Why you need to do better than a smile and a quick hello.

I had just flown half way around the world, a grueling 33 hours from Toronto to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on the Island of Java. I was there on a concert tour / study intensive with the Evergreen Club Gamelan (the ECG). 

The ECG is a group of Canadian musicians based out of Toronto. Gamelan is a beautiful collection of bronze pots and gongs, which are native to Indonesia. We were in the motherland. 

After checking into our hotel, we made an attempt to socialize, yet our heavy eyelids put a stop to that and it was early bedtimes for all. 

Around 4:30 am, I was woken up by the call to prayer as it rang out from a nearby Mosque. I went out on the balcony to listen. This was a first time experience for me. I listened curiously as a magical and mystical voice cut through the still morning air like a citywide alarm clock.

Within the next two days I would visit one of the worlds most famous Buddhist temples -  Borobudur, and the largest Hindu temple in South East Asia  - Prambanan.

I began to realize that this wonderful exotic place had many things to teach me and that I would never be the same after. I was totally up for it.  

Sometimes It’s too easy  

Up until that trip, everything I knew about Gamelan was learned in Toronto. There was my own research, things my band mates had shown me, things I had read about, as well as the Indonesian Master musician who we hired to come and work with us a few times.  It's incredible when you think about it. I became very proficient at this exotic style of music without leaving town.

But isn't that the norm for us these days? We have amazing experiences right here at home that would have been impossible a few decades ago.

Some might say it’s too easy. 

We can enjoy incredible foods without knowing exactly where they come from, or how they are made. We can see beautiful architecture that took years to evolve yet not know its history. We can hear music from anywhere in the world and not know a thing about how it came to be. 

And what about people? We can easily meet someone from a distant land and have no appreciation of what made them who they are. 

Unless you do the “work”. 

It’s easy to experience cool things and meet new people without putting much effort into it. With food, you sample and enjoy, with people you can say hello, smile and move along.

But perhaps you’re like me. Maybe you enjoy talking to people who are from somewhere else. Maybe you want to hear about where they’re from, and what they’ve been through, what experiences they've had that are different from your own.

Personally, I feel it makes me more connected to the world, and I like that. 

The Work

Did you ever meet someone who can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Scotch, but they’re not from Scotland? Or Kobe beef, but they’re not from Japan? Or Chinese Medicine, but they’re not Chinese?

These are people who have done the work. They are people who want to know why things are the way they are. They don’t see boundaries or boxes. They see things they can learn about. They see things that can make them grow.

Doing the work is something I learned about as a musician. I learned that if you’re going to understand another culture, you’ve got to be curious. You’ve got to ask some questions and you’ve got to do some listening - lots of listening.

In my blog post “How to get out of your own culture bubble”, I talk about how drumming was my doorway into learning about other cultures. Learning about other cultures wasn't in my original plan when I picked up my first pair of drumsticks at 13. I just wanted to be the next Keith Moon or John Bonham. It only happened because I was curious.

Playing in the ECG has turned out to be a great gift. It has allowed me the chance to go deeper into another culture. It has let me explore what happens when cultures intertwine. Seriously, I am an Eastern Ontario Dairy Goat farm boy who plays Indonesian music. That’s crazy.

I first heard a Gamelan (the EGC) at a concert in Toronto back in 1989. When I joined shortly thereafter, I knew nothing except that the music attracted me. So I went about the work. 

It wasn’t just about notes. It was about finding out why certain pieces were written. It was about learning why certain playing techniques had evolved. It was about learning how these instruments fit into a culture.

To be clear, EGC is not a Gamelan cover band. We have commissioned over 100 pieces from composers all over the world. This has allowed us to stretch the boundaries. But that’s a story for another day. 

Getting back to our Indonesian tour, we had been looking forward to this for a long time. It was a chance for us to learn more and to see if the work we were doing was paying off.  What would a hometown crowd think of these 8 Canadian boys playing the local instruments?

We played a few concerts over there but one concert stands out in my memory. It had to be 40 degrees Celsius outside and even hotter inside the huge concert hall we were rehearsing in. (They weren’t going to turn on the AC until the evening). I had never been so hot in my life. 

I made me think about why some Indonesian pieces are so slow in tempo. Sometimes it's too damn hot to move fast. 

That night, with air conditioning finally on, we played our first piece,"Anjeun". The crowd launched into spontaneous applause.  We couldn't help but smile to each other as we continued playing. It was a great feeling. 

All in all, it was a spectacular night, one of the most memorable concerts I have ever played. We played many things that they had never heard before. We were very well received. I like to think that's because we had worked hard to show respect to their music and their culture. We let them know how much we loved their music too! We also showed them (in our own Canadian way) what can happen when cultures mix together.

People from different cultures like getting together

We had many other interesting experiences that added to my knowledge of this culture. For instance, the smell of clove cigarettes (Kreteks) fills the air everywhere you go. Even as a non-smoker, I loved the smell. 

Or, that some Indonesian’s don’t like to say “no". Some will even go to great lengths to avoid it, as did one cab driver. He wouldn’t tell us he didn’t know where a certain place was, although he stopped to ask several people along the way, which made a short trip very long. 

We learned that using a traditional Indonesian bathroom is not for the faint of heart. Enough said.

And that sticky rice and peanut paste are a delicious dessert. 

All these great experiences helped me to appreciate how other people live and why they do what they do.

I know that not everyone has the chance to experience another culture so intensely. My years in Evergreen have taught me that getting to know people from another culture can take a lot of time and work. But it's so worth it. 

I have faith that most people want to get to know people from other cultures. Despite what we’ve been hearing about putting up walls, I don’t think most people want them. 

Proof may live in the chart you’ll see if you do your DNA testing with one of those "learn about your ancestor" companies. 

Chances are, your own history will show you that people from different cultures like getting together more than they like putting up walls. Wink, wink!

How to start

Be welcoming and curious - Ask people what it is like where they grew up. What are their favourite memories, their most difficult challenges, or what do they miss the most?

Share - When you get the chance, share some things that you love about your country or your life. Paint a picture of your way of life. Tell them what you spend your time doing when you’re not working.

Be open-minded  -  Know that it’s possible there will be some differences that you may or may not be too comfortable with. That’s ok. You’re not getting married, just trying to work together. 

Now, go find someone new at work that you know is a newcomer, maybe a new citizen. Reach out to them. Show them our famous generosity.

You could mention you've heard that every culture has a drum. 

You might not be aware that almost every culture has a drum associated with it.  Think of bagpipes – there’s a drum. Think of belly dancing- there’s a drum. Think of olive oil – yes – there’s a drum. 

It’s such a useful instrument when it comes to dissolving boundaries and building common ground among people who think they don’t have very much in common.

In my keynote, Collaborating Through Diversity (where I give everyone a drum to play), I talk about the respectful negotiation that needs to happen between people in order to collaborate more effectively. 

I talk about how our personalities have such a great impact on what we do and what we need to do to work together. 

We are all individuals with differing experiences and differing backgrounds that have made us who we are. The magic is in finding a way that leverages the diversity among us. That can only be accomplished through lots of exploration and listening. 

I encourage you to try it if you get the chance. Your team will never be the same after. 

So don’t put up the wall – open the door. You won’t regret it. And yes, it’ll take some work. But, hey, doesn’t everything worthwhile?

Btw - I’d love to hear some stories about how getting to know a culture other than your own has enhanced your life or your workplace. Please share in the comments below.