We Dismantle Stereotypes through Stories

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

I love discovering cities and places through stories, and I’d like to learn more about places outside North America through my film and reading choices this year. A dear friend gifted me Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck last week, yesterday I watched Riaad Moosa’s film Material (the subject of today’s audio story) set in Joburg, South Africa, and in the months to come, I’m hoping to tackle some of the books on this list by The Guardian of the Ten Best City Books of 2014.

What are your favourite books and films that have helped you discover new (or old) places? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Awesome Event Alert! Digital Storytelling, Adequate Housing, Hong Kong in Lego and Indonesian Culture

It’s been two weeks since I’ve returned to Vancouver, and I’m still getting reacquainted with the city. There are parts of the city that are so familiar, certain intersections where I caught a bus for years, much-loved coffee shops that haven’t changed, libraries that have the same quirky librarians, streets that feel like home, and yet there is so so much that is new. There are new buildings, new bus routes, new projects, and details to the city that were not here when Vancouver was last home. Discovering the city again is a strange but exciting adventure, and part of that process involves doing what I do anytime I’m in a new place. It involves finding and attending lectures and events that make my heart sing. Below are a few lectures and exhibits that I’m excited to attend over the next few weeks.

1) Digital Storytelling Unconference. July 7th from 9:30-4:30 at the Network Hub

This is an unconference (meaning that the participants suggest content and present it the day of the event) about digital storytelling. Not only is the subject matter fascinating, but it’s at the Network Hub, an office sharing space I’m interested to learn more about. One of my favourite spots in Toronto was the Centre for Social Innovation, and I’m curious to know if the Network Hub is a similar sort of space. Early bird sales tickets are over, and regular tickets are now $25.  Volunteer opportunities are also available at the event.

2) The Right to Adequate Housing: From Practice to Policy to Practice – A Talk by Miloon Kothari. July 9th, 7PM, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. ($10)

 If you’re interested in issues related to the Global South, housing, and are a fan of Miloon Kothari, this seems like it will be an amazing, educational evening. As a side note, SFU has so many interesting events going on right now! When I was doing my undergrad, you had to go all the way to UBC for amazing public lectures, but I’m happy to see all the wonderful things going on through SFU at present. All three SFU campuses are transit friendly, and that makes it easier to attend events even when you have a bit of a commute.

3) Adab: Expressions of Indonesian Culture– Tuesday, July 17, 7pm, Simon Fraser University

To celebrate 60 years of the Canadian-Indonesian diplomatic relationship, the SFU Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Culture and the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in Vancouver are doing a special lecture featuring a keynote lecture by Azyumardi Azra and a performance by a gamelan orchestra. I’m excited to attend and to look up the books that the keynote speaker has written, because they seem to address the subject of how Islam is expressed in Indonesia. After traveling to Bandung this summer, I’m thirsty to learn more about this topic.


1) Raqs Media Collective: The Primary Education of the Autodidact (Audain Gallery – 149 W Hastings St, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, SFU)

This is a window exhibit on display till Sept 4th 2012 as part of the Indian Summer Festival. It’s free, and meant to explore the idea of “the university as a site of knowledge production.”

2) In My Life, Pearl of the Orient – Hong Kong.

On display at the Aberdeen Mall, this is an exhibit that seeks to create a version of the Hong Kong Victoria Harbour Skyline. I am a bit in love with Hong Kong’s skyline, and  this sounds like an incredible project. There is a house from the sixties that you can visit, street food stalls, and the whole thing is constructed by one of thirteen Lego Professionals in the world. Something to definitely check out before it leaves Aberdeen Mall on Sept 3rd.

Terima Kasih For the Memories

It’s the last day of my trip, and I leave for the Changi airport (I’ve been in Singapore again for the past six days) in about an hour to start the trek back to Canada. It’s been an amazing month, and I feel so blessed and grateful for the chance to have made this trip. From the University of Toronto David Chu Travel Scholarship in Asia Pacific Studies and the Peter Walker Travel Scholarship that made it possible financially, to our wonderful professor Ibu Rachel that set up an amazing field course for us, the beautiful and friendly people we met in Indonesia, my extraordinary host family in Singapore, the amazing staff at our hotel in Bandung, family and friends who prayed for a successful trip and encouraged me to go, fellow students, and new friends in Singapore who showed me around, there are so many people that came together to make this trip possible. I hope there will be other trips after this one, but even so, this time will always hold a treasured place in my heart.

I hold a debt of gratitude, and before I leave, I want to make the intention that over the next days, weeks, months to come, I take these experiences and translate them into action. I want this trip to be a means of becoming a better, kinder person, who is engaged in service, who is a better social planner, who is improved for having made the journey. The blogging dropped off over the past couple of weeks as we became more involved in our research and it became increasingly difficult to verbalize internal reflections, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot during the past few weeks is that fun is a luxury that few can afford to have. Bandung is an amazing, trendy city, but it is also a city with tremendous poverty. $100 Canadian goes a long way, but the equivalent amount, 900,000 rupiah is difficult to earn.

In the past couple of weeks I hiked through the tropical rainforest, visited volcanoes, dined in the mountains/hills of Bandung, visited museums, and shared experiences with new friends. It’s been great, and now that the trip is coming to an end, it is tempting to think of the next stamp on the passport, the next neat sight to see, the next cool picture to take. Except the majority of people in Bandung are simply making a living. The roadside vendors, the men who carry a portable stove on their backs so can they can sell their wares, the men who play the guitar for you when your angkut (minibus) stops at a traffic light, the people carving wood into familiar shapes in the forest to sell to tourists, so many people are simply trying to feed their kids, and seeing this helps you realize that the abundance that we have, from plentiful water, to clear air, to trees, to education, are gifts that demand to be used in the appropriate way.

Terima Kasih (Thank you) for reading the few entries about the trip, and hopefully there will be more reflections/stories/pics in the weeks to come. The actual work begins now!

Becoming a Better Person in Indonesia (Day 9 and 10)

It’s Jumu’ah (or Jumat in Indonesian) today, which is the day of the week that holds special significance for Muslims. Last Friday I was in Singapore, and so today I thought I’d go and pray at the Masjid Alun-Alun, the Grand Mosque of Bandung. Yesterday during lunch with the staff of the Bandung Institute of Governance Studies though, I was told me it’s not common for women in Indonesia to pray Jumuah at the mosque, and so I’d really stick out. So pray at home it is! Still, Friday is a day of extra prayer and attention, and a day of praying intentionally for what you want. It is said that there is a time in the day when all prayers are accepted, and since you don’t know when that is, making supplications throughout the day helps ensure you find that time.

The prayer I keep thinking about is that I really want to cultivate the qualities of hospitality and generosity that have been so consistently noticeable in the people we’ve been meeting within myself. Everyone here has been so incredibly nice to us, and giving of their time and attention.Two days ago (my apologies, I haven’t blogged for a bit) a small group of us went for lunch with the owner of the hotel, his wife and a friend of theirs who lectures at a local university, and we learnt more about their impressions of the city, drank beautiful coffee (I had a melted creme brulee hazelnut cappucino!), ate wonderful food, and generally learnt more about the city that we never would have learnt on our own. He has invited us out again for dinner and a movie, but so far that plan hasn’t come together as yet. I felt the same warmth in Singapore with the families I was staying in welcoming me into their homes and dropping whatever they were doing to facilitate me having a comfortable trip, and I want to become the same sort of easygoing, gentle, generous personality. It’s inspiring because we see it everywhere, from the owner of the hotel, to people we meet randomly and offer to take us out, to people we meet at NGOs and government offices, we’re being treated exceptionally well, and there’s lots to learn from this style of hospitality.

After our lunch with the owner of the hotel on Wednesday, we all went to the Bandung Institute of TEchnology and had an amazing presentation about creativity in cities. The first speaker was the creator of an organization called Bandung Trails which offers heritage walks around different themes to both local Bandung residents and international visitors (for instance Dutch visitors who are interested in seeing where their grandparents lived). The organization offers both free activities and runs as a business, and has been in operation for the past nine years. At present, the founder Amor is also a masters student at ITB. The story of how his organization grew over nine years was inspiring, and it made me think about how there is a definite culture of entrepeneurism among young people in the small slice of Southeast Asia I’ve seen so far. In Singapore I stayed with one family where the  eldest daughter was my age roughly, and had her own fashion line in addition to finishing her studies. The clothing was gorgeous, she had done exhibitions of her different collections, and even while I was there people were calling and ordering clothes. The next evening I also stayed with the creator of the amazing Khana Commune, which is basically one of the coolest ways to dine in Singapore. Here in Indonesia, we’ve met youth studying at ITB starting their own leather bag companies, we met Amor who started Bandung Trails, and it’s hard to ignore the palpable sense of creativity and ingenuity among youth here.

In contrast, since this is the end of my masters degree, as the months toward end of the term came closer this year, you could sense the anxiety amongst all of us about what awaits us in the post university life. Would it be easy to find a planning job? Are there firms that need our skills? Would we be ok? These are the questions on all of our minds, and we’ve all read articles in newspapers such as the New York Times about how for people in their twenties in North America,  a degree is no longer  a ticket to stability like it was for previous generations. Being here though, that entire notion seems strange. Youth here seem to be working at companies and creating their own jobs, and not waiting for anyone to say here, we need you. I am perhaps generalizing, but you can really sense that youth here don’t get derailed by fear, they have goals and dreams and they are committed to making them come true. There is no reliance on a company or a job, and one’s education is simply a stepping stone to help you realise what you already want out of your life.

I live in Canada, and despite having so much in terms of resources at my disposal, I don’t think I have the same spirit. I wonder about my writing, analyze if goals are doable, and in the thinking process forget to even get started! So once again, there is so so much to absorb and take away from this trip, and hopefully these reflections will be translated into actual implementation as well.

So much more to tell you about the last couple of days, so hopefully I’ll write more again soon.

Falling in Love with Food in Indonesia (Day 8)

I’ve been a residence don (otherwise known as a residence advisor) for the past year at one of the colleges at U of T, and as part of that experience, we had access to a college cafeteria for all our meals. It was known for being one of the better cafeterias on campus, but still, so many of the meals tasted the same, and when it came to ‘Asian cuisine”, all I remember are endless variations of dishes with brown sauces and vegetables. And so after that year of often uninteresting, non spicy food, being in Indonesia and Singapore has been an awakening. Everything is new and unfamiliar, and yet so so delicious! I have a small appetite and I’m not an adventurous eater, so I tend to have small dishes when I eat out (which is rarely) and my own cooking adventures mostly involve trying to recreate the flavour of my Mum’s amazing cooking, which has always been my favourite cuisine. I’ve never been curious to try out new cookbooks.

That has changed because the meals I’ve had on this trip have been incredible. Every morsel explodes with flavour, you can taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and the juices are refreshing and delicious drinks that combine new fruits and old in unexpected and wonderful ways. I never recognise the dishes when we’re ordering, but with each day my excitement and willingness to try new things expands, and I am genuinely excited to try cooking new things when we get back. And speaking of fruit, though I haven’t tried local Indonesian fruits yet from the market, in Singapore whether it was a new fruit like rambutans or something I had tried before like papaya, the flavour and deliciousness of the fruit was heightened.  Being here has made me realise how much flavour we lose when fruit travels thousands of miles to get to Canada. I had no idea food could be such a pleasurable happy experience, particularly when you don’t have to worry about whether you’re ordering something Halal off the menu. You can share with friends and try different things, and its all good.

The other thing that is so unusual about Indonesia is the style of the restaurants. We’ve been staying away from roadside stalls and have been eating at reasonable local restaurants, but everywhere we’ve gone has had a beautiful decor, with care given to the details of the restaurant. Today (May 22) a group of us went out for dinner to a local restaurant called the Hummingbird, and it was as if we had been transported to a hip trendy Toronto cafe. Everything from the light fixtures to the wall decorations to the outside decorations was stunning (I actually can’t think of a Toronto equiv) and the beauty of the surroundings and the quality of the food made it a memorable meal. We were so happy eating we barely spoke.

Culinary adventures aside, we had an excellent day in Bandung. We had a beautiful breakfast at our hotel, and then left in the morning to visit the offices of the city planning board. While we were there one of the planners in the office gave us a presentation about the local issues in Bandung, and then we had an open discussion afterwards where we asked questions about Bandung to our heart’s content. It was an amazing discussion, and our host was one of the most charismatic, charming people we’ve met so far, and made really funny jokes that had us laughing throughout the session (Who is this Richard Florida person? All I know is Beyonce and Lady Gaga). One of the things that struck me from the session (out of many) was that one of the goals of the Mayor’s office is to have a city where people believe in God. Though 90% of Indonesia is Muslim, this goal does not necessarily relate to Islam, but simply having a faith based city in general. We asked more about this, and were told that “Indonesia is not a secular country, but it’s not a religious country either. It is in the middle. What is that middle space? That is Indonesia” which is was interesting to think about, and something I want to investigate further.

Indonesia is also teaching me that Islam changes according to cultural context. I generally don’t shake hands with men I’m not related to for example, and in Toronto, often when I meet a man who is Muslim,  he greets me by nodding in my direction and placing his hand over his heart. It’s a gesture I really like, and I often do the hand over heart thing myself without realizing it. In Indonesia, I instinctively started greeting people the same way, and realised quickly that it’s not an Indonesian gesture, and the cultural context I’m in has changed. I’ve also noticed most people here do shake hands so I may be offending the people that we’re meeting and I need to re-evaluate how I handle introductions here.

We also learnt about how transportation is a major issue in Bandung, and that it is anticipated that the city should have a cable car within the next year that is funded by the private sector. In addition, there are plans for buses and a subway, in addition to other forms of transportation. Buses are difficult because the roads here are short and narrow with many junctions, and so the Ankut (parashuttles) are used most frequently here, since walking is not really a feasible transportation option. What is interesting is that Bandung changed with each colonial presence, and so it’s only in the seventies that they were able to start their own planning process.

There was a lot mentioned during the visit, but all in all, it was an informative and useful time. Afterwards we walked in the heat (I though I would collapse but we made it!) to lunch at a Sundanese restaurant, and then walked back (again such intense heat) to the hotel, and thought about our research and got to know each better till our nighttime dinner adventure. Looking forward to what the next day brings!

Goodbye Tea, hello Indonesian Coffee

I’ve been sitting in the courtyard of our hotel for the past few hours with the intention of writing this blog post, but I’ve been caught up in conversations about quantitative research methodology, the beauty of Bandung, the ethics of international travel, and how Islam is manifested in Britain, and the richness of the discussions have taken me away from my computer. Rich discussions and learning have been the highlight of today, a day that has been full of beautiful new places, interesting reflections and trying to stretch my courage muscles to try new things.

Which is something I forgot to mention yesterday in my post about intentions. Yesterday I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about all the new unfamiliar things we’ve been observing and experiencing, and realised that in addition to the academic goals I mentioned in the last entry, there are personal intentions I have for the trip. In essence, because I’m not very good at dealing with change, I want to focus on reframing anxiety into adventure, and recognising that for the next month, I have the wonderful privilege of (as my roommate beautifully described it) of waking up each morning and having the sole job of learning about Indonesia, and soaking up as much knowledge and experiences as I can. To extend this learning, I want to focus on stretching my courage muscles, trying new things, and God willing, putting forth my best effort to make this a meaningful experience. (Our tour guides, our professors and so many other people are so keen on facilitating our learning, that it seems poor form to not put in my best effort too). I also want to focus on becoming more directionally savvy, because so far I still don’t have my bearings in  Bandung, and I want to be able to navigate the city with a bit of familiarity.

And so today, in an attempt to be a tiny bit more courageous, I started the day by experimenting with Indonesian coffee. I’m a tea-lover, but today tried my first cup of coffee after many months. And oh, I fell in love! I’ve had four cups so far today, which is more coffee than I’ve probably had in the last year, but Indonesian coffee is simply that good. The rest of the day passed in an equally exceptional fashion. We had an amazing walking tour of the city that started with a visit to the Governor’s house, which is the seat of  the governor of the West Java province and the local mayor’s office, and then walked all the way to the top of the building where we could see all of Bandung. From above, you can really see how green and beautiful the city is, and the mountains are breathtaking.

From there we continued our walking tour and saw different areas of the city, took the local para-transit system of shuttles called Ankut Kotor, which was an adventure in and of itself (it’s not clear which shuttle goes where, and the passengers are really packed in tightly in the van) , went to the Asian-African Museum, which details the Bandung conference of 1955 (where the term third world emerged), went to the Grand Mosque of Bandung, went to an amazing lunch at a local restaurant, and finally ended our day at ITB, the Bandung Institute of Technology, where we learnt more about the school and got feedback on our research projects.  I was impressed by the depth of knowledge of our hosts- all of us have such different research interests, and yet regardless of topic, they were able to suggest wonderful resources to help us get started. Our hosts also are speaking to us in English, which is not their first language, but are doing so well that I feel silly about my own hesitancy in practising languages I’m not comfortable with (such as Urdu) and am committed on being more courageous on that front once we return. By the time we left ITB it was Maghrib (the evening prayer) time, and so I went back with some of the students from our program to the hotel.

But even with the early evening end, it was an incredible day where at each stage, there was so much to take in and explore. On one street called Jalan Brago ( I think) we learnt that though things look unplanned, there is informal housing intended to support the formal work in the area.We learnt that the street is connected to Pasir Baru (the old market) and that there is a logic to the structure of the street. When we went to the Grand Mosque it was time for Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and so as we approached the mosque we could hear the adhaan, or the call to prayer. I was surprised how emotional I felt hearing it, but it’s been so long since I’ve heard the call to prayer from the street, and hearing it made it real in a visceral tangible way where we’re in a place where it’s ok to be Muslim. Where being Muslim isn’t immediately connected to assumptions of patriarchy or exaggerated media representations. I wouldn’t say I’m experienced discrimination really in the past, but it surprises me how good it feels to see so many Muslims, and to really feel like you belong. I felt this most strongly in Singapore, where many locals asked me if I was Singaporean or Malay, and I would look around the MRT car and realise that I really did physically resemble many of the people on the train. I felt more at home there than I have when I visited Karachi, but as of yet, I’m not sure what one does with that realization, since I identify most with Canada and that is home. Oh for a world with the comfort and invisibility of South East Asia, combined with the loveliness of Toronto and Vancouver!  In any case, while it lasts it’s a joy not being a visible minority, and not being asked why i wear a headscarf and I’ll miss that when I return home.

Back to the call of prayer though, it wasn’t simply hearing it that was beautiful, it was also the sight of people rushing to prayer, and seeing the exterior design of the mosque, as the minarets were unlike any I’ve seen before. Part of the words of the call to prayer are rush to success, rush to prayer, and as we witnessed that today, it was good to reflect on the fact that those words are not simply the thing that happens before the prayer, its a call that one is meant to respond to. More pertinent to planning, I’m  curious to learn more about the story about this particular mosque. There was a courtyard that was bustling with people even during the prayer, and it is clearly an active public space that functions for more than prayer.

Being in Indonesia has made me hungry for information about Islam in this particular country, and though it’s a planning course, I have so many questions about how Islam has informed the region, and social and cultural identity. During our time at ITB I mentioned my interest in mosque development, and learnt that mosques typically were built with a courtyard, with the south side having a palace, and the west side having the mosque. I also learnt that even in Indonesia, given the colonial presence, mosque development has been contested territory.

At the same time, I’m curious about Muslim fashion in Indonesia, and how Muslim women are clearly targeted through advertising. In the supermarket yesterday I saw a cosmetics brand called Wardah featuring women in headscarves, there are shops that have ads for trendy Muslim clothing, and the women in Bandung are incredibly fashionable, with hijabs unlike ones I’ve seen in Toronto. Those two topics, Muslim women fashion and mosque development fascinate me at present, and I’m not sure what direction my research will take me.

I’m also trying to figure out how to negotiate prayer times within our course. The schedule is quite full, and  prayer rooms are not easily identifiable (at least so far, apparently there is a campus mosque at ITB) and so today we heard the Dhuhr call to prayer while we were at the mosque, but we didn’t really have the time to stop and I prayed later on. Then when the call to prayer for Asr (the afternoon prayer) came in, we were in a seminar, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So God willing in the days to come, I’m going to pack a prayer mat, and just pray in the hallway if needed once a prayer time comes in. There’s no point wanting to study Islam in the city  if I’m not diligent enough to pray at an appropriate time, and the prayer times are so close, that delaying will likely mean missing them.

So much more to share, but my battery is nearly gone, and it’s another full day tomorow. Till next time.

Making Intentions for Indonesia

After a few days in Singapore, and a couple of days in Indonesia, tomorrow (God-willing) I begin a three week field experience in Bandung involving an interdisciplinary group of students from the University of Toronto and the Bandung Institute of Technology. The program involves the opportunity to visit a variety of Bandung sites including government offices, local civil society organizations, and social planning institutes, as well as pursue independent research. I’m super excited, but my time in Singapore and these first couple of acclimatization days in Bandung have made me realize that stating intentions might be useful.

A couple of days ago as I wandered around the colonial district of Singapore (so many reflections to share from Singapore, hopefully another time!), and explored the Raffles hotel and some of the other major landmarks from Singapore’s past, I was struck by the architectural beauty of the buildings, but also the colonial history in Singapore. The Raffles hotel was built in the 1800s and was restored a few years back with an 160 million dollar renovation to restore it to former beauty. What is open to the public is various courtyards and passageways, three different levels of shops featuring high-end brand names (Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, British India etc) and a museum on the third floor that shows artifacts from the hotel’s history, its connection to other historical hotels (in Rangoon for ex), and famous guests who have stayed there, including Rudyard Kipling. In novels that talk about the beauty of Southeast Asia, the Raffles is often referenced. You can still have a famous Singapore ‘sling’ in one of the hotel courtyards, and as you walk through, you can almost see men and women from Britain sipping drinks in white linen shirts, enjoying the Orient.

And since I am here myself as a visitor, I want to make sure that my own travel experiences are different. I don’t want this to be a trip where I go and gawk at the locals, I want to learn collaboratively with the students we’ll be working at ITB and become a better planner through that cross cultural exchange. And so to help with that process, I thought it would be useful to state some of my intentions for the trip.

  1. To learn more about urban development in an international context. Though an excellent program, one of the gaps of our program is its lack of international content (most of our city discussions are based on North America) and so I want to help fill in that gap by understanding how urban and social development occurs in Bandung. I took a course last semester on Global Urbanism where we deconstructed the notion of developing cities being  large, chaotic places, and examined what they contribute to urban theory as a whole and so I want to think about that idea further during my trip.
  2. How does Islam shape community development/urban development in Indonesia? My research work for my masters was about how conflicts around the development of mosques are a metaphor for how religion is negotiated in cities, but was primarily focused on North America. I want to understand how religion is expressed in an entirely different context when the country has a Muslim majority.
  3. To think through my positionally as a Muslim female planner. How does that change in an predominately Muslim context? In my interviews during my research project, my positionality as a woman who wears a headscarf deeply impacted the type of research encounters I had during my graduate research project, and in Indonesia where the hijab is commonplace, I’m interested in how being situated differently shapes the type of knowledge one is able to develop.

So far Bandung is beautiful, a bit overwhelming (there are no sidewalks!) and is definitely a place of learning. After Bandung I’ll be in Singapore and perhaps Malaysia for a little under a week, and my hope is to blog my way through the experience. Speak to you soon.