OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Like many people, I get a kick out of traveling. I love experiencing myself in an entirely new context. In a new world, surrounded by unfamiliar people and customs, I always discover unknown strengths and often hidden prejudices lying in my subconscious. Both equally important in character development. The thing I get the most buzz from is discovering the differences and similarities between people living so far apart in various pockets of the world.
During the summer of 2014, I spent a month living and working in a small village in Bali, Indonesia. Having spent the majority of my life living in England it was a huge change for me. I stayed in a small village in Denpasar – the capital and most populous city in Bali. I found it a very nurturing village where everyone seemed intrinsically connected and filled with humility. I witnessed people sharing whatever food they had available and helping passers by whenever they could. There was no street lights in this village so people would leave there outside light in their home overnight so people could visibly walk the streets during the darkened hours. It was a very community orientated place.
My temporary neighbours didn’t appear to have a great deal of wealth and lived minimalistic yet happy lives. To be honest, this was one was one of the main reasons I decided to go to Indonesia in the first place. I wanted a piece of the action.
I was clearly entering this village as an outsider. As a 6 foot 3 inches pasty Englishman with a body of stick insect, I stuck out like a sore thumb in Indonesia. However despite my obvious foreign status, I was never met with anything but warmth from the people I interacted with. I’d walk alone at night and bikes would stop to ask if I was okay and where I was going, etc. I became a novelty, no one had ever seen anyone so tall! Children would stop and stare wide-eyed at the giant white man. People would follow me down the street everyday asking me questions as I walked to my local hole-in-the-wall for dinner and would wait outside till I finished. I am not going to lie, I rather enjoyed the unwarranted local attention. I like to imagine folk tales were written about me when I left about the mythical time the giant stick creature frequented the village with the ability to reflect the sun and had a laughable weakness for spicy food. It will be past down from generation to generation and songs will be sung. A man can dream.
During my time in Indonesia I decided to rent a moped to explore the island. One night during my first week there, I was practicing on the bike in the back streets, precariously circling some rice fields around where I lived. It was around 11pm and this old man came out of this home and stopped me. Probably just in time as I hadn’t yet mastered the brakes and was getting slightly too close to comfort to the rice paddies.
I was preparing myself for some vitriolic comments about how awful I was at driving a bike, or how loud I was being, or why I was practicing so late next to his home. But no, he started asking me questions about where I was from and what I was doing!
He had a perfectly round hairless face. He looked like a winkled ping-pong ball with an amiable smile. He invited me into his home and before I could give my cued up British response of politely declining, he had already ushered my bike into in garage and started escorting me through his door.
Now, whenever I get to this point in the story with my friends and family I normally get a reaction that goes something like this: ‘You went into a strangers home?! In a foreign country?! What were you thinking?!’ I realise this is a natural and rational response as the old guy could have been anyone! Although at the time it didn’t feel like an unnerving situation, I still approached the invitation into his home with some trepidation. However that soon dissipated at he started introducing me to his elated looking family.
He didn’t have the best English speaking skills, but he was certainly putting to use the phrases he did know. “Here is my home! Look at my wife! Wave to my child! Play with my dog!” he said completely free from irony. “Have some tea!”
“No thank you, I’m not thirsty”
*Hands me some tea*
“Have some food!”
“No thank you, I’ve just ate”
*Hands me some rice*
I kindly accepted the offerings but I really didn’t want them.
I had only been in Bali a few days so the only Balinese phrases I had picked up at this point were “No spice please!”, “Why did you put spice on?!” and “Where is the toilet?” (all equally useful phrases if you ever travel to Indonesia). So we communicated in pidgin English and convivial sign language for about 10 minutes as I patted his dog and waved to his child.
Once I had gone through all the universal gestures for ‘yummy’ and said my thank-yous, I got on my bike and wobbled away. And that was it! It was a brief but pleasant interaction with a stranger. There was no hidden intentions or malice behind his deed. I will forever remember that old man for his generous hospitality and his horrible looking tea.
The point of the story is this – it is very difficult to imagine anything like this happening in the Western world. England is currently doing it’s best to kick out as many foreign people as possible never mind inviting them in for some tea and introducing them to the wife and kids at 11 o’clock at night.
There has been research to suggest that the Western mind differs from the Eastern mind and is more oriented towards the self, rather than humanity. Which is something I noticed a lot during my month in Indonesia. I’m not suggesting that all Westerners are trapped on a prism of ego, or that all Indonesian people openly invited me in for tea. And I am not saying that I am going to start inviting strangers into my home at night. It would just be nice to live in a future where the kindness of strangers wasn’t such a rare and confusing experience. Ever since interacting with that ping-pong headed old man I am striving to become a more open and trusting person in an attempt to make this future happen in my life.