Learning the true meaning of cultural privilege

Living in Surabaya for four weeks in preparation for the upcoming Indonesia-Australia Research Summit was a privilege. Each time I visit, live or work in Indonesia my definition of privileged gets a reality check. Are you privileged if you own crystal glasses or are you privileged if your plastic cup is always full?

The people I worked with for four weeks exemplify living each day with a glass half full. They were positive, optimistic, often pragmatic, patient, and engaged not just in what I was doing, but me, my life, my country.

I’m not just talking about my colleagues at Universitas Airlangga, I’m talking about the employees at the print shop, which became my second office, the staff I saw at breakfast every day, the taxi drivers who put up with my faulty directions, the lady in the clothing shop en route to my hotel, the teachers and staff at the language school, the hairdressers who insisted on taking me to dinner, the Mayor’s staff who laughed at me when I said they could use my laptop (instead of their much more high-tech device), the stationary shop workers who insisted they re-count the 300 tags I was buying for the fifth time and the gojek food drivers who were surprised to see it was a bule ordering beef rendang.

These are the people I worked with every day for four weeks. They aren’t your traditional colleagues but they are the people I saw every day and they are the people who made things happen, they made work feel like play and they made me feel like work isn’t really work at all. In fact I have learnt it’s a privilege and no day should be taken for granted. So now I have done a full circle. They are privileged because they live like that, I am privileged because I met them and had a reality check.

I’ll give myself some credit and admit that working is a two-way street. I have learnt from my previous travels and this trip in particular, my number one rule for building relationships with the wonderful people in Indonesia is take your time and pay attention. I mean pay attention to the little things, the comments and the jokes made at lunchtime and during the down-time. Remember them, repeat them and by doing so remind your colleagues that you care and you were engaged. My team took things seriously; team meetings, briefings and stakeholder engagement was business time and they got the job done. But the relationship you build in the down-time, by paying attention to the little things that matter, builds you trust for the business time. This means a lot to Indonesian people. I don’t think it is necessarily an ‘Indonesian thing’; I think it’s a respectful thing and Indonesians in my view are respectful.

If that’s rule number one then a very close second is use Whatsapp. If that’s rule number two then a very close third is be willing to try…food. A big and important part of my experience was sharing food with new friends. Food that had meaning. I learnt so much about Surabaya through the delicious East Javanese cuisine. Whether it was Surabayan food and I was eating with a friend of a friend who has called Surabaya home for centuries, or with the hairdresser who took me to dinner and introduced me to a sweet that originated from her village – it always had meaning so it was always a special experience. If you want a taste, literally of how diverse Indonesia is, then start with the food.

My final comment is to acknowledge not just the people who make every trip to Indonesia wonderful, but the women in particular. One day Indonesian women will rule the world and what an organised, efficient and fair world that would be. I would definitely be privileged if I lived in that world. From meeting the Mayor of Surabaya Ibu Tri Rismaharini to meeting my closest colleague at UnAir, Aprilia, I am truly inspired. I think this photo of my colleagues and I at the end of the Summit sums it up. Glass half full, women, got the job done. Me – privileged.