What Does It Mean To Be Poor In America?

In June, I got the opportunity to be included a meeting with the high school headmasters (principals) of Ogan Ilir Department of Education in Indonesia. The meeting, attended by approximately 55 people, introduced the New Curriculum 2013 for Indonesia. An emphasis was placed on the roles principals must serve in ensuring their schools and students are successful. At the end of the meeting, the principals asked Lauren and me questions about education and life in America.

The gentleman who posed the most important question of the day.

One headmaster acknowledged that TV portrays America as being a very rich country and this view of America resounds around the globe. And so he asked, “What does it mean to be poor in America?”

My fellow teacher and my responses were not taken seriously. The principals had a difficult time believing there are people in America who are homeless and starving. They seemed unmoved when we told them that in many instances, the lunch at school is the only meal a child may eat. There were mumbles of disagreement when we said that in America, there are people who have may not have running water or electricity at home.

To them, our American responses were unbelievable. And although we were slightly offended by their reactions, I have to ask, “Should Americans feel guilty when we compare our quality of life to millions of others around the globe?”

During my experience in Indonesia, only the hotels had running water. The other places gained access to water from nearby wells, rivers, lakes, or even puddles of water on the side of the road. I witnessed the same water source being used to bathe and wash clothes. Too often, I saw children and men cast their fishing lines in water covered by tons of trash. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw soap easily accessible to wash your hands. We swatted flies and bugs away from our food as we ate and our utensils were most likely washed in water from the wells or rivers, thus repeating a continuous cycle of lack of sanitation.

This is everyday life in many parts of the country. While people were excited to see Americans, at the same time, they despised us. I am not quite sure how I feel about their views of us. People have no control over where they are born or the situations in which they were born into. But, I am glad I got to experience a lifestyle which was totally different from my own.

Here are a few photos.

I want to emphasis that not everyone in Indonesia lives in these conditions. I was stationed in a very rural area of the country so my views and photos are representative of what I saw. Other members of my program were stationed in more developed areas of the country and their experience is very different from mine.

 

The Ogan River. We crossed this river daily to get to our host school. The river is the main source of life for the village. Here you can see villagers playing, washing clothes, and bathing.

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Some of the local kids followed us to the river. A couple of the kids were in the middle of their baths.

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This was the view as we walked to the mall near our hotel in Jakarta.

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One of the houses near our host school.

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If I Can Just Touch The Hem Of Your Garment

During our time in Indonesia we were introduced to several people who were kind enough to show us around. One of those experiences was surreal. Lauren and I were taken to an elementary school graduation where the crowd was nothing like I have ever seen before. I would guess that several villages were in attendance- probably in the ballpark of 400-600 people. As soon as my American travel partner and I stepped out of the SUV, we were swarmed. Young children, older children, mothers, grandparents…all wanted a chance to shake our hands or touch us. It was similar to any live footage you’ve seen of Michael Jackson trying to get to a stage to perform. I don’t even believe I’ve seen Beyonce’s fans so aggressive to touch her. And while my comparison to Michael Jackson and Beyonce may seem unreal, I am not exaggerating.

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A small sampling of the crowd that was seated under the tent. There were hundreds more standing up along the perimeter of the tent. You can also see the our seats on the front row are quite fancy compared to the others.

Instantly, several of the guys in the village began to serve as security and helped part the crowd so we could make it to our seats. We were introduced as honored guests and there was a sudden change in the program. Instead of the principal presenting the students with their graduating certificates and giving a short speech, Lauren and I would be doing that.

As a part of the ceremony, five young students performed a traditional dance.

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We were able to see a small part of it because people were steadily tip toeing to the front row to snap photos of us.

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The guy who was recording the ceremony neglected the children and instead made Lauren and me focal points of the video. Even as the head of the school district and the principal gave speeches, the cameraman didn’t move an inch from recording Lauren and me. The performers and the students all faded into the backdrop.

As the program came to an end, we were rushed to a back gate that led to an unfamiliar route. Down the road was a house where food was waiting for us. Before we could make it there, the crowd swarmed us again. “Keep moving, Jacqueline. Do not shake hands. Push through the crowd!” Agustina, my host teacher told me. I tried but I couldn’t. The women and kids nearly fought over the chance to grab my hand, to shake it, or put it to their face and kiss it. When they couldn’t shake our hands, they pushed through the crowd hoping their babies would be fortunate enough to touch us. It was truly unbelievable. We had to be escorted out down a small alley to a place where the car was waiting for us so we could make a quick escape.

I truly did not understand the crowd’s fixation with us…to touch us…to hear us speak. By their actions, you would have thought Lauren and I were gods. I was deeply troubled by this. Especially because I knew back home, I was just an ordinary person who was no better or any worse than anyone else on this planet.

How is it that European and American cultures have had such a profound influence over the rest of the word that these people would see us as being of such a high statue? Or maybe, as the American, I am the one with the warped view of the world. Maybe because of my easy access to books, TV, and education I have grown numb and uninterested in the rest of the world. Maybe it is I who needs a reality check, not them.

 

I Love My Host Family

I appreciate my Indonesian host family. Yes, there are Muslim. Yes, their village had electricity only in the evenings. There was no running water and it was dreadfully hot each day. But, I preferred staying with them in their village than in the bustling city. Because Americans are such a rarity in that part of the country, Lauren and I were constantly the center of unpleasant attention when in the city. Although the presence of Americans is even more uncommon in the village, the villagers did not make us feel like outcasts or superstars. Even though they were curious, they sought permission to ask us personal questions. For example, several of the ladies in the village asked me if my hair was authentic and they often wanted to know if we grew rice in Mississippi.

My host family is composed of 5 people. The mother is fifty years old. She gets up every morning and sweeps the trash from the yard into a pile and burns it. Then, she washes the family’s clothes and hangs them out to dry. She ensures the family’s chickens, ducks, cats, and goose is fed. Once her early morning chores are complete, she works in the family’s rice paddy. Deta is the oldest daughter. She is a teacher at our host school. She wakes up early each morning to cook breakfast for us and the family. Regita, the youngest daughter, is an adorable 16 year old girl. She was more like a big sister to us because she always looked out for us and took such good care of us. Each night she hung mosquito netting over our bed and took it down before leaving for school each morning. There is a son, Topan, who worked in the city and another sibling who had a baby named, Bintang, which is Indonesian for star. Regita is the only one who speaks English but, she prefers the help of an electronic translator to communicate effectively with us.

Part of my host family. From L to R: Deta, the mother, me, and the father.

Part of my host family. From L to R: Regita, the mother, me, and the father.

During our first day in the village, the family moved all the furniture from the front room. They were preparing a dual program- one to honor us and one to thank Allah because their son survived a motorcycle accident. The mother had been cooking most of the day.

An hour before the start of the program, the father began writing several speeches. Slowly the house began to fill with visitors.  Men congregated in one room, women in the other. That is the standard for traditional Muslim worshipping. Lauren and I were allowed to sit in a corner of the men’s room because they wanted to look at the Americans. It felt weird being in the room with the men because I knew from my readings that it is not usually accepted. I couldn’t help but wonder what the women might have said about us as we sat in the presence of men.

Lauren and I with other family members. As you can see, my oily skin was not fairing well. You would be surprised how comfortable you could be when covered from head to ankles in a tropical region.

I was so grateful that my travel group was given an orientation on Indonesia and Islam before we traveled to the village. Because of the orientation, I was not caught off guard by a lot of the religious customs and the local traditions. Regita coordinated everything so that all of us would have ample time to bathe prior to the program. She reminded us that the women would need to be covered from neck to ankle and showed me how to position the scarf on my head so it would look similar to a hijab.

I didn’t understand anything said in the program. It was all spoken in Bahasa Indonesian or Arabic. I was shocked that the family had their own microphone and amplification system. Speakers were set up on the front porch to allow the entire village to hear the program. There was a speech to honor us and one for the brother. Men read passages from the Quran and there was a song that lasted about thirty minutes.

By the time the program was over, most of the people from the village were in the front yard. I guess you could say they were the overflow crowd. Every one of them welcomed us, talked with us, and shared wonderful food with us. It was one of the most prestigious welcomes I have ever been given.

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People around the world are similar in so many ways. During the day, the women sat around talking as they prepared the food for the program. The kids played in the yard and everyone was so happy.

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This is where the men hung out each day. But they would gladly give up their seats so the ladies could get a little shade while drinking something cool.

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We took tons of photos after the program was over. I just wish I would have powdered my face a little. 🙂

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Me and Deta. She is one of the teachers at our host school.

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The most adorable host sister in the whole.

Where Are We Now?

One of my colleagues and I were talking about The Butler and the issue of Black on Black crime. My colleague said she walked out of the movie because she could not tolerate being face to face with the pain of the Civil Rights Movement. The turning point for her was when the Black girl was spit on during the Woolworth sit in.

Although Black people (and all people) should demand equal treatment from society, we are often cruel and unjust to each other. Black on Black violence dominates many neighborhoods, the value of education in many communities has depreciated, and our youth idolize those who portray us as being hoes, bitches, dope dealers, and gangsters while those who are trying to succeed in legal and socially acceptable means are considered lame.

The struggles during the Civil Rights Movement were not done in vain, but many of our youth have failed to pick up the torch of empowerment. How do we get our society back on track when we so many seem to have fallen astray is a question I often ponder. During the Civil Rights struggles, protests were not impromptu occurrences. In many instances, they were planned for weeks or even months before any action was taken. Leaders of organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, and SLCL attempted negotiations with business owners and government officials before picketing. Their negotiations were usually accompanied by a list of demands. If the white business owners agreed to meet the demands of the Black community, the boycott would be called off. If business owners failed to agree to all the demands, the black community was prepared to go forth with their plans to protest. Often, they met daily on matters such as who would go to jail (if necessary) and acquired bail money before their feet hit the pavement.

In September of 1962, the National Jackson Youth Council along with the Tougaloo College Chapter of the NAACP began planning a boycott of the businesses on Capital Street in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Their plan was to start the boycott during the Christmas shopping season in an attempt to hit store owners where it would be felt the most- in their pocketbooks. They were prepared to boycott the stores for as long as possible until the following demands were met:

(1)  personnel were hired and promoted based on their personnel merit without regard to race, color, or creed

(2)  to end segregated drinking foundations, segregated restrooms, and segregated seating

(3)  service to customers be done on a first-come, first-served basis

(4)  the use of courtesy titles such as “Miss,” “Mrs.” “and “Mr” with regard to ALL people

Their boycotts were successful in organizing the Black community and supporters of integration. For months, the business owners and local government refused to budge.

Woolworth Sitin  Jackson, MS May 28, 1963

Woolworth Sit-in (Jackson, MS)
May 28, 1963

Regardless of how violent their oppressors were, the protestors maintained their peaceful position and strategized to legally initiate change.

If we were to strategize a method to bring social change and ethical awareness back to communities in need, what would be our demands? Which factions within our community would we deem to be most important to change first?

    • Would we direct our demonstrations towards BET, MTV, and VH1 whose daily line-up of shows and videos display our young people in degrading ways?
    • Would we revamp the education system an in effort to help our students and parents understand the true benefits of a degree?
      • Would we demand Black history courses become integrated into the curriculum as early as elementary so that our children will have a true sense of self?
    • Would we fight for the funds to provide more job training for the Black community?
    • Would we promote mental health services for our communities to help citizens deal with the overwhelming issues of dysfunctional relationships, rape, child abandonment, fatherless families, drug abuse, and victims of crimes?

Would it make a difference?

Click here to view a copy of the letter that was sent to white business owners as they continued their efforts for equality.
Source (for the letter and photo): Hunter Bear (John Salter, Jr., former professor of Tougaloo College and Former Advisor to the Tougaloo College NAACP Chapter). www.hunterbear.org
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The Butler and the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi

This past weekend, I took my mom to watch The Butler. I planned to see it but hadn’t decided if I was going to watch it at the movies or wait for the DVD. A close friend of mine, who is aware of my interest in learning more about the Black Struggle, had seen the movie and suggested that I didn’t wait to view it. I’m glad I took his advice.

I had seen very few previews of the movie and didn’t know it was so deeply interwoven with the Civil Rights Movement.

Photograph of the Freedom Rider Bus that was headed to Alabama. Photo source- Alabama Department of Archives and History

Photograph of the Freedom Rider Bus that was headed to Alabama. Photo source- Alabama Department of Archives and History

The scenes where the Klan ambushed the Freedom Riders’ bus made my blood turn hot with anger as it ran through my body. I unconsciously became stiff and my hands clenched the armrests of my chair. My knees locked up. I was paralyzed by shock and anger. However, my emotional response was based off the knowledge I gained from reading about the Civil Rights Movement and the things my parents have told me. If I was this angry, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of emotions my mom might be experiencing since she lived through the actual events. Both of my parents grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They experienced segregation, the struggles of integration, black oppression, and the Klan personally.

During the drive home, I asked my mom if she remembered the events that were shown in the movie. She said, “Like it was yesterday.” She instantly began to tell me about her experiences going with her mom to the doctor. She said the doctor’s office was at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and there was a back door for Blacks to enter. The office had a black waiting room and a white waiting room. She said she easily remembered the white water fountains that were side-by-side with the black water fountains. She told me about her recollections of the Woolworth sit-ins and the segregated buses, parks, and restaurants.

Segregated water fountains.

Segregated water fountains. Source: Progressivesouthbend.org

Because the South was segregated during her upbringing, my mother told me it was important to her that her children got the opportunity to go to the King Edward Hotel. This hotel, located in downtown Jackson, was a bustling whites only establishment. When the federal government demanded an end to segregation and required businesses to serve patrons of all colors, the owner of the hotel said he would shut the place down before he would allow a Black person in. He did just that. In 1967, the doors of the hotel were closed. For over 40 years, the King Edward Hotel became an eye sore that nagged of times filled with racial hatred and discrimination. In 2007, a group of investors began working to refurbish the hotel. Two years later, it reopened. In celebration of my thirtieth birthday, my mom took my aunt and me there.

The abandoned and remodeled King Edward Hotel.

The abandoned and remodeled King Edward Hotel.

On the drive home from the movies, my mom said while taking us to that hotel may have seemed like a small gesture, it meant a lot to her. It symbolized overcoming a great obstacle. It symbolized changed times and a new Mississippi.

Click here to read more about the Freedom Riders.

To view photographs and articles from the Civil Rights Movement, visit the Mississippi Department of Archives’ Digital Archives, and click on Sovereignity Commission Online. For example, conduct a Photograph Search by typing in Freedom Riders in the search box. You surly will find a wealth of interesting information.

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Don’t Carry Your Dog To Indonesia In Your Left Hand

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For my trip to Indonesia, I’d planned to create a photo book about my school, my city, family, and other interesting talking points about America. The lost dog I took in three years ago is definitely a part of my family and I planned to share photos of her… until I read a chapter on pollution as it relates to Islam and Islamic duties. It turns out that my dog is seen as a source of pollution. My left hand is also a pollutant. If I were to carry my dog around Indonesia in my left hand, that would be seen as a double whammy in the eyes of Muhammad.

There are two major forms of pollution as it relates to Islam. Najasa is pollution caused by external factors and hadath is caused by one’s engagement in certain activities. Coming in close contact with a discharge from a dog is considered very impure and would require me to clean myself seven times to remove the najasa. And as for me carrying her around… In many Asian cultures (where Islam was founded), the left hand is used to wipe oneself after using the restroom. Because of this, you should not touch anyone or pass them an item with the left hand. That hand is symbolically unclean and to use it during your interactions with others is considered an insult. But when you know better, you do better. The more we know about each other and our diverse cultures, the more tolerant and understanding we become in regard to the differences that exist among us. Therefore, I will continue reading about Islam to learn that I should not brag about my dog, know why I should remove my shoes before entering a mosque, and expect that mostly everyone around me who is Muslim will perform the salat (ritual prayer service) five times a day.

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The Family’s Garden is a Rice Plantation

Somehow I made it to adulthood and had no idea how rice made it to my plate. Even sadder is that until now, I don’t think I cared. I only consumed it without any thought about the process.

When our group of teachers first arrived in Jakarta, we were taken to the Taman Mini Indonesian Museum where Indonesian life was explained via miniature models. The climate and landscape of the country has made rice an ideal crop for the area. According to our tour guide, machinery changed the rice industry for Indonesia, and not in a good way. Traditionally, thousands of hectares of rice plantations were harvested by hand. Workers would spend majority of their day bent over as they chopped off the top of endless rows of the crop. The tools were simple and took a toll on the workers’ hands.

Today, many large foreign-owned companies control the plantations. They use machines to grow and harvest the rice. It requires less workers and as a result, thousands of Indonesians are jobless or have had to search for work elsewhere. Those who have kept their plantations are earning less for their rice because it takes them longer to work the fields by hand. They harvest less rice in the same amount of time it takes the machines. At the end of the day, they earn less money for their rice. Although nearly every acre of undeveloped land is covered by rice paddies, Indonesia still imports rice to help feed its 237 million inhabitants.

When we stayed with our host family in one of the villages in Ogan Ilir, my host sister, Regita, offered to show us their family ‘garden.’ She led us down a narrow path to a rice plantation that was lined with rubber trees. “This is my family garden,” she said, although her English is limited.

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The mother showed us the strings they have tied above the rows. They hang bells and shirts on the strings and shake them periodically to scare the birds away. Even after I saw the paddy with my own eyes, I did not develop a full understanding of how the rice made it to my plate. All I saw were little green plants that looked to me like wheat at the top and scallions at the bottom.

On the morning of our last day in the village, the mother and father spreaded out a large blue tarp on the front lawn. They poured three large bags of small, brown, stick-like things onto the tarp.

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The father used a handmade tool resembling a push-broom to spread the brown things out on the tarp.

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Regita explained that it was the rice. It needed to set out in the sun to dry out.

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The father, who spoke no English, used his foot to agitate the brown shaft and little white grains emerged. It was the rice! The father then picked up a handful of the brown things, said something in Indonesian, and then showed us the rice. Then, the mother came out of the house with a small bag of rice they purchased the night before. In essence, they were showing us the rice before harvest, after harvest, and after it had been processed.

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Who separates the grain from the husk I asked? Regita typed in the question into her Indonesian-English translator and showed us the answer: The Factory.

The father then spoke to us in Indonesian using an assortment of hand gestures to help us understand. “Do we grow rice in Mississippi or New York?” was what he was asking. ” No,” we sadly replied. “No,” I thought to myself…we only consume it… which further adds to the profits of the large corporations.

At that moment,I realized I play a teeny tiny role in the process that drove down the rice prices for farmers such as him who are only trying to provide food on the table for his family….and a couple of American teachers.

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