I wrote a similar reflection, three months ago, from a desk in a room of someone’s daughter, and I find myself yet again doing so – the countries have changed but the stories share their roots. I left you on my first day in Singapore, and today I bring you to my last day in Lyon. It’s hard to believe it’s been six months, and its hard to believe this surrealism is my life at all. What I share is but a brief overview of my experiences in these countries. I am grateful beyond words for having them and apologize for failing to do them justice.
After three summer months in Malaysia, I left for Singapore and walked through the shining city for two weeks. For the first week, I stayed in two different homestays: a generous, elderly couple who had achieved the Singaporean dream and then a recently married lovely couple who watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine during the evenings. The second week, I moved into the tube hostel housing. Singapore was straightforward and orderly, perhaps even the near-exact production of one man’s dream. During the day, I met with religious, bioethical, and medical leaders, discussing organ donation and interfaith at length and often comparing by historical default what I heard to what I learned in Malaysia. Such included researchers on organ donation, the governing coordinators, the librarian of the Press Holdings, and major religious thought leaders. Unlike Malaysia, Singapore has adopted a presumed consent system, that is possible due to a strong respect for the government and an equally strong healthcare system. A presumed consent system holds that every adult is a potential donor, unless they opt-out. However, the system has a complicated history with Malay Muslims. I understood a controversial status of Malay Muslims in Singapore, in terms of military clearance and in organ donation. Malays were not welcome in the Navy or Airforce due to questions of allegiance, even if they lived loyally there for generations. Originally, Muslims were also exempted from the presumed consent system. However, because Singaporeans are penalized in terms of priority on waiting lists if they opt-out, many Malays were disproportionately dying because of organ failure. Consequently, the government presented the data and the Muslim community changed the fatwa, deciding against informed consent as the default for Muslims. Not everyone I spoke to knew about presumed consent policy in place, however. The lack of awareness lead to reported family disputes at hospitals, as the government often harvested organs without the approval of family – given the patient had not opted out before their untimely death. These principles greatly diverged from how France applies a similar presumed consent system (I’ll get to this later), and thus invoking the need to study culture and citizenship. Even with a stringent system, Singapore’s organ donation rate is at best, average, and complicated by questions of ethics and religion.
In the evenings and weekend, I attended the Singaporean Writer’s Festival (SWF), which gave me remarkable insight into the culture of the city: from kiasuism (i.e., fear of losing) to colonial narratives to Singlish. I met friends of friends and realized and then questioned what my Malaysian friends had told me to expect. Singapore, a purportedly perfect nation, was as complicated as Malaysia, and monolithic interpretations of success or happiness benefited neither country. There was also a political apathy I found interesting. Some explained it to me as a complete trust in the government; it worked well and for controversies, the government would take initiative, either leaving little need for grassroots efforts or rendering them obsolete in practice. Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country, and its solution for keeping peace was described to me as two-fold: housing quotas and the need to live together until (inevitable) terrorism does it apart (i.e., there are ‘be prepared for terrorist attacks’ posters throughout the city). It works, but I was left with a lingering question that also closed the debate for SWF: would top-down moral policing be enough?
A banking executive told me that the most critical difference between Malaysia and Singapore was leadership. The little red dot claims the number one airport, most trees in an urban area, most expensive city, highest GDP, etc., and it demands perfection. Singapore is an incredible country, but I got the idea that its citizens were not immune to existential questions of autonomy, liberty, identity, and happiness. Just as much Southeast Asian writers create space for their own post-colonial narratives without the need for Western approval, Singapore is renegotiating its own history and identity.
When I wrote my proposal, I gave two itineraries – to spend 6 months in India or to divide those months between Malaysia and Singapore. Given lasting concerns with visas, I decided on the latter. I also decided to consider an anthropological triplet in SEA: Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Indonesia, unlike Malaysia and Singapore, diverges from the former two in two substantial ways. First, it does not have an organ donation system. Rather, donation and transplantation a taboo and controversy, largely due to serious concerns around trafficking and the expensive of it in a medical system that does not support it well. Second, although I emphasize choosing countries with religious diversity, I sought to see a different investigation into practical theology. Though Indonesia is not religiously diverse in terms of representation, it is diverse in terms in how Islam is practiced and rumored to support one of the most religious and open-minded cultures. Rising religious radicalism and tensions between the majority and Christian minority also drew my attention.
I moved from Singapore to two-hours south of the capital to a city that reminded me of Pakistan and Rwanda – Bogor – and into a homestay of a 60-year-old Christian Indonesian man. Nearly every attempt at pursuing formal interviews around organ donation was rebuffed or unanswered, so I pursued the informal, discussing it casually with new friends and acquaintances or searching for hashtags and mentions on social media. I spoke at length with a doctor in Jakarta about the challenges. He conveyed to me, nephrologists don’t care to pursue anything more than dialysis. He lamented that he ruined relationships when he tried to encourage conversation about establishing a system here. We agreed to meet again to see if we could find more people interested in establishing a system there. With more time on my hands, I decided to also volunteer at creative-education school (Yayasan Cipta Mandiri), where I was asked to teach health classes on various topics: depression, sexual education, communicable diseases, and sanitation. Most people in Bogor didn’t speak English, so my volunteering provided opportunities for finding a community, and also learning Bahasa. At the school, I found a role a mentor and a student, sharing and receiving knowledge from friends who were students and my teachers. While cooking ketoprak and gado-gado, some friends asked me about organ donation, and then offered their own experiences and thoughts when they were willing to talk about the taboo. In general, I found some reasons why organ donation was not a popular topic. It’s a sin that could be only a) received by rich people who could go to China and Cambodia, or b) committed by the desperate (i.e., people who needed organs to live). The body, beyond Islamic or Buddhist or Christian ethics, was expected to remain intact, harkening upon an age-old burial tradition among Indonesians. Albeit, many religious leaders declared it was illegal or impermissible, diverging from a wider world consensus where most monotheistic religions permit it. Many people also were not educated about transplantation, and common knowledge remained centered around trafficking and the sale of kidneys. Further, because of a lack of medical infrastructure, organ transplantation was not simply possible: expense, lack of trust in medical professionals, and also poor infrastructure/experience.
Learning about the lack of medical trust and systems in Indonesia particularly effected me. I wondered how to acknowledge my privileges: my mother survived thyroid cancer with one small scar. Two of my friends could no longer smile or blink, and bore long scars on their throats, due to multiple surgeries in attempting to manage their thyroid cancer. My role as a health teacher, although I was beyond honest of my limitations, allowed me to address questions posed by my friends at YCM. With the founder’s and fellow volunteer’s help, we looked for suicide and domestic violence resources. I taught basic public health, explaining how to wash hands properly, the proper use of a condom, antibiotic courses, or the importance of coughing into your elbow. These aren’t things we learn at school, my besti Resti told me as I sat on the back of her motorbike. I felt helpless that I could do not more, and so I poured my heart into the hours of class, I did teach and began to think about what I would do if I became a doctor. I also learned so much from my friends at YCM, and felt incredibly lucky to have found a family there, among some incredible individuals and to share memories with them – from singing with nearly 15 people on the back of a pickup truck to cooking lunch to having honest conversations about life in the classroom. I truly believe it’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever known, and I can only be grateful for the days I had there.
Beyond my home at YCM, I was lucky enough to be introduced to others in Bogor. The founders of the school were well-connected and graciously introduced me to psychologists, as well as to a couple running a drug rehabilitation clinic. My friends in Singapore and Malaysia introduced me to a leading thought leader of Islamic studies in Indonesia, and thus during my last week, I found myself among 40 male and female pesenatren kyai and nyai, relying solely on GoogleTranslate and my developing Bahasa to discuss the rise of religious radicalism. Shortly thereafter, I left for a brief visit to Jogjakarta on a train to see one of the holiest sites of divine unity: the Borobudur Temple. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by two friends, and though I now prefer to travel alone, this was a critical privilege for me. I didn’t say goodbye to people dear to me as I hoped in Indonesia, but I did have the luck of spending a week in Kuala Lumpur, seeing friends that I had missed over the months. I am not sure when I will be back in Southeast Asia, but I do hope it’s sooner rather than later. After all, and with no shame in being sentimental, I left some of my heart there and carry now memories that make me yearn to return. To hear the laughs, smiles, and stories of some of the greatest people I just happened upon. Maybe I found a home there, but I think now the memories I have are my three clicks and ruby red shoes.
On Christmas Eve, I arrived on Nice after a 22-hour roundabout flight and waited for my family to arrive the next morning for a short, but sweet five-day trip though Provenance. It was the first time in nearly 8 years since the family travelled outside of US/Canada, and I was happy to be the reason they could realize a dream of their own. I stayed a week longer in Nice and pursued some interviews that introduced me to the laicity culture of France, in context of the new presumed consent system being implemented in France. What stood out the most were two words: Vivre Ensemble (Live together), which almost is the anthem of France. Nice proved to be more touristy that I hoped, so I moved into a home belonging to a middle-aged woman, with every essential oil imaginable, in Lyon, a city very much like Boston. During the past three weeks in Lyon, I have been luckily busy with interviews and events. . I shadowed a nephrologist involved in transplantation since the 1970s, interviewed religious leaders, and visited organizations at the forecenter of my project, and then also on refugee issues. Everything is fairly more difficult given I have to recall all the French I haven’t practiced for the past four years, but I have been committed to conducting all my interviews in French. It’s heartening though to recall on middle school conversations about baguettes and culture as I navigate different cultural norms Tomorrow, you can find me in Strasbourg, the capital of the EU and a center of bioethics, where I am attending a forum on bioethics, a religious music festival, and gratefully, meeting with French researchers, doctors, and organ recipients.
A new addition to the project, partly motivated by me misinterpreting the small print of Schengen Visas: I’ll be headed to the religiously observant country of Croatia, which has recently experienced a spike in organ donation, in March. Afterwards, I’ll head to the United Kingdom and then to Spain to close with the 2018 International Transplantation Conference. But I guess, we will after to see where things are at 9 months. After all, life is unexpected, and so beautiful and strange…and thus, some:
I never dreamed of standing before history book images — walking the grounds of wonders or the streets of cities unfamiliar. Learning of how little I knew and how little I matter. I have found empowerment in anonymity, away from social associations and ties. I found surreality in days unchartered. So I travel, travel, and travel. There are highs and lows, moments of intense insecurity and self-doubt, often followed by glee and pure wonder. I do not picture these lower days as I do not how yet to articulate them. I may cry in a rented room or go for a walk in solitude to collect my thoughts in the morning, and find myself in laughing in happiness in the evening. There is always a reason to smile and a space to be somber. While I may not know what I am doing or be overwhelmed when things go wrong or are unsure and mistaken or all of the above, I remind myself that this year is a gift and a privilege. A gift I value because of how it allows me to see parts of the world, I otherwise wouldn’t. More importantly, to have lovely conversations with amazing people — about religion and organ donation, about their lives and about themselves. All I want in a day is good conversation with someone. To know their smile, understand their identity, and dream of their potential. And so I travel, I travel, I travel to leave my heart with and learn from individuals that I did not know. The world is surely breathtaking; it is the people who breathe life into it.