On Acknowledging One’s Privilege
Every year when my family celebrated Eid Al-Fitr, my mother and her siblings would tell us a story about their childhood life and struggle. Something that was foreign to my cousins and me, the second generation who got fed in a golden spoon – it was so foreign to me, I struggled when I applied for a scholarship and got asked what my biggest struggle in life was, I thought hard and couldn’t think of anything. My grandpa and grandma have eleven children, including my mother who’s their third children. Grandpa or as I called him Opa, used to work for the government as a civil servant, but, I think stubbornness runs in the family, he was really against the Soekarno’s sway to the China, Russia bloc and decided to resign rather than having to follow the ideals that don’t conform to his. Grandma, or Oma, was once an English teacher, but since she gave birth almost every two years, she resigned as well, and both Opa and Oma moved to Surabaya to raised their eleven children – Mama, my uncles, and aunts. They lived in the brink of poverty, but Opa and Oma wanted to make sure that their children go to school, they would rather starve than not sending their children to school. One of the recurring stories was a story about coconut and palm sugar. One of my uncles told us that every week on Friday, Oma would buy a coconut with a lump of palm sugar and distributed it to all of the children equally. With the coconut and palm sugar, she planted a prayer for all her children – a prayer that all of them would live in harmony and help each other in times of struggle.
I remembered that my mother used to tell me how she was so ashamed of going to school when she was in high school because all of her clothes are too small for her, a rundown clothes from her sister, and that Opa and Oma would scold her if she refused to go to school just because she’s ashamed. I remembered other stories from my uncles who told my cousins and me on how their pocket money was so small they couldn’t even buy anything if they decided to ride the rickshaw to school and therefore they had to walk for more than 5 kilometers to their school. All those stories I heard every year always remind me of how privilege my childhood was. My father and mother wanted me to live a life they couldn’t live before. Anything that I asked, they would provide, from many unfinished private lessons to untouched encyclopedia.
One year after I was born, my family started a business that they still run until now. Each time I hang out with my cousins, we would joke and ponder on why our family decided to start a business in education – out of all other business options in then unexplored Balikpapan, they decided to build a school. We would joke on how our Opa should’ve started a shipping business or a cigarette business instead because we thought how unprofitable an education business is. But, as I grow older, I come to learn that despite their struggle and their lack of privilege, my family runs on gratefulness. They’re forever grateful that they got to graduate university and have proper jobs and start a solid business and for that, everything and anything they do should benefit others. It was planted in their mind by Opa and Oma that the life worth living is the life where you could be useful for someone – to help others who are less fortunate. Their reason to build a school in Balikpapan was that they were genuinely concerned on how lacking behind Kalimantan is compared to Java when it comes to educations.
I was 21 years old when I realized my privilege. And it wasn’t just the fact that my mother bought me a car or that I got an adequate monthly allowance so I could afford my daily coffee intake. I didn’t realize until that time I went to Cibodas for my university’s mandatory community service that my education was in fact, a privilege. I thought and pondered back on my life, how I was actually able to speak, write, and read moderate English because I had access to the internet and that my father bought me video games console where I learned to polish my English. Or the fact that my mother could afford to send me for an exchange student program. I thought on how I was able to get into Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) because my mother paid for a private Math tutor in addition to a tutoring lesson. I began to question all of my accomplishments, if not for all the access that was spoon-fed to me, will I be able to achieve all the things that I so proudly showcase to everyone? And I began to think on how unfortunate and how unfair it is that people who get far and can push forward in life are the same people like me who never once struggled. The bubble that I was in started to burst the moment I realized that I got far because of my privilege and that for so many years I’ve refused to acknowledge it.
I dedicated this first post in 2019 for my mother and for my extended family who’ve become my consistent reminder that I have lived a life of privilege – the privilege of health, education, etc. and therefore with this privilege, I should live my life to the service of others and for the benefit of others. The irony of privilege I think is the fact that the life that I live now and the path that I choose – to work not for the sole purpose of money and profit but something with missions that will help empowered others – is only possible because I have a safety net and that safety net is my mother. My mother always taught me that what good is life if you just live it for yourself and I’m guilty as charged for being a self-centered elitist who’s trapped in the bubble of entitlement. This is one of my step towards a life worth living – to acknowledge my privilege and use my resources to do good for others.
In 2019, I will indulge in my imaginations to be okay with not being uncomfortable with the reality of life that some people are more privileged than others, that injustice and inequality are rampant, and that some of those people who are privileged will be forever trapped in their bubble of comfortability and that I chose not to. As painful and triggering it is to see all the suffering in the world, I decided not to close my eyes and hearts, and I decided to acknowledge and exercise my privilege the way my mother and my extended family taught me.