A little over a week ago, I was watching a six-year old girl play with a brand new Barbie she had received from her grandmother. The Barbie came equipped with a shimmering silver and black dress, display stand, high-heeled black dress shoes and, of course, the classic Barbie permanent smile. It was the shoes that particularly intrigued me with an almost humorous irony and, since that day, I have not been able to shake that experience from my mind.
The reason for my intrigue in those shoes was because of a word molded into the inside of one of them—a word that invokes many emotions in me: delight, pain, anger, wonder and hope to name a few. That word, rather that name, inscribed on the shoe was simply: "INDONESIA".
This past July for three weeks, I traveled to Indonesia to visit my sister who teaches psychology to high school students on the island of Java. She had some time off work so we traveled to another Indonesian province to do some sightseeing. It was an amazing cross-cultural experience; I was discovering a world filled with beauty, brokenness, love and hope.
We came back from the cities, villages and jungle of North Sulawesi ready to check e-mail, enjoy a hot shower and become re-accustomed to the lifestyle we were used to. A few days after coming back to my sister’s place, I was surfing the net and reading articles about a recent tsunami that had only two days earlier hit the city of Pangandaran on the western coast of Java. I gazed at photos displaying the devastation and despair brought on by the tsunami, and soon determined I wanted to gaze at that reality through my pupils, not computer pixels.
That was Wednesday around two in the afternoon. Fast-forward me through 14 hours of transferring from bus to bus, difficulties in communication (I basically only knew how to say "thank-you," "shower" and "May I take your photo please?" in common Indonesian) and wondering if God had approved of my impromptu decision, I made it to Pangandaran. Soon it was Thursday morning around 4:30 a.m., and I was being offered coffee and cookies from a man who graciously invited me into his house after discovering I had nowhere to stay.
As I traveled through Pangandaran by foot and hired motorbike, I was able to hear the stories of many people directly affected by the tsunami in one way or another. I sat face to face with a man in his family’s living room as he described being on the coast when the tsunami hit and his climb up a coconut tree to survive the waves while watching tourists get swept away in the SUV they tried to escape in. In a displacement camp filled with those fearing a second tsunami or as a result of losing everything they owned, children laughed and played soccer, volleyball and other games that non-government organizations were organizing. Many children filled that camp with smiles so beautiful my vocabulary cannot adequately describe. I traveled with two other men, one a photojournalist and the other a business man from Bali to a group of locals who had lost their homes and were sleeping on mats under a roofed area.
We handed out a mere 10,000 rupiah to each family, the equivalent of one American dollar. Before we left, people shook our hands exuding their extreme gratitude. “How can you be so grateful?”
I wondered? We hardly gave you enough money to keep your family alive for the next day. Yet now I realize that might have been the reason for their gratitude: Their family would be alive for one day longer. I asked the people there if I could take their picture: "Boley Ambeel Sieya Photo?" They laughed agreeing to my inquiry (probably laughing at my pronunciation). As I took some pictures, kids were crawling over each other laughing hysterically as they tried to get their face in the photo in order to find themselves in the camera’s screen. "Why are you all so happy?” I was thinking. "How can you take so much joy in such an average thing as having your picture taken? You’ve lost everything! What is going on here?!?"
My three-day experience in Pangandaran made me question what we North Americans value. We, who live in North America, are among the richest five percent of the world’s population and yet we never seem to have enough. We have a plethora of ways of saving time in our high speed and instant society, yet we complain about not having enough time in our day. Our culture portrays it’s definition of beauty to us in the form of a plastic doll named, "Barbie" while the people of Pangandaran teach people like me the lesson that beauty doesn’t reside in the so-called "perfect body," but in a persevering soul. And then come the questions I have for myself as a follower of Christ living in North America. Was Jesus really serious when he said: "A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15)? How does my lifestyle change when I realize Jesus was telling the truth when he said, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48). Does the quality of my life (or maybe more specifically my soul) depend on my financial status, hot showers and email? Or is there more to my life than my culture’s emphatic insistence on their definition of a mortal’s success in life? Fame, fortune and those classy high heel black dress shoes.