I often get the question, â€œso why do you want to study Indonesian/ in Indonesia?â€ Itâ€™s a good question, and one that I have trouble answering sometimes. However, it can be downright intimidating when someone asks and actually pays attention to how I answer. In general, it seems to be one of those questions that somebody (everybody) is required to ask a foreigner, perhaps out of pride for their country, perhaps out of suspicion of an outsider trying to get on the inside, perhaps simply to be nice. Then there are those people like the girl I was talking to during lunch today. When I talk to people, there seems to be a sort of hierarchy or needs; first, one has to make sure that communication is happening at all in the first place, and then one must put all sorts of brainpower into thinking of vocabulary as it is needed. If you have enough trouble fulfilling the basic needs of communication, itâ€™s easy to forget about the whole human part of the interaction, when the other person is not simply a body receiving the words that you are trying to articulate but comprehends them and considers them critically, what they mean, or if they even mean anything and arenâ€™t just bs. One can become accustomed to the absence of verbal challenge when you are conversing in a language that you are learning; either people donâ€™t expect to have any kind of meaningful conversation or they assume itâ€™s not worth the effort of trying to make sure that messages are understood without complication.
My new friend, however, is obviously very smart. A political science student here, she is well versed in global political economy, political theory, blah blah etc etc, and her english is awesome. I started in with my usual jive of an answer, using my limiting vocabulary, when i realized that I had the opportunity to have this conversation on a whole different level, a level that you just don’t expect to achieve in daily conversations starting with “hello mister, where are you from?”
And so I got all philosophical, and idealistic, speaking of how I truly believe in the importance of Indonesia in the world that I want to live in, it’s relation with the the rest of the world, the tensions that it has to face in terms of diversity and economic disparity, among others. And then, I became a little nervous, because not only was she capable of understanding what I was saying, she was very capable of turning it over critically in her head and spitting it back at me, exposing the flaws in my oversimplified version of the world that is expressed in my short mission statement. I fear being seen as a child of priveledge, a rich American coming to Indonesia to observe as people fight for their rights, their democracy, their lives. I fear that I might not have any right to be passionate about the change that is happening in Indonesia and what it means for the world, that I am simply an elite academic that doesn’t really have any idea about what it really means, how it feels on the ground, that as much as I might wax poetically about it I’m really just part of the status quo system that is supporting the inequalities in this world in the first place.