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How to be a Canadian – acting like an Indonesian

(Also See - Bali Belly Book Fest)

(Oct. 2014) This month, when panelists at the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) were challenged to identify a country with no sense of humour, the Chair, I Wayan Juniarta, responded quickly and firmly saying  - “Canada!”  

This induced laughter and applause in the crowded  Indus Restaurant, and it humbled me, possibly one of only two full-time hosers in the room and someone dedicated to celebrating Canadian humour.  

It was awkward for me, but funny.
Juniarta, a journalist and author whose book Bungklang-Bungkling  documents his failures as
as a poet, has a proven ability to laugh at himself and might have felt qualified to poke fun at Canadians for their limitations in this domain.  Yet his “Canada” suggestion, in fact, played off a comment made earlier that afternoon - perhaps surprisingly - by a Canadian-born comedian - the now full-time Indonesia resident Sacha Stevenson.    

She is a writer and performer whose Youtube video series How to act Indonesian has gone viral, attracted attention from all forms of Indonesian media, and challenged notions around what is fair game for humourists in this very diverse and complicated part of the world.

A Pig has no Youtube Channel

A thirty-something, one-time language teacher with a past in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ottawa, Stevenson satirizes everyday Indonesian life in TV vignettes.  Many of her skits seem innocent, but others ride a razor’s edge in a country of many cultures, prickly politics, and a range of religious sentiment.   This has drawn angry criticism in the unrestrained on-line world, particularly when she delves into subjects intertwined with the Islamic faith.  With over 200 million adherents representing over 80 per cent of its population, Indonesia can lay claim to being the largest Muslim country in the world.

In addressing a national audience like this, you’re bound to offend some - even if you amuse the majority. 

An example of dicey pieces that have gotten Sacha into hot water include her video skits on wearing the Jilbab, the loose fitting head cover and cloak worn my Muslin women.   When she shared a viewer’s comment that “people would say a pig looks pretty if it wore a Jilbab,” she wanted to mock her own preening and Jilbab-wearing pride.  But some viewers misunderstood, thinking that Sacha was the origin of the comment herself.  It would be as if a reader of this blog presumed I was the source of the Canada-has-no-sense-of-humour idea.

Yet the comedian, a Muslim herself, had to issue a retraction-like video explanation to quell the noise.

“But what about the pig ?,” the quick-witted Juniarta said. “She has no way to give her side of the story and to explain what pig beauty is.”

Again, more laughter.

Tension and Fun

The anecdote and the ensuing joke highlighted the blend of tension and fun around Sacha Stevenson’s work.   Everyone on the panel and the audience nodded in agreement at the suggestion that she manages it because she teases Indonesians from the platform of love for the country and the people. 

She has lived there over a decade, speaks the language like a native, and more recently married into Indonesia and the extended family dynamics this entails.

In an earlier, separate session at the UWRF, Stevenson told the gathering that she did not, as a Canadian and outsider, have any special license to mock Indonesian life, but added that she may not feel the constraints of disapproving family and friends to the same extent as life-long Indonesians.

Trying to Smile Indonesian style - with Canadian Humour
In response to questions, she struggled to define a Canadian influence on her comedy, noting that she left our country while still a teenager and rarely reads books in English let alone on Canadian life.  Yet her skits on the pervasive lack of exact change in Indonesian commerce (clerks will offer customers a mint or other treat as a substitute for money), she is clearly framing the scene as someone who had once watched the pennies counted out in a Nova Scotian corner store.

Another Wisecracks and Otherwise author, Fadel Ilahi El-Dimisky, identified as an emerging Indonesian writer, spoke with the aid of a young translator as witty and fun as the panelists.   Fadel, whose works include a satirical short story Love Letter from (Indonesia’s) Mount Bromo to the central government, mused about issues that would resonate with many Canadian humorists, such as the challenge of conveying a serious message in a format that many don’t take seriously.  But then he chuckled throughout the serious analysis.
The panel included others with experience testing cultural and religious tolerances.   The two French nationals, Kariam Allam and Greg Blondin, behind the internationally popular The Muslim Show comic strip series laughed nervously in describing their working lives.

They had their own suggestion for a country, one on the Southeast Mediterranean coast, that might not appreciate the Muslim perspective and humour.

But it was that first one named – humourless Canada - that stuck with me.

To Tell a Truth with Affection

Sacha Stevenson told the gathering that despite the tension around skits like the one on the Jilbab and other religious themes covered by her How to Act Indonesian series, the video that drew the greatest negative reaction was one that poked fun at her aunt's Nova Scotian accent.  Canadian viewers and online commentators were upset and didn’t think it was nice.  Sounds a bit like Canadians and could be, perhaps rightly, construed as an inability to laugh at our foibles.

Sacha and Fans
But I think the same phenomenon that allows Sacha Stevenson to get away with some things in Indonesia may be at work here as well.  Sacha has clearly made a commitment to that country and identifies with it.  Canadians, if not feeling a loss, might not find it easy to be mocked from afar just as any cultural, racial, or religious group can tolerate and even enjoy good natured teasing from within its ranks, but less so when it comes from outside.

Jim Carrey, Martin Short, Russell Peters, and many other Canadian comedians have
 done well in the United States and are often seen as being empowered by an outsider’s perspective one step away from the homogeneity of the U.S. entertainment industry.  But I can’t think of one that has succeeded south of the border with the persona of someone  hostile to Americans or even unwilling to be counted among them.  Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live and the force behind a lot of modern U.S. comedy, is as well known for his love of L.A. and New York as for his snow-covered birth certificate and Canadian comedy credentials.

Humourless Statues - Could be Canadians ?
This all resonates with our icon Stephen Leacock’s notion that humour writing needs, at the very least, a modest feeling of kinship between the author and the reader to be effective.  Even if you are mocking or joking to make a point, readers need to feel that you are in the mess with them.

The audience wants to believe that no matter what you are saying or doing that you are trying to tell a truth with affection.  
This certainly seems to apply to good humour writing in any country - and certainly to Sacha Stevenson and the other humour-writing panelists at the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

DBD October 2014
(Also See - Bali Belly Book Fest)

And again, Here's that Link to Youtube Channel
  How to act Indonesian