The Danger of Stereotyping by Greek Philosopher Seneca

 

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Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens. Via: (Artstor)

 

If there is a book that I treat like a sacred text, it is Letters from a Stoic (Public Library)–a collection of letters originally penned by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – 65AD), one of the most towering figures in the ancient Greek school of philosophy, Stoicism. Every once in a while when I find myself mortified over trivial things such as a WiFi outage and when a cyclist overtakes me on the road, I think of Seneca and this book. This book, which I revisit frequently, will always bring me solace in the midst of chaos and some new teachings that are extremely practical. Although Seneca was penning all the letters between 4 BC and 65 AD for his own private reflection and for the people that he loved, they surprisingly have survived two millennia later against all odd and have helped modern people to comprehend the notion of what it means to live a meaningful life.

In one of those letters in the book, I came upon a letter titled Letter CXXIII that addresses the problem that is so common in our modern world. It is our chronic habit to be seduced by stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is not only a pathway to racism, but according to Seneca, once we plant the seed of it in our lives, “the evil would follow us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future”. The letter is not only advising us to avoid the act of stereotyping but also to avoid the people who spread this harmful and misleading association.

Writing the letter to his friend, Lucilius, after a long exhausted journey that he had, Seneca wrote:

[…]

“With all such people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another. One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future. In the same way as people who’ve been to a concert carry about with them the melody and haunting quality of pieces they’ve just heard, interfering with their thinking and preventing them from concentrating on anything serious, so the talk of snobs and parasites sticks in our ears long after we’ve heard it. And it’s far from easy to eradicate these haunting notes from the memory; they stay with us, lasting on and on, coming back to us every so often. This is why we must shut our ears against mischievous talk, and as soon as it starts, too; once such talk has made its entry and been allowed inside, it becomes a good deal bolder. Eventually it reaches the stage where it says that ‘virtue and philosophy and justice are just a lot of clap-trap’.”

[…]

 

More on Seneca and Stoicism:

  • School of Life, one of my favorite intellectual channels on YouTube discussed this school of philosophy, Stoicism, in a very catchy visual and understandable language:

 

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Tomb of Seneca by Charles Le Brun. Via: (Artstor)

 

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Sokrates and Seneca. This sculpture is owned by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Germany). Via: (Artstor)

 

Paul Kalanithi on the Source of Human Knowledge

 

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Paul Kalanithi. Via: (paulkalanithi.com)

 

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eight, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationship we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them, where, as at the end of that Sunday’s reading.

the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Pulled from Paul Kalanithi‘s eloquently crafted memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Public Library). 

Kalanithi’s lung cancer tragically cut short his life. He was only thirty seven when he inhaled and released one last, deep, final breath in the room not too far from where his only daughter, Cady Kalanithi, was born eight months before. It was also the same hospital where he was trained to be a neurosurgeon. In that hospital, he had faced the death of his patients and eventually his. The excruciating pain of his cancer did not deter his vitality from writing this book. He wrote this book because of his cancer and despite of it. This memoir is not just a collection of words and pages. At its core, this is a story of what courage looks like. This is a story of how a man of inexhaustible energy had to commune with his own mortality.

Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Kalanithi knew someday he would eventually die, but he did not know when. After he realized that the cancer had invaded his multiple organ systems, he knew that his “lease” in this world would end really soon, but once again, he did not know when. In those uncertain moments, Kalanithi had lived gracefully and courageously.

 

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Paul Kalanithi. Photograph by Norbert von der Groeben. Via: (The New Yorker)

 

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi with his wife, Lucy, and their daughter. Via: (nytimes)

 

How to Have Original Ideas: Adam Grant on Originality and Creativity

 

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Adam Grant. Via: (Inc.com)

 

In a consolation letter that Mark Twain sent to Hellen Keller after she was being accused of plagiarizing, Twain wrote, “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources […],” he continued, “when a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.”

If all ideas are second-hand, why are we obsessed with originality? There is nothing in this world that is completely original. All of our ideas have been influenced by other ideas, big or small, significant or superficial. In other funky words: everything is a remix.

When it comes to deconstructing the mystery of originality, no one can better explain it than Adam Grant, one of the most influential organizational psychologists. Through his second book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Public Library), Grant unearths some of the most powerful and surprising findings about what does it mean to be an original and to have original ideas.

On the definition of originality, Grant writes:

“Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

[…]

Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.”

This process to make our “visions a reality” is a circuitous and complex process. However, one of the steps that we can do to ignite our creative minds is “finding the faults in defaults”. 

Grant writes:

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

[…]

The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience Vuja de, the opposite of Deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we have seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse–we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

This notion of Vuja de is the engine that fuels the conception of Warby Parker–an online eyeglasses company (A worth to read interview with one of the founders–Neil Blumenthal). In the book, Grant shares the story of Warby Parker’s creation. Initially, it started when the four founders were enraged with the price of eyeglasses. As one of them stood in line at the Apple store to buy an iPhone, he wondered why a pair of eye-glasses could cost more than an iPhone. Everything started to change after they realized that an European company named Luxottica dominated the eye industry business and was taking advantage of its monopoly status by “charging twenty times the cost”. Understanding that there was a monopoly was an “eureka” moment for them. They realized that they had never questioned the origin of the price of eyeglasses before. Looking with a new perspective to “the thing” that they had always taken for granted, Warby Parker eventually came to existence.

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George Washington’s spectacles. “Silver-rimmed spactacles, worn by George Washington. Washington commenced to wear eye-glasses in the year 1778. This pair is said to have been used by him on the occasion of his reading his Newburg address./ Presented by Captain Henry N. Marsh. S. 45,001.” Via: (NYPL Digital collections)

 

Prior to reading this book, I used to think that we lived in the age of ideas scarcity. Grant shattered my false assumption by explaining that the real issue in our world was not the absence of ideas, but the ideas selection.

He writes:

“But in reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not ideas generation–it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87 percent were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They are constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.”

To recognize ideas that are not only novel, but also have a potential to make our world a better place is a difficult practice. Grant presents two theories that capture our weakness to recognize original ideas from conventional ones. First, is a false positive, expecting something to be a transformative idea, but it turns out to be a miss. Second, is a false negative, which means believing an idea will fail but it turns out blossoming. All of these are very common. One of the greatest TV series in America, Seinfeld, was a false negative. So was J.K Rowling’s Harry potter series.

Originality conjures up images of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs for the most of us. These extraordinary figures have dominated our world with their staggering and novel inventions. We feel their success is unattainable. One of the most hopeful things that Grant writes in the book is originality can be exercised like a muscle, a concept that reminds me of Carol Dweck’s research on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. The more we exercise “it”, the stronger “it” becomes. The seed to be an original thinker is found in everyone of us, if only we nurture it and let it grow.

“Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice. Lincoln wasn’t born with an original personality. Taking on controversy wasn’t programmed into his DNA; it was an act of conscious will. As the great thinker W. E. B. DuBois wrote, ‘He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.’ “

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Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

The twentieth century is the golden age of entrepreneurship, a term that was coined by Richard Cantillon, which means “bearer of risk”. The media loves to share entrepreneurs’ success stories by highlighting the bold risks that they have conquered. This media framing tricks us into thinking that all entrepreneurs are not risk-averse. To make it worse, there’s a lot of motivational quotes scattered around the internet that encourage people to be fearless when taking risks. Though, I agree that we need to have a certain degree of risk-taking attitude to achieve our goals, according to Grant, blind risk-taking is a very dangerous strategy for entrepreneurs.

He writes:

“Economists find that as teenagers, successful entrepreneurs were nearly three times as likely as their peers to break rules and engage in illicit activities. Yet when you take a closer look at the specific behaviors involved, the adolescents who went on to start productive companies were only taking calculated risks.

[…]

To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks–but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”

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Marie Curie. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

This notion of “calculated risk” is in fact not new at all. Half a century ago, a theory called “an innovative theory of risk” was developed by University of Michigan psychologist Clyde Coombs (Another research done by Coombs and Bowen titled “Additivity of Risk in Porfolios”). This theory can be understood as embracing risk in one area and exercising safety in another. 

One might think that entrepreneurs or creative people who practice this concept of “risk portfolio” don’t take their business seriously because they are playing it safe and not fully immersing themselves in it. However, this strategy is in fact benefiting them.

Grant writes:

“Common sense suggests that creative accomplishments can’t flourish without big windows of time and energy, and companies can’t thrive without intensive effort. Those assumptions overlook the central benefit of a balanced risk portfolio: Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.”

Then Grant cites a captivating study by two management researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng in which “from 1994 until 2008, they carefully tracked a nationally representative group of over five thousand Americans in their twenties until fifties who became entrepreneurs.” In the research, Raffiee and Feng asked a question: when people start a business, are they better off keeping or quitting their day jobs?

Combining the research from Raffiee and Feng, Grant deduces:

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day job had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.

[…]

After inventing the original Apple 1 computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full-time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977. And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998.”

[…]

This habit of keeping one’s day job isn’t limited to successful entrepreneurs. Many influential creative minds have stayed in full-time employment or education even after earning income from major projects.

[…]

Grammy winner John Legend released his first album in 2000, preparing PowerPoint presentations by day while performing at night. Thriller master Stephen King worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story, only quitting a year after his first novel, Carrie, was published. “

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Artwork by Austin Kleon. Via: (Austin Kleon’s Tumblr)

 

Einstein once said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” In this book, Grant shares the same idea on creativity with Einstein. He argues that creativity doesn’t necessarily spring from a single profound expertise, but it emerges when one is actively connecting one’s mind with ideas outside of one’s expertise. As he said, “A unique combination of broad and deep experience” is necessary for the nourishment of creative thinking. In order to understand the effects of  “combinatory play”, Grant turns his attention to Nobel-Prize winning scientists, in which he argues:

In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study. But the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists. “

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This picture was taken from page 47 of the book

 

How does this hunger in the arts help them to spark their creative insights?

Grant answers:

“Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, investors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. People who are open to new ways of looking at science and business also tend to be fascinated by the expression of ideas and emotions through images, sounds, and words. But it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out to exposure to the arts. The arts also serve in turn as a powerful force of creative insight.”

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Painter at His Studio with Guests. Artist: Bundrone, G. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Reading Originals has altered the way I view creativity, the world, and myself. Though this book is brimming with scientific information, the way Grant weaves together scientific findings and personal narratives in this book is enchanting and digestible. The rest of the book, Grant explores creativity in the workplace, family, school, and truly reveals every layer of creativity that we have never seen before.

Adam Grant’s Ted-Talk on this topic is a worth to watch:

 

And, if you always find yourself hesitant to share your ideas because you think they are insignificant or “too obvious to you”, Derek Sivers has something to say:

Seth Godin on the Trouble of “waiting to be discovered”

 

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Seth Godin. Photograph by Bill Wadman. Via: (OnTakingPictures)

 

If you haven’t subscribed to Seth Godin’s daily (Yes, daily!) newsletter, I hate to say that you are missing on some of the most provocative and powerful ideas on education, the purpose of customer service, how do ideas spread, self-learning, dancing with fear, and other important things that circulate around our lives and works.

When we look up at the mountaintop looking for a mighty calling from God to fulfil the gaps in our lives, Godin reminds us to look down and start what can be started with any resource that we own, today, not tomorrow. Godin hates when someone is being lazy because of course it’s obvious, what can you accomplish if you’re being lazy? He despises life-hack articles because he thinks those are toxic and to trick your customers is a short-term gain but a terrifying long death sentence. Moreover, waiting for someone to discover our talents is disturbing and it’s a way to suffocate our talents. This particular topic on “waiting to be discovered” is the highlight of this post as I have been pondering about this topic lately.

From his daily newsletter, Godin wrote a short article titled “On Being Discovered” on August, 16th 2017:

“[…]

The thing about being discovered is that in addition to being fabulous, it’s incredibly rare. Because few people have the time or energy to go hunting for something that might not be there.

The alternative?

To be sought out.

Instead of hoping that people will find you, the alternative is to become the sort of person these people will go looking for.

This is difficult, of course, because it means you have to create work that might not work. That you have to lean out of the boat and invest in making something that’s remarkable. That you have to be generous when you feel like being selfish. Difficult because there is no red carpet, no due dates, and no manual. But that’s okay, because your work is worth it.”

Speaking the same truth in conversation with The Great Discontent (TGD) on our laziness to lift ourselves up to reach our highest potential, Godin said:

TGD: If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting out, what would you say?

Godin: […]

The opportunity of a lifetime is to pick yourself. Quit waiting to get picked; quit waiting for someone to give you permission; quit waiting for someone to say you are officially qualified and pick yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to be an entrepreneur or a freelancer, but it does mean you stand up and say, “I have something to say. I know how to do something. I’m doing it. If you want me to do it with you, raise your hand.”

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Seth Godin. Photograph by Bill Wadman. Via: (OnTakingPictures)

 

 

Legendary Indonesian Feminist and Educator R.A. Kartini on Her Javanese Traditions

 

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Kartini

 

R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879–September 17, 1904) had a lasting and an enormous impact in championing women’s rights in Indonesia, especially for her own tribe, the Javanese. At the time when the Dutch colonial system had enveloped Indonesia for more than two centuries, the Dutch looked down the Javanese and regarded them as an inferior race. Women had a very limited option to stretch their fate beyond being obedient and submissive housewives. A few Javanese girls had an access to go to school but mostly only those who were of exceedingly high status, and willing to learn Dutch (Kartini, interestingly, was born into an aristocratic family and spoke and wrote Dutch impeccably). The rest of the people were living under illness, poverty, and heavy mysticism. Kartini had to be withdrawn from school into her own culture when she was twelve and a half years old to take on her prescribed role as a noble Javanese girl. She was being a prisoner in her own house, out of sight of everyone but her closest family, to be in readiness for someone who might ask her father to marry her. 

All of those unfortunate circumstances did break her heart but from that she discovered her inner strength. Though her formal schooling abruptly ended, she was not finished with her own education. With the generous support from her beloved father, a regent in one of the towns in eastern Java, and polymath brother named Kartono, Kartini was able to construct her own style of education by excessively reading Western literature and penning letters in Dutch to her Dutch friends. Her letters vocalized her longing to be an independent and intellectual woman, and to see the Javanese women being treated equally and intelligently. She and her letters were inseparable. More than a mere tool of self-expression, Kartini’s letters allow us to travel back to her confined but courageous life as a young Javanese woman living in the transition of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in the land of Java, Indonesia.

In 1904, she died very young, only twenty-five years old, four days after her only son was born named Soesalit. A few attempts had done to compile and translate her letters into a book. One of which is this old-forgotten book that I had read titled Letters of a Javanese Princess (Public Library), translated into English from Dutch by Agnes Louise Symmers. This book contains everything from her thoughts on marriage (she was clearly against a forced marriage which was pervasive at the time), religion, education, women’s rights, humans’ sufferings, Javanese arts, and most importantly, her unflinching search for her self, for a meaningful and a viable life.

Buried deep in her letters, once in a while, I came upon some entries in which she described her Javanese traditions to her Dutch friends. Here I gathered some of the most compelling descriptions of the Javanese culture through Kartini’s point of view.

On November 20th, 1901, she wrote a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri about a popular belief in Java that said someone who couldn’t keep his or her promise would eventually be visited by a dangerous snake:

“There is a belief among us Javanese, that those who break a promise will be visited by a poisonous serpent. The serpent comes to remind them of their promise, if they do not quickly fulfill it, they will be visited by another more venomous serpent, whose bite is deadly. If they delay longer, misfortune will surely overtake them. The serpent only lives upon the promises of holy spirits, as the souls of the righteous who are dead are nourished by flowers, perfume, and incense. The serpent is sent by the departed souls of the righteous to remind men of their forgotten promises.”

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Javanese Traditional Masks. Via: (NYPL)

 

The Javanese are a superstitious people fond of myths and fairy tales. In an entry from March 5th, 1902, a 23-year-old Kartini wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, one of her Dutch friends:

“It was most difficult to take a photograph in the kampong [village]. A superstition says that one shortens one’s own life when one allows a photograph to be taken, and that a photographer is a great sinner; all the portraits that he makes will demand their lives of him in the afterlife.”

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A girl wearing a traditional Javanese costume. 1938. Via: (NYPL)

 

Written to Stella Zeehandelaar*, her beloved radical feminist Dutch friend whom Kartini never met, on August 18th, 1899, Kartini lamented the rigidness of her Javanese traditional culture:

“I have always been an enemy of formality. I am happy only when I can throw the burden of Javanese etiquette from my shoulders. The ceremonies, the little rules, that are instilled into our people are an abomination to me. You could hardly imagine how heavily the burden of etiquette process upon a Javanese aristocratic household. But in our household, we do not take all the formalities so literally.

[…]

Javanese etiquette is both silly and terrible. Europeans who live years in India*, and who come in close contact with our native dignitaries, cannot at all understand it unless they have made a special study of it.

In order to give you a faint idea of the oppressiveness of our etiquette, I shall mention a few examples. A younger brother or sister of mine may not pass me without bowing down to the ground and creeping upon hands and knees. If a little sister is sitting on a chair, she must instantly slip to the ground and remain with head bowed until I have passed from her sight. If a younger brother or sister wishes to speak to me, it must only be in high Javanese*; and after each sentence that comes from their lips, they must make a sembah; that is, to put both hands together, and bring the thumbs under the nose […]

They are [Kartini’s little brothers and sisters] forbidden to touch my honorable head without my high permission, and they may not do it even then without first making a sembah.

[…]

Should you speak against your superiors, do it softly, so that only those who are near may hear. When a young lady laughs, she must not open her mouth. (For heaven’s sake! I hear you exclaim). Yes, dear Stella, you shall hear stranger things than these, if you wish to know about us Javanese.

If a girl runs, she must do it decorously, with little mincing steps and oh, so slowly, like a snail. To run just a little fast is to be a hoyden.”

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Marriage Procession in Java. ca. 1862. Via: (NYPL)

 

On the Javanese traditional wedding, written to Mevrouw de booij-boissevain, on March 29th, 1902, after having celebrated her sister’s wedding, Kartini wrote:

“A native marriage entails a heavy burden upon the family of the bride. Days and weeks beforehand, the preparations for the solemnity are begun. Sister’s wedding was celebrated very quietly on account of a death in the family.

[…]

The Javanese give presents at a marriage; things to wear such as kains [clothing material], stomachers, headdresses, silk for kebajas [kebaja is a traditional Javanese outfit for women], cloth for jackets; and also things to eat, such as rice, eggs, chickens, or a buffalo. These are merely meant as marks of good will.

[…]

When a buffalo is killed at the time of a wedding—and usually more than one is needed for the feast meals—a bamboo vessel filled with sirih [the betel leaves], little cakes, pinang nuts, and pieces of meat must be mixed with the running blood of the slaughtered buffalo. These vessels, covered with flowers, are laid at all of the crossroads, bridges, and wells on the estate, as an offering to the spirits who dwell there. If these bridge, road, and water spirits are not propitiated, they will be offended at the festivities, and misfortune will come of it. That is the belief of the people. Its origin I do not know.”

Some notes:

India*: Until 1949, five years after Indonesia had gained its independence from the Dutch, Indonesia was known as the Netherlands East Indies, Dutch India, Netherlands India, and simply called India. India in this letter means Indonesia.

High Javanese*: The Javanese language has different distinct levels. High Javanese is being used to address someone who is higher in status, age, education, and occupation such as: parents, grandparents, professors, and those who possess nobler blood. In return, these people will speak “low Javanese” for whoever they think are lower than their personal status. “Middle” level Javanese is often being spoken by peasants or peers who are in the same level for intermediate social situations. There is also a “very-high” level of the Javanese language which is heard only in the royal court. Each level of the Javanese language uses a very different vocabulary that most non-Javanese speakers would think that they hear different languages being uttered. 

Stella Zeehandelaar*: Stella came to know Kartini after she came upon her advertisement in De Hollandsche Lelie (the Dutch women’s magazine), inviting someone to correspond with her from Indonesia. Stella responded the ads and wrote to her frequently, infusing Kartini’s hunger mind with some western perspectives that slowly shaped her liberal ideas.

Some of the vintage pictures displaying Javanese culture that I found on New York Public Library Digital Collections:

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Girl from Java by Charlton B Perkins (Photographer). 1909. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Three dance poses. Dancer: Bagong Kussudiardjo. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Part of the gamelan at the court of H. H. Mangkunagara of Surakarta. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Wayang Kulit (used for shadow plays) in Central Java. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Dancer with gamelan orchestra at Garut, Java, ca. 1921. Via: (NYPL)

 

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A Surakarta style dance. A female dancer playing a refined male character. Via: (NYPL)