My Trip Back to Indonesia in 2nd Grade

I just read an interesting piece in today’s New York Times. Here’s an excerpt:

In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.

It reminded of the time when we moved back to Indonesia when I was in 2nd grade (a few months later, we returned to the U.S. when my mother developed a very serious illness). We stayed at my aunt’s house, and I remember arriving to a house with four servants. Two young women did all of the cooking and house-cleaning. A young man did all of the outside work and maintenance. The fourth person was the driver, who ferried us from place to place.

It felt weird. They didn’t eat with us and ate what food was left over after we finished. They called me “young sir.” They slept on mats on the floor. My aunt occasionally would yell at them.

Now, they were being paid good money relative to what they could get in other jobs. But, as an 8 year-old, I felt tremendously guilty and sad for them. They didn’t have many career options, clearly, in a Third World country.

I suspect some of you have visited places in the Caribbean, Africa or Asia, where, when you leave the confines of an air-conditioned hotel, you’re assaulted with tremendous poverty and suffering. Gut-wrenching, isn’t it? You’re on a vacation or an important business trip. Suddenly, major questions about justice begin to loom alarmingly.

In a few days, it’s Ash Wednesday, which marks for many a period of prayer, fasting and alms giving. Catholics are called to think about justice, and so, I’ve been starting to think about it.

Look, I don’t have any answers for Third World poverty. I wonder how I can do more. But, I do know this: when we treat people as objects as opposed to persons, we de-humanize them.

They lose their dignity in our eyes, and they become cheap labor and disposable. They are no longer “people,” but are “things.” And, then, it becomes a natural next step to sell young girls into difficult situations in areas like Thailand and Eastern Europe (and, even here, in the United States). They are used by the more powerful, and then, cast aside.

When I read stories about servants, I still think of those servants I met at my aunt’s house. I wonder where they are now? I wish I could track them down and give them some money. Those memories still sting.

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