By Jason Straussman
It has now been 4 weeks since I left the United States and have been in Indonesia, so many stories, so many wonderful people, so many great adventures! Here are some of my reflections so far…
I always wanted to fit in.
I was the type of kid that was funky, wore pajama pants and cheap neckties. I even rocked some wife beaters and chain necklaces. Deep down I craved acceptance. I wanted to be one of the “cool” kids, the skater kids with long hair and cool Etnies. I wanted to be one of those EMO kids with guy liner and thigh clenching pants. The truth is though, I never fit in anywhere.
Maybe that has a lot to do with my personality type — my profile for an INFJ says I am an intuitive innovator. But it also may have to do a lot with my curly hair and awkwardness. I tell myself I am born to go against the system, but when you are a hyper-hormonal middle-schooler, being different is not a large currency.
I thrive on empathy, which means I look for the place where I can connect with people, no matter how far fetched it may seem, and run with it. I crave connection, understanding, mutuality, those silent nods that say “yes, me too.”
I told myself all my life I could relate to anyone! I made myself into Play-Doh, shifting from one shape to the other depending on the situation. I come from an odd place — South Florida — where race looks a lot different. Perhaps this is my privilege showing, but a lot of my interactions were with people from different cultures and countries, and these interactions gave me a different perspective on diversity than some other cities might offer.
What I didn’t realize was that all of these situations have given me the false assumption that the way to connect and understand is through “sameness.” Sameness sounds wonderful — “we are all the same;” “We all put our legs in one pant hole at a time;” “Deep down everyone just wants to be loved;” “Music, art and beauty are universal languages.”
All of these phrases sounded great to me! They told me that I could relate to everyone, because everyone is just like me!
Except I began to learn that some people don’t wear pants, some music sounds more like frogs croaking than Katy Perry, some people paint with colors I have never seen before, some people don’t even see the same colors! Some people have to worry about being judged because of the color of their skin, some people are in constant fear of being deported because of their creed or color, some people pray five times a day, some people venerate Mary, some people worship nature, and others worship Krishna.
There is a verse I used to love that would support me. Paul says “I have become all things to all people that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). For people like me this verse was ace. It meant that what I had to do was fit in with everyone, the bible even calls for it!
But now I find that meaning deeply flawed. It rests on the assumption that the only way to transform and love others is by losing yourself and becoming like them. I don’t know what Paul originally meant by this verse, but I know how it was presented to me, and it was deeply misleading.
A professor of mine in undergrad once told my class, “Deep down we are all the most different.” This slogan doesn’t jive well in humanitarian campaigns or on social media. In fact, as a white westerner it actually is the most damaging critique against white hegemony. I have lived my life based on the assumption that with enough investigation and enough resources I could reach this category of “sameness” with whomever I met.
In fact a lot of white justice movements stress human “sameness.” Yet, this is often a control mechanism to maintain the status quo. Instead, wouldn’t it be better to let difference rest?
I am currently in Indonesia this summer, a place vastly different than my own context. I am a white man, and when I walk down the street kids shout out “Bulie, Bulie” (technically foreigner, but used for white people). I will never be Indonesian, even if I spend 40 years here kids will still yell “Bulie” when I walk down the street. The pace of life is different, manners are different, the religion (majority muslim) is different!
My inclination is to try to find “sameness” to see how we are still painting together, but the truth is we have vastly different color palettes we are using. I want people to paint in my lines, but don’t realize how I am colonizing their canvas. I keep trying to understand, but never let the differences rest.
For the first time in my life, I am taking a step back from all the disjunctive pieces and not trying to fit them into my portrait of human existence — the picture is rocky, and a bit wacky — in fact sometimes it looks awful — but when you step back far enough and see the bigger picture, you find all the odd shapes and sizes come to make a beautiful portrait of complex humanity which refuses to be squeezed into my tight “sameness” categories.
So for now I think I will step back and enjoy the strange, odd and different colors of people that make up the beautiful rainbow of human existence.
Jason Straussman is serving in Indonesia through Student.Go, CBF’s student missions initiative. He is a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.