To be a cultural wizard

Also published on my Wordpress blog.

Am I already one? Let me see:

I am from Indonesia. With hundreds of native ethnic groups, it is one of the most diverse countries in the world. I have spent most of my life in the city of Batam. As it is a planned city, there is no native ethnic group and many of the residents were born elsewhere. So far, I have seen six dominant ethnic groups and that doesn’t include smaller ones. I have also spent some time living in Jakarta metropolitan area. As the nation’s centre of everything, it is much more diverse.

I have visited twenty two countries (thanks to my mom who could afford it). As Batam is located near Singapore, I have visited it more than the other foreign countries. Many foreigners reside in both Batam and Jakarta. When I was in junior high school, some of my teachers were Filipinos. I have also spent some time living in Melbourne for study. My university has lots of foreign students. I got along really well with some students. Not a single drama.

I am also bilingual in Indonesian and English. I am confident to say I am relatively fluent in both. Indonesian helps me to get closer to my roots and English helps to get to know foreign ones. Every time we speak a language, our minds start using cultural perspectives associated with it. Jokes that sound good in Indonesian sounds terrible in English and vice versa. So, my outlook should be more multicultural than monolinguals’.

A child of multiethnic parents? Have been to many places? Bilingual? It sounds like I am already a cultural wizard, right? No, I am not. I used to see myself as one based on those reasons alone. What experiences I have does not matter. What I learn from them matters a lot….and I have learned nothing, especially about stereotypes.

I still fall for them. Sometimes, in discussions about societal issues, I still use them as references! Some are indeed true. But, life is much more complex than that. I have been frequently slapped in the face by the impossibility of pigeonholing. But, I still do it anyway. All of those wasted epiphanies. I am just getting started with my sins.

I have committed many as a traveller. They make me judgmental against “the others”. Expecting everyone to speak English and to share my way of life are the worst sins. It is very unforgivable of me as I a, aware of human diversity. I think I know the reason why. I think…

I only speak Indonesian and English. Indonesian is, as the name suggests, a national language. It bears the country’s national. Despite its slight bias to certain regional cultures, it is still the least sectarian cultural identity in Indonesia. But, such empowering strength is accompanied by a crippling weakness: vulnerability to foreign influences. I do not oppose them. In fact, I welcome them! But, the problem with Indonesians is we hate being ourselves. We are very joyful about our heritages in jeopardy. I myself prefer English over Indonesian. I can’t speak a single regional language (and there are hundreds of them!); when I speak Indonesian, my dialect tend to be similar to the Jakartan one which is nationally-accepted. Of course, that is not entirely my fault. I was never taught to speak one by my family and schools. I am just making excuses.

Without doubt, English is a global language. Some says that global languages are hostile to regional cultures. Hostile to regional languages? Maybe. But, not to regional cultures. For me, global languages are apathetic to them. They may help us learn other regional cultures. But, they do not encourage. Well, they do if we speak unique regional dialects…and many of us don’t, especially non-native speakers like me. Okay, I know blaming languages is far-fetched and childish. Not to mention that I shamelessly dedicate two paragraphs on it. I would be surprised if I have convinced you. But, I promise the next reason will be more believable.

I used to think holiday and travelling were interchangible. Big mistake. I had the awakening when Justin Lukach from Departure and PBS’s Rick Steves pointed out the difference: Holiday is about relaxation and travelling is about new experiences and learning. Paraphrasing Rick Steves, holiday is not a sin, mistaking it with travelling is. I am a faithful committer of that sin. On trips, I always visit tourist attractions, eat familiar food and distance myself from the locals. Never leave home without my beloved bubble. This sin reveals something about myself that I find hard to admit: I don’t have the will to learn!

I am a do-nothing inept sloth. I am too lazy to try anything new. I prefer to lay down on my bed, browsing the internet. I can use the internet to learn new things. But no, I use it only to view my favourite videos and to interact with friends and acquaintances. I find cultural heritages are more difficult to learn than school subjects. I need to pop my bubble. Am I ready for it? Wait, I ask the wrong question: do I want it? No. Not now, at least. I am interested in other cultures. But, I am too lazy to do the efforts. Of course, that is my personal problem, not anyone’s elses. But, for others, the reluctance to learn is caused by another factor.

I notice many netizens champion cultural competence. I used to think that was terrific. But then, many are also nightmarish. They demonise every “uncultured” person. Tell them that you haven’t tried or don’t like sushi and expect a tsunami of hatefulness. I know, I know. Their maturity and courage are small enough to befriend microbes. But, it is undeniably off-putting. You start associating cultural competence with those so-called humans.

*starts sensing the readers’ impatience. LOL. Most of my readers are my friends….*

What’s the point of my rambling? I just want to say we should thrive for cultural competence. It helps us in acknowledging the kaleidoscopic nature of humanity and, better, humanising each other. But, at the same time, you cannot force it; thrive for it because you genuinely want to. When you do, never be forceful to others; you want them to love it, not hate it. End up with the latter and we’ll get even more disconnected from each other.