Canada, I Still Feel You!

Written by Api Sulistyo

Translated by Tami Sulistyo

“Hang your dreams as high as the sky.” This advice I’ve heard a thousand times, especially when I was in elementary school and junior high. According to my understanding, we are taught to have high ideals and to reach that goal, we need to study hard. But unfortunately, we are not taught more about how to create our own ambitions. What I hear most often is, “study hard to become a doctor.” This statement seems to be a common mantra for children and for parents.

So, what are my dreams? I do not remember that I actually had dreams at a young age because I had never been taught to formulate them. Fortunately, I had someone who became my idol. I simply wanted to be like him. That person is none other than my own cousin, SADIMO, who later changed his name to Adimassana – he is four years older than me. I spent a lot of time with him and learned from him such things as fishing in the river, making toy cars, and making puppets out of paper cement. Life was fun because we played a lot. In the case of school I followed in his footsteps. We went to the same elementary, junior high, and high school. But eventually I went to college in a different campus. Adimassana went to college in Jakarta, and I went to college in Yogyakarta. Inevitably I had to start thinking more clearly about my dreams. My desire was very simple. I wanted to be an English teacher at a high school in the countryside. I do not know why that was on my mind at the time, and I wanted live as a teacher around the city of Malang, East Java.

While completing college, it turned out I got the job opportunity to teach Indonesian language and culture for foreigners in a well-known language school, Wisma Bahasa. This job made me stay in Yogyakarta and my dream to go to Malang gradually began to disappear. But at least I still did similar activities, teaching language and culture. I was very happy with my job and I imagined that I would work in the same place for a long time.


One day I met a college friend, Usmanto Setiawan, who had just come back from Canada following the cultural exchange program sponsored by the Canadian Crossroads International (CCI). This is a social organization. One of its objectives is to combat hunger, promote equality, and fight for the rights of women and children. CCI gets part of its money from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). Usmanto said that he had a very impressive experience during his CCI visit to Canada. In my heart, I imagined how nice it would be if I could get a chance to go overseas as well.

“Just apply for it, Api” Usmanto suggested.

“I’ll think about it,” I said simply. In my heart, I was not sure that I would do it. On the other hand, my conscience said, “Try it!”

Finally, I ventured to apply. I felt excited and nervous at the same time when I received a call for an interview. At least eight people interviewed me simultaneously in English. “It’s an interview or an interrogation?” I thought. I had mixed feelings after the interview was completed, between yes and no. Could I be accepted? If not accepted, it’s okay, I will continue to teach foreigners as usual, I thought.

My hands were shaking, my heart was pounding hard and fast when I received a letter from the committee of CCI representatives in Yogyakarta. For some time, I stared at the letter, turned it over and over, and finally tore open the envelope. I almost could not believe what I read. It was as if I was dreaming when I saw the content of the letter. I was accepted to be a “little ambassador” to Canada. Participants are indeed expected to become an ambassador to introduce the values ​​and culture of Indonesia in Canada. I experienced the excitement, but that did not last long as it turned into difficult questions I had to answer. Where could I get an allowance? Indeed, CCI largely financed the necessary expenses such as airfare, lodging, and a little pocket money. But, I still had to bring my own money for personal expenses. I did not have much money.

I knew that my parents had no extra money and I did not dare ask for a specific reason. The first was because I did not want to burden them. When I asked, they would have to borrow money from others and this would be a burden for them to return. Secondly, I was the eldest son, and was the only sibling who had finished college. Accordingly, it was time for me to give money to my parents, instead of asking. The firstborn in Indonesia is expected to become an example for younger siblings.

Luckily, I had made friends with people who are good-natured and generous. Someone was willing to lend me a certain amount of money with the promise that I would pay him back after returning from Canada and started working again. The board at the organization I worked for also encouraged me to take a loan from them. Indeed, the total was not as much as I needed, but at least I got an allowance. Despite financial limitations, my dreams had begun to change and develop.

My Families

Together with two other participants, I went to Canada in September through the western route. Our transit was in the Netherlands. My brain was working hard to chew a lot of new things that I was experiencing. Villagers in Indonesia are very familiar with the expression “kekampungannya” suddenly I was  in a very different world and experienced a lot of culture shock. Perhaps it is also true the saying, “People can get out of the village, but the ‘village’ cannot get out of him.”

In a state still tired from the long journey and the time difference, we arrived in Toronto, Canada. Local air in September is very fresh. Reminds me of Kaliurang, Yogyakarta. We were picked up by the CCI volunteers who took us to the location for the orientation. The pickup was very friendly and they tried to tell us a lot about the city of Toronto. One of them proudly told us about the Canadian National Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world at that time. We all turned to look at the CN Tower in downtown with an open car window while a cool breeze blew into our hands as we waved, saying ‘hello’ to Canada.

We gathered at a resort outside the city of Toronto along with about 20 other participants who came from at least 10 countries. We got a welcome and orientation about the way of life in Canada as well as logistical arrangement.  This orientation session, which lasted for three days gave us the chance to experience the interaction between cultures and hear different languages. Indeed, we spoke English, but in small groups participants still spoke their native language. With two friends from Indonesia, we went back and forth between UK English and Indonesian.

This exchange program lasted for three months and during this program I stayed with three different families. I was placed in a small town called Lethbridge. The closest big city is Calgary in the province of Alberta. Many people reacted less positively when they heard that I was placed there because the city is away from the crowds, in the midst of the arid plains. “Boring”. And I did not mind it at all. Maybe because I saw and experienced many new things in my life like snow, bison, hockey games, the major roads across the city / province etc.

The first family to accommodate me was a couple originally from Japan. Yes, I lived in a remote town in Canada with a family from Japan. Their children had completed college and were working in another city. The father worked as a lecturer at the University of Lethbridge and the family’s mother was a kind and attentive housewife.  The mother always feels special to me and this mother always told me to eat a lot. She even prepared my lunch if I had to stay longer on campus. I often saw guests come to our house and they were also originally from Japan. Fathers spent time playing cards and drinking sake. Mothers usually chatted by themselves in a separate place.

“Play cards with us,” urged the father one time when I was watching them.

“I’m interested but I would not bother you because I do not know your game. What if I sit here and watch? “I asked as I stepped into the vacant seat. They offered drinks too and I accepted it but did not like the taste.

The CCI local committee was very clever in arranging everything for me. At that time I worked as a volunteer at the University of Lethbridge in the department of Drama (Art). I helped set the stage and learn to use the all-electric tools. Almost every morning I went with the father in the morning and returned by bus. We were preparing a play about a soldier from a traditional conservative society. The soldier returned from the battlefield and was ostracized by society because he had killed the enemy. Murder is still considered a mortal sin and there are harsh restrictions for members of the community. Several times a week in the afternoon I was teaching English to immigrants from Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The second family to host me was living in a residential area of the city with two children. The eldest was a girl and she had a brother. They prepared everything for me and I had a positive experience. The children often invited me to look around the city or go to some of the existing parks around their house. What I remember with gratitude is a gift for my birthday in November. They took me to lunch at a restaurant. Something very special for me because I almost never celebrated a birthday. I was treated as though I am a very special person with a delicious meal that was expensive. I was surprised when I caught a glimpse of the payment out of the corner of my eye, $105 Canadian for five people. Well, how many people can eat with that much money in my village at that time, I thought. But I was appreciative.

The third family that hosted me was chairman of the board of the local CCI, whose name was Kathy. She was a friendly person, kind, speaking slowly and softly, and had lots of smiles. She was notoriously patient too. A character that is suitable for an elementary school teacher. Kathy teaches at a local elementary school and every day I went with her to introduce Indonesian culture to children through stories, singing, puppets, and slide shows that I have prepared before leaving Indonesia. The children seemed very interested and they asked a lot of questions so that the classroom atmosphere was not boring. As a present I was given a souvenir collection of photographs taped to the frame signed together by the students.

Valuable Lessons

The experience of living in Canada occurred years ago. Many details of the experience are missing from my memory. A picture of the people I have met, the houses I lived in, and the places I visited became more vague and blurred. However, there is a feeling that still makes an impression on my heart.

Klaten, Central Java, Indonesia.

I went away from my hometown in Klaten, Central Java, yet in Canada I find there is a lot of common ground between us. Our language is different, we have a different color of our skin, our beliefs are not the same, and there are many other differences. But we equally aspire to have a happy life, want to love and be loved. The family I stayed with that had two children wanted to have a steady and stable income, wanted to be able to afford to send their children to good schools and live in a harmonious family, just like families everywhere. The Japanese family I stayed with, and Kathy too, were friendly, and re-emphasized in my mind that wherever we live, we are part of a community, and we need to participate in accordance with the talent we have. Not all of us are involved in solving the world’s problems, but the way of thinking and our actions affect the world. Later I got to know the phrase “Think globally and act locally.”

From the immigrants in Canada who I taught English to, I became aware of the meaning and impact of the choices and decisions we make. Every decision has risks. The severity of the risk depends on us each in determining our attitude. These immigrants struggled to get a more equitable life with all the challenges that must be faced: the language barrier, values, often hostile weather, food, work etc. They are required to always able to adapt while preserving their identity.

My experience living in Canada made me rediscover the simple understanding of life in the community wherever it may be. Good deeds to others, whoever they are, will most likely be rewarded with good. No need to read a lot of books to know this basic principle. No need to learn or even memorize scripture to interpret these words. No need for fasting to understand this. No need to isolate yourself in the middle of a deserted forest or immerse yourself in a river to get an enlightenment.

Enough to feel what we feel when others do good to us and we reciprocate by doing good to others. Canada has been good to me. Canada, I still feel you. Thank you to Canadian Crossroads International (CCI).




Api Sulistyo’s LinkedIn profile:

Note: Most pictures for this story are uploaded from Google Images.

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