The Road Home
MANADO, NORTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA – For a variety of reasons I’m getting ready to go back to Canada. Once again I’ll be leaving my wife and son behind on what will be the other side of the world, and once again I won’t know when I’ll see them again.
I’ll be going to Vancouver Island again where I’ll have a lot of detail to deal with; I have to sell the house that I bought for my parents and in which they died, and I have to buy another one for me, Yolanda,and JJ. Then I have to sort out all of the furniture and possessions in the old house and pack and prepare to move to whatever house I buy. I’ll need to get a new car; with a three year-old, my Smart Car, Mighty Mouse, won’t do. I have legal things to deal with and I have to get to work on acquiring JJ’s Canadian citizenship in anticipation of being finally granted the Indonesian court order that will confirm him as my legal son.
Amid all this, I have a book to write.
That I will miss my wife and little boy goes without saying; I will be utterly bereft without them and will undoubtedly spend half my time on Skype with them. But will I miss Indonesia? Tough question.
Clearly I have a great attachment to this country; off and on over the years I have spent a decade living and travelling throughout this archipelago. Although at different times I have made my home in Mexico,Venezuela, France, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, I’ve spent more time in Indonesia than any other country in the world outside of Canada. I have a family, into which I have married and whom I love very much that lives here; and I have a lot of very special friends here. I’ve had a lot of fun here and I’ve done a lot of interesting things. I met and married Yolanda here. I’ve met the country’s president and shared meals with cabinet ministers and cultural icons, I’ve publicly feuded with a television newsreader and been the mentor to a movie star, I have partnered with one of the country’s elder statesmen on humanitarian initiatives, I’ve been a consultant to some of the country’s largest transnational corporations and I’ve worked with dedicated environmentalists on exciting and innovative projects. I’ve taught with some of the brightest and most talented people I’ve ever met and I’ve dealt with the most venal and corrupt scum I’ve ever run across.
Indonesia has some of the intrinsically most beautiful places on the planet and yet most are spoiled by the garbage that the people of this country just leave everywhere. Picturesque villages situated on gorgeous winding tropical rivers that snake through the paddy fields are, when you get up close, pestilential rat-infested little slums situated on what are little more than open sewers. Corruption – corporate, government, and freelance – is a daily fact of life, and the cities are crumbling, filthy, deathtraps.
Those, though, are problems that many countries – poor and rich – have faced, and which others will some day have to address. They can be dealt with. But what makes me absolutely certain that I have to get my little boy out of Indonesia and keep him out until he is much older is a problem with a human face. The problem that I am becoming convinced will never be solved inIndonesia is the cultural disposition to be utterly disdainful of others. This is manifested most clearly in the corruption against which I have railed in print and on television since I first started living here, and it is at the bottom even of the endemic accumulation of filth and pollution which is destroying what could have been a paradise on earth.
I contrast this with the society in which I intend to raise JJ, and I’m reluctantly persuaded that there is really no comparison. While the outward manifestations of the indifference to which I refer might seem at first minor, even trivial, I am now convinced that they represent something deeper.Simple little annoyances are only the visible symptoms of a more profound problem. The savage scrum – albeit camouflaged by superficial social rictus-like grins – that occurs when people try to elbow their way out of a crowded elevator, the risibly hopeless traffic jams, the interminable speeches given by any halfwit who can gain temporary possession of a microphone, the casual disregard for any rule, regulation, or law that is even slightly inconvenient, the endemic refusal to arrive on time for appointments, the insultingly poor customer service; all these are indications of an underlying indifference, perhaps even active hostility, to others outside of one’s immediate circle.
I contrast that with the society in which I intend to raise my son. Canadians are made fun of because they have been known to thank ATMs. Traffic is rarely a problem, even in the bigger cities, because people acknowledge the rules, and they are more likely than not to wave another motorist ahead of them. People generally arrive on time or a little early for appointments because it would be against their nature to inconvenience others by making them wait. Customer service even – or especially – in government offices is friendly, helpful, efficient, and cheerful.
In the country I want to raise JJ, as opposed to here inIndonesia where I am regularly followed by children yelling and laughing, “Bule! Bule! Bule!” as I walk down streets, it would be unthinkable to deride other human beings because of their race or ethnicity. In Canada, the only time Yolanda was made conscious of any difference between her and others was when an aesthetician in a gym/spa said to her, “God, I wish I had your skin!” as she applied moisturizer. This astonished Yolanda, who, for her entire life, has been led to believe that she is (as she puts it) an ugly duckling because she has dark skin. In the entire time she has spent in Canada, Yolanda has not once experienced racism or discrimination of any kind; it is a daily occurrence in Indonesia for anyone with darker skin. Itis a sad and terrible commentary that my wife feels far more comfortable in her own skin, surrounded by white people in a foreign country than she does in her native land.
I want to ensure that the feelings and convenience of others should always be a consideration, and I want that consideration to be second nature thinking for JJ. It doesn’t even occur to most people most of the time in the country of his birth. Let me offer the following example:
Once in Jakarta and twice on the toll highway, I was behind a family SUV when a back window rolled down and out flew a disposable diaper,complete with its contents. On none of those occasions was my driver or anyone else in the car the least bit taken aback. I take the disposing of one’s shit by flinging it in the face of others to be a perfect metaphor for that which I have grown to find intolerable in this country.
So, as soon as I’ve finished paying off every greedy scumbag civil servant who sees an opportunity for graft in my battle to get papers for my son, I’ll be bringing him to Canada. He will go to a public school where the principal will not have embezzled the school budget, where the teachers are qualified and paid reasonably, and where he’ll get one of the best educations in the world. He’ll be covered by British Columbia’s health plan, under which he’ll have access to the very best medical treatments, equipment, and services in the world, and will be treated by doctors who didn’t bribe their way into medical school and actually passed their exams honestly. He’ll be backed up for his entire life by a compassionate society that has created a set of government services that will ensure his well-being regardless of his circumstances and which are administered by civil servants who, by and large, serve civilly. And he’ll be surrounded by people who will accept him for himself, whatever differences he may have and who will not judge him to be weird or unacceptable because his skin colour is not identical to theirs.
|Beautiful, picturesque Vancouver Island|
To be sure, Canada is far from perfect and both JJ andYolanda (and I too, for that matter) will face difficulties. There will betimes when people piss us off, when we curse the government, when we are treated with indifference or rudeness, when we are appalled at bad behavior, selfishness, indifference to others. Unlike here, however, those occasions are exceptions and not the rule. And that is enough to make us decide to move to the other side of the world.
When he is older and less impressionable, he will come back for visits, and when he is older still, he can decide whether he wants to keep his Canadian or his Indonesian citizenship.
In the meantime, I will miss him and Yolanda until they can come and join me; with any luck in a couple of months…perhaps in time for the summer. And I will even miss Indonesia. Despite my criticism and my view that this is an unhealthy country in every sense, there are still some things I love about my second home.
And when I get over my latest bout of food poisoning, I’ll remember what they are.