“ ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper,’ ” my student Riswanda said, “teaches us that we must help others, even if they have not made the most practical decisions.”
I gave her a tight smile. I was six months into my year teaching English at an Islamic high school in East Java, Indonesia. Riswanda’s class was the seventh I had taught that week, and each had missed the point of this Aesop’s fable. A grasshopper who plays his fiddle all summer and fails to collect grain for the winter goes hungry, while the industrious ant family who works hard during the summer months is rewarded with full bellies. As I lectured on the virtues of hard work and planning ahead, I saw Riswanda’s face scrunched in confusion.
In my sophomore year at Stanford, I took lecturer emerita Ann Watters’s class on cross-cultural communication. We studied social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, which attempts to quantitatively explain cultural differences. In the individualism rankings, America scores a 91, the highest in the world. Indonesia scores a 14, one of the lowest.
The country’s strongly communal culture showed up in every dimension of my life. My host family included two grandmothers, a widowed aunt, three cousins who tinkered with motorcycle parts all day, and a constant flux of distant and unemployed relatives. I thought about myself a few months before, a Stanford senior desperately searching for jobs so as not to burden my parents by showing up on their doorstep after graduation.
On test days, my brightest students would share their answers with those who had put in absolutely no effort.
I also saw differences at school. Teachers actually skipped class to visit relatives in the hospital or dropped everything to drive neighbors to the airport, something that would have been unimaginable in my public high school in North Carolina. On test days, my brightest students would share their answers with those who had put in absolutely no effort. It was the perfect example of ants helping grasshoppers, and it seemed acutely unjust.
Riswanda came up to me after class, still clutching her photocopied fable. “Miss, I don’t understand,” she said. “What’s so wrong with playing the fiddle all summer?”
Her question has stayed with me. The grasshopper’s job was far from practical, but it added beauty to a dreary field. The cousins taking refuge in my host family’s basement didn’t bring home paychecks, but they never failed to brighten my day with their belly laughs. Teachers skipped class not because they were lazy, but because they believed that helping others in tough situations was more important than drilling tired teenagers on geometric equations. What I perceived as cheating in my classroom could also be seen as a selfless act: lifting up the entire class rather than elevating oneself.
I’m learning to question my own fable: that you can measure people’s worth by their productivity. As I transition back into American life, I’m bringing with me the wisdom of my students, teachers and housemates—the ants and the grasshoppers alike.
Elizabeth Wallace, ’18, is the government relations and public affairs intern for the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C. She will head to Harvard Law School in the fall. Email her at email@example.com.