Friday, October 15, 2010

The other face of holiness

By Petra Gimbad

“Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it.” – Anais Nin

There I was, giving out name cards at the airport and on the plane. I had spent the week meditating with monks and nuns in Indonesia.

I thought wryly: I am not home and it is work already.

Before I boarded the plane, I met an Indonesian passenger in the waiting room who asked what work it was that I do. When I said I was an NGO worker, he asked if I could provide advice.

It was advice for his friend that he was after, not for himself – despite experiencing arrest in Malaysia a few months before. I admitted I did not know. He thanked me gracefully and disappeared.

On the plane, I found myself sitting next to a factory worker.

Both of us were were leaving Indonesia for Malaysia. I was returning home, he was returning to work. He was in love: when I asked how that was going, he did not know – it was a long-distance relationship, he had to leave her behind if he wanted to earn more. He spent the past month with his ill father who was still hospitalized.

His father was 80 years old. Hanging in the air was the unsaid: there was little time left for them, as father and son. Yet, here he was: on a plane, leaving his country.

All I could think was: my God, he is returning to work in a factory to earn money for his ailing father.

I asked frankly: Malaysia is not always kind to outsiders – we have racial issues even among our own. With the discrimination you experience, why do you return? You can farm – why not stay, plant what you eat – what is it that is worth leaving the home you already miss?

Money, he replied.

I did not know what to say.

Without much detail, he agreed that discrimination occurs and that “some workers in Malaysia are not treated very well.”

Then, he asked what I thought of my trip to Indonesia. I expressed genuine admiration for how hard the locals worked. The few days spent travelling revealed a community who tilled land and sold home-produced goods, both never-ending. Persons working in cities held several jobs with no days off.

Still – despite lacking time and money, many were versatile – singing, drumming and guitar strumming were everywhere. In one area, someone motioned to houses perched on paddy fields, saying people here build their own homes, adding a bit at a time depending on what they can afford.

I looked closer: many of the homes the locals rebuilt after the earthquake that hit a few years back had a beauty and symmetry missing in many Malaysian village houses.

This past week brought the discovery that political knowledge, a love of art, house-building ability and the wisdom of paddy planting can be contained in a single person. As I travelled, I met more of them.

The young man was a serious listener and agreed with what I said. “Yes, Indonesians work very hard. Malaysians on the other hand – give them 1, 2, days, and they complain of exhaustion.” He shook his head with disbelief.

We left it at that and spent the rest of the flight cracking jokes and laughing – talking about youthful lust, the need for affordable birth control for foreign workers and whether there was hope for Indonesia. By then, he revealed some girls at his workplace, who were originally from village areas, were pregnant due to naivette – they did whatever their boyfriends told them to do.

When we discussed the babies’ legitimacy, my question on baby selling came as no surprise to him. In case the rumours were true, I passed him contacts.

At the end, he asked whether I visited his village. I had not. We were wistful as he did not know when he would return.

Removing a package from his backpack, he explained they were sweets from his village. “They cost 1,000 rupiah, but if we can shape them into this form, they cost 15,000 rupiah.”

I protested. “It will be a long time before you go home. You will miss the taste.”

“No,” he insisted, “Take them.”

He would not hear of my paying him for them. I teared.

I was looking peace and enlightenment in a temple, and this man showed me what strength and patience is.

To that man and the many like him, I wish you well.

The writer wants to write like Pramoedya Ananta Toer when she grows up.

1 comment:

Biopolymath said...

It's a touching story you wrote. Looking at Malaysia, how much more we can do to make our country better? Despite the discrimination they faced in a foreign land, their spirit of perseverance is commendable.

I'm studying overseas now, I can tell you that there are a lot of opportunities not enjoyable in Malaysia, such as reading top notch journals in the library.

Keep on writing and I hope to hear more of you someday!