Wednesday, 4 November 2009

In Search of Nice

I often wonder about the ingredients necessary to make a place nice for people to live in. I don’t just mean the physical environment, but also a place where the people one encounters are genuinely nice. In my lifetime I’ve been to many places around the world that are interesting, exciting and fun to visit, but rarely do I find that combination where not only are the sights stunning but the people are also effortlessly pleasant.

Depending on the purpose of the trip, in a foreign land one generally falls under the category of a tourist — in which case the people you encounter will probably be trying to sell you something — or a stranger, foreigner and outsider, in which case one would rarely feel at home or be treated with the same sincerity reserved for the locals or those in the know. The people might be genuinely friendly, accommodating and interested, but at the end of the day, you’re just another stranger in a foreign land.

But one doesn’t have to travel far to feel unwelcome or like a stranger. As a matter of fact, in Jakarta, even for someone who calls it home or has lived or worked here for a great part of their life and in relative comfort, “nice” is hardly a word we associate with either the city or the people. Exciting, dynamic, fascinating or even frustrating, depending on one’s mood, but it’s hardly a place that overflows with the milk of human kindness.

I suppose it is the scourge of most large modern cities where much of the human interaction is reduced to a cynical level of supply and demand — in which you either want something from other people or they want something from you. Whether at work, in the shops, at restaurants or any place where people interact, the chances are that you are someone else’s object or somebody else is your object. And the bigger the social and economic gap, such as in Jakarta, the more likely people are to treat one another as objects for a specific end — sometimes masked in polite civility, though most of the time dispensing with social niceties altogether.

I’m probably grossly generalizing here, but it seems that more and more human interaction is primarily motivated by personal wants and rarely by the other person’s needs. Even the so-called service industry has become exactly that — a commoditized service that comes with a price. The more one pays, the better the service. What is missing in all this is the warmth of genuine and normal human interaction. We stop being nice people.

Instead, our daily human exchanges often consist of nothing more than a series of complaints (whether soundly based or imagined) about how we are treated and, in other people’s eyes, how we treat them.

Whether it’s the rude waiter, the discriminating flight attendant, the unfriendly local, the unhelpful shop assistant, the dishonest taxi driver, the condescending this, the patronizing that, the subservient this and the conniving that, instances of pure and simple niceness are becoming such rare happenings that when they do occur, chances are that you treasure them like rare findings and share them with others whose eyes equally widen with wonderment. (“Guess what, people? Somebody actually held the elevator doors open so that I could get in instead of pressing the ‘close’ button!”)

Which is why I love visiting the town of Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island for my holidays, and from where I’m writing this article. Not only because of the breathtaking scenery, snow-capped mountains and excellent ski resorts, but because the place is full of genuinely nice people.

And it’s not just the local people. As a matter of fact, this town is teeming with foreigners of all nationalities (I’ve counted French, American, British, Australian, Chinese, whether working at the shops, at the restaurants, at the ski resorts or at the hotels) who might not otherwise be known for being super friendly in their hometowns, but here, both young and old, seem to be transformed into the embodiment of niceness itself.

When confronted with so many spontaneous and genuine gestures of human kindness (the kind words, the ready smile, the willingness to go the extra mile for no other reason except that they actually care and take an interest), it’s difficult not to reciprocate and mirror the same kindness ourselves in a sort of virtuous cycle.

Perhaps it’s the pristine air and the crystal-clear waters, but whatever the cause for this high-quality niceness, it certainly is great to have a dose of it every once in a while, even if I have to travel seven hours to find it.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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