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What can we do to bring more people to our village?

Sipping at cups of saccharine tea, we four students contemplated the village head’s seemingly simple question.

I was brought back to the past two days I had spent in Kedungmiri, the small village that we had embraced as our first real taste of Indonesia. From the communal gardens of eggplant, Lombok chilis, and cassava that stood at our doorstep and greeted us morning and night to the goat (soon-to-be-friend) that would incessantly interrupt our orientation sessions with its almost human cries for food, the images of beauty that came with this “simplistic” lifestyle evolved into a deluge, invading my mind with all I had taken in during such a short period of time. It became a subtle yet shocking reminder that Kedungmiri is about as far away as you can get from Eastvale, CA; and yet, from the copious amounts of food we were fed and from the even greater number of welcoming smiles we were met with, Kedungmiri could easily slip into my heart, fully embodying the idea of home.

But even through all this contemplation and reflection on the very beginnings of our journey, the only response that our group of so-called intellectuals could muster was quite literally “nothing.” To us, Kedungmiri resonated perfection, the most idyllic, ideal place to be. The question baffled us. Why aren’t more people drawn to this pure and beautiful way of life?

Flash forward a few days, to what at the time of writing would have been just yesterday. I was struggling with the idea of identity, defining myself and my values. Who exactly am I? What makes me me? It felt like college applications all over again.

But instead of taking months to reach a conclusion, this time, within just a few hours, I began to understand. I engaged in a late night group bonding activity, anonymously exchanging bits and pieces of my life story with others, the struggles, the joys, and everything in between. And soon, we began to piece together the defining moments of nine (I could almost say) strangers. While we seemed happy-go-lucky from the outside, our true selves were just below, forming a tortured mosaic from which we drew deeper communal bonds and a new understanding of each other. But perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned from that hour of bravery and vulnerability was to be mindful of what beauty could emerge from below the surface if we just looked.

I took a positive, unintentional step towards realizing my identity. Rather than using overarching concepts and jaded terms I never really quite understood, I am now defined by the experiences and moments in my life that took root and flowered to create the personality and values I hold dear. I just had to look a little harder below the surface.

And in this realization, I found that in our short-lived time at Kedungmiri, the truest joy came from what was below all the nuances of life.

Where a seemingly racist comment about how I MUST know kung fu because of my Chinese heritage translates to a deeper effort in reaching out and creating a bridge between two foreign communities.

Where the incapability of a village elder to tap out a simple gamelan rhythm points to a communal and long-standing understanding of a central drum that pulls every other aspect of the orchestra together.

Where an almost ridiculous scene of Indonesian school girls flocking around a few of our students as though they were celebrities, phones out for selfies and all, reveals a deep culture of love and an ability to derive genuine happiness out of briefly greeting new people. This sort of enthusiasm for even the smallest forms of connection is something we seem to have lost elsewhere in the world.

Just as all these little things mean so much more than what they are presented as, so the question of “What can we do to bring more people to our village?” expresses a deeper understanding and philosophical reflection beneath the surface. It isn’t what the villagers can do to bring more people to the village. It is what we, as outsiders, can do to fix our mindset and bring ourselves to the figurative and literal village.