Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Jogja

Celebrating Christmas away from familiar settings requires a great deal of planning and initiative. In N. America, all the trappings of Christmas are easily at hand. Most people have a variety of traditions they follow at Christmas time that include such things as family gatherings, a particular menu, gift giving and church services. When the Christmas season begins gearing up, people easily engage these various traditions which often make Christmas as meaningful as it is. Obviously these traditions involve work, organizing events, preparing food, and choosing gifts, but they are made easier by the fact that there is an already established tradition of what to do. Changes in one's life, for example getting married, having children, or moving, require one to reconsider what one does at Christmas, and with it, how one celebrates Christmas.

We experienced this when we were in Nigeria. For the first time we weren't able to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, with snow and Christmas trees, with turkey and mashed potatoes. It was hard. Even though we were surrounded by other Christians celebrating the season, they did it very differently. For example, on Christmas day, there was a tradition of slaughtering a cow on the volleyball court in front of our house and then dividing up the meat between those who had pitched in to buy the cow. Having vultures hovering around the house picking at the remains of a slaughtered cow had not been part of my Christmas experience growing up. But we did the best we could. We listened on the radio to the BBC's presentation of lessons and carols from King's College. We gathered together with other expats on the compound. But it wasn't the same, and it was hard.

Christmas in Jogja has not been as hard. In large part this is because we know that Christmas will not be the same. But it is also easier because the marketing of Christmas has begun here. We can buy artificial Christmas trees (we didn't), Christmas decorations (nope), and Christmas music (yup). The malls had Christmas decorations including Christmas trees, reindeer and candy canes. This marketing is interesting given that Indonesia is over 90% Muslim and a leading Muslim body issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims to say 'Merry Christmas'. The fatwa was issued in order to protect Muslims who might be led from saying the greeting to converting to Christianity. I have had colleagues wish me a 'Merry Christmas' so I am not sure how seriously Indonesian Muslims take this fatwa. Also, there was no fatwa against Christmas decorations so they apparently decided that Christmas trees and reindeer won't tempt Muslims to stray, though I have heard many Christian sermons suggesting that such trappings might cause Christians to stray. Not sure what this says about the piety of Christians in N. America compared to Muslims in Indonesia.

So, we (read Lori) decided we needed to be more intentional about celebrating Christmas this year. I had a hard time with this. I just can't get my head around celebrating Christmas when I am happy to get to my office and turn on the air conditioner. Perhaps I am superficial and don't get the real meaning of Christmas, but Christmas cannot be properly celebrated on a day that is too hot for a midday walk. And I am pretty sure it was cold in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. I'll bet there was even snow. If that was good for God and Jesus, it's good for me.

Anyways, we celebrated Christmas by opening gifts, listening to Christmas music, and doing a Sunday School lesson on Christmas. Our church didn't have any Christmas programs, which was a bit disappointing. I can't say this was my most meaningful Christmas, in large part because many of the traditions I associate with Christmas were not there. But it wasn't as hard as it was in Nigeria because we are getting a bit better at figuring out ways of doing Christmas in new places. I wonder though what the girls are learning about Christmas. Katie remembers Christmas in Canada so she realizes that it is different here and misses the traditions the most. We discussed the Christmas story but Christmas is also about so many other things that make the Christmas story more meaningful. How do we make Christmas meaningful for the girls?

I suppose what we will have to work on is how to create new family traditions for celebrating Christmas in a Muslim country that doesn't have any snow.

Phil Enns

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Four Things I Noticed Recently

1. Asking about something is the same as asking for something. This is more a problem for Lori, and it may be language mis-communication, but we have encountered on a number of occasions a problem with asking questions. For example, in a restaurant, Lori will ask about the vegetables in a particular dish, whether there are a lot of vegetables, how much garlic is used, and the waitress will promptly write down the order. Lori will contact a hotel to find out their rates for a date in the future and we will get a response confirming a room for that date. Lori continues to insist that she should be able to get information without having to make a commitment. I, on the other hand, have responded by only asking about things I already want. Which means that I rarely try, for example, food that I haven't already tried. Which makes sense to me since it seems irrational to try a new dish and risk not liking it when I can get a dish I know I like.

2. Businesses here are not customer oriented. We lost our internet connection recently and I knew what the problem was. We repeatedly called the company and were told that a technician would come. At one point we had a technician call us to say that he was coming the next day, but a week later, nothing. This went on for over two weeks, a delay that was very frustrating for Lori since she needs the internet for her work. Finally, an Indonesian woman who works on our compound had pity on us and took up our cause. After a few days of calling she managed to get someone to come to our house, and shortly thereafter, the problem was fixed. This is typical of most medium to large businesses here in Indonesia, which focus on the system rather than outcomes. The people we were calling insisted we would get someone to help us because they had made the necessary note to the necessary department. The fact that no one came for over two weeks was irrelevant. The proper procedures had been followed and so everything was working properly. Unfortunately, we are clueless when it comes to working the system so we don't have much luck with outcomes. This focus on the system is also true for the educational system, but that is a different post.

3. Electronics can be priced in either rupiah or US dollars. To get our internet working again, I had to buy a modem. When I went to the computer store, I had a choice between a variety of modems, some of which were priced in rupiah, some in dollars. The cheaper models were in rupiah, but the better models could be in either. But it wasn't simply a matter of price. Certainly the most expensive computers and gear were in dollars, but in the mid-range, a laptop, for example, could be priced in either. For the last few years, the rupiah has been relatively stable and yet there still would be goods priced in dollars. I can understand this given current conditions where the rupiah has weakened, but then it isn't consistent since not all the products are priced in dollars. And the rupiah price tag will change according to how the rupiah is trading. Most, perhaps all, of these goods are coming from outside Indonesia and yet only some of them have their costs pegged to the dollar. I don't understand this.

4. Javanese are very superstitious. A girl who eats in a doorway will have a hard time finding a man to marry her. It is okay to shower under rain pouring off a roof, but if you stand under the rain falling directly, you will get sick. Drinking the rain from the second rainfall of the rainy season will make you very healthy. Until recently, rice farmers would perform a ritual for the fertility goddess before planting and before harvesting. I also find it interesting how Islam in Java has lived comfortably alongside what often appears to be incompatible traditional beliefs. In my opinion, what we are encountering here is what we also saw in West Africa where religion is only a surface expression of much deeper traditional and cultural beliefs. Javanese Islam is, therefore, very different from Islam in the Arabian peninsula. This difference isn't a matter of one being corrupt and the other pure, but rather that Islamic beliefs and practices have taken on the character of the culture in which it is found. The same is, of course, true of Christianity.

Phil Enns