design in your own backyard (D.I.Y.O.B.)

3 questions that took 3 years to ask and another 3 to answer

Question #1 (2011–2014): Where is My Backyard?

I just turned 16 when my family moved to another country with a very different culture. It was a late age for me to start growing into a third culture kid. I was already fully aware of my parents’ culture and the culture in the country where we lived. Yet, I still ended up forming a third culture, because in my 20’s I moved (by myself) to another two countries. Losing track of the second culture made me no longer distinguish the first and the second. I got my own culture.

Expecting to belong more to my first culture after getting married to a fellow countryman, I was wrong. It’s rather complicated as an Indonesian, because there are hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. Living with someone — whose mother tongue is different, whose family comes from a mix of cultures — doesn’t improve my first culture belonging. I only feel the first culture when I am with my family and relatives. Very few family members understand my “otherness”.

Most of the time I read about my first culture via books and articles written in English. Only when I visited my family and relatives then I discovered again the culture. Only when I dealt with fellow countrymen whose culture is very strong then I grasped again an understanding of the culture. The first culture is becoming like a new culture to me. Going to my country of birth is like going to another country.

Is my country of birth, my backyard? I met a designer (an architect) who mentioned this phrase “design in your own backyard”. He was a European expat in Asia for 6 years and decided to return home. While living in other countries, he tried to blend with the local culture, just like a designer. He learned to speak the local language and tried to get as much context understanding as possible before designing buildings.

He found out that it is best to let the local people design the buildings themselves, because they have the most understanding of the local context. The coaching he did has actually improved the capacity of the local people to help themselves.

Too many other foreign helpers didn’t work that way, as he observed. They merely gave, without improving the capacity, and even went as far as creating dependencies. The local people became dependent of the help, to the extent of misusing the help, and thus are unable to improve their condition by themselves. He decided to leave, because he doesn’t want to be part of such a system.

He also didn’t like to be associated with The White Man’s Burden. Coming from a developed country, at first he was simply heartbroken when he saw homeless people in a developing country. He then started funding projects out of his own pocket. Eventually, like the people whom he has helped, he preferred to design in his own backyard, where he knows the local context.

Then he said, “Like I did, you will also go back, won’t you? To design in your own backyard?” I said yes, but my feeling was quite complicated. If backyard is my country of birth, whose passport I still hold, then it is an honest answer. If backyard is where I know how things work, is it an honest answer? No. I am not an expat like he was, who can simply return home and start over. I am a… (how do you define this) lost wanderer?

her backyard, rwanda (i met her in 2005)

Question #2 (2015): Could it be My First Culture?

Meeting the architect gave a closure to my never-ending curiosity about the way I can embrace my first culture again: by playing a role in developing my countrymen’s capacity of helping themselves. This closure helped me decide that the only contribution I can make for my country of birth is by physically being there. The fact that I couldn’t spend more than a week per year in between family visits is the reason I never had enough time to capture what capacity they need to develop.

Contributing remotely? It’s not even my capacity! I cannot contribute with funding (obviously). I cannot merely publish my ideas and wish them understand (why), let alone execute (how).

Developing one’s own capacity cannot be done by only reading or listening to ideas. We must exercise the ideas by developing new supporting habits, by starting from choosing the supporting attitudes. An attitude of endless learning. An attitude of curiosity. An attitude of promoting the bright spots instead of cursing the dark spots. An attitude of starting small. An attitude of starting from our self. An attitude for introspection and responsibility.

Attitude change is a long term, possibly a lifetime process. Thanks to my multiple migrations, I learned that we can create a new attitude in a short term, How? By living among strangers and interact with them intensely.

I could be a stranger for the people in my own backyard. I am not going there because it is easier to design there. I am not going there because it is easier to find so-called business opportunities. I am not going there to be a big fish in a small pond, because to me the pond is big everywhere I go. I am going there because I am a stranger, taking my strange attitudes and habits, ready to learn about their strange attitudes and habits, too.

I believe that if two strangers can learn from each other’s brightness, their surrounding will be brighter. And if more people join the club, a wider part of the world will be brighter.

This intention to go there has no ‘should’s. There is also no resistance to be there. When it is time for me to move there, then it is time. I will be there when the universe knows I am ready. It does feel like moving to yet another country. I am ready to embrace it and expect a lot of learning, even in my own backyard.

I began learning more about my first culture, both the material and the spiritual, from the first person’s voices. My own culture allowed me to enter from a neutral, non-judging position unlike what the third person narratives usually describe.

her backyard, poland (i met her in 2009)

Question 3 (2017): Is it Time to Go Yet?

It would be nice to end this writing here, where I’m at the position of contemplating, dreaming, and envisioning what it’s like to design in my own backyard. Funny how life took a little twist that made a big impact on me (and hopefully a similar impact on others around me). I am suddenly physically in my backyard, looking at this article draft, and decide not to publish it. I am here!

“Why did you choose to work in this company?” asked a team member one day. “Because it’s in Indonesia,” I answered, as a-matter-of-factly. Well, I didn’t have any other answer. I took more than a year of “marriage break” to do it, even if it wasn’t planned. Few months became a year. A year became more than a year, where I had to leave. To be with my family again.

The attitude I planted inside me — from answering Question #2 above — resulted in what I really intended to perform. Interacting with strangers intensely, until I saw in them what I saw in me, until I saw in them the capacity to help themselves. What I did was only (please don’t hate me for using “only”) acknowledging raw talents, connecting similar passions, and instilling confidence in the superpowers they’d shown in their daily life, designing for a solution to their problems.

I thought I was going to abandon this writing, because I finally recognized my backyard. Instead of writing about it, I wanted to plant more seeds and nurture more young trees. Then I discovered that I wasn’t staying. I’m back to the CDE (contemplating, dreaming, envisioning) mode again — which is a good thing for a designer because it means improvement — after getting feedback from the field trip to my backyard.

The backyard I just met and embraced briefly taught me one very important lesson: cultural fit makes a lot of difference, although cultural fit doesn’t happen only in our own backyard. If “own backyard” is a metaphor for country of birth, I’ve had cultural fit in a couple of small communities outside the country.

But.. Home is where the heart is.

My idea of cultural fit is the notion of “you’re entitled to trust before you’re required to earn it.” Long story short, this kind of cultural fit has allowed me to be myself. When one is being oneself, you can expect things — including the people around that person — to grow beyond the known quantitative metrics.

Not all important metrics are quantitative (numbers). In fact, many metrics or definitions of success are qualitative (stories). By acknowledging this, I became more confident in embracing my first culture. It’s not a story of achievement, but a story of love.


D.I.Y.O.B. — the takeaways

Before we start designing for others, know the deep context first, as deep as the cultural. We want to empower instead of creating dependence. Helping others need to be accompanied by the purest intention to help instead of to make yourself ahead (not ahead of the people you help, but ahead of other helpers — sounds familiar?). The world doesn’t need more competitions or lists of achievements. We need more collaborations as well as compassionate efforts no matter how small they are.

In order to know that very deep context, we cannot only read or listen to stories or watch from a distance. We have to be there, interact with them, and try to be one of them, to the extent of performing some of their habits. Habit is the middle ground, from which we can reflect on how cultural change can take place. Thoughts → Actions → Habits → Character → Destiny. It all starts with thoughts (attitude) leading to habits (repetitive actions) before we can together shape destiny. A group of people solving a wicked problem is indeed changing their destiny.

Humans are subjective and qualitative. It’s not always realistic to expect people to be objective and quantitative or mechanical like a machine or computer. Cultural fit breeds affection, and affection breeds sympathy, and sympathy breeds collaboration. Why would we work together with people we don’t love? However, affection may come from a biased source. Removing biases means we give to everyone we meet for the first time an equal chance to present themselves, if not equal fondness. Expect the best from everyone, and you’ll get the best.

Let’s give more compassion toward self and let it overflow to others. That’s why we need to find our backyard! Because it’s where our heart is, where our act of giving leads to organic growth, individually and collectively.


If you’re reading until here, Thank You! I started writing in early 2015, based on my contemplation from mid 2011 to the end of 2014. Multiple events between late 2015 & early 2017 plus another year of reflection allowed me to wrap it up.