Once in a while I get this kind of question from all sorts of people, relatives, old friends, even random people I’ve just met, who couldn’t comprehend what I do for a living.
If I tell them I’m a writer and an activist, chances are they will look at me funny, which is understandable. After all, do they even consider writing and social activism a serious occupation? So, typically, I introduce myself as a researcher, as I am currently affiliated with a research-oriented NGO while working on my graduate studies. That sounds like a pretty decent job, right?
Still, the funny look doesn’t go away.
Though I find it intrusive, those folks have good reasons for being skeptical of my professional endeavors. Those who happen to know me think that given my skills and qualifications I should have picked a better – that is, higher-paying – career.
In fact, the path to cushy bourgeois life has always been wide open for me, but I opt to embark on the less traveled road instead. With the exception of my turbulent years, my life journey is a caricatural example of an ideal middle-class life.
I attended the so-called “best schools” or sekolah unggulan. I’m educated abroad in several countries, including the United States. I’ve acquired a set of skills and networks which will make me competitive in the job market. In another universe, I may work as an engineer or a consultant. I could have chosen the usual pattern of working-getting married-breeding. In short, my entry ticket to the establishment is somewhat guaranteed.
But I refuse to take the ticket. Instead, I chose to stay true to my calling: to become a writer and an activist. I started writing and getting involved in social activism during my teenage years. Since then, I’ve never looked back.
Currently I’m at a stage where I’m juggling between different responsibilities, writing, social activism, making a living, and maintaining relationships with people whom I care the most, but I don’t see it as a burden. In fact, I enjoy it a lot. Old habits die hard. It’s hard to ignore my activist and literary impulse, which I consider a gift.
Sure, compared to those lucrative corporate jobs, the pay is not high, but it’s enough for me and my family (talking about filial piety of the eldest child in an Asian household). Besides, I’ve never been interested in capital accumulation and self-aggrandizement anyway. My heroes are not the technocratic corps of start-up founders and self-proclaimed reformist politicians. My heroes are the people themselves – the striking go-jek drivers, the resisters of eviction, the courageous peasants, and the like – the working people. So far I feel like I’ve been able to find a balance between my personal responsibilities and commitment to the Cause.
Sure, it’s not easy. I’m well aware that I have to make some sacrifices in my life (I call it “adjustments”) that will attract surprised gaze from people, but I’m totally cool with that. Such a response is kind of expected given my public persona as a stereotypical good guy who seems to get his shit together. Little that they know that I’ve been through a lot, “got ideas”, and got radicalized as a result.
But you might ask: other than my innate tendency as a non-conformist lone wolf with individualist bent, why would I choose to stubbornly stick with my high-risk, low-paying vocation? Here’s the reason: because it makes me happy.
Because it makes my life more meaningful. Because, at the end of the day, I know that I need to be honest with myself. I want to be honest with myself, that working toward a better world is what I’ve been dreaming to this day. A better world in which people, regardless of their cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, can fully realize their potentials in a free and equal society based on the bond of solidarity among its people. This kind of world – another world – is possible.
And that’s what I believe in. Hence, it makes sense for me to take part in the collective effort to make it happen. Needless to say it’s going to be an uphill struggle, but bear in mind that every major milestone in human history – the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the independence struggle of the third-world nations, and the fight against dictatorship in different parts of the world, to name a few – has always been and will always be an uphill struggle whose fruit will benefit humanity as a whole.
So when the intrusive question of “what are you doing exactly?” pops up again and again, hell, bring it on.
Qalam is an aspiring writer, a professional skeptic, and a constantly learning male feminist.