Disclaimer: while I didn’t grow up with an upperclass lifestyle, my upbringing was still a financially-privileged one. Privileged enough to not growing up hungry, privileged enough to not be financially wrecked by the ongoing pandemic.
But, even if my family had a billionaire dollar, I am certain I would still not grow up with the ideal physical and human environments.
Let’s start with multiculturalism. I wish my upbringing was even more multicultural.
I am a Muslim who grew up in urban parts of Indonesia; anyone with similar upbringing would have been exposed to people of different ethnic backgrounds (and, to some extent, their foods) and would have interacted with Christians (arguably more than western Christians have interacted with Muslims). Interethnic marriages are also common among urbanites.
The diversity of my hometown specifically – Batam – is even more noticeable. Because it is a planned city, it is dominated by five ethnic groups instead of one. Christianity is not the only visible minority religion; Buddhism also has a strong presence.
But, it is not enough for me.
While I am used to interacting with my culturally and religiously distinct fellow countrymen, I wish I can witness them “practicing their identities” up close.
I wish I grew up attending traditional cultural festivals of different ethnic groups, complete with the traditional music, dance and attires. I also wish it is more socially acceptable to join the religions’ holiday celebrations and marry outside one’s religion.
Most importantly, I wish I grew up in a place where bigotry and incitement are more unacceptable. It is disturbing how many Indonesians love inciting/tolerating anti-Chinese violence, use Israel to justify their anti-Semitism, perceive atheism as extremism and perceive dark skin as a defect. I hate that I used to be one of them.
While I wish Indonesia has more racial and religious diversity, it can be dangerous with the thin ice we are currently standing on.
It would also be better if the multilingualism is official as well. I hate how we have hundreds of language and yet we only official recognise one. I also hate that not all Indonesian schools obligate the teaching of regional languages, treating them them as mere vernaculars, making them more prone to extinction; even Javanese, the most spoken and empowered regional language, is on the decline.
Even if it is unfeasible to use regional languages as mediums of instructions at schools (like they do in India), the least we can do is acknowledging their importance to our identities as Indonesians, just like we do to our national language.
Now, about the city itself.
I spent most of my life in Batam and a handful of years in Jakarta metro area. While Batam is definitely less hectic, both undoubtedly have poor walkability and mass transit. But, even if they are almost the exact opposite, it is still not enough.
My ideal city should has more parks, more lush trees in the pedestrian areas, more car-free streets, less highways and less cars in generals. I want it to consists entirely of mixed-use, transit-oriented developments, where every amenity and transit stop is accessible by a short walk. I want all public transit to be rail ones; inexplicably, every time I visit countries with better mass transit, I prefer their trams and metros over their buses.
Oh, and when I say amenities, I am referring to medical emergency units, primary and secondary schools, stores that sell fresh foods, pharmacies, community centres, multilingual libraries and lush parks. I believe those are facilities which every person must have easy access to, both financially and geographically.
It is not enough for public housing to be well-maintained. It also needs to be spread out all over the city, ensuring the residents are not segregated into the periphery. Yes, I am also opposed to gated communities, where the privileged ones live in a bubble.
Ideally, I want as many festivities possible. From traditional Indonesian festivals similar to Sekaten and Tabuik to ones with more “international” themes like Jazz. But, if I have to choose, I would prioritise the traditional Indonesian ones.
Pragmatically, traditional Indonesian arts make Indonesia stand out on the global stage. Spiritually, they help feel more attached to our ancestral heritage. As much as I love modern western music, it is unable to do any of them (unless when fused with traditional Indonesian styles).
Apart from the usual themes of arts, sciences and history, the museums should include niche or weird ones. They can be about dolls, stamps or history of specific neighbourhoods and districts.
There should be at least three non-sectarian research universities that attract students from all over and offer a wide range of academic programmes, especially the so-called “useless” ones. Each of the university operates their own public museums and public broadcasters. If there are religious seminaries, one of them must be multireligious.
It has its own local and multilingual public broadcasters that prioritise quality over ratings. While they can broadcast programmes produced elsewhere, 60% of the programmes must be locally produced.
It has a diverse range of architectural styles, preferably pre twentieth century and early twentieth century ones. But, if I have to include more modern ones, I would prioritise ones that have as many ornaments as possible or ones with weird shapes.
If I have to include the simplistic ones, I would rather choose the Critical Regionalist ones. If I have to include International Style, I would want the number of such buildings to be kept to a minimum. If I have to include Brutalism, I would relegate such buildings to film and TV sets that produce dystopian fiction.
The city is connected to a Swiss-type railway system, ensuring the citizens can arrive to not only other human settlements, but also a wide-range of natural recreational places (e.g. beaches and highlands) within two hours or less. No cars and highways needed.
I am certain that if I grew up such environment, I would be a much better person.
I would grow up as a much more self-reliant child and teenager who didn’t need assistance just to leave the house. I would develop a greater sense of adventure (without being a thrill seeker who can only have fun when the risk of injury and death is high). I would have been physically healthier as well. While I am not ashamed of my homebody tendency, it would be nice to balance it with more outdoor activities.
I would have been more curious about my hometown and discovered many hidden gems, like small eateries in alley ways, niche museums or even weird-looking buildings. I would be familiar with my hometown inside out.
I would have been exposed to more diverse aesthetics. While I am not ashamed of my enjoyment of pop culture, I wish I also grew up with more niche and offbeat alternatives.
I would have learned that unity in diversity requires more than just living side-by-side. It also requires us to confront and overcome the differences and, most importantly, humanise our fellow human beings.
My upbringing would have been a much richer, more well-rounded and more pluralistic experience.
Of course, there is high a possibility of me taking things for granted. But, as long as I am exposed to the world beyond my hometown and country, it’ll be okay.
Yes, interethnic and interreligious lives are far from perfect here. But, I started to appreciate them more when I learned about the ones overseas, with their glaring imperfections.
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