Stranded in hamburgerland
As families migrate to the fast-paced glitz of the cities,
the wisdom of their older members is deemed irrelevant.
Jeremy Seabrook reports from South-East Asia.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES
McDonald’s. Jakarta. A family sits around the formica table. Two heads bend together, contemplating the problem in hand. One black-haired, one white, both intent. The girl is showing her grandfather how to prise open the polystyrene packet in which the hamburger nestles.
In Bangkok, a bewildered grandmother grapples with a pocket computer game, laughing as the little figures move too fast, trying to grasp the technology that means so much to her grandchildren.
The young have become teachers in another culture, interpreters of a language the old do not understand, guides in a landscape they have never seen.
As the new generation takes its instruction from the modern world, it listens to different voices, sounds and signals in the air, which are, more often than not, the voices of transnational media conglomerates. The voices of their own people, their old people, are increasingly drowned out. In the process, the transmission of culture from old to young breaks down.
It is doubly unfortunate that this should be occurring at the very moment when more and more people in the South are living to be elderly, if not yet very old. For here we see a repeat of Western experience: as the population ages, so age becomes more commonplace, and at the same time, its store of wisdom is degraded and devalued.
Ultimately, the old find themselves repeating their stories and their memories to a bored and uninterested youth. The young know that their lives will never be like that, and therefore they feel they have little to learn from their grandparents. At best, they will collect the old people’s stories on tape as curiosities of folk wisdom, of herbal medicine, starvation foods, picturesque archaic practices surrounding birth, sickness or death.
The old, then, eventually become migrants, stranded in another culture, which is the modern world. No longer seen as a resource, they become a problem, as in the West. Now that ‘over-population’ is seen by the West as one of the major scourges of an overcrowded planet, it is not the elderly of the earth who will be treated with the greatest tenderness. Old age has become unproductive, barren, like the earth so many people no longer cultivate, fields taken out of production.
The young do not listen. They are too busy listening to those other voices, the beguiling messages of perpetual indulgence from the industries of mass consumption. In the process, it is only to be expected that they will increasingly ignore the sombre admonitions of their elders that life is hard, grudging and poor. The instruction which has enabled generations of peasants to survive falters in the presence of a global market which spills out its riches before young people who have left the land to live in the city. Although many remain poor, they live in daily contact with the imagery of affluence and luxury which tells them that what you need for survival now is not cunning and tenacity, not wisdom and prudence, but money.
In the cities the earning capacity of the elderly in a cash economy is far inferior to that of their young and in this sense they are doubly disadvantaged. Migration for them is more traumatic: it is their sensibility, formed by and for agriculture, that must be more or less violently reworked as they seek to adapt to city life. The old may look after grandchildren or work in the informal economy, but it is the young – always more flexible and adaptable – who readily accept the new rigours of the factory and the sweatshop.
Rarely do you find anyone over 30 in Bangkok’s small row-house garment factories where young women work 14 or 15 hours a day for five or six dollars, sleep in cramped, tiny dormitories and are almost all unmarried.
In the city poverty and age have other aspects too. Like the workers in factory sweatshops, those who work as cycle-rickshaw drivers in Dhaka or Calcutta become prematurely aged. Most cannot work more than 10 or 15 years drawing a cycle-rickshaw. They become used up, their bodies exhausted, their energy wasted. I am constantly surprised, when talking to women who have worked in a Bangkok sweatshop for 10 years, to discover that they are still under 30, when they have the appearance to me of being well into middle age. Similarly, rickshaw drivers who look thin and aged, I discover to be younger than I am.
In the Dhaka slum of Mirpur I met a young man of about 26. His name is Mohammed Idris and he has been a rickshaw puller since he was 17. He had developed breathing problems – possibly TB – and had gone to Rajasthan in India to seek a cure at the shrine of a holy man. He had then worked in New Delhi as a cycle-rickshaw wala.
Now, he works for only six hours a day. He cannot work the full day because he does not have the strength. ‘We cannot take in enough for our bodies to keep them strong. Every day, I feel my strength becoming less.’ He looked at me searchingly; beneath the mass of curly hair, the smile, the face was yellowish, debilitated, the skin stretched on its fine bone structure.
With a shock I realized that I was actually looking into the face of old age, a human being used up before his time; a man not yet married, on the threshold of life, yet looking at me with sad old eyes, like one at the end of it. He says that no rickshaw driver can work more than eight or ten years; some do, of course, because they have no choice. You can see them, in the afternoon, in the shade of the trees, sleeping longer in the afternoon heat, unable to pedal the distances to earn the fare, sleeping the sleep, not of idleness but of utter exhaustion.
In the past, when old age was comparatively rare in the South, it was regarded as a fund of experience, accumulated knowledge and wisdom. As such, the old, at least in indigenous societies, were often objects of respect, their survival something to venerate. In such societies, where human memory was the principal source of knowledge, those who lived longest had the most to tell. It was they who transmitted the stories and passed on the values, the sense of continuity of the group, the know-how to cope with hunger, loss and adversity. Because of these, what they knew became part and parcel of the struggle for survival of the next generation. Of course, the young have always rebelled against the authority and control of their elders, have felt impatience at their caution and conservatism, but this has not necessarily impaired either the power or the wisdom of the aged.
Today, longevity brings with it a strange paradox: while twentieth-century development has brought with it the gift of long life, other aspects of that development threaten to prevent both the elderly and the young from enjoying the years that they have in security and dignity.
Rejoicing over the lengthening of life in the South is likely to be short-lived; a glance at the position of the old in the West explains why. There, long life has become a purposely technological feat; the old are disempowered, functionless and dependent. They are also infantilized. The staff of nursing homes and old people’s homes routinely talk to their residents as ‘good girls’ and ‘naughty boys’. In the West, it is now the fate of the majority to become old without becoming wise. And if they do become wise, that wisdom is not recognized by those who do not even know what wisdom is. This is a terrible fate; in its way, as much a denial of humanity as premature and avoidable death.
Writer Jeremy Seabrook is currently working on a book on Asian megacities to be published by Verso.
Gek Sim is now nearly 60. She lives at Ayer Itam on Penang Island in Malaysia. Her family came from China 70 years ago, driven by poverty. They settled in what was then wasteland, but proved to be fertile agricultural land where they grew vegetables for sale in the markets of Penang. Her father built the house, originally of wood, but over the years this was enlarged and reconstructed into a spacious structure of concrete and corrugated metal. The family became moderately prosperous, growing leaf vegetables for local consumption; they were never rich but gained a secure sufficiency.
Since that time, Penang has become a major tourist destination and is now studded with golf courses. With the future of Hong Kong uncertain, many rich Taiwanese and Japanese now own apartments in high-rise condominiums. The island is becoming more and more urbanized.
The vegetable growers from Ayer Itam became an obstacle to the development of real estate. Over the years they all left, persuaded, bribed or threatened by developers. Gek Sim refused to go. Her piece of ground – shaded by fruit trees, close to the Chinese cemetery, where birds and butterflies were once plentiful – has been encroached upon; her livelihood has been eroded, her vegetable garden reduced to a small plot, where she grows only enough for her family’s needs. But she will not leave.
Her rusty roofed house now looks shabby, diminished by the 15-storey apartment blocks that were constructed on the gardens of her neighbours. I first met her four years ago, when the flats were being built. Pieces of concrete, bricks and stones regularly peppered her roof, sometimes piercing the metal and narrowly missing her grandchildren. But she would not go.
‘My grandfather was allowed to farm freely here. It was unused land. They simply came and squatted. No-one suggested to them that the land belonged to anyone else.’ Gek Sim was growing vegetables from the age of ten, after five years of schooling. The vegetables – kangkong, cabbage, spinach, chai si – were sold to intermediaries. That is why they never became rich. But they kept pigs and chickens, and the garden fed the whole family.
A developer bought the land from the clan which later claimed ownership. Gek Sim heard from her neighbours that the land was to be used for building. They were never formally told. People began to move out. Their houses were demolished with bulldozers, their vegetables crushed. Compensation was promised.
At that time the Consumers’ Association of Penang – one of the most vibrant and inventive of all voluntary organizations in the South – took up the issue. Some of its activists stood with the people in front of the bulldozers and halted the demolitions. One man in a neighbouring hamlet was shot dead during the demonstrations. The developers threatened those who would not move. Gangsters came to frighten them. After the shooting everyone was scared.
As the building began to take shape, all Gek Sim’s neighbours moved out. She remained and with the help of the Consumers’ Association, took out an injunction against the developers in defence of the land she considered her own. The case was won in the High Court; it is still pending in the Supreme Court 11 years later.
Gek Sim still considers herself a vegetable grower: but now she works on land that she has leased from someone else. Not only does she farm, but she takes care of her grandchildren while her children work. She says: ‘I am a farmer. That is the life I know. That is what I will do until I am no longer capable.’
Her house has been attacked. Sometimes, in the night, people throw bricks. There is, she says, no point in reporting it to the police. Nothing will be done. ‘They want the land. The owners sent someone to see me. They asked me how much I would take in compensation. they do not understand. They see land as money, not as something that yields food. I don’t want to leave. It is my land. It isn’t money I want, it is land.’
Gek Sim comes out to say goodbye: some bright green leaves of spinach in the rich earth; chickens foraging in the untidy yard; a plantain and a papaya tree. Behind, the blank, soaring, concrete cliff of the new apartments.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995