A treasure trove of stories – gifts from an elder generation

Left to right: Liza Wajong, president of Canada Indonesia Diaspora Society. Kilim Park, Oral History Project researcher. Kristi Jut, Oral History Project project manager. | Photo by Betty Shea

Left to right: Liza Wajong, president of Canada Indonesia Diaspora Society. Kilim Park, Oral History Project researcher. Kristi Jut, Oral History Project project manager. | Photo by Betty Shea

Organized by the Canada Indonesia Diaspora Society (CIDS), the LANSIA Oral History Project grew from a community’s hope to preserve the stories of their elder generation. Launched in May 2016, the project aims to interview 25 Canadian-Indonesian elders who emigrated between the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The stories about their long journey from Indonesia to a new life in Canada will be exhibited in March 2017 at the end of the project.

LANSIA is short for Lanjut Usia, which, in Bahasa Indonesian, means ‘old age.’ Yet, Kristi Jut, manager of the project with a background in journalism, stresses that the project is equally about younger members of the Canadian-Indonesian community. Jut, who is Dutch-
Indonesian Canadian, speaks from personal experience.

“My dad was born in Semarang, Java. I came into [the project] wanting to know more about the stories of my own oma (grandma) when she left Indonesia,” says Jut. “We’re collecting these stories for the younger generation to understand where their grandparents are coming from and what they’ve sacrificed to give them a better life in this country.”

Connecting interviewers and interviewees

Because of the amount of effort required within a short 10-month time frame, the Oral History Project relies on volunteers from the local Indonesian community to help with the interview process. Together with Kilim Park, project researcher and a PhD candidate at UBC, the two co-ordinators invest time to train volunteers on interviewing skills. And it appears that the training is paying off.

With 20 interviews completed, Park and Jut say that the project is on track. Liza Wajong, president of CIDS, agrees. She talks excitedly about the upcoming exhibit, which will have both visual and audio components, and expresses her hope to bring the exhibit to other Canadian cities beyond the initial showing in Vancouver. After all, the families involved in the project are spread across the nation, from Vancouver to Ottawa to Halifax.

“One of the most important things is to hear the emotion in the stories that people are telling. Even though we’re gathering facts, the project is really about that human emotion,” explains Jut.

Some recurring topics emerge from the narrative of the elderly Indonesian immigrants. Wajong, Jut and Park all participate in interviewing, and they are struck by the resiliency of the people they talk to. Indonesia in the 1960s was marked by political upheaval, leading to riots and massacres that cost countless lives. Most of the elders involved in the projects retain clear memories of those traumatic times. Although it is too painful for most interviewees to talk directly about why they left, their stories highlight the struggles that they and their family experienced.

“Exodus is a huge theme. Transition is also a huge theme. Being a displaced person and finding Canada as a home is a huge theme,” she says. “That they’ve survived what they’ve been through and are still here to tell their tale. I can’t stress enough how resilient the people we interview are.”

What makes a place a home

What makes the elders call Canada their home? Park mentions safety on both physical and emotional levels.

“[Canada] is a place where they feel safe to do what they want to do. Some people found professional success. To them, the doors that were closed elsewhere were open here,” she says.

Wajong also mentions a sense of freedom and a desire to contribute because Canada has given them so much. She notes that their adopted Canadian identity is balanced by an adherence to their Indonesian heritage.

“Many elders express this through traditional food and art,” says Wajong.

As the project draws closer to its end, Park hopes to see people from the larger Canadian society attend the exhibit planned in March. She believes that we live in a time where we need to be more interested in others. Echoing her sentiment, Wajong ends with an Indonesian saying.

Tak kenal maka tak sayang,” says Wajong. “If you don’t understand us, you won’t care about us.”

As the project participants have discovered, knowledge leads to understanding, which in turn, leads to a stronger community.

The venue for the LANSIA Oral History Project has yet to be decided. For the latest information, visit the CIDS website (www.cids2015.org). The project is also supported by the Centre for Southeast Asia Research (CSEAR), the Pacific Canada Heritage Centre Society (PCHC) and the Indonesian Consulate. Funding comes from the New Horizons for Seniors Program (NHSP) of Employment & Social Development Canada (ESDC).