The Ruben Moment: How A Dance Taught Me that We Can’t Afford to Let Cultural Differences Take Our Eyes off the Prize

In Spring 2012, I did what I’d never thought I would do: dancing on stage. Granted, I wasn’t alone up there; the fact that I was swaying to the music before an audience, however, was comparable to a miracle. Titled “Dance around the World,” an event sponsored by the International Students and Scholars Office (ISS) to showcase dances from countries represented in the UofA. Ruben, then president of Indonesian Students Associations, had been determined to participate. I knew nothing about dancing, neither did my two other Indonesian friends. Ruben was the only formally trained dancer and had represented his high school in dance festivals back in Indonesia. Ruben—a “Chinese Indonesian,” which we will discuss soon—had assumed charge and choreographed a contemporary dance inspired by traditional dances and symbolisms. We had rehearsed our moves in the laundry room of Holcombe Hall two nights before we performed. In that basement laundry room, I learned the symbolism behind our movements. “This pulling movement,” Ruben would demonstrate, “is like what fishermen do when they pull fishing nets full of fish, and of course it represents our maritime culture.” Finally, after a mental battle to conquer my cold feet, dancing I was with my fellow Indonesian students, Ruben, Albert, and Erik (all from different cultural backgrounds in Indonesia).

It was only a 10-minute performance (plus two nights of rehearsal), but its implication was priceless to me. Later in time, I came to realize that this was my “Ruben moment,” which I argue we all need to experience. It was a moment that confirmed the idea that cultural identity is never fixed and that we can’t afford to let different cultural identities stop us from striving for and achieving a common goal. But, how does this so-called “Ruben moment” have anything to do with cultural identity?

The answer lies in the fact that it was Ruben who knew about traditional dances. As I said earlier, Ruben is what people call a “Chinese Indonesian” or an “Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent.” People of Chinese descent have lived in Indonesia for many generations. Their relationship with “native” Indonesians are good most of the time in most parts of Indonesia, although there have been undeniably ugly moments of ethnic-related riots victimizing them. Most of the time, however, we “only” sense the negative sentiment and the stereotype of Chinese Indonesians being less loyal to the country than the “native.”

Personally, I have always admired economist Kwik Kian Gie and political activist Soe Hok Gie, who are both Chinese Indonesian and have shown their patriotism—even more than “native” Indonesians—in their thoughts and works. However, never had I witnessed in person an abundant love for Indonesia by a Chinese Indonesian before “the Ruben moment.” Ruben was always eager to make us demonstrate our cultural heritage. In fact, even before Spring 2012, Ruben had held a major role—or a chiefly role, to make it sound more traditional—among Indonesian students in Fayetteville. He organized and participated in cultural presentations to local elementary schools, including teaching an Acehnese dance in my son’s class in Leverett Elementary School.

Ruben is probably one human manifestation of what Stuart Hall, a pioneer of British cultural studies, argues about cultural identity. In his major essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Stuart Hall suggests that it’s impossible to see cultural identity as a fixed object. We can indeed trace the roots of a cultural identity; as the history goes on, however, a cultural identity evolves in response to its historical and spatial contexts. While education always aims to make people judge the value of every person and phenomenon from various perspectives—context, purpose, agency, etc—we have a latent tendency to judge everything by its cover.

Of course, this reflection doesn’t only pertain to Indonesians. Seeing beyond cultural differences is something that all multi-ethnic societies—including American societies—still need to improve. In her one-woman performance sponsored by UofA’s Center for Middle East Studies (MEST) recently, actress Aizzah Fatima acted a scene in which a little girl of Pakistani descent tells her mother that her friends have called her a foreigner and told her to “go home.” The little girl is puzzled, because for her the United States is her home. As far as she’s concerned, she’s as American as Wonder Woman is. Besides, it’s not impossible that in the future the fictional little girl will be like Ms. Fatima the actress, who has performed in many countries on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.

Apparently, not everybody can see beyond the differences. While education makes the constant attempt to teach us to see beyond differences, we are all due for our own Ruben moments, moments that confirm on a personal level that cultural differences exist but we can’t afford to let it take our eyes off the prize.

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