Thursday, August 12, 2004

Lessons from the Two Gunawans

Lessons from the Two Gunawans

I always learn something from the people I meet daily--friends, customers, casual acquaintances and even complete strangers. Last night I shared a bottle of wine with my old friend Gunawan at the hotel lounge and listened to him talk about marriage.

Gunawan has been a married man for almost two decades now and is blessed with three lovely children. But surprisingly, his view about marriage is completely negative: "Trust me...", he'd say with a seriousness that begs attention, "...marriage is a prison".

Instinctively, when anyone expresses such strong opinions, my sense of balance would prompt me to take the opposite side: "Isn't having a beautiful family and a loving wife all the happiness that a man could ever want?"

But Gunawan feels that the price to pay is too high. He thinks that most people marry for the wrong reasons--family pressure, desperation, fear of old age and loneliness. Being married still doesn't guarantee happiness; it is a never-ending struggle with your partner over petty things like money, image and power. Everyone is naturally selfish and it is often one's spouse that has to bear the brunt of one's true colours.

To me, at least outwardly, Gunawan seemed like a happy and successful family man but his views sounded rather extreme and are perhaps not representative of all married men. Furthermore I have seen many other happily married couples with lovely kids and I am inclined to believe that the institution of marriage is one that works, given that both parties are determined to learn and self-correct themselves along the way. But of course, being single myself, I am not speaking from experience. Things are often easier said than done.

Today, I met another Gunawan--this one is a taxi driver, who took me home from Daan Mogot back to my hotel in Kota. Being stuck in the jam with him for over an hour, I had a good chat with him. Gunawan hails from Madiun, in East Java. He has been working as a taxi driver in Jakarta for over ten years. And like my good friend Gunawan, he is also married with three kids. While my middleclass friend lives in a luxurious bungalow in Pondok Indah, this working class Gunawan lives in a shanty village near Bogor.

Gunawan tells me proudly that he owns the ramshackle house that he is living in now; it cost him 19 million rupiah (around 9,000 ringgit) and he bought it with a loan from BTN which he has to pay back in 15 years. As a taxi driver who works from 7am to 1am, 20 days a month, he takes home about 50,000 rupiah on a good day, about a million rupiah a month--less than 500 ringgit.

He told me that it is difficult having to support his three kids who are all schooling but they provide him with the motivation to work hard. I proceeded to ask him stupid questions like: Is being a taxi driver a very tiring job? His answer was interesting: "Only when you are not making money. When you have a good day with lots customers, you don't feel tired at all".

He expressed surprised when I told him that I'm still single. It was completely incomprehensible to him. Why? I was ready with my standard answer: "belum ketemu yang cocok".

He told me that married life is a great blessing for you always have someone to share your joys and sorrows with. No one can be happy being alone. (The night before, the middleclass Gunawan had told me: "Only when one is married does one really value the joy of being alone").

I greatly admired the positive attitude towards life shown by the taxi-driver Gunawan; I tipped him generously upon arrival at the hotel and he beamed widely in gratitude.

There's so much that one could learn just by listening to other people's views. I don't bother to judge or to force myself to come to any conclusion. In a span of 24 hours, I have met two Gunawans from two ends of the social scale--and the lessons they have given me are equally invaluable.

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