In 2011 I welcomed the largest group of Indonesian people ever to visit Canada to the Vancouver airport. In the Rocky Mountains, the small city of Kamloops saw more than 600 visitors from Jakarta’s International Islamic Boarding Schools; students studied for three months at Thompson Rivers University – set in a crown of bare, desert-like mountain peaks. They first chose Canada at the last moment because their first choice, the country of Jordan, was experiencing some conflict at the time (following the supposed ‘Arab spring’).
The climax was having a presence in the Canada Day Parade in 2012; the only time in history tens of Indonesians marched down Vancouver’s streets – doing traditional pencak silat martial arts, playing talempong and gongs, singing, carrying Indonesian flags, and even playing kuda lumping – pretending to be possessed and ride around on a toy horse. Right behind us were the rainbow colors of Vancouver’s pride community, and in front of us the leaping group of men representing Saudi Arabia – while their wives, wearing black burkas, watched from the sidewalks. It was a dimming gradient of conservatism, a stand off – with a sense of awkward comedy, and a panorama of the breadth of Canada’s own orientation.I was there to help with the inevitable clash of cultures that found its expression immediately. In our first meal together a student approached my table with a wet glass that he had used to wash up in a bathroom stall; most Indonesians finish the job with both toilet paper and water, you see.
“What should I do with this?” he asked me.
At that time Indonesia had the most Tweeps in the entire world. Within a few days of opening my first Twitter account I had hundreds of tiny friends. It became means to keep in touch with them all – and to track down a few lost children.
“Jangan buang sampah sembarangan.” I sent out friendly reminders, such as, “Throw your garbage in the garbage cans!”
“Menjaga lingkungan itu seperti kita merawat diri kita sendiri,” I said. “Care for your environment as you care for yourself.”
While uploading photos for their parents to see, I skipped over submissions of girls without headscarves playing with golden retrievers in the picket-fence backyards of Canada. Perhaps some families would not be ready for that. Apart from some very deliberate little rebels, these photos represented the main compromises made to Muslim, Indonesian cultural traditions while in Canada. That and maybe the accidental consumption of a bit of pork pepperoni on pizza!
Threads of interesting questions flooded my inbox from home-stay families in the mountains of Kamloops:
“Can you please tell them to shut off the light when they go to bed?” asked one house-owner.
In their home country, the presence of electricity seems a great comfort – even when people are asleep. Most sleep with the lights on – and not just in their bedrooms. Most do know a thing or two about energy consumption, the environment, and that we also sleep best in darkness, as well. After seven years in Indonesia I can source their reasoning only in a proclivity for mysticism, and the Quran’s mention of Gins and alam sebelah – another dimension of spirits who walk among us.
Hundreds of Indonesian children were quickly turned into Canadians as they took to Tim Horton’s ‘cafes’ – ada gula ada semut, they say: like ants to sugar. Their strict dedication to praying five times a day I find a very redeeming quality. The process of sholat fosters gratefulness for every aspect of life and it shows; it was a self-willed routine that confused many Canadian teenagers. And as most of Canada is not designed to host their prayers, before which hundreds of feet need to be washed in running water, we turned a few Tim Horton’s washrooms entirely upside down. On another occasion I did my roommate the favor of turning off the flatscreen covering the west-facing wall of our home as he began his prayers in the direction of Mekkah.
There were problems, but I know from experience that these problems would have been more severe if we were to bring 600 Canadian teenagers to Asia.