Earlier this year Hannah Sung left a ‘dream job’ at MuchMusic to travel. But Sung wasn’t merely backpacking around the world, like so many 20-somethings. She was working with CARE Canada shooting a documentary on the NGO’s efforts in Indonesia and East Timor. Upon her return to Canada she also started touring high schools. Both experiences changed Sung’s life and urged her to do more, particularly for the people of East Timor, a country ravaged by a bloody history of colonialism and current political turmoil.
Torontoist spoke to Sung about her decision to leave Much, travelling to Southeast Asia and the benefit concert Radio Opera.
Torontoist: Why did you leave MuchMusic?
Hannah Sung: I left because this opportunity with CARE came up. It was something I couldn’t possibly pass up, this amazing opportunity to travel to a developing country. I always wanted to go to Indonesia and to go in this way with an NGO, where I was obviously going to be accessing the real lives of people there, I knew it would be more of an experience than just backpacking through. I also have a real travel bug right now.
On top of that it was an incredible opportunity to make this video documentary with CARE. I didn’t even expect how rewarding it would be to meet Canadian high school students across the Eastern half of Canada. I just traveled to the Maritimes, did schools in Ottawa and Toronto. It’s been amazing to connect with these young people. My only interaction before with them was through Much, but it’s a very one-sided relationship when you’re on TV.
Can you elaborate on that?
I always got the feeling that young people got a bad rap when it comes to how much they know and how much they care. Now that I meet with young people every day, I know that it’s true. They do get a bad rap. It’s completely untrue that they don’t know or don’t care about what goes on in the world. It’s a part of this adult syndrome that we all have and it’s worse when we get older. We forget what it’s like to be young. All of us when we were young, I think we were all very passionate and concerned and aware. Kids care about the world around them, I think more sometimes than adults do.
What they need is information, the news doesn’t really speak to them so much. So I’m really happy to go into the classroom with my video hopefully it does a decent job of showing them what life is like for their peers in the developing world. I’ve seen amazing responses. It’s been extremely rewarding.
You went to Indonesia, what was that like?
I went to two locations in Indonesia and one in East Timor. I went to Banda Aceh, and I feel extremely privileged to have been there. Their culture is so different from ours. It really opened up my world to understanding what it’s like to live in a Muslim society. Also to experience the extreme generosity of Indonesian people who’ve just lost everything. The degree that these people were affected by the tsunami is unfathomable. I did a lot of reading before I left but it just can’t convey the human aspect of what it’s like. I feel so privileged to have met them. They’re very inspiring. I got to see first-hand why the Acehnese people are known for being so strong and resilient.
And then in Yogyakarta, what an incredible city. I felt more at home there because it’s kinda like Toronto and it’s multi-faith. People from all over Indonesia come there, it’s the educational centre. I traverse Queen Street everyday and I see homeless people on Queen St and it’s a travesty that it exists in a country like ours. But the extent to which this mass homelessness exists in Yogyakarta, it blew my mind.
That part of Indonesia had just been hit by an earthquake as well, right?
Yes, that’s why were there, right. I went into the temporary shelters and homes of people who have set up shacks on the sites of their former homes. I stood in their former kitchens that are now just rubble. I shot a documentary, I shot all these neighbourhoods where it was literally just the foundations of the home left and big piles of brick because people have piled the remains of their home neatly. It was just rubble, tons and tons of rubble. 350,000 homes were destroyed 1.2 million people were left homeless.
They invited me into their homes and we had a conversation with a translator. There was this one woman, she received food vouchers from CARE, she didn’t have enough food to feed her family. She invited us into her home and I could tell she put this spread on her table. I knew it was for us because she knew we were coming. She had these mini-bananas and rice snacks. It broke my heart the extent to which she was so generous with us and then she insisted that we leave with her snacks. We had to take it to respect her dignity and her sense of identity as a generous Indonesian individual, it’s part of her culture.
The way that she was so generous with us touched me. Sometimes, us at home, some of us are in a fog and we don’t even know how much we have. I felt very lucky to be reminded of what the world is actually like outside of downtown Toronto.
You visited East Timor where it’s quite politically unstable. Did you feel safe? What were the differences?
It was really really different. Safety was a major concern, we weren’t even sure if we could enter the country. The only reason why we were allowed was because we were with CARE. We went because CARE had very stringent security measures which meant I couldn’t shoot everything I wanted to shoot. I couldn’t go anywhere on my own. I couldn’t walk anywhere. Everywhere I went there was a buddy system, cell phone, emergency numbers and a driver ready-to-go even just for lunch. We couldn’t drive through certain neighbourhoods.
The situation there is very dire. I could tell as soon as my first drive into the city from the airport into the downtown. Just entering the city, I could tell from people’s faces the result of so much stress and violence in their lives is evident in their facial expressions. It was shocking. In Indonesia they’ve gone through a lot with these natural disasters but they still have their culture to keep them vibrant and alive. The thing with East Timor is their culture is being decimated. Their language is so fragile and precious because the educational system is so lacking. There are less than a million people who speak Tetum. That’s why I’m doing the benefit concert. This is a land that’s kind of forgotten. These gangs of young people who should be doing productive things, they have no opportunities so they just fight and kill each other. In a land that’s literally off the map for Canadians.
I’m really excited to do this benefit concert because I want all the money to go to East Timor go to the amazing work that CARE is doing there, especially with internally displaced people. I’m just excited that everyone who’s coming to the concert will be contributing to CARE.
How did you get Jason Collett and the Constantines?
I asked them and knew that they were really cool guys. I traveled with Jason and Broken Social Scene, we went to Japan together. The Constantines, I’ve seen them around town and I’m a big fan of both. I asked them because I wanted to have a show that I would enjoy as well. They’re really kind people who believe in the cause and wanted to do it.
Top photo of Hannah Sung in Yogyakarta taken by Aly-Khan Rajani/CARE Canada. Middle photo of Sung in East Timor taken by Anne Larrass/CARE Canada.
Radio Opera featuring Jason Collett and the Constantines is this Saturday, at Lee’s Palace, $20 at the door, $16 in advance, doors 1:30 pm. More information on the work CARE is doing in 70 countries around the world can be found here.