Recently our group watched a video called “The Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In it, she discusses the danger of underrepresenting certain cultures (here’s a link to the video if anyone wants to check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg), and it really got me thinking. Growing up in America I’ve often been bombarded with a single story, one where most of the characters are white and the ones that aren’t take a backseat role, their sole purpose only to remind themselves and others that the spotlight isn’t on them. Because of the way I look and the fact that my parents immigrated from another country, I was branded as different from a young age and grew up believing that story. And yet in some ways I am also a part of that story. To most of the world, I am a rich, privileged university student from the Western world that attends a private school and has the ability to spend nine months living in a foreign country. To these people, when I whip out my wallet to pay for Starbucks, it’s a sign of luxury that immediately sets me apart. Although in America I’ve always felt a little different, a little “less American” because of the part of myself that represents an entirely separate culture, I came to Indonesia wrapped in the cocoon of privilege being from the Western world lends, and I found myself using that cocoon as a shield. Being bombarded by so many new and sometime shocking experiences, I held onto the part of me I thought made me myself. I saw everything through my American rose-tinted glasses… and for once being a foreigner didn’t bother me. It made me proud.
During these past four months I have learned not only to be more careful about my actions but also to be more mindful of my thoughts. Here in Indonesia I’m constantly reminded of how easy it is to get caught up in a single story, thinking I know everything about a person by my own preconceived perceptions of who they’re “supposed” to be. Similarly, in her speech Adichie talks about Fide, the young houseboy that used to work for her family when she was a child, and how the only thing she knew about him was that he was poor. Her entire perception of his identity revolved around the fact that he had nothing: no money and no hope, no opportunities, no bright future stretching before him. In her mind, he existed as a two-dimensional representation of poverty, and that was his story. I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t have the best impression of Indonesia before I arrived here. And at first small things, like the fact that someone could speak English well, surprised me more than they should have. In my mind, I’d painted the people of this vastly diverse and intricately nuanced country as ignorant, just because they seemed so different from me. And because some survive on less than two dollars a day, I’d inevitably come to see them as underprivileged and helpless people who existed in a world hugely distant and separate from my own. I didn’t ever think Indonesia could feel like home, much less that the people could feel like family. I knew only a single story of this country, and everything – its culture, its history, its diverse and complex people, was reduced to nothing more than a fragment of my own superficial mindset.
I’ve come to see every person, no matter what corner of the world they come from, as a story, one with endless chapters that are constantly being rewritten as they evolve and learn and grow. My experience in Indonesia is one of the countless stories of my life that make up who I am and who I’m going to be. If there’s anything Chimamanda Adichie and Indonesia have taught me, it’s that we’re the authors of our own lives. As she says in her speech, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”