Coming from a so-called a third-world developing country in South-East Asia where there is no such thing called ‘social services’ provided by the government, the only safety net we have is the family, the community, and friends. When ‘bad luck’ strikes and no solution to our problems seems to be found (e.g. your children get ill, no free healthcare), we tend to turn to people around us for help. Hence conformity and humility are our virtues. It doesn’t necessarily mean we cannot be different, it just means we have to prove our point if we wanted to be different, we have to ‘show it’ not merely ‘say it’.
When I completed my bachelor’s degree, the normality was such that I should have come back to my hometown (hometown: Borneo; my university: in mainland Java, two hours away by plane). Like every other graduate in our country, I was expected to be back living with my family until I could stand on my own two feet (or if you are a girl, until someone married you, most probably someone your parents would help choose). I fought against this kind of normality. I made a deal with my Dad. I said I could support myself in Jakarta after graduation, and if in three months I failed, then I would come back. I proved my point to be different, and he knew it, and he respected it. I never moved back, I kept moving forward. Respect is gained through actions, because their echo speaks louder.
Individuality is a somewhat alien concept where I come from. This is further reflected in the language: we don’t start sentences with I, You, They, or any person or Subject. We start with the Object. We say ‘The work has been done’ rather than ‘I have done the work’. In my language it is the Object that takes centre stage. What needs to be done gets done, with extra hints to mention the people responsible for doing it. There is no benefit in putting oneself forward at the expense of others. This ‘object focus’ view divides people into two categories, those who work hard and subsequently gain respect for their actions, and those who hide behind someone else’s work. In the end, it’s human nature. Either you are a worker or you are not.
Coming from a modest family where everybody works, being idle has never been an option. My Mum is the second eldest of nine siblings, my youngest aunt is three years older than me. My Mum and Dad sent every one of us to school despite the fact that in the absence of free schools (probably still the case) they had to pay the fees. Everyone around me worked as hard as they could to chip in. There were many mouths to feed. What we had on the table had to be shared with everyone. My grandma was a traditional midwife and masseuse, paid by donations whenever people came asking her help. Sometimes they paid her nothing. She never complained as she said they needed the money more then us. She never earned much. Being a great gardener, she grew fruit tress in her small garden; climbing those trees has remained one of my happiest childhood memories. We didn’t have luxuries, but we never starved either. We were considered lucky compared to other people.
I was the first one in the history of our extended family to go to university. My parents said they could not give us money as inheritance, but they offered to help us study as much as we wanted to fulfil our own dreams. As a young girl living in a patriarchal society, I was always told that I had to work twice as hard to be considered equal. Making friends was wiser than making enemies, as friends would help you along the way, sharing your burden. Treat others the way you like to be treated, even those who treat you wrongly, because fighting fire with fire will make the whole house burn down, and an eye for an eye will make the world completely blind. Keep focussed on the job and make the best out of every opportunity, persistence will take you a long way.
Humility is essential – this saying echoed in my mind as I was growing up. There is always another peak above the peak we’re currently climbing.
Live through actions, not through words. People perceive you based on the actions you take. We have an old saying “empty bins make loud noises” and no one wants to be seen as an empty bin. Another saying goes “rice grains bow to the ground in humbleness as they gain more grains instead of sticking their branches to the sky”, which means the more you understand, the more humble you become, and the less you need to speak to prove your point. Humility helps us maintain ‘zero mind’, a willingness and openness to being taught.
Cambridge, July 18, 2016