When my family moved out of Pakistan in 2003, we didn’t come directly to Canada. Instead, we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia in South-East Asia and lived there for two years before immigrating to Canada in 2005. It’s been 13 years since then, and today those two years I lived in one of the largest and most densely populated metropoles in the world feel like a very long dream that I eventually woke from when I landed in Toronto.
I won’t get into the why and how of my family’s move, but I will say that I wasn’t too happy about it. When we moved, I had just turned 15. I had a crush on a boy at my school, and puberty and the growing pains of adolescence were in full swing. I was angry about being uprooted at a time in my youth when I was supposed to be discovering myself sexually, experimenting with boys, rebelling against my parents, and throwing moody fits like a normal teenager. Instead, I found myself in a new country, surrounded by people who looked completely different from me, and who spoke a language I didn’t even know existed till I landed in Jakarta.
On top of that, my brother and I enrolled in an international, private school that was overwhelmingly staffed by Indian expats, and most of the student body was also Indian. At this point in my life, the only Indian people I had ever seen were in Bollywood movies on TV, and India-Pakistan political relations have never been great. News spread pretty quickly throughout our school that we were newly enrolled Pakistani students who had come directly from the motherland. There were less than a dozen total Pakistani students in the entire school (from kindergarten all the way to grade 12). Needless to say, my brother and I found ourselves in a very strange environment at this stage in our lives.
This was also the first time my family and I lived in an apartment, as opposed to a house. Granted, we lived in a very nice, very big 4-bedroom condo, but the limited space and close proximity to my parents 24/7 wasn’t something I was used to. In Pakistan, we always lived in 2-storey houses and there was plenty of space to be on your own and enjoy some privacy. Apartment living wasn’t bad, but it was quite different from the sort of family dynamic and structure I had experienced most of my life.
While those two years in Indonesia were by no means awful or terrible, I feel they ultimately stunted my emotional and social growth. I couldn’t speak the language, I wasn’t familiar with the customs, I didn’t particularly care for the food, and absolutely detested the weather, traffic, and air pollution. Jakarta, at that time, was home to more than 10 million people, and spending over an hour every morning in rush hour traffic to get to school was very common. Outside of school, entertainment was limited to walking around in air-conditioned malls, if only to seek refuge from the unforgiving heat and the aforementioned air and noise pollution produced by the millions of vehicles idling on the streets for hours in unending traffic.
A year after we moved, I fell into a depressive state and gained close to 20 pounds. I stopped talking to my parents (like, literally didn’t talk to them). If they asked me a question, I’d either just shake my head or give one word answers. I didn’t ask them anything, I didn’t try to engage them in conversation, and if they tried to engage me, I’d leave and sit in my room and only come out during meal times. I’d sit at the end of the table with my eyes fixated on my plate the entire time, and as soon as I finished my food, I’d excuse myself and retreat back to my room. I stopped going out with my family. I stopped watching TV. I just ate, went to school, and sat in my room. I was depressed, but I didn’t know it.
Eventually my parents caught on that something wasn’t right. My mom and dad took me out one evening, without my siblings, to a buffet for dinner at the Hilton. They were kind and understanding and wanted to know what was wrong. I lashed out at them, my repressed anger and frustration coming through every word I spoke. I could see my mother was stunned at the unexpected display of emotion. My father was more calm; he just sat back and heard everything without offering up an analysis of what I was going through. I accused them of everything – from having a shitty marriage and awful parenting skills to lack of understanding about my feelings and disregard for my emotional wellbeing. I cried. My emotions were all over the place, and I didn’t understand why I was feeling this way.
After letting some of the sadness and frustration out, I felt better. Later that week, my mother suggested we try going on the Atkins diet together, and she and I started going to the gym as well. Over the next 6 months, I lost the weight I had gained, was exercising more regularly, started swimming in the pool in our condo complex, and became more or less my normal self. I still didn’t have a lot of friends, or too many hobbies outside of going to the mall and shopping. But my family got more used to life in Jakarta. We would go to movie theatres often and really enjoyed doing that as a family – back then movie theatres were not a thing in Pakistan, so it was quite a new experience for us all to be able to regularly go to the cinema and watch all the newest Hollywood movies (with subtitles in Bahasa). I remember watching Troy and the God-awful Alexander in one of the largest and best movie theatre chains in the city, called Cinema21.
We also travelled a bit in our second year there, the most memorable trips being a weekend getaway to the Thousand Islands, and a roadtrip to the mountains in Bandung. My mother and I even flew to Bali together and were joined by my aunt (mom’s sister) and my cousin from America. In school, my brother and I wrote our O-Level exams and did really well on them, with my picture even appearing on the list of students who had scored the highest on the Biology exam. I signed up to get involved with a theatre production of Hamlet as part of the school’s annual spring fair. Life was returning to a level of normal I had known back in Pakistan.
And just like that, one day towards the end of my first semester in grade 10, our Canadian residency documents came through. We went for our physical exams, my parents interviewed at the Canadian embassy, we mailed out our passports, and by the time grade 10 had wrapped up, we were on a flight to Toronto, and our brief and surreal life in South-East Asia came to an end. I think those two years were most meaningful for my sister, who was only 6 years old when we moved there. She speaks fondly of that time and wants to revisit Jakarta in the future. But for me, those two years represent a transitionary period in our lives that was so far removed from anything we had known before, it was hard to actually get something valuable out of it. While I think Indonesia is a fascinating country with a unique culture, the two years I lived there in my youth have left an indelible mark on my psyche that always shudders at the thought of ever going back there again.