The Shoe On the Other Foot: Interviewed by Young Adults in Indonesia
I heard it from behind me the first time… beside me the second time… and after that I lost track.
“Missus! Hello! May we talk with you?”
I turned to see where the broken English was coming from, and there, each time, stood anywhere between three and six Indonesian young adults, asking first if they could have their photo taken with me, and then… if I had time to answer a few questions.
We were all gathered at Borobudur Temple — a 9th century marvel of Buddhism and engineering on the Indonesian island of Java, seated amid numerous inactive volcanoes. The temple encompasses about 2,500 square meters with three main levels and enormous stupas at the top. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
I was there as a tourist. They were there as students, many of them taking their final exams right there on ancient stone. Teachers sent them to practice English on foreigners visiting the site.
The girls giggled. The guys took most of the photos. At that point I was used to the photo-taking. It’s not something I usually say yes to (ask my friends), but almost from the moment I set foot on the site, locals starting asking for them and out of a communal spirit and wanting to show nothing but friendliness as a Westerner, I obliged. And once I said yes to one group, I could barely take two steps around the temple without another request. Other foreigners were experiencing the same thing. You might think it would be annoying, but it was more adorable than anything, and frankly, I felt like a celebrity!
With selfies out of the way, the kids (young adults, actually, but they looked so young to me!) started asking their questions about why I was in Indonesia, did I like the food there, and the question whose answer sparked the most gasps… who was I traveling with. (No one.)
After a few of these — and I said yes to every single request — I got my own head together and remembered my former occupation… and started recording the interviews on my phone.
It was one of those travel experiences that you can never anticipate, and never forget. Here I was chatting with these young Muslim men and women just days after the Trump Administration instituted its travel ban — a ban that ensnared some people their age… college students who just wanted to get back to class in the states. (Indonesia is not one of the List of Seven, but it is 87% Muslim.) The kids I talked with all wanted to know what I thought about my new president. They didn’t seem aware of the ban. And they all expressed great interest in visiting the USA. I told them they would be welcome.
I refuse to believe we will live in a world where they won’t be. It is their inherent right — just as it is ours — to travel freely and without prejudice. It is their inherent right to seek a better life, or merely a different life. This is why we travel. Because it teaches us over and over how all of the things that make us different also show how much we are the same. It teaches us what makes our country great, and what makes so many other countries just as great.
Below are edited versions of a few of the conversations — there’s a little bit of overlap in the subject matter (and in the third one they sing for me!), but each of them takes an interesting turn at some point and their reactions to some of the things I say are priceless.
These are the world’s young people. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing. It doesn’t matter what they do or don’t believe. They want to learn. They’re curious beyond measure. Their giggles and grins are no different from those of their peers in any other country. They should be welcomed with open arms.
Just as they did with me.