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Older None the Wiser

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Do people actually get wiser as they get older? Or do people just get basically get – older?

When I was a kid, I looked up to older people with fascination. They must know a lot more than me, I used to think. As one Indonesian saying goes: ‘Sudah makan banyak garam, sudah bijaksana.’ Or in English: ‘One who has tasted a lot of salt must be wise.’ But when I got a bit older I didn’t really listen to my elders anymore. I tried to find my own truth, thus developing my own wisdom. Is it a part of the aging process to want to be wiser?

Now in my early thirties, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m as wise as I thought I should be. And when I look around me, there are a lot of people who are in their thirties, forties or fifties who again, I think, are not as wise as they should be at that age. Okay, this is getting eerie. Is it a macro phenomenon? Or is the phenomenon even slightly more micro, which means it’s only happening within the international community in the big durian?

Putri, my strong-headed Indonesian girlfriend was in tears when I saw her for our weekly chit-chat two days ago. Putri is (if she still is now!) married to a 45-year-old American guy. She hesitated for a few minutes, but after a typical girlie greeting of cuddles and hugs she told me her melancholic drama.

“I think I’m going to leave my husband. I can’t stand his behavior anymore. When we first met he was all sweet and romantic – he used to call me ‘his precious’ for God sake. But a year after we got married, I realized that he was simply just a rude person. He said and did negative things without even thinking about the consequences, hurting other people’s feelings and mostly mine.

I thought I could talk to him and make him understand that his behavior was just unacceptable – measured by any culture. Years and years went by without so much riff-raff, until recently. He has picked up the habit of going out once a week to get drunk, staying out until six o’clock in the morning in a prostitute-infested bar. The last time he did it was when our child was suffering a high fever. He didn’t even care,” Putri stopped and made a loud noise blowing her nose. Then, she continued her tale of woe.

“Look, this isn’t about the difference between western and the eastern cultures anymore. Viewed from any culture, what he did was wrong. He said that that is who he is and I should just accept it. But the fact is, he wasn’t like that when I married him. And I can’t just accept these unacceptable behaviors. He should’ve married a meek ‘yes-sir pembantu type’ girl from Blok M if he wanted to treat his wife like a doormat all the time. Oooh, and there are a million other problems too.”

I took a deep breath. I always brag that I’m a good listener. But this time I was too good a listener, I was broiling with anger at her husband. Still, morally I was required to calm her emotions a bit (darn!).

“Perhaps, if you can be a bit more patient, he will change?” Geez, my advice sounded even more lame than that Ally MacBeal (whatever her name is) character from the TV series.

“But you see, my friend, men do not change. They just get older but they do not get any wiser,” she replied with a sad smile on her gleaming-with-tears face.

Ouch, if I were a man, I would be devastated. Putri’s sentence is probably the most degrading declaration related to mankind.

The next illustration is not a story of the infamous ‘ayam’ type Indonesian girls. No, Odell is a mature, soft-spoken Javanese woman in her thirties. She has a couple of kids, a loving husband who is ten years older than her, and her own strong career. And Odell has a f*** buddy. Angus, a 35-year old New Zealander, who is also a very good photographer, is Odell’s f*** buddy.

When I asked Odell the how-to and why questions (not that I wanted to practice the same lifestyle, although the idea is, for a merely humble human being like myself, quite amusing); Odell described it in a straightforward manner.

“What is not to love about Angus? He is young, sexy, and charismatic. He has his own career that he’s very proud of and doesn’t want to settle down. He’s the stallion that I always envision at the back of my brain. And with my situation now, as a not-so-young happily married successful woman blah-blah-blah - I actually feel protected from any negative rumors. The best part about Angus is, he will never tell anybody. You know that one of men’s habits is to brag and tell their drinking mates about the women they have had sex with? Well, Angus’ lips are sealed,” Odell explained in between her hush-hush voice and giggles.

Is it because I’m surrounded by people from various cultural backgrounds that I’m subjected to these dramas? Is this one of the fruits of the interaction between the local and international community? Or could these stories happen anywhere? Can anybody imagine Putri and Odell’s stories happening somewhere in a peaceful valley in Wonosari, Central Java?

For example, if I go to a ‘local’ drinking spot in Jakarta, I usually see nothing more intriguing than a guy who’s clearing his throat with a loud disgusting sound or toddlers running around wildly between chairs, chased by their nannies with a spoonful of food in their hands. If I go to an expatriate-frequented drinking hole, I see grandpas cuddling brown-skinned bar girls (who are the same age as their granddaughters) on their laps. I see men speaking with slurred voices, but they keep on gulping glasses of golden liquid. And I see mostly local married women bragging loudly about how they sleep with men besides their husbands to keep their pockets full.

If the phenomenon does have something to do with the mixed race situation, then maybe the Indonesian society is not really ready to embrace these alien influences? I’m not going to say which part is the one that is ‘holier than thou’.

I think morality has nothing to do with people’s age, but I think it surely has something to do (no matter how weak the relation is) with cultural backgrounds. If you think young studs in their twenties and bar-girls in their less-than-twenties are the only group who can behave carelessly and stupidly, then you are wrong. I was wrong about this.

Maybe some people do get wiser when they’re older, but some people don’t, regardless of their sex. The surrounding lifestyle and cultural background certainly does have an effect on the process. People who do get wiser when they are older, should stick together, and likewise. That would be fairer, wouldn’t it? Especially for Odell’s husband and Putri.

When I was younger, I used to look up at Pak Achmad, a distant relative of mine who is ten years older than I, with great admiration. He was always the wise one. He was always there to protect me from the boy-bullies from school. He was there to guide me when I was writing my thesis. Now, in his mid-forties, he is curled up in a jail cell. He was sentenced for eight months for a white-collar crime. So much for wisdom!

Housing and schooling information for expats in Indonesia expatriate website for Indonesia Indonesian language translation of article

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