comparisons: a brief walk through two cultures

I used to write an Indonesian guy. Over a thirty-five year correspondence, the one thing he never understood was that while Americans make more per year than the average Indonesian, the prices we pay for a given item here reflect that higher income level. I tried to explain this using costs of common items.

“A knit shirt costs X dollars here, and you pay X Rupiahs for the same or similar shirt there. Your price is very cheap to me, but proportionately equal to what I pay.” He informed me that imported items there had a stiff luxury tax, and told me that his boss bought a new Jeep Cherokee for $52,000 there at a time a Jeep Cherokee here cost roughly half that amount!

He wanted things made in America, though, and when I did send him a knit shirt, it was a terrible fit on his slender Indonesian body. Never mind: It was “Made in America”, something none of his friends had!

Among the things he wanted (“gifts”, which he itemized in letters…!) was a telescope, an item I regarded as a luxury at almost $400. He researched the availability and cost with an American company, even “pre-ordered” the telescope, telling them I’d pay for it with my credit card! Helpfully, he gave them my address so they knew where to send the pre-order invoice.

[A taste of Indonesia…]

As you can guess, when I got the notice from the company, I wrote a letter saying my Indonesian friend hadn’t told me he was doing this, that I couldn’t afford a $400 telescope, let alone pay to ship it to Indonesia.

Further, I told the company, even if I could come up with cost to ship the telescope (almost the same as it cost, within a few dollars!), there was no way I could afford the luxury tax (again in the 100% range for a telescope) that Indonesian customs would charge.

I told them to cancel the order. I’m glad my Indonesian friend didn’t have access to my credit card information!

I wrote my Indonesian friend a letter, too, noting I couldn’t afford the telescope, which was a base model that had accessories one could order later. That is, I could order later since he couldn’t afford these more modestly priced accessories, either. I pointed out the cost of shipping it by air (the only practical way, for safety) was nearly the same cost as the telescope itself.

I brought up the tax matter. I mentioned how packages I’d sent him in other times arrived there rifled by Indonesian post office employees, sometimes with items of value removed for personal use.

[The national emblem of Indonesia features the Garuda.]

He’s the one who brought that to my attention when I mentioned a postal clerk in Surabaya wrote me a letter, noting he got my address from a letter I sent my Indonesian friend. He also noticed I mailed packages to this friend, contents of which the customs tags applied by me at my local post office helpfully itemized and gave the price of. That’s what caught the postal clerk’s attention, made him think I must be rich. He, in proper Indonesian fashion, listed some “gifts” he’d like to receive from America, too!

“Don’t write him back,” my Indonesian friend warned. “They take things from packages, and when I report it, they charge me [some fee in Rupiahs I don’t recall, but a bribe in fact] to search for the missing item in the post. They never find it because they steal it for themselves. He’s a thief.” Plus, he noted, if I sent the postal clerk gifts, I’d have less money to send him gifts…! I’m sure my eyebrows arched at that mention.

My Indonesian friend had a BS in geography from a reputable Indonesian university. He came from a family that had a rice farm, a batik factory, and some connections. His father was a tailor who’d fought against the Dutch in the war for Indonesian independence. He’d left his son with his wife, my friend’s mother, in a secure area in East Java. She died, and my Indonesian friend went to live with his father’s family. His grandmother is the person with the rice farm. She had him till he went to university. The father sort of disappeared, and I never learned his fate other than my friend felt his father deserted him.

[Making batik by hand. Again this is longish, almost 17 minutes, but it shows how involved and arduous this process is. The cousin whose father owned the batik factory send me a batik sarong with a Garuda theme.]

A degreed Indonesian in the time we wrote was one of very few in the country, where most people were lucky to graduate high school, if that. I never understood why he seemed so needy for things when his position, his education seemed like a key to success in his country. His personal history could account for part of it, but I also wrote another Indonesian, a cousin whose father owned the batik factory, and she was needy for things, too.

In time, money came between us. I couldn’t afford the friendship or the endless requests for gifts. The camel’s back broke when I got a neatly written letter in perfect school English from my Indonesian friend’s oldest child, who’d taken a few of her friends to the local KFC to treat them to her “Sweet 17” birthday! The money spent, the family in none too solid a financial circumstance, the father having given his daughter the go ahead to do this then write Uncle Doug for the cost, I definitely felt used and obligated. I sent enough to pay for the party plus a small amount more, and wrote my friend a letter noting I no longer could continue the correspondence. I claimed health issues, which, ironically, did come to pass: Be careful when telling lies!

I had one more letter from him. He enclosed several Indonesian stamps, a brief letter, and a request for a $50 bill, because he’d never seen one before! (Hell, I rarely see them myself fifteen years later! Ha!)


Balinese horse carving, one gift from my Indonesian friend.

Balinese horse carving, one gift from my Indonesian friend.

Epilogue: I had an opportunity to talk with an Indonesian exchange high school teacher who came to teach in my town one year, an unlikely event. I told her about my Indonesian connection, and how I enjoyed things Indonesian, including Gamelan music. I put on one of the Gamelan records the cousin whose father owned the batik factory sent me. The teacher, a young woman, seemed stressed. With some effort I got her to admit that she was proud of her heritage, but the music was “old fashioned”, like you or me listening to J.S. Bach. I took it off, and she was grateful!

I mentioned the gifts my Indonesian friend asked for. She was appalled, “Indonesians don’t ask for gifts!” I guess I met, by mail, the only three who did!

I don’t regret the contact. I treasure the experience. We grew up together. I learned a lot about his culture, his Muslim faith, and even got a few nice gifts in exchange from him over the years, though the exchange never was equal in monetary value. The payback was in something I carry with me even to this day.

2 thoughts on “comparisons: a brief walk through two cultures

  1. I tend to think that people are alike the world over. Most of them are kind, rational and looking for nothing more than friendship. A few are not. One of the benefits of age that we’re better at separating the former from the latter. Once, when I was looking for a roommate, I came across an ad on Craigslist from a Russian woman coming to Lincoln on a Fulbright. She was studying the same area where I’d earned a degree, so I thought she would make a great roommate. In the first hour after I’d picked her up at the airport, she’d called my car a “hooptie,” asked if she could use it to learn to drive, told me she would only live in apartment building with a doorman (as if they exist in Lincoln!) and said she thought the cache of having a Russian roommate should be payment enough for a place to live. After lunch (a good $20 investment in disaster prevention) I dropped her off at a motel and left her to continue her search for a rich American sucker.

    • What a horror story! You are right about judging strangers, though. I look back at some of the characters I associated with (if briefly) in my teens and 20s, and count my blessings that I am alive and don’t have a prison record, like they do in some instances!

      Oddly, most of my better friends are ones I befriended as a child between ages <1 through 11. The next best batch I made friends with after my mid to late 30 till now.

      People definitely have odd perceptions of each other. Even in Germany, I got a bit of "we should have won the war, so don't think you are so special" from some older people (this was in 1970-1972). Of course, some Americans gave a "we won the war, so KMA!" toward the Germans, too.

      By and large, though, people responded politely to me. I presume it was because I was polite to them.

Leave a Reply. You may comment using your, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ accounts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.