~ 5 minute read ~
One simultaneously wonderful and dreadful thing about the West, is that people believe it is possible to control just about everything, and are generally confident they can. In fancy psych lingo, this is called having a large locus of control, and high self-efficacy. Whether it’s our weight, our politics or the amount of traffic on our street… it all feels controllable (there was once an outrageously controversial campaign in my neighbourhood to a put a no-left-turn sign at the end of one street… no, seriously… people still get heated about it now and it happened like 8 years ago).
In metaphorical terms, the West is that annoying friend who starts to plan your entire life when you tell them you can’t make it to their party (“But wait… if you just changed your flights, and got a babysitter for the kids, you could totally stop by for half an hour”). If you are from the West, try to remember the last time you were too late for a flight. When the beaming customer service agent said “I’m sorry sir/ma’am, but you’re gonna have to re-book”, did you simply reply with “sure will!” and start pulling out your wallet? No… you asked 6 more times if you could just take both bags as carry-ons, and then you tried to magically check-in using the kiosk.
In Indonesia, people seem to have far more normal-sized loci of control. And at times, this can annoy my Western-bred temperament, and frequently leave me repeating the thought “What the hell!? Why has no one changed this?”
For your enjoyment, here are a few examples:
Ex 1. Traffic
The traffic in Jakarta is arguably the worst in the world. Most people I know spend 3-4 hours per day inhaling exhaust fumes in their car. This leaves little time to attend their basic health needs— exercise, cooking a healthy dinner, getting enough sleep, or taking time to relax after a long work day. For these reasons, I would argue that the traffic is slowly killing people. If you think this argument is too much of a stretch, then consider the fact that 12 Indonesians actually died last year from “fatigue and other health complications” when they got stuck in a 3-day traffic jam (click here for details).
Despite its severity, Jakartans talk about traffic as if it were just as much under their control as the weather. The general sentiment being: ‘yeah… it sucks, but we deal with it’. No one claims to have an elaborate solution for the government, or a secret back-road shortcut that saves them 15 minutes. No one vows to move closer to work, or leave the city altogether. There are no petitions, protests or letters to the Mayor. They accept it.
Ex 2. Blaring airhorn
Now this is one’s my favourite. There is a 4-way traffic stop that I pass everyday on my way to work, and every time the light turns green, a blaring air horn ruptures the ear-drums of everyone within half a kilometre. The air horn is then followed by an equally loud voice speaking ultra-fast Indonesian for 30 seconds; so fast in fact, that no one actually knows what the voice is saying! Yes… the true purpose of this elaborate human torture contraption, is unknown by every Indonesian I have asked.
This is the kind of trivial annoyance would enjoy a quick death in the West— likely through a series of community association meetings, or a few dedicated seniors bombarding the Mayor’s office with angry voicemails. Yet in Indonesia, this annoying, purposeless contraption lives a prosperous, healthy life. Why? Because the City controls the airhorn and it is no single person’s job to change this. It is far easier to apologize to your eardrums for 30 seconds of senseless pain, then to sit through multiple boring meetings or consistently check on the status of your pending complaint at City Hall.
Ex 3. Stray Cats
My neighbourhood is full of stray cats, most of which could easily star on a rabies awareness ad. When I say ‘full’, I mean seeing one cat every 30 seconds on my typical walk to work. And if you’re a weird cat person who’s eyes just lit up with jealously, I’ll only ask you to consider that these cats are not cute, and do not want to cuddle with you. Their main purpose is to expand your knowledge of animal-borne diseases.
Despite the blatant annoyance of this cat army, my neighbours really don’t seem to care. The cats are allowed to hover around the table while they eat, or roam around the entrance of their house. If the cats get too close, they are temporarily shooed away with a splash of water or the swipe of a broom. But nothing more than this— no time or money spent on elaborate cat deterrent mechanisms or putting up barbed wire fences.
When I think of an analogous situation in the West, I think of the copious amounts of time and money that people spend protecting their gardens from feral animals. For some, the site of a motionless dandelion is enough to trigger a costly, emotionally-charged war against weeds.
As much as the loci of control for Indonesians seems to leave gaps where daily annoyances run rampant, there is a case to be made for their “accept, and move on” approach. It can save time, money, and frustration. Last night, in an effort to sleep in a completely pitch-black, mosquito-free room, I spent $15 on a dodgy mosquito light, and over 30 minutes positioning furniture to block enough of the light’s shine so I could enjoy my God-given right to sleep in complete darkness. While all this was happening, the security guard for my apartment was sleeping on a wooden bench outside. I’m still wondering who slept more comfortably.
For a moment, think about how much time you spend trying to perfectly control things that hardly make a difference in your life; the hours spent comparing products online, finding the perfect song before you start your workout, debating what restaurant to go as if it was your last meal. Would your life be that much worse if you bought the first product that caught your eye, put your music on shuffle, and occasionally went to the closest restaurant?
Our need to expand our locus of control is the ultimate double-edged sword. At a micro level, it can result in stress and plenty of time wasted on limiting trivial annoyances. But at a macro level, time-consuming complaints, protests and law-suits can lead to better functioning society (less traffic, air horns and stray cats).
 For the purpose of this post, I define “the West” as Canada and the U.S.