hire a spindly kid who took one course of wood shop or the person who can lift bags of cement and drive a tractor? If there is a medical position, will they hire a person who was a lifeguard for a summer or the person who has a degree in nursing?
In order to help people, we need to understand, to know how to help. If we never live with the culture, learn from them, then we are only adding struggles for that culture and for ourselves. We have to have a willingness to learn the language, the culture, how to eat like them, which will most definitely produce digestion discomforts over a long-term position (speaking from experience), and what ever else may honour that culture. We may make mistakes, not always know everything, not always agree with the culture, but we become lessened when our goal is to learn, as well as to help (given the situation of our position).
With international wanderlust, if you become part of that, what I ask is to not forget about home. Don’t forget where you come from, no matter how crazy that place is. Home still has struggles and things that need attention, and what you learn, you can take with you wherever you travel to. Painting a wall in Vancouver, Canada is just as important as painting a wall in Sao Paulo, Brasil. You can begin to teach the community you come from about what you learned, giving back to that community, and not about how many people you saved. Because even when you go home, your travels are not about you but about what you can give back. Becoming a messenger, a transmitter of humility to those who desperately need it.
Going to live internationally is not for your ego, vanity, your life saving skills, for your pride, for you to be the better person, the more educated, for you to rampage around not being part of the community. It’s to learn from the new culture you are choosing to live in. And race shouldn’t be priority, it shouldn’t effect where you live or what you do. Although we cannot forget the pre-established, learnt privileges some skin colours bring. That is reality. But skin colour is not a sin, but what comes out of our mouths and our actions can be sin. It’s our choice whether we let that affect our lenses we put over our eyes. Race, ethnicity, culture, and the colours of our skin will never be sin.