What is a Second World Country? Well, it turns out Indonesia is one. So you can stop being puzzled. More on that later.

Language is a funny thing, with a hard job. To communicate ideas to another being I open up my throat, vibrate the right strings with the correct shape of mouth, tongue, and jaw to create sounds. Or perhaps I punch in a sentence or two over my phone screen. If I did it right then the ideas and feelings replicate themselves into another persons’ brain. That’s magical. At CUNY Hunter I was taught new ways of thinking about language. We deconstructed the ideal form of Perfect English, and learned how words change over time and space. My favorite lesson was that Daisy actually derives from the Saxon name “days eye” and accountable for the phrase “fresh as a daisy”. In another class, we were studying English dialects, the finer points of slang.. In one of my textbooks, the author summarized that the language’s objective was to communicate an idea, and if it accomplished thus without difficulty, then you don’t need correction. Even if it didn’t fit inside our ideas of “proper English”. As a librarian there are tons of things to say and difficulties that are encountered, but the time and place for them aren’t around the family table or other forms of informal conversation. I became incredibly more forgiving about language use, and turned away from my former reign as Grammar Nazi Queen Supreme much to the delight of some of my friends I’m sure.

Untangling these concepts of language and communication, as well as growing up around frequent users of Spanglish is probably responsible for the current marriage thriving behind Puzzled Pilgrim today. Our team met on U.S. soil, using English. He spoke in my native tongue, and when I tried his we end up brushing past the errors and focus on being understood. That is the goal here. We’re not perfect, and when we need to we correct each other but in the hopes of being a better communicator, not for the sake of conforming or fitting in. That intention makes all of the difference.

Couple in middle of a crowded rainy town square, taking a selfie together
Our first months in Jakarta where a challenge to both of us in communication

I recently read a beautiful book, “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. Her book takes place in 1665-1666 England but is published for consumption by a modern audience. When asked by students how she managed to bring a realness to characters inspired by events from the past, she had said on this topic “…the human heart doesn’t actually change that much, so the emotional resonance of the characters is very recognizable and accessible to our modern sensibilities.” In my mind, bumps of time and language doesn’t disqualify the human experience either. We’re actually not that different from one another. In our younger years, both myself and my husband at the time were racing home to play Final Fantasy and Crash Bandicoot. In high school I imagine us listening to our Lost Prophet and other punk rock artists. We were eating different food and speaking different languages- in fact we still do. I will never, ever be able to convince him of the joy that is peanut butter. He will never get me on board with chicken intestines. But we have a surprising amount in common as human beings.

First World Problems

Yes, these are real problems. Yes they look like shitty things to be upset about, and sometimes they can be when compared to someone who doesn’t have access to clean water or consistent food sources. But the reality is an American house owner has the right to be grumpy about things not working, or frustrated when something they took for granted gets revoked. That’s their world, and yes it is a privileged one with higher standards. I don’t have an answer for how to fix this.

Do I now roll my eyes when I hear about someone complaining about a pot hole in their drive way? Yes. Do I share that eye roll with everyone and launch into a story about how I’ve had it worse? Sometimes. The experience is worth sharing but I do need to know my limits. I have been able to commiserate with more people on both ends of the spectrum when they talk about cockroaches coming up their kitchen drain on a daily basis or the frustration of having to park far from the store entrance. I am tougher, and more critical about what is an emergency. Being deported and finding dead fish under your shared kitchen sink will do that to a person. I get both, and they’re just reflective of day to day activities or lifestyles. It’s hard telling someone they have it easy when they’ve never experienced anything less. I felt that most before leaving for Indonesia.

First World Problem meme reads "My wallet has so much money in it it won't fit in the pocket of my slim fit jeans"

When I told my husband that going to the Social Security office was going to take 1-3 hours and it would be THE WORST, he was a little tentative. I went with him in downtown Syracuse to help him navigate the office or help if I could. We left after around an hour and he practically clicked his heels and did a dance afterwards. “That was it? Are you kidding?” He told me he was surprised that we were able to find all the documents we needed online, instructions were up to date, and we wouldn’t need to return. In that moment I had a small foreshadowing of what is Indonesian bureaucracy. One time he ordered something on Amazon and it showed up the next day. It was like telling a child that Santa Claus was coming to town. That shit was magical for him. I will never forget him sitting on the floor, unwrapping his purchase when he turned to me and looked me dead in the eyes saying “You have no idea. No idea.” There was still a huge gap between what constituted as difficult in my life versus his. Still Indonesia is catching up as the huge wave of e-commerce and delivery has come crashing down on West Java.

On the finer points of White People Problems

Things don’t work as consistently, or effectively as they do in the U.S. here in Indonesia. Highways crumble because the government embezzles the money and mixes cheap materials so they can skim profits. Machines and automobiles function far beyond the condition of what Americans would see as a last dying breath. Regulations are for suckers and you should be paying an official a bribe to make things run smoothly. But in this, the bar and expectations are lowered. Are you late to work because of a failed bike? HR is more forgiving and understanding here because it’s happened to all of us. Communities pick up slack to maintain garbage or fix infrastructure that the government won’t get to. Just a few weeks ago, the men on the main road came together to collect money and fix the bumpy road we all use, then did all the manual labor themselves. While many things fall through the cracks, the mentality is a nice trade off because Indonesians are just way more chill, late, and flexible people.

An eye opener for me was having my dear cousin come, unexpectedly, for a visit here in Indonesia. She herself lives and works outside the US in northern Africa. Together we ogled at imported goods like maple syrup in store fronts while my husband looked on laughing. We talked about infrastructure, adjustments, and living in a Muslim community. When we compared the two she told me that Indonesia was a Second World Country, not Third World. Given her description of living in day to day which had more pressing problems with government and regulations, I’m inclined to agree. I’d always been puzzled about what actually qualified as a second world country. Was it someone from the up and coming list like India and China?

Two women looking at maple syrup
White people at ease with their natural habitat breakfast condiments

Indonesia is this vast, obscure arena to the rest of the world. It’s not big enough or powerful enough to attract consistent international attention. We’ve got Bali and the fact that Obama spent some of his childhood there but lots of people end up asking Indonesians “Is Indonesia in Bali?” which makes us produce a humble smile outside on our face but inside we are facepalming ourselves. Parts that are developed and well known travel through the business ears of the Asian community, but the Western world still has pictures of people in head dresses or scaling trees for coconuts because that sells tourism. Both of those places exist, and I live in a modern city with fiber optic internet and hipster cafes that look like Brooklyn on the inside. I’ve had first world and second world problems. I get both, which is great. But convincing each side to give up the ghost on their own problems or who has it worse I don’t think really helps people get an understanding for living differently from one another. Try to understand and be compassionate. Do good deeds. Don’t be a dick. I think that’s my role here as a human being in a nut shell.

Indonesia is sometimes progressive, sometimes traditional. Incredibly diverse.

Back to language and understanding. The term First World, Second World, and Third World have lost a lot of their original intentions, and is a left over term to describe political influence during the Cold War. I still used them in this blog post because they do convey the idea they are meant to and it’s how we use the term now. Many of us use these terms as a socioeconomic assessment of a country. So who are the original Third World countries? Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Austria are some surprising ones on the list. Turns out my cousin was correct on both levels of Indonesia though, in terms of original and socioeconomic assessment. Indonesia truly is a second world country.

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