Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Some philosophy bestowed and evoked by an Indonesian Uber driver

Yesterday, as usual, on my way downtown, I took an Uber. The driver, a proud Indonesian Muslim, was compelled to ask me quite a few questions: did I have kids, what did I do, what did I think about Indonesia. These were loaded questions.

It is hard to learn Bahasa when most want to speak English. There were those I encountered that expected me to speak Indonesian. So, the conversations tended to be a little of both. It seemed fair, but experience had made me wary. I always tried to pick up more of the local tongue.

We had time to kill, traffic was moderate, I had no cash, so I said "tidak toll" (take the long way). I got to expounding because Pak's (Mr.’s) English was pretty good. He had some international experience. That was sufficient, he was my captive audience and I was his opportunity to practice.

Pak’s lifelong friend had done him wrong in business, he was forced to lower himself driving for Uber just to support his four sons. I told him this was the same story I'd heard about friends and business. It didn’t matter where they came from, it seemed this was the way of this modern world.

In Indonesia (Java) it was customary to speak very respectfully to elders. By the time I realized he was my senior, I had already disclosed disdainful Western sentiments, perhaps a bit too passionately. Pak was being subtle, this was a typical conversation in the sense I'd missed what had been most important to him.

Pak told me it would have been more proper to refer to him as "Mas_" rather than "Pak _" (Mr.) because he was eleven years my senior, aged 51. I began to feel like an ignorant "Yank", conspicuously trying to defend my country with the advent of President Trump who had just been inaugurated. Having failed I’d been taken as one of Trump’s drone clones that'd been sent abroad to mingle.

To steer the conversation I asked Pak’s advice on being a new dad. He told me you cannot expect your sons to do what you want them to, that they are each their own unique person. It's best not to expect too much, they won't be like you, so let them do whatever they can do best. I felt this was great advice.

I then told the driver about my prior experience in India, he pressed me to compare the two places. I said the world is mixed up, you will find everyone everywhere; people from each nation within each other nation, this was good. People across the world had, in a way, just discovered themselves. We couldn't compare much else beyond our respective ideas about what we felt were stereotypical representations of each other's culture.

Aspects of culture were shared, but there were too many differences. It made it hard to compare people fairly. Our cultural perspectives blinded us, yet they were in a way external, like clothes we put on. It was bananas and mangos, apples and oranges...except with our shared love of shopping malls; Western fashion. We all seemed to love what was new and exciting; movies, fashion and glamor - these were benign enough. We shared a certain lust for the air of modernity, but we didn't understand each other's perspective. It was a world of colorfully cladded boxes and loud facades.

I found it strange that this was the present state rendered by globalization somehow bonded to its antithesis; in Indonesian culture, it was Western culture (secular capitalism) with a jilbub on its head coupled with this paradoxical xenophobia. The observation left me wondering where was the original Javanese culture today, beyond the batik, beyond hardline Islam (which I felt was imported too). I wondered why we all seemed to be having an identity crisis in an age that looked new but felt much the same. People had attached themselves to absurd loyalties. We craved change, but glorified the past.

Java was an old country, one of the oldest humans had inhabited. Where was the jati joglo carver, the stone mason, the topless pribumi ibus of eighty years past? To where in the last hundred years had Java's 'original' culture disappeared? Where did it go? How had the people really changed? Was it a sudden feeling of self consciousness? Was this sudden adoption of hard line Islam their way of covering up their self-consciousness to conceal the embarrassment they must have felt from past colonial extortions because of their apparent weakness? Were they hiding from themselves or the outside world? Were they hiding from one another? Jilbubs were protecting the young school girls. It was harder to raise girls than boys.

Java was a bit like India because of its Hinduism and because of its caste system, but Indonesia seemed more feudal. I didn’t believe it had a burgeoning middle class. The driver was not impressed with my Sanskrit. He seemed to not respect my practicing yoga. He kept saying "Uh huh, uh huh, what is this, I don't understand this...". He laughed at me. I laughed at myself being aloof.

After all, I said, It was the work of the West that had made Middle Eastern leaders rich. That part of the world seemed to hate us too, understandably for the invasion of Iraq.

Now with Trump things were becoming more unstable. What inflammatory remark would The Donald tweet next? Part of me wondered whether the world was suffering from eight years of softer U.S. foreign policy.

I didn't understand some Indonesians’ hatred towards the West, especially America, because we liberated their country from the Japanese and the Dutch; we were instrumental giving them back their country after WWII. Both of my grandfathers had served in the war in Indonesia. The cab driver said they had forgotten about it, it was a long time ago. That statement left me wondering why we’d even bothered. What had we accomplished, was this really a democracy? Was the USA even a democracy?

Pak said if you know anything about Indonesia you'll come to understand that when workers want more money they just know how to protest. I'd heard Indonesians were lazier than Indians. I couldn't imagine it was possible. However, my recent trip to the Jakarta Thai Airways office had left me wondering about the Indonesian sense of urgency.

Pak went on to describe two stories (conspiracy theories). He said his friend told him the CIA knew about the Bali bombings two months before over 200 foreigners were killed. Then he said the same was true for the 911 attacks, the CIA had known about that as well, well in advance. The driver disagreed that Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election. I said that the entire US intelligence community had a consensus that the Russians had interfered. US intelligence had also tried to convey the eminent threat of a serious hijacking, but the message wasn’t relayed. I said it wasn't their job to police Indonesia (or America). The cab driver disagreed. I said I was tired of hearing about these conspiracy theories, that I did not believe them. But later I recalled believing we'd let those hijackers provoke our fears just as we’d let the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. I rationalized that I was growing more conservative with age, 'just like all "good" people do. Recently watched episodes of “Narcos” left me wondering.

Although, Muslims may tend to use religion as a justification for everything they are no more of God than anyone else. Generally, no sect or creed is sacrosanct; we are human no matter what we say or do. We are susceptible to not understanding the whole truth. We each shared a part of it.

Manufactured accusations by a wealthy land owner had locked up a Canadian man along with several Indonesians in prison, they had been accused of doing something awful, that they were innocent, yet remained in jail because Indonesia's corrupt justice system was subject to the whims of popular sentiment. That sentiment was generally anti-foreigner. Indeed, for quasi-indigenous peoples, I felt that attitude was justified. Justice was an abstract ideal hardly realized.

We agreed politicians used religion to gain power. He asked whether the US was a secular country, I said it had to be. We believed in The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, separation of church and state, and being innocent before proven guilty. In God we trust meant we trust no man. I said without those beliefs we shared little else as Americans beyond a paranoic disbelief in most forms of authority. We shared a recognition of our inherent human flaws. We were an earthly lot.

He asked whether we say "In God's name...", I said anyone saying such things in America is not trusted because when they say they are doing something in God's name they are making a big assumption. What they assume is that they are acting in accordance to His wishes, and that anyone's fate would naturally be at God's command, rather than his own. This negated our notions of our ability to implement free will, to act on impulses of the heart.

If there is one God, then we all share Him. He cares not what we call Him, it's just a name. He cares not for our religion or culture, because that's external to our soul; all that is external to who we truly are. There are many holy books, many religions. There are real holy people out there, but I'm an imperfect sinner, even if I try to respect other religions and cultures. I respect Indonesian laws as much as Indonesians, I respect their religion(s).

The driver exclaimed he had raised his four boys to pray five times a day to receive God's protection and favor. What did I think about that? I said it doesn't matter how much you pray, it matters what you do before and after you pray, life is one long prayer. We all want to be closer to God as spiritual beings, some of us don’t believe in God, but still possess whatever it is we have.

That was why science was so great, we'd found some proof of divine harmony, but only after we'd observed most carefully. Scientists were great because they risked concentrating their greatest personal efforts on time-consuming dead-ends that may bare no fruit, but this work held the capacity to bring improvements to other people's lives. It had been seen as a noble pursuit, until now. Climate-change deniers were in power.

He asked what do you think about reincarnation. I said Christians never fully rejected that idea, I personally liked it, but in India it seemed to devalue one’s life; this life. Hindus feared little of poverty and death. On the face of it Indians accepted what would be unacceptable to most Westerners because of such beliefs. There are implications for all our closely held ideals. We had few facts beyond intuition, yet intuitive knowledge was universally accessible.

The driver said the Koran said there were three decisions a man could make: he could try to get what he wants, wait for what he wanted, or change what he wants. He said the Bible and the Koran came from the same source. I had vowed to read it, but I hadn't had time.

Instinctually I criticized jihadists. Pak's answer to that was “Muslims who commit suicide are not Muslims, unless during war they die and kill the enemy”. I didn't know about war, I'd never pointed a gun at a man, only at a few birds and squirrels. He asked what kind of gun, I said shotgun. Something left me wondering whether he felt I was the enemy.

I said of those who wished for Shariah Law, let them live by their own ideas, but for them not to expect me and everyone else to follow. 

The ride was coming to an uncomfortable end after little more than an hour. I said I would rate him as "lima bintang" (five stars). He said six. We laughed heartily, but at that point I knew for sure he’d grown tired of listening to me.

There was no recourse for my insensitivity. I'd offended a cab driver who'd only been trying to be friendly. The conversation had drifted into politics and had left me feeling disconnected. That had not been my intention, or his. It was clear we too had failed to understand one another.


  1. For those of you who may have read this already, sorry. Hopefully, this update is a little closer to what had occurred.

  2. Thanks for sharing AJ. Lots of good insights in here. Your question about whether or not the US is a democracy reminded me of this recent article:

  3. My pleasure, Scott. Thrilled someone actually read it. And thanks for the article. That was really interesting!